Broken Glass – Some thoughts from Tim Merriman

I was just walking back the last quarter mile after running with Blue, my blue heeler running buddy. Lisa Brochu, my wife, and I pick up litter every day on this stretch of road near our home in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s an early morning stewardship task that we willingly and voluntarily take on to help keep our community cleaner. This morning I found a shattered beer bottle with broken glass spread in a three-foot circle. I held on to Blue’s leash to keep her off the road and carefully picked up the fragments I could see easily, adding them to the other paper and plastic in my free hand. We walked another 200 yards to the county’s trash barrel in the small natural area park behind our house and deposited the litter there.

I spoke to the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village Environmental Club about guide careers during our brief visit.

I spoke to the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village Environmental Club about guide careers during our brief visit.

As we walked on home, I worked at a small shard of glass caught in my fingertip. Broken glass is like that. It gets under your skin and worries you until you figure out a way to resolve the problem. It occurred to me that our world is full of broken glass of all kinds. Eighteen plus millions of orphans in East Africa are broken glass. Since our first trip there, they’ve been under our skin. We keep searching for ways to do what we can for them with our limited resources and talents, including sharing our admiration of the work of others who have helped these children affected by wars, disease, and lack of basics like food, clean water and education.

Anne Heyman started Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in northeast Rwanda to provide homes, family and education for 550 at-risk young people, mostly orphans. We stopped in at the Youth Village on a recent trip to Rwanda and a group of articulate youngsters took us on a heartwarming tour of the nature area they have developed. They showed us a shelter they built and exhibits they illustrated and put up along the trail. Their personal stories hang in our hearts, little shards of broken glass. We know these particular youngsters are well cared for but millions more with similar stories have little or no support or prospects throughout East Africa and the world.

Elephants protected in wildlife reserves are poached for their ivory by men with automatic weapons.

Elephants protected in wildlife reserves are poached for their ivory by men with automatic weapons.

In February on completion of the ecotour we were leading In Tanzania, we chatted with Pritik Patel, CEO of Safari Legacy, about his work as the chairman of the African Wildlife Trust campaign to stop poaching of elephants. The slaughter of elephants represents thousands of pieces of broken glass. Though they are the world’s largest land mammal, and impressive in all that they do, they are helpless against automatic rifles. Their populations are being decimated at such an alarming rate, it’s possible we could lose all the world’s wild elephants in our lifetime and for nothing but vanity. When you see the bleached bones of elephants in Africa and learn that poachers killed these graceful giants for their tusks only to supply a black market industry in carved ivory (largely in China), another shard of glass hangs in your heart. A tourism industry built around viewing wild elephants is sustainable. Poaching is not. Broken glass.

In Malawi, we continue to work with our friends at the Museums of Malawi. Aaron Maluwa and Michael Gondwe are museum educators who have done programs on HIV and malaria for tens of thousands of villagers over the past decade. Their city museum collections sat idle so they took the work of preserving cultures to the places where people live. Saving

Mike Gondwe has young people in Chikwawa laughing and enjoying his program about the dangers of HIV.

Mike Gondwe has young people in Chikwawa laughing and enjoying his program about the dangers of HIV.

cultures means saving lives, especially when you use traditional stories, dances and songs to deliver messages that matter to those who rarely have the opportunity to see a doctor. Diseases and the lack of clean water and nutritious food can ruin a nation. More splinters of broken glass.

How do we find ways to help people and wildlife threatened and devalued by the carelessness of others? Some unknown person’s careless act of throwing a beer bottle from a car window to shatter on a road was a reminder to me that cleaning up what we find is a daily effort. It’s an unspeakable shame that broken glass is all around us and even more of a shame that some people walk right past it without noticing. The carelessness of others can only be undone by the efforts of those who pitch in and work to clean up, educate, bring medicine, and provide some hope for a better future.

Lisa, my wife, and I write non-fiction and fiction, train interpreters of nature and culture and work with communities around the world in hopes of inspiring others to find their own ways of helping pick up the broken glass. Our novel, The Leopard Tree, follows three orphans from Kenya on a journey across the world to tell their personal stories to the Secretary General of TLT-Baskervillethe United Nations. A special on HIV in Africa by President William Jefferson Clinton and The Clinton Foundation in 2006 inspired our story so we sent him a copy. He wrote back, “Thank you so much for The Leopard Tree . . . what a creative approach to raising awareness of HIV/AIDS! I commend your efforts on this critical issue.” His foundation continues to put people and essential anti-retroviral drugs on the ground in Africa, making a difference everywhere they work.

