Thyrsus: the new hipster accessory

Ancient thyrsus on left, modern hipster version on right.

The traveling exhibition Pompeii and the Roman Villa, currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has a few nice tchotchkes worth considering for those of us attempting to garden in Mediterranean places. One of the centerpieces of the show, a large fresco depicting a garden, includes many familiar plants: chamomile, oleander (who knew oleander existed before freeways!), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and date palms.

But what kept capturing my eye in multiple pieces, was a ceremonial stick carried in Bacchic processions called a thyrsus. Consisting of a stalk of giant fennel topped with a pine cone, occasionally accessorized with a grape or ivy vine, I realized that, here in Los Angeles thanks to our similar climate, I could step out the back door and make my own thyrsus, which I promptly did. For my modern thyrsus I drilled a hole in the pine cone and fennel stalk and inserted a metal pin to hold the pine cone to the stalk.

The combination of a pine cone and fennel stalk symbolizes the unity of farm and forest, of the cultivated and the wild. And you don’t need to be a Freudian to grasp, shall we say, the meaning of a long shaft topped by a bunch of seeds. Roman homes and gardens were, in fact, full of phallic fertility symbols that seem crass to our modern eyes. Exhibitions like Pompeii and the Roman Villa, sadly, censor this imagery. You’ve got to visit the secret cabinet in Naples to see this stuff (way not safe for work!).

Censorship of these ancient fertility symbols is related in my mind to modern fears of the fecundity of nature. It’s these fears that lead landlords to pour copious amounts of concrete and gravel to smother every living thing. It’s what causes neighbors to launch irrational tree and bush killing rampages over the property line lest any bit of foliage fall and mar their precious SUVs.

As rampaging forest fires send Vesuvian plumes of smoke over Los Angeles, it’s time to wave our freak thyrsi high to counter the naturefobic forces out there! As Euripides says, “To raise my Bacchic shout, and clothe all who respond/ In fawnskin habits, and put my thyrsus in their hands–/ The weapon wreathed with ivy-shoots.”

Let’s Democratize Permaculture

When I heard that Miley Cyrus (aka Hannah Montana) has the number one country album, I fell into a dark spiral of despair. Isn’t this a clear sign of the end of the American empire? But wait, won’t permaculture save us from this petrochemical fueled Miley Cyrus soundtracked nightmare?

Don’t hold your breath. It might be awhile before everyone’s front yard is full of perennial vegetables and Merle Haggard is back on FM radio. Over at Club Orlov some controversy over permaculture has broken out in the comments. One poster, Morgan Emrich says,

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, for at least hinting that there might be a problem with the permaculture Movement in the US. The ratio of permaculture teachers/instructors, (and courses, certification programs, feel-good junkets to third world countries) to actual apple trees being planted seems woefully skewed in the wrong direction.

It’s starting to feel like Amway. Everybody’s selling Basic H but is anybody actually using the stuff to wash their clothes?”

I understand the frustration. I’ve seen, first hand, backstabbing, cliquishness and proprietary craziness in what should be a movement about joining together to make the world a better place. I’ve also witnessed the same skewed proportion of apple trees to thoughts about apple trees. At the same time, not a day goes by when I don’t think about, learn from or apply some of the principles of permaculture as described by Mollison and Holmgren. In fact my biggest failures have come from not following permaculture’s language of common sense.

Maybe it’s time to put down the pen and graph paper and pick up a shovel. It’s definitely the point at which we need to democratize permaculture and bring it to the mainstream. Fifteen hundred dollar permaculuture certificate courses are out of the budget and time constraints of backyard gardeners and rooftop apartment growers. Toby Hemenway’s book Gaia’s Garden: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture is a step in the right direction. We need more voices like Hemenway, who can explain the design principles of permaculture to the masses.

And let’s take these principles and apply them not just to gardening, but to the ways we arrange our schools, offices, homes and public spaces. Maybe we’ll get in the groove once we get past the term “permaculuture” and when its principles get reincorporated into the fabric of our lives.

Time to bust out the shovels and banjos.

Thank You Chicago!

Some unfinished Chicago business:

Thanks again to Nancy Klehm for hosting me. If you aren’t familiar with Klehm’s work you can read her articles at Arthur Magazine (note especially her take on the swine flu), view some video of a foraging walk she conducted, or take one of her classes.

Also, thanks to Chicago Reader reporter Martha Bayne for writing a nice article about me. Bayne’s also the force behind Soup and Bread, a pot luck which takes place during the winter at a tavern. Folks bring soup and everybody chips in a donation that benefits a Chicago food bank. It’s a Depression 2.0 idea that needs to be cloned in other cities.

And, of course, thanks to the Green Roof Growers, who prove that you can grow food without a yard.

We Vote With Our Gas Pedals

Photo by sanbeiji

It’s been my good luck to travel on business to many great cities in Northern Europe. And these cities–Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brugge, Dusseldorf, and Hamburg–have one thing in common: people come first, cars come second. It’s a hassle to drive but a pleasure to walk, bike and take public transit. As a direct result they are desirable places to live and be a tourist. While we could throw many American cities into this list of livable cities–San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Portland, Davis, New York come to mind–I doubt anyone would include my hometown of Los Angeles. LA, while not the worst city in the world, is the poster child for car-centric planning and general ugliness. When I’m away I question the sanity of getting back on the plane to return.

