Note to new readers: Apparently some of you found me when Everything at Once showed up Wordpress’s Freshly Pressed page. I didn’t even realize that was a thing when I built this little portfolio site. But I’m glad you found me! I don’t update here like a proper blog, but here are a few more pieces you might enjoy:

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Everything at Once

Notes to my son.

Originally published in River Teeth, Spring 2015. (Subscribe here; River Teeth is great, and it’s named after an excellent David James Duncan essay.)

Puget Sound from San Juan Island


We returned from the hospital, our family, and immediately I shrugged the bags off my shoulder and set to work unpacking dirty clothes. I’ve always had this compulsion to unpack right away, always in a hurry to restore order. Then I turned to watch your mother. Unshowered, still exhausted from labor, she lifted you from the car seat into her arms. “This is our couch,” she whispered, walking softly. “This is our kitchen.”

You won’t comprehend any of this for months, you shriveled, squinting creature. You haven’t even learned to hold your eyes open. Yet Hannah paced the house, letting the familiar squeaks in the floor comfort herself, if not you. I stopped to watch–the laundry could wait. She showed you the nursery, the crib, the artwork still leaning against the wall where we meant to hang it. I have known her as lover, friend, traveling companion, comforter. As she opened the back door to introduce the garden, I saw her anew. I didn’t need another way to love her, but there it was.


Four in the morning and you’re wide-awake. In your two weeks of life these are the widest and brightest I have seen your eyes, gray-brown and less cloudy by the day. Your large pupils dart up, down, left, right, for a moment maybe locking into mine, perhaps a flash of recognition. But no, you stare with the same intensity at a blank spot on the ceiling.

You are swaddled in my lap, jostled by the bounce of an exercise ball, unfazed by the steady womblike motion. Go to sleep, my darling boy. You scrunch your brow into a pink ridge of concentration, like you’re thinking hard at some riddle I can’t fathom. You suck hungrily at my thumb. Swaddling, bouncing, sucking–the books say these things should calm you. So much for that. You’re wired and show no sign of slowing. I’m exhausted. I’m also content to cradle and bounce you forever.


I want to be in two places. The first is right where I am, sprawled in the backyard with my beloved and you, our drowsy child. We are lounging away the afternoon in the shade of a Japanese maple. You lay swaddled, your wispy brown hair catching flashes of sunlight between the leaves, your eyelids surrendering to the call of a nap. We’re fortunate to have this space behind our small rental home, enough room to spread a blanket between the maple and the wisteria vines. We’re even luckier to have this time of family leave from our jobs, a few holy weeks to focus on caring for you and little else.

Except I also want to be at my desk, tapping out a story I’ve wrestled with for years without knowing how to say it plain. Just lately I’ve begun to see how it coheres, and I’m impatient to get it down while I have this rare time to sit and write.

Everyone says to savor this time. Everyone says it flies by fast. Including my wise partner, who dangles a bookmark above you now that you’ve awakened, helping you learn to focus your wavering eyes. I am torn as usual. I jot in a notebook beside you, one eye on my family in the yard, one eye attending to memory and imagination. I’m trying to live in both the moment and the mystery, the body and the mind.


I have heard people ask your mother a question several times lately, always with the same phrasing: “Do you like being a mommy?”

For a moment she struggles for an answer, then eventually says, “I like being Sam’s mom.”

There are wiser voices than mine that can speak to the tangled web of gender, self, career, vocation, and motherhood. Yet I can’t help but say that I enjoy hearing Hannah’s answer. I like that she speaks not of abstractions but of you, the particular grunting person who has entered our home.

Your mother cares deeply about her job. She cares deeply about her craft of writing poetry. She would not call it a calling, but I will. Last night we went to a poetry “concert”–Hannah and three friends reading their work, interspersed with music from our friend’s band. She read funny, inventive poems inspired by video games. The band responded with trippy-loopy improvisations.

You searched the studio for smiling faces, then wailed when the drums startled you. I took you out to the sidewalk and missed much of the show. We paced the block to calm down, then I changed you on top of a newspaper box.

I’m kidding myself if I think this is anything like a mother’s sacrifice. Missing readings and dirty diapers are annoyances–they’re not the sacrifices of pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding. And yet I’m glad to lose something. I’m glad to encounter limits to the incredible bewildering freedom of being a white American male. When all you’ve known is personal freedom, there is a strange liberty in devoting yourself to something beyond yourself.


Sam, I can’t sing. For years I tried to hide this deficiency. Then, in the starlit night of a summer camp forest, I learned to do my best and let my off-key notes drown in the swell of my fellow counselors. Now that our family worships with Mennonites, lifelong a cappella maestros, I’m even more lost. I cast about for the melody while basses, tenors, altos, and sopranos whirl around me.

But you don’t know any of this as I bounce you to sleep on the exercise ball in your room, singing to you. You watch with wide brown eyes and giggle when you’re supposed to be dozing off. I call up all the camp songs I can remember, trying to calm you with barges slipping through the night, the jolly swagman waltzing, Froggie gone a-courtin’.

This afternoon, resisting a nap, you cooed along with me, baaing your agreeable monotone over and over, joining me in making a joyful noise unto the Lord. Your mother heard our discordant racket from the other room and laughed.

“I finally found someone who can harmonize with me,” I said.

Child, in our Auto-Tune celebrity culture, you’ll be told to leave singing to professionals. Ignore this nonsense, even if you inherit my lack of ability. It is right and good to sing out loud. Sing stadium songs, hiking songs, drinking songs, lullabies, hymns–you may need all of them. Sing in praise, wonder, courtship, grief, fury, confusion, gratitude. You will feel all of these things, and music will help you find your bearing. Keep your voice alive.


Child, you wear us down. You were up all night demanding food, wailing from the depths of your round belly. Your round face and chipmunk cheeks flushed red with anger. We took turns crawling out of the warm bed, staggering down the hall to lift you and offer a bottle. Twenty minutes later you woke again in need of a burp. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I would like to say the frustration fades away when I see your soft pink face. I would like to say it all feels worthwhile. But the fact is we are dog-tired. Love is no substitute for sleep.

In the morning, after fifteen minutes of your loud grunting, I shuffle into your room and peer into your crib. Your whole body leaps in excitement, such as it can. You fling your arms and kick your tiny legs in spastic celebration, you thrust your well-fed belly, you smile. You greet me with a gladness that surpasses my weary comprehension. I don’t know where you get it. I don’t know why I receive it. I only try to imitate, learning from you.


You spent the night red-faced and raging. Despite our weariness, or perhaps because of it, we have dragged ourselves to church this drizzly Advent morning. We are hoping to be reminded we are not alone, but we miss half the service for a feeding and diaper change. As we return to the sanctuary, the congregation gathers up front, passing around musical scores. You are your usual restless self, squirming for a view of the entire room. I’m told often that you have my eyes. I notice it mainly when you act like this–alert, tense, hungry to see and know everything at once, willing it all to reveal itself to your dark wide-eyed gaze. You crane your neck toward the crowd.

Then the singing begins. It washes over us like heat from an oven. Your head grows still, your body relaxes. You search the mass of bodies for the source of this sound.

It rises from every mouth. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all flesh shall see it together.

The music calls me to attention as I hold your solid weight. The word flesh takes on new meaning this year, as your mother and I learn to anticipate your every need, to clean every square inch of you and watch you grow into your own body. As we listen I imagine ancient crowds gathering to hear Handel’s Messiah, men and women in heavy coats inside vaulting cathedrals, infants like you wrapped in blankets, both confused and calmed by this strange harmony. You cannot grasp the meaning of these words. I think you already grasp the meaning of the music, grace taken flight, falling on us like sunlight on a rainy morning.


Each day we leave home in the dark and return in the dark, spending too much of our lives at our jobs, away from you. In the morning I carry you down icy steps and try to strap you in the car seat without pinching or bruising you. In the late afternoon, when the northern sun is long vanished, we make our tedious journey home through traffic. When you become uncomfortable or hungry or bored in the back seat, you scream. Child, I love you with every cell in my swelling heart. But there is not much worse than sitting in rush-hour traffic listening to you cry.

At home, I unclip you from the portable cage of your car seat and set you on our bed. You sink into the down comforter and watch me change out of my work clothes. What’s more, you sit up. You slump back, propped against pillows, but still, you’re sitting, a feat you couldn’t do four weeks ago. Since I have your attention, I waggle my tongue, roar like a bear, duck below the bed for peekaboo–anything to make you smile. You laugh like a toothless drunk, your eyes closing slightly, your head lolling back. You have the thin wispy hair of an absent-minded professor–you came into this world with a full pate, but your head has expanded and your hair has not kept up.

