What They STILL Don’t Know About Climate Change

I’m back! After lots of personal issues, working on other things, I’m coming back to blogging and will be posting pieces as they reach completion, I’ll also be posting excerpts from a novel-in-progress, Waiting for Q. Stay tuned, and stay well!

Let’s face it, some people are either too dense to understand basic science or too selfish to try. It’s no more difficult to understand the causes of climate change than it is to be a German shepherd trapped in a hot car with the windows rolled up. (The carbon dioxide that blankets our blue-marble planet is of course the windows, and the panting dog is us.) If climate change deniers can handle a little grade-school science, here it is: ultraviolet waves come into the car but heat-inducing infrared waves can’t get out. Okay?
Years after the hellish fact, we’re still stunned that we didn’t stop Hitler soon enough to prevent the Holocaust. What will Americans say 75 years from now when coastal subway systems are fish tanks? When the insurance companies are bankrupt, and earthquakes from mindless fracking are as common as sunrise? They may say, “We thought reports about ‘icebergs the size of Delaware’ were just fake news, and besides we liked it when it was shorts-weather in December. But now, when our cities are too hot to be outside and air conditioning has gotten so expensive, we realize we probably should have done something…”

We should do many somethings, like redesign more sustainable towns and cities; cut way back on meat and palm oil consumption; incorporate greenhouse gases into major industry products like plastic, packaging and cement; transition to a less invasive agriculture; switch to electric cars powered by wind, solar, hydro, biogas, and geothermal energy; cogenerate heat and electricity in factories and power plants; continue to make our buildings and appliances more efficient; walk more; grow more food locally and eat less energy-intensive, processed food… These are some of the things we can do right now, each of which will create lots of jobs, lots of profit, and lots of satisfaction. Keep America Great! Terrific!

Humans are not the primary cause of climate change? Really? Do the deniers ever consider that our exhalations alone contribute huge amounts of carbon dioxide? (Then throw in all the power plants, factories, decimated rainforests, cars and trucks, consumer goods, and synthetic fertilizers – that’s a lot of gas, folks.) I’m not suggesting we can stop breathing but we can surely stop putting our fingers in our ears, because here’s the deal: Even if humans were not the primary cause of climate change, we’d still have to do something about it – quickly – to keep the German shepherds, children, and cornfields from keeling over. This is the weak link in the deniers’ argument: They assume incorrectly that if humans are only a minor contributor (not true), we also don’t need to respond to the crisis. What? Acknowledging that the world’s weather has gone completely haywire in recent decades, we need to mobilize WWII-style to reduce greenhouse gas emissions no matter who or what put them there. Unless we want Earth to become another Venus, where the average temperature is 864 degrees Fahrenheit – hot enough to melt lead. Why is it so hot there? Clouds of carbon dioxide that built up in the planet’s atmosphere, partly because there weren’t any plants to recycle it. It’s irrelevant that humans aren’t to blame for climate change on Venus; what matters scientifically is that CO2 – along with other greenhouse gases – is the cause of the massive overheating that makes Venus permanently uninhabitable.

Why can’t the deniers admit, under oath, that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels have increased 30 percent to their highest levels in more than ten million years? That methane and nitrous oxide concentrations – even more powerful greenhouse gases than C02 – have also skyrocketed? Come to think of it, aren’t these deniers the same people who believed (or pretended they did) that tobacco, radium, chlorofluorocarbons, and leaded gasoline were harmless and that coal dust didn’t cause Black Lung disease? The same sort of people who insisted the Earth was flat? They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

I want to cordially invite deniers by the droves to the April 29, 2017 Peoples Climate March in Washington, where there will be plenty of lemonade and cold beer vendors because probably even in April it will be record-setting warm. I’ll personally buy anyone a refreshing drink who volunteers to sit in a hot car with all the windows rolled up.

Sustainability Begins with People

I spent three weeks in South Africa this winter, learning the meaning of sustainability in a developing country.

Something Fresh in Memel, South Africa

Is it possible to create a little slice of heaven in a place where both unemployment and the incidence of HIV are high and the stark shadow of apartheid still persists in both race and gender relations? Absolutely, say husband and wife Steven Ablondi and Cindy Burns, residents and investors in the little rural town of Memel, about three hours south of Pretoria and Johannesburg. Not that it will be easy, of course, but the two Americans are well prepared for the challenge. In decades of diplomatic and legal work with the United Nations, they helped resettle crisis-ridden refugees from countries like Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. Now they’ve thrown hearts, souls, and savings into their vision of a resilient community where health, practical life skills, self-reliance, and property values are all on the upswing. Where human rights are respected and human resources are used to full advantage.

Memel and its predominantly black township, Zamani, was once a regional hub for farmers, but now it is struggling to reinvent itself. Steven and Cindy want to help demonstrate that rural towns can be self-reliant places to live, on a sturdy foundation of “pocket neighborhoods” with hand-crafted houses; community gardens and small farms rich in jobs and food security; and healthy new businesses that offer locally-accountable goods and services.

The Free State’s platteland is a region well-known for its natural assets: productive farms, wide-open spaces; and a remarkable abundance of bird species. First drawn to Memel by bird-watching opportunities, Steven quickly saw an Eden in the rough. “Memel didn’t have an ATM at the bank or a single place to eat then, but it did have lots of yards with gardens and orchards, a beautiful church, and a low crime rate.” With a background in real estate as well as law, he bought first one, then a series of properties. Says Cindy, “I was working in Baghdad when he told me he was buying properties, and I asked him, ‘What would I do if we retire in a place like that?’” She would find out soon enough.

 

Permaculture Gardens and Designer Earth Houses

“I’ve always loved to work with teams of people,” says Cindy. “When I finally left my U.N. career and joined Steven in Memel, there already was a crew of gardeners from the nearby township learning about organic techniques.” Cindy was not yet expert in permaculture – which optimizes the inter-relationships among plants, soil, water, and beneficial insects – but she and her young protégé from Zimbabwe, Tedmore, have steadily created a system that captures and stores rainwater to irrigate the garden; uses the heat of a huge compost pile to provide hot showers for the crew; uses certain plants such as comfrey to repel insect pests, and in short, fully utilizes all available resources. “Tedmore was first employed with us as a ditch digger, but he showed such promise that he’s now in charge of garden operations,” she explains. “It may be true that it takes a village to raise a child,” she says, “but it also takes skillful individuals to make a strong village.”

Memel Organics garden now produces enough vegetables, fruit, and eggs to feed healthy meals to employees, a steady stream of guests, and the residents themselves. Hours-fresh produce is sold weekly at the farmer’s market Cindy recently launched, and surplus food is shared with the local primary school, a nursery school, and an orphanage. They’ve already purchased the property that will house a health-oriented, gourmet restaurant in the future – the kind of place that will lure visitors from the big cities.

