We are all gardeners

Pomo woman harvesting seeds

Pomo woman harvesting seeds, 1924, by Edward Curtis

After a break for camping and other things, I’m returning to the series of posts I initiated a couple of weeks ago under the heading, Back to the Garden. While this series is meant to be practical, I have a little more “thoughtstyling” as we say around here before I turn to the hands-on material. Look for new series entries every Thursday.

We are all gardeners.  What does this mean? It’s a saying which pops up in all sorts of contexts. Gardening, after all, is a universal metaphor, so the idea that “we are all gardeners” appears with equal validly in conversations about spiritual matters as it does in those about child development. The phrase is also often used in permacultural circles, where — by oral tradition, at least — it is attributed to Bill Mollison, though after a solid half hour of searching I haven’t been able to find a citation of him saying this in print.

In permacultural terms, to say we are all gardeners means simply that everything we do influences our environment. Whether we will it or not, our daily decisions shape the natural world around us, as surely as a gardener shapes her plot.

Every time we shop for food, every time we drive our cars or mow our lawns or choose where we’re going to live or just when settle down on the couch with our laptops, we are deciding what the world looks like. We choose to extract certain things from the natural world, and we choose to…er… supplement…our soil and our water with various substances. We choose what may and may not grow, when and where. We decide what may and may not crawl, creep or fly in our lands. We’ve already chosen to develop most of our land for human use. Consciously or unconsciously, we dominate the land.

Our influence is permanent, and huge. (Have you heard about the anthropocene epoch?) Somewhere in our group subconscious we like to believe there is always more wilderness, more chances, somewhere for the wild to be. But there simply isn’t. For example, check out this light pollution map of the U.S. How much undeveloped land is left to beast and bird and tree? Or, to put it another way, what isn’t a parking lot these days?

But this isn’t just about the abstract protection of species of fish, bird and insects we’ve never even seen. It’s about us, and the quality of our future as well. One of our best hopes for softening the effects of climate change is to work with nature as our ally. If we bring nature back into our cities and suburbs, if we build soil and plant trees and encourage biodiversity, we can do amazing things, like sequester carbon and regulate temperature and protect our lands from flooding. We can do all these things and support other species at the same time.

And on another level, we need nature to remain healthy and sane. It’s not just about food or water or air quality, it’s about spirit. We are programed to be in relationship with the natural world. This is the subject of a whole different essay, but if you need convincing, check out books like Last Child in the Woods and Your Brain on Nature, or more immediately, articles on “nature prescriptions” like this one in Slate.

Embracing our role as gardeners and stewards of creation is a thread of hope in an otherwise grim time. It’s a way of telling a story which counters our prevailing narratives of hopelessness and destruction. It’s also something we can do on our own. Every bit helps, so you don’t have to wait for the government to clue in, or for your neighbors to agree.

We’re already gardening, as I’ve said. It’s not that hard to simply choose to be better gardeners. It starts with acknowledging our deep reciprocal relationship with the natural world. After all, if we’re looking for atonement with the natural world, it is well to remember that atonement literally means “setting as one” — at-one-ment. To heal the natural world we have to admit we are part of it, that we need it, and it needs us.

If we could restore this relationship, we’d be a long way toward returning to Eden.

In this I’m greatly influenced by M. Kat Anderson. (See my review of her book, Tending the Wild.), Tending the Wild is about Native American management of the the California landscape, an active management which was subtle enough to be invisible to European colonists, but so successful that it created a literal paradise on earth, a landscape rich with fish and game and meadows of tall grass and riotous wildflowers, shaded gently by spreading oaks.

None of this was accidental, or Providential, as the colonists believed. The land was rich because the land was loved and actively managed by the tribes to ensure that they had the food and materials they needed, while supporting the rest of creation to the mutual benefit of all. They were practicing a form of permaculture so advanced that we can only hope to emulate it one day.

This was not a California-specific phenomenon. People who we call “hunter-gatherers” shape and have shaped the land all over the world, even to this day–though the knowledge is dying, almost lost. This, for instance, is a nice short essay by Bill Gammage about the gardening practice of Indigenous Australians, which sounds very much what Anderson describes in Tending the Wild.

I’m not saying Native practice was perfect all over the world for all time, that they never made mistakes or got greedy, but I will hold on to a vision of humankind returning to a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the rest of life after a long, destructive period of exile. We can do this by becoming conscious gardeners, Edenic gardners.