Soon your mother arrives and we continue our play, diving onto the bed to nuzzle and tickle you, blowing raspberries. We shake the cobwebs of the commute from our heads and ease into the evening.


It happened for no reason. It happened because we were both underslept and worried about your struggles to nap. It happened because, despite the bright leaping joy I’ve known this year, there is still a small, mean part of me that wants to hurt when I don’t get my way.

Whatever the reason, I grew angry with your mother for a simple miscommunication. I narrowed my eyes, hardened my voice, and hurled jagged little knives, unwilling to unclench that cold fist inside.

You grew quiet sitting on the floor, pawing at your toys, tasting and investigating them as you do. I didn’t notice your awful, damning silence until later. You didn’t cry, didn’t look upset, didn’t even look directly at us much, but I realized later you were taking it all in, your two protector-providers casting hurtful words at each other.

Oh, son, I’m so sorry. You will be safe. I won’t let this rage stake its claim on me. Won’t let it dig its rutted tracks into my heart. There are some grooves already, I’ve been down this path before, but I don’t want to become an anger-choked man. I am learning to breathe deeper, to let go, to try to be a bigger man. For my sake, for Hannah’s, for yours.


We are on a six-hour flight, trying to entertain you with one five-minute activity after another. Nothing holds your attention. You don’t want to sit in our laps, let alone sleep. You want to squirm and roar your way out of this wretched stuffy tube. You claw at my neck, leaving red scratches, then lunge into the seat-back compartment, tearing the magazine cover, reaching deeper into the pocket toward who knows what filth.

How long can this go on? How can I teach you to probe the mysteries of existence–but not the wadded tissue you found beneath our seat? I’ve turned off the seat-back TV, and now I switch it back on, receiving only the free channel of ads. Luxury beach resorts, immaculate corporate conference centers, steak dinners on white tablecloths. These hold no interest to you. Then comes a commercial for a cosmetic dental center in Texas. On the left, a man’s awkward smile flashing yellow teeth. On the right, the same man post-dentistry, teeth glowing freakishly white. Your eyes seize on the screen. Your raging squirming body relaxes. Tropical beaches and tidy banquet tables mean nothing to you. But a human face, even a grotesque radioactive smile, holds your attention. A face is a real thing to you. Maybe you see a potential source of nurture, or sustenance, or play. Maybe you see simply a person–and already you know that sentient breathing creatures are what matter in life. For a blessed moment you are still.


You have learned to wave! You fix your face in concentration and jerk your arm back and forth: Hello! Yes! Hello! Great job! We praise and wave back, and your face alights, your tiny mouth hanging open with gladness.

You haven’t mastered the finer points of the gesture. Your hand faces the wrong direction, palm inward. Sometimes you wave at daycare friends as we leave for the day, and sometimes you wave at the fridge. Sometimes you wave at your mother while you sit in her lap, inches away. We smile and wave back anyway. What delights me is your desire to connect.

You have possibly learned to kiss too. At times when I’m holding you to sing before bed, you open your wet mouth and lean toward my face. Your red tongue approaches, glistening. This being a period of teething, your wet runny nose approaches me too. You laugh your waterfall laugh, knowing you’re doing something affectionate and playful. That makes me laugh. We feed off each other, and lullaby time is delayed, and I don’t mind so much that your kisses are mostly snot.


Carrots scrape against a grater. Rice skitters into a pot. The stove clicks and whooshes as a burner catches flame. I never noticed the diverse sounds of the kitchen until you began noticing them.

Now every time I cook or clear dishes, you turn to watch. Tonight you are in your high chair, your mother feeding you beans and yogurt. You scoop them into your hair, which has grown thick again, the better to store your dinner. You kick your legs happily until I run the coffee grinder, which startles you every time. I look over to see you motionless and wide-eyed.

You watch longingly as I load the dishwasher, a shiny silver cave you have tried to climb into so many times. The clatter of each dish distracts you from your meal. After you finish, your mother carries you over to the stove. I lift the lid from the rice pot so you can smell the steam billowing out.

I return the lid and see that you are watching me more closely than the pot. My every move seems to confuse and interest you. This attention you lavish on me makes my heart swell. It also frightens me, because I know I’ll let you down sometimes. I know you’ll be watching when I stumble. Mostly, though, I marvel at how you help me see with new eyes and listen with new ears. We all three of us pause to listen as the dishwasher whirs to life.


We’re at a concert at a city park, riding high on a swell of boisterous old-time mountain music. Fiddles shriek, guitars clamor, and the singer’s voice soars like a bird on the wind. You wave your chubby arms, bouncing off the beat, not even looking at the stage. It’s an hour past your bedtime. You crawl around our picnic blanket and watch the people spread out around us. You return to me and pull yourself up on my leg–your newest skill. You’re too excited to focus on any one thing for long. You make a slow four-legged dash for someone else’s dinner. I scoop you up, curl an arm around your belly, and kiss below your chin where I know it’ll make you laugh. You’re a year old, and it seems every time I’ve figured out something about you, you’re on to a new stage, waving hello to the fridge, a new person yet still the same.

Soon it’s two hours past your bedtime. You’re still bouncing and flapping your arms and grunting along with the music. You’re confused and loopy but happy. The sun dips behind giant Douglas firs, bringing welcome midsummer shade. The band segues from one of its own songs into an anthem that feels as old as the trees.

This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island.

Your mother stands to dance. I lift you toward her arms.

From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.

I watch you relax in your mother’s embrace, your body growing still as she sways and sings to you. For the slightest moment, everything that matters converges–the music, the land, your energy, your peace, our love. All of it a gift, for which I can only sing in gratitude to the nameless source.

I stand to dance with you. You rest your weary head on your mother. We may pay for the recklessness of tonight when you’re overtired tomorrow. We will miss plenty of concerts and nights out because of the responsibilities you bring. That doesn’t matter right now. Tonight we’re at the show. The music goes on forever.

In the lab: VitroBricks

VitroBricksOriginally published in the July/August 2011 issue of Sustainable Industries magazine.

We may need to ditch that expression about throwing stones at glass 

Two engineering graduate students at the University of Washington have found a way to make bricks out of recycled glass that they say are stronger, lighter and better insulators than conventional building blocks. Renuka Prabhakar and Grant Marchelli claim their “VitroBricks” require 80 percent less energy to produce because they’re fired at a much lower temperature for a shorter time. Most promising of all, according to the engineers, their invention can put to work the millions of tons of discarded glass that end up in landfills each year.

Sound a bit too good to be true? It’s still an early-stage technology, and Prabhakar and Marchelli need to prove they manufacture consistently and cheaply enough to break into the masonry industry.

But the students’ startup, EnVitrum (Latin for “out of glass”), has already drawn interest from UW research funders, brick makers and architects like Perkins+Will. Waste Management says it’ll pay them to take mixed-color waste glass off its hands.

Prabhakar and Marchelli say they were inspired by the surprisingly low level of glass recycling: Only 26 percent of the glass waste stream is actually reused, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. And bottle makers can use only 10 percent to 35 percent recycled material. Any impurity, including mixed colors, can render their products useless.

The grad students first tried using finely crushed glass for 3D printing – essentially stacking thin layers of glass– but found that the results resembled a Jell-O salad more than a brick.

Then they experimented in with sintering, a technique for fusing powderized materials. Prabhakar and Marchelli mixed in a binding agent they developed (they will say only that it’s not toxic or petroleum-based) and created a process for heating the bricks at multiple temperatures.

“It’s not as simple as making a brick and putting it in the oven,” says Prabhakar.

The resulting product, though, has the heft and gritty texture of a clay brick.

A glass brick can be designed to be highly porous, drawing water through capillary action. In hot climates, running water through a wall would produce evaporation, cooling a building. The glass bricks’ unique porosity may also be useful for so-called living walls. The two engineers have developed prototypes with special cavities for plants, since many living walls so far have relied on felt or plastic containers with limited durability.

Gregg Borchelt, president of the Brick Industry Association, says plenty of would-be inventors try alternative materials for brick before running into, well, a brick wall when it comes to cost or durability. He says cheap waste glass and lower energy costs for firing could be advantages for Prabhakar and Marchelli – if they can prove their products are reliable and they can obtain a lot of glass.

“A typical plant will turn out 40 million bricks per year, so that’s a pretty big pile of material,” notes Borchelt.

The next hurdles for Prabhakar and Marchelli are proving their bricks can meet international standards for building materials and gaining independent verification of their manufacturing process.

