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On the Frontlines of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Posted by Guest | September 10th, 2013 | Filed under Partners for Change, Personal Reflection

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If it wasn’t for global aid organizations like Mercy Corps, the nearly two million Syrian refugees would have little hope for survival. This month in the Thought Kitchen, Cassandra Nelson, Mercy Corps’ Director of Multimedia Projects, travels to Lebanon to document the work the organization is doing to bring renewed comfort and confidence to refugees like Hannah and her seven children.

August 1, 2013: Cassandra Nelson reporting from Lebanon

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Lost in Fiber: Musings from an Environmental Textile Artist

Posted by Guest | March 1st, 2013 | Filed under Art, Design

(Nested) Flotsam Fiber Form (photo: Abigail Doan)

This week in the Thought Kitchen, environmental fiber artist, writer, and Nau ambassador Abigail Doan shares her unique perspective on the intersection of natural fibers, culture, sustainability, and the beauty of art in the everyday landscape. 

Performance fabrics and fiber have had a long love affair. The earliest Paleolithic string skirts were essentially mini-aprons with seductive fringes of twined fiber strands that served as fashion. We now rely on both engineered and natural fibers to keep us ventilated and warm when we venture out for work and play, and the thoughtful crafting of our personal garments continues to demonstrate what makes us attractive and uniquely human.

This is why I chose fiber as an art medium and vehicle for expression. Even though I had previously worked in documentary film and explored a range of more traditional studio methods, I ultimately opted to work with fiber and textiles because of their versatile nature and the low-impact/non-toxic possibilities. As an environmental artist, I am an advocate for slow crafting methods, the advancement of sustainable design strategies, and the preservation of wide open spaces. I use simple strands of spun or delicately crocheted fiber to draw on the land for site-specific installations that are carefully deconstructed after documentation.

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On the Border of Syria: A Dispatch from Mercy Corps

Posted by Guest | January 2nd, 2013 | Filed under Partners for Change, Partnerships, Personal Reflection, Positive Change

Hasna and her seven children fled the civil war in Syria with practically nothing. Mercy Corps-distributed clothes, blankets, mattresses and gas heating supplies will help them through the winter. Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

This week in the Thought Kitchen, Jeremy Barnicle, Chief Development and Communications Officer for Mercy Corps, one of our longstanding Partners for Change, travels to Jordan to give us a first hand account of the Syrian refugee crisis and what we can do to help.

Mafraq, Jordan — I am sitting on the floor of a cold, crumbling single room dwelling just on the Jordan side of the Syria-Jordan border.  I’m sipping Turkish coffee, surrounded by a family of Syrian refugees.  The coffee isn’t warming me up much: it is December and it is freezing.

My host is a lady named Hasna Erhael.  She’s a 36 year old mother of seven, six of whom are girls and are sitting with us.  Her oldest child, a 15-year-old boy, is out collecting recyclables to make some money.  Hasna and her family fled Syria a few months ago when their town came under attack by the Syrian army.  Her husband is back in Syria fighting the regime and says he won’t stop until they have taken Damascus.

They came over the border with nothing, and nothing is pretty much what they still have.  They rent this room with help from relatives.  No work.  No school.  No toys or art supplies.  No furniture. No electricity or heat.  No running water.

I don’t want to make Hasna sound like a victim — that’s certainly not how she sees herself.  She tells me she and her family just need to be able to eat a little bit and they’ll be able to hold out until the fighting ends and they can return to Syria. But she is nervous for her girls: “They have nothing to do.  They miss school and they are totally bored.”  They are clearly struggling, and that’s where Mercy Corps comes in.

We are working with a local religious leader to identify Syrian refugees — more than 15,000 of them are hunkered down among the 60,000 permanent resident — and help meet some of their basic needs.  Right now, we have the money to help about 1000 refugee families in Mafraq get prepared for winter: that means we’ve giving them winter coats, blankets, kitchen supplies, food packages, gas heaters and gas.  In general, we are a “hand-up not a hand-out” kind of operation, but in times like this we do our best to bring struggling people some measure of material comfort.  Mercy Corps is providing similar support to Syrian refugees throughout the region.

