Archive for June, 2012

Celebrating David Brower, Environmentalist and Mountaineer

July 1, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of David Brower, a mountaineer and one of the most important environmentalists of the Twentieth Century. As a mountaineer, he is credited with over 30 first ascents in the Sierras. His love for the backcountry led to his involvement in the environmental movement. He was director of the Sierra Club for many years and founded Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute. As a fierce advocate for the preservation of wilderness for wilderness’s sake, he often found himself at odds with other environmentalists who were more willing to negotiate with developers and government agencies.

In 1971, John McPhee chronicled some of Brower’s confrontations with his “ideological enemies” in Encounters with the Archdruid. The enemies included an engineer who hoped to exploit mineral reserves in Glacier National Park, a developer who planned to create a resort on a Georgia Sea Island and a Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation who wanted to dam the Colorado River in northern Arizona. Brower won the first two fights and lost the third.

The New York Times noted in Brower’s obituary that “he seemed to maintain a level of indignation that would have burned out a lesser man. ‘I wish we didn’t have to be angry all the time,’ he said. ‘But someone has to get angry.’”

Bill McKibben noted that even though it sounded as if Brower “specialized in conflict (and though he always advised environmentalists to leave compromises to the politicians), he was in fact beloved throughout the activist community, always willing to lend a hand to other people’s causes and always willing to talk deep into the night at the local bar with whatever young environmentalists he could find.”

For Earth Day in 1975, Brower penned a short essay for The New York Times Magazine called “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions.” Today, we rarely receive a manual or instructions with our purchases – a link to a website is usually the most we can hope for or a series of inadequate graphic representations on a single sheet of paper. But back in the 1970’s almost everything came with a manual that extolled various features and earnestly warned of potential harm in the case of misuse. With this bit of historical context in mind, “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions” reveals itself as both a straight forward reminder and an entertainment. The elements that make life on our planet possible and our responsibilities for the planet’s maintenance are stated clearly but with humor:

“This planet has been delivered wholly assembled and in perfect working condition, and is intended for fully automatic and trouble-free operation in orbit around its star, the Sun.

However, to ensure proper functioning, all passengers are requested to familiarize themselves fully with the following instructions. Loss or even temporary misplacement of these instructions may result in calamity…”

Read the full essay “The Third Planet – Operating Instructions”

Portrait of David Bower, Environmentalist
David Brower was one of the heroes of the Environmental movement of the Twentieth century. The organizations he built, the battles he won to save wilderness areas from development, and the generations he inspired to action and engagement are a testament to his devotion and hard work for the benefit of our planet and us all.

Learn more about David Brower and his legacy.

This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Perplexus Tour 2012

Perplexus Tour 2012 visits Whole Earth Provision Co. at Westgate

Think you’re a whiz with Perplexus? Are you the family champ? The fastest through the 3-D maze among your friends? Well, here’s your chance to put your Perplexus skills to the test against other Austin “champs” of all ages. Never played with a Perplexus? Come try it out and get hints from the professionals.

The Perplexus team is coming to Austin with arms full of the challenging 3-D mazes. Team members will be at our Westgate store on South Lamar handing out prizes to the winners of Speed Tests and other competitions that add a whole new dimension of fun to this enticing puzzle. And as our thank you, the Westgate staff will hand out Whole Earth gift certificates to all Perplexus contestants.

Remember the little flat plastic mazes where you rolled a tiny silver ball from start to finish? The Perplexus is a sphere and adds another dimension to the movement of the ball – rotation! The tracks are inventive and challenging and will have you twisting and turning your way to the end. You’ll be thinking several steps ahead anticipating the marble’s next move. Watch out for the strategically placed barriers or you might get thrown off track! It’s a great game for sharing, even if you don’t exactly want to . . . don’t say we didn’t warn you! It’s great for get-togethers with family or friends, road trips and rainy days (may we have some!). There are three Perplexus puzzles, the Original, the Rookie and the Epic, for different skill levels.

So come join us on the patio in front of the Westgate Whole Earth store as we roll out the misters and the canopies for this Austin exclusive event!

Event details
Whole Earth Provision Co. – Westgate
Westgate Shopping Center
4477 South Lamar Blvd.
Austin, Tx 78745


July 6th, 2012
12pm – 5pm

A Nice Cup of Tea with George Orwell

George Orwell Drinking Tea
Today, June 25th, is the birthday of George Orwell. Most of us know him as the author of two books we were supposed to have read in school – Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. If we were more adventurous readers, we may have picked up Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia. What we may not have learned in our formal education is this – Orwell was a prolific essayist.

