Things I’ve learned through quilting

  1. Every stitch counts.
  2. Proper preparation is 80% of a successful project. If it isn’t cut right, it won’t sew right.
  3. You can’t get a quality result from inferior materials.
  4. If you don’t start, you’ll never finish.
  5. Slow progress is still progress. If you can’t do a lot, do a little.
  6. Creativity is a discipline.
  7. Books and videos are great, but nothing beats a face-to-face class.
  8. It’s always worth revisiting the classics, but if an art doesn’t change, it dies.
  9. You can do things with a machine that you cannot do by hand – and vice versa.
  10. What seems simple can be very complicated.

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Environmental Work

Eric Holthaus’ tweetstorm struck a nerve with me. Right out of college, I landed my first job working as a wetlands ecologist with a consulting firm. My job was to go out and find wetlands on large properties that were slated for development. This being the early 90s, most of them were to become golf course communities.

I thought I was mapping wetlands on properties so they could be protected. No, it was just so that the firm would know what sort of permit they needed to apply for, and how many hoops they could charge their client for jumping through. Or, even worse, it was so they’d know where to best put their stormwater ponds.

After about 9 months, I moved and got a job with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. I was writing permits* that, in theory, put limits on wetland and stream destruction. In theory, I would be minimizing habitat loss. In theory, every acre of wetland destroyed meant that more wetlands elsewhere would be restored or protected.

Every now and then, I was able to get a smaller project called off because of the difficulty in getting a permit. But every major project that came across my desk got approval. Sure, sometimes I’d manage to wrangle a minor change or two around the edges. Big projects had big money. Where there’s big money there’s political clout, and eventually I was always told to write the permit.

These permits always had stipulations for restoration or conservation easements. Which, in theory, should mitigate the damage done. I had confidence in neither. I’d never seen a created or restored wetland that had half the functional value or habitat of the natural, undisturbed one. Marshes along the edge of a BMP just are not the same as a mature forested wetland. Conservation easements are worth the paper they’re written on and a lawyer’s fee – I was never convinced they’d last more than 25 years. In perpetuity, my ass.

Besides, there was no way any regulator could follow-up on the promises made by a permittee. We were all too busy trying to keep up with new applications. So, there were no inspections of restored areas. No checks to make sure the areas that were supposed to be protected actually were.

In short: I was documenting destruction, not preventing it. After a few more moves, job changes, and the advent of the internet, I found myself out of the environmental protection game. It’s a lot less stressful. Why try to save the planet, when no one seems to actually want it saved? When there are so many forces actively seeking its destruction?

It’s been many years since then, but I still feel guilty about my defection.

*Technically, they weren’t permits, but certifications.

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Last year, I took a class in needle-turn appliqué. Next to me was a woman for whom the fabric tucked perfectly, whose stitches were tiny and even – beautiful work. She had never attempted to appliqué before, and if memory serves, had never done any hand piecing or quilting, either.

That’s talent.

Meanwhile, my attempts had jags, puckers, uneven stitches. Sigh. Even though I’ve tried appliqué in the past, even though I’ve been hand-piecing, embroidering, and hand-quilting for years – I struggled in the class. I just don’t have a talent for it.

That’s okay.

I’m still fascinated with the technique, and the next quilt I’m planning to make will have some hand appliqué work. Not having the talent just means that the project will go slower and may not turn out as perfectly as if someone with talent were doing it. I’m okay with that. Imperfect is better than not done.

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Never build (or buy) something if you’re not going to maintain it.

Don’t build (or buy) something that cannot be maintained.

This, of course, does not apply to consumables. It’s impossible to maintain a cake for long.

Here’s the hard part: Are you sure that what you’re about to build (or buy) can be maintained?

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On Environmental Regulation

A couple of weeks ago, in an interview with NPR , Kentucky Senator Rand Paul was talking about fines that a Wyoming rancher had to pay because he didn’t get a federal permit to build a pond, though he did have “local” permission to do so.

The Senator made this statement, “You should not have to get a federal permit to build a cattle pond. This is the kind of thing that has kind of run amok in our country is the federal government trying to regulate individual local issues like land use.”

And it’s been bothering me ever since. You see, about 25 years ago, I worked as a Virginia Water Protection Permit writer for the Commonwealth of Virginia. This means that I wrote state permits for construction projects that could impact the waters of Virginia – including permits for farm ponds.