Mercy Corps is proud to be a partner of Nau.  Support from Nau and its customers allows us to meet the needs of people like Hasna and her family.  For more on our response with Syrian refugees, click here.  

Jeremy Barnicle at the Zataari refugee camp in Jordan. Mercy Corps drilled the well, which will serve all 40-plus thousand Syrian refugees in the camp, plus tens of thousands who live in neighboring communities.

Everyday Rhythm: The Music That Sustains Us

Posted by Guest | December 9th, 2012 | Filed under Music, Sustainability

Photos by Neil DaCosta

In this three-part blog series, Bowen Ames—our moonlighting Art Director—profiles three unique artists who use an unconventional approach to sustainability to live their art every day. In our first installment, Bowen interviews songstress Alela Diane who details her process of writing and producing her first independent album after years of being confined to a music label. 

Alela Diane is a seasoned a musician. Her music reflects her relationships and a deep connection to her forested home in Northern California. Her listeners, new and old, have always found the stark honesty of her voice incredibly striking. “I’ve always been my most honest in my song-writing,” remarks Alela. “When you write music from an honest place, people respond to it in heartfelt ways, “ she said. But recently, when faced with major changes in her personal and professional life, Alela made a surprising discovery; her songwriting held the key to the changes she needed to make in order for her life and her creative process to be more sustainable.

It was a process that culminated with her last album, Alela Diane & The Wild Divine, which featured her then husband and collaborator Tom Bevitori as well as her father, Tom Menig and was backed by a full band. The recording process, guided by a producer through her label Rough Trade, brought with it a new sound, energy and image. They went on tour across the US and Europe and opened for The Fleet Foxes. But it was a distinct change from her earlier solo-work. For Alela, she was no longer just a girl with a guitar.

While on tour in Europe, Alela began writing songs for her new album. She noticed that her songs were returning to their original confessional nature, and she was surprised to find she had a deep dissatisfaction with her life. “After I had written this new collection of songs, it became clear that I had to make changes in my life. The work itself told me what I needed to do.” she said. She knew she couldn’t just grin and bear it. If she did, it would mean a dwindling love for the music that sustained her. So Alela filed for divorce and turned to her friends and family for support as she underwent one of her hardest transitions.

This is when Alela began to think about building a future with music that sustained her. She decided to produce and record the album herself, this time employing her own intrinsic sense of what each song needed. She met with respected musicians for their input on her music rather than a producer or label. The album, tentatively titled About Farewell, features some of Alela’s finest work and offers the same stark realism with which she approached the passing year.

“All of these songs are about shifts in my life and how I’ve worked through them,” she said. “Oftentimes my songs inform me of what I need to do.  When that’s the case, I feel obliged to listen.”

Riding Big: The Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic

Posted by Guest | November 13th, 2012 | Filed under Outdoor Sport, surf

If you’re like us, you may have spent some time imagining what it feels like to ride a surfboard down the choppy face of a 30-foot wave. Hell, maybe you’ve done it and can tell us the tale. But for those of us who just dream about serious surfing, there’s something undeniably thrilling about knowing professional big wave surfers can conquer the unconquerable.

Some of the best big wave riders in the world may soon be arriving in our Oregon backyard if the weather gods cooperate. Until December 31, a surf competition called the Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic is in a “holding period.” When forecasters predict swells of 30 feet or greater, competitors will have 72 hours to show up in Lincoln City, Oregon. They’ll arrive ready to ride.

Half a mile offshore, the Nelscott Reef produces legendary waves. For most of the eight years of the competition’s history, surfers were towed to the break by jet skis, but starting in 2008, some competitors chose to manually paddle to the waves so they could get the full drop, says event organizer John Forse.

That attitude mirrors the development of the sport. “Big wave surfing has evolved a lot. They [surfers] found out that even when they eat shit on a 40- or 50-foot wave, they could survive,” he says. “That was the biggest fear, handling the wipeout. So then they said, ‘Shit, let’s paddle it.’”

One of those big wave surfers, Dave Wassel, who competed at Nelscott in 2010 and spends his days life guarding on the North Shore of Oahu, said that while he was out catching the 40- and 50-foot waves on the reef, he saw a wave with a 70-foot face—the largest paddleable wave he’s ever seen.