They hope to license the technology rather than go into the brick-making business themselves. “We don’t really want to be masonry manufacturers,” says Prabhakar. “We’re both engineers and that’s what we love to do. We want to develop and scale and be problem-solvers.”

Green Schools Building Boom

Originally published in the March/April 2011 issue of Sustainable Industries magazine.

When students rush into the new Finn Hill Junior High in Kirkland, Wash., on the first day of school this fall, they will be greeted by the “Finn Hill Family,” a collection of glass figurines designed by a local artist. LEDs inside each sculpture will be wired to controls that measure the electricity, heat and water use of a particular classroom cluster. The more energy and water students conserve, the brighter their figurines will shine.

As they compete to be the best and brightest, the students gain a visual symbol for the energy literacy the school wants to teach. And the Lake Washington School District enlists several hundred allies in managing the energy costs of its 120,000-­square-­foot building.

This spring, builders are installing a ventilation system that recaptures waste heat as well as tightly sealed walls of insulated panels and a rooftop photovoltaic array. Architects at the Seattle firm Mahlum  designed the project to be 65 percent more energy efficient than typical schools in the area, making the case to taxpayers that investments made now will save in operating costs over the building’s 40-­to-50-­year lifetime. “It’s a great approach,” says Principal Victor Scarpelli, who has become a green-­building enthusiast as construction has proceeded. “If we can spend money today and save in the future, we can invest in teachers and resources and giving our children the best education possible.”

Finn Hill Junior High sits at the vanguard of a green schools building boom driven by federal stimulus spending, local school bonds and education leaders looking to slash energy costs. As the recession-­racked construction industry continues to suffer the burst of the housing bubble, green school projects offer a bright spot for builders and designers. Data research company McGraw­Hill Construction estimates that such projects totaled $16 billion last year – up from $9 billion in 2008. That’s more than a third of all school construction activity.

“This opportunity is big in California, and it’s virtually untapped in the rest of the U.S.,” says Bill Kelly, California managing director for SunPower, the Silicon Valley photovoltaic module maker and developer. He estimates that schools in the Golden State alone have the potential to host more than a gigawatt of solar power. “School facilities are some of the biggest public facilities in any state or city.”

The ways education administrators are making their buildings more environmentally friendly are as varied as schools themselves. The Mount Diablo Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, inked a $60 million deal with SunPower to install its high-tech solar panels at 51 schools and facilities this year.

Manassas City Public Schools in Virginia plans to spend $24 million upgrading schools with high­-efficiency roofs and heating and cooling systems. The private Epiphany School in Seattle opened last fall with a garden for students to grow food and an off-­the­-grid ventilation system. When the sun shines, solar­powered rooftop fans suck hot air out of classrooms through a set of chimneys, cooling the building without external power.

For the construction industry, environmentally sound school projects offer rare opportunities during the economic downturn. But planners and builders will have to make the case that their projects serve both students who use them and school district budgets.

Despite the green building boom, education construction fell 36 percent in square footage over the past two years, according to Kim Kennedy, manager of forecasting for McGraw­Hill Construction. That’s less dramatic than the 57 percent drop for commercial and industrial projects in 2009, but it’s far from rosy.

Kennedy expects the educational market to decline for at least one more year. “The institutional side is hit with a lag because it’s more tied to government expenditures,” she says. “We’re probably going to see another decline in 2011 for education, whereas the commercial market will already have started to recover in 2011.”

While money for green building projects has been flowing, other hurdles will remain beyond this year. Tax bonds approved before the recession fund many current projects, and gaining community approval for future projects will be more difficult during a slow economic recovery. States confronting multi-billion-­dollar budget deficits will offer limited support. And a key source of capital over the last two years – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – has already begun drying up.

Stimulating Retrofits

Two years ago, Judy Marks, director of the non­-profit National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, took on the task of helping school districts figure out which parts of the stimulus were available for construction and renovation. She says the bulk of funds came through two low-­interest lending programs.

In December, Congress extended one of those sources, Qualified School Construction Bonds, in its 11th­-hour tax bill. The other main source – Build America Bonds, which provided $179 billion for various public projects – expired at the end of 2010.

Marks has watched stimulus funds make the education market increasingly attractive to builders and designers. “There was no stimulus for hotels or office buildings,” she says. “But many school districts made the decision to go forward because of the availability of this money.”

With stimulus funds already tapering off, new school construction will depend on the health of the economy. Repair and renovation work, however, should remain steady. Roofs and heating and cooling systems wear out on their own schedules, after all.

And data shows retrofits are taking up an increasing share of the schools market: While school construction declined 18 percent in square footage last year, it dropped only eight percent in total spending. Those figures tell McGraw­-Hill Construction that more projects are focusing on improving existing schools.

“The renovation market has held up much better than the new construction market,” says McGraw­-Hill Construction economist Lindsay Hogan.

That’s driven in part by incentives for improving the energy performance of schools. For instance, California’s Energy Efficiency Financing program makes loans of up to $3 million available for schools to cut their energy footprints.

And the state superintendent, Tom Torlakson, directed $848 million in stimulus tax credits to construction projects that emphasize renewable energy and efficiency. “It makes no sense to teach the next generation of California’s students in facilities that are relics of the past, powered by energy sources that are out of touch with our state’s renewable future,” he said in a statement.

Utilities such as Puget Sound Energy offer grants for schools that make efficiency a priority and commit to ensuring buildings perform as they’re designed to do. Finn Hill’s district received $60,000 for such work.

The Health Factor

But the push for greener schools is about more than finance. The Environmental Protection Agency finds that children are more affected than adults by poor indoor air quality, and studies have linked mold levels and other airborne aggravators to lower student attendance rates and test scores.

Other researchers discovered that excessively hot or cold rooms harm student performance. Still others concluded that excessive background noise, from such things as noisy radiators, cause measurable distraction. Noise affects teachers too: A fifth of teachers reported missing work because of voice strain, according to a 1998 study by University of Iowa speech researchers.

Four years ago these findings prompted the U.S. Green Building Council to introduce a LEED for Schools program that places a greater emphasis on indoor air quality and thermal and acoustical comfort. Last fall, USGBC launched a Center for Green Schools to promote the advantages of green schools – healthier students, savings on energy costs and learning opportunities like the Finn Hill sculptures.

“We want green schools to become the norm, not the exception,” says Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools

That means expanding the USGBC’s audience of architects and building consultants and reaching janitors, facilities directors, school board members and lawmakers who can improve state standards for school buildings, Gutter says. She’s helped create the Center’s Green Schools Fellows program that puts 11 full­-time sustainability officers in school districts. They spend three years examining ongoing operations, finding ways to promote carpooling, for example, or comparing sources for paper or cleaning products.

There are more than 130,000 public and private schools in the U.S., Gutter notes, so it’s not enough just to build the new buildings better.

Still, new construction offers the greatest potential to showcase what’s possible.

At Finn Hill in Kirkland, architect Anjali Grant stood in the school’s cavernous future computer lab on a January afternoon and motioned to the metal roof – expensive but long-lasting. Soon it will support a 400-­kilowatt solar array that the school may expand in the future to make the building a net­-zero consumer of electricity.

But Grant considers other features more important, such as a heat pump and a ventilation system that captures and reuses heat from inside air. Her firm learned on an earlier project – Benjamin Franklin Elementary, also in Kirkland – that venting out warm air can blow the energy savings of an otherwise efficient building.

Here, structural insulated panels and triple-glazed windows seal the warmth inside. They were surprisingly good at keeping out the winter chill, even with temporary plywood doors.

The five classroom pods stretch out in southern­-oriented rows to catch the most of the area’s limited sunlight. In the muddy courtyards outside each pod, landscapers will build rain gardens – shallow depressions of native plants – that will attract birds and wildlife, reduce rain runoff and give teachers an outdoor laboratory.

Polished cement floors (with carpet in some places) will avoid the need for waxing and materials that emit fumes. A red light/green light system in classrooms will tell teachers when the central heat is off and windows may be opened (green) and when to keep them shut (red).

Grant acknowledged that not all school districts can afford features like solar arrays and the long-­lasting metal roof, but she says the most important green features carry no extra cost.

“It doesn’t cost extra to design for daylight,” she says, standing at a long bank of southern windows. “It doesn’t cost extra to use non­toxic materials.”

And the elements that do cost more pay for themselves over time. A 2006 study by Greg Kats of Capital E, a national green building firm, found that a two percent increase in initial costs – about $3 per square foot – paid back $10 per square foot in energy and water savings over a building’s lifespan.