There’s a lot of broken glass in the world. In some places, it’s more evident than others, but if just look around, you’ll find it wherever you are. The little shards of broken glass that get in our hands and hearts cannot easily be removed. They remind us daily to look around and see how we can care for each other and the world in which we live. We may never clean it all up, but if everyone does whatever he or she can, we will make a difference.

–      Tim Merriman

“Everything you do makes a difference. Only you can decide what kind of difference you want to make.”  Jane Goodall

The Lettuce Tower

I have been a gardener my whole life and Lisa and I have now established eight large raised-bed gardens behind our home in Fort Collins. My mother and sister were florists, my dad ran a lawn mower business and my grandparents were farmers. Growing things has always given me a source of renewal and connection to the earth that I would miss if I didn’t have a place to grow things. But what if you live in an apartment with only a small patio, or a townhouse with a tiny backyard?

The completed lettuce tower at ten days old is well-stocked with lettuce, spinach, cilantro and strawberries.

The completed lettuce tower at ten days old is well-stocked with lettuce, spinach, cilantro and strawberries.

Will Allen, a former NBA star, has become even more famous for urban gardening. He teaches young people how to grow food, raise fish and be productive in agriculture in a warehouse or on a rooftop in Milwaukee. His Growing Power program has won recognition with a 2005 Ford Foundation Leadership Grant and a 2008 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. I have admired his work and thought about the empowerment that this kind of program has in bringing urban young people into science and agriculture.

Lisa and I were recently in Hawaii and saw a small scale Tower Garden at a farmer’s market, growing beautiful lettuce and spinach vertically in a very small space. I had to try it, but wanted a way to do it without spending over $500 for the tower and shipping costs. So as we started our garden this spring, I built a lettuce tower, a vertical garden, a hydroponics mini-farm for about $180. I made it from a variety of materials I already had or that could be bought inexpensively from local sources. Most of the expense involved is a one-time set-up cost, so the more greens you grow, the more you will eventually save over time. But saving money on fresh greens is only one benefit – growing your own food allows you to control what goes on your table and in your body. It’s the only way to guarantee freshness and pesticide-free food available all year long just a few feet from your kitchen.

I call it the Lettuce Tower, though you can grow a great many herbs, strawberries, spinach, kale and other greens on one of these units. Here’s the idea.

Gather these materials (you may find other items you have on hand that substitute for any of these equally well):

4×4 foot piece of 2X4 inch welded wire (plastic coated preferably) – about $5

4X4 foot by 1-inch coco mat (CocoTek) – $45

4X4 foot piece of black plastic painter’s dropcloth – $5

16 gallon or larger galvanized or rubber wash tub or horse trough at least 18 inches in diameter – $21

2 to 4 bricks  – about $2

4 foot – ½ inch plastic nipple with a Rainbird or similar 15H nozzle on top of it – $4

roll of 12-gauge plastic coated electrical wire (you may or may not need this – see below)

Two 15” cocomat lined wire hanging baskets $6 ea. (I found these at a number of gardening and grocery stores – anyplace that sells bedding plants)

Submersible pump – 350 gallon per hour (GPH) pump – $27 at Amazon

Pondmaster square foam filter for the pump – $10

Plastic self-locking ties – $3

Canna Coco A & B and Botanicare’s Cal-Mag – liquid fertilizers for hydroponics – mail order or your local hydroponics store – about $42

A germination tray allows you to start seedlings year-round.

A germination tray allows you to start seedlings year-round.

Plastic tray with lid and Rapid Rooter Plant Plugs – $13

Place the welded wire on the ground, the plastic dropcloth on top of that and the cocotek mat on top of that. Curl the entire thing into a cylinder and use plastic self-locking ties to hold it in a cylindrical form.

Set your washtub where you want your lettuce tower. We have ours outside in full sun (with access to an outdoor electrical outlet) but we will move it inside to a sunroom with southern exposure in the winter.

