Happiness is…

18″ x 24″ oil on canvas, SOLD.
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Are you happy? Would you say you’re a happier person than a citizen of a neighboring country? How do you measure happiness?

A 2006 study calculating happiness by nation has added a new unit of measurement to the typical equation of income and access to quality health care and education. Inserting the new variable seems to be based on the theory of “what goes around, comes around.” The Happy Planet Index reminds us that we live in the environment we help create by naming ecological sustainability as one of its 3 primary indicators. No one wants to call smog-filled community without clean water home. The study “shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert the planet’s natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens.”

A more traditional study would likely name a Scandinavian country such as Denmark the world leader of pleasure and contentment. The Happy Planet Index bestows the title to the unlikely candidate of Vanuatu, a small freckling of islands in the South Pacific that only gained its dependence from Britain and France in the 1970’s.

Analyzing life satisfaction, life expectancy, and ecological footprint yields some very surprising results. Mexico and Columbia are 2 of very few countries on the index’s world map positively denoted in green. Give their survey a spin for yourself to gain a better understanding of information collected for the study. Hopefully you are happy and/because you’re ecological footprint is petite.

“White Christmas” becoming a fairytale concept

Two 4″ x 6″ watercolors
Click here to see picture of framed paintings.
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Who would have thought exercising mischievous behavior over Christmas would have resulted in the opportunity to hear a a personal testimony of the impact of global warming?

I spent Christmas an hour north of Manhattan in a house that sits on the 50 wooded acres painted above. My boyfriend and I set out in snow gear to explore the property which entailed crossing a creek to leave the manicured yard. Rising temperatures had flooded our bridge with melting snow and ice. My boyfriend was ready to call it quits and head back inside to play Guitar Hero since our only alternative was to use the neighbor’s bridge to cut across. He changed his mind after a few minutes of taunting and peer pressure.

Of course, I had to eat my words. No sooner had we crossed the bridge than the neighbor came storming out of his house yelling “Hey! HEY! What do you think you’re doing?!” I thought his thunderous voice might shake icicles loose from the trees to strike us down.

With our tails between our legs we walked toward the white-haired gentleman to explain our (my) weak reasoning. He quickly changed his demeanor and politely explained his boisterous reaction was due to the vandals who been on his property a few weeks prior. We made peace and transitioned into a 20 minute chat about his 3 decades spent on the property. “When I first moved here, there were several days every year when the temperature would be 20 below. It would be in the negative teens for a couple of weeks. Now here it is Christmas and it’s 40.” A comment about global warming skeptics was followed by an eye roll.

Take-a-ways from my soupy-snow Christmas adventure:

  1. Observant baby-boomers who stay in one place for an extended amount of time make excellent citizen climatologists
  2. Only coax an unwilling cohort into trespassing with you if you’re certain you’re not going to get caught

Underwater farm producing energy for NYC

24″ x 66″ oil on canvas
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New York City, flexing its strength by size and density, often boasts status of “first,” “best,” and “biggest” in an expansive list of areas. Most of our financial investments oscillate on charts on Wall Street, and many items in our closets mimic fashions first seen on New York runways. Much of our American culture, history, politics and economy are tied to beginnings and development in the Big Apple.

A downside for New York, also owning the title of second most densely populated American city, is the lack of physical space for innovation that requires expansive room. Case in point, we’re not going to find wind farms in Manhattan. But ah! there is a place in the city where no New Yorker will set foot. This quiet, empty space is vast and available. No investment bankers will ever have an office here, nor will any gallery, penthouse, or corner shop reside. Buildings, walkways, and taxis push to the very edge of this space, yet not encroaching, like fighting siblings in the backside of the car not to cross the seam of the seat onto the other’s side. This space is the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Below the surface of the East River is a “tidal energy farm” that uses Verdant Power’s underwater turbines to harvest free power from the river’s current, alleviating some pressure on New York’s unsustainable annual $13 billion energy bill.

No one can complain about zoning restrictions or a visual blight. The greatest concern these turbines pose is for the well-being of the river’s primary residents: fish (for which several million dollars is being spent on fish monitoring). The seemingly benign machinery will be connected to the city’s energy grid to provide an equally benign form of power.

Mountaintop removal coal mining move over!

Something common, yet quirky, standing in for needed scarce trees

5″ x 5″ drawing in a 10″ x 10″ frame (click here to see painting framed)
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My senior year of college an attention-grabbing piece of installation art was exhibited in the university’s library. The artist had collected all of the wasted paper from the library (discarded copies, the unwanted last pages of print outs, etc) for what I’m vaguely remembering to be one month. From the artist’s harvest, he/she was able to literally create a towering white paper mountain utilizing the library’s open atrium.