I know we can do it because evidence says we’ve done it before. And I know we have to do it, if we want to craft a decent future for our children.

We have to do this if we want to ameliorate the effects of climate change, to cool our burning cities, to help the soil absorb the floodwaters.

And we will do this because we love the sound of the birds in the trees and bees in the flowers.

We will do it so children born today will experience the vibrant natural world as something more than a bedtime story.

We will do this because it is the right thing to do.

From here on I’m going to focus on gardening as actual landscape management, as opposed to our consumer choices and civic activities, though those are very important as well. People who own or manage land bear particular responsibility of caring for the land in return for their privilege.

But those who don’t own land are not powerless. First, they should remember that they can work with conservation groups to restore and maintain ecosystems as well as launch guerrilla and otherwise informal initiatives to heal the land around them. Second, remember that we are all influencers. As I said above, every time we vote, every time we buy something, each time we take a trip or choose a place to live, we are influencing the landscape and we are influencing people who have more power over the land than we do.

(An aside: At this point I suspect permaculture folks are going to say what I’m talking about when I say gardening is permaculture, and I won’t disagree. But I’ll also say that permaculture as a discipline can be intimidating from the outside and the cost of training prohibitive. In this series I’m going to be suggesting practices which align with permacultural ideas, but which are perhaps more immediately accessible to the general reader. I do believe people with permaculture training will be in demand and of much use in the coming years. )

The Loving Landscape

I propose a universal rethinking about how we tend our yards and public spaces.

The Old Way:

Lawn-based. Status seeking. Conformist. For show, not use. Value of landscape based abstractly on the value of the property. The yard chores are outsourced. Few species of plants are used (e.g. a front yard may host a total of 3 species: turf,  a specimen trees, a hedge). The species chosen are likely not local species, but exotics, so do not express any particular sense of place, other than a generalized sense of suburbia. The outdoors is kept as tidy as indoors: the grass is raked, the leaves and cuttings are thrown away, everything is rigorously pruned. Wildlife is not welcome.

This landscape is extractive by nature, meaning it is not self-sustaining, but reliant on biological and chemical inputs stolen from other locations, from fertilizer to weed killer to the gasoline and electricity needed to run the tools necessary to to keep the landscape trim, and in some climates, the water needed to keep the grass green.

It is expensive.

It is life-denying.

The New Way: The Loving Landscape

The Loving Landscape invites and encourages life at many levels. Its value is founded on its ability to sustain life in as many forms as possible, from microbes to humans. The focus is not on surface glamor, but on the invisible, but critical aspects of the landscape: the life of the soil and the path of the water. The active soil ecology supports the surface plants without need for store-bought inputs. Rain water is captured and channeled through a variety of means to both irrigate the garden and charge the groundwater.

The plants in the loving landscape promote biodiversity and the local ecology. They are largely native, but not dogmatically so. The landscape represents the unique spirit and history of the region. The plants serve the larger ecology, feeding insects and birds and providing habitat for small animals, birds and reptiles. Loving landscapes join together from house to house to form corridors and refuges for wildlife. There is room for human food crops as well, because abundance is a key virtue in the loving landscape.

The garden is a space of reflection and reconnection for the gardener and their family and community. The land is not always tidy, but it is always vital.

Next week we’ll start talking about how to craft this kind of environment.

An ancient food forest

An intriguing short video by permaculturist Geoff Lawton about a food forest in Morocco.

It does leave me with questions, though, such as: what sort of labor does it take to keep this system going? And also, what other kinds of inputs does it require? Is it irrigated, and if so, how?

Still, it’s inspiring to see so much abundance in a dry space. Come to think of it, LA has lots of palm trees already. If we’d just give up our cars, we could plant that understory of carob and banana…

Back to the Garden

medieval image of deer

Livre de chasse, ca 1407

[This is the first post in a new series.]

Lately I have been thinking about that old Joni Mitchell song, Woodstock, where she says:

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

This idea haunts me. I find references to this song, to the Garden and gardening and Eden everywhere I turn, as if the universe is whacking me upside the head, saying, “Pay attention!”

Genesis tells the tale of humankind’s expulsion from Eden. It is a myth. The definition of a myth is a tale which is not factual, but which is true. In our age of empiricism this can seem like a contradiction of terms, but it isn’t. A myth is a truth which is always playing out beneath the surface of things. It isn’t a past-tense event, it’s the current state of affairs. Every day we are Falling. Every day we chose to leave Eden.

