Solar Home Tour

SolarTour5This weekend Solar Nova Scotia organized a tour of two passive solar homes in St Margaret’s Bay built by visionary designer, Don Roscoe. Though the weather was wet and miserable, about 20 members turned out to hear from Don and the gracious home-owners. The homes are stunningly beautiful and so warm we were all peeling sweaters. What the two houses had in common were two-storey cathedral windows on the south side, berms on the north side, a mezzanine level overlooking the open-concept design, and hidden air circulation systems. Both houses nestle naturally in with surrounding landscape.





The film health analogy

Shanghai Calling

Crew at work on the film Shanghai Calling.

Here’s a thought experiment: could we compare the way we look after our health with the way that films are made? A film-making team has to be decisive, yet flexible. There is usually a strong core leader who co-ordinates the talents of more specialized technicians. These talents include writers, actors, set designers, sound recordists, musicians and, of course, camera operators.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider the camera department. There’s a DOP, the director of photography, who co-ordinates three divisions: 1) camera operators and assistants, who are responsible for the care and preparation of the camera and lenses, as well as the logging of any footage that is recorded; 2) gaffers and electricians, who are responsible for lighting any given scene and providing electricity for those lights; 3) grip team, who are responsible for mounting the camera on dollies and other devices, when a moving shot is required. The DOP works with the director to achieve a desired look for the film. The film needs to be stylish, but also shot in an efficient and timely manner. Artistic and practical concerns need to be balanced. It is essential that there be a managing intelligence that co-ordinates related tasks.

Are there similar divisions to health? For the sake of argument, here’s my list: 1) exercise; 2) diet; 3) check-up, testing and body repair.  Other areas that might also be mentioned include having a positive attitude, cultivating good relationships with other people, and living in a clean and safe environment. To keep it simple, I’ll focus on the first three: diet, exercise and body repair. Are there knowledgable guides who can assist us in each of these areas? Yes, there are. For exercise, we might employ an fitness coach, a yoga instructor, or take classes at a gym. Or we might join with friends to form hockey leagues, bike clubs, and engage in swimming sessions of our own. Friends and specialists help motivate us and raise our level of activity and fitness. For diet, we might go a naturopath, or take cooking classes, or exchange information on healthy food with gardening friends or with venders at a market. For body-repair, we see a doctor or go to a clinic for tests and x-rays.

The question that follows, using my film analogy, is: who is the DOP of our health? Who is the guiding  intelligence co-ordinating and directing the related needs of exercise, diet and body repair? The answer is ourselves. We are responsible for our own health and the health of our children. When I say this, I believe we still need coaches, we still need friends and motivators. We need to seek advice and educate ourselves with the best information available.

We tend to think of health, if we think of it at all, as having to do with doctors and hospitals. But these hardly cover the full spectrum of health. The spectrum they cover has to do with breakdown, an area none of us want. What we really want and need is optimal health and for this, we have to look for counsel and support outside of the medical field.

In conclusion: think of health as a film project and assemble a team to help you cover all the angles. What results is a film worth watching, a body that thrives on its own well being.

Sugar Snap Salad

sugar snap peas
buttercrunch or leaf lettuce
green onion
bacon bits

Throw in a little of everything you’ve got to this summery all-green salad. Wash, dry and tear the greens. Sluice in the onion, cucumbers and avocado. We like to leave the sugar snap peas whole. Others prefer to chop them diagonally. Add bacon bits for extra flavour, if available.

Use a dressing of your choice or, for an Asian flavor, use a little roasted sesame oil with rice vinegar.