Meanwhile, Steven is focusing on the construction of sustainable buildings to house both residents and new businesses. “I’ve always been interested in owner-built homes made from locally available resources,” he explains. “In the U.S., adobe and straw bale homes have proven their durability and efficiency, and similar materials can work here in South Africa.” On their stand in Memel are various attractive prototypes: an elegant round building, hand-sculpted from cob (mud, straw and manure) and a rammed earth house that will soon be a studio for holistic therapies. Each building project was overseen by a visitor who had never before built such a structure – a deliberate demonstration by Steven of the simplicity of earth-centered construction. Before building the round house, Steven and Cindy went to the secondary school in Zamani and asked the principal for student volunteers to work over the holiday season. “He told us, teary-eyed, that no one had ever asked students to be part of something like this,” Steven says. “Seven black girls from the township came over and worked with our young friend Jaine to create this pretty little building.”

The need for houses that are better insulated is clear. “Existing houses in Memel were built according to Pretoria standards,” says Steven, “but winters here are much longer and colder; some days it never gets above freezing. Sturdy houses insulated with earth are warm in winter and cool in summer.” Housing in the black township is far less adequate: about three thousand people live in poorly-insulated, sheet-metal homes that offer little in terms of comfort, aesthetics, or efficiency. The pocket neighborhood of four households that is now under construction offers a glimpse of something better. It has a common house with shared features: a place to gather, cook, and use water-efficient showers. Human wastes will be converted to biogas for cooking and fertilizer for a small garden at the edge of the property. Steven is excited that the project will build local expertise in laying foundations, pouring concrete, framing doors, and pounding rammed earth walls into place.

At a slightly larger scale is a cooperative-style community under construction at the edge of Cindy and Steven’s permaculture garden and orchard. “We’ll market this European/American inspired village concept (“cohousing”) to people who love gardening, the countryside, and watching birds – people who will likely have sufficient funds to take an occasional meal in a public restaurant. These new Memel residents – some in their retirement years – will be looking for something to do, and they may well volunteer for civic-type activities that will make Memel and Zamani a better place.”

He summarizes, “Low-income housing projects built by the federal government are commendable but they don’t really meet the overall need, in my opinion. They reflect much that’s gone wrong throughout the world: they’re conventional, impersonal structures built by the book. They don’t create a sense of community or a feeling of self-reliance, and they aren’t nearly as resource efficient as these new homes will be. The materials for these standardized homes have to be trucked in from distant cities, but in contrast much of the material for our houses comes right out of the ground.”

The Empowerment of Play
Several years ago, Cindy was watching a cricket game on TV and commented that it was too bad the black girls at Memel Primary School couldn’t play sports. Their free time was mostly spent cooking at home (typically a one-bedroom, dirt-floored hut shared with a single mother or grandmother) getting water or firewood, and roaming the streets. “I knew if could help them, I could help the whole community.” She launched a programme called SheWinS – Sports Helping to Empower Women in South Africa – that’s changing lives and moving the town further away from apartheid. The programme links young, energetic mentors (largely from the U.S.) with the young students, offering role models and athletic coaches. Says the school’s headmaster, Johann Du Toit, “The girls in the SheWinS programme came to life in the classroom: they were more alert, more likely to participate, they did better on exams, and just seemed more confident and happy.” The most poignant indicator of the girls’ personal development may be the recent absence of pregnancies among sixth and seventh graders.

 

The Currency of Nature

For the most part, mothers want us to be happy, right? When they used to tell us, “Go outside and play,” it wasn’t just because they were sick of us, but (also) because the components of nature and the way they fit together are the most instructive and enjoyable curriculum on the planet, no tuition necessary. These days, though, parents aren’t as likely to urge their kids to go outside. Unfortunately, both kids and adults often perceive “outside” as a place that lacks stimulation and is also dangerous.

The engineered planning of towns and cities often reduces nature to concrete water channels, manicured petunia beds, and rectangular soccer fields, removing the rough, wildish edges that kids like the best. Many American schools have reduced or eliminated outdoor time, even as the epidemic of childhood obesity spreads. In fact, as Richard Louv points out in Last Child in the Woods, education boards in a dozen or more states have “outlawed” recess because they consider it less important than national test rankings, it presents perceived liability issues, and it has the potential for violence on the playground. On some school playgrounds that do allow outdoor play, signs read, “No Running!” Tracking the origins of what he calls “nature-deficit disorder,” Louv has observed many other obstacles to natural play, including municipal and homeowner association laws. For example, building codes prohibit or inhibit the construction of tree houses in some towns, some cities forbid climbing on trees in parks, and many of the country’s HOAs (there are now nearly a quarter of a million) frown on basketball hoops and skateboard ramps in driveways.

Add to these restrictions the specters of “stranger danger,” DUI-heavy traffic, and “ecophobia” (the fear of spiders, skin cancer, mosquitoes, snakes, Lyme disease, and poison ivy) and you’ve trained kids to retreat indoors to their video games, TVs, and computer screens. My friend Marie held her ground when her son kept asking for the latest video games: He could only play games that didn’t involve killing, and he had to buy them with his own money. But this teenager knew how to play more than video games; he did a research paper at school on violence in video games, and thus, he convinced her, had no choice but to do the research….

Richard Louv cites a study documenting that in 2003, the average American devoted 327 more hours to electronic media than in 1987. But Louv asks a probing question—very relevant to the theme of this post: “What drives us to virtual reality?” He believes that lack of time and the changing patterns of our cities and towns are key reasons, but that fear—a spell being cast by the news media—is the main reason.3

And I believe there’s still more to it: kids (and adults) don’t value or understand nature because it’s not an action-packed commodity sought after by their peers. Nature is subtle, not in-your-face like virtual reality, and we need to be taught to slow down and appreciate its subtleties and interconnections. We need mentors who can lead us back to nature. Louv interviewed a camp counselor who was awakened by an inner-city girl when she had to go to the bathroom. “We stepped outside the tent and she looked up. She gasped and grabbed my leg. She had never seen the stars before. From that moment on, she was a changed person. She saw everything, like a camouflaged lizard that everyone else skipped over. She used her senses. She was awake!”

Lost Child in the Woods, Found

When I was four or five, I wandered with a young friend into the woods near our house. My recollections of that distant morning include splotches of bright sunlight projected through the trees onto the dark forest floor, the earthy fragrance of leaves and rich Illinois soil, and knowing what it must feel like to be a butterfly. We fluttered farther and farther away from our yards, clueless that back home our moms were beginning to panic. After an hour or more of frantic searching, someone drove to the other side of the forest and found us near the highway, still in the throes of discovery and exploration. I seem to remember that everyone was very agitated, insisting that we’d gotten lost and could have been killed! But we didn’t see it that way. All we had lost was a sense of time, and a sense of imposed boundaries.