Upon entering the front doors, guilt immediately made itself at home on my shoulder since I knew that somewhere in that bleached tree cemetery were my piles of reject copies from a recent typography class project. I thought twice, as I’m sure many other students did, before clicking “print” that day.

The exhibit resurfaced in my memory for the first time earlier this year when I read a short snippet in ODE magazine about a small company that takes paper recycling to a new level. Instead of the usual process of washing, pulping, bleaching and so on, gathered items such as outdated maps and calendars are used to make super hip stationary.

The man behind the idea tells an amusing story of actualization of his entrepreneurial potential while in the midst of what many would call a career slump:

“Olaf Hagedorn…came up with the idea when he was unemployed and found himself staring at piles of handwritten job-application letters containing small mistakes. Considering a way to refuse the paper, he folded it into envelopes. He then expanded this simple idea into a large-scale operation, using higher quality second hand paper: outdated maps, calendars and printed matter with a few flaws.”

You can shop online for these paper products here. This is one of several suggestions I will be making between now and Christmas for socially and environmentally thoughtful gift ideas.

Also worth mentioning: what I assume is simply the American vendor of this stationary primarily focuses on producing claymation films that “motivate people to protect and preserve natural habitats for all future generations’ health and enjoyment.” Go figure. Here’s one for your viewing pleasure…

I’m thankful for terrestrial carbon sequestration

4″ x 6″ watercolor
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Those beautiful and vibrantly painted trees setting the scene for your Thanksgiving are doing far more than visually entertaining you during the drive to grandma’s house. They’re also enormous vacuums sucking up gaseous pollutants spilling out of your tailpipe. In technical terms, they are performing “terrestrial carbon sequestration.” This is,

“the process through which carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere is absorbed by trees, plants and crops through photosynthesis, and stored as carbon in biomass (tree trunks, branches, foliage and roots) and soils. The term ‘sinks’ is also used to refer to forests, croplands, and grazing lands, and their ability to sequester carbon…A carbon sink occurs when carbon sequestration is greater than carbon releases over some time period.” – US EPA

What is most alarming is the disparity between the rise of total CO2 emissions and diminishing landscapes left intact to absorb it.

Yes, I am thankful for the many wonderful people in my life such as my grandfather who still calls me “Ashley Kay” (even though my middle name is Michelle), my dad who has lovingly referred to me as “moose” ever since my height became awkwardly obvious as a kid, and my mom who tells me my driving makes her nauseous and will forever try to get me to wear pink. It’s incredibly easy to take for granted (and abuse) the many sources of our happiness. Sometimes we forget to thank a friend or family member, but few of us have ever felt appreciation for the hard working array of plants that forgive and balance our toxic output.

Times are a changin’. Many of us are beginning to acknowledge the life-supporting functions of nature, which soon may not be around to continue on going unnoticed and unappreciated. Here is a short list of ways for you to express your gratitude for your planet:

Add a few more check boxes to this year’s to-be-thankful-for list and have a happy Turkey Day!
Click here for a direct link to watch this painting being painted.


My comfort food comes with a side of environmental baggage

24″ x 24″ oil on canvas, $900
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While I could hardly imagine a cooler job, there is a downside to being in the know of the world of good deeds. The quintessential angel on my shoulder embodying my conscience is one obese loud mouth. The implications of most of my actions and decisions are dissected and scrutinized meticulously. Beware friends and family; I nag my boyfriend about putting a single zucchini in a plastic bag in the produce section and make my friends go out of their way to meet me at a fair trade coffee shop. Being so vigilant can be a pain in the rear.

The perfect example is the guilt associated with my newly rekindled love for sushi. All the book and articles I’ve read have elbowed “ignorant bliss” out of the dinner equation. I pond whether the bite of toro roll I’m struggling not to drop with chopsticks before I get it to my mouth is made with over-fished tuna caught in the wild. And if not, is the farm-raised tuna feed a synthetic and unnatural corn-based diet in an overcrowded industrial fishbowl? Am I eating the McDonald’s of sushi or the last tuna of its kind to ever swim the great ocean blue? Ok, so I still eat it, but I feel justified by offsetting any harm done by other proactive measures (such as blogging about it).

