The Stuff We’re Made Of


This is one of the most challenging – and I think one of the best – pieces I’ve written. Yes, it’s about dirt, but dirt in the context of the Colorado Plateau, that iconic wild-west land. Click on the link and you’ll get a PDF of the original as laid out in the magazine, including all the gorgeous photographs. Enjoy.

(for Sojourns, a publication of the Peaks, Plateaus & Canyon Association. Copyright Sojourns journal)


Staying in the Solution: Peter Byck is a Glass Half-Full Guy

Peter_Byck_UPS_Shoot_Ronald_Eastman-1024x768(As seen in Green Living Magazine, Aug. 2013 –

In a world of many glass half-empty (or completely empty) environmental documentaries, filmmaker Peter Byck is a glass half-full guy. Consider his 2010 documentary, Carbon Nation. Not only does the title indicate that its maker doesn’t take himself too seriously, the solutions based film reaches out to everybody – whether they believe in climate change or not.

Byck, a freshly minted addition to the Arizona State University faculty, didn’t set out to be a teacher.  After finishing film school at California Institute of the Arts, he embarked on a career in the business, spending more than 20 years doing things like directing shows for MTV, and editing documentaries and promotional shorts for big names and big studios.  Yet even though he didn’t plan on becoming an educator, his mind sort of worked that way.

“It’s funny. When I was in film school, which is a long time ago, 82 to 86, I was already thinking of ways to teach, not planning on it, but things were popping into my head. There’s always been something there.”

Something there will be something here this fall when Byck starts his new job as Professor of Practice at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Media.  There, in a class called Sustainability Storytelling, students will learn how to make documentaries about clean energy.  Byck describes himself as a big fan of solar power, the perfect thing to explore in Arizona.

“The first place that we’re going to delve into is all the solar work that’s going on in Gila Bend. The class starts in August and we’ll starting shooting in September.”  Byck’s goal is to teach his students everything he knows in the process.  “You can’t replace experience, but you can give the rules … all the mechanisms I’ve learned in filmmaking.”

One of the recent mechanisms he’s used is approaching environmental issues, most notably carbon, from a positive standpoint. While Byck notes that there are films he admires for how they were able to motivate change, he wanted to take a different view.  “When I saw ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ I thought it was a very well-made film about what the problem was. And then I wanted to make a film about the solution.”

That fresh perspective has opened doors. According to Byck, donors, audiences, liberals and conservatives all liked the approach.  “I’ve been asked to show the film and speak at places all over the world and I don’t think it would happen if it wasn’t about solutions. No one knew who I was before I made the movie, so it wasn’t that.” Nor is he focused on making everybody believe the same thing he does. In fact, one of the individuals featured in the film does not believe that humans are causing climate change, yet has created break-through geothermal technology.  By setting aside the debate about whether or not climate change is happening, people can look at larger issues. Byck suggests that the commonality between us is that we all seem to like clean air and water.

Most of us can agree that, by their nature, documentaries are educational, sometimes to the point where viewers might feel like they’re being hovered over by a watchful parent and being forced to those mushy brussel sprouts. Carbon Nation is a meticulously researched educational tool, but it’s more than that.  “We look at is as entertainment, too. If it’s not entertaining, no one’s going to watch it. Even our title has a sense of humor. We want people to know that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. … (But) we took the art and the entertainment piece seriously to make sure it communicated to people.”

That approach is working. After a screening for 250 students at a Lexington, Kentucky high school, the film received a standing ovation. “What we’ve been told and what we’ve seen is that climate and energy films really scare the living daylights out of kids. Our film doesn’t scare them. It was a relief to them.”

The film’s reach into educational settings will grow this fall.  When Byck learned from leaders at The Boeing Company (who also sponsored the film’s premier in Seattle) that the film could be an important supplement or to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, he decided make sure it was accessible.  Recently, at the Clinton Global Initiative America, he announced that Carbon Nation will be available – free – to students and teachers. Interested educators and students can go to to sign up for viewing.

In addition to his teaching duties at ASU, Byck has started work on Carbon Nation 2.0. As he starts to put together the pieces for a new film, finding those who are making a difference and introducing them to us, he’s sure that the project will be delivered with a light touch.  “When I’m laughing, I’m also more apt to take action. That’s part of the inspiration.”




