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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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Going Tech Free At School – Looking For Ideas!

by noticelj on Flickr

Hi everyone.  Hope you’re having a lovely start of the week, and that my “feeling sluggish” post helped a bit!

I just received an email asking for thoughts about going technology free at school.  I think it’s a FABULOUS idea, and thought you all might have some great suggestions for this young reader:

I am currently trying to organize an technology free day event here on my school, it would be a festival where we have fun with friends and family field day events and reading and storytelling. i was wondering if you had any ideas about games i can play or just ideas in general.

Please don’t be shy – I’m sure everything you suggest will be helpful!!!!

Also, come check out my post at the Co-op:  “Making Sustainable Purchases.”  And my post at The Lab:  “Best Practices in Storytelling:  What is a Story?“  I just redesigned The Lab – come visit - there are loads of good posts there about world-changing things!

Thanks For Sharing!

Why I’m Participating In Earth Hour Tonight

It’s not going to change the world overnight. It’s not going to save so much electricity in one hour, that we’ll stop the course of climate change. It won’t even change the way most people go about their everyday lives.

But just like this blog, our daily actions, and our annual votes, it will change some people. It will do some good. It will make me think about my life for an hour, it will show me what my city looks like only half lit up at night, it will probably change the way some companies light up their buildings at night, it will make some people think a little bit about their electricity usage, it will show a few politicians that their constituents care, it will bring some new people to the sustainability movement, and it will be one more voice in a growing chorus of positive change. …

Tonight at 8:30pm. (No matter where you are or what time zone you live within, it’s 8:30pm your time.) Try turning off your lights, try turning off all your electricity. And spend that time thinking about what else you can do, talking with your children about what this moment means, how you can do more…

Be deliberate. Have fun. And talk about it with your friends, family, and coworkers afterwards. Spread the word of positive change. Each little step gets us going further in the right direction!

You can find out more about Earth Hour here.

Have You Heard? There Will Be An Organic Food Garden At The White House!

White House Food Garden Simulation, courtesy


Michelle Obama is tearing up part of the South Lawn and planting an organic food garden for her family.  How cool is that?


Obama Garden Plan, courtesy NY Times


Michelle Obama has never grown a vegetable garden.  The White House hasn’t had a garden on the South Lawn since Elanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden during World War II.  


So How Did This Happen?

The Obamas have been lobbied to create a garden since before they entered the White House – even before Obama was elected! 


Roger Doiron and Kitchen Gardeners International led that cause with their Eat The View Campaign.  Roger created a YouTube video that became viral, a Facebook campaign continued the charge, the cause was joined by Alice Waters and other famous chefs, and people like you and I joined the cause by signing the petition, forwarding the idea to our friends, and so on.

The Obamas’ pediatrician had a hand as well.  You see, the chaotic life of politics led the Obamas to eat out a lot, to have fast food and packaged meals regularly.  Then Malia and Sasha gained weight!  So the pediatrician gave Michelle a lecture in nutrition, and the family began to change their eating habits.

The family’s Chicago chef, Sam Kass – who came with them to the White House as assistant White House chef – is an advocate of the local food movement.  He’ll be overseeing the garden himself.

The White House Executive Chef, Cristeta Comerford, and the Pastry Chef Bill Yosses will both be arranging their menus around the garden.

One of the White House carpenters, Charlie Brandts, is a beekeeper and has offered to keep two hives to provide fresh honey.

And you and I – who have come together to create a movement of local, seasonal, fresh, organic, home-grown foodwe have had a large hand in making this happen.  We have helped make it popular, we have helped make it important, we have helped redefine normal.  Together.

From here, the White House garden will inspire many, many others to grow their own food, to pay attention to nutrition, to support local food systems.  And we will all continue to do our parts as well.  Together, we are changing the world.

When I wrote about my own struggle to “save the world,” many of you replied that it is the little things that all add up together to create world change.  Indeed, this is a perfect example.


Michelle and fifth graders digging the South Lawn, courtesy NY Times


The Great Backyard Bird Count


My apologies as this one has got away from me, and it begins today!  But it lasts for 3 days, so there is still plenty of time, and it is something incredibly fun and interesting for both kids and adults.  Basically, it’s like stargazing… but it’s beautiful birds in your own backyard!

Here’s how it works:  Count birds for 15 minutes or more between February 13 and 16, and report your sightings at Birdcount.  That’s pretty much all there is to it!  You can count them anywhere (your backyard, at a local park or wildlife refuge, wherever you like), you don’t have to know the name of every bird, you certainly don’t have to be an ornithologist – whatever data you can give them will help.

“Anyone who can identify even a few species can contribute to the body of knowledge that is used to inform conservation efforts to protect birds and biodiversity,” says Audubon Education Vice-President, Judy Braus.