Once we did not consider ourselves separate from nature–we walked with it and in it. And then something went terribly wrong and we fell out of balance with the rest of the world. We fell out of right relationship with the world and all the other beings which we’d once loved. We imagined ourselves the masters of the world, and to make up for the pain and loneliness of our estrangement from which we once loved, we used our creative intelligence to pillage all of the resources of the world. Like greedy children we demanded more and more toys, and then broke them all. Now we sit in the debris of our own wastefulness, wanting still more. We want more because we are empty inside, and we think power and things can fill that lonely space in our hearts.

Some people think humans are an evolutionary mistake, a sort of rampaging virus which is destroying the world. I think we are doing a good job of destroying the world, but I don’t think that was ever the path we were meant to follow.

When we look at the natural world we see how every living thing, from lactobacillus to elephants, have a role to play in the dance of life. I’ve often wondered where humans were meant to fit in the dance. We are such odd creatures: naked, bipedal, abstract thinkers far too clever for anybody’s good. It’s easy to imagine that the world would be better off without our interference. But I don’t think that is the case. I think the world needs us, has always needed us.

Intelligence runs throughout creation, and I never underestimate the intelligence of other creatures and even plants, but human intelligence is unique. A falcon will distinguish between a lark and a rabbit, but only we can imitate both the lark and the rabbit. Only we can craft images of them, make up songs and stories about them, and weave those stories into the meaning of all things.

I’ve had only a few visions or epiphanies in my life, things I believe with all my heart, though I cannot prove them to be true. This is one of them. Our role is to celebrate Nature, to witness it, to love it. We are Nature’s mirror and Nature’s poets and Nature’s guardians.

cave painting of lion heads

Cave lion drawings from Chauvet Cave, France

The cave paintings of our paleolithic ancestors show an astonishing familiarity with the animals they represent, a close eye for detail, for movement and physiognomy, for the subtle differences between males and females of the same species, for instance. No one knows exactly what the paintings were for, but for me it is enough to know that we were reverently engaged with the world around us. And while we didn’t paint mice or mushrooms, I’m sure we were as deeply engaged with all of the plants and animals within our range. I can’t even imagine the tales and songs we must have shared when we were in this deep relationship with the world–when we were in Eden.

Eden? You might be saying. Hardly. Life was brutal and short back then. Well, yes. We died under tooth and claw, and from raging infections and long winters. But I don’t know that anyone is qualified to say that our ancestors did not have lives full of meaning and joy. I don’t know that if we brought one of them forward to our time that they wouldn’t pity us in turn.

Nonetheless, I don’t want to go back to that world, even if it were possible–but do I want to get back to the Garden. And I think that is possible. We just have to change the stories we’ve been telling ourselves.

I’ll have more to say on our role as caretakers of nature, and how that fits into home gardening and much more,  in my next post.

Thanks to Father Mark R. Kowalewski for inspiring me bring some of these ideas together.

A ceramic oil lamp

oil lamp

There is not an ember burning on the table top! It just looks that way.

This is to report that I’ve accomplished one of my New Year’s resolutions: I made a ceramic oil lamp.

Regular readers will know that I’m a little obsessed with lamps that burn cooking oil instead of kerosene.

I like them so much, I made a little seashell oil lamp the very first project in our book Making It. As a child of the electric age it continuously amazes me that I can make light so easily with cooking oil. Also, in reproducing these lights, I feel a connection to history. I’ve no doubt that my ancestors gathered around fish oil lamps in the north and olive oil lamps in the south.

To add to their charms, they aren’t based on petroleum–as paraffin tea candles are, for example–and they’re non-toxic. They’re relatively safe, compared to kerosene, in that vegetable oil has such a high flash point. And finally, in their list of virtues, they’re cheap. They can be improvised out things like jar lids and Altoids tins, and I use rancid and otherwise questionable oils to fuel them — oils which I would otherwise throw out.

This ceramic lamp more fancy than the little lamps I’ve made previously. It’s based on the standard-model Mediterranean oil lamp which was ubiquitous throughout the ancient world. Ancient Romans had cheap terra cotta lamps in this shape which were stamped with the names of popular gladiators–the ancient equivalent of a 7-Eleven superhero cup. Nowadays I believe these lamps are standard stock in the Holy Land tourist trade.

At any rate, I’ve always wanted one, so I built one. Next I want to make more of them in more complex forms–designs with two and four flame outlets.