Basically, Virginia certifies to the federal government that proposed activities will not have an impact on water quality provided certain conditions apply. It looks like a state permit, but the state is required to issues those permits according to Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

One project in particular comes to mind. A landowner in the far western part of the state wanted to build a small, decorative pond on his property. The application stated that the stream he wanted to dam originated from a spring on his property, and that the spring had a watershed of less than 5 acres.

By the time the application got to my desk, several other regulators had already signed off on it – if the application had been correct, the pond would not have needed an individual permit. It would have been covered under waivers or general permits. But the application wasn’t correct.

When I looked at a topographic map of the stream to be impounded, I saw that it was one of those that goes underground for a while then re-surfaces – so it looked to the landowner like the water was coming from a spring, but it was not. The watershed feeding the stream was over 10 square miles – so it was a significant, perennial stream. Not only that, but it was a designated trout stream, and downstream of the proposed pond was a private trout fish farm.

The proposed pond would ruin the stream’s water quality for trout. Ultimately, the project was denied the permit. I met with the landowner and explained to him the reasons for the denial. He was disappointed, but understood.

He had his local permits – which in Virginia meant that they were zoning and construction permits – but without the federal and state environmental requirements, the water of that stream would not have been protected. Damage would have been permanent – both to the Commonwealth’s fishery and to the private business that depended on the stream’s quality.

This is why environmental regulation is needed – localities do not have the mandate or expertise to protect natural resources. Localities work on a scale that is too small to see broader impacts. To protect water quality, even cow ponds need to be reviewed by a higher authority.

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Thinking about blogging today, and realizing that I’m thinking of this like an on-line journal of sorts. Which is really not how I want to do this.The blogs I most enjoy and read regularly tend to have some sort of focus (listed in no particular order):

Most of them do have a strong “this is what works for me, you might want to try it” sort of vibe. Most of them post at least twice a week (exceptions are MMM and Newport). Several of them also look into research behind the things they have tried, or that further their knowledge of their main topic. But they all seem to have started with a basic idea of what they want to accomplish, something specific the author wants to say.

At this point, the only reason I have for blogging is to get some of my ideas out of my head and into the wide world. I have no expectation that anything I write here will be read by many folks at all – I just want to feed the universe. You know what I mean. If thoughts and ideas are energy, I want for my energies to go further than my physical journal can go. Put the thoughts out there and see if they roost anywhere else. My work here might be invisible, but I like to think that somehow there’s a cosmic scale that I might help tip.

Maybe eventually, if I keep at this long enough and write enough, some sort of overarching theme will emerge. But right now, I think I’ll go with another bit of advice that came through on one of Ferriss’ podcasts and write about something if I think about it 3 times in a given week. Let’s see how that goes.

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Word for 2017

My word for 2017  is “Abundance.” For me, this means that I will approach life with the assumption that there will be more where this comes from: that I do have time enough to do the things that are important to me, that I do have enough stuff, that Sierra Trading Post will send more coupons, and that I really don’t have to hoard a year’s worth of Trader Joe’s Fireworks chocolate bars.

It means that I am grateful for what I have, but I won’t worry about it running out. Worry about future scarcity is stressful, and can lead to some irrational choices: do I really need to store that old futon frame? Futon frames are easy to come by. Why am I afraid to cut into that gorgeous fabric? There are new, beautiful fabric designs introduced all the time.

I’m lucky enough to be in a place where I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to grasp at and hoard stuff out of fear.

This attitude of abundance can manifest in many ways. For starters, I will not buy any new books or clothing in 2017. I have plenty of both. Feeling like I must buy something now because it is on sale and won’t be available later is a false sense of scarcity. If I happen across something I really like, I can take a picture, post it to Pinterest, or otherwise document it. I don’t need to own it – at least not right away. When the time comes to buy something new, I can shop using those notes. It’ll be like shopping from a store where I want everything instead of trying to sift for a golden nugget among chaff.

At work, I will get over the feeling that there isn’t enough of me to go around. I do have enough time and energy to take on those projects with potential impact. If I let go of the time-consuming chores that aren’t really paying off, there’s plenty of time.

In my world, food is abundant; I do not have to eat when I am not hungry. There will always be another tasty treat. I can go get a donut whenever I want. I do not have to eat one just because it shows up at work. Only eat it if I’m specifically seeking it.

I hope that approaching life with an attitude of abundance will inspire me to be more generous, and more open. I hope that by acting as if there will always be plenty, I will consume and waste less. I look forward to seeing where else this attitude can make a difference in my life.

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