Environmental awareness and activism are worming their way into our daily lives. And it’s not just for those on the fringes of the far left (there’s Honda Insight often parked outside of my apartment boasting a Bush bumper sticker). “Going green” is a profitable business strategy and consumers are quickly buying in. Restaurants , like British sushi chain Moshi Moshi, are seasonly reconfiguring their menus to excluded the endangered fish species. Check out their “Clear Conscience Sushi Set.” Call me a bleeding heart, but that’s what I want see more of in grocery stores and restaurant menus.

A backyard garden, 10 tomatoes and a happy house guest

5″ x 5″ watercolor in a 12″ x 12″ frame.
Click here to see picture of painting framed.
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Last night I drove deep into rural southern Indiana to celebrate the holiday weekend with friends who recently bought a home with more than enough land to accommodate for a vegetable garden, chickens and goats. Our dinner spread was largely comprised of ingredients fresh from their yard. As anyone who has ever tried to eat locally and seasonally, my friends found themselves with a large over-abundance of a few vegetables, so much so that all guests were given parting gifts of tomatoes.

Eating local produce is an excellent way to support local farmers, revisit the notion that food comes from the ground (not a box), cut down on carbon emissions from carting produce from thousands of miles away, and feed your stomach something it will actually like and use. But committing to such a diet does require some culinary creativity. I love tomatoes, but what am I going to do with 6 of them in one week? Solution: here’s a very simple recipe for 10 Tomato Pasta from the kitchen of Nora Pouillon, owner of Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora in Washington DC (the first certified organic restaurant in the US). So go ahead and buy more tomatoes and pass on the can of SpaghettiO’s.

“The Unforeseen” showing tomorrow

For those Louisville residents interested in the topic of land development, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (a statewide advocacy group) will be showing a screening of the documentary The Unforeseen at the Kentucky Center for the Arts tomorrow, Aug. 24.

The film is an fair and unbiased look at both sides of the story of transformation in the landscape of Austin, Texas as big plans were set in motion in the 1970’s and 80’s to develop a residential neighborhood. As I would imagine is always the case with land development, there was a polarization of opinions and beliefs that threw politics and law in to the messy mix. Click here to watch a preview of the film from a PBS interview with the director.

A private reception with the director, Laura Dunn, will begin at 6:00 at Bomhard Theater (tickets for the reception are $100). The screening will begin at 7:30, followed by a panel discussion with the filmmaker as well as local authorities on land use policy, economic development, and environmental impact. General admission tickets are $15. Click here for more details.

The film title was inspired by a poem from Kentucky writer and environmental activist, Wendell Berry, who wrote,

“I walked the deserted prospect of the modern mind. Where nothing lived or happened that had not be foreseen. What had been foreseen was the coming of the stranger with money. All that had been before had been destroyed. A new earth had appeared in place of the old made entirely according to plan.”

Taking nutrition disclosure to a new level

Here on Bainbridge Island (off the coast of Seattle where I’m staying for a few more days), it’s actually a challenge not to eat organic foods (much of which is also locally grown). One particular small store and cafe, Island Health Foods, makes a special effort to inform customers of how many miles their produce has traveled on handwritten note cards disclosing that distance beneath the price of each item. I’ve never seen this done before and thought it was very clever.

I continue to be wowed by Island Health Foods as I just went to their website to additionally discover:

“Our café is far along on the way to becoming a zero waste operation. All our to-go containers—yes, even the straws—are 100% recycled, bio-compostable from NatureWorks. We compost all our kitchen waste and to-go containers and are working on a local education program on composting and sustainable waste management.”

There is certainly more chatter these days about such topics, including the cost to the environment, in CO2 emissions, to transport our food from the farm to your local grocery store. Ironically, the day after I noticed Island Health Food’s signs, there was an article in the Seattle Post about 80 Seattle residents eating on the “100 mile diet” for the month of August.

Hang in there Al Gore; momentum is building!

“I’ll have the endangered Mahi Mahi please.”

oil canvas approximately 18″ x 24″ (canvas not yet on a stretcher)
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Thanks to Nedra Weinreich for recommending Seafood Watch as a natural fit for this oil painting (previously posted in an earlier stage). Seafood Watch is “a program of Monterey Bay Aquarium designed to raise consumer awareness about the importance of buying seafood from sustainable sources. [They] recommend which seafood to buy or avoid, helping consumers to become advocates for environmentally friendly seafood.”