The workings of the lamp are quite simple. Inside is the oil reservoir. There’s a fill hole on the top, which I capped with a little leaf to keep the cats from sampling the oil. The top is convex, the slope leading to the fill hole, so it’s easy to top off without spilling oil. I fished a piece of cotton rag up through the “nose” to serve as a wick. The wick is long enough that it extends into the main body of the lamp. All ancient lamps are low-slung like this. The fuel seems to draw better when the wick is almost horizontal.

The lamp is smaller than you might think from the picture–it fits in the palm of my hand. Due to its size, and the fact that the walls are thick because I’m still pretty clumsy at the clay work, the reservoir only holds about 2 tablespoons of oil. Nonetheless, that much oil gives a strong bright flame for 4 1/2 hours.

With bonus plantain!

weednfeed

I was cruising the nursery aisles when three of my favorite words caught my eye: dandelion, chickweed and plantain.

I read the print on this bag as saying “Contains dandelion, chickweed and plantain” and–apparently drifting in my own fantasy world where things make sense, instead of the world in which we actually live–I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fantastic! All three in one bag for easy seeding.”

Then I looked again and realized that the text read “Controls” not “Contains.”  It was–of course– a bag of weed n’ feed lawn stimulator–chock full of poison for killing my favorite edibles and medicinals  (as well as, I admit, some pretty intractable grasses).

Not a large bag of wild seed to make your yard into a giant salad bowl.

I’d like to return to my fantasy world now, please.

Project Update: The Carbonator

cats inspecting carbonator

A year ago on Valentine’s Day, Erik gave me a homebrew carbonator so that we could sparkle our own water at home. It’s a wonderfully industrial looking item, and sturdy as all heck. I’m pleased to say after a year of hard use, it’s still doing going strong and has become an indispensable part of our life.

It has saved the use of…gosh…I don’t know…at least 100 San Pellegrino/Gerolsteiner bottles over the course of the year. Back in the day, I bought a couple of bottles of mineral water on every shopping trip. That’s a two-fold savings: bottles kept out of the waste stream (recycled, yes, but still) and enough in cash savings to reimburse us for the carbonator–which cost around $150 in parts.

The best thing is that the CO2 tank lasted for 11 months of constant use (sparkling maybe two gallons a week) before needing a refill. And when we did refill it–down at the local homebrew shop–it cost all of twenty bucks. Twenty bucks, my friends. That is our sparkling water budget for the next year.

Happy as I am with the device itself, we could be doing better exploring its possibilities. We could be experimenting with adding minerals to the water to imitate famous mineral waters–there are recipes out there. We could also be experimenting with force carbonating other types of drinks, but for the most part we’ve been pretty content just drinking the water straight with a twist of lemon, or a splash of shrub. Maybe this year we’ll step up to the plate and get more experimental.

Erik’s how-to post about how to put one of these things together, and how to use it.

•  My initial post, in which I bubble over with excitement.

The Jerusalem Cookbook

jerusalem

We are late to the Jerusalem party–it came out in 2012 to much acclaim. But maybe you are perpetually out of the loop, like we are. If so please know that we are in mad, passionate love with this cookbook. The authors are Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamim, London restauranteurs and the authors of Plenty and Plenty More. In Jerusalem, they explore the dynamic flavors and cross-cultural influences of their home city. Despite our de-cluttering efforts, this one is a keeper. I’m going to buy a copy when the library pries this copy out of my hands.

Our friend, Kazi, introduced us to Jerusalem. She hosted a wonderful dinner party last week and cooked all of the courses from this book. Now, Kazi is an expert cook, so I’m sure she doesn’t really need a book to put on an good spread, but she assured us that she was experimenting on us: she’d never tried any of the recipes before, and was cooking them straight out of the book as written. The meal was astounding. Of course, her beautiful presentation and the excellent company had much to do with it, but the recipes were consistently fresh and bright and complex without being fussy.

I find that I need a good cookbook every once in a while to inspire me in the kitchen–otherwise I fall into a morass of laziness and we end up eating burritos and “stuff on toast” night after night.  This one is doing the trick. I’m currently fantasizing about what I’ll cook next.

My highest compliment to this book is that I can honestly say I trust it 100%. I fiddle around with most recipes, doubling the spice, halving the sugar, questioning the baking time, etc. These I don’t. This book is well thought out and  tested. The recipes work. I’d highly recommend following them exactly as written.

