Heard around the West

 

California's rolling blackouts have marooned people in elevators and left hundreds of cows bellowing for their milking machines. Yet high prices and scarce supply won't affect everyone in the state: not, for instance, residents of the 1970s-era "Eco-House" in Arcata, north of San Francisco.

For 21 years, three students at a time from Humboldt State University have carved out a life in this 10-room wood house that's almost completely free of the boom-bust problems of utility companies. If toast is the ticket, for example, a student hops on a bicycle and pedal-powers a toaster. Homemade bicycle rigs, reports the San Francisco Chronicle, also power a washing machine, and if an outdoor concert is scheduled, "a 14-bicycle behemoth ... spews enough juice to run a sound system." Solar panels produce 700 watts a day, with the power stored in 12 lead-free batteries. The only "real" energy purchased is natural gas, for a manageable $10 a month.

Why buy any outside power at all? Hot showers. Students also produce fuel from waste cooking oil and power from a backyard wind turbine, while winter chills are kept at bay with thermal curtains - quilts of insulated cloth. "Some people might get a laugh out of the bike thing or the dry compost toilet," says Sean Docker, one of the energy-conscious live-in students, "but this is very serious stuff going on here. We're not kidding around." Contact Eco-House, officially called the Humboldt State University Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, at its Web site: sorrel.humboldt.edu/~ccat.

For 20 years, a knee-high pink pig has stood outside the 1917 Lumber Co. in gentrifying Joseph, Ore., but now, the pig has gotten the boot. The city council voted that the long-eyelashed metal pig - a portable barbecue - violates a sign ordinance and clutters up the sidewalk, reports the Wallowa County Chieftain. This makes store owner Jim Russell spitting mad and more than a little stubborn. Citing the U.S. Constitution, Russell said he and the store's pink mascot aren't budging, though he allows, "It's not going to do me any good to be fined and thrown in jail with my pig.

A spate of neatening and tidying has also struck politically correct Portland, Ore., though in this case the target is utility poles, not pink pigs. Officials say that power poles should be stripped bare, freed of their palimpsest of posters and stapled-on flyers that promote everything from grunge-band performances to apartment rentals with those handy tear-off phone numbers. It may be an informal communication network, Portland politicians sniff, but it is also nothing less than urban blight and a form of "vandalism." A letter-writer to Willamette Week found this bureaucratic zeal mystifying: "Is this really what politicians should be thinking about? Is anybody else disturbed that this is even an issue?" asked resident Martin Wilson. "Perhaps my feeble mind is unable to grasp the aesthetic perfection of a pole elegantly jutting from the sidewalk free of unsightly posters that so horribly detract from the beauty of a greased log."

It's all in the marketing, or so says the agriculture weekly Capital Press in a story about apples in Washington that sell for $1 each. Nestled like jewels in royal purple padding, the apples go out from East Wenatchee in fancy gift boxes, most for next-day delivery. Fujis, Galas, Jonagolds, Granny Smiths (and just a few Red Delicious) are selected and packed by the "Fruitlady," aka Deborah Dockins-Jones, who maintains that "presentation is everything." Dockins-Jones began her dot-com business at the bottom, packing apples a decade ago on an assembly line. Now, her "glorified apples" go all over the world. If recipients live within a 100-mile radius, she adds, she'll deliver the fruit herself - in a stretch limousine.

Federal officials have a new term for the action of those who steal from public lands and then sell what they stole back to the government: "illegal entrepreneurism." In this case, what's stolen is sagebrush seed that's in hot demand after last summer's fires. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently collared rustlers who clipped 40 bags of sagebrush branches from the new Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington, reports the Associated Press. Hanford's sage lands are a prime target, since they served for 60 years as an undeveloped buffer around the government's bomb factory. Federal law enforcement agents said they suspect the ripped-off seeds from Hanford were intended for a contractor "who sells seeds to government agencies for revegetation projects." Carrying a tennis racket might just signal something's up, since rustlers usually pack rackets to whack sagebrush plants for their tiny seeds. Cleaned and dried, the seeds bring as much as $100 a pound, and land managers in Utah and Nevada already ordered 100,000 pounds to restore the desert shrub to burned-over public land.

Comedians at the Hilton Hotel in Reno, Nev., are really bummed. They're getting replaced, not by Dana Carvey or Drew Carey or some performer who can really pull in the crowd, but by a bingo parlor. Bingo? "They're gonna have blue hair half-off night here," cracks Howie Nave, who's been host comic at the Hilton Improv since 1998. But Hilton executives decided, says the weekly Reno News & Review, that while comedy is cool, "it is gambling that pays the bills."

Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumper sticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or betsym@hcn.org.