Garden Amendments as Placebos

I just finished writing an article for Urban Farm Magazine on the subject of aerated compost tea (ACT for short). It proved to be one of the most contentious subjects on which I’ve ever tried to, as Mark Twain liked to say, “corral the truth.”

It got me thinking about other controversial soil additives popular in organic gardening and farming circles right now such as rock dust, mycorrhizae additives, and biochar.

Now I prefer not to touch these topics with a hundred foot pole. But let me go out on a limb with a thoughtstyling outside of the usual debate about the benefits or worthlessness of these soil potions. I’ve started wondering if the strong anecdotal evidence supporting things like ACT, biochar etc., might indicate a kind of ecological placebo effect at work.

Note: I’m not saying that placebos have no value or that, “It’s all in your head.” Quite to the contrary: the placebo effect is powerful and causes real changes in the physical world. Even hardcore skeptics agree with me on this (note also the downside to placebos in that article). As the fifteenth century alchemist Paracelsus said, “You must know that the will is a powerful adjuvant of medicine.”

So could working with these soil additives be a way of focusing human will, of changing human consciousness towards the goal of healing the damage to nature that we’ve caused? And what about biodynamics? I suspect a consciousnesses shift within human hearts and minds is what Rudolf Steiner was really trying to do with his, admittedly bizarre, preparations.

On the opposite, non-interventionist side of the gardening spectrum, I’ve been re-reading Masanobu Fukuoka’s books. Fukuoka advocates a radical, almost (but not entirely) hands-off approach to natural systems. Paradoxically, Fukuoka was striving for the very same shift in consciousnesses, though by entirely different (Eastern) means. As he put it, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

I think we would do well to spend more time investigating the intersection of human consciousness and ecology in the years ahead. Our survival may depend on it.

Now, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.” So let me know what you think in the comments . . .

Is Cycling Too Dangerous?

Photo by Dru Marland.

I’ve been hit by cars twice cycling around Los Angeles. In the first accident a medical delivery driver made a left turn in front of me and I collided with the rear panel of his car. It was his fault but, initially, the driver’s employer tried to come after me for $900 worth of damage. Fortunately, their insurance company took my side in the matter and even replaced my bent fork. In the second accident, a motorist bumped me from the right. I’m not sure what happened, but I think he was merging out of a parking space and didn’t see me. Thankfully, they were minor collisions and I walked away from both without a scratch. But the cycling death of an acquaintance and the serious accidents of several friends has caused me to consider the risks of cycling, particularly in this less than bike friendly city.

An excellent blog post on the Guardian takes up the question of the costs and benefits of cycling. Author Peter Walker does the right thing, in my opinion, by seeking the opinion of public health experts. One, Dr. Harry Rutter, has this to say:

All activities carry a risk. For some reason there seems to be strong focus on the risk of injury associated with cycling. Clearly, when deaths do takes place that’s tragic, and we need to do all we can to avoid them. But I think there is a perception that cycling is much more dangerous than it really is.

This focus on the dangers of cycling is something to do with the visibility of them, and the attention it’s given. What we don’t notice is that if you were to spend an hour a day riding a bike rather than being sedentary and driving a car there’s a cost to that sedentary time. It’s silent, it doesn’t get noticed. What we’re talking about here is shifting the balance from that invisible danger of sitting still towards the positive health benefits of cycling.

Having volunteered on the board the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition for a few years, I’m well aware of how hard it is to make our cities more bike and pedestrian friendly. Another expert Walker talks to compared the struggle for safer cycling and walking infrastructure to efforts to curb smoking, noting that the anti-tobacco struggle took 60 years to get going.

The article concludes with a provocative conclusion, “There are two interventions that we know increase walking and cycling: living in the Netherlands and living in Denmark.”

So what do you readers think? Is cycling worth the risk?

Ladies of Manure 2013 Calendar

Just when our Kickstarter fatigue has reached terminal limits, this crazy pitch shows up in our mailbox to make our day. Two words: Humanure Cheesecake.