About fifty years later, I experienced a similar, unbounded feeling in a Costa Rican rainforest north of San José. I’ve always thought of myself as a nature guy—a backpacker and fanatical gardener who’s learned about the cycles and meaning of nature by observing them directly—on switch-backed mountain trails or in rich garden beds teeming with vegetables. But I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered at Rara Avis, a biological reserve that is true, undeveloped wilderness. I was like that delighted young preschooler again, fluttering into the woods in search of anything. My girlfriend had gone home and I stayed in a casita without electricity for eight days by myself, drifting further and further from the pace of life back home, where the president was sending the first troops to Iraq.

The story of that experience begins with a rigorous three-hour, tractor-drawn wagon ride over boulders and potholes, the exact opposite of “luxurious” (probably a little like having a baby in an earthquake). But the other travelers and I somehow survive it, and within minutes of arriving near Waterfall Lodge and its outlying casitas, the forest begins to speak to us! A tiny, strawberry poison-dart frog hops across the trail; his bright red skin contains toxins so strong that he has no predators. He just hangs out in his territory—he needs no more than 100 square feet—and waits for females to come to him. What a life!

A little farther up the trail, a boa constrictor wraps around the trunk of a small tree, in no hurry to get out of our way. Instead she relies on her camouflage, ability to constrict, and (maybe) trust in humanity. A regiment of leaf-cutter ants ascends the trunk of a 100-foot-tall tree to prune its leaves, increasing by a third the light that reaches the forest floor. The leaf fragments they bring back (like surfers carrying bright green surfboards) are composted underground to fertilize the fungus crop they find so tasty—an operation that puts nutrients back into the soil. En route, some ants become snacks for birds and other insects, so their niche provides several basic resources the rainforest needs—sun, soil, and food. Thousands of other species make similar contributions, weaving the rainforest together like a tapestry. Creeping over the forest floor toward the shadows is a Monstera vine, which “knows” that by climbing the tallest trees that cast the darkest shadows, it will ultimately bask in full sunlight.

Rara Avis is like a 2,500-acre lungful of fresh air—a masterpiece of biological abundance that provides undisturbed habitat for 362 different species of birds! Twenty different species of orchid were recently counted on a single fallen tree. In a way, this virgin parcel of land is a living self-portrait—the rainforest is painting itself in the bold colors and shadowy nuances of its many species; for example, the red, green, yellow, orange, turquoise, and black of a keel-billed toucan (called a “flying banana” by another traveler); the dark, iridescent blue of a morpho butterfly; and the dappled red of a stained-glass palm.

This virgin parcel of land is a living self-portrait—the rainforest is painting itself in the bold colors and shadowy nuances of its many species.

I walk down to dinner one evening in the foggy twilight and my flashlight beam falls on the orange and black stripes of a coral snake. I’m startled, knowing she’s poisonous, but fascinated that she’s slithered into my life. As I bend closer to get a better look, she retracts from the path into the bushes, like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the Wicked Witch’s striped sock melts away under the house that smashed her. With the hair on the back of my neck still bristling, I step gingerly from one stepping stone to another, watching the miniature headlights of fireflies hovering in the descending darkness, lit only by a rising crescent moon.

After dinner in the big log cabana, biologist Amanda Neill explains why she puts her energy into studying a single species of rainforest flower: the bright red gurania, or jungle cucumber. “Think what might happen if the taxonomists mistakenly lump two similar species together,” she says. “We might assume that there are plenty of these—don’t worry about saving their habitat—when really there are only a few of each species left, that have traveled a billion years to get here.”

The sense of ecological urgency in this blond-haired thirty-year-old woman mixes well with her sense of delight. Even in her narrow niche of study, she’s traveled widely—to Ecuador, Belize, Peru, now Costa Rica—to study the taxonomy and ecology of her focus species. In effect, she’s found her own symbiotic niche in the rainforest, trading her skills at cataloging and protecting the gurania for the privilege of living a month at a time under the lush, protective canopy of the rainforest.

That night, when the cicadas, tree frogs, trogons, owls, howler monkeys, and hundreds of other species all join the chorus, the forest sounds like a smoothly running factory—Taca, taca, taca… sissit, sissit…. Given that the mission of each call is to be heard among a symphony of other calls, there are all varieties of pitch and syncopation—creating an incredibly rich and complex symphony. Over the eons, rainforest species don different colors and improvise different shapes so all nutrients will be used, and all niches occupied. (They utilize information and design rather than superfluous resources, an important lesson for our civilization.) In the morning I’m awakened by a cuckoo clock that turns out to be a bird with a very complex, mechanical-sounding call. I count the hours, groggily, but even in half-sleep, I know it can’t be thirteen o’clock already….

Waking Up in the Rainforest

On a remote jungle trail toward the end of my retreat, I’m dressed only in shorts and rubber boots. I’ve taken off my t-shirt to feel the rainforest on my skin, despite the warnings that deadly fer-de-lance snakes could strike from overhead branches and vines. I’m thinking, “Remember this moment. Remember the way you feel, right now, as howler monkeys growl like lions way off in the distance, and the sun filters through the dense foliage onto your stupefied, grateful face.”

Sure, we can read about the rainforest and see it on TV, but until we spend quality time there, letting ourselves slow down, we don’t really grasp what tropical biology is all about. It struck me on that Costa Rican rainforest retreat that we overconsuming humans need to somehow absorb these colors, this bold brilliance, into our hearts, and revalue nature’s wealth all over the planet. There’s so much more to life than the gray of concrete and the drab green of paper currency! My feeling is that until we acknowledge the butterfly, orchid, rose, maple, and wisteria colors inside each of us, we can’t feel truly at home in ourselves. We can’t see the deficiencies of our economic system clearly enough—that it isn’t programmed to preserve nature, or to optimize human potential. Until we launch an unwavering mission to Planet Earth, we’ll keep postponing the homecoming until there’s not much left to come home to. In that rainforest, I saw and felt complexity-in-balance, and realized how far out of balance our industrial complexity is—infantile and clunky by comparison, with only thousands of years of experience as opposed to billions. Rather than cooperating to make the overall system sustainable, our industrial species compete to attain their own, narrowly defined goals. The name Rara Avis comes from a medieval poem containing the phrase “Rara avis in terris.” The phrase means, literally, “a rare bird in the world”—or figuratively, something new and fresh happening in human civilization. And so there is!

Pitchfork Politics, New-Age Style

In these recent decades of flash floods, cracked earth and county-size forest fires, we small-scale farmers and gardeners are charring like cherry pies in an oven of political and cultural indecision. We’re burning up out here! Unlike throngs of Americans who spend much of their time in the climate-controlled indoors, we hands-on growers can directly feel climate change happening, in our parched skins and dehydrated sinuses. We watch crops that used to thrive wilt to chicken feed and compost. We may not have large, air-conditioned tractors, but many of us do have small greenhouses and cold frames, and we know full well how the “greenhouse effect” works: light comes through the glass but heat can’t get back out, and needs to be vented. It’s elementary that the gases humans generate in energy and food production trap heat the same way. The difference is that there’s no way to vent heat build-up caused by carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions.