The Everyman Edition of his essays has 1369 pages and weighs almost three pounds. The essays were written for newspapers and magazines and cover a host of topics. Some deal with politics and current events, others comment on people and places, books Orwell had read and his musings on the questions of the day. His tone is conversational and direct and a reader is sometimes left with the impression of listening to an especially well-spoken and thoughtful man holding forth at the pub or in a comfortable armchair by a fire. Some of Orwell’s best known essays include: “Why I Write”, “Politics and the English Language”, “Marrakesh”, “Reflections on Gandhi” and the charmer, “A Nice Cup of Tea”.

The English love their cuppa and Orwell was no exception. The essay was written in 1946 when the British were coping with rationing in the aftermath of the Second World War. There was an urgent need to make the most of what little tea was at hand. Orwell noted that cookery books rarely gave recipes for brewing tea and that “the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.” As a man unafraid of controversy, Orwell wrote his own rules for brewing tea, rules, every one of which, he believed was golden.


Use Indian or Ceylonese tea.

Tea should be brewed in small quantities i.e. a teapot.

The pot should be warmed beforehand.

The tea should be strong – 6 heaping teaspoons to a quart of water.*

Tea should be placed directly in the pot – no tea bags or “other devices to imprison the tea.”

The water should be boiling at the moment of impact with the tea.**

After making tea stir it or give it a good shake*** allowing the leaves to settle.

Drink tea from a cylindrical cup, not a flat shallow cup, which allows the tea to cool too quickly.

Use milk not cream for your tea.

Pour the tea in the cup first, then add the milk.

Tea should be drunk without sugar.

*Orwell admits that this amount of tea might prove difficult in a time of rationing but states that “one cup of strong tea is better than 20 weak ones.”

** Coffee shops take note. No tepid water for your tea drinking customers! Draw the water from the Espresso machine.

*** This sounds dangerous or at the very least messy. Though Orwell prefers shaking to stirring, this is not a Martini. Stirring sounds far more sensible.

Thus speaks the authoritative Mr. Orwell.

So despite the heat, pull out your teapot today, brew a strong cup of tea and raise it in honor of one the Twentieth Century’s great writers, George Orwell.

You could also celebrate by reading an essay or pulling down your ragged copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm or even by watching a BBC 4 video biography of Orwell.

George Orwell Resources



+Other works by Orwell available online

+Orwell’s Essay “A Nice Cup of Tea”

Above: George Orwell: A Life in Pictures A BBC 4 Documentary

This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Celebrating Alan Turing

Alan Turin Portrait

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”

June 23, 2012, marked the centennial of Alan Turing’s birth. Exhibits, conferences and symposia were held around the world to celebrate the life and achievements of one of the 20th century’s greatest minds. Turing made major contributions to Mathematics, Logic, Cryptography, Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence and Biology.

His gift for mathematics was recognized early. But how did he come to do such ground-breaking work in so many different fields? The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy believes that it hinged on his ability to make “unexpected connections between apparently unrelated areas.” As an example, they cite the most fruitful of his unexpected connections: “His central contribution to science and philosophy came through his treating the subject of symbolic logic as a new branch of applied mathematics, giving it a physical and engineering content.” The fruits of this breakthrough include computer operating systems and software programs.

During the first half of the Twentieth Century the word “computer” referred to a human being who did computations. But in the 1950’s, the word began to take on the meaning it has today – a machine capable of doing computations accurately and with mind-boggling speed.

Turing Bombe replica

A replica of a Turing Bombe which was used in deciphering the Enigma Code during World War II – photo by Tom Yates – Wikipedia

Turing’s work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War II united his work in mathematics and logic with state of the art technology. In effect, he was using complex machines to compute before the birth of computers. After the war he focused his attention on creating an actual computer, the Automatic Computing Engine or ACE. Turing’s insights led to, in the words of Gordon S. Cook, “the world’s first stored-program computer… a computer that had an architecture enabling it to store numbers that meant things and store other numbers that were instructions to do things. Such a computer could use the second set of numbers to perform operations on the first.”

Automatic Computing Engine (Science Society Picture Library)

Automatic Computing Engine (Science Society Picture Library)

Turing described his work on ACE as “building a brain.” He was fascinated by the subject of machine intelligence and his thoughts and insights laid the foundation for the field of Artificial Intelligence.