(Err…two words you really don’t want to see together, ever,  now that I think about it. Sorry.)

As teachers, we spend a lot of our time trying to convince people to mulch and compost. Return it all to the earth, people!

We’re particularly fond of throwing down the humanure* gauntlet, partially because it really is a very important subject,  and partially for the shock factor and the giggles. Some audiences are primed for this challenge. For others, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of the concept, and by the look on some faces, I imagine them thinking:

  • “Nope. Not even if civilization is burning down around my ears.”
  • “Note to self: Never visit these people at home.”
  • “They want me to keep poop around the house. Poop. Around my house.”
  • “Hmm, I’m sensing some sort of potty-training trauma here. Definitely an unhealthy anal obsession.”
  • “Funny, they don’t look like hippies.”

It’s an hard nut to crack, the poop nut. This environmental non-profit called The Fertile Earth Foundation is going about in a bold way, by trying to make manure sexy and fun. To be fair, the calendar isn’t all about humanure. (Then it would have to be called Jenkins Girls Gone Wild or something.) It’s about composting of all sorts, but humanure certainly gets much more play in it than it does in your average cheesecake calendar.

Take a look. They’re doing a Kickstarter to raise printing funds. What do you think? Think it will turn people on to the wonders of decomposition? What do you think it will take to make even basic composting a more commonplace activity? Do you humanure? If not, what keeps you from doing so?

*If humanure is new to you, check out the Humanure Headquarters for everything you could possibly want to know.

Sunday Spam: Automatic Chicken Cage

We interrupt the usual picture Sunday feature to bring you the best and most misdirected spam email that has ever graced the Root Simple in-box:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Liaocheng Dongying Hengtong Metal Manufacturing Co.,Ltd here. Glad to hear that you are on the market for Automatic chicken cage. We are a professional producer of the complete sets of equipment for raising birds. At present, it is an enterprise which has the import-export license and exports a batch of complete sets of automatic equipment for raising chickens.

These products gained good prestige among customers and they are not only used in great-scaled biological raising farms in domestic provinces, but also exported to Middle Asia, South and East regions, Australia, South America, Middle East areas, Africa mainland and so on in great lot. We are willing to wholehearted with all the friends and customers to establish good relations of cooperation, realize a win-win benefits, and create a magnificent performance. If any interest, feel free to contact me.

Best regards,
Senior Sales Manager,
Fatma

Clearly a product that’s not a win-win for the chickens, but thank you “Fatma” for providing us with some much needed scratch for the blog.

Alternatives to the Funeral Industrial Complex

A casket made by the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Louisiana.

If there’s one business I’d like to see shut down and rethought it would be the funeral industry. I’m not going to mince words. The funeral directors I’ve had to deal with just wanted to turn grief into dollars. When my dad passed on his pastor warned me about what would happen at the funeral home, telling me that they would try to up-sell my mom and I. He said, “don’t let them try to equate money with love.” He was right. Even though everything was supposedly per-arranged the funeral director still tried to get us to buy more expensive items.

If treating individuals like this isn’t bad enough, the funeral industry works like a cartel to curtail the rights of any alternatives to their products and services. In Louisiana the State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, staffed almost entirely by funeral directors, tried to shut down a group of monks who were making and selling simple wooden caskets. And let’s not even get into the horrific tales of abuse, theft of dental fillings, reusing graves, etc.

The good news is that there seems to be a growing alternative funeral movement. The monks won their court case. And I have a feeling that as the baby boomer generation begins to grasp its own mortality, we’ll begin to see more changes. Either that or the funeral industry will start marketing fake green burials (they probably have already).

What prompted this rant was a comment from a Root Simple reader asking if I knew of any green burials in Southern California. I don’t. If any of you know of any alternative funeral services in Southern California, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in hearing about the experiences of readers outside of our region. Have you participated in a DIY funeral? Do you know of any resources for opting out of the funeral industry?