Among the growing number of people who acknowledge the reality of physics, many assume that coal-fired power plants, monstermobiles, and poorly-insulated buildings are the main culprits. Yet, recent data indicate that the food system as a sector is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Livestock production alone contributes 18%, and other agricultural practices such as fertilizer production and use, irrigation, and the operation of farm machinery contribute at least another eight percent. Land use is huge, too: when forests are cut or burned down they immediately release greenhouse gases, and are no longer there to absorb carbon dioxide. The impacts of industrialized agriculture don’t stop on our farms and ranches, though. In fact, the growing of food accounts for only a fifth of the energy used to bring food to our tables. The other four-fifths are used to move, process, package, sell, store, preserve and prepare food. As environmentalist Lester Brown phrases it, the refrigerator emits far more carbon dioxide than the tractor.

Local, small-scale agriculture can significantly reduce each of these sources. Says veteran gardener and researcher John Jeavons, “We’re rediscovering the scientific principles of millennia-old farming systems, and over the years we’ve demonstrated how to grow food with 67% to 88% less water; 50% to 100% less fertilizer; and 99% less energy than commercial agriculture – producing two to six times more food per unit of land.” An increase in small-scale growing can play a key role in preventing climate change. Agriculture is quintessentially solar-powered and can lead the way to a future powered largely by renewable energy. Why use up resources we have less and less of when we can instead use what we have more of – knowledgeable people, anxious to be in contact with nature. Here’s how local, “new age” farming can help prevent the world from becoming a steamy, unvented greenhouse:

• Organic, low-tech farming and gardening puts more carbon-rich compost into the soil, storing carbon dioxide rather than releasing it.
• Small-scale methods are more mindful of the benefits of carbon-storing crops such as off-season cover crops like clover and winter rye, as well as erosion-reducing forests and grasslands.
• New age farmers produce meat with more climate-friendly methods than the rest of the greenhouse-gassy meat industry, including a higher percentage of range-fed animals. (Methane and nitrous oxide are many times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, a primary reason why the global increase in meat consumption is a global warming nightmare.)

Benefits of Local, Small-scale Growing

• Reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to transportation and processing. (A typical food item travels up to 2,500 miles from farm to plate—25 percent farther than most food traveled in 1980.)

• Reduces the need for packaging and processing, because it’s fresh.

• Provides healthy produce that can be picked at its peak, providing much better flavor.

• Reconnects people with their communities and the land their food comes from.

• Eating locally recirculates 90 to 100 percent of the money spent in the local economy.

• Provides accountability – the closer we are to where our food comes from, the more control we have over how it is grown.

The good news is that a new kind of food pyramid is emerging, centered on regional food webs. In the last decade, the total number of farms in the U.S. has grown by four per cent, and at least 75,000 of them are small farms meeting a demand for fresh, organic, and locally-grown food. More than four thousand farmers markets (including some in mobile buses!) have sprung up in recent years, along with Community Supported Agriculture networks (that arrange “subscriptions” to a local farm’s output), community gardens, farm-to-school lunch programs, cooperative harvesting exchanges, gardening curricula in all levels of school, citizen Food Policy Councils, backyard chicken coops, and municipal composting systems.

Citizen-consumers support climate friendly farming when they help reverse two key dietary trends of the past half-century – fossil-fueled food and relentless increases in meat consumption. As our personal and national dietary habits change, we might discourage an upward trend in developing countries like India and China, since meat eating is largely about keeping up with Joneses like us. We also send a clear signal to the world’s farmers that we value the preservation of a stable climate, one of our most precious, commonly shared assets. Our numbers are swelling even faster than the Arctic is melting. It’s time for a non-violent, civilly-disobedient pitchfork revolution!

The Anthropology of Food, Part 4

Why Organic Food is Worth the Price

Americans undervalue organic food both on the table and on the farm, for similar reasons. As a culture, we don’t yet recognize the difference in quality between organic and conventional food; between conventional and organic growing. For example, we don’t recognize collectively that it’s more accurate to define the word “organic” by what it is, rather than what it isn’t. True, certified organic means that toxic chemicals and fossil fuel-based fertilizers are not used, but the only way farmers can make that kind of agriculture work is by operating their farms as living systems: building the soil with organic, once-living material – which provides fertility, water retention, disease resistance, and good drainage all at the same time. Average levels of nearly a dozen nutrients are 25% higher in organic produce.

Rotation of crops prevents disease and maintains fertility; using cover crops like alfalfa pulls free nitrogen right out of the air. Recycling “wastes” like manure, crop residues, and by-products of regional industries, such as coffee roasters or fruit canneries makes full use of existing resources. This information-rich way of farming provides habitat for wildlife (which reciprocate with natural pest control); conserves water and helps preserve family farms in rural and metro-edge communities.

The fact that average levels of nearly a dozen nutrients are 25% higher in organic produce translates to greater calmness, endurance, mobility, allergy-resistance, sharper senses, and a better sex life in the daily lives of consumers – a higher quality of life, not just prevention of heart disease or cancer. Those who associate organic food with astrology or hippies may not be aware that the White House chef has routinely served organic food to the Clintons, the Bushes, and now the Obamas. In fact, the world’s finest chefs prefer organic produce because its taste is superior. The use of powdered fertilizers causes crops to take up more water, diluting the taste. In addition, conventional produce has fewer of the enzymes and minerals that enhance flavor.

Since only two percent of the country’s population now lives on a farm, we don’t think of ourselves as having a direct role in farming, yet we each eat an average of a ton of food every year. Farms and ranches still cover more than half our land, and consume three-fourths of our water and 70% percent of our antibiotics. “If you eat, drink, or pay taxes; or care about the economy, the environment, or our global reputation, what happens on farms is a central if unseen part of your life,” says Michael Pollan. If this so, what kind of farm do you want?


Benefits of Organic Growing and Eating

Protects the health of children. University of Washington researchers analyzed urine samples of 110 preschoolers, only one of whom had no measurable level of pesticides. That one child’s parents ate exclusively organic food and didn’t use pesticides in their home or lawn. EPA-documented effects in children of exposure to certain pesticides include poorer growth and impact on neurodevelopment.

Conserves energy used on farms. Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, a 22-year farming trial study concludes.

Promotes Biodiversity on and around farms. Organic farming preserves natural habitat in hedgerows, crop diversity, ponds, and forests, while conventional farming typically uses methods (mono-cropping and pesticides) that reduce biodiversity. Beneficial insects such as bees flourish on organic farms, but often suffer from “colony collapse” on conventional farms.