But since I always return I feel compelled to at least try to make the place more livable. Last year I joined with bike activists Stephen Box and Josef Bray-Ali to speak at a Los Angeles City Council transportation subcommittee meeting to oppose a routine bunch of speed limit increases. Here’s how the whole sorry process plays out. First, Detroit sells (or used to sell) insanely over-powered cars that turn soccer moms into NASCAR drivers. To protect the rights of these speed addled motorists, many states, including California, have seen fit to pass “Speed Trap” laws requiring cities to establish a street’s speed limit based on the 85th percentile of average speed in order to use radar or laser enforcement. In other words, as one LA Department of Transportation engineer put it, “we vote with our gas pedals.” So we engineer cars for speed, engineer the streets for speed, and then raise the speed limits to match. If the 85th percentile is 50 mph on a residential street, the city raises the speed limit. If they don’t the cops can’t use radar. Or so they say. One LADOT official said that he’d “raise the limits anyways.”

Thankfully, those of you in California can help change this ridiculous situation.

1. Write a letter to your State representative and urge them to support Assistant Majority Leader Paul Krekorian’s AB766 “Safe Streets” bill which will reform our silly speed trap laws.

2. Box and his wife Enci will be traveling to Sacramento to lobby for this bill. They’d love to have your letters of support to take with them. Email your letter of support to: [email protected]

3. Follow Stephen and Enci’s journey on Twitter, on Facebook, on their blogs at illuminateLA and at SoapBoxLA.

Let’s make our streets safe for our children and senior citizens. Support AB766!

Is Industrial Ag to Blame for the Swine Flu?

Could the swine flu be linked to industrial agriculture practices, say keeping thousands of immunosuppressed pigs in tight quarters and then carelessly discharging their effluent? A private biosurveillance tracking firm, Veretect has a timeline of the epidemic originating in the town of La Gloria in the State of Veracruz.

“Residents believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to “flu.” However, a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms. It was unclear whether health officials had identified a suspected pathogen responsible for this outbreak.”

More on this story at Grist and Peak Oil Entrepreneur.

At this point we’re in the wild speculation phase of the swine flu narrative and I’ll add that the press does a particularly bad job with anything that has to do with science. However, we’ve been trying to make the point that distributed agriculture, more people tending small numbers of animals, is most likely a safer practice than large factory farms. The exotic strains of E-coli and swine flu that have emerged in recent years could be the unintended consequence of concentrated animal feeding operations. Time to call the homeowners association and ask them if you can keep a few pigs in that suburban backyard.

Is Our Furniture Killing Us?


Architects Arakawa and Madeline Gins have the radical idea that our addiction to comfort and safety is killing us. Their solution: designing houses and apartments where no surface is even, with awkward and even dangerous passages between rooms, where buying your own furniture is impossible. Living in their buildings forces the occupant to think about each and every step.They promise eternal life (an exaggeration for the sake of making a point) and a return to youthfulness.

“At least one tenant says he feels a little younger already. Nobutaka Yamaoka, who moved in with his wife and two children about two years ago, says he has lost more than 20 pounds and no longer suffers from hay fever, though he isn’t sure whether it was cured by the loft.” [wsj.com]

Having encountered Arakawa and Madeline Gins work several years ago, I’ve been haunted by the crazy idea that we should immediately get rid of all of our normal furniture for the sake of our future heath. Having done a lot of running and far too little stretching, Mr. Homegrown Evolution’s middle-aged body has gotten increasingly stiff. Mrs. Homegrown describes me as having the flexibility of a “ginger bread man.” And yet I see our 70+ year-old Chinese neighbors doing all their garden work while nimbly crouched low to the ground, in a posture I doubt most native born Westerners half their age could mimic. Their health and flexibility is, no doubt, due in part to cultural and architectural differences. Switching out our Western furniture for a down-on-the-floor type arrangement would force me to incorporate stretching as a part of my daily routine rather than separating it out as an activity (like yoga) that I never seem to get around to doing.

Arakawa and Madeline Gins heretical ideas are all about the unseen and unintended consequences of convenience. It reminds me of using a bicycle for transportation–it may be more dangerous and often takes more time than driving–but think about the benefits to both body and mental sharpness (dodging all those SUVs). How about running without shoes? I’m convinced that the arch support in the shoes I’ve worn all my life has weakened the muscles in my feet and led directly to a painful case of plantar fasciitis that took a year and a half to heal. How about running barefoot as an alternative? How about keeping bees as nature intended as the Backwards Beekeepers do while we’re at it? In fact all of these heretical notions, counter to conventional wisdom, could be grouped under the “backwards” banner.

I could go on, but don’t worry. We still like clothes . . .

See more pictures of Arakawa and Madeline Gins innovative work here.

And a video:

Sadly, according to a poorly written article in the Wall Street Journal, the couple seems to have been caught up in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme forcing them to close their Manhattan office.

Swedish Shack Attack

Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, the Unabomber, the bloggers over at Ramshackle Solid and Homegrown Evolution all have one thing in common. We’re all proud owners of shacks. We’ve posted before about the wonderful Tiny House Company and the virtues of actually living in your shack. Today we share a photo of a lovely Swedish shack we spotted in the arctic town of Kiruna. A family of five used to live in it in the early 20th century and it can’t be much more than a hundred square feet. No doubt, “shacking up” meant fewer trips to the woodpile during those cold winters (“winter” being nine months out of the year in this place). Its current location is in the parking lot of an old folks home. Looks like it’s now used for storage.

A special thanks to the folks at Dinosaurs and Robots for the term “shackitecture” and their many shacktacular posts.