Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land

book cover for "growing food in a hotter drier land"

We just got our hands on Gary Paul Nabhan’s newest book, Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land: Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty. It couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I heard about this book on the grapevine a good while back, and requested a review copy from the publisher because we’ve met Gary and like his work. Getting free books once in a while is one of the perks of blogging. This book, though, I would lay down cash for in a heartbeat.

At the time I made the request, I merely though it would be an interesting read. In the wake of the Age of Limits Conference, and my subsequent reading about climate change–and the depression that resulted from that–its fortuitous arrival this week has given me much to think about, as well as a much needed infusion of hope.

I leaned a terrible word at the conference: hopium (Hope + Opium). This is a doomer term for any practice or philosophy that would give us false hope, or perhaps any hope at all. It has a satirical counterpoint: despairoin (Despair + Heroin), which speaks to the seductive nature of despair.

Nabhan’s book is neither hopium or despairoin. It’s sublimely realistic. He’s looking with clear eyes at a future which is going to be hot and dry (except when it’s flooding, of course.).

This hot, dry future is not limited to already hot dry places, like Los Angeles. He points to recent droughts in places which usually receive generous rainfall. Right now it seems as if this tendency toward drought is occurring on a global scale and will worsen in coming years.

Unfortunately, conventional, large scale agriculture is not only adding to the problem, it will also not be able to deal with the changes in the making. It is ill-suited to chaotic weather. In sum, if we don’t start growing food in different ways, we’re not only looking at a dry future, we’re looking at a hungry future.

To solve this puzzle, Nabhan takes a look at at existing desert agriculture, from the Sonoran desert to China to Oman. From the ancient past right up into the present, humans have been cleverly managing their water, soil and plants to gather harvests from some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. We have much to learn from them.

Over and over he points out that we’re not meant to replicate the exact methods of these desert farmers, but learn from them and adapt them to our own particular situation and climate.

To help us do this, he breaks down the methodologies into conceptual chunks, like catching runoff, using efficient water delivery systems, easing heat stress in both plants and animals, tips on orcharding in uncertain climates, choosing stress tolerant and/or quick maturing plant varieties, etc.  All of this information is supported with helpful tables and plant lists.

While some of his information is only going to be useful to people with large-ish parcels of land, I found plenty of inspiration in here for my tiny yard.

Woven between this practical information is separate body of information which he calls parables. A parable is story he tells us about a current dry land farmer, or stories from the past which can be pulled from history or the archeological records. These parables provide a sort of emotional bolster to the otherwise “dry” information, giving us a glimpse of the lived experience and philosophies of people who have thrived in difficult climates.

Some of the key positive characteristics of a dry land farmer are adaptability, resilience and persistence. What worked for us in the past is not always going to work in the future. We must know our land intimately, make good guesses, and be creative about developing  strategies to distribute risk.

Gardening is hard enough, heaven knows. The bad news is that it is going to get harder. The good news is that you can work your way through the challenges. Their are tools, techniques, and plant varieties that can help you weather the changes. Better to start learning these skills now than to wait for the squeeze.

A Vision for the Future

The part of the book which really set me on fire, though, was a talk Nabhan had with a Sufi visionary, Aziz Bousfiha, who lives in the dry outskirts of Fez, Morocco. There, he’s built a dryland paradise, lush with heat adapted fruit trees, like pomegranates, mulberries and jujubes. He also grows olives, agave, citrus and poetic herbs like lavender and coriander.

Bousfiha has built an oasis in a difficult climate and envisions of chain of oases spread around the world: oases for both nature and humanity. These oases are not carefully preserved bits of paradise, but rather are reclaimed from degraded spaces:

For me, the idea is to go somewhere into the desert [to find a place share with others--one severely degraded over time by neglect, depletion of water, a perhaps climate change]. We’ll proclaim that yes, this place has been desertified, but now we’re going to make it into a living oasis, one where we will respect and nurture a diversity of life.

He goes on to speak about the importance of bio-diversity, and how this chain of oasis-like farms could promote this, and serve the larger community. Then he says,

We will generate solidarity between people on and off the farm, who will begin to walk the long road of ancient wisdom together. They will bring back the old grains of the region as symbols of the seeds of wisdom that we must plant. Over the centuries, these ancient sees have adapted to place. It is just not just a natural ecosystem, but a cultural ecosystem as well.