Supports an Emerging Industry with a smaller Footprint. Organic methods of growing crops generate fewer greenhouse emissions, both because energy-intensive fertilizers and pesticides are not used and because organic soil sequesters carbon dioxide.

Better Flavor, More Healthy Nutrients per pound. Many studies give strong evidence that produce grown organically promotes non-aggressive behavior in schools and prisons and increases performance on academic exams – largely because of increased nutrient density.

What if you had a way of prioritizing which organic products to buy? It seems logical to choose organic for the foods you eat the most, as well as for the produce that is sprayed most heavily. Based on extensive analysis of federal pesticide test results, the Environmental Working Group recommends opting for organic with these foods:

Dairy products: Milk, yogurt and cheese are considered healthy bone-strengtheners, especially for children, but the additions of hormones and antibiotics undermine the simple goodness of commercial dairy products.

Meat (including poultry and eggs): Animal products can contain antibiotics, hormones and even heavy metals like arsenic that is used to prompt an animal’s rapid growth.

Ketchup: Even besides the pesticide issue, research has shown organic ketchup has nearly double the good-for-you antioxidants of conventional ketchup.

Coffee: Conventional coffee farming relies heavily on pesticide use and contributes to deforestation around the globe.

THE DIRTY DOZEN (MOST HEAVILY SPRAYED)

 

  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Grapes, imported
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries

 

 

  • Bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach

 

Source: Environmental Working Group http://www.ewg.org/node/27777

Why not eat what our bodies are designed to eat? For example, although our ancestors hunted and ate far leaner animals than we do — species closer to modern deer and elk than the typical cow – it’s fashionable these days for meat to be fatty and tender, as if the goal of eating was heart disease.

 

The Anthropology of Food, Part 3

Making Regional Food Webs Work

Old Perspective: Large companies like Kraft, Tyson, Conagra, Cargill, and Nestle have given us so much variety, so many convenient choices in all seasons of the year. Their huge scales of operation have enabled prices to remain affordable. This is the good life!

New Perspective: The food-industrial complex has made a mess of the American diet, which in turn has spread around the world. Corporate control of the growing and marketing of food has resulted in the loss of health, crop and animal diversity, family farms, cultural traditions, soil, and trust. The best way to counter-balance corporate dominance is for communities, counties, and states to strengthen their regional food webs.

Corporations have bought out more than 600,000 U.S. farms since the 1960s, and now just four huge companies pack 84 percent of beef and crush 80 percent of soybeans.
The mantra we hear time and again is that consumers vote with their dollars. True, but to express civic convictions in dollars alone is to underestimate our power to create a sustainable food system. We’re far more than consumers, we’re also school board members and concerned parents, farmers, scientists, shareholders and employees in food companies, and voters who influence political decisions. Without any extra effort, our food choices influence our families and friends, creating cultural consensus and market demand. While some might insist that corporate farming is the only efficient way to grow food, they may not be aware that a primary reason why industrial food is so cheap is that it receives heavy subsidies from taxpayers for commodity crops like corn and wheat, while fruit and vegetable growers using sustainable practices get nothing. Consolidation in the food industry has reached freakish proportions: in the U.S. and globally. Corporations have bought out more than 600,000 U.S. farms since the 1960s, and now just four huge companies pack 84 percent of beef and crush 80 percent of soybeans. Corporations produce 98 percent of poultry; 2 percent of farms produce 50 percent of all agricultural products in the country. As corporate control of the food industry increased, dietary and crop diversity also decreased: Iceberg lettuce, frozen and fried potatoes, potato chips and canned tomatoes now make up almost half of the vegetable consumption in the U.S., and a mere four crops account for two-thirds of what we eat.

Cooperation

 

When the size and marketing clout of corporate farms threatened Wisconsin’s small family farms, growers banded together to create a market niche for organic food. From its original membership of seven farmers, the cooperative Organic Valley has grown to more than 1,200 family farms across the nation, making it the largest organic farmer-owned cooperative in North America. Recognizing the need for a new generation of farmers to provide locally grown food, some cities sponsor farmer training programs like Bellingham, Washington’s “Food to Bank On” project, which connects beginning sustainable farms with training, mentors & market support. Area food banks have received $50,000 in fresh produce from these farmers since the programs’ inception in 2003.

Civic response to the corporate dominance of agriculture has been ineffective, but it has now found its center of gravity: re-localization. Like the organic food movement, local food has quickly come into America’s mainstream, promoted in great detail by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food) and Gary Nabhan (Coming Home to Eat). A survey of more than 1,200 chefs, many employed by chain restaurants or large food companies, identified locally grown food to be one of the hottest food trends in the country. Entrepreneurs such as Three Stone Hearth in Berkeley, California are stepping into the niche, providing customers with home delivery of gourmet meals crafted with local produce. A company called Edible Communities recently launched a network of thirty-three region-specific “Edible” magazines (e.g., Edible Atlanta) to promote local foods and flavors in the different locations. Clearly, many Americans want flavorful food with a face.

The challenge is finding mechanisms to connect farms directly with markets and people. A small employee- and farmer-owned company in Portland, Oregon brokers food from local farms to supermarkets. This is typically a difficult sell, since supermarkets prefer year-round deliveries of uniform, flawless produce, in large and reliable quantities. Organically Grown Company became a persuasive agent, convincing farmers to stagger crops; purchasing back-up supplies from warmer locations in Oregon and California; and ensuring that all deliveries are attractively presented. So successful have their efforts been that the company now has a staff of 160. Similarly, geographical diversity of the Rainbow Farming Cooperative – about 300 family farms in Wisconsin, Michigan, Northern Illinois, and the South – makes produce available year-round.

Cleveland, Ohio’s revitalization vision is based in part on urban agriculture. The city’s food policy council (FPC), spearheaded by citizen activists, teamed up with city councilor Joe Cimperman, a strong supporter of urban farming because it’s “good for the economy, nutrition, health, and public safety.” The combined efforts of City Council and the FPC are pursuing zoning changes that will permit garden plots of one acre or more and also allow chicken raising and beekeeping.

Farmers Markets and Farm to School programs are two of the most visible examples of how regional food webs can be woven. In just three decades, close to 5,000 farmers markets have become local traditions in America’s towns and cities. The Greenmarket system in New York City has the country’s largest network, with a centerpiece market in Union Square and about sixty others in the city, including Harlem, the South Bronx, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where blight has often left residents in urban food deserts that have no supermarkets and shops. A pilot project gives food stamp users greater access to healthy food, because they use food stamps at farmers markets.