The Biggest Problem You’ve Never Heard Of

(Appeared in Green Living Magazine Nov. 2013 –

According to Jim Elser, the only reason to care about phosphorous is if you drink water and eat food.

Elser is a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, and a Regents’ Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Sciences.  He’s also the co-coordinator of ASU’s Phosphorous Sustainability Initiative and has studied phosphorus for more than 20 years. He is convinced that if we can find a way to recycle phosphorus, we can secure food supplies and ensure clean water.

Most of us recall phosphorus being one of the elements on the Periodic Table – number 13, to be exact – but beyond high school chemistry and the label on multivitamins, don’t know much else about it. In fact, all living things require phosphorous to live. Our bodies use phosphorus to synthesize calcium for bones and teeth, change food into energy, produce hormones and more. Phosphorus is an important ingredient in nucleic acids and is in our DNA – literally. We cannot survive without it.

Plants can’t survive without phosphorus, either, and it is a key ingredient in the synthetic fertilizers that make high agricultural yields possible. But there’s a finite supply. Phosphorus is derived from phosphate rock, and global deposits are dwindling. As supplies decrease, prices increase (from $100 per ton in 2000 to $850 per ton in 2008) and those who need the fertilizer, especially those in developing countries, can’t afford it. In order to feed the earth’s seven billion people, the supply and affordability of phosphorous has to be protected, or the supply increased

Increased? Impossible, since the supply is finite. Conserved? Certainly. Recycled? Working on it.

Elser is also a Principal Investigator and member of the steering committee of the Phosphorous Sustainability Initiative’s Research Coordination Network.  The RCN is meant to bring experts in various disciplines into better communication with each other to integrate projects and focus on new analyses to answer questions about reducing phosphorous waste and recycling phosphorous.

Phosphorus is an indispensable nutrient for plants, but of the fertilizer added to crops, plants use only one-third to one-half of it. Some gets trapped in the soil, but much of it gets leached out or eroded out.  When infiltrates water supplies, a chain reaction starts: phosphorous causes algal blooms, bacteria consume the algae and suck up oxygen, lack of oxygen suffocates aquatic life, creating areas where plant and animal life is unsustainable. The most infamous of these is the 5,840 square mile (about the size of Connecticut) “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

But there are sources of phosphorous besides phosphate rock deposits.  Every well-nourished human wastes phosphorous every day in their – well – waste.  Wastewater treatment plants have been removing phosphorous from water for as long as 40 years because phosphorous rich water was another cause of algal blooms. Now, effluent treatment facilities that have started to use a process that transforms sludge destined for a landfill into struvite, a pellet that can be used in fertilizer that’s commercially viable. Studies are underway about treating animal waste in the same way.

Another issue is food waste. Elser says that about 50 percent of the global food supply “is lost before it even gets to the plate.” In developing countries, waste happens mostly between the farm and table as spoilage. Most of the discarded food ends up in landfills. “There’s a lot of energy in that food. There needs to be technology to extract that energy value and get that phosphorous back to a field where it belongs,” Elser says.

Being mindful of our carbon footprint is a familiar concept, but what about a phosphorous footprint? To conserve this precious supply, consider making some simple changes. Americans love lawns. According to information gathered by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, lawns could be considered America’s largest crop. There are about 31.6 million acres of turf – almost 50,000 square miles – in the U.S. Consider the tons of fertilizer applied to green up those yards every year, and xeriscaping or using organic lawn care could be a good alternative.

Since meat production is an inefficient process for phosphorous, consider eliminating or decreasing meat in the diet.  Those who aren’t ready to become strict vegetarians can consider becoming demitarians, people who have committed to decreasing their meat consumption for environmental and personal health. Some restaurants already offer demitarian choices, serving the same entrée with only half the meat. Or go organic. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program prohibits the use of most synthetic fertilizers on organic farms.

Some sources project phosphorous production peaking as soon as 2035. Yet as prices increase, users may get by with less, and suppliers find or create new sources. But since there is literally no way to make phosphorous – no way to synthesize is in a lab – and no way to produce food without it, research on conservation and recycling is imperative.  As Elser says, this may be “the biggest problem we’ve never heard of.”