Wellness Wall

Artist Miro Davis at the opening of her wellness wall at the Dixon Centre in Halifax

Artist Miro Davis at the opening of her “Wellness Wall” in the Dixon Building of the QE II Health Science Centre in Halifax

Imagine a volcanic landscape of giant barnacles bursting through the drab surface of a hospital wall. Imagine these barnacles fired inside by a magic blue light. Such is the vision of Halifax-based multi-media artist Miro Davis. Last night her glowing art installation, “Barnacle Tides Wellness Wall,” was unveiled for the public. The artist, originally from Vancouver, came to Halifax in 1995 to study at NSCAD. She’s been here ever since, serving as artist-in-residence at the Dalhousie Medical School in 2012. Davis is inspired by motifs from nature and works with a variety of materials to transform public spaces, often involving people who are connected with the space in the creation of the artwork. In the present case,  Davis worked with cancer patients and their families to create designs that were transferred to coloured glass, before being embedded in a fantastically contoured wall, shaped from clay. The glass and clay installation is lit from behind with a brilliant blue light to create a stunning effect, turning a small hospital waiting area into a expansive space with a sense of openness and possibilty. The project was funded jointly by the Robert Pope Foundation and the QE II Foundation.

At the opening, patients involved in the project spoke about how much the experience of working with Davis meant to them. Some of the patients involved have since died and their relatives described the wall as a lasting legacy. Folk singer Lenny Gallant composed a song for the occasion called “If these walls could talk.” This one surely can.

Thích Nhất Hạnh: Diet & Social Transformation


The power of two: Thich Nhat Hanh meets Oprah

Vietnamese peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh took religion out of the monastery and onto the street with his notion of “engaged Buddhism.” His insight into the way that individuals participate in social change was formulated during the Vietnam War and endorsed by Dr. Martin Luther King, who nominated Thích Nhất Hạnh for a Noble Prize in 1967. The Buddhist teacher has influenced celebrities, lay people and clerics from different faiths. It is inspiring to hear Thích Nhất Hạnh’s views on diet, protecting oneself from harmful influences.

Mindful Consuming
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in the body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self transformation and for the transformation of society.
Thich Nhat Hanh

Thierry Vrain: Food Science Whistle-blower

Thierry Vrain2It’s funny how ideas spread. Ideas can be suppressed for a time, distorted and disputed, but some ideas have such resilience and vitality that they do not go away. They simmer under the surface of popular culture and mainstream media, then suddenly explode onto public consciousness.

Such an idea is that of Thierry Vrain’s lecture on Food, Ecology and Health. Vrain is a retired Canadian government food scientist, (formerly Head of Biotechnology at Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station), currently a whistle-blower and organic gardener living on Vancouver Island.  In a lecture from November, 2013, he recalls how, in the course of his research, he came across a document arguing that synthetic fertilizers are damaging the soil, damaging the life of the soil. His first reaction was: “I didn’t know that. I didn’t learn that in graduate school.” He intensified his research. “Because if you tell me that organic is better for you, or organic is more nutritious, I say, show me the data.”

What he found was the data was convincing and impossible to ignore. “That’s when I converted. And I think it’s because I became organic that I was prepared to read more widely. Over the last 5 to 7 years I’ve read a lot of studies, published scientific studies, that cite serious problems with this technology. When I was in the field, the paradigm was this is great technology, we are god, we can do wonderful things, we are going to do absolutely beautiful wonderful things for agriculture. I was told this was a green technology and I did not argue or question that like a lot of my colleagues. It was understood that this was the paradigm of the time, the dogma. Now I have basically changed my position. Tonight what I’m going to present to you is disturbing. Some of you may know of it already, some of you may be surprised, some of you may be shocked and some of you will be angry.” Vrain’s full lecture outlines the history of the GMO revolution, starting in 1996, and its disastrous effects on the environment and human health.

Thierry Vrain’s talk is important on many levels. He raises issues about food safety, agricultural practice, and the corruption of science by corporations. Most importantly, his talk promotes an enlarged understanding of health based on the view of the human body as an ecosystem regulated by micro-organisms and our symbiotic relationship to them.

Thanks to Nigel Thornley for introducing us to the ideas and efforts of Thierry Vrain.