Several variables have converged to bring Farm-to-School projects into the mainstream: new federal and state regulations with nutritional requirements for schools, an epidemic of obesity among students, generous grants from various foundations, and pioneering efforts in cities like Berkeley, California. Berkeley’s Unified School District approved a school lunch program that delivers “farm to fork” education about planting, growing, and biology – in addition to instilling healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime. Students in over 2,000 school districts in forty states are eating farm-fresh food for school lunch or breakfast. Overall, schools report a 3 to 16 percent increase in participation in school meals when farm-fresh food is served. Many benefits besides better health for the students result from programs like these: teachers learn to incorporate food and agriculture into their curricula; parents change their shopping and cooking patterns; and food service staff gain knowledge and interest in local food preparation.

A local food web is more resilient, and able to prevent large- scale catastrophe. “When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions,” writes Michael Pollan. “Such a system is even more susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is to decentralize it.”

Benefits of a Regional Food Web

  • Helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. (A typical food item travels up to 2,500 miles from farm to plate—25 percent farther than most food traveled in 1980.)
  • Reduces the need for packaging and processing.
  • Provides healthy produce that can be picked at its peak, providing much better flavor.
  • Reconnects people with their communities and the land their food comes from.
  • Eating local keeps 90 percent to 100 percent of the money you spend in your town.
  • Provides accountability – the closer you are to where your food comes from, the more control you will have over how it is grown.

How can individuals help weave a local food web?

  • Shop at local farmers markets
  • Support farm-to-school programs, crop gleaning programs, and municipal composting to reuse local nutrients
  • Reduce food waste in households, restaurants, and supermarkets
  • Organize or participate in a food policy council, in which citizens help direct local food decisions
  • Join a Community supported Agriculture (CSA) program, in which participants “subscribe” to produce grown by a local farmer
  • Start a community garden, or put in a garden in your yard.

The Anthropology of Food, Part 2

Shopping for Change or More of the Same?

At the supermarket we make choices based not just on price, but relationships, associations, emotions, memories, identity, and values. Using multi-focus lenses, we fill our shopping carts with choices we hope are trustworthy, safe, comfortable, unique, healthy, green, and cheap – but not too cheap. (Wouldn’t hunting and gathering be easier?) We make many of these decisions quickly as we nervously consult our watches, and unfortunately, the food Americans bring home often results in obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart failure. The processed foods that now fill supermarket shelves are low in water and fiber (making them easier to ship) but packed with added fat and sugar, making them less filling, more fattening. Author and activist Bill McKibben observes, “The supermarket crammed with its thousands of brightly packaged offerings is a mirage: if you could wave a magic wand and break everything down into its constituent ingredients, a pool of high-fructose corn syrup would fill half the store.”

In the book “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,” marketing expert Martin Lindstrom’s research sheds much light on the convoluted, interconnected thoughts that perc in our brains as we make choices. Standing in front of the peanut butter display, Lindstrom’s shopper thinks,

 

“I associate Skippy with childhood…it’s been around forever, so I feel it’s trustworthy…but isn’t it laden with sugar and other preservatives I shouldn’t be eating…Same goes for Peter Pan, plus the name is so childish. And I’m not buying that generic brand. It costs 30 cents less, which makes me suspicious. In my experience, you get what you pay for…The organic stuff? Tasteless, the few times I had it… always needs salt, too… Jif…what’s that old advertising slogan of theirs: “Choosy Mothers Choose Jif”…Well I am a fairly discriminating person…”

How can we escape this brightly-packaged parade of industrial food that makes that makes our minds chatter? The only thing that will really work is a cultural movement that demands changes in what the food industry provides and how they provide it. Processed food is artificially cheap right now because energy has been cheap, and because our tax dollars subsidize the growing of crops like wheat, corn and soybeans – primary ingredients in “industrial” food. As a society, we don’t charge ourselves for the many environmental and health side effects of food. We allocate less of our household budget to food than we ever have before, and we don’t, as a nation, allocate enough capital to mentor new farmers.

The truth is that we need to spend more of our household budget for food, not less.

The truth is that we need to spend more of our household budget for food, not less. By rearranging both our household and national expenditures, we should give a higher priority to fresh, healthy food and a lower priority to electronic gadgets, mall booty, cars, lawns, and vacations. Our overall expenses don’t have to go up, they just need to be realigned with our changing values. By choosing higher quality food and better ways of growing it, we also begin to reshape the American culture.

In the meantime, here we are in the supermarket aisles, making the best choices we can. Though brightly colored promises on the boxes and packages (“all natural!” “low-fat!” “high in Omega 3!”) seem a little overwhelming, with patience and peer support, we can learn what these slogans really mean, step by step. For example, “free-range” egg-laying hens are typically out of cages but inside barns or warehouses. They have some outdoor access, but how much is not specified, and there is no third-party quality control. A higher level of quality assurance for eggs is “USDA Certified Organic,” which guarantees not only outdoor access, but also an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides.

Food labels like these are an agreement, an understanding, between producer and consumer, for a certain level of quality; a certain set of core values. The labels not only help the buyer but also guide the grower, holding production standards higher. Rather than remaining Lone Rangers for truth, justice and quality in food, many Americans are now opting to let Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or the local food co-op prescreen food products for key traits like fair trade, organic, local, and ecological sensitivity. After learning what brands they prefer, smart shoppers also learn which conventional supermarkets carry those products, often at slightly lower prices. (And they learn to request those products from conventional store managers.) Step by step, they are changing not only the household diet, but also America’s diet.

“You shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry to go supermarket shopping,” says David Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center, who wants to bring “traffic light” labeling system to the U.S. “The index, with green, yellow, or red labels, should take into account the quantity of calories, beneficial nutrients, and potentially harmful nutrients such as trans fat, in a serving of any given food. Why shouldn’t even dummies wind up with a shopping cart filled with the good stuff?”

The eatingwell.com website concurs with Katz that label reading should be easier, but maintains that a lot of important nutritional information is already on the labels, if you know how to scan them. Keeping it simple, they suggest:

 

Limit Products With:

Saturated fat: As low as possible; less than five grams per serving.

Trans fat: should be zero. (Hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils means trans fats).

Sodium: As low as possible. The FDA allows a “healthy” label on foods with less than 480 mg/serving for entrees, less than 360 mg for all other foods.

High fructose corn syrup: A cheap form of highly concentrated sugar (words ending in “ose” are pseudonyms for sugar).

“Enriched” or “wheat” flour (aliases for “white”) Choose whole-wheat flour instead.

Choose Products With:

The shortest possible ingredient list.

 

Fiber: Three or more grams per serving.

Whole grains: Preferably first or second in the ingredients list.

“Liquid” or “high-oleic” vegetable oils: Heart-healthy unsaturated fats

Fruits and vegetables: Dried or fresh, in whole form.