At the end of his career in the early 1950’s, he was using computers to study mathematical biology, specifically Morphogenesis – the biological patterns used by an organism to create its shape. He was particularly interested in the expression of Fibonacci numbers in plant structures like the florets of a Sunflower.

What breakthroughs might Turing have made had he lived beyond the age of 41? Unfortunately, he ran afoul of a British law against homosexuality and was convicted of public indecency. In the end, he committed suicide. In 2009, English Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized for Turing’s “appalling” treatment.

Scholars and scientists have been attempting to understand, interpret and carry forward Alan Turing’s legacy for almost half a century. To celebrate the centennial, the 2012 The Alan Turing Year site has created lists and links to events, publications, videos and more.

BBC News – Technology has commissioned a series of short essays on Turning and his work.

Andrew Hodges, author of Alan Turing: The Enigma, has created a large website that includes a Scrapbook.

This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Chaco Gives Back

The 5th Annual Chaco Gives Back program returns to Whole Earth Provision Company.
For every pair* of Chaco shoes and sandals sold from June 23rd through July 8th in any of the eight Whole Earth stores, Chaco will donate $5 to Friends of Enchanted Rock.
*Full price merchandise only.

Chaco Footwear, known for their ‘go everywhere, do anything sandals,’ is a very generous contributor to local causes. Since 2008, they have contributed close to $9,000 to Enchanted Rock in response to purchases made at Whole Earth stores. The Chaco Give Back funds have helped to retrofit antiquated plumbing fixtures in the Park to low-flow, water saving systems and have provided funding for visitor trail maps as well as other projects. The funds raised during this year’s Chaco Give Back program will be used to improve the trail system reclaiming areas where small game trails have turned into human ones, causing erosion.

Enchanted Rock View
Enchanted Rock is a truly magical place. The exposed pink granite batholith rises above the Hill Country reaching an elevation of 1,825 feet with a magnificent panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. The Rock is ancient, perhaps a billion years old and has been called the Heart of Texas. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area covers over 600 acres and is host to over 500 species of plants that live on the rock alone; other wildlife that call Enchanted Rock home include bats, lizards, squirrels and fox. Visitors can enjoy hiking, camping, rock climbing, bird watching and stargazing.

THE FRIENDS OF ENCHANTED ROCK (FOER) is a volunteer, non-profit organization founded in 1999. Their mission is to work in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife to promote conservation of Enchanted Rock’s natural and cultural resources through preservation, education and improvement efforts. FOER is the first and only official support group dedicated to the conservation and protection of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.

The Friends of Enchanted Rock has also received support from other Whole Earth community partners: Central Texas Mountaineers, Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, and through events like the Granite Gripper Climbing Competition.

Chaco Footwear is Fit for Adventure. Their signature adjustable nylon sandals put Chaco on the map for outdoor enthusiasts around the world. Their popularity has grown over the years and styles now include casual footwear and shoes, which can be found at all Whole Earth stores.

So if you have been thinking about purchasing a new pair of Chacos, this is the time to do it. You’ll have a great pair of shoes or sandals, and you will help keep Enchanted Rock a magical place today and for generations to come.

Volunteering with Austin Youth River Watch

Whole Earth Employee, Emily and Youth Volunteer at Austin Youth River Watch

A youth volunteer and an Austin WEPCO staff member, Emily, scan for benthic macroinvertebrates.

In the early 1990’s, a program was started in Austin that mentored high-school students in both personal accountability and environmental stewardship. Jack Goodman and Wes Halverson led this effort to create Austin Youth River Watch.

With the support from the City of Austin and LCRA, they began teaching students to collect and track water-quality data. Students not only learned how to track water pollution, but more importantly learned to develop their leadership skills and encouraged to stay in school.

Field Guide for River Catch

To see the full photo album visit photographer R. Brent Lyles’s Google + page.

Austin Youth River Watch now serves about 115 students per year from 10 different high schools in the Austin Independent School District and over the course of almost 20 years, the graduation rate for River Watch Seniors is nearly 100%.

How Whole Earth Volunteers helped:

We waded in the river to collect and study fish and other bottom-dwelling critters– benthic macroinvertebrates, to determine pollution/water toxicity levels.

Interested in learning more? Some of the samples we collected can be viewed at the Department of Environmental Conservation.

To find out about how you can help River Watch, go to their website at: You’ll see a button for joining the mailing list, which will keep you in the loop for future volunteer opportunities and events. You’ll also see a link called ‘How You Can Help.

