Two Podcasts You’ve Got to Hear: Thinking Trees and Rewilding


The Oostvaardersplassen, an attempt to rewild a very unwild place in the Netherlands.

In case you can’t get enough of our podcasts, let me suggest two other podcast episodes that will definitely be of interest to Root Simple readers and listeners:

WNYC’s Radiolab released an episode, From Tree to Shining Tree which features the mind-bending research of Suzanne Simard. Her work shows that the root systems of forests form a sort of neural network, perhaps even a kind of plant consciousness.

The always worthwhile and thoughtful Ideas show has an episode on Rewilding, the tricky notion of returning landscapes to a “natural” state. One of the examples in the show is an attempt to rewild a region in the Netherlands that was reclaimed from the sea in the 1960s. I’m very familiar with this place from a bizarre, failed project I was involved with that attempted to create a monumental land art piece with explosives. Someday I’ll tell that crazy story, but let’s just say that this part of the Netherlands is probably the most dull landscape in the world. The Ideas show begins with the story of Ecologist Frans Vera introducing wild animals to this very artificial place. The show goes on to explore what “wildness” means. Spoiler: that’s a topic that will never have a neat conclusion.

Help! I’ve got Paper Wasps


Around this time of year we field a lot of questions about paper wasps, likely because the nests get larger in the summer. The most popular nesting site for paper wasps around here is in the eaves of a house. When the nest is by a door people tend to get uneasy.

Take a chill pill
Don’t panic! Paper wasps are extremely docile and rarely sting. Most importantly, paper wasps are a beneficial insect. They eat beetle larvae, caterpillars, flies and nectar (making them pollinators). They are your friends in the garden. Right now I have a large colony living in the eave of our front porch right over my favorite chair. I’ve sat in that chair, with my head a mere four feet from my paper wasp buddies, for many hours and have never once been bothered.

Like honeybees, paper wasp are social insects. A mated queen lays eggs. But the similarity ends there. Paper wasp nests range in size between a dozen to 200 individuals. A honeybee colony can be made up of 60,000 workers or more. And honeybees only gather pollen and nectar. Paper wasps feed their young with protein (other insects).

What a paper wasp sting feels like
About the only way you can get stung by a paper wasp is to grasp one. I did this inadvertently once when I reached behind a fence. Keeping bees, I’m well aware of what a honeybee sting feels like. The paper wasp sting was, initially, sharper than a honeybee sting but the pain dissipated quickly.

Paper wasp control
If you don’t want a paper wasp colony next to a door or window it’s best to get rid of the colony early in the season. You can knock it down with a stream of water from a hose or with a long pole. Make sure you have an exit route planned! They will no longer be peaceable after you do this.

Most importantly, after you knock down the nest (a good while after, of course, after they’ve calmed down), oil the location where they were with cooking oil or furniture oil so they can’t attach a new nest in that spot. You can also buy poison at the hardware store but who’s a fan of poison!? It’s really unnecessary. If you have a bee suit you can put it on and remove the colony with a gloved hand. But the best option is to leave them in place so that they can eat all those nasty flies, beetles and caterpillars. A wasp colony makes your yard a healthier, more balanced place.

Also, as you decide what to do with the nest on your house, keep in mind the fact that the colony will dissipate come winter. They will produce a young queen who will move elsewhere, and the remaining workers will die off. In other words, if you can wait until cold weather, your wasp problem will solve itself. Then you can knock down the old nest and grease the area so they don’t revisit that spot.





The Practical Side of Philosophy


How did I get through my entire education without studying so much as a page of philosophy? It is, after all, the foundation of all human knowledge. In desperate act of catch-up, I’ve attempted in the past few years an often difficult program of philosophical and theological self-study.

Now, before you think I’ve gone way off topic on a homesteading blog, let me counter with a few examples of how philosophy can help navigate thorny DIY questions:

  1. How should one evaluate arguments for or against compost tea, organic gardening, or Hugelkultur beds?
  2. Is it ethical to drive/fly/buy stuff in plastic bottles given our ongoing ecological crisis?
  3. Do the humanities or arts have anything meaningful to contribute to our understanding of nature or is the whole shebang covered under the sciences?

In one of the Republican debates last year Marco Rubio quipped that America needs more welders and fewer philosophers. It’s true that much of academic philosophy has devolved into either arcane navel gazing or a dogmatic neuroscience-based materialist orthodoxy. And good luck getting a job with a philosophy degree. But it’s my hope that the practical side of philosophy can be reclaimed, though that might have to happen outside of the context of the university. As an example the creative folks at the Idler Academy in London offer both beekeeping and philosophy classes. To Rubio’s assertion I would counter that we need people who can both weld and understand a logical or ethical argument.

Attempting my own self-study program hasn’t been easy. There’s been a whole bunch of $50 words to learn and I can’t say that I’m anywhere near the point where I can explain key concepts. It would have been better to have started this program earlier in my life and integrated with all the other things I had to study in school.

But as to how to get that self-study program going, I recently found a book that covers the history of philosophy in a clear and entertaining format: Oxford professor Anthony Kenny’s A Brief History of Western Philosophy. I also struggled through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a difficult but worthwhile tome that completely changed my view of history. You can listen to a five part interview with Taylor via the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Ideas show (this, by the way, shows the cultural superiority of Canadians–I doubt our NPR would do a five hour interview with a philosopher!). But I’d recommend starting with Kenny’s book. Even a cursory study of Aristotle and Plato unlocks a lot of the key issues and debates in Western culture.

In a few more years I hope to know the difference between my epistomologies and phenomenologies. Then I can move on to welding!

Saturday Tweets: Micro-camping, Vacuum Sealer Hack and Bikes!

Shou-sugi-ban: Charring Wood as a Preservation Method

Shou-sugi-ban 焼き杉 is a Japanese method of charring cedar boards. The method is simple. You char the surface of the wood, scrape it with a metal brush and apply a sealant. The charring creates a protective layer and also, surprisingly, makes the wood more resistant to fire. The technique extended the life of exterior cladding in a country where wood was a precious commodity.

The technique fell out of favor with the advent of modern materials but has seen a revival of late in the contemporary architecture scene. Designers, I think, are drawn to the dark color of the wood as well as the sustainability of the practice. I defy you to find a recent issue of Dwell Magazine without a Shou-sugi-ban wall.

The video above shows a modern method using a propane torch. You can see an alternate method, based on the traditional technique, here. Like most exterior wood projects, it’s a good idea to apply new oil annually. I’ve seen two recommendations: tung oil and Penofin.

I’m pondering the method for some upcoming backyard projects and am wondering if any of you have tried Shou-sugi-ban. If you have leave a comment!