Little Green Machines

Algae-LittleGreenMachines(As seen in Green Living Magazine, Oct. 2013 –

If a person thinks of algae, they mostly likely think it’s time to clean the pool. But there is a place in Mesa that concentrates on growing the stuff on purpose. The Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI), a part of the College of Technology and Innovation on the Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, is dedicated to researching the uses for those little green organisms.

When I asked Dr. Milton Sommerfeld, professor and co-director of AZCATI, about the difference between what clouds up the swimming pool and what the lab grows in giant test tubes, he says, “It’s essentially the same thing. One of the best strains in terms of petroleum was isolated from a small pond in Phoenix.”

Striking Oil

For years, the big story about algae is about turning it into biofuel. According to Sommerfeld, about 50 percent of some algae strains are oil. He provides a brief history lesson:  In the late 1970s, the government realized that the country had become too dependent on foreign oil and initiated the Aquatic Species Program, an effort to research algae as a potential oil source. He and others went out bio-prospecting throughout the Southwest, identified as desirable because of its sunny climate.

Oil extracted from algae looks like dark crude oil. When processed into biodiesel, it’s as clear and gold as the vegetable oil in the pantry. (It even smells like vegetable oil.) Unfortunately, although research findings continue to look positive, he says that developing a fuel product to compete in a commodity market is challenging and that while we’ve been extracting oil for more than 100 years, research on biofuels is relatively new.

You’re Already Eating It

To illustrate the diverse range of products that contain algae, Sommerfeld has a line of containers on his desk. He holds up two jars – one with dark green powder, one with lighter green powder. Both are biomass, what’s left of algae once either water or oil has been extracted. This is the stuff that is rich with protein and carbohydrate and is put in health supplements, or used by his wife for algae cookies.

Even if you’re not a health-food-healthie, you’ve probably been consuming algae without knowing it. Sommerfeld hands over an empty ice cream carton with the ingredient carrageenan circled, explaining that anything a food producer wants to be creamy (including ice cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, salad dressing or even the head of foam on beer) contains a by-product of red algae, agar or algenic acid.

Algae is not only a source of fuel oil, but a source of omega 3 fatty acids, what most of us call fish oil.  The latest health supplement, derived from red algae, is astaxanthin (ast-a-zan-thin), a powerful anti-oxidant.

Cool Clear Water

When research on algae started in the Southwest, researchers were using highly saline aquifer water. The idea was to find environments in which the algae would survive. What has evolved it using algae to assist in water purification processes. AZCATI uses various waste water sources to test how algae absorbs nitrogen and phosphorous from effluent and gray water. Once the organism has eaten its fill, so to speak, it can be used for fertilizer. Sommerfeld hopes that in the future, farmers use and re-use algae as a soil amendment, cutting down on synthetic fertilizers that create unhealthy run-off.

In the Field

The AZCATI facility looks like any other office or classroom building, full of offices and labs, including a small room full of very technical-looking devices that Sommerfeld calls the million dollar room. We pass through areas where men and women in lab coats examine slides, and test tubes the size of packing cylinders bubble. This is where algae strains are identified and tested. Depending on the results, they get promoted to be tested outside.

Across the street behind a high fence are shallow pools in sizes small, medium and large equipped with paddlewheels to keep the algae moving and exposed to light. Farther back, in 50-foot rows, are panels approximately four feet tall and three inches wide, slim acrylic sandwiches full of bubbling fluid in various shades of green.  Once the algae appears nearly black, it’s ready to harvest and process further.  Not far away is a field lab where further testing is done.

And Beyond

AzCATI’s doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however.  Although the center is part of ASU, it is dedicated to serve as a place for research, testing and the eventual commercialization of algae-based products, providing open test and evaluation facilities for the algae industry and research community.  Sommerfeld explains that the goal is to have “universities, national labs, industries come here and collaborate with us and to, in a sense, build the innovation base that we need for an algae industry.”