Jerusalem covers all the bases, from appetizers to dessert. It has lots of meat and fish recipes, but it also has plenty of salad, vegetable, bean and grain recipes, so it’s friendly to both vegetarians and meat eaters. We’re mostly vegetarian, and we feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of the meatless offerings so far. Though there are a lot of veg recipes which use eggs, yogurt and cheese, there are also good vegan-friendly offerings.

To give you a feel for the book, these are the recipes we’ve enjoyed so far. All are excellent:

  • Swiss chard fritters (with feta and nutmeg)
  • Roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad
  • Roasted butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za’atar
  • Acharuli khachapuri (pastry boats filled with soft cheese, topped with a baked egg)
  • Baby spinach salad with dates and almonds (…and fried pita! Erik declares this his new favorite salad ever)
  • Couscous with tomato and onion (cooked to have a crispy bottom)
  • Semolina, coconut and marmalade cake

Enjoy!

De-Cluttering for DIYers, Homesteaders, Artists, Preppers, etc.

Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist. David Teniers II. Oil on canvas, 17th Century

Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist, David Teniers the Younger, 1610-1690, Eddleman Collection, CHF, Philadelphia

We are a special people and we need special exemptions, yes?

Our posts on de-cluttering seem to have hit a nerve, judging by the amount of feedback we’ve had, on the blog, on social media and on the street. We’re really happy if we’ve helped anyone at all streamline their lives a bit. But one protest, or exception, or question which comes up a lot is, “What about my [specialized materials] for my [craft, hobby, preparedness lifestyle]?”

I figure anyone who reads this blog–anyone who is more of a producer than a consumer–will have collected tools and materials for production. These tools and materials don’t fit neatly into the KonMari scheme. The KonMari method, as well as other types of de-cluttering programs, including techno-minimalism, seem to assume our homes are places where we simply relax, surrounded by our well-pruned and curated items.

In a DIY household, there is always something messy going on. For us, relaxation is tinkering and making and cooking and repairing, not reclining on our immaculate sofa, quietly tapping on our iPad.

Continue reading…

Ghee for the skin

baby Krishna stealing ghee

Baby Krishna stealing ghee

Ghee, a form of clarified butter, is a well known cooking fat. What is less known in the West is that it is also used for skin care and as medicine in Ayurveda. In fact, it’s basically a panacea in Ayurveda. I’m no expert in Ayurveda, but it is interesting to know that it has such a long track record in India as a topical treatment.

What I have discovered so far is pretty neat. It is in the nature of ghee to sink into the skin rather than sit on the surface. This makes it a really excellent moisturizer. It is not the type of moisturizer which seals in moisture, or protects you from the elements, but it immediately soothes dry and chapped skin.

For instance, during my last head cold, I used it on my much-abused nose. The ghee saved my nose and my lips from a terrible case of chapping. I always keep my lips and nose balmed-up during a cold, but the ghee worked better than anything else I’ve ever used, in terms of absorption, relieving discomfort and quick healing.

Since then, I’ve been using it on my face and hands to fend off the dry, itchy skin of winter. Since it sinks in so fast, it helps to use it in conjunction with another moisturizer, one which stays on the surface of the skin, to seal everything in.

Color me totally fascinated with ghee. There’s much research to be done on it here at Root Simple.

Here’s an interesting fact: ghee doesn’t go bad. Ever. In Ayurveda, aged ghee is particularly treasured.

See, butter becomes ghee when you remove the sugars and proteins and water, leaving only fat. Without that other stuff in it, the fat alone can’t go bad. Ghee’s only enemy is water–which is true of all fat-based foods and cosmetics. Water sets up conditions for bacteria to breed. So keep your ghee dry.  In fact, you should never store it in the refrigerator, because this may cause condensation inside the jar, which will lead to spoilage. Just keep it on the shelf, and scoop it out with a dry spoon, and it will keep until it’s all gone.

That’s all I have to say on ghee, so far. I don’t know much yet, but I like the way it feels. More will follow, I am sure. I’m going to experiment with making body butter and lip balm with it.

Do any of you use ghee for medicine or skin care?

(Also, I’ll be making my own ghee soon, and will post on that, but in the meantime, there are loads of recipes for it out there. It’s basically just boiled butter–anybody can make it. You can also find it ghee in many “regular” super markets these days, as well as in health food stores and of course, Indian markets.)