I’ve heard tidbits of information about the snowballing damage unsustainable overfishing has created. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization states that “fish currently provide at least 20 percent of the animal protein needs of over 2.5 billion people in the world.” That’s a big order to fill when “nearly a quarter of commercial species have already been over-exploited, with a total 70% of species now being fished close to, at, or beyond their capacity.” CNNMoney.com cited a “recent study projecting that the world’s commercially harvested fish populations could collapse by 2048.”

Seafood Watch offers an incredibly user-friendly website allowing you to search for seafood by name or region. The site provides detailed information about the best alternatives, and how and where each type of seafood is caught.

For example, this is the search result for Halibut:

Atlantic Halibut Avoid: Avoid these products for now. These fish come from sources that are overfished or fished or farmed in ways that harm the environment.
U.S. and Canada Wild-Caught
California Halibut Good Alternative: These are good alternatives to the best choices column. There are some concerns with how they are fished or farmed - or with the health of their habitats due to other human impacts. Monterey halibut, Chicken halibut, Southern halibut U.S. Pacific Ocean Hook-and-line or bottom trawl
California Halibut Avoid: Avoid these products for now. These fish come from sources that are overfished or fished or farmed in ways that harm the environment. Monterey halibut, Chicken halibut, Southern halibut U.S. Pacific Ocean Set Gillnet
Pacific Halibut Best Choice: These fish are abundant, well managed and fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways.
U.S. and Canada Wild-Caught
Atlantic Soles Avoid: Avoid these products for now. These fish come from sources that are overfished or fished or farmed in ways that harm the environment. Atlantic halibut, American plaice, Dab U.S. Atlantic Ocean Trawl-Caug

It’s easy to claim ignorance is bliss (until now), but we have to own up to such devastating consequences. Clearly there’s a reason way we pay out the wazoo for most of seafood on the “avoid” list.

Ps – Just for the record, in spite of what this painting conveys, I’m not recommending that you eat Koi as an alternative. 😉

Previously wasted energy source realized: your feet

5″ x 7″ watercolor
Contact me at ashley.cecil (at) gmail.com for purchase inquires.

We go to great lengths devising ways to harvest energy that accommodates our insatiable daily demands.   Digging massive holes in our planet with sci-fi-like contraptions to suck out oil, and literally moving mountains with explosives to unearth coal (aka mountain-top removal mining) are a few such examples of how far we’ll take it.   But why do we exclusively go looking for energy that we’re already creating?   This is what two MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning students, James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk, asked themselves.
MIT has published this article elaborating on the students’ concept of harvesting the energy of people with the “Crowd Farm.”   An overview goes something like this:

“The so-called “Crowd Farm,”…would turn the mechanical energy of people walking or jumping into a source of electricity.
A Crowd Farm in Boston’s South Station railway terminal would work like this: A responsive sub-flooring system made up of blocks that depress slightly under the force of human steps would be installed beneath the station’s main lobby. The slippage of the blocks against one another as people walked would generate power through the principle of the dynamo, a device that converts the energy of motion into that of an electric current.

The Crowd Farm is not intended for home use. According to Graham and Jusczy, a single human step can only power two 60W light bulbs for one flickering second. But get a crowd in motion, multiply that single step by 28,527 steps, for example, and the result is enough energy to power a moving train for one second.”

I’m sure my meek engineering-left-brain does not grasp the vast complexities of implementing such a concept, but it does seem to be a terribly obvious alternative, if not at least a supplemental form of significant energy.

Tree Nation bringing green back to the Sahara

7″ x 9″ watercolor, $70 ($10 donated to Tree Nation)
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I received an email recently from Jeremiah at Tree Nation that sparked the inspiration for this painting. At first, I was a little skeptical of a project (albeit backed by the United Nations Environmental Program) that was set out to plant 8 million trees in the unlikely location of the Sahara Desert. I don’t really equate a healthy, hardy forest with an arid desert, but the project location (a park in Niger) is apparently experiencing desertification; meaning it naturally isn’t meant to be so barren. This phenomenon is the result of climate change and other human related factors which has induced dwindling wildlife and compromised the wellbeing of many communities (think farming and commerce).

I posed my concern about planting trees in such harsh conditions to Jeremiah, who promptly responded with:

The trees we plant at the border of the Sahara Desert first spend their first months in a nursery growing strong . If they reach a certain age, the trees are brought to the spot in the desert where they are put in to the ground in a hole which is deep enough for them to reach the water sources beneath the desert, within a certain amount of time. Within the first months in the desert the trees are checked for their growth. It’s not easy, and there are definitely trees which fail to grow and which need replanting, but the value of trees fighting desertification and reproducing fruits and other benefits in one of the poorest countries of the world is well worth the trouble.