Where Does Your Data Go?

The data help researchers understand bird population trends across the continent, which is critical for conservation efforts.  These projects also help scientists understand the changes in migration patterns and numbers as our climate changes.

As we all know, funding for great causes is in short supply these days.  So here we can help provide our continent with some very useful information, while getting the family outside!  

Steps To Taking Data

1. Plan to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, February 13–16, 2009. You can count for longer than that if you wish! Count birds in as many places and on as many days as you like – one day, two days, or all four days. Submit a separate checklist for each new day. You can also submit more than one checklist per day if you count in other locations on that day.

2. Count the greatest number of individuals of each species that you see together at any one time. You may find it helpful to print out your regional bird checklist to get an idea of the kinds of birds you’re likely to see in your area in February. You could take note of the highest number or each species you see on this checklist.

3. When you’re finished, enter your results at this Birdsource page. You’ll see a button marked “Enter Your Checklists!” on the website home page beginning February 13, 2009. It will remain active until the deadline for data submission on March 1, 2009. 

You can also enter a photo contest if you like.


  • The Birdsource page has tips for identifying similar-looking species.
  • Cornell also has a great website for bird watchers.  It includes a Bird Search, How To ID Birds, and much more.
  • If you don’t have one at home, I recommend finding a bird guide for your region – they’re not very expensive and usually you can find one at a used book store.  And they’re certainly fun to have around the house.

Have fun!

10 Community Gardening & Local Food Activities To Excite And Inspire

Thomas Street P-Patch - The Most Desired In The City

Last night we had our monthly Sustainable Neighborhood meeting, where we set out our goals for the coming year.  I headed the “Food” Section, where we focused on local food and gardening.  As we continue further into difficult economic times, food security and helping local businesses are becoming increasingly important in our community. We came up with a great list of ideas last night, so I thought I’d share them with you.

1.  New Community Garden Partnerships.  There are 2 potentially new community gardens going into our neighborhood soon, though they’ve been having some funding trouble.  Since these “P-Patches” are so high in demand (each with a 2-5 year wait list!), we’re going to contact the city and find out how we can help expedite the process by volunteering labor, materials, etc.  

At the same time, we’ll be keeping an eye out for any new potential sites, as there are funding opportunities through the city’s Department of Neighborhoods program.

2.  Adopt a Roundabout or Median.  There are many boulevard medians and small roundabouts in our neighborhood, some of which definitely need care. Through the City, we’re going to adopt one or two and fill them with native and/or edible plants.

3.  Help Local Farmers Bring Food To Market.  Small organic farmers are definitely struggling in the current economy.  So when our local farmer’s market returns in May, we’ll be asking the farmers how we can help them person their booths, get the word out, or otherwise help in any way.  

4.  Get Fresh, Unused Food To Those Who Need It.  Recently local farmers and backyard gardeners have had fruits they can’t pick, which means healthy fruit is left to rot on the trees or on the ground.  We’re going to partner with a local organization who already has a Community Fruit Tree Harvest operation in other neighborhoods. Additionally, we’ll be seeking out local farmers with whom to partner.

When we bring these foods to families, we’ll also provide easy, healthy recipes so that they are more likely to use and enjoy the foods we bring.

5.  Food Education.  We’ll be starting an initiative to educate neighbors about the link between the food we eat and climate change, obesity, energy, etc.  We’ve started with information on local eating on our website (written by yours truly), but we’ll be adding a section that focusses on the health benefits of eating local, seasonal, unprocessed foods.

At our annual Sustainability Festival, we’ll have a booth dedicated to educating our neighbors about local food resources and the many health and environmental benefits of eating locally.

Additionally, we’ll be looking for a local location to host seasonal cooking classes.  These will likely include some of the simple recipes I’ve been collecting!

6.  Plant Natives and Remove Invasives In Our Neighborhood Greenbelt.  You’ve visited this area with me before!  We’ll be joining regular work parties each month to recuperate this important 14 acre wildlife corridor.

7.  Urban Gardening Tour.  It is our hope to inspire our dense urban area that we can garden in fire escapes and window boxes, indoors, on stoops, in alleys, and wherever there is a bit of space.  Our first Urban Gardening Tour will likely coincide with our neighborhood garage sale, so that people can take a break from shopping to check out gardens!  We’ve already contacted a local restaurant with a beautiful herb garden in the parking lot, and we’re hoping to find a few more businesses in addition to residences. 

8.  Edible Wild Herb Tour.  Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?  In the past, before I arrived in my neighborhood, there was a wonderful botanist that held this tour of the neighborhood, pointing out edible wild plants and herbs, and describing how to use them.  We’re hoping to get him to do it again!

