New Cat Sensation: Faux Rat Tail

beettail

We’ve discovered a thrilling new cat toy: a long tail from a beet root. Yes indeed, it looks exactly like a hairy, dismembered rat tail, right down to the bloody stump. Even better, when batted, it moves like a rat tail.

In fact, the excitement around this toy was so great that I could not capture any decent images of our cat, Buck, and his rat tail, which he would not share with the other cats (who were wildly envious), or slow down his play so I could get an clear shot. By the next day, when he tired of it, the tail had dehydrated into little more than a rat whisker.

This Root Simple Approved Artisanal Feline Play Device contains no artificial flavors or colors. It is 100% organic, raw, vegan, locally grown, cruelty-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, compostable, non-toxic, derived from renewable beet crops and only somewhat staining to carpets.

buckandtail

What does the loving landscape look like?

back yard

A bit of our own loving–if not very tidy- landscape

A post in our Back to the Garden series, organized under the “back to the garden” tag

So, let’s say we want to play nice with the rest of nature. Let’s say we want public parks, yards and gardens which exist for more than show, spaces which support a diversity of life, steward our resources wisely and are a joy to the eye. We’ve got to change the existing lifeless paradigm of lawn and hedge and disposable annual flowers.

How do we do that? What does that look like?

Well, the how part is going to take a few posts to explain–but we can start with what it might look like.

The fantastic thing about this new landscaping paradigm is that it is entirely local. If we remove the heinous, homogeneous, ubiquitous lawn from our tool box, suddenly a yard in Santa Fe looks quite different than a yard in Michigan or a yard in Florida. We return, after a long period of delusion, to the realm of common sense.

Because the new landscapes are entirely local, I can’t even begin to list or imagine all the possibilities, but here are a few of the images I see when I think about a better future:

Continue reading…

Coffee and Tahini Date Balls

date balls

In a nutshell:

We’ve posted about this sort of thing before, and I know many of you already make fruit/nut balls and bars as healthy treats. So all you folks need to know is that these days we’re really liking the flavor combo of dates and tahini, rolled in a 50/50 blend of ground coffee and cacao nibs (these are the dark ones in the pic above). If you don’t have the nibs, you can just roll them in straight coffee–fresh ground espresso is best.

Give it a try. It’s super easy, and super tasty for the adult palate–and if you eat enough of them, you get a caffeine buzz as a well as a sugar buzz!

The recipe:

Continue reading…

Grief is the pathway to action

clearcut forest

Clear cutting near Eugene, Oregon. Photo by Calibas. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Grief

Day before yesterday we had a little rain here in Los Angeles, a late season shower in a drought year.

I suspect we won’t see rain again until December. This long interval of dryness is normal in a Mediterranean climate, but what is not normal is how little rain fell this winter (or last winter, or the one before that, or the one before that), and how parched we are already as we look toward a nine month long summer with no hope of relief.

So I sat on the porch and experienced the rain, happy just to feel the cool, wet air on my skin one last time, yet at the same time feeling angry and frustrated and sad.

And as I sat there, I thought of conversations I’ve had with people who’ve confessed that they are grieving for what is being lost all around us, or they are grieving for a world their children will never know. Often they feel alone, as if no one else cares, or is much bothered at all.

I don’t think we like to acknowledge this grief, the deep sadness that comes from witnessing the diminishing of the world and the death of species due to human influence of various sorts. There isn’t any public forum for airing it.  (“Tonight at 9, a public gathering to weep over the disappearing starfish.”)

Yet I don’t think it’s all that uncommon to be sad, and what’s more, it is, of course, entirely appropriate to be sad. We’ve been discussing environmental degradation since the 70’s, if not before, but I feel like now it’s beginning to hit home, and hit hard. It’s not uncommon to feel sad because:

  • That little wilderness you loved playing in as a kid has been covered by a housing development
  • You can’t see the stars from your parents’ house anymore
  • You don’t hear the frogs sing at night anymore, either.
  • When you hike you feel like it’s awfully quiet. Where have the birds gone?
  • The fish seem to have left that spot you used to fish at with your grandpa
  • As you drive in the mountains you notice half the trees are turning brown

Or maybe you grieve or things you don’t witness, but hear about, like the plastic gyres in the ocean, worldwide deforestation, those last four white rhinos in Africa, quietly grazing away the final days of their species, the polar bears swimming in circles.

Often we don’t talk about these things because we don’t want to be a downer. Nor do we want to be labeled morbid, pessimistic, impractical, oversensitive or even (gasp!) a tree-hugger.

(FYI I was reprimanded in kindergarten for repeatedly arriving at school covered in sap because I’d been hugging trees all the way to school.)

But the grief is there, the endangered elephant in the room, which we walk around and talk past, and do our best to ignore by making our lives ever busier.

And anyway, what are we supposed to do about it?

Suburbia by David Shankbone. Tract housing in Colorado Springs

Action

I think there is something to do about it–about both the grief and the problems which lead to the grief.

I’m talking about work and atonement.

First, we in the developed world must own that our lifestyle has cost this planet dearly, and impacted all our fellow creatures as well as our fellow men. No matter how “good” we try to be with our recycling and organic produce, we are the heart of the problem. Us. Not other people. We use the roads. We fly. We shop. We use gas and petroleum and electricity and coal.

We all carry the responsibility for what is happening now. Not just the politicians. Not just your clueless sister-in-law. Not that guy driving the SUV. You.

I’m beating this point over the head because it’s way too easy to blame others for this, or to blame abstractions, like “the consumerist lifestyle”, or to think if everyone was like you, things would be better. I doubt it. Even if you’re some kind of off-grid saint, I’d still ask where you came from, and how you got there.

Too often I tell myself I’m doing “good enough” and “all I can” and that anyway, “I’m doing more than most people.” This leads to inaction.

Also, when I tell myself those things, I am lying.

This brings me back to the grief. Grief doesn’t allow me to lie to myself for long. Grief calls me to action. Grief alone can be paralyzing, but when paired with action, it becomes an ally, a compass, a burning fire in our hearts.  Grief can motivate us and activate us and spur us to do more than we’ve ever tried before.

Atonement

When we hurt someone, we apologize. But as you know if you’ve ever been on the other end of the hurt, an apology alone isn’t enough. It’s not enough that the one who injures feels bad about it, they have to learn from the mistake, so they don’t do the same thing again. They have to re-form their hearts.

That is the path of atonement between us and the natural world. Grief is not an end, it’s a beginning.

Can we re-form our hearts to make them big enough to encompass the world? I think we can.

And then we begin the work.

Free Online Chicken Behavior Course

poultryvid

Thank you to reader James for this tip:

Coursera is offering a 5 week online course on chicken behavior, taught by the staff of Scotland’s Rural College.

For those of you who haven’t heard about Coursera, it’s an online platform offering free courses in a wide variety of subjects, taught by professors from genuine big name universities, via video. The classes may or may not also include homework and discussion groups, but these are optional, and required only for those who wish to receive a certificate of course completion (which is not the same as credit from the host university.)

The chicken class has already started, but don’t worry, you can jump in and catch up. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe you can look at the class video any time, but you may not be able to access the teachers via the forums after the official course run is finished. This one is in its first week still. We’ll be watching!

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.