*Thank you to Staff Member and Volunteer, Miles Starkey for the written contribution.

Stand Still in the Summer Solstice

Stonehenge 2005 by Andrew Dunn

Summer Solstice Sunrise at Stonehenge 2005 by Andrew Dunn

Today is the Summer Solstice, when the Sun ‘stands still’ and will soon begin its slow descent to the south towards the Autumn Equinox. Our ancient ancestors created physical markers in the landscape to show the location of the Summer Solstice and other celestial events they deemed worthy of remembrance. The science of Astroarchaeology studies these manmade structures, alignments and the progress of the stars and planets across the sky, all in an attempt to understand what the ancients knew and perhaps tease out what these astronomical events may have meant to them.

Stonehenge 1895

Stonehenge circa 1895

There are astroarchaeological sites around the world, but Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain in England, is the best known and most studied. At Stonehenge the astronomical markers are megalithic stones that have been arranged and rearranged over the millennia. The major axis of the site is aligned with the rising sun on the Summer Solstice and the setting sun on the Winter Solstice. There are indications that the cycles of the moon and eclipses were also tracked at the site.

Stonehenge from Nordisk Familjebok (1918)

Stonehenge at Midsummer circa 1700 BCE from Nordisk Familjebok (1918)

On the Summer Solstice a viewer standing inside the stone circle and facing the entrance would see the Sun rise over the Heel Stone. Today, the public is granted special access to the site for Summer Solstice ceremonies and celebrations. How do today’s ceremonies compare to those of the builders of Stonehenge? It seems impossible for us to truly know. But we can share with the ancients the awe-inspiring experience of watching the rising Sun lining up with the giant stones on the longest day of the year.

To learn more about Stonehenge visit English Heritage.

Take a 360 degree view inside Stonehenge’s circle of stones.

View Nova’s presentation of Secrets of Stonehenge on PBS.

Celebrating Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration from The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

Illustration from The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

In 1979, a children’s book with the intriguing title The Garden of Abdul Gasazi appeared on bookshelves across the country. Unlike its colorful shelf mates, Abdul Gasazi was illustrated with black and white charcoal drawings. And in an era of children’s books with ‘messages’ this one just stopped, and readers were left with the pleasant prospect of deciding for themselves what had really happened and what it meant. The book won a Caldecott Honor medal as one of the best children’s picture books published that year. And so began Chris Van Allsburg’s career as a creator of enigmatic, treasured and well-read children’s books.

How did he do it? What made The Garden of Abdul Gasazi and his other storybooks so successful? In a 2011 interview with Jennie MacDonald for the Developmental Studies Center, Van Allsburg revealed some of his secrets.

The black and white illustrations of Abdul Gasazi immediately set it apart from its colorful peers. Van Allsburg revealed that using black and white illustrations was not a choice:

“I studied sculpture exclusively during my years in school, I really didn’t know how to use anything else except a pencil. So I was being praised for having made a choice, when in fact, I was being praised for a limitation.”

Reviewers wrote about the book’s mystifying surrealism, and yet the world in which the story takes place looks very much like our own, no melting watches or unnatural views across a checkerboard plain. In fact, Van Allsburg depends on our everyday world to highlight and bring the fantastical elements of his stories to life:

“My approach to fantasy has always been that there’s only going to be one fantastic notion, or one supernatural feature in the story. Around that single supernatural feature, everything else has to follow the rules that we’re familiar with. So, the way I manage it is that I do try to create a recognizable world… that probably is one of the reasons that I draw in a fairly representational style, because I’m depending on the artwork to create that recognizable reality. But then inside that pictorial reality, I try to introduce this strange event, and I try to maintain a faithfulness to reality that we are accustomed to in every other way. So I give myself one wild card, but every other card that I play has to be a real one.”

Harris Burdick Cover
Van Allsburg’s stories first come to him as an image – ‘a what if?’ – and are then worked out as a – ‘what then?’ His The Mysteries of Harris Burdick lets us try out his approach for ourselves. The book contains 14 images, each rooted in the everyday: a cathedral, a wallpapered room, a Venetian canal but with a difference – the cathedral is the backdrop for a nun sitting in a levitating chair; the bird design on the wallpaper is lifting itself from the wall and about to take flight; and the Venetian canal is being crushed by the bulk of an ocean liner. Each image is accompanied by an enigmatic text.