Food Rules

FRDiningTable2Our world must be truly mad that we need a book like this, and yet we do. Though I just stumbled across it the other day, Food Rules by Michael Pollan, illustrated by Maira Kalman, is four years old, published in 2011.  It’s lost none of its bite or relevancy. Pollan is the journalist author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a pioneering look at what we eat and where it comes from, and Maira Kalman is a New Yorker illustrator who has invented her own humorous style of thinking out loud with pictures. Together they bring warmth and humanity back to the food table with a handful of simple rules.

The book asks how food ever got so complicated, so misleading, so contentious? It finds common ground not in pseudo-scientific jargon but in family wisdom and challenging quips. Here are a few samples: Rule 6: “Avoid food products with more than five ingredients.” Rule 13: “Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.” Rule 16: “Go food shopping every week.” Rule 22: “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.” Rule 25: “Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.” Rule 28: “Eat your colours.” Rule 45: “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” Rule 53: “Pay more, eat less.” Rule 65: “Give some thought to where food comes from.” Rule 75: “No labels on the table.”

While I’m reading this delightful little book, my wife returns home from a “Food Nutrition Education Party,” organized by a friend of a friend. It used to be tupperware parties, than stretch-wear parties, now it’s food education parties. Those attending the event were grappling with feeding their families in the midst of launching careers, tight budgets, busy schedules, and baffling conflicts of information.


I’m reminded of how I come home from meetings at the Ecology Action Centre, frustrated that no one in the room can agree on anything to do with food. Kathleen answers: you know about the latest theories of change, don’t you? You’ve heard of chaos theory? Two people adjust their diets and this has an unexpected effect somewhere else–an organic farmer is able to expand his business, say. A hundred thousand small changes each trigger further changes. None of this can be plotted or predicted. But the cumulative effect is powerful and creates a entirely new way of thinking and doing things.

Pollan and Kalman are among the friendly but chaotic non-plotting agents of change. I sense something changing the minute Pollan asks: “What is going on deep inside the soul of a carrot that makes it so good for us?” Or again when he notes how “seventeen thousand new products show up in the supermarket each year, all vying for your food dollar. But most of these items don’t deserve to be called food–I prefer to call them edible foodlike substances. They’re highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and they contain chemical additives with which the human body has not been long acquainted. Today much of the challenge of eating well comes down to choosing real food and avoiding these industrial novelties.” The book advises the reader to avoid  traps set by clever marketers and to rely on simple undisguised whole foods. More than this, to follow a sensible and disciplined approach toward food to enhance quality of life through better health. In the process, a new invigorated  food culture emerges.

FoodRules2Maira Kalman’s illustrations are worth noting. Colourful, painterly, charming, full of wit and attention to detail by an artist who is curious about other people. I especially like the picture of the Eat More Grocery Store with isles labled “despair,” “anxiety,” “sadness” and “anger.” If you like this artist, you might enjoy the personal and idiosyncratic flow of Kalman’s TED talk.

Miso Soup Recipe

MisoSoup6As winter storms pile up, I reach for my recipes books and fresh ingredients. It’s always a challenge this time of year to find creative uses for seasonal vegetables. For the recipe today, I use as many local veggies as I can, with an added dash of Japanese fish powder, seaweed and organic miso. My husband and I make this tasty soup once or twice a week for breakfast.

Ingredients for a serving for two:
1/2 teaspoon Dashi (Bonito-flavoured fish powder)
2 cups water
1/4 cup chopped onion
1 stick of Wakame (dried Japanese seaweed)
1 chopped carrot or 1/4 small squash
1/4 chopped celeriac or fennel
1 tablespoon organic miso

Add 1/2 teaspoon of Dashi to 2 cups of water. Bring to a low boil. Break the dried Wakame stick into small pieces and soak in a small bowl of water. In a few minutes the pieces will expand in size and take on a soft leaf-like shape. Let them continue to soak while you add the rest of the ingredients, 1 chopped carrot, a handful of celeriac (or fennel) chopped into small cube shaped pieces,  to the boiling pot. Add 1/4 cup of chopped onions and 1/3 the length of a leek, as thinly sluiced rings. For variety and a slightly sweeter taste, we sometimes substitute squash in place of the carrot. Gently boil all ingredients in water for 10 minutes. Add the wakame to the soup and remove from heat. Skim off a little of the steaming water into a bowl. Measure 1 generous tablespoon of organic miso and stir it into the bowl of heated water until it becomes a rich colourful paste. Add this dissolved miso to the soup and you are ready to serve.