This year, surfers will compete for a $10,000 purse and a chance to become the champion of the Big Wave World Tour, a series of five big wave competitions that includes the Nelscott Classic. Sign up for an email update about the start of the competition and find more info on their website.

Award-winning author and writer Lucy Burningham has been working as a journalist for the past twelve years. She covers travel, food, and craft beer for a variety of magazines, newspapers, and guidebooks.

Postcard from the Arctic Circle

Posted by Guest | August 16th, 2012 | Filed under Personal Reflection


By Bree Kessler

There are small rural towns and then there is bush Alaska.  These “bush” communities located throughout Alaska are hard-to-reach places usually only accessible by plane or, in the winter by snowmobile, dogsled, or an ice road that forms for a short while each year (also the inspiration for the TV show Ice Road Truckers). I live in one of these places: Bettles, Alaska, a town 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle near to Gates of the Arctic National Park, the largest continuous wilderness park in the United States.

Bettles was never a bustling town, but at one time there were nearly 60 people who lived here including residents of the adjoining native village.  Presently, there are probably only 20 full year residents and the population swells to closer to 35 residents during the summer months when the National Park Service staff moves in to town.

Life in the bush can feel isolating to some, but to others, this wilderness escape is what they’ve been searching for their entire lives.  For me, I try to pass time by watching daily life unfold – like I am Margaret Mead completing fieldwork in some distant land. With 24 hours of sunlight during the summer to inevitably be followed by almost 24 hours of darkness in the winter, regardless of how quickly I sometimes want time to move here (especially when I am awaiting my Netflix to be flown in), it always seems to move slowly.  And that’s not always a bad thing, even when you don’t have cell phone service.

Bree Kessler fears the continental United States and thus splits her time between Hawaii and northern Alaska.  She is the author of the recently published guidebook Moon Big Island of Hawaii and you can read stories about her life in the Arctic Circle at www.parkdispatches.com.


The Higg Index Debuts

Posted by Guest | August 9th, 2012 | Filed under Environmental Change, Partnerships, Sustainability, Who We Are


Remember the Eco Index? Last year, we profiled the evolution of this industry-wide, sustainable business tool in our three-part blog series and how Jamie—our Director of Textile Development and Sustainability—has been an integral part of its development. Fast-forward a year, and here we are, staring down the launch of the much-anticipated index (now known as the Higg Index). This week in the Thought Kitchen, Avery Stonich, Communications Manager for OIA, gives us an insider’s perspective on the tool that promises to change the way an industry does business.

You might think that the outdoor industry is a bunch of tree huggers, and to some extent that’s true. After all, we’re in this business because we love being outdoors, and protecting natural resources and quality places to play goes hand-in-hand with that. But what if I told you that this collective concern for the environment has translated into an industry-wide movement toward sustainability that is changing the way the world does business?

That’s right. Hundreds of outdoor industry companies have been collaborating for years on identifying and implementing best practices in sustainability—specifically, ensuring that the gear we use in the outdoors is made in a more responsible way. And this work is now reverberating to other industries. Pretty cool.

How did it all start? Nearly six years ago, several leading outdoor industry companies recognized that they could make more meaningful progress toward sustainable business practices by working together. So these competitors sat down together and started hammering out quantifiable, measurable ways to create more sustainable products, starting with apparel.

As this effort gained momentum, these companies and Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) formed the OIA Sustainability Working Group (SWG) to put even more muscle behind the work. In 2010, the industry finalized and piloted the OIA Eco Index, a standardized way to assess product sustainability. It went so well that another group—the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC)—adopted the open-source index last year, blended it with a tool Nike developed, and created a more robust indexing tool.

This is a big deal because the SAC encompasses about a third of the global apparel and footwear market and includes a lot of big names—like  Walmart, Target, Nike, and H&M. So having the SAC on board opens the door to this sustainability tool being adopted on a very broad scale.

And now… drumroll, please… this tool—now called the Higg Index—launched on July 26th. Companies can use the Higg Index to get a clear view of where to make improvements in their supply chains to reduce the environmental (and eventually, social) impacts of their products. It also provides a consistent framework and language that companies can use to assess and compare product sustainability.

