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A Considerable Town

Everyone at This Convention Is Greener Than You Are

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Thu, Sep 6, 2012 at 10:30 AM
click to enlarge The Hildebrand Construction crew builds a bubble house. - NANETTE GONZALES
  • Nanette Gonzales
  • The Hildebrand Construction crew builds a bubble house.

The AltBuild Alternative Building Materials & Design Expo, in its ninth year, is regarded as a place for the "green-curious" to make the leap to "green-committed." For people who had already waded past compact fluorescent bulbs deep into eco-consciousness territory, however, it was the place to show off, compare carbon footprints and otherwise feel greener-than-thou.

One of the greenest people at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium had to be David Karp, with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Karp stood in front of a bin of worms and plunged his hand into the wriggling mess. Worm feces, a powerful natural fertilizer, leaked out the bottom of the bin. Karp scrounged around in the catch tray and let the poop dribble through his fingers. "That's the good stuff," he said.

Sometimes he brews a cup of worm tea with the poop, using five gallons of water, molasses, fish food and an aquarium bubbler. The tea is not for him but his plants.

Karp, a worm aficionado, waxed poetic about their characteristics: how the components of the bin mimic the top six inches of jungle leaf litter; how worms are hermaphroditic ("They make each other pregnant"); how they live two years in the wild and five "in captivity;" how, like many convention attendees, they adore vegetables and abhor meat and dairy.

Stick their bin in a warm, shady spot, pop in a few melon rinds, and the wigglers will happily defecate a garden's worth of compost. "What if the worms leave the bin?" a woman asked Karp.

"Why would they leave? Where would they go? They hate light," Karp said. "They're not curious."

It was hard to determine who was the most hard core about going green. People were attending hands-on drip-irrigation workshops and rainwater-harvesting workshops and panels on "Sustainable Landscapes Demystified." In between perusing soy ink-printed brochures that proclaimed "Insulation is sexy stuff," they were contemplating urban homesteading and native plant gardening and permaculture and solar tubes and zero toxin paints. They were driving energy-efficient hybrid cars. Those who didn't drive were having their bicycles valet-parked.

Turning stuff into other stuff is one of the central tenets of green living, and people here did this in spades. They turned shipping containers into houses, and houses into miniature ecosystems. They turned their roofs into gardens, and their gardens into certified wildlife refuges. They turned recycled plastic into furniture that resembles wood. They dredged wood from the bottom of lakes and turned it into fancy, $6,000 Danish modern credenzas.

If recycling is a central tenet, so is guilt. Some attendees were wracked by guilt showering and doing laundry: all that perfectly semi-usable water down the drain!

The water people were a category unto themselves. Leigh Jerrard installs residential "gray-water" irrigation systems that let you water, say, as he does, three peach trees, one plum tree, one apple tree, and some loquats with the used water from your washing machine. Jerrard gnashed his teeth in anger at the thought of his neighbor hosing off the driveway.

Some people sought to drink the very ocean itself after removing its salt. Easier said than done. Gossip in the water camp turned to the pilot desalination program in Redondo Beach. They had problems with backflow. Chlorine bleach leaked out from an adjoining desalination tank at the Redondo Beach SEA Lab, killing most of the animals in the aquarium, including 7,000 baby sea bass being raised on-site. On the morning of the waterborne toxic event, the fish swam erratically, then went belly up. Tragically, and ironically, the fish were a month away from release into the ocean.

Unsurprisingly, the Expo also was the place to feel insecure about your greenness. At lunch (organic, vegan, tasty as a cardboard box) I sat next to a woman who had been neglecting the outdoors because she's too busy reading books about it. Across from her, a guy couldn't stop talking about the guava tree he'd planted. He spoke in glowing terms, as if it were his child. He was spending inordinate amounts of time on that tree, he said.

The outdoorsy woman nodded as the guava tree guy went on. "I know what you mean," she said, stabbing her lettuce with a biodegradable plastic fork. "If I never had to sleep again, I'd be rereading my book on urban foraging."

Time, of course, is the ultimate nonrecyclable. Architect Douglas Stanton, finding himself with an abundance of time due to the economic downturn, taught himself to build Depression-era architect Wallace Neff's bubble houses. The indestructible structure is made by spraying concrete onto a giant nylon balloon, "sort of like how you make a piñata." It uses 50 percent less energy than a wood-frame house and looks 100 percent like Jedi master Yoda's hut on the swamp planet Dagobah.

Ultimately, the hardest of the hard-core sustainability advocates are those willing to kill for it. Asked if he is vegetarian, 20-something Davey paused for a long time. "I raise chickens," he said finally.

He also slaughters them. "It was hard the first time," he admitted. "I couldn't see myself doing it on a weekly basis."

He remembers watching his grandmother kill a chicken when he was a kid. He remembers being scared. It was the first time he'd been involved with the meat he eats. For his own fowl execution, he used a killing cone. "It's like a traffic cone," he explained. You hang the chicken upside down with its head poking outside the cone, then slit its throat.

So far Davey has only killed chickens. He hoped to get some rabbits soon. "I'm not really ready to eat rabbits yet, though," he said. "I just want them around."

Follow me on Twitter at @gendyalimurung, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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