At the end of the conversation, he’s asked how he thinks his vision will fly in the face of climate change. He laughed gently and replied,

I can’t waste time worrying about whether or not this will work. There is a proverb in Arabic–and [probably] similar ones in other languages that may say it all: If it looks like the last day of the world is upon us and the end of life may be coming…and you realize this moment while you are planting trees, well, don’t stop planting.

If this is hopium, give me more.

Los Angeles is a sad and degraded space, and the Root Simple Estate is already an oasis of sorts, but Nabhan’s book has inspired us to max it out, to do as much as we can to capture and recycle water, to improve our soil, to start breeding out tough-as-nails annuals, to develop more effective “guilds” (in Permaculture speak). In regular talk that means we plan manage our landscaping wisely, so the plants support one another.

I’d encourage you to think of your own little patch of the world as an oasis too. How can you help make it more resilient to the shocks of strange weather?  How can you forge links with other oasis keepers?

Connect with Nature Project #2: Rediscover Your Feet

When I was a kid, I watched Kung Fu every day after school, and loved this iconic scene from the opening where Caine walks the rice paper without leaving a mark to graduate from Kung Fu college. Turns out Fox Walking is similar.

Last week we talked about Sitting. This week, we’re talking about Walking.

My personal rediscovery of my feet came from three sources:

The first was yoga. During an intense engagement with yoga a few years back I learned to spread my fashion-cramped toes in order to ground myself during difficult asanas. My toes opened wide, taking on a permanent, natural splay. My foot size also increased by an inconvenient half size, making it newly difficult to find shoes which fit.

Next came barefoot walking. As has been oft mentioned in this blog, Erik is a barefoot runner. I don’t run, but I am a barefoot walker. Barefoot walking woke me to a world of forgotten sensations: the warm softness of asphalt, the fresh coolness of a sprinkler soaked sidewalk, the delicate slide of wet leaves beneath my toes. Feet are as sensitive as hands. It’s easy to forget this when shod.  This new stimulus was addictive. It enriched my walks. It connected me to an entirely new realm of sensory input.

The third stage was learning a technique called Fox walking through nature awareness classes I take through a great outfit here in SoCal called Earth Skills. Fox walking is a kind of mindful walking where you let your toes lead your foot and your foot leads your body. I’m going to teach it to you. Fox walking allows you to walk quietly and smoothly though natural settings. It’s primary purpose is stalking animals, because the gait you assume, ideally, does not startle them. Basically, they do not recognize it as human. It also allows you to walk while scanning the environment, instead of worrying about your steps.

Since I’m not a hunter, what Fox walking has done for me is waken my feet even more than barefoot walking. I now consider my feet antennae. In class, I’ve walked blindfolded through difficult terrain. I now can walk confidently in darkness. This opens a whole new world of night-time nature appreciation. When you are blinded by your own flashlight, your field of vision is confined to a small circle of light. The world outside that ghostly circle seems mysterious, even threatening. Walking without light allows you to see the stars, and the shapes of things. You walk slower, yes, so you see and understand more.

To anyone seeking closer contact with nature, I’d recommend considering your own two feet. They are the primary interface between you and the earth, but they are often neglected and abused, shoved into hoof-like boxes, forcing you to clomp around as if you are numb from the knee down. How can you know the earth if you can’t even feel it?

The simplest way to reconnect with your feet is to just take short walk with bare feet. Grass and sand are great , but don’t wait until you have somewhere “nice” to walk. Go for a sidewalk stroll around your neighborhood. Now that summer is here, it’s a good time for it.

Don’t go very far at first, or your arches will ache later, or your tender soles may be sore. A half-block may be enough to start!  Let your feet toughen up slowly, over the course of weeks. If you want to take a long walk, but can only barefoot it so far, take a pair of sandals with you. If you’re dubious about the whole proposition, just kick off your shoes one day while you’re out on a walk and see how it feels. I think you might be surprised how much you come to enjoy barefoot walking.

For more advanced studies, I recommend the Fox Walk.

How to Fox Walk

  1. It’s best to do this with light, flexible foot wear, such as slippers or moccasins or fancy minimalist shoes or heck, go barefoot, if you can.
  2. Take a relaxed stance. Keep your knees soft and springy, even slightly bent.
  3. Take your arms out of the picture. No swinging arms. Fox Walking is not striding, it’s creeping. Clasp your hands in front of you or hold them bent softly at your sides. Whatever is most comfortable. Just keep them still.
  4. Lift one foot, transferring all your weight to your grounded foot. Lead with the toe. Let the ball of the foot, touch earth first. Before committing to lowering your heel, pause to feel what your foot senses. Don’t look, feel. Is the ground firm? Is there a stick beneath you toes? A hole? Maybe you will shift your foot over and around it. Maybe you sense your foot can bridge it comfortably. Make your decision, and lower your heel softly. Caress the ground with your foot.
  5. Now shift your weight to the committed leg, lift your rearmost leg  (now light and unencumbered by your weight), and reach out with that foot. Make the same determination regarding the ground. Let all your awareness sink into your feet, and beyond. Let it stretch deep into the ground and all around. Trust the sensations you are picking up.
  6. This is how it goes: reaching with the foot, sensing, committing, rolling down in a silent, caressing footstep. Remember, caressing, not stomping! Weight shift. Repeat. It becomes smoother, faster, more automatic, with practice.
  7. All the while, your head is up. Don’t look at your feet! If you do, they can’t do their job right. Keep your head high, scan around with soft eyes, taking in the beauty of the world. Your feet, meanwhile, are engaged in their own conversation with the earth, and feeding that information back to you. This is a magical kind of walking.

Obviously, you have to be very careful when you do this. This is a mindfulness practice. The goal is not to get somewhere fast, the goal is to experience every step of the journey in a completely conscious way.

And as to danger, I’ve never hurt myself during this practice. I’ve never stumbled while blindfolded or in the dark. I trust my feet. I stub my toes when I’m unmindful and in a hurry. I trip and fall in shoes, when my connection with the ground is severed.

Once you are comfortable walking this way, you can use your walk as a moving meditation. Instead of Sitting, you can move through nature, practicing the same quiet mind.

You can also use this method to walk softly to your Sitting place, so you don’t alarm the critters on the way in.

Enjoy!

Self-watering terracotta seed-starters!

Plant a garden front

Root Simple reader and all around nice person Anne Fletcher has gone entrepreneurial with a really good idea: self-watering containers for seedlings. Most anyone who has ever tried to start a garden from seeds has had the experience of having seedlings die or go shocky due to a heat wave or a day or two of neglect. Starting seeds in a self-watering container makes a whole lot of sense. These containers can go up to a week between waterings. Even better, Anne’s seed starters are made out of terracotta instead of plastic. We’ve tried out her 6-pack model. It’s really cute, and it worked like a charm.

Now she’s doing a Kickstarter so she can move her business, Orta, out of the garage and produce a technically more complex 12-pack seed-starter.  So if you’re interested in getting first grabs at her new 12-pack model, or just willing to give a hand to someone trying to start a green, local business, take a look at her Kickstarter page, and let your friends know about it, too.

12-pack

Fruit Tree Update: Flavor Delight Aprium

flavor delight aprium

One of my big regrets is not planting a bunch of fruit trees when we first moved into our house in 1998.* Thankfully though, we got our act together eventually. In 2011, we put in a call local fruit tree expert Steve Hovfendahl for some suggestions. His advice was based on what would grow in our warm climate as well as fruit tasting results conducted by the Dave Wilson nursery.

It’s been over two years since we planted the trees Hovfendahl suggested and they are just beginning to bear fruit. We ordered one too many trees and had to stick the Flavor Delight Aprium in a less than idea location (too much shade). Despite the lack of sun the tree bore some fruit in late May and it sure was tasty–the perfect balance between sweet and tart.

The Flavor Delight Aprium is a cross between a plum and an apricot that is hardy to zones 6 to 10 and requires less than 300 hours below 45°F, making it ideal for warm climates. It’s one of many hybrid fruit trees developed painstakingly over many years by Zaiger Genetics. In terms of taste and appearance it’s more of an apricot than a plum.

If you live in the right climate I highly recommend this tree.

* Note from Kelly: In our defense, we didn’t plant trees because we didn’t think we had room. Back then we didn’t know  about “Backyard Orchard Culture” — which, in a nutshell, means keeping fruit trees small. This is also discussed on the Dave Wilson site. This is really important information for any homesteader.

DIY Project: Reconnect with Nature

Painting by Caspar David Friedrich, Woman Before the Rising Sun, 1818-20

Caspar David Friedrich, Woman Before the Rising Sun, 1818-20, oil on canvas, Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

This is called a Sit.

1) Take yourself somewhere away from noise and people. It is possible to do this in a garden, or even among your potted plants, but it is easier to do in a natural place. A quiet beach. In a meadow. By a lake. Up in the mountains. Go alone, or have your companion(s) leave you alone for a while.

2) Walk to a place that feels inviting. You’ll know it when you see it.

3) Sit. It’s best to sit on the ground if your body allows it, to be in direct bodily contact with the soil, leaves, sand, rock.  Actually, it’s even better sometimes to lay back on the ground so your whole spine is against the earth–as long as you don’t fall asleep! It’s also nice to lean against a tree. If you’ll be uncomfortable, though, bring a folding chair.

4) You’re going to sit for at least a half hour. A half hour is a good place to start. Longer sits are really nice, but don’t strain yourself in the beginning. It’s distracting to be wondering about time, so put away your time pieces. Turn off your phone. It is easy to lose track of time while Sitting, so if you’re worried about that, you can bring a kitchen timer, or set an alarm on your phone or watch. Then put those distractions somewhere you can’t see them.

5) Sitting, look around you. Sniff the air. Feel the ground under your fingers and toes. Feel the breeze on your skin.  Listen. What do you hear? Make a note of what you hear right off, because the sounds will change. By walking into a wild place, you alarm the birds and little creatures. They may make noises of challenge or warning as you take your place, or they might go silent. If you’re observant, you’ll notice their calls change as you relax–and they relax and accept you as part of the landscape.

6) There is no agenda. Just be. If your thoughts turn inward and you start thinking about work, lunch, or whatever, refocus on nature. Always come back to nature. It’s as easy as that. Be a big eye, seeing but not thinking. Look at the big vista around you. Look at the sky. Look at the small details. The ant on the grass blade. The hawk on the tall branch. Listening to the bird calls or the wind in the trees will help keep your thoughts quiet.

Remember, this is time for yourself. It’s important. We’re so trained to always be doing that it can seem wrong to do nothing. Tell yourself for the next half hour, Sitting is your job.

7) You should never Sit with expectations of what might/should happen. You must remain open, impressionable, soft. Listen with your heart as well as your ears. You may “hear” something. Feel something. Understand something. Let those impressions come. Do not dismiss them.

8) Re: animals.  It’s always a gift to see animals in nature. Your stillness might induce a wild animal to come into view, but wanting or expecting a wild animal to come into view is the surest way to drive it off.  If you really want to see an animal, pretend you’re a rock, or a bush or a tree. Really live it. For instance, if you’re a rock, feel how heavy and old you are. Feel the moss on your surface, the light scurrying feet of a lizard crawling across you. Think rock thoughts. If you can convince yourself, you may convince the animals. At any rate, you won’t be putting off anxious, predatory vibes.

9) Before you finish up, remind yourself that you belong there. You are not an intruder (whatever that angry chipmunk may say) or some sort of alien species born to sit in a cubicle and poke at glowing screens. You are part of the whole. You are related to everything around you, and everything around you is your relative.

10) When you rise, thank the place for hosting you. Say good bye to your relations. And walk peacefully back into the madness.

11) Repeat as often as possible.

We heal together

bees on a poppy

The bees in our back yard, glorying in poppy pollen

Thank you everyone who shared their feelings and ideas with us all yesterday. Thank you, too, to those of you who read and considered those words. Thank you to those of you who are silent, but with us.

I should be clear before I go on that this is a Kelly post. Erik is out tonight. I don’t know if he’ll disagree with anything I’m going to say–but we don’t agree on everything. His thoughts will come later.

There is a French term, egregore, which is used to describe the spirit of a meeting, that unique energy that arises when a group of people come together to eat, work, or talk. It is almost a thing in itself, if you see what I mean. It rises out of certain combinations of people coming together for a specific purpose. Surely you’ve felt it, at that amazing dinner party you still think about, or perhaps you’ve experienced it in some sort of club, or with a group of friends. Root Simple has always had an egregore, one which I’d describe as practical and light-hearted. These recent posts mark a turning point, the rising of a new egregore for this blog. One which has a deeper emotional resonance than the one before.

Get your hands of the unsubscribe button. This is not to say that we’re going to turn into a gloom and doom blog. I promise we’ll never be that. But it seems to me that we can’t just “return to our regular programming” at this point.

I know I can’t. There’s more to say, though I don’t quite know how to say it yet. I suspect it will come out in the weeks and months to come, mixed in with our more usual practical DIY postings, garden rants and pictures of cats.