Baby-steps for NS Carbon Tax

CarbonTax CrowdImagine Nova Scotia having a chance to be a world leader in global warming policy while taking a bite out of poverty! The notion came out on the table, sometimes as calm points gestured, other times as fists flying, when citizens commented, cooperated or clashed at the January 21st public meeting for tax reform. In a large convention style room at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, filled to overflowing, citizens of all ages, backgrounds and lobbyist persuasions, convened  to debate carbon pricing and to listen to finance minister, the Honourable Diana Whalen outline the government’s current status concerning the recent release of the Broten Report on the need for Nova Scotia tax reform.


The introduction to the Broten Report states: “The essence of the tax recommendations would shift more of the burden of taxation toward consumption, and off personal and corporate income; and would tax pollution with the resulting revenue further reducing income taxes and offering income support to Nova Scotians who need it most. The basic rationale for pollution taxation is clear. Pollution imposes costs on society that are not currently borne by the polluter. A tax ensures that the polluter accounts for these costs and, on this basis, reduces pollution…”

The evening was largely an informal meet and greet between policy makers from the finance, environment and various other departments and the public, made up of representatives from such groups as the Ecology Action Centre, Citizens’ Climate Lobby Halifax, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Affordable Energy Coalition, and Mount Saint Vincent Social Science Faculties. Individual citizens representing small business and private household concerns and four MLAs were also present.

nschequeSix citizens from a local chapter of the non-profit international Citizens’ Climate Lobby put their ‘prop cheques’ payable to “Residents of Nova Scotia” and a colourful infographic cartoon strip showing the advantage of a carbon fee and dividend  by the plate of chocolate chip cookies the government provided to the citizens. Citizens depleted both supplies by night’s end. This progressive approach to putting a price on pollution is proving to be sweeter than most as it is, in my opinion, the simplest, least expensive and fairest design, eliminating the need for an expensive bureaucracy; sparing the middle class and protecting lower income households by providing quarterly rebate cheques.

THE CARBON FEE AND DIVIDEND PROPOSAL has been  presented to both the finance and community service departments in recent weeks by Citizens’ Climate Lobby Halifax volunteers enthusiastically pitching to government personnel, including Minister Whalen and community services policy director, Brenda Murray. This plan differs from the B.C. Carbon Tax as it offers more protection to the low income households. Dalhousie University economist, Dr. Lars Osberg in his paper, “The Carbon Tax and Dividend – A Proposal for Sustainability and Fairness” states:

“The whole point of a carbon tax is to increase the incentives, which individuals and firms have to economize on carbon energy use. Starting the tax at a low level, with pre-announced steady increases over time, gives individuals the time to switch, for example, to a car with better fuel mileage or to change their furnace or to insulate more effectively. Because the CTD offsets the average impact of a carbon tax, most families will be better off financially, but whatever the initial impact on family finances, all Nova Scotians will benefit from reducing carbon energy use.”

For more info, see the full story as posted by the Halifax Media Co-op.

Will This Doctor Change Diets & Reform Medicine?

Dr. Davis signs books at his recent talk in Halifax

Dr. William Davis signs his book during his recent talk in Halifax. Photo by Kathleen Rosborough

His plan is ambitious and controversial. Dr. William Davis, American cardiologist and author of Wheat Belly, is touring Canada and the United States, urging people to rethink the way they eat and safeguard their health. Last night he spoke in Halifax from Spatz Auditorium in Citadel High School to a receptive audience of 200 people, most of them thin and well-informed on food matters. Dr. Davis’s lecture summarized key ideas from his best selling book Wheat Belly, starting with the notion of self-empowerment–looking after yourself through good nutrition and sensible food habits instead of relying on drugs and medical interventions. The lecture argues that the consumption of wheat and related wheat products has led to a national health crisis and distorted our outlook on medicine. Dr. Davis also spoke of his health institute and latest collaborations with young filmmakers.

