The Star-Spangled Banner Goes Solar

Soaring above historic Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, the birthplace of the National Anthem, is a flag representing The Star-Spangled Banner. It’s pretty cool that this American icon is illuminated by solar power.

The Fort McHenry Guard fires a cannon in honor of the Star-Spangled Banner flag.

Four LED lamps draw their power from a pair of low-profile solar panels to shine the light on the landmark 30-by-42-foot flag.

The  lights save energy and money, and they better enhance the colors of the flag. Officials at Fort McHenry report that the solar lights do not intrude on the historic character of the fort, unlike the old, ground-level, incandescent floodlights.

History of the Flag

In 1814, amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay. His impressions of seeing the tattered flag in “the rocket’s red glare” during the Baltimore Battle of the War of 1812 eventually became the words to America’s national anthem.

The flag flying at Fort McHenry, though symbolic, is not to be confused with the actual Star-Spangled Banner relic, which is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Red, White, Blue and Green

“By using solar power, we  harness ‘the dawn’s early light’ that enabled Francis Scott Key to see the Star-Spangled Banner and use it to power the lights that allow us to view it ‘at the twilight’s last gleaming,’” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “It is just one of the many ways that we are incorporating renewable energy and sustainable practices into park operations.”

The “greening” of Fort McHenry has also included converting most of its external lighting to solar power, installing high-efficiency HVAC units and storm windows, setting up a geothermal heat-pump system, purchasing electric utility vehicles, and constructing a LEED-certified visitor education center.

The Star-Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry

July 4th celebrations at Fort McHenry include fife and drum music, cannon firing, a musket salute for 18 states, period dancing, and a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Photos courtesy: National Park Service

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Healing Hands for People and Planet at a Strawbale B&B

It’s a cold, snowy morning, and my husband just baked a breakfast batch of Toasty Baked Oatmeal, a recipe from solar- and wind-powered Las Manos Bed and Breakfast, a straw bale inn we visited last spring. (See the recipe below!)

It’s amazing how one sense—in this case taste—can trigger other sensory memories.

As I’m munching, I’m remembering the amazing, thick, adobe-covered walls at Las Manos Bed and Breakfast in the mountains of Buena Vista, Colorado. I edited many articles for Natural Home magazine about straw bale houses—and I’ve greatly admired the photos of their beauty. However, this was the first time I’d ever been inside a straw bale building.

Las Manos B&B is built of straw bales and runs on solar and wind power.
Las Manos B&B is built of straw bales and runs on solar and wind power.

As soon and Ken and I set foot inside, I knew it was love. I loved the textured, earth-colored adobe and the thick walls, which made it possible to create a deep window seat called a banco with breath-taking views of the Rocky Mountains’ Collegiate Range. The circular living room with its wagon-wheel-style beams is inspired by Southwestern Indian kivas.

And I was awestruck that the two-bedroom B&B was built entirely by the hands of its two owners, William McQueen and Colleen Finley, who are certified massage therapists (hence the name of the of the place, Las Manos, which means “the hands” in Spanish).

The couple used 460 bales of straw and 45 tons of adobe made from earth and clay that they dug up right from their piñon-pine-covered land. They had help, of course; straw bale builders have formed a tight-knit community and often swap information via e-mail from all over the Southwest. They even gather to help each other build, passing along tips and tricks they themselves learned from others.

William and Colleen also became self-taught experts in solar-electric, solar hot water and wind power. William gives us a tour of his “babies”—the solar shed and wind turbine—with all the pride of a new dad.

There are other sustainable aspects to Las Manos: compact fluorescent lighting and the most energy-efficient appliance of all—nature. (The couple does dishes by hand and dries sheets and towels on a laundry line in the clear mountain breeze.) Wood floors and cabinets are all made of local, pine-beetle-killed wood. It has wonderful bluish stains in the grain from the beetle burrows.

Within the walls of Las Manos, Ken and I slept peacefully. A windstorm swept through that night, but we were burrowed into 18-inch-thick straw walls. We couldn’t feel so much as a quiver from the wind blasts.

Try the baked oatmeal recipe and let me know how you like it! Or better yet, make a reservation at Las Manos and taste it in person. It’s an hour’s drive from Monarch Ski Area, which gets incredible snowfall.

While you’re at it, are there foods that bring memories of a special place for you? Share your thoughts…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Toasty Baked Oatmeal Recipe

from Las Manos Bed & Breakfast

2 cups organic rolled oats

1½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/3 cup chopped almonds

1/3 cup chopped dried apricots

1 firm ripe pear, chopped into ¼-inch pieces

1½ cups milk

2 large eggs (free-range, vegetarian-fed)

½ cup firmly packed brown sugar

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1. Preheat over to 325°

2. Combine the oats, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nuts and fruit in a large bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, eggs, sugar and oil.

4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Stir together well.

5. Pour the mixture into a buttered, 8-inch-square baking pan.

6. Bake 45 minutes, until golden brown on top, and serve in a bowl. You can pour milk over the baked oatmeal if you desire.

Earthships: Recycled Houses Made of Dirt

Just 15 minutes from Taos is the world’s Earthship headquarters—and my New Mexico trip wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at these odd, but imminently practical, houses.

The Earthship entrance shows off beautiful stucco walls. The ?polka-dots? are the bottoms of old beer bottles embedded into the mud.

The Earthship entrance shows off beautiful stucco walls. The “polka-dots” are the bottoms of old beer bottles embedded into the mud.

What’s an Earthship? It’s an ultra-sustainable home built from recycled tires, aluminum cans and bottles packed with dirt, then plastered over with natural mud.

That’s right: no brick and mortar, no wooden studs. Just junk and soil.

In fact, one of these buildings diverts 500 to 5,000 tires away from the landfill.

Because Earthships are banked into the earth—with a southern exposure for maximum sunlight—they’re extremely energy efficient. Their earthen properties keep them cool in summer and warm in winter.

Earthships are designed with all the rooms open along a corridor with a huge bank of windows. This way, natural daylight eliminates the need for electrical lighting as long as the sun shines.

A lot of these New-Age structures on the sage- and rabbitbrush-covered land around Taos use solar panels or small wind turbines to create electricity from renewable resources.

There must be almost 50 Earthships dotting the northern New Mexico landscape with its dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountain backdrop. Clearly, this form of architecture is here to stay.

This is what an interior wall looks like before it?s plastered over. Inside are old tires, cans and bottles.

This is what an interior wall looks like before it’s plastered over. Inside are old tires, cans and bottles.

Water Harvesting

New Mexico is dry land, so another advantage to Earthships is that their roofs catch water from rain and snow melt. The water is then filtered and used for drinking or bathing. After you take a shower, wash the dishes or do the laundry, the used water is recycled, filtered again, and pumped to gardens. (Used water is called graywater.)

I think Earthships are pretty nifty—and rather unconventionally beautiful—inventions, although I’m a bit skeptical about the used tires outgasing fumes into the air. However, because they’re surrounded by thick layers of dirt and mud, I suppose the earth absorbs the toxins.

Still, to many people, Earthships look like houses on Mars. Over breakfast at our B&B, La Posada de Taos, a woman described them as “weird, but fascinating.”

“They’re actually built into the dirt!” the woman added with a shudder. I suppose Earthships are an acquired taste.

Curious? If you’re in Taos, slap on some sunscreen and stop by the Earthship Visitor’s Center (located on U.S. Highway 64, west of Taos.) They have displays explaining Earthship technology and offer tours of the area’s demo homes. ($5 per person).

You can also rent an Earthship (a room or the whole house) by the night or week.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor