Our Daily Bread

This stunning documentary, directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter in 2005, is the best film about our modern agricultural system that I have seen. It has no commentary, narration or interviews, just slow moving static and tracking shots. It proves that it’s better to simply show something and let the audience make up their own mind. That being said, I’d be surprised if many people would come out of a screening of this film and think that what they just saw, our industrialized agricultural system, is a good idea. But another point of Our Daily Bread, I think, is that, like it or not, we’re all a part of this system.

Our Daily Bread is available on Netflix and Amazon. You can read an interview with the director on the official website www.ourdailybread.at.

Stella Natura: Planting by the Signs

Judging from the hostile reaction the last time I posted about Biodyamamics, we need some kind of woo-woo alert for this type of post. Perhaps an animated flash animation, like those mortgage ads, of Stevie Nicks dancing to Rhiannon. I’ll get the Homegrown Evolution IT department on it right away. On to the post:
Timing planting according to moon, sun and zodiacal cycles is a very old tradition. Farmers and gardeners have consulted mysterious almanacs for thousands of years to determine the best times to plant. There’s even some, mentioned in the Foxfire books, that are still around: the Farmer’s Almanac, Grier’s Almanac and T. E. Black’s annual booklet God’s Way are just a few.

But the one I’ve been enjoying for the past few months is the Stella Natura calendar, published by the Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, an intentional community for the disabled associated with Biodynamics and the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. The Stella Natura calendar lists moon phases, the sun and moon’s position in the zodiac, conjunctions, oppositions and other celestial events. It suggests certain days and times for planting root crops, flowering crops, fruit crops, and leaf crops. Much of it is based on the writings and research of Maria Thun.

Do I believe that planting by the signs effects the growth of my garden directly? I don’t know and don’t really care. What I like is the symbolic message, in the Jungian sense, that all is connected, all is one. Not such a bad thing to be reminded of in our fragmented times.
You can get the same planting information here online, but you’d miss one of the best things about the Stella Natura calendar, the monthly essays. This month’s, by Laura Riccardi, says exactly what I’ve been thinking of late,
“I do answer with practical, logical, agricultural language most of the time. There is plenty to talk about regarding soil building, diversity, insect and drought resistance, quality, microbial life, nutrient availability. I am beginning to feel justified and unembarrassed to speak about subtle life forces, to say that everything is connected, because I believe it is important to balance out the one-sided approach that has dominated our intellectual human landscape for so long. What we call materialism is not inherently wrong or negative. It is simply in extreme presence in our lives today. In other words, it’s already well represented in everything around us, including agriculture.”

I put the calendar up by the stove. When I’m cooking (often during the past few months with vegetables from our winter garden) I look at the calendar. It’s a nice prompt that it’s time to plan for the next planting of vegetables.

Would I use this system if I lived in a cold climate and had a very tight window for planting? Probably not. But here in Los Angeles, where we have a four month time span to plant most things, following the Stella Natura calendar is a good way of avoiding procrastination. The calendar also has a handy space for taking notes on plantings, another thing I’ve been bad about in the past.

I want to be clear that I’m not discounting empiricism. But since don’t have a lab at my disposal, gardening is an intuitive process whether I like it or not. And, as Riccardi suggests, we need to seek a balance. The cornerstone of alchemy is the expression “Solve et Coagula”, to dissolve and bind together. We’ve been good in the past century at the dissolving part, breaking everything up into individual components, but not so good at the binding together part.

Now, if I could just get Rhiannon out of my head . . .

Bread and Transformation

I’ve not tried Reinhart’s baking method (even though I once had one of his books out of the library), but I like this 2008 Ted talk on the alchemical symbolism of bread. If you’re either a baking or brewing geek like me it’s worth a view.

The baking method I’ve used for over a decade is from Nancy Silverton’s book Breads from the La Brea Bakery. You use a sourdough starter and at least half the flour must be white to get it to leaven properly. I’ve had great results, but would like to someday make a loaf entirely from whole wheat with a sourdough starter. Reinhart, in his book Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor claims to be able to do just that and not end up with a hockey puck. If you’ve tried his method (and gone through his very lengthy directions) leave a comment!

Avatar: I’m not lovin’ it.


Since it just won the Golden Globe award for best picture and several other garden blogs have commented on it, I think it’s time to take a break from blogging about nettles and weigh in on James Cameron’s Avatar. For the five or so folks who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a plot summary: An evil corporation sets up shop on a far off planet, “Pandora”, to mine a rare mineral necessary for the next generation of iPhones. Unfortunately, said planet is occupied by a tall blue Rastafarian/Smurf people who practice a quaint religion centered around a fiber optic tree (what Doug Harvey describes as the “Gaia Hypothesis Shrub”). The blue folks also have fiber optic connections in their pony tails, kinda like this:


In Pandora’s jungle, everything is bioluminescent and all the plants are networked with the fiber optic shrub. Even the flying lizards have fiber optic appendages. The tall blue smurf folks can plug into these connections and control the flying lizards and five-legged horses. Oddly, when the blue people make love they don’t seem to connect up their fiber optic pony tails (would that make for an R rating?). Best of all, Sigourney Weaver discovers that the quaint religion, which involves sitting in a lotus position and swaying in front of the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub, is all based on SCIENCE since the fiber optic network is just like the internets back on earth not some woo-woo esoteric thing.

Spoiler alert–a disabled veteran, using a fancy wii controller mounted inside a tanning bed becomes a blue person and, by jacking into a really big flying lizard, defeats the evil corporation. In the final scene the disabled veteran, now fully smurfed-out, uses a spear to tip over the corporate general who is walking around in a top-heavy robot thingy. Sigourney Weaver dies and gets sucked up into the Gaia Hypothesis Shrub. Or, that’s my memory of it. I got kinda distracted by the 3D Imax Sensurround experience.

As for Avatar’s ideas about nature, one of Cameron’s workers must have done a brief one page summary of Paul Stamet’s mushroom writings for the busy director. The whole fiber optic natural network subplot in Avatar is reminiscent of the discovery, thanks to advances in DNA testing, of what may be the largest living organism in the world, the underground mycelial network of a massive honey mushroom Armillaria ostoyae that covers some 1,500 acres in Washington. Mix mushrooms with undersea landscapes and you’ve got Cameron’s jungle. Add the fiber optics and you’ve got a computer geek’s vision of Mother Earth.

What bugs me about the critical reaction to Avatar is the idea that the movie somehow represents a yearning for contact with the natural world (ironic in a movie that substitutes flesh and blood actors with digital puppets). In fact, Avatar is an artifact of a culture profoundly out of touch with nature. and serves only to further that disconnect by embedding the myth of disconnect in our popular imagination. How deeply offensive it is–how simple minded and tech biased–to suggest that nature is something we can “plug into,” Matrix style, as if we’re somehow separate from the world around us, aloof from it until we choose to interact with it. We are one with the natural world, always have been, always will be. We are born jacked-in, but we learn to ignore it.

What really frightened me about the Avatar and all the critics who loved it, is how the movie’s protagonist redeems the natural world by becoming virtual. Sure, he becomes flesh and blue blood in the end but only after all those virtual hours in the tanning bed. In this way Cameron’s movie inverts Andrei Tarkovsky’s brilliant Solaris (not to be confused with the George Cloony remake). The doomed astronauts of Solaris descend into madness because they loose touch with the natural world and can no longer distinguish the virtual from the real. In the film worried government officials dispatch a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, to find out what is going on aboard a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Kelvin spends his last days on earth deep in the woods at his fathers remote cabin. Once in space Kelvin loses touch with reality. His dead wife appears to him, simultaneously real and virtual. Jerry Mander describes Solaris in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:
“Without concrete reality, which is to say, contact with their planetary roots, they are adrift in their minds: insane. All information has become believable and not believable at the same time. It has become arbitrary. There is no way to separate the real from the not-real. Although the astronauts know this, since there is nothing that is not arbitrary, except each other, all information is equal. It is impossible to determine which information to act on . . .

Finally, the message of the film is clear. The process of going insane began long before the launch into space. It began when life moved from nature into cities. Kelvin’s ride from woods to city to space was a ride from connection to disconnection, from reality to abstraction, a history of technology, setting the conditions for the imposition of reconstructed realities by a single powerful force.”

Tarkovsky says far more about our alienation from the natural world in Solaris’ highway scene than Cameron can ever hope to and he does it without dialog or special effects. In the clip below, the people in the car have left the countryside, a peaceful interval of grounded-ness. Now they’re traveling to the city, and from the city, to space. The long silent car ride shows their transition from the natural world, to the dislocation and isolation of the city freeway system, setting them up for the final dislocation and madness of the space station.

As if we didn’t need more proof that our culture is dangerously losing touch with reality, like the doomed astronauts of Solaris, along comes the newfangled form of depression,”Avatar Blues,” a sadness that fans suffer knowing they cannot actually live on Pandora. CNN offers this helpful suggestion,

“Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing “Avatar” video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities.”

Here’s our own suggestion for folks longing for Pandora. Go outside. Find a plant, any plant. A tree, a weed growing out of the sidewalk. Spend a few moments with that plant, observing what it looks like, how it grows, how it makes you feel. Believe what you hear, what you feel, what you imagine. There’s no need for tanning beds and fiber optics. You’re already jacked into a world 10 billion times richer and more imaginative than Pandora. To see it you just have to open your eyes.

Happy Holidays from Homegrown Evolution

We didn’t get around to our annual Christmas missive this year so we’ll have to share some silliness via the interwebs. Here at Homegrown Evolution we like to combine the country and the city. Kinda like this:

Look out, this might get stuck in your head–what the Germans call “ohrwurm” (ear worm):

Fröhliche Weihnachten! May your coming year be full of homegrown veggies, bikes and bathtub booze!

They want to ride to school. So they do.

In Orlando Florida, one of the worst places to ride a bike in America, some high school students are taking back the streets:

High School Bike Bus from Keri Caffrey on Vimeo. Via Streetsblog.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, elementary and high school groups go on field trips to the auto show:

No doubt our educational dollars were well spent showing the kids the informative educational displays:

I noticed that some of the students at the car show had been given traffic safety pamphlets about how to safely ride bikes. Car companies have been producing pedestrian and bike safety info for years. At the risk of being somewhat conspiratorial, auto industry produced safety materials often carry a hidden message that walking and biking are dangerous, marginal activities. Actually biking to school together like the Florida students as well as walking school buses send a much better message, in my opinion.

The good news is that, in car-centric cities like Orlando and Los Angeles there is a growing awareness that alternative transportation arrangements need to be made quickly. Here in LA we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Thanks to Elon Schoenholz for scoring two free passes to the car show. It’s good to check out how the consensus trance is holding up.

Without Merit: poison in your compost

An image from Washington State University’s aminopyralid bioassay instructions.

Another thing to worry about! In the past two years farmers and gardeners in the UK and US have experienced the unintended effects of a powerful herbicide called aminopyralid, sold by Dow Chemical under the brand names Merit and Forefront. This herbicide is used to control weeds such as thistle, knapweed and yellow starthistle.

The problem is that aminopyralid survives the digestive systems of animals pastured on land sprayed with it, as well as compost piles made from their manure. Most other herbicides break down eventually, but this stuff sticks around. An organic farmer using compost contaminated by aminopyralid could lose crops and organic certification for years. If that isn’t enough to worry about, two other nasty herbicides, picloram and clopyralid have also contaminated compost piles around the world.

But what about us backyard gardeners? How can aminopyralid effect us? I’m fond of using a bit of horse manure in my compost pile. It’s free for the taking and helps heat up the pile. But if the horses were fed hay grown on land sprayed with aminopyralid I could lose my veggies, particularly tomatoes, lettuce and legumes which are highly susceptible to this chemical.

So what can we do? First the practical: test your compost. Washington State University has instructions for performing a simple test here (pdf). Basically, you plant three pea seeds in a 50/50 blend of compost and potting mix and compare their growth against a control group of three pea seeds grown in just potting mix. If you use manure in your compost pile and you don’t own the animal it came from, this test should be routine.

Secondly, a political solution: the Rachel Carson Council suggests writing two EPA officials to suggest banning a trio of deadly herbicides that includes aminopyralid: Kathryn Montague at [email protected], and Dan Kenny at [email protected].

For more information on aminopyralid, picloram and clopyralid see the Rachel Carson Council’s Killer Compost Q&A.

Read the articles in Mother Earth News by Barbara Pleasant that tipped me off to this problem, “Milestone Herbicide Creates Killer Compost” and “Contaminated Compost: Coming Soon to a Store Near You.”

Here’s a technical discussion of aminopyralid for those familiar with biochemistry.

From Ohio State University, a fact sheet on the equally bad clopyralid and some charts showing the persistence of other herbicides.

Lastly, beware of the recommendations of agencies tasked with the eradication of invasive weeds. The California Invasive Plant Council, in a 2006 publication on Yellow Starthistle management (availiable here as a pdf), recommends using both aminopyralid and clopyralid and fails to warn of their persistence. The USDA, Department of Defence and the Army Corp of Engineers assisted with that publication. Looks like these agencies need a little reflection on the laws of unintended consequences.