The Anthropology of Food, Part 1

Food is the most universal symbol of America’s age of excess. The average American’s dinner comes from five different countries, with a combined airfreight and ocean freight mileage tab that often exceeds 10,000 miles. At least three-fourths of that typical meal is processed and packaged, its nutrients stripped away and replaced by texturizers, sweeteners, and flavor “enhancers.”

Let’s visit Homer Simpson for a few minutes as our “average American” proxy watches TV and snacks. From the research of people like Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, we know that Homer is thinking – in his colorfully primitive way – that if he has the chips n’ dip, he’ll also have the friends, the laughter, the adrenalin rushes, the companionship that he sees in the commercials and sitcoms. We know that unlike many Europeans and Asians – whose body wisdom directs them to stop eating when they’re full, Homer’s cue to stop will be when his beer is gone, the big bowl is empty, or the TV show is over.

Homer will eat more M & Ms if they are different colors rather than just one color; more chips if they come in transparent packages so he can preview and crave them; and more fruit if it’s pre-sliced, even if it was sliced weeks ago and preserved in space-age packaging. In an age of excess, Homer forms a perception of how much food is “normal” to eat, then eats a little more because he feels he deserves it.

Unbeknownst to Homer, industry product wizards throughout the food industry strive for ultimate “snackability” that induces what one marketer, Barb Stuckey, calls “mindless munching,” in which the hand moves hypnotically back and forth between bag and mouth. These maestros of munch deliver an endless stream of products that don’t imply a portion size the way a whole apple or slice of homemade pie does, so there’s no obvious signal, or need, to stop.

Is “fun food” what we really want? Though it may seem overwhelming to change eating habits that have developed over lifetimes – complete with recipes, symbols of identity, and memories – change we must, because our mainstream diet is sapping our personal energy and health and stripping resilience from the biological systems we evolved with and the culture we’ve built, one bite at a time. But when we remember that the human diet has evolved over millions of years, we begin to think of “normal” in a more appropriate light. So, is Homer Simpson, a caricature of the average American, crazy? In a word, yes. Many are living in a candy shop psychosis in which we consider it a sensible trade to let the ice caps melt and the tumors take root if the Whoppers and PopTarts just keep coming. That illusion, however, is fading in a society that is beginning to see diet as a moral decision, related to essential human needs like vitality, social connections, fairness, security, kindness, and even sanity. In a world of changing values, near-future peers may not respect us if we are mindless, self-centered eaters.

Mindful eaters avoid the empty calories of junk food in favor of high-value, high-energy food that makes each day go more smoothly. Why not bring our brains to the table and devise a few personal food strategies, such as:

  1. Don’t bring junk food into your house. Save healthier versions of chips, ice cream, and cookies for special occasions, and store them only as near as the supermarket. When you have a snack attack, have some fruit, a handful of nuts, or pop some organic popcorn in olive oil (sturdy cast iron or stainless steel pots work great because the popcorn doesn’t burn).
  2. If you have 30 years left to live, that’s roughly 30,000 meals! Why not make most of them satisfying, one week at a time? Identify a dozen or so healthy recipes and structure weekly menus. If it makes life easier, rotate your menus through the same days of the week, so you’ll know when to buy what.
  3. Forget about soft drinks; even diet ones. Picture Homer Simpson’s belly every time you crave one. Since Concord grape juice provides many of the benefits of red wine and tastes great, keep a few bottles in the fridge. Combine with cranberry juice and dilute with tap water for an inexpensive, instant drink.

·4. Give a higher priority to fresh potatoes and lower priority to French fries, often drip-dried with saturated fat. Fresh potatoes have only about 100 calories per medium-sized spud and provide lots of vitamins C, and B, niacin, iron and copper – and 6% percent of the daily-recommended protein. Great in breakfast burritos with “cage-free, natural” eggs, to get a good start. (Organic eggs are even better).

·5. Mass-produce healthy soups, sauces, salad dressings, and cooked, whole grain cereals in your own kitchen. Can or freeze them to save time, energy, and money as well as reduce packaging and greenhouse gas emissions.

·6. Allow yourself one luxury “treat” per shopping trip to deliberately avoid throwing in three or four.

·7. Create a “car pack” if you spend a significant amount of time in your car – a lunchbox with raw nuts, fruit, and high-end, healthy snack bars. Even more convenient than the drive-in, your customized car pack can save money, energy, and eliminate all that packaging.

This email is Part 1 in a short series about the trap we’ve set in our food system. A convergence of food, water, and climate challenges makes technical and behavioral changes inevitable, and URGENT.

To see the full article please visit the blog post at Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, and watch for the next installment. To read more about the anthropology of sustainability, stop by my website, davewann.net.

A Movement Too Deep to Fail

Unrest over income inequality and financial corruption occupies emotional space, not just urban space. Economic imbalances are unacceptable in part because they release toxic levels of insecurity into society. The evidence is clear: out of 145 countries, the U.S. ranks in the “top” five in measurable stress, according to an ongoing Gallup poll.

This is where the Occupy movement’s energy originates – in an unspoken, emotionally charged belief that the game is unfair, immoral, and stressful. What should we do about this? Reprogram our social software and redefine the shared concept of “success,” nothing less. Detect and delete self-destructive viruses, such as: “People who are paid less are worth less. Growth is always good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes.”

The Occupy movement’s message is about the forest, not just the trees: If the game as currently played is choking us, why not agree to play a completely different game? Writes author and economist Robert Reich, “It is illogical to criticize companies for playing by the current rules of the game. If we want them to play differently, we have to change the rules.” Donella Meadows’ platform is even wider when she writes about paradigm shifts – clicks in the collective mind, new ways of seeing. “In the space of mastery over paradigms people throw off addictions, bring down empires, and have impacts that last for millennia.”

Throughout history, status has been awarded to those who strengthen the community – hunters, protectors, storytellers, healers, elders, and priests – not just those with the biggest huts and mansions. In a world that is shuffled, fragmented, in constant flux, virtually 100% of Americans suffer painful bouts with “social defeat” and “status anxiety,” according to author Jim Rubens. He believes that our current epidemic of stress is rooted in the widely unchallenged assumption that “only we are responsible for our life’s outcome.” An unprecedented barrage of status comparisons in mass media, and the incessant modeling of stratospherically high goals are making us crazy – crazy enough for some of us to camp on hard city pavements and trampled turf for weeks and months at a time.

There’s a lot at stake. Stress kills – one reason that healthcare costs are rising and life expectancy is falling in the U.S. Lower social status correlates with obesity, heart disease, lung disease, incidence of smoking, asthma, cancer, diabetes, number of sick days taken on the job, accident rates, suicide, exposure to physical violence, and of course, mental health.