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

From The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

In this example, the illustration claims to be from Mr. Linden’s Library and has the text:
“He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.” That’s it, the only explanation given for the spreading vine growing out of the book left open by the sleeping girl. Will the touch of the vine awaken her? Is it really too late? Who is Mr. Linden? And what kind of book is that? These are only a few of the questions inspired by the image. It’s no wonder that The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has been a favorite of teachers for over a generation. Students, who often find writing a chore, can be inspired by its illustrations to write stories of their own. In 2011, a new version of the book was published – The Chronicles of Harris Burdick in which famous authors like Stephen King, Gregory Maguire, Jules Feiffer and Louis Sachar took on the challenge of writing stories in response to Van Allsburg’s images.

Chris Van Allsburg is blessed with great artistic talent and a gift for creating stories that stay with us long after the book has been closed. By refusing to neatly tie up loose ends and by refusing to tell the reader what to think, he is “seeding our imagination by leaving a little something untold.” And in this era of full disclosure, what a gift that can be.

To learn more about Chris Van Allsburg, visit his website. See videos, play games, make bookmarks!

Read Jennie MacDonald’s two part interview with Chris Van Allsburg for the Developmental Studies Center.

This is one of an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays and accomplishments of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.

Backpacker’s Pantry Cooking Demo Saturday June 23rd at our North Lamar Store in Austin

Backpacker's Pantry Cooking Demo June 23rd, 2012 from 1pm - 3pm at our North Lamar Store, Austin TX

Celebrating John Constable

Cloud Study 1821

Cloud Study 1821

Happy Birthday John Constable, English Landscape Painter!

“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not a landscape be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?”

The sky seems bigger in Texas, and Texans keep a close eye on it. So it’s no wonder that John Constable’s cloudscapes – his studies of clouds in an English sky – speak so directly to us.

John Constable was a close observer of nature and tried to paint what he saw. You won’t find Greek gods and goddesses or other mythological beings traipsing about in his landscapes. He was a child of the countryside and loved it. His paintings of rural England depict scenes of country life with farmers, horses, cattle, wagons, stately homes and cathedrals, all living in harmony with the majesty of nature: trees, water, sky and most of all – clouds.

Cloud Study 1822

Cloud Study 1822

In 1822, Constable wrote to his father: “I have done a good deal of skying, for I am determined to conquer all difficulties.” The difficulties lay in how to paint skies that were true to nature but would not move toward the viewer, rolling over the other elements of the painted landscape. ‘Skying’ consisted of making quick sketches of the ever-changing cloudscapes with the hope that with practice, he would master the art of portraying the “fugitive phenomena of nature” (Graham Reynolds).

Cloud Study 1822

Cloud Study 1822

These studies were painted in oil on thick sheets of paper and dated along with the time of day, direction of the wind and other memoranda on their backs. For example, the back of this Cloud Study reads:

“5th September, 1822 10 o’clock, morning, looking southeast, brisk wind at west. Very bright and fresh grey clouds running fast over a yellow bed about halfway up the sky.”

John Constable and David Lucas - Tate Modern

John Constable and David Lucas - Tate Modern

Constable’s observations of clouds went beyond recording them in paint. In 1830, he published an engraving titled ‘Spring.’ Included with the engraving was his written description of the clouds and hail bearing down on the plowman.

“The natural history, if the expression may be used, of the skies, which are so particularly marked in hailstorms at this time of the year is this: – The clouds accumulate in very large masses, and from their loftiness seem to move but slowly: immediately upon these large clouds appear numerous opaque patches, which are only small clouds passing before them, and consisting of isolated portions, detached probably from the larger clouds. These, floating much nearer the earth, may perhaps fall in with a stronger current of wind, which, as well as their comparative lightness, causes them to move with greater rapidity; hence, they are called by wind-millers and sailors, messengers, and always portend bad weather. They float midway in what may be termed the lanes of the clouds; and from being so situated are almost uniformly in shadow, receiving a reflected light only from the clear blue sky immediately above them. In passing over the bright parts of the large clouds they appear as darks, but in passing the shadowed parts, they assume a grey, a pale or lurid hue.”

So when you raise your eyes to see what happening up in our Texas sky, think of the English artist John Constable who, almost 200 years ago, tried to capture the fleeting beauty of clouds on paper.

John Constable

Learn more about John Constable’s life and work.

View a slideshow of John Constable’s work.

Learn more about clouds in The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History and Culture of Clouds and The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.