Land Girls

Align Center

Mrs. Homegrown here:

During WWI, Great Britain instituted The Women’s Land Army, a civilian corps created to replace male agricultural workers called into military service. These women were generally known as “Land Girls.” Yep, the rural version of Rosie the Riveter.

By WWII, both Australia and the U.S. had their own Women’s Land Armies, too.

It seems in some cases the women took on full-time waged agricultural work, and in other cases they formed temporary voluntary emergency relief teams, helping short-handed farmers at harvest time and the like.

The images, both photos and graphics from the period are fantastic:

U.K. women in working the plow, and workin’ some fine style, too.

Women volunteering in an Oregon hops field. They look so happy (and stripey)! Were they paid in beer?

We’d never heard about the WLA prior to today–which is astonishing and a little sad–and stranger still, of all sources, we have the louche Chap magazine to thank for this increase in knowledge. They ran a Land Girl fashion spread titled “Britches & Hoes,” saying,

“The recession has led to endless talk of austerity measures, making-do-and-mending and growing your own vegetables on an allotment. But the big question is, of course, what to wear while mulching the compost on your carrots.”

It’s good point. The Land Girls prove there’s no need to look like a slob out in the garden, trailing your already disreputable bathrobe through the mire–as Mrs. Homegrown is wont to do.

Instead, as The Chap (and historical record) suggests, we could adopt sassy belted sweaters, crisp trousers and sexy Wellingtons. The fellows at The Chap also make some savvy suggestions for planting, captioning this photo, “Come along Tiffany, these tobacco plants, juniper berries and truffles won’t plant themselves!”

Rubber Sidewalks Rescue Trees

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I love trees and all of the things they do for us. They shade us, feed us, house us. Trees are something we just need more of here in Southern California.
I used to work at an urban forestry non-profit, TreePeople. So I am familiar with the challenges of the tree/sidewalk interface. I have fielded calls from people frantically trying to save trees that are being ripped out because they are lifting the sidewalk. I have also received calls from people eager to remove trees for the same reason. Sadly, I have also heard from people that would call just to complain about a tree being messy and littering their sidewalk or driveway. My personal take on that is it isn’t the tree that should be removed- it is the concrete. Leaves falling off of trees is a good thing. Leaves make glorious mulch or compost and that hardscape is just in the way of some healthy soil.
Nonetheless, in a city there are sidewalks. There are also commonly trees near sidewalks. The wrong species of tree or a tree that is too large for the available space, can lead to problems. Cracked or raised sidewalks can be hazardous or inaccessible for the disabled, people with strollers, cyclists, skate boarders and those of us who are just generally clumsy. Rubber tiles in place of concrete can be a solution. They allow the tree roots to grow yet they are flexible. They conform to the contours of the roots. This eliminates gaps and provides an even surface. They are safer than ordinary concrete and allow the tree to thrive as well. I have heard of these rubber tiles before but I had never seen them in person until just a few days ago. I came across this tree and the rubber sidewalk in a leafy, pretty suburb along a major boulevard with a lot of foot traffic. Viva el arbol!

More on this material via the Charlotte Observer,“When the rubber meets the sidewalk (at $80 a foot)”.

The company that makes them is called, not surprisingly, Rubber Sidewalks.

Digital Farming- What’s The Deal?

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So here in the world of urban homesteading things can get pretty busy. We can become so preoccupied with work, chickens, vegetable gardening, cooking, cleaning, blogging duties and email that we can miss some of the things going on in the world. I do like to occasionally check in with the world at large by reading the newspaper. I just read an article that I have to comment on.

A recent New York Times article titled, ‘To Harvest Squash, Click Here,‘ introduced me to the world on online farming. Apparently people spend a lot of time “farming” on line. Twenty two million a day in fact, according to the article. There are several farming games on Facebook, Farmville being the most popular. You can get seeds to plant, watch your crops grow and then harvest them. Some people are so addicted that they are eschewing real life responsibilities and social obligations to harvest their virtual soybeans.
It is even suggested that the popularity of these farming games is indicative of a collective yearning for a more pastoral life. I’m not sure I get this. I spend all day outside in the dirt making things grow. At sundown, I lock up the chickens. Then I harvest something to make into dinner or on a special evening, I’ll make a big batch of jam or sauce and spend hours canning. I’d rather spend as little time online as possible.
I can’t wrap my head around how a video game can in any way replicate the experience of farming. I may be an urban dweller, but I get my satisfaction by getting real, not virtual, dirt under my fingernails. Can any one explain this trend to a clueless non-gamer like me?