Location Matters

But that’s all about the interior workings of a school. Advocates of smart growth and walkable neighborhoods argue that the most important issues for sustainable schools are location and how they connect to the surrounding community.

School sites that are woven into compact urban neighborhoods can encourage students to walk – which gives them exercise along with all the environmental advantages of driving less.

Architects and builders typically have less say in a school’s location, since districts already have sites in mind. “There’s only so much we can do for a suburban neighborhood like this,” Grant says of the Finn Hill site. “That’s a function of local zoning.”

Designers can still make improvements. Grant’s plan adds sidewalks to the site and lets pedestrians reach the main entrance without crossing parking lots – something not all school designs have accomplished in the past. The plan also preserves walk-­through routes that let neighbors reach the adjacent Finn Hill Park. Safety remains a major priority for school administrators, but school sites shouldn’t be fortresses that seal themselves off from their surrounding communities, Grant says.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine communities becoming carbon­-free without the leadership of schools. Every day one­-fifth of Americans go to a school to study or work, giving enormous influence to those institutions and the people who build their facilities. More importantly, many of those students are eager to learn about the world around them – both how it is and how it could be.

The Center for Green Schools sensed this opportunity and began offering curriculum guides and classroom project ideas for teachers. The Finn Hill Family environmental sculpture is unusual, but other schools are adding touch-­screen monitors that let students learn about the electricity and water coursing through their buildings.

The Alliance to Save Energy, an efficiency advocacy group born out of the 1970s oil embargoes, launched its own Green Schools Program that trains students to measure their school’s energy footprint with light meters and infrared temperature guns and lets them work with teachers to make improvements.

“It’s a lot easier to make a difference working with children,” program manager Megan Campion says. “I think most 12­ year­-olds are sort of environmentalists.”


Waiting for a Wave: Oregon’s bid to become the Silicon Valley of wave energy

wave generator on barge
Columbia Power Technologies’ SeaRay wave generator

Originally published in the May/June 2011 issue of Sustainable Industries magazine.

Ken Rhinefrank stands aboard the crane barge Sea Horse and smacks his hand against the six­ton yellow contraption resting on it like a gigantic dumbbell. “Stronger than steel,” he says.

It’ll have to be. The dumbbell – the SeaRay developed by Oregon startup Columbia Power Technologies – is about to be lowered into Puget Sound in pursuit of a goal that has eluded engineers for decades: generating reliable energy from the waves.

It’s a mother of a technical challenge. A field­-tested, commercial­-ready wave-­energy device – there are only a few in the world – has to withstand the pummeling of wind and surf, the relentless corrosion of saltwater and maybe 300-­pound seals that try to sun themselves on its surface.

Rhinefrank’s wind-­reddened face lights up with enthusiasm as he describes the SeaRay – the fiber-­reinforced plastic that gives it strength, the bilge pumps that keep the generator dry (“nothing is guaranteed to be watertight out there”), the swinging floats that catch the heaving motion of the water.

He said the test was generating the equivalent of 420 kilowatts of electricity at full scale: “It’s encouraging, though I don’t want to be too enthusiastic until I see all the data,” says Rhinefrank, Columbia’s vice president of research.

It has the makings of a classic American tale of discovery and invention. Rhinefrank left a secure job at Hewlett­Packard because, he says, renewable energy excited him more than toner cartridges.

Columbia’s breakthrough technology was developed in the wave research tank at Oregon State University and funded by Portland venture capitalists, the United States Department of Energy and the U.S. Navy. When the company greenlights a full­scale device – at 80 feet long, it will be seven times the size of the SeaRay test model – a Bellingham industrial fabricator will do the manufacturing.

But here’s the thing: If Columbia reaches commercial­-scale deployment, it will almost certainly happen in Europe – probably the United Kingdom, Portugal or Spain. Oregon has emerged as the U.S. leader in wave-­energy R&D, fueled by its fierce coastal waters, OSU’s unique research tank and a lottery-­funded state partnership to promote the fledgling industry.

There’s plenty of need for the power, as West Coast utilities have struggled to meet state renewable energy mandates. And the potential wave energy off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts amounts to a staggering 67 gigawatts, according to estimates from the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-industry-­funded group.

Yet industry leaders freely acknowledge the surest markets are elsewhere.

“The future of the industry in the near term is Europe,” says Reenst Lesemann, Columbia’s chief executive. “There’s no doubt about that. They’ve got the political will. They’ve got utilities that are earlier adopters than U.S. utilities are allowed to be.”

In Europe, the first utility-scale wave deployments are already in the water, including the Poseidon project by Floating Power Plant, a Denmark company planning to open an office in Oregon. Two test hubs off the coasts of Cornwall, England, and the Orkney Islands north of Scotland are attracting startups. And governments throughout the European Union are pumping funding into wave energy, hoping to gain the first­-mover advantages that accompany early successes.

“They all want to be the Denmark of waves,” says Lesemann. That is, they want to own wave energy the way Denmark dominates offshore wind electricity production.

For the U.S. to catch up, companies like Columbia will have to persuade policymakers and investors that wave energy is worth pursuing despite significant technological hurdles and its status as a perpetual “energy of the future” seemingly forever not quite ready for prime time.

Sunken Hopes

The wave industry’s history dates back to at least 1895, when a florist-­turned­-inventor named Terrence Duffy proposed generating power through an elaborate series of pumps, chambers, floats and levers attached to a San Francisco pier, according to author Alexis Madrigal’s new book: “Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.”

Duffy offered a million dollars of stock for his Wave­-Power Air­-Compressing Company, one of several businesses around the turn of the last century touting breakthroughs for harnessing the power of Pacific waves. Like the others, his vision came to nothing.

In 1909, another venture in Redondo Beach, Calif., raised $100,000 before its pier­-mounted motor sunk “like a lump of sugar when dropped into water,” as the Los Angeles Times put it.

A century later, a “land grab” of sorts ensued as companies rushed to stake out the most promising wave-­energy sites off both coasts, driven by state renewable energy mandates and the expectation that a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions was imminent.

California utility Pacific Gas & Electric filed applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for two wave projects off Humboldt and Mendocino counties in Northern California. Chevron and the Canadian company Finavera Wind Energy both jumped in with plans near the PG&E sites.

One small Washington state company, Grays Harbor Ocean Energy, sent FERC applications in 2008 for seven sites off six states, each about 100 square miles. Building out that grandiose plan would have required raising $28 billion, Burt Hamner, Grays Harbor’s president, told the Seattle Times.

All those ambitious proposals have sunk without a trace. California regulators rejected PG&E’s contract with Finavera, concluding the company’s wave technology was too expensive. The utility then quashed its own Humboldt and Mendocino projects, saying only that permitting and technological costs were higher than they expected. The utility is now considering another site off Santa Barbara County.

But FERC filings make clear PG&E was in for a tidal wave of opposition from environmentalists, surfers, fishers and coastal property owners. Federal and state agencies and local municipalities all demanded a say in the process. The issue wasn’t just covering miles of open ocean with wave generators, but also cables and infrastructure to connect them to on­shore grids.

“Blinking red lights of the utility complex will be a dominant nighttime feature of the coastal ocean,” one Humboldt County resident wrote to FERC. “Ocean billboards from hell.”

Permitting obstacles were a key reason Hamner ditched wave energy to develop turbines for irrigation canals at his new company, Hydrovolts. The annual migration of gray whales up and down the coast was reason enough to worry about the viability off offshore wave power, he says.

“Imagine if you were putting up a wind farm and you had to deal with a migration of flying elephants,” he says. “You’d have a problem.”

Shouldn’t project developers have foreseen these hurdles and costs? Hamner says he did, but filing a preliminary application with FERC was so easy that he didn’t see much of a downside.

“The thinking was, ‘Why the hell not?’,” he says. “It was free and anybody could say they wanted to try this. We basically wanted to see what would happen. We got a tremendous amount of response, both pro and con.”

That rush prompted FERC to clamp down and scrutinize companies’ proposals more closely, which slowed the flow of applications. Then one of the few West Coast projects to get in the water, a Finavera test buoy off the Oregon coast, sank just a day before researchers were set to remove it in 2008.

“We have been suffering under that story ever since,” says Jason Busch, head of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust, a public­-private partnership financed through lottery funds to promote the industry. “Everyone points to the first Finavera buoy.”

“That’s like saying, ‘We’ll never fly,’ ” after the first Wright brothers’ failure, he says.