The Tree Nation website really lets you virtually get your hands dirty with a map, reminiscent of the old school video game Zelda, that allows you to see where your tree of choice has been planted, how it’s doing, and browse the profiles/progress of trees/tree owners around you.

This is a great gift idea for a techy friend who love social networks and environmental sustainability. Definitely check it out.


100 mile diet

6″ x 6″ watercolor
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No, don’t worry, I’m not going to preach about the health benefits of running 100 miles to lose weight (I’m still working on finishing a 5k myself). This diet, unlike Atkins or South Beach, is most likely not on your radar. But first, let me preface the description with a little oration.

The commercial food industry has placed a vast distance between the origin of the food we eat and our plates. The greater that distance and disconnect, the less likely we are to be inquisitive about how corn is turned into Doritos. Since we trust food manufacturers’ production methods, as evidenced by an enormous majority of real estate in a grocery stores being occupied by processed foods, we end up naively believing “enriched ____” is a good thing.

Truth be told, food manufacturers want things this way so money-saving-corners can be cut and physically addictive “tastes” can be engineered in laboratories to make that “home-style” flavor prominent in your boxed dinner via a slew of ingredient you can’t pronounce.

Proactively becoming aware and engaged in reacting to this realization certainly takes time and effort. Although the imperative demand of our attention is inevitable if we hope for optimal health and an ablution of our insides from high-fructose corn syrup and synthetic hormones.

Eating foods separated from you by one minuscule degree, a farmer, is a foreign concept to many. I found a website, 100milediet.org, that takes this concept to the max: exclusively eating foods grown within a 100 mile radius of your home. The website states that,

“When the average North American sits down to eat, each ingredient has typically traveled at least 1,500 miles—call it ‘the SUV diet.'”

Clearly, this also has tremendous environmental implications as well. That’s a high CO2 price tag (not to mention a high $ price tag) to bring your out-of-season berries from down south.

Farmers markets are an excellent way to reestablish what “food” truly means, support local growers, and encourage environmentally sustainable agriculture and business practices. Your kids will also likely develop an interest in what they eat and prefer playing in the dirt from their own mini vegetable garden to digging wash-off tattoos out of frosty-o’s cereal boxes.

Here are some resources to get started:

Locally for Louisvillans:


Vibrant coral reefs becoming a thing of the past

6″ x 9″ watercolor, $70 ($10 donated to the Coral Reef Alliance)
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I had to revisit yesterday’s post since what remains of healthy coral reefs is an inspiring visual worth saving in a painting. The donation from the sale of this painting will go to the Coral Reef Alliance, which is “dedicated to keeping coral reefs alive by integrating ecosystem management, sustainable tourism, and community partnerships.”

Since very few of us land dwelling mammals have a clear understanding of what’s going horribly wrong underwater, it’s even more difficult to grasp what it means above the surface. Multiple factors such as warming ocean temperatures and over fishing is causing a ripple effect fatal to reefs. Take that one step further, and soon the world is faced with a global food security crisis because of the underwater graveyard.

Since the damages are approaching “beyond repair,” it’s hard to imagine how we will compensate for the 30 million people who depend entirely on coral reefs for their income and for their food.* It would take an additional area of tropical coral four times the size of the Great Barrier Reef – the biggest reef system in the world – to sustain current fishing levels.*

*Information taken from CommonDreams.org, “Loss of Coral May Cause Food Supply Crisis”


Scuba diving not so exciting anymore

Last year, in a crowded public pool among water aerobic classes and kids held afloat with water wings, I prepped for my scuba diving certification. I was eagerly anticipating the real thing on an upcoming vacation to Hawaii. Although the trip itself was wonderful, the diving was pretty pathetic.

Over the course of 8 years, I have snorkeled and/or gone diving in the Florida Keys, off the coast of Belize, and the Great Barrier Reef. The colorful corals and fish have progressively faded. I thought I was experiencing the misfortune of reef guides dropping anchor in the wrong spot. While in Hawaii, I watched an IMAX film, “Coral Reef Adventure,” that convinced me otherwise. Surprise, surprise; global warming, logging, over fishing, and other attributes have resulted in a loss of 25% of the world’s corals over the course of 25 years. Some scientists say we have reached the point of no return.

The NY Times published this article yesterday about the horrible epidemic. The facts outlined in the article leave me with a stare of despair as I have yet another “oh-sh*t-this-is-really-bad” moment.