Place the submersible pump in the bottom of the washtub with a Pondmaster foam filter block around it to keep out small particulate matter. Set a concrete block or bricks on each side of the pump to steady it and provide a base for the tower. Screw the 4-foot nipple with the spray nozzle on top into the pump so it stands upright (my pump has suction cups on the bottom that stick it where you put it but the pipe sways and that’s a problem. I’ll explain next.)

Put the cylinder of cocomat, plastic and wire over the vertical nipple (pipe) so it is resting on the bricks just at the water line with the pump beneath it. Insert a piece of 12-gauge plastic coated electrical wire through the side of the middle of the cylinder, reach in and wrap it around the ½ inch pipe and then push it through the mat on the other side. I adjusted it so the pipe sits in the very center of the cylinder. This controls the sway of this spray nozzle to keep it centered.

The cap I made is planted with flowers just to give the whole tower a cheery look.

The cap I made is planted with flowers just to give the whole tower a cheery look.

Fill the tub with water to just cover the base of the cylinder and add Cal-Mag according to instructions on the back. This provides essential magnesium, calcium and iron. Then I add the amount of A & B Coco Canna liquid fertilizer the package recommends. Never mix the concentrates directly together. Plug in the pump and look inside the cylinder. It should create an even ring of spray in the top of the cylinder but will overspray a bit out the top so you’ll need to create a cap.

To make the cap, take the two 15-inch hanging cocomat baskets and remove the hanging chains provided to suspend them. Place both cocomats in one of the baskets, place the other basket over the cocomat to create a sandwich – wire basket, cocomat, wire basket. Wire the two baskets together so that you have an inch thick cap for the cylinder of 15 inches diameter with the wire frames holding the mat in place. Hinge it to one side of the cylinder with another small piece of plastic coated electrical wire. Now the cap causes the water to rain downward through the cylinder.  You can look inside when you wish by lifting one side of the cap to see if the spray is working correctly and see the root growth.

We are growing seedlings of lettuce, spinach, strawberries, cilantro by placing seeds in little Rapid Rooter Starter plugs in a plastic tray. About ¼ inch of water in the bottom of the tray keeps them moist but add water daily. These are best grown in a warm, sunny place in your house.  A small commercial warming mat speeds up germination if you wish to add that cost. Grow the new seedlings for about a week after they first show leaves.

When your seedlings are ready to move to the tower, gather three or four of the seedlings out of the germination tray, still in their starter plugs. Use a small knife (I use one of our steak knives, but don’t tell Lisa) to cut an inch slit in the plastic on the cylinder, reach in with two fingers and spread the cocomat until you feel the dripping water. Push one of the one week-old plant plugs into the hole so that the green leaves are hanging out fully visible on the outside of the tower. Add a few of these plugs each day to stagger the harvest dates of the lettuce crop. Keep them 8 to 10 inches apart. I want to harvest a bunch of greens every two or three days when they are big enough.

Flowers grow well on this too.

Flowers grow well on this too, but the lettuce below on the cylinder is what I grow to eat.

I’ve been amazed that the tiny seedlings show 3 inches of lush growth within ten days of planting, growing much faster than the same plants in soil in our gardens. As your plants mature, you can harvest greens by pulling the entire plant out and cutting the roots off. We bought lettuce grown in this manner in Hawaii and it was very tasty. Strawberries can be harvested right off the tower and should keep producing.

I confess that I am not very mechanical but I love playing with ponds and aquariums. This was similar so I enjoyed the hour and a half of assembly. It took no particular skill to build it since the four-foot cocomat (3/4 or 1 inch thick) is just the right size for this project.

We live in a world of challenges to feed people, educate young people about science and to design more sustainable approaches to everything we use in life from energy to water to food and air. These projects are great ways to engage young people in a school, at a nature center, in a museum or at a demonstration farm in growing food in creative ways that recognize the limitations of space, soil and outdoor resources.

Will Allen has aptly demonstrated the power of this programming in Milwaukee and his daughter operates a Growing Power program in Chicago. Dylan Ratigan, a well-known journalist, was just featured on The DailyShow for developing hydroponics farms to employ returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As I watch the lettuce tower each day, I experiment with the process. I am growing johnny jump-ups and allysum on the cap of the cylinder, just for the look of it. I find the jump-ups growing as volunteers in our yard and transplant them. They adapt to the soil-less environment immediately and grow well.