Red Rock Magnetism



(Green Living Magazine, Sept. 2013 –

The first time I went to Sedona, I hiked Boynton Canyon, the site of one of the area’s four strongest vortexes.  At the overlook two-tenths of a mile off the main trail, back against the curve of a rock, tucked away, I watched as the Navajo sandstone flamed red and orange, shadows shifted and darkened then disappeared. I exhaled and closed my eyes and just sat in one place in that one moment and waited. I don’t know if there was a vortex or not or what that was supposed to feel like, but I do know that I sat and was present and allowed myself to be still, and was grateful to be reminded that the natural world feeds me.

On the surface, Sedona doesn’t appear the spiritual stronghold that nearly 4 million yearly visitors claim. The main street, State Highway 89A, is a series of roundabouts that alleviate traffic backed up at stoplights. Downtown, tee-shirt and tchotchke shops line the street, parking is scarce, and pink Jeeps filled with tourists intent on seeing the red rocks tool around. But Sedona boasts much more than the extremes of consumer culture and metaphysical mecca. Sedona, the Verde Valley and Oak Creek area offer a sampling of fun for the conscious traveler.

First stop: The Sedona Visitors Center at 331 Forest Road (corner of AZ State Highway 89A and Forest Road).  Keep in mind that Sedona is full of time share resorts that advertise visitor information on brown and white signs, usually with a fine print “Sponsored By” tag. A blue sign with white lettering indicates the official Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center.  The center has the requisite brochures and maps as well as info about area hikes and campgrounds, state parks and the Red Rocks pass that will get you into other hiking areas. To start planning in advance, go to their site at

Sedona’s main attraction is its stunning red sandstone formations. Hiking trails criss-cross creeks and canyons. While the red rocks are stunning, Sedona has also attracted millions of people seeking healing or enlightenment for more than 60 years because of the unique energy from its vortexes, a term first used by Page Bryant, former Sedona resident and psychic.  Some say that this energy is swirling spiritual energy. Others explain that it’s magnetic, caused by the iron oxide coating the sandstone, but no scientific evidence supports this. For whatever reason, many who visit report feelings of ease, of healing, even a spiritual epiphany, after spending time at one of the several vortex sites. Myriad companies offer tours to these points, everything from strenuous hikes with an experienced guide, to yoga on the rocks, or a visit focused on healing and renewal. Smart phone apps are available that show trails and provide information about the vortexes, also.

Magnetic or not, Sedona has long attracted metaphysical practitioners: psychics, astrologists, shamans, alternative healers.  To weed through the plethora of consultants (including vortex guides) a good place to start looking is on, the site of the Sedona Metaphysical Spiritual Association. The group was formed to offer access to reputable practitioners.

Some of us, after a profound spiritual epiphany, just want to go have lunch. A vegan hot dog? Yes – a really good one. Stop by Simon’s Columbian Style Hot Dogs adjoining Oak Creek Brewery for a dog of gourmet proportions. Don’t let a long line or seemingly strange topping combination discourage you. Potato chips and mozzarella cheese combined with pineapple might sound strange, but somehow it works. Choose between meat, veggie or vegan dogs.

For dinner, venture out to Up the Creek Grill & Bar in Cornville, southwest of Sedona on North Page Springs Road, just off of  highway 89A.  Dedicated to offering farm-to-table cuisine, entrees change regularly depending on what ingredients are in season. Plan on spending some time out on the deck overlooking Oak Creek.

If you’re heading to Sedona for relaxing, consider lodging at a unique bed and breakfast. The Canyon Wren has cabins for one or two, direct private access to Oak Creek, and no TVs, telephones or cell phone coverage. Dream Maker Bed and Breakfast offers all electronic amenities, and also boasts a teepee for relaxation, a labyrinth for contemplative walks and a 30-foot star gazing platform.

Vinti-culture thrives in the area. Chino Valley, west of Sedona, is home to Granite Creek Vineyard. The winery claims to be one of the original in the area, and offers only organic wines. Tasting hours are generally Thursday through Sunday, with live music on Saturdays.

Despite initial appearances, Sedona is a singular destination for conscious travelers. Off the track, find the places that speak to you; revel in the energy; be fed by the natural world – and go home transformed.