Skeptical Investors

Still, in Australia last year, the country’s first grid-­connected wave device broke its moorings, crashed into a breakwater and sank just two months after deployment. Pelamis’ wave generators at the world’s first commercial­-scale wave farm, Agucadoura in Portugal, had to be removed two months after launch in the fall 2008 to repair leaks in the buoyancy tanks. The subsequent financial collapse of the project’s backers put a re­launch on indefinite hold.

Such setbacks have made investors and energy­-industry watchers understandably wary. Mark Bünger, research director at the market analysis firm Lux Research, says his company considered devoting more resources to tracking the industry but decided against it.

“We’ve looked at some of the companies and concluded that it’s too much of a science experiment for us to work with,” he says. “It’s not yet commercial, and I think it’s quite a long way off.”

The sheer size and cost of prototypes presents a major challenge, he says. (Columbia’s full­size Manta Ray will weigh at least 500 tons; each of the Pelamis “sea snakes” used at Agucadoura is 460 feet long.) Just as elephants live longer and evolve more slowly than fruit flies, technology evolves more slowly at larger physical sizes, says Bünger.

The animal metaphors, by the way, are a favorite of wave engineers. No single design has become dominant, leaving room for a diversity of creations that would have made Darwin giddy.

The Pelamis sea snakes float semi­-submerged, channeling waves into long cylinders to pump oil through motors to drive generators. The Scottish company Aquamarine, which opened an office in Newport, Ore., last year, builds a device called the Oyster that has one arm resting on the sea floor and another that swings back and forth on a hinge, like an oyster shell.

Principle Power of Seattle is working in Tillamook, Ore., to see if it’s feasible to add column­-like wave devices to its floating wind­ turbine platforms. And Texas-­based Neptune Wave Power is using OSU’s wave tank to test a prototype that uses a horizontally swinging pendulum, essentially the same technology used in self­winding watches.

Bünger compares this stage to the early days of aviation, when would-­be pilots launched biplanes, triplanes and other variations before settling on a favored model.

Back aboard the crane barge, Rhinefrank shows me what Columbia believes is its breakthrough discovery. We’re moored at the Lake Union Dry Dock, one of the vestiges of maritime Seattle tucked along a shoreline of yacht clubs and $800,000 houseboats. The ripples here hold nothing like the churn off the Oregon coast, some of the roughest waters in the nation.

Each wave includes two essential movements, a vertical heave and a horizontal surge. Other wave devices, Rhinefrank says, capture only one of those sources, missing approximately half the potential energy. The “aha moment” for Columbia’s researchers at OSU came on their third­generation design, when they figured out how to design a float that would translate both kinds of movement into a rotary motion to drive a generator, mimicking the undulation of a manta ray.

“We basically came to the conclusion that to be utility grade, we needed to access both the heave and the surge force,” Lesemann, the chief executive, told me. “That was the game changer for us. That’s what sets us apart from everybody else.”

Lots of early-­stage companies have similar stories about their “game changing” innovations. Without testing, they’re just claims – that’s why Columbia is keen to keep putting models in the water. Hundreds of sensors on the SeaRay measure the wave direction, wind speed, power generation and dozens of other inputs, then transmit them to the company headquarters in Corvallis.

Hub of Activity

If the U.S. is serious about promoting wave energy, according to Lesemann and nearly everyone else I spoke to in the industry, it needs a testing hub like the ones off Cornwall and the Orkney Islands.

That would allow engineers to plug in a variety of devices, drop them in the water, and measure how they perform, bypassing the permitting delays that can eat up years for isolated projects. It took Columbia a year to get permits for its Puget Sound test, which didn’t include the complications of connecting the device to an onshore grid.

Andrea Gill, a renewable energy specialist for Hawaii’s economic development department, says she talked with the Department of Energy about such a hub last year but couldn’t secure funding.

“Being able to test multiple devices at sea, in real­-time conditions, while grid connected, and still being able to do R&D on them – that’s definitely a gap in the U.S.’ capabilities,” she says.

OSU has considered a mobile testing center based on a boat, or a site with an underground cable running to shore, says Jason Busch of the Oregon Wave Energy Trust. The surge of interest around the Cornwall hub shows it would pay off economically, he says.

“If we had a national test center, wow,” he says. “It would just be a fact that companies would move here. But it needs to happen now.” Busch, the state’s point man for promoting the wave industry, has gotten a close look at how difficult permitting can be as he’s watched the trials and tribulations of Ocean Power Technologies, the Nasdaq-­listed New Jersey company that plans to deploy a 150-­kilowatt PowerBuoy off the coast of Reedsport this summer.

The company, whose project is the most advanced of all the Oregon ventures, has been planning and seeking FERC approval since 2007, and it’s still awaiting the go­ahead for the 10­buoy second phase.

“We want to see this happen regardless of the cost,” says Busch. “Everybody realizes that the cost is extraordinarily high. But that’s okay. That’s the way new technology works. People bought the first flat­screen televisions for $4,000. Now they cost a quarter of that. This technology will follow a price curve just like that.”

More importantly, Ocean Power’s journey has taught everyone involved – federal and state regulators, businesses, investors, fishers and crabbers – what to expect and how to negotiate the next project.

Ocean Power “is a perfect example of a pioneering effort,” says Lesemann of Columbia. “It was probably very time­ consuming and very expensive, but I’m glad they’re doing it. Somebody has to do it, and we’ll all be better off for it.”

Lesemann, like his research director Rhinefrank, left a more stable job at an investment firm to take a chance on Columbia Power. “I’d never seen a market like this that was waiting on the edge, ready to spend a huge amount of money, but without any technology to satisfy that need,” he says. “So I jumped in with both feet.”

That kind of excitement from engineers and investors makes Busch hopeful, even if federal support lags for the time being.

“There’s too much potential power from the ocean to walk away from it,” he says. “There’s too much money to be made.”

Thirst Quenchers: West Coast water tech heads overseas

Girl holds filtration device
Nairobi, Kenya, residents with Puralytics’ SolarBag. Photo by Nathan Jones.

Originally published as the cover story of the July/August 2011 issue of Sustainable Industries magazine.

Not long ago, seafood industry veteran Craig Rominger toured a Mexican poultry processing plant with chilling and preservation systems as sophisticated as any he’d seen in the United States. Then he watched a driver load his vehicle – a Volkswagen Beetle with no refrigeration – and prepare for deliveries to groceries and restaurants, risking contamination in the sweltering air.

In Indonesia, Rominger has seen fisherman build fires of kerosene­ soaked wood to smoke their catch – while still at sea on wooden boats. In the 100­-degree heat, it was the only way to preserve their fish for market.

And in Tanzania, where he plans to travel this fall, Rominger knows that high­-end restaurants fly in their seafood frozen from Europe because local markets lack reliable means to keep their fish chilled.

These all strike Rominger as potential markets for NanoICE, a Bothell, Wash., startup that makes a slurry­-like “liquid ice” that that chills food more quickly than conventional flake ice. The micro­sized cubes, small enough to pass through a hypodermic needle, cut down on bacteria, lipid oxidation and other effects that harm food on its way to market. And because liquid ice is also is also softer than chipped ice, food undergoes less bruising during transport.

The year­-old company has made its first inroads into the seafood and poultry industries in industrialized nations, netting a high-­profile customer in Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market (home of the fish­-throwing vendors beloved by tourists). But Rominger, the company’s chief executive, believes much of NanoICE’s growth will happen in seafood markets in the developing world.

“My dream is to be able to supply these people with margins for their products so they can make investments in their boats and equipment,” he says. “So they can improve their living conditions.”

He’s not alone in eyeing these emerging markets. Across the water­ tech industry, companies see developing countries as prime opportunities to establish operations or diversify revenue streams they’ve already developed in North America and Europe. Manufacturing heavyweight GE has built research centers in Saudi Arabia and Dubai to develop seawater desalination projects. HaloSource, a mid­size maker of water purifiers based in Bothell, Wash., has targeted the emerging middle classes in India and China. And student entrepreneurs increasingly see water as one of the most promising arms of clean tech – water treatment technologies for the developing world made up a large proportion of projects at the University of Washington’s Environmental Innovation Challenge this spring.

The need for such products is tremendous. Global health researchers estimate that half of all the hospital beds in the world are occupied because of preventable water­borne disease. And more than one­-third of the world’s population will live in severely water­-scarce areas by 2030 if current consumption rates continue, according to a 2009 McKinsey & Company report. Laura Shenkar, principal of the San Francisco water consultancy Artemis Project and a close observer of the industry, gives a blunt assessment of the global situation.

“We’re running out of water,” she says. “These kinds of innovations are going to become very important. It’s not the kind of thing where you have to wonder if it will happen. It’s a question of how it will happen.”