9.  School Gardening Projects.  We all know that cultivating gardeners early is important, so we’re hoping to partner with a local school or two to help the set up edible gardens and teach kids how to garden, or help to maintain gardens that have been neglected.  We haven’t figured out the logistics of this yet, but hope to know more about how we’ll do it soon!

10.  Urban Gardening Classes.  I’ll be partnering with a friend to teach a beginning class on gardening in small spaces, at the local Community College.  We’re also planning to partner with the local library for another class, as a part of their 2009 Sustainability Series. Additionally, we’re hoping we can find neighbors with the skills to teach composting and native plant classes, or to teach us so that we can teach the classes!

Does that inspire you?  What else should we be thinking about?  What else are you up to in your community?

10 Holiday Traditions That Are Simple, Low-Cost, and Fun

Candle by firemedic58 on Flickr

While Redefining The Holidays, I wrote that my family has some traditions that we’ve kept through the years, even as my sister and I have grown and moved across the country in opposite directions.  

We eat creamed eggs (and ham for non-vegetarians) on Christmas Eve. Does that sound like a strange meal? It was once a Christmas morning tradition, where we’d have creamed eggs for breakfast after opening presents. But then the extended family changed our gathering from evening to morning, and we didn’t get a chance to have creamed eggs for breakfast. So we moved it to Christmas Eve.

When my sister and I were just entering our teens, we decided we needed a new tradition. Long after Santa was discovered, we made a tradition that after our creamed eggs and ham, we would all sit together in front of the fire and pass around ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, each of us reading one stanza before we pass it to the next person. I remember once my grandmother called long distance while we were just beginning to read, and she joined us, reading stanzas from her copy in New Mexico.  

The tradition continued long after my sister and I left the house for college. When significant others made it home with us, they joined in the tradition. Sometimes one or both of us didn’t make it for Christmas, so we conferenced in via telephone, I in New York or Los Angeles, my sister in St. Louis.

After we read ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, we each open one present from beneath the tree. And then we either go off to bed, or – more likely – we spend some time getting our presents together for the next day’s celebration.

They are simple traditions, but there is comfort in tradition, isn’t there? Sure, sometimes we groan about reading ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, but in truth it brings us all together in the present, as it reminds us of good times in the past.

Popcorn and Cranberry Garland by Gare and Kitty on Flickr

Ten Simple, Frugal, and Fun Holiday Traditions

1.  Attend a Christmas Eve candlelight service at your church – children love this.  Or light a menorah or kinara each evening.  Or light a peace candle and place it in the window at sundown.  Remember that the ceremony is as important as the candle – make sure to infuse the lighting with meaning and significance.

2.  Work on creating your family tree together.  Each year, get together and research another generation of your family tree.  You might create a scrapbook for this purpose.  Add stories and anecdotes if you have them or can find them.  Read favorite past stories to youngsters and new members of the family.

3.  Make holiday gifts together:  eg, cookies, fudge, marmalade, jars of spices or seeds, calendars, salts, soap, bubble bath or bath salts, candles, sachets, knitting projects, sewing projects, dried soup mixes, coupons for experiences/services, your family’s traditional homemade foods (eg, frozen tamales, cannolis), and so on.

4.  Make holiday decorations together:  trim the boughs with holly and cedar, create bread dough ornaments, string popcorn and raw cranberries, make a wreath from plants in the garden, make pine-scented candles or potpourri vessels, build a homemade gingerbread house.

5.  Volunteer at your local homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or food bank. While this is a good tradition to have other times of the year as well, in the Northern Hemisphere the holidays are the coldest time of year – when more homeless people need the warmth and safety of shelter and good meals.  This experience leaves a lasting impression on many children – suddenly meals, shelter, and gifts are not taken so much for granted.

6.  Decorate wrapping paper together.  Collect newspapers, magazines, used printer paper, paper bags, and other reusable paper. Then use holiday stamps, crayons, ink, scissors, and whatever else strikes your fancy – to personalize your wrapping paper together.  

7.  Redistribute the wealth together. If your family can afford to somehow help another family who is less well-off, get together and figure out the best way to help. Could you give the other family much-needed gifts? Invite them over for dinner? Make them some homemade frozen meals they can pop into the oven when they need them? Tutor their children in English? Help set up a scholarship fund for their children to go to school? Help parents get a job, or a better job with a livable wage? Babysit their children so the adults can have a night out together? Send the children of a parent who is serving overseas a care package? Be creative – it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it shouldn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable.

Northwest Native Americans have a tradition of potlatch ceremonies, where the more wealthy families throw a big feast and give gifts for those who are less well off.  There is no expectation for the gifts to return – the return is the feeling that you have given what you can to help others.  But even if you don’t feel wealthy right now, remember there is someone else out there who is less well-off than you.  Give what you can – even if it is time and/or experience, it can be very helpful to others more in need.

