Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Send your green-living questions to Umbra.

For even more green goodness, you can follow Umbra on Twitter (@AskUmbra) or become a fan on Facebook.

Umbra Fisk is Grist Research Associate II, Hardcover and Periodicals Unit, floors 2B-4B.

Umbra on the cost of organics

Dear Umbra, How come it’s so expensive to go organic? I could swing it by myself by eating a bare minimum of food, but I’m charged with feeding consume-mass-quantity types who favor the traditional American diet, and they eat meat. I would be in debt buying just half the monthly food consumption. One would have to be rich to go organic. MonikkaMarie Jackson Queen Village, N.Y. Dearest MonikkaMarie, The usual answer to your question from organic proponents is: organic isn’t expensive, conventional is unrealistically cheap. Not that helpful, but it’s true. It doesn’t make cents. Photo: iStockphoto. In the United …

Umbra on composting weeds

Dear Umbra, I’ve been weeding the garden and yard, and got to thinking about some of the more invasive plants. I’ve heard that not everything goes in the compost pile, but what weeds can I toss in? I’m fairly new to the composting game, so any advice is much appreciated. Danielle Walker Monroe, Ore. Dearest Danielle, Composting is the original and highest form of recycling. People frequently write in to ask what can go into their recycling bins. While recycling is specific to the services available where one lives, composting is a do-it-yourself endeavor, and there are some universal rules …

Umbra on building a deck

Dear Umbra, It’s spring, my house turns 100 years old this year, and I would like to celebrate by adding a deck. But what type of building materials should I choose? Wood, plastic, or composite? In my market there is no ready supply of FSC-certified wood — I would have to have it milled and shipped in from across the state. Besides, is that really better when you have to treat it every year? What about the new types of pressure-treated wood that are often used for the support structure? So many questions. (And forget patios — my heart is …

Umbra on global warming and you

Dear Umbra, I love the scientific ins and outs, really I do, but what oh what can we do about global warming? And I mean us ordinary folks with a house and mortgage and some percentage point of kids and a few compact fluorescents and maybe even a hybrid in the driveway. We’re right there with you, so please don’t leave us hanging. Peter Kelley College Park, Md. Dearest Peter, Right. Sorry. I got frowny last month, and forgot to put a “we can do it!” sheen on everything. (Which reminds me — has anyone else noticed that everything in …

Umbra on organic cashews

Dear Umbra, I work in a grocery store. Recently a customer refused to purchase our cashews because they weren’t organic. Does it really matter if nuts are organic? Are they sprayed with chemicals during production? Did the customer have a point, or should she have sucked it up and bought our cashews? Brianna Farmington Hills, Mich. Dearest Brianna, I am shocked, shocked to find that the bland, chewy cashew is the most popular nut in the world. A cashew tree in Brazil. Photo: iStockphoto. Cashews are related to mangoes and poison oak. They grow on large mango-esque trees, which produce …

Umbra on herbicides and lawns

Dear Umbra, My husband just spread some very toxic weed-killer on our lawn, and I told him there must be a safer way to get rid of weeds. Our children and pets were not allowed on the lawn for 24 hours. We have a well and septic system, and I was wondering if that stuff would seep into our water supply. I also worried about the birds and other wildlife that visit our yard. Thanks for any help you can offer. Doreen York, Maine Dearest Doreen, I can’t tell you too much about the effects of the spraying without knowing …

Umbra on herbicides

Dear Umbra, How do herbicides (organic, if such exist, or non-organic) work? David Burch South Bend, Ind. Dearest David, Herbicides are considered a subcategory of pesticides, for all you confused by my last pesticide comments. Herbicides kill plants with a vast array of ingenious torture and maiming techniques. (Maiming a plant isn’t quite like maiming an animal: plants can grow back broken limbs, and it’s hard to deny a plant its food source unless you expend the effort to get the plant out of the ground entirely.) Effective herbicides work at a cellular level to disrupt the functioning of the …

Umbra on water vapor and climate change

Dear Umbra, Coming from a scientific background, I was under the assumption that water vapor was the worst — or you could say the best — at causing global warming. Do you believe this to be false, and if not, why is no one talking about it? Erik Nash Dearest Erik, I’ve decided to use your letter as a continuation of B’s from earlier this week. Spouting off on global warming. Photo: iStockphoto. Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas. It is the dominant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere by mass and volume, but scientists don’t seem to agree on …

Umbra on the greenhouse effect

Dear Umbra, Man-made greenhouse gases are blamed for recent global-warming trends. But man-made greenhouse gases account for only 5 percent of the greenhouse effect. Water vapor, over which civilization has virtually no control, accounts for some 95 percent of that greenhouse effect. Why has so much attention been focused on man-made gases when they comprise such a relatively small part of the problem? B. Hawley Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Dearest B., I’m going to pick apart your letter, and I truly do not mean to be snide. But the very language you use illustrates a common misunderstanding of our current situation, …