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?

The modern woman-things to put in your apron pocket

Aprons are so cute and oh so functional. I’m often out and about in the yard and around the homestead and I find my apron a very useful accessory. An apron adds a flirty, feminine touch when worn over jeans and is a nice layer of protection for a dress. I tend to get very dirty and need a lot of pockets, so an apron is handy indeed. Whether I am at the farmer’s market, pulling weeds in the backyard or at the chicken coop, here are the top things you are likely to find in the pocket of my apron:

5. Money- small bills for the farmer’s market.
4. Seeds. I tend to collect seeds in my pockets.
3. My keys.
2. An egg. I certainly can’t put an egg in my jeans pocket.
1. My iphone. Very convenient place for this indispensable item.

The Original L.A. Urban Homestead

You know that band you saw play at your local dive bar back in the day that is totally popular now and playing in arenas? Well, the L.A. Eco-Home is kind of like that. Long before glossy magazines were doing “Green” issues, before hybrid cars and composting became hip, Julia Russell had been giving tours featuring the environmentally friendly aspects of her home and garden. Julia is pictured here in front of her Gordon apple tree which bore over 500 lbs. of apples last year. (We counted, seriously.)

The Los Angeles Eco-Home Network has been educating Angelenos about simple ways to conserve energy and other resources, grow their own food and live a happier, healthier lifestyle, since 1988. The house is a charming bungalow full of warm dark wood. It features a small solar array, a fabulous greywater system and many other features that make this cozy home worth a visit. The most educational part of the Eco-Home, in my humble opinion, is Julia’s actual lifestyle. Sure, technical features such as solar and greywater are great, but living lightly is more about how you live and small simple choices you make everyday. Julia is in her 70’s and doesn’t drive. She bikes. Pretty impressive. She has a nifty cargo bike that she uses to get groceries. The house is surrounded by mature trees that provide deep shade in the summer, keeping the house cool without the need for air conditioning.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson would be environmentalists can learn from Julia and the Eco-Home network is the absolute lack of pretentiousness and holier-than-thou attitude that can plague the green movement. Julia is down to earth and just wants to share her passion for living a green lifestyle. So if you are in L.A. check out one of their tours and bring a friend.
The Eco-Home Network- being green and keeping it real since ’88.

City Repair LA

Mark Lakeman stares down the new Bimini Street salamander.

Portland architect and activist Mark Lakeman, founder of the City Repair movement, is in Los Angeles for a week of lectures and activities. Lakeman believes in actions that correct what he believes is our disassociation from nature and our alienation from each other. He’s a passionate opponent of the grid, the imposition of street networks and regimented thinking that he traces back to Roman imperialism. He’s probably most famous for inspiring groups of like-minded neighbors in Portland to adorn their streets with furniture and elaborate murals, usually done without asking for permission (see examples on an interactive map). He wants to empower us all as “villagers”, in charge of our own collective fate, rather than as serfs subservient to distant bureaucrats and moneyed interests.

Author and Creekfreak Joe Linton executing a reverse Sistine Chapel maneuver.

What I like about Mark Lakeman’s actions is that they aren’t “actions.” There is none of the attention seeking, pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric that one finds in activities such as “guerrilla” gardening (or perhaps some of our own past activities!). Instead the focus is on problem solving through getting neighborhoods together and doing things rather than standing around and complaining. Yesterday I had the great privilege of participating in a city repair street mural painting with my friends at the Los Angeles Ecovillage and their neighbors. The Ecovillage folks who organized the event had knocked on doors and enlisted the help of their neighbors. They blocked off the street themselves without getting a permit, set up refreshments, put on some festive music and laid out a mural design in the intersection in front of the apartments that house the Ecovillage. Whole families came and the kids had a great time participating in what became a giant coloring book. At the conclusion of a day of painting under the bright LA sun, a piñata was hoisted, bashed apart and candy rained down across the colorful new street mural.

Jimmy Lizama operating the piñata.

The mural incorporates lizard and ocean motifs, and enhances the crosswalks in the intersection, which is adjacent to a public school. The mural will act as a traffic calming device and counter our Department of Transpiration’s usual ignorance of pedestrian safety. While not asking for city permission is provocative, this was not a Boston Tea Party moment. It was simple problem solving in the form of a neighborhood party. Everyone had fun, and the street will be safer and more attractive. Thinking about the day yesterday, I woke up this morning with an overwhelming sense of happiness and empowerment.

The new mural nearing completion in the early afternoon.

Can every neighborhood rush out and paint a street mural? Probably not. At Lakeman’s lecture on Friday, I could sense a familiar skepticism in the audience. He showed slide after slide of happy Portlanders creating cob benches, tea houses and street mandalas. The people of Portland have built one of the most livable and desirable communities in the US. But here in Los Angeles we have many obstacles and far less cohesiveness. And I was not alone in wincing at the aesthetics of many of the Portland projects. Lakeman himself acknowledged that a lot of people ask him why everything has to look like hippies built it. Here in Los Angeles and elsewhere we’re going to have to devise different city repair strategies and aesthetics. It’s easy to get hung up on street murals and cob benches. Like Lakeman says, we’ve got to look to nature and at each other to devise the form of our cities. The form these villager led interventions take in Los Angeles, Austin, Iowa City and Brooklyn are going to be different. What all our cities share in common is the need to get started immediately to undo a century’s worth of bad planning and disempowerment.