8.  Play games together.  Dig out that old Scrabble board, Boggle, Pictionary, deck of cards, or whatever you have in your basement or closet.  If you don’t have any games, you can usually find them at local thrift stores and garage sales for cheap. Then spend the evening drinking eggnog and playing games!

9.  Sit in front of the fire and take turns reading a book together.  It can be ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, like my family (above). It can be a favorite family story, or a new book each year.  And if there are family members who can’t make it home for the holidays, call them on the phone and make them a part of this tradition.

10.  Reflect on the past year and make plans for the new year together.  What would you have done differently if you could?  What will you chance about yourself and your work as you move forward into the new year?  What goals did you reach this past year, and what will you strive to reach in the coming year?  How can those around you help you with your new goals, your new journey?  How can you support one another to reach these new goals?

Luminaria 'Estrellas' by jared on Flickr

Please Share Your Own Traditions!

I find it incredibly useful to hear what others are doing to create traditions and consistency throughout the holidays.  So… please add to this list!

Redefining The Holidays To Focus On What Matters Most

Sage flowering in the snow, Seattle, Washington by Wonderlane on Flickr

I wrote about Redefining The Holidays For The Current Economy on Thursday. Stephanie called me on the fact that while I was writing about redefining the holidays, I focussed mostly on frugal gifts and saving money. It’s a very good point, and I realized that this post needed a second part: Redefining The Holidays To Focus On What Matters Most. …

As many of you know, we had a recent call to reality here in our household. Matt lost half his blood volume due to an ulcer, was in the hospital ICU for several days, and is still recovering his red blood cells. I had a relative that died this way, so I certainly thought about the frailty of our own mortality. And how lucky we are to have our lives.

In my previous post I wrote:

Above all else, remember that the true spirit of the holidays is the celebration of all that we have – our families, our friends, and our dreams.  I hope that you are good to yourselves this holiday season, and allow yourselves to set economic and physical limits as you nurture yourself and those around you – in mind, body, and spirit.  

But there is more to say about this, isn’t there?

On Gift Giving…

I don’t want to completely discourage you from giving gifts. The reason is this: some of us truly enjoy giving gifts. We like to show our appreciation for others, to find the perfect and most thoughtful present for a loved one. But I do want to encourage us all to rethink our gift-giving.    

Please think long and hard about one single gift that will put a smile on someone’s face, and touch their heart.  It is not necessarily an expensive gift (for surely it would not make a person happy if they knew you went into debt to give them a gift), it is a thoughtful gift.  

What do you share with that person?  What good memories can you remind them about?  What matters to them most in the world, and how can you find a way to show that you understand and support it?  

Can you do this without spending money?  I bet you could find a way.

For me, gift giving isn’t inherently bad.  What is bad is going into debt to give people things that they don’t need or want.  Gift giving should come from the heart, from the depths of our souls.  It is not about things, it is about showing the people we love that we care about them deeply.  Truly, it should be the thought – and the heart – that counts.

Luminarias - Ski By Candlelight uploaded by santheo on Flickr

On More Than Simple Gifts…

Holidays are about more than giving and receiving things, aren’t they?  They are about coming together, sharing our love, being thankful for our hopes and dreams, learning more about one another, taking a break from our everyday lives, and warming our tummies, too.

The holidays are not a time to throw our values to the wind – in fact this is a time to reinvigorate our values, to remember what matters to us most, and to come together to share those values.  So I ask that you remember what matters to you, and infuse your holiday celebration with these beliefs.

This goes far beyond traditional gift giving.  How can you create a meal that makes you proud (for instance, it’s local, organic, seasonal, nutritious, from scratch)?  How can you bring your family and friends closer (many of you gave excellent suggestions in Thursday’s comments)? How can you show the world you care about our future?  How can you make a difference in the lives of people and creatures whose causes you advocate?  How can you remember the important issues in your life, and positively contribute to those issues during the holidays?

Again, it is more than money – it is time, it is your heart, it is your soul.  For these, you must give thought.  These are your gifts to the world.  And these are your gifts to yourself – for these are what matter to you most.

Deb G wrote, “I think one of the things I like best about this time of year is it challenges my creativity.”  Indeed, these gifts to your loved ones, your planet, and yourself require much creative thought.  Especially during these economic times, it is important to stretch those creative muscles and find ways to give of yourself that don’t require money.  And to redefine what we think of as gifts.  We can give gifts of time, of patience, of gratitude, of beauty, of love, of nurturing, of companionship, and of our whole selves.

So I Throw This Out To You All:  How Can We Give Gifts Without Spending Money?

Remember, we are talking about giving to our loved ones, our futures, and peoples, creatures, and issues we care about. How can we give our time, our hearts, our souls?