Oddly, there’s not much precedent for successful innovation in water tech, a diverse industry that includes preservation work like NanoICE’s along with purification, environmental cleanup, desalinization and monitoring and management companies.

Just as top electric utility executives reached their status by keeping the lights on, so to speak, Shenkar says water leaders succeed through consistency, not experimenting. Electrical failures carry unhappy consequences, but failing to remove pathogens from drinking water is literally a life and death issue.

“We don’t reward our water engineers for being innovative,” Shenkar says. “We reward them for providing healthy drinking water. Water is so potentially dangerous if it’s bad, and it’s so important that it be good, that there’s been a reluctance to innovate into new ways of doing things.”

She finds inspiration in the telecommunication industry, which found that sub-­Saharan African countries with little land­ line penetration were able to “leapfrog” over that 20th­-century technology straight to mobile phones. Telecom companies that first ignored such areas are now finding them among their fastest­-growing markets. In the same way, areas without municipal water systems may be better off moving straight to highly distributed sources of drinking water (and electricity, for that matter).

Tapping new markets

But developing countries are still affected by challenges originating in the industrialized world. Industrialized nations have typically viewed water as a public good, not a private asset. It’s historically been highly regulated and under­ priced, particularly for agricultural uses. That’s all resulted in investors shying away from the water business. Water technologies received about $150 million in venture capital in 2008 – less than 2 percent of the total venture investment in clean tech companies that year, according to the research firm Cleantech Group.

That’s starting to change, as HaloSource showed with an $80 million IPO on the London Stock Exchange last fall. The company says it’s on track to grow by more than 40 percent this year after generating nearly $12 million in revenue in 2009. Overall, clean tech research firm Lux Research expects global water sector revenues to reach nearly $1 trillion by 2020.

Still, all that profit potential doesn’t remove the challenges of breaking into unfamiliar markets. Some of the most promising solutions are coming through partnerships between companies that develop new technologies and non­-profit aid organizations that can test and distribute products on the ground. Few companies have the global reach of GE, and many are finding that working with NGOs lets businesses focus on what they do best: developing new products at prices that global customers can afford.

Puralytics, a Beaverton, Ore., startup that uses a nanotechnology-­based reaction to break down contaminants in water, has been looking for the right non­-profits to help it break into emerging markets.

“With most of the solutions for the developing world, it’s often a channel problem,” says Mark Owen, the company’s chief executive. “A small company is not going to have a distribution base in the middle of Africa. You need partners that have access to those places.”

Like NanoICE, Puralytics saw its first successes in industrial markets. The company uses a mesh filter with a nanotech­-derived coating. When the mesh is activated by LEDs inside the device, it produces a photochemical reaction that removes more impurities than typical water treatments. That’s been appealing to university, medical and crime laboratories that need water that’s been purified of estrogen, testosterone, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals. cleaning solvents and other elements that show up in municipal tap water.

Puralytics, which won the Clean Tech Open startup competition last year, focuses not just on water contaminants that bring immediate harm like diarrhea and typhoid. It also addresses long­term threats that can accumulate in bodies, such as arsenic.

In the developing world, says Owen, “there are few solutions focused on long­-term health problems. Most of them are focused on immediate threats such as cholera and diarrhea.”

Arsenic, pesticides and herbicides don’t make people sick as quickly. “But they are certainly things that will keep someone in poverty or keep them from learning or being able to fight off diseases,” says Owen.

Along with its LED­-powered system, Puralytics makes a briefcase-­sized device called a SolarBag that runs the electrochemical process off sunlight alone. Even on a cloudy day, it can provide three liters of drinking water in two to four hours. Since the bags weigh only four ounces and can be shipped flat, Owen believes they could be useful in disaster response.

The non­profit connection

Owen acknowledges the company is still in the early stages of building relationships with disaster-­relief NGOs. But Shenkar of the Artemis Group cautions companies against underestimating the complexity of disaster response operations. A lot of water businesses see disasters as opportunities, she says, but “they haven’t found that it’s a great way for a young company to build a market.”

In the BP oil spill last year, for example, many companies offered oil dispersants to break up the orange­-brown patches seeping through the Gulf of Mexico. But the federal government relied on the Nalco Corexit dispersant it already understood. It can take more than a year for new technologies to gain government approval, and disasters are rarely the time when governments and aid organizations want to experiment, Shenkar says.

On top of that, aid groups want products that users will quickly understand, regardless of language and cultural differences. It’s these usability and behavior questions where non­profit partners can become the most useful.

The outdoor recreation equipment company Cascade Designs learned that after donating tents and water treatment in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. The Seattle company’s core market of hikers and backpackers wants one to four liters of water at a time, but a household needs much more of that – perhaps 20 liters, says project manager Laura McLaughlin. The company also found that child-­friendly hand pumps required different ergonomics. Most of all, the sheer scale require Cascade to think differently.

“We made a donation that was enormous for us and it was barely a slice of the need,” says McLaughlin. “We started asking, ‘What can we do that’s more than philanthropy?’ Philanthropy has a role, but we wanted to do more.”

The company found a partner in PATH, a Seattle global health organization with an annual budget of more than $250 million (much of it from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). PATH had been working to provide safe drinking water for years, and it understood that, while water treatment options abounded throughout the world, there were many people who couldn’t afford them.

And it saw potential in Cascade’s MIOX Purifier, a pen­like device that runs off a camera battery to kill viruses and bacteria in water. Since it was first developed for the military, it was already designed to be durable. Cascade and PATH sought foundation funding and developed a prototype of a large-scale version that could treat 20 liters of water in 90 seconds.

But that was only part of the challenge. “The technology will only bring you so far,” says Jesse Schubert, a technical project coordinator at PATH. “The challenge is implementing it and finding the right entrepreneurs in communities who understand the need to treat water and will do it consistently.”

PATH first found a church to test it in Korogocho, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where it’s common for people to buy water from kiosks without knowing for certain whether it’s safe, Schubert says. He learned that users wanted larger quantities and a device that looked more like a household appliance.

The next version, the SE (smart electrochlorinator) 200, treats 200 liters in each cycle and runs off a car battery, which are common in Kenya even when grid electricity is not. For this version PATH looked for a local operator who could run the device with less supervision. That search led them to Carolyne Otieno, known locally as “Mama Meg,” a businesswoman in a semi-­urban area near Kisumu, Kenya.

She had already applied for and received two loans to dig a well, and she ran a kiosk at her home selling bread, sugar, treated water and chlorine. And, says Schubert, she understood the importance of treating water properly.

Schubert and PATH were convinced Mama Meg was the right person to train for the next test. “She took it seriously and wanted to make sure her customers understood they need to wait 30 minutes [to drink the chlorinated water],” Schubert says. “She wanted to make sure they were doing it right because she knew their health and her reputation were at stake.”

That test, too, confirmed the potential of the SE200. PATH turned to more field trials in Zimbabwe, Ghana, Tanzania and Nepal, while Cascade is working on bringing the manufacturing cost below $100. After that, the two organizations will look into microfinance loan models that could bring the device to thousands of communities.

Good business, not philanthropy

While PATH answers to its own donors, it knows businesses are still accountable to their shareholders. “With the reach we have, we can help companies like Cascade see a new market and find who the users are,” Schubert says. “But we still keep in mind the needs of the private sector. We can help get their projects out there and make sure they can make a profit in the end.”

In fact, each of the companies I talked to said they considered emerging markets part of their core business, not a charity project tacked on to their to their “real” business. But is exporting products from the developed world to developing countries truly empowering in the long­-term?

Rominger of NanoICE notes that while his ice-­making machines are developed in Washington, the ice is made locally, allowing fishing and farming business to sell more of their product for better prices. Puralytics is looking into ways to continue producing its core nanotechnology in Oregon but assemble final products more locally. HaloSource is already using that model with business partners such as Eureka Forbes of India.

Eureka Forbes is piloting a microfinance system to make HaloSource’s filters affordable for more customers. In that way, the companies partner much as PATH and Cascade do, with one focused on technology and cost and the other working out distribution, financing and usability.

“We know the culture and language and the nuances of what individuals do within their home countries,” says PATH’s Robyn Wilmouth. “[Cascade] has a high standard for quality of production, which we very much value.

“We’re aligned in our desire to reach poor populations and ensure safer water, but we both bring different strengths.”