Right now I can say was enormously touched by the things you all shared. I did not answer the comments individually. I didn’t want to turn the conversation in any particular direction–I wanted to leave the comment board as a blank slate. But as I read, I was saying, “Yes, yes” — yes to all of you, actually. Because my thoughts encompass all the thoughts I read, even if some thoughts contradicted each another. I’m full of contradictions. We all are.

My heart is tender today. My eyes welled with tears as I read some of the comments aloud to Erik. I’ve been reading far too much climate science since returning from the conference. This has had the effect of making me both angry and sad and very grateful for what we have now. The world is infinitely precious to me, all of the wonders and creatures in it, the hummingbirds in the sage, the chickens in their coop, you all and your families, scattered all around the world, reaching out to contact us here.

We’ve not spoken much of matters of the spirit on this blog. This is largely because we know our readers come from all sorts of backgrounds and belief systems and we didn’t want to alienate anyone. We’ve always believed what’s important is the work — not the whys behind the work. It all leads to the same good end, after all.

But at this point I’m seeing our various crises–this three headed hydra of doom, this ménage à trois of misery–as a spiritual crisis more than anything else–a crisis rooted in our culture’s deep alienation from nature. We are taught to see nature as something “out there”.  Perhaps as a collection of useful natural resources. Or something pretty to visit before we return to our toilets and hot showers. We see nature as something to manage or control. Even as an enemy. We’ve become schizophrenic. We are nature. Nature is us. Seems to me that keeping this thought close and forward in our consciousness is fundamental to both understanding and healing.

I’m going to share with you something which may make our more materialist readers uncomfortable, and I’m sorry if that is so, but I think it is important enough to share in a public forum.

In the wake of our lead crisis–when Erik and I had discovered that the soil in our yard was toxic–I was meditating in the back yard. I was imagining I had roots, and those roots were stretching out and touching other roots in the soil. And I was sending thoughts of love to the garden, because I’d been recoiling from its toxicity, and I realized I could not be in that sort of relationship with my own land. As I sat there with my mind clear and love in my heart, words appeared in my head. I’d swear they weren’t mine, but it doesn’t really matter if they were mine or not. The message is the same:

We heal together.

A Homemade Mattress?

Edmund_Dulac_-_Princess_and_pea

The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac

Addendum 8/2/14:  From the comments, a solution!

You can read my meanderings below, and you can go through the many, many comments, where there’s lots of buried gold, but for the time-pressed who are ready and raring to make themselves a mattress, I’d just go to this PDF of a 1965 USAID booklet on how to make a cotton stuffed mattress:

http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNAAW960.pdf  

It’s the most detailed set of instructions I’ve found anywhere. Thanks, Sammi!

This is the story of my life. I read about some old domestic technology or product that makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it is obsolete. Or perhaps it is only done/made in more enlightened countries. Nonetheless, I want it. So I have to make from scratch.

Yesterday we met a great couple, Renae and Dimitri. Renae mentioned she was thinking about making her own mattress. I was intrigued because just that morning I’d woken up with low back pain. Our mattress is worn out. We need a new one, but I’ve been dreading buying a new one. I don’t like the waste of it all: the ignoble dragging of the old mattress to the curb the prospect of sleeping on a brand new construct of toxic foam and fire retardants–or opting for a less toxic but less comfortable futon.

So, when Renae said this, I was fascinated. I’d never considered making my own mattress.

Continue reading…

On Spam and Commenting

spam ad

Dear Root Simple Readers,

Our webmaster and designer, Roman is fighting a battle with spam. Thankfully, we have a good spam filter that catches almost all of it, so you don’t have to see the nasty stuff cluttering up the comments. However, the staggering number of incoming spam messages actually slows down the site. To combat this, we’ve been forced to add a CAPTCHA feature to protect the comments.

We know. It sucks. We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t have to. Let us know if you have any problems with it. This CAPTCHA filter asks you to do a simple math problem when you comment, in order to prove you’re not a spambot pushing prostate formulas or worse. Note that only unregistered commenters will need to use the CAPTCHA feature.

Server Troubles This Week

ibm_360_color

Just a note that we’re having unexplained issues with our server this week and are attempting to resolve the problem. Please excuse a larger number of typos as well as difficulty responding to your comments. Everything should be back in order next week. Special thanks to our designer Roman for helping us. And thanks to Kelly for constantly changing the tape drives.