I am working on a video to post on YouTube that explains and demonstrates this particular process. If you want to try it, be creative with it and try using things you have already around your house (we had the horse trough, electrical wire, and aquarium pump all sitting in the barn from previous projects). Let me know what works and I will share it with our readers. Involve young people in your project, your students or your children or kids from your neighborhood. Be sure that enjoying the food in a meal is part of the process. That helps make the connection for kids who have grown up with a supermarket as the source of everything. It’s empowering to learn they can grow their own food at home. And it’s just plain fun.

– Tim Merriman

Making a Difference on Purpose

Dr. Sam Ham is a well-known name in the interpretation profession. He has just completed a new book entitled Interpretation – Making a Difference on Purpose. His classic first text, Environmental Interpretation – A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets was published in 1992 in English and Spanish. It has served as a cornerstone of 51LhzS-y6PL._AA160_teaching thematic interpretation in universities all over the world and was one of the original six texts used in National Association for Interpretation’s certification library. This new book will no doubt provide another lasting contribution to our understanding of the profession.

Sam was kind during his writing process the past two years in showing Lisa Brochu and me the draft chapters and inviting our comments. We shared our thoughts and I hope provided useful ideas as he wrote. He points out in the Author’s Preface that he had prolonged personal discussions with David Larsen of National Park Service about the book over the past five years. He dedicates this book to his three grandchildren and David, recognizing and honoring David for his considerable assistance just before his untimely death.

As a cognitive psychologist and Director of the Center for International Training and Outreach (CITO) at University of Idaho, Sam has conducted research about the effectiveness of interpretation as an approach to influencing the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of people in varied interpretive settings. His 2001 study of work done with Lindblad Expeditions on their Galapagos Islands tours is an important example of how good interpretation can make a difference. He helped Lindblad craft thematic approaches to guided activities that led to a 270% increase in contributions to the Darwin Research Center.

The new book has a deep focus on the research behind Sam’s ideas on the value of thematic interpretation without being mired in academic jargon, so it is useful to everyone in the field. He helps you understand the reasons why thoughtfully planned interpretation can make a difference, so that your work is not just based on a vague hope that what you’re saying is useful or influential. He explains how best to use this interpretive approach to communication in a social marketing effort to motivate people toward more desirable stewardship behaviors and that a “zone of tolerance” is acceptable when developing and delivering thematic messages.

The book is an enjoyable read interlaced with many personal stories. He was kind in asking me to write the Foreword, so I refer you to that for more in-depth thoughts about the book and its value to the profession.

Last week Sam let me know he was about to send a print copy in appreciation of our comments along the way. So it is finally in print after many years of anticipation by those in the field. The book just arrived at my mailbox and I am excited to see the finished copy.  I encourage all of you working in this field to acquire one for your library by visiting Amazon now. It is a great investment.

– Tim Merriman

Get To the Point

We were in San Francisco last December to work with NASA and National Geographic’s Famelab competition. Shayle, one of the young scientists who presented, said, “Nudibranchs steal poison from their prey. They carry it around like a poisonous backpack, using it for their own defense.” I remember the point of the talk because the main idea was right up front, well-explained in the body and re-emphasized at the end. Shayle Matsuda won that particular competition and will compete in the national level Famelab event later this year.

Shayle Matsuda gets to the point about nudibranchs in the San Francisco Famelab competition by NASA And National Geographic.

Shayle Matsuda gets to the point about nudibranchs in the San Francisco Famelab competition by NASA And National Geographic.

Have you ever found yourself wishing that someone who wanders through a speech or a conversation would just get to the point? When you speak, your audience is trying to make meaning from what you say. If you don’t get to the point pretty quickly and your listeners don’t know you well enough to be patient with your meanderings, they are inclined to embark on their own wanderings as they tune you out.

The point is that any listener needs to make meaning from what you are saying right from the start. Most listeners ask silently “what has this got to do with me?” before deciding whether they want to invest their interest. John Medina, a neurologist and molecular biologist, writes in Brain Rules that Rule #4 is “We don’t pay attention to boring things.”  He suggests that “the more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded–and retained.”