Frontier Pundits: Visiting 1850s Bloomington with Three Angry Editors

Indiana University, 1850

Originally published in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, December 2013

In 1853, while the fledgling Indiana University struggled to survive, three strikingly different men started a newspaper in the frontier town of Bloomington, Indiana. They seemed to disagree on the purpose of the paper, only one had experience as an editor, and they did not have much start-up money. But in November 1853 the hotheaded preacher Eli P. Farmer published the first edition of his Bloomington Religious Times, proclaiming that each individual “has a right to act according to the dictates of his own conscience,” and that his conscience compelled him to start a newspaper. Soon he enlisted the help of a wandering newsman and a phrenologist. Together the three editors filled the paper with tirades, sermons, jokes, puzzles, world news briefs, market reports, long-winded allegories, and very few advertisements. They picked fights with competitors and reflected some of the ugliest biases of their time.

The newspaper did not last long. Within a year all three editors had left and the paper became one more defunct publication of the sort that litter the nation’s past. Except for moments of unintentional brilliance, the Times was not remarkable in its quality or foresight. As a product of its time, though, it offers a window into the minds of its editors and the community they served. It’s been said about blogging, that most immediate twenty-first-century medium, that anyone who publishes instantly for long enough will reveal their inner character, intentionally or not. The same might be true for the small-town presses of the nineteenth century. Editors who publish enough tend to reveal the fears and hopes of themselves and their readers—that is what can be found in the history of this fizzing comet of a publication that streaked through a frontier town in the run-up to the Civil War

The furniture and limestone industries that later defined Bloomington had not yet arrived in 1853. The New Albany-Salem Railroad first rolled through town that year, its cars laden with corn, whiskey, and a multitude of pork products from the Monroe County hills. The trip to the New Albany markets took twelve hours. In 1853 IU graduated only two students, its smallest class ever. When a fire destroyed the college’s main building the next year, it almost was not rebuilt. A pledge of support from faculty and students may have been the only thing that kept the university in Bloomington. The Times urged the town’s thousand or so residents to consider it their “personal obligation”—not the state government’s duty—to rebuild the twenty- six-year-old university.

The Times exemplified rural American journalism in the mid-nineteenth century, an era when anyone with a modest amount of money could set up shop in the marketplace of ideas. The price of newsprint fell by half between 1830 and 1860, driven by technological innovations such as the use of wood pulp in papermaking. This trend, combined with rising literacy rates, created what journalism historian Andrew Saxton called an “optimum” era for newspapers. Professional training for journalists was rare, especially in frontier states such as Indiana. But starting a newspaper had never been easier.

Farmer claimed a benign goal when he started the Times. He wanted to help establish the Republican United Brethren Church, a sect that had broken away from the Methodist Church five years earlier. The paper’s first issue included such thrilling features as the denomination’s constitution, minutes from an administrative meeting, and a sermon. Comics and sports pages were still decades away. Like other papers of its time, the Times ran its articles in dense type, often without headlines and much semblance of organization. The paper’s defining visual ornament was an inch-thick braided border that edged each of its four pages.

When Farmer editorialized, things became interesting. The fifty-nine-year-old preacher thundered against religious tolerance and half-hearted faith. Most of all, he attacked the Catholic Church, which he considered “the most horrible institution which has ever blackened the pages of History.” He promised to expose “astounding, blood chilling facts” about the Church of Rome. He reprinted Revelations 12:1-15, inserting his own interpretive footnotes in brackets. The great red dragon that appeared in John the Apostle’s vision represented the Pope, according to Farmer. Its seven heads and ten horns are the seven kingdoms and ten “petty kings” under the Pope’s rule. The great dragon cast out of heaven in verse 9 represented the true church triumphing over “the Pope or Devil.”

The minister’s invectives reeked of xenophobia. In the mid-nineteenth century, southern Indiana received a massive influx of German immigrants who traveled over the Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio River. Largely Catholic and supportive of the Democratic Party, they arrived in large enough numbers to reshape the state’s cultural landscape. Farmer must have known it. If fundamentalists of every age require an opposition group to demonize, German Catholics suited his need. He devoted much of the Times’ first issues to a “TES- TIMONY OF HISTORY AGAINST THE CHURCH OF ROME,” a series as alarmist as the title suggests. “May God save us from Roman tyranny,” he ended one editorial.

In January 1854, three months after founding the Times, Farmer turned the biweekly into a weekly and announced his new coeditors, Harvey Murphy and Jesse Brandon. Farmer continued to manage the front two pages—the religious half— while Murphy and Brandon filled pages three and four, respectively, with secular news. Of the three, Brandon revealed the least about himself in the paper. He was a former state printer and a prolific newsman who had founded at least ten southern Indiana newspapers, including Bloomington’s first in 1824. He showed no interest in editorializing on hot-button moral issues, seeing the paper instead as a vessel for dispassionate facts. International news consisted mostly of his updates from the Crimean War in Eastern Europe. The only indication that America was veering toward civil war came in his updates on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which authorized the two territories to decide on their own whether to allow slavery. By this point in the twilight of his career, Brandon may have lost interest in participating in the culture wars of his day.

Not so with Murphy. He wrote extensively on temperance, at that time the state’s most divisive political issue. In 1853 the Indiana General Assembly voted to let counties pass local prohibition laws. Two years later it passed a statewide ban on alcohol. The Indiana Supreme Court struck down both measures as unconstitutional. The issue had religious implications, with prohibition fitting into the perfectionist movement embraced by Methodists and other Protestants. They saw human nature as perfectible through social reform and accountability. Catholics and Primitive Baptists moving into the region, on the other hand, held to a belief in a more foundational human depravity. They viewed reform movements with deep skepticism.

Like Farmer, Murphy claimed to support temperance. Both men saw their paper as a potential agent of social change. But the difference between their approaches is considerable. For one, Farmer used four times as many words to make his point. His May 12 editorial on the included questionable exegesis (“Temperance is one of the great principles of the Bible and cardinal points of the Christian religion”), jabs at Rome and “learned Greece,” and an appeal to bipartisanship before getting to the point: “If any man sells or give liquor. . . fine him severely.”

Murphy’s March 10 editorial on the same subject opened by recounting a conversation with an unnamed pro-temperance minister. “Ministers should remember that it has been but a short time since they themselves drank ‘the blessed creature,’” Murphy wrote. Would he have named the minister if it were Farmer? The article reads like a veiled reprimand of his colleague. Murphy called for temperance reformers to rely on “mild, persuasive, and gentlemanly means for reforming the world.” Keeping his rhetorical voice lowered, he ended with a word of caution: “It is better for advocates of the reform to respect the feelings of others. Enthusiasts often do more harm than good.”

Such even-keeled rationalism was not Farmer’s style. According to the autobiography he wrote later in life, it never had been. The son of a Revolutionary War veteran, Farmer moved with his family from Virginia to Kentucky as a child. Native Americans twice burned their home in Kentucky, according to his account. Farmer recounted a period of habitual lying and fighting—though never drinking—in his twenties. He encountered a young Sam Houston in one fight and left the exchange with two broken ribs. Farmer referred to this as his “backslidden” condition, according to a sketch of his life by Riley B. Case. That stage ended on the banks of the Ohio River at a Methodist camp meeting in 1820. There the twenty-six-year-old Farmer was spiritually reclaimed. He took up the call to become a circuit preacher in the model of Methodist founding father John Francis Asbury, one of the leaders in the break from the Episcopalian Church to a less hierarchical, more democratic church. Like Asbury, Farmer traveled the countryside by horse, preaching the gospel to small audiences, often one family at a time. An 1867 Harper’s Weekly illustration portrays the rigors of the demanding, solitary job, showing a circuit preacher leading his bedraggled horse down a lonely road, clutching an umbrella against a rainstorm.

Farmer performed this work for nine years, a typical length of service for circuit preaching, which left little opportunity to provide for a family. During this period he married Matilda Allison, whom he called a “pious, holy woman.” They started a family, though Farmer could not shake his volatile spirit. Case attributes Farmer’s roller-coaster religious life to the importance of personal choice in the Methodist tradition: “Whenever Eli Farmer experienced a spiritual crisis (which was frequently), he looked for another camp meeting. In a denomination with an emphasis on ‘experience,’ religious life was often a cycle of highs and lows, and there was always a need for revivals.”

Farmer became discontent with the Methodists as they became a more established church. In the Times he wrote about what initially drew him to the Methodists: “The preachers carried zeal and religion where they went . . . the old ministers had kept the salaries low, in order to keep out the money-hunters.” The church had lost its way, in Farmer’s eyes. He accused it of abandoning its commitment to “plainness and humility” and left it for good in 1839. He then helped establish the Republican United Brethren Church, a short-lived offshoot that drew from the Methodist and United Brethren churches. The sect probably appealed to him because of its lack of formal organization and wealth, much as Methodism had decades earlier. This search for a more rigorous and authentic faith was a defining theme in Farmer’s life. He wrote in his autobiography, begun when he was eighty, that he was “troubled with grave apprehensions that the standard of Christianity is lower now, than it was formerly when it was in its comparatively primitive days in this republic.”