For me, the most interesting part of the evening was the question and answer session, moderated by Nancy Reagan. Responding to a variety of questions, Dr. Davis displayed quickness of mind, as well as a kind, patient manner and deep concern for others.

“No one would be in this room right now,” Dr. Davis stressed, “if all you wanted was better health. Everyone here wants ideal health. You all want to feel the best that you can possibly feel.”

Dr. Davis makes a distinction between two kinds of medicine, the traditional medicine that treats infections and broken bones, and modern medicine which treats chronic diseases brought about by poor nutrition and environmental factors. Dr. Davis believes that treatments for chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease should start with nutrition and not with drugs and medical interventions. The health system needs to be reformed, along with a substantial effort to re-educate the general public.

Dr. Davis was asked about sugar. Isn’t it as bad or worse than wheat in its effect on people’s health? Dr. Davis’s answer surprised many in the audience. “The gliadin in wheat,” he said, “is a powerful addictive substance. Gliadin induces cravings for sweet, makes us feel always hungry, dulls our taste senses and brings on brain fog and depression. Cut out the gliadin and you will no longer crave sweet. You will no longer feel like you need to eat a Snicker’s bar, and if you do eat a Snicker’s bar, you’ll find it tastes too sweet, sickeningly sweet, because your taste buds will no longer be impaired.”

“The other thing about sugar, if you eat candy or jelly beans, no one pretends that it’s good for you. But with wheat, it’s the base of the food pyramid. Food Canada, the FDA, and the Diabetes Association promote wheat as something that’s healthy and beneficial.” Dr. Davis suggested a simple test anyone can try at home using a blood testing kit sold at any drugstore. “For this test, take a blood sugar reading two hours before you eat. Most people will get a reading of around 5. Then eat two sluices of bread, wait an hour, and take another reading. For most people, their blood sugar will spike up to 9 or 10. This is a dangerous diabetic level!  Yet the Diabetes Association endorses bread as a healthy form of nutrition. It’s not. So to answer your question: cut out wheat and your sugar problem will disappear.”

Dr. Davis was flooded with questions along these lines: “Sure, I can cut out bread, but what about oats, what about quinoa, what about rice, what about beer?” It seems, there’s always one food item that’s hardest to let go of. Dr. Davis’s answer never wavers: “Rice isn’t as bad as wheat, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. All ‘seeds of grasses’ are genetically similar; all share dangerous elements that over time will impair your health and lead to chronic disease.”

Dr. Davis was asked, “If people around the world all removed grain and rice products from their diets, then wouldn’t people starve? What are the implications for combating the world’s most pressing hunger issues?” Dr. Davis acknowledged that this is indeed a difficult question. “If your view is too short-term, then the question cannot be properly answered. You have to appreciate the magnitude of the problem. The introduction of grains into the human diet (over the last 10,000 years) was a terrible mistake. The mistake has escalated in the last 50 years with the development of mutated grains. A mistake like this is not solved by Tuesday, it’s not corrected in a week or a year’s time. It may well take 100 to 200 years to fix this problem.”

As background for this blog, I read many reviews and Internet articles on Dr. Davis and was amazed at the invective and defensive arguments advanced by those who feel threatened by his message. My own view is this: if you’re healthy and happy, you may not need to change your diet, but if you’re not as healthy as you’d like to be, or if you suffer from a chronic condition that the medical community are unable to cure, then what have you got to lose? My wife and I have given up bread for three months now and the health benefits have been substantial, well worth our effort to make the change. To get a sense of Dr. Davis’s message, I recommend the following videos. In the first 10 minute clip, Dr. Davis speaks with Julie Daniluk about his own personal journey to health, problems and misconceptions he had to overcome, and the lessons he’s learned from treating patients in his own practice. In the second 60 minute clip, Dr. Davis delivers his full lecture on the dangers of wheat in people’s diets.

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