TIDAL LIFE | We need to learn to look beyond the flashy surface

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if lately there’s been a population boom in the cleaning products department. Admittedly, not a place I typically hang out. As I said, maybe it’s just me.

Take my windows. I never clean them. Any sudden urge for shiny glass is quickly followed by realism.

Window washing is hard and boring. Plus, clean windows are not good for wildlife.

When light falls on pristine windows birds see trees or open sky where there’s really glass, they fly into it and break their necks, leaving an unsightly smudge and making me jump. Once my heart rate returns to normal, I have to deal with the carcass.

I’d rather save the effort, money, adrenaline and bird lives. That’s why my windows are dirty. It’s not that I’m lazy.

So when I, infrequently, need a bottle of something soapy I find things have once again changed on the soap aisle. Nowadays, having learned the damage certain products do to the environment, I look at the non-toxic product offerings. My mouth opens in a gigantic yawn. Sitting there among red, yellow and black bottles with screaming labels…

Small aside here: remember that ditty about poisonous snakes — if red touches yellow, you’re a dead fellow — It occurs to me that manufacturers of cleaning products have been warning us for years not to use their products.

Foul smells, flashing lights, loud noises, aggressive behavior, bright colors; these attract attention. Bad- girl heiresses and flamboyant rock stars use this basic psychology to their advantage. But sitting demurely beside the screaming labels, not wanting to call attention to themselves, are dateless, socially inept, ugly duckling products with foreign sounding names.

Ecover — how do you say that? ee cuver? eek over? What does it mean? Ecology is over? Cover the environment? Ecology uber alles? I’ve never bought a bottle.

I have noted the price. With shock.

Nature, too, works merchandising techniques. Think raging wind, thunder, lightning, colorful markings. When these things play upon our senses we tend to pay attention.

One summer day in the early 1990s, an orange scum appeared on the placid surface of Holmes Harbor. The bright color was shocking. People noticed. Many called the county to report that someone had dumped something bad in the water — it looked like fluorescent paint. News helicopters flew over taking pictures.

The orange scum, it turned out, was a plankton bloom, a perfectly natural occurrence. The culprit was an algae called Noctiluca and was not toxic.

Once we locals understood, we felt warmly toward this visual evidence of a species’ life cycle. We became insta-naturalists, proudly informed visitors of the cause, and stayed out of the water until the cloudiness cleared. But over the years we’ve seen more and more blooms.

More recently algae, jellyfish and plankton have grabbed headlines. Articles from Japan report jellyfish blooms that clog ship engine intake valves and even harbors. From the Florida Keys came a story of a bloom so thick it creates toxic fumes and residents have to evacuate or become ill.

Why the increase in algae and jellyfish? As fish populations decline, fewer fish eat jellyfish larvae, so more jellyfish reach maturity and reproduce. It’s a basic predator and prey imbalance. The phosphate and nitrate-based products we use get into the water and feed algae. The increased numbers of these creatures use up oxygen, sometimes leading to suffocation of fish, and then there are fewer fish and the cycle of decline begins.

We can do something about this in the process of our daily lives. We don’t have to wait for government to take action to improve the health of marine waters. We can work on it from our end by changing a few household products and habits, by using them carefully.

In as many places as possible — such as on the water, at the water’s edge, and on bluffs — we can stop using chemical products at all.

This is not a case of people and fish good, jellyfish and algae bad. This is not an us-or-them situation. This is an us-AND-them situation. Switching to alternative products is not scary, unsafe or even inconvenient, so why don’t we switch?

Maybe it’s all in the packaging. If the makers of non-toxic products used that basic psychology of attention-getting to promote their wares, perhaps we’d readily buy them. Instead of images of leafy glades, slow sunrises, babbling brooks and innocent fawns they should catch our eyes with hot geometrics, flashing strobes, gravelly-voiced rock stars and blondes in leopard print bikinis. Then maybe we’d buy earth-friendly products and by accident prolong the lives of our salmon and orcas and the years our children can continue to play on the beach.

For more information:

Consumer Reports Green Choices — 2009 Buying Guide to Cleaners: Click here.

Whidbey Gardening Workshop March 14: Click here.

Questions or comments for Tidal Life? E-mail tidallife@whidbey.com.

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