If the independence of the Times’s editors freed them to speak their mind, it sometimes led to odd decisions. Consider the ethical editorial Murphy published in the March 10 issue. He began with a lengthy rhetorical question about “the savage”: “If he has inherited such a cerebral development that his animal and selfish propensities greatly predominate over his moral and religious sentiments and reasoning power, thus making him deaf to admonition and blind to example, is he then accountable for his deeds?”

Murphy continued, in evident sincerity, to dwell upon the question. He made allowance for the savage’s “innate proneness to evil.” The editorial was part of a cryptic ongoing series that considered the “cerebral development” of both humans and animals. An earlier chapter speculated on how primitive humans might have migrated from Eurasia to the Americas. Another wondered whether a thief might be reformed by altering the shape of his brain. Murphy did not reveal the purpose of the series until March 17, when he announced that he was giving a free lecture on phrenology, the pseudoscience that sought to discern a person’s character by measuring the size and shape of the cranium. Phrenology, which had reached the United States eighteen years earlier with the German lecturer Johann Kaspar Spurzheim, spread west through lectures and demonstrations. Murphy promised to let himself be blindfolded at the end of the lecture, and “thus deprived of the power of sight” he would “read the dispositions and characters of individuals, unknown to him, with such accuracy, that the most sceptical will be silenced.”

The Times never gave an account of Murphy’s lecture and demonstration. But a week later, Murphy revealed that his interest in phrenology was more than a hobby: the March 24 issue featured an advertisement for “Harvey Murphy, practical phrenologist and physiognomist.” For twenty-five cents he would provide a verbal description of character, and for one dollar he would provide a written version. Murphy was using editorial space to serve an advertiser’s agenda, failing to disclose to readers that fact, and using his position to promote his own side business.

Contemporary journalistic standards would condemn this sort of cross promotion as a conflict of interest. Murphy and his colleagues admitted no such problem. It is possible they saw no reason to separate editorial and advertising content, as modern-day news organizations have done. It is also possible Murphy grasped but declined to meet a standard of transparency. For
all the drawbacks of bureaucratic news institutions, their accountability might have kept a beginning journalist such as Murphy more honest.

The Times editors, however, did have standards when it came to judging their peers. Soon after the arrival of a local competitor, the Bloomington News Letter, Murphy accused its editor of an ethical lapse. The editor, A. B. Carlton, served as a lawyer in the defense of a local murder suspect in April 1854. Carlton also published an editorial defending the man’s innocence, without disclosing that he was the man’s lawyer. Murphy must have seen this as different from his phrenology editorials. “We had been greatly misled,” Murphy wrote. “We hope the editor of the News Letter will not prostitute himself as an editor.”

Despite his attack, Murphy was more restrained than his preacher colleague. In the May 26 issue of the Times Farmer employed thoroughly adolescent sarcasm in attacking the unnamed editor of the Wayne County Journal. Farmer fumed about a previous Journal article, which he called “all thunder and no lightning.” Yet he deemed it worthy of response. Only after saying his piece did Farmer include a “Note of Explanation” to his readers that does not explain very much at all. Farmer’s criticism, it appears, was a response to the Journal’s criticism of Farmer’s earlier attack on the Episcopal Church. The Journal was not bold enough in its stance, according to Farmer. The editor “never committed himself, to show where he stood,” Farmer charged. “We cannot tell whether he is on the side of the Lord or the Devil—the Episcopal dog or the Editor of the Religious Times.”

Such squabbles among small-town editors were common. It is difficult to imagine why Farmer felt so compelled to respond to the editor. His readers were probably not paying attention to the publication 110 miles to the northeast. It is telling that the Journal editor did not incense Farmer by vigorously defending an opinion with which the minister disagreed. Rather, he angered Farmer by not making his position clear.

The most important conflict in Farmer’s life was not with any real or perceived enemy but arose from his father’s alcoholism. According to Farmer’s January 20 temperance editorial, his father first encountered “fire water” in the Revolutionary War camps of 1776. Joel Farmer was “taken by her charms,” his son reported. The senior Farmer came to depend on alcohol both to rest when weary and to celebrate when victorious. For him and his comrades, it “gave a false stimulation in the work, in the hour of adversity, warming their hearts in all their social parties and festivals, and was found by their sides on the bloody field of battle.” As a child, Eli and his brother helped their mother provide for the family while their father grew more despondent. The man’s spirit was crushed even further by the Indian attacks, a swindler that cheated the family, and yet another fire. Farmer left his readers with the image of old soldiers commiserating around a bottle, his dying father among them. A teenage Eli and his brother settled their father’s debts, except for a two-dollar or three-dollar whiskey debt. “For we were unwilling to pay a man to destroy our own father,” Farmer wrote.

Nothing else so intimate appears in the entire run of the Times. One can fairly hear Farmer’s heart twisting as he describes his father’s failings. The first-person style may not have been fashionable for a frontier newsman, yet Farmer never sounded so human in his editorializing or more compelling in his political arguments. That’s not to dismiss the vileness of his xenophobic writing. The paper was better known for its anti-Catholic position than for anything else, according to Indiana newspaper historian John Miller. The story of his father is the closest Farmer comes to explaining why he feels so threatened by a German Catholic culture permissive toward alcohol.

Farmer spewed more vitriol than his coeditors, but he was also the most responsible for breathing life into the paper. The story of his father’s alcoholism was not the only instance in which he must have surprised his readers. In the May 12 issue, the preacher directed his zeal at the changing of the season. “There go you out now, ye dwellers in streets and lanes, in brick walls, in midst dust and din, to the open groves and fields where birds sing, and give yourselves to Nature for a day,” read an editorial titled “Bright May,” which Farmer borrowed from Youth’s Friend magazine. The two-paragraph ode to spring speaks of nature as God’s creation, but its references to the “fruits of luscious flavor, the ripening harvests of plenty,” sound more like a romantic poet or a transcendentalist than a humorless minister. It must have been quite a change of seasons to captivate Farmer so strongly. The spirit does not seem to have lasted long—the article appears after a much longer treatise on female prudence and before Farmer’s temperance editorial. But it shows there was more to him than dogma. Intentionally or not, “Bright May” revealed at least a wrinkle of tension for Farmer between his moralistic and romantic inclinations.

Given time, it is possible Farmer and company would have taken more editorial risks. But the rigors of life in the “Great West,” as they called it, did not allow that chance. The May 19 issue announced a dissolution of partnership among the three because of Murphy’s feeble health. Publishing continued, with increasing amounts of secondhand material. A month later the paper’s distinctive border disappeared and its name abruptly changed to the Western Times. Two weeks later Farmer and Brandon apologized for a late issue “on account of sickness” of one of them, most likely Brandon.

By the end of the summer the paper had sputtered into a half sheet—“half a loaf is better than no bread”—with another apology for tardiness. In October Brandon left Bloomington and the Times, “hoping to recruit his health by traveling.” Farmer could not run the paper on his own and handed it over to T. L. Martin and J. F. Walker, who dropped the religious content and used it in the service of the newly formed local Republican Party. Introducing himself, Walker promised to allow “men to honestly differ in opinion” in the pages of the newspaper. He continued, writing in the third person: “In these matters he does not promise to be neutral (as some Editors have done.) This he considers to having no views of his own. Every one that takes any interest in the affairs of his country must have his preference.”

The Times demonstrated the sort of lively, idiosyncratic prose independent journalists can produce, but it also show-cased how easily they can be dragged down by bigoted opinions and ethical lapses. No doubt its editors failed to transcend the prejudices of their time, spreading the sort of ethnic chauvinism that the United States has had to overcome at every stage in its journey. It is possible that wiser voices drowned them out, contributing to the paper’s demise.


A nearly complete collection of the Bloomington Religious Times and the Bloomington Western Times is included in the Eli P. Farmer Papers, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. | Case, Riley B. “An Aggressive Warfare: Eli Farmer and Methodist Revivalism in Early Indiana.” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008): 65–93. | Gunther Brown, Candy. The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. | Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989. | Nation, Richard F. At Home in the Hoosier Hills: Agriculture, Politics, and Religion in Southern Indiana, 1810–1870. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. | Nord, David Paul. Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007.