Just how big of a deal is this? Consider this: The White House recognized the OIA Sustainability Working Group as a Champion of Change for Corporate Responsibility earlier this year. They don’t hand this sort of recognition out freely. You have to earn it.

While we are celebrating, our work is far from complete. This is just the beginning. The OIA Sustainability Working Group will continue to contribute to the evolution of the Higg Index for apparel. And we are continuing work in other areas—developing indexing tools for footwear and equipment, identifying how to manage chemicals in the supply chain, tackling materials traceability, and creating best practices in social responsibility and fair labor.

To learn more, check out the OIA website, and support the companies that are involved in our Sustainability Working Group. They are contributing passion, money and sweat equity to a cause that is bigger than themselves. Together, as an industry, we are developing new practices that can fundamentally change the way we do business and make the world a better place to live, work and play.

Reprinted with permission from the Outdoor Industry Association and National Geographic.

The Big Island: Kama’aina-style

Posted by Guest | July 11th, 2012 | Filed under Personal Reflection, Sustainability

all photos by Mark Wasser

The surf, the sand, the sea: what’s not to love about Hawaii? Well, besides the continuous fleet of rental cars that circumnavigate the island every day. This week in the Thought Kitchen, guidebook author and Hawaiian local Bree Kessler gives us a little insight into the art of low-carbon road tripping and how to travel the big island Kama’aina-style.

By Bree Kessler

There are a variety of reasons why the kama’aina (Hawaiian word for “local”) take the bus on the Big Island of Hawaii. When living in Hawaii, I ride the bus because it combines my two favorite things: public transportation and conversations with strangers.

Just like the lifestyle in Hawaii, a ride on the Hele On bus ($1 per person and an additional $1 for large bags and bikes) can move slowly. But this pace allows for the opportunity to “talk story” with fellow riders. I seldom ride the bus without sitting near someone who invites me to a party or suggests a great hidden beach to check out. Sometimes the conversations are more serious like on one trip from Hilo to Volcanoes National Park when I offered a therapy session to a transitioning woman and in turn learned about the unique history of transgenderism in Hawaii (this meeting seemed fated given that I am a trained social worker who teaches courses on the psychology of gender).

The Big Island essentially has only one main highway that circumvents it – making it extremely easy both to figure out the bus routes (on the website) and to catch a bus from nearly anywhere. There are some established bus stops and times, but the bus system in Hawaii is similar to the bus culture in Latin America: meaning you can hail down a bus anywhere and be dropped off anywhere you want.

While some bus routes run hourly, there are other routes that are only available a few times a day making it necessary to plan your schedule carefully. Nevertheless, the extra effort definitely is worth it not only for the money you’ll save on the rental car itself and gas (the islands ain’t cheap) but also, the bus is the best way to interact with the local community who, for the most part, relish in “talking story” with anyone who gets onboard.

Bree Kessler is a freelance writer and storyteller who fears the continental United States and thus splits her time between Hawaii and Alaska. She is the author of the Moon Handbook: Big Island of Hawaii. You can check out her stories on life in the Arctic Circle at www.parkdispatches.com.

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Riding Across the Cultural Divide

Posted by Guest | June 26th, 2012 | Filed under Bikes, Outdoor Sport, Personal Reflection


Editor’s Note: Yeah, we like bikes. But our obsession for the velocipede goes beyond the obvious. This week, in the Thought Kitchen, friend, freelance writer and fellow rider, Ellee Thalheimer echoes yet another reason why we trade in four wheels for two—to experience something far better than cruise control and heated seats.

By Ellee Thalheimer

Throughout the wind-thrashed land of Argentina’s Pampa, the remote, bustling hamlets became ghost towns for three hours every afternoon. After the siesta, everyone from leathery-skinned cowboys to laughing women in designer jeans would huddle in groups sipping yerba mate from a communal gourd and metal straw.

On this trip and many others, my secret tool to bridge the cultural divide and nose my way into the heart of another culture was my massively loaded bicycle. At car checkpoints, Argentine police officers would invite me to share a mate, and curious onlookers approached me as a fascinating—and possibly off-my-rocker—oddity.