Instead of idolizing CEOs who fluff their own pillows with fairy-tale bonuses – as they play winner-take-all with our money – why not respect and reward people of service, people who’ve gained our trust, people intent on making the world safer and saner? Let’s just change direction. Billionaire Ted Turner used this logic to redirect the flow of philanthropic gifts. He proposed that a ranking of who donates the most would stimulate competition among the super rich, and after the online magazine Slate began to publish an annual list, contributions from America’s wealthiest donors soared. In general, it’s not the money the moguls are chasing; it’s the status. Let’s make honest people out of the 1%: from here on, only generosity and civic responsibility get our respect.

We will expect those who have accumulated fortunes to pay their fair share of taxes and to apply their genius to pursuits that benefit a wide number of people. Billionaires might be open to employee ownership of their companies – not just because it’s more democratic and less stressful, but also because it’s often more productive. The 1% can and must be moral leaders, not dictators, or else we can go around them. For example, in recent months close to a million accounts at mega-banks have been transferred to community banks and credit unions. What if this trend were to continue? The game would change.

Certainly, Americans changed direction in World War II, sacrificing individually for the good of the whole. In the process, we rediscovered the richness of cooperation. A classic culture shift also took place in 18th century Japan, where land was in short supply, forest resources were being depleted, and minerals such as gold, silver, and copper were suddenly scarce. Japan went from being resource-rich to resource-poor, but its culture adapted by developing a national ethic that centered on moderation and efficiency. An attachment to material things was seen as demeaning, while the advancement of crafts and human knowledge were seen as lofty goals. In this “culture of contraction,” an emphasis on quality became ingrained in a culture that eventually produced world-class solar cells and Toyota Priuses.

Can U.S. culture change direction and reinvent itself? That’s the underlying question the Occupy movement has brought, once again, to the table.

A Way With Plants

Some of my friends tell me they have “black thumbs,” and that each ill-fated horticultural effort results in the botanical equivalent of assisted suicide (“Away with plants!”). But let these black thumbs experience one proud success — a philodendron that vines up the office wall, or a Type A tomato plant that yields half a bushel of juicy beefsteaks — and they’ll start to notice slight changes in the appearance of their thumbs. At the bank or grocery store, clerks will begin to ask what happened. “Oh, nothing,” the born-agains will reply, modestly. “I guess I just have a way with plants.”

And the more transformations they witness, for example, of barren soil to organic black humus, the greener those modest thumbs will become. The more bright little seedlings they transfer meticulously from rickety wooden flat to rich earth, and the more abundant their humus-rich potato patches become, the more hopelessly lost they’ll be. They’ll begin waking up at five in the morning to chase deer out of the melons, and start turning down free trips to Costa Rica because they need to be home with their germinating seeds.

My living room in MarchAh, my friends, such a fate befell me. From one skimpy row of peas planted next to our foothills garage, I descended into an obsession with plants. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Farmers of Forty Centuries and The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening to Biodynamic Gardening and How to Grow More Vegetables. From Rudolph Steiner to Sir Albert Howard to Michael Pollan and back again. It paid off, because after ten years of hands-on education in a high altitude garden, I became a complete addict, going into withdrawal in winter months when the garden was sleeping.

Health, Wholeness, a Source of Delight

I’d become hooked on being the broker between a plant’s genetic potential and a garden’s assets – one of which was a growing bank of knowledge in my head. Since I worked swing shift during those early gardening years, I’d spend hours each morning making compost and transplanting seedlings. I began to be a nut about what I ate, feeling the cycle of energy that flowed through the garden. Reading a pivotal book by Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, I knew exactly what Berry meant when he wrote, “In gardening one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight.”

I must have loved the work, or else the slugs would have beaten me back. In the early years, I’d watch for the emergence of the peas or carrots, and assume I’d screwed something up, because seedlings would only come up here and there, if at all. Then I visited the garden after hours one evening to close a cold frame, and guess who I discovered, happy as clams without shells, feasting on tender, delectable pea sprouts?

You could drive by that garden on a damp evening in late May and make out my dim outline, with a miner’s helmet flashlight strapped on my head, illuminating the battlefield. I don’t know how many thousand slimy slugs I sent to mollusk heaven, but I do know that if slugs had been nickels rather than chicken feed, my coffee cans full of them would have been a down payment for a small farm in Tuscany.

In the throes of a passion teetering on fanaticism, I began to experiment with esoteric practices like those found in biodynamic literature. Among other things, I was instructed to place deer guts in the compost pile. When you think about it, it does make intuitive sense that there would be microbes in deer innards that specialize in decomposing cellulose and other organic leftovers, but where do you get a good, fresh deer bladder these days? Instead of having to explain my need to deer hunters (which I may do, ultimately) I incorporated a list of basic ingredients reputed to stimulate a compost pile – I think it was dandelion, chamomile, yarrow, stinging nettles, valerian, and oak bark – and I have to admit, my compost pile was legendary that year. (But was it because I fanatically turned the pile about every 15 minutes, or was it the herbs?)

Every spring, as snow melted enthusiastically off the roof of our log cabin, my life would begin again as the sap rose back into my limbs and brain cells. I’d offer (no, insist on) interminable tours to family members, pointing out the miraculous resurgence of perennials, the newly planted rows of peas and radishes. I wrote garden columns for the local paper, and became a Master Gardener by taking the required intensive course and serving as a volunteer at the extension office. When people would bring in dead plants and ask what had killed them, or call and ask what flowers would thrive in their shady backyards, I tried to access the crammed information like a college student in a final.

What I’m saying, reader, is that somewhere around 1980, I applied for and was accepted into the society of plant nuts. I began to be an agricultural activist, passionately researching not only what happened in my own garden, but also in the collective, planetary garden. I discovered that pesticide use had increased at least thirteen fold since mid-century, yet pest damage remained about the same. That American society was spending $4 billion for those pesticides, but twice that in hidden costs like fishery losses, groundwater contamination, bird losses, and pesticide resistance. That bees, called “flying $50 bills” by grateful farmers, were routinely being poisoned by farm chemicals.

And that the average age of the American farmer is 60-something. Who’s learning the trade well enough to feed the rest of us?

Gardening - a sport you can eat!According to industrial ecologist Robert Ayres, humans now annually produce more fertilizer synthetically than nature herself. But the truth is that the father of synthetic fertilizer, German Justis von Liebig, died feeling very queasy about his historic “discovery” that plants needed three basic nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. He realized too late that plants need dozens of micronutrients, just like people do. The soil had been supplying these trace elements naturally, but was being mined out, eroded, and left as spoil. In 1843, in his twilight years, the father of modern agriculture wrote, “I had sinned against the wisdom of our creator. I wanted to improve his handiwork, and in my blindness, I believed that in this wonderful chain of laws, which ties life to the surface of the earth and always keeps it rejuvenated, there might be a link missing that had to be replaced by me – this weak powerless nothing.” Oops.

But the wheels were already in motion. Most farmers were already addicted.

from The Zen of Gardening