Research on advance organizers suggests that sharing your point or main idea at the beginning of a presentation lets the listener know what you will be talking about. This main idea, or theme, of your talk helps the listener determine whether he or she wants to pay attention. If you lose focus and begin to wander away from your theme, the audience can become confused and disinterested. You might think of digressions as “interference,” noise that actually disrupts or obscures the main point of your talk.

Recapturing the audience is tough to do once you lose them. They may have their eyes open and be facing you, while they are thinking about where they are going to eat or how they are going to redecorate their home. Merely being present does not constitute paying attention or real engagement.

During the presentation, it also helps the audience to focus on what you’re saying if you use language that is understandable or relevant to his or her life. A sea slug eating and storing poisons in a “backpack” suggests an interesting image that is easy for most people to understand. Cerata storage of toxic nematocysts in eolid nudibranchs is way too unfamiliar for most of us. Using jargon and complicated explanations may only work if your audience is that specialized group of specialists who work in the same field.

Restating your point in your conclusion helps the audience pull together all the bits and pieces you’ve shared through anecdotes, facts, and examples related to your main idea. The restatement of your theme doesn’t have to be in the exact same words you used at the beginning. It should simply reinforce the point to give the listener something to think about later.

Speech teachers have often said, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and then tell them what you told them.” Communication and psychological research support that idea, so get to the point quickly and stay with it until you recap at the end. They may not remember all the details, but months or years later your main idea will likely still be at work in the minds of those who listened to you.

– Tim Merriman

Greening Rwanda – One Bird at a Time

Picture a group of young people led by a highly trained and Certified Interpretive Guide. They’re looking for birds, monitoring endemic species in one of the most significant rainforests in East Africa. Imagine this is your group – twenty-five enthusiastic young people who want to learn more about their environment and hundreds more waiting behind them in area schools. Now imagine the tools you have at hand – just two binoculars and one well-worn field guide. For the entire group.



Lisa Brochu and Ange Imanishimwe on a trail in Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda.

Recently, I had the pleasure of working with a group of thoughtful, committed citizens of Rwanda. These young men work as guides in Nyungwe National Park, an incredibly diverse and beautiful forest that provides 70 percent of Rwanda’s water supply. They are also working tirelessly to develop a conservation ethic among the people of Rwanda to ensure that the country has a healthy environment in the future.

The Biodiversity Conservation, Hygiene, Sanitation and Environmental Management Cooperative (BIOCOOP) is committed to building an economically stable nation through projects related to natural resources management, biodiversity conservation, and environmental protection. To accomplish this mission, the group has initiated a number of projects that are showing results in greening primary and secondary schools, creating jobs for youth, training youth in entrepreneurship, business development and projects management, ecosystem regeneration, establishing environmental clubs, and creating a tree nursery.

The president of BIOCOOP is Ange Imanishimwe, a passionate young man with a B.S. in Biology and a Certified Interpretive Guide, who believes that working with youth is the key to a sound economic and environmental future for Rwanda. The BIOCOOP has identified projects that will train and employ young people, helping them contribute to sustainable development of the country. Additional projects target community members around the park and throughout the country to raise awareness and promote positive actions related to conservation and environmental issues.

I continue to be inspired by the people of Rwanda and throughout East Africa. They exemplify Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” In some of the poorest countries on the planet, they have not lost hope of building a better future by sharing their vision and attempting to create new social norms. But they need your help to make their efforts sustainable. Each project identified by BIOCOOP has a specific budget to support stated goals and objectives. I encourage you to visit their website and learn more about the specific ways in which you can become a part of their projects.

In the meantime, if you have an extra set of binoculars you’d like to donate or any textbooks related to conservation, environmental management, hygiene, sanitation, or other environmental issues that could find a new home in the BIOCOOP’s community library project, you can send them to us and we’ll see that they get to these thoughtful, committed citizens of Rwanda. You can make a difference by helping them to do so.

Lisa Brochu

Send binoculars and books to Heartfelt Associates – Rwanda BIOCOOP, 1105 Harris Drive, Fort Collins CO 80524.