They wanted to know where I was from, where I was going, how far I’d come, and how many miles per day I rode. That inquisitiveness enabled me to ask intimate questions and wiggle my way into some pretty stellar conversations and cultural understanding.

People’s curiosity in exotic places like Argentina, interestingly enough, is not all that different than at home. Crossing over the West Hills, just outside of metro Portland, Oregon, the culture subtly changes; there are slight differences in how people talk to each other, variant political signs in front yards, and deviations in restaurant menus.

A bicycle, with bags slung all over it, seldom fails to pique folk’s interest, even if they are used to cyclists. So the rural Oregonian with a gun rack chats with the Portland cyclist toting Kombucha in a non-toxic metal bottle.

The bicycle ends up building a link between diverse people who might never have interacted. And when folks from disparate cultures connect and learn about each other, empathy is born, and the world becomes a better place. A two-wheeled device all of the sudden accomplishes more than anyone would have ever expected.

Elle is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her past work includes Cycling Italy and contributions to the Lonely Planet editions of Mexico, USA, Caribbean Islands and Pacific Northwest guidebooks. Learn more about cycle touring in Oregon in her new guidebook: Cycling Sojourner: A Guide to the Best Multi-day Tours in Oregon by checking out her website www.cyclingsojourner.com. And stay tuned for her upcoming venture: Hop in the Saddle: A Guide to Portland’s Craft Beer Scene, By Bike available in November.

Gone Reified

Posted by Guest | May 23rd, 2012 | Filed under Personal Reflection, Sustainability


A big thanks to Bree Kessler—author, traveler, professor & friend of Nau—for this well-written and insightful piece on the hidden meaning behind a few of today’s most ubiquitous words.

If you live in New York City (and definitely if you live in Brooklyn) it’s nearly impossible to visit a weekend market without seeing the following words: local, organic, artisanal.  If you’re lucky, you will usually see these words used together (as in the photo above taken at the Brooklyn Flea Smorgasburg).  If you’re like me, after you finish nervously laughing at the sign but still purchase the must try item, you wonder: what does it mean for something to be “local” or “organic” or “artisanal”?

I have to be honest, I don’t really know what those words mean and I don’t know if anyone does because these terms are “reified.”  The theory behind “reification” (the noun, “to reify” is the verb) originates in Marxist theory.  The idea is that things (from food to clothes to body parts) are given meanings that do not inherently exist in them.  For instance, when I call some chickpeas “local” I expect that everyone knows what I am inferring: that the chickpeas came from nearby — that they didn’t travel too far.  There was also a time when I thought it meant that they were solely grown on a family farm, handpicked by the farmers sons and daughters.  But for someone else, “local” may have a different definition such as grown within a 500 mile radius or maybe grown within 25 miles and it doesn’t really matter if the harvest was gathered by low-wage workers or not.  Chickpeas are reified in this case because we are assigning a meaning to them that wasn’t there initially.  Making the chickpeas “local” gives them a value that was not originally there before they arrived to Brooklyn Flea Smorgasburg and practically speaking, it may raise their price too.

There is nothing wrong with reification. In fact, Marx himself argued that it was an essential part to creating a market economy: some things are given more value than other things and therefore some items costs more than others.  Local chickpeas are worth more than non-local chickpeas for those willing to pay a premium.  The issue with being a consumer in a reified world is figuring out exactly what these terms mean because they don’t mean the same thing to everyone.  We all know that we prefer our clothing to be made from sustainable materials, but do we know how something becomes a sustainable material or what it means for clothing to be sustainable?  Reification allows us to not think how things become products — to reify allows us to say something is “organic” or “local” or “sustainable” without truly considering how and where that product transitioned from from fabric to shirt  to arrival at your house.  A fun project (much like the one seen here.) I like to see is a slideshow that reveals where you think your shirt (or you chickpeas) come from.  If you make one please post them below.

Bree Kessler is a freelance writer currently living in Northern Alaksa.  She is the author of the Moon Handbook: Big Island of Hawaii and currently completing her PhD in Environmental Psychology from City University of New York — Graduate Center.