Saturday Tweets: Micro Campers, The Whole Earth Catalog and a Post-Antibiotics Future

Bee Idle

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In the great battle against undifferentiated time, the 24/7  always-connected, always-on culture our Silicon Valley overlords orchestrate to get us all to work for free, I can think of no better response than the folks behind the Idler Academy. They put out the only email newsletter I actually bother to read even though most of the events are taking place half a world away in London. Here’s the opening paragraph of their recent email missive:

Dear Idlers
Good day. I am glad to report that the sun is out in west London, and that I saw a bee buzzing out of a daffodil in our front yard earlier today. Such activity and colour boosts the spirits, and though the techno-utopians in San Francisco and the economists in London and the utilitarians in government might scoff at non-productive activities like staring at bees and writing poetry, we will never lose our romantic spirit.

The Idler is a brick and mortar shop in London that also publishes books and hosts in-person and online lectures. I thought I’d highlight a couple of their recent efforts:

  • A free online lecture on the subject of William Morris. Morris, for those not familiar with him, should be considered a saint of the DIY movement. As the newsletter suggests, you should show this lecture to your children.
  • The Idler’s in-house philosopher Mark Vernon makes a case for heathens giving the Triduum a try. Today is day two, so get on it.
  • A class in using trees as a compass (free gin cocktail included).
  • While I can’t travel to Wiltshire, I really like the idea of a beekeeping and poetry weekend.

Lastly, this bit of pure genius:

On Monday I went up to visit the gardening writer and TV presenter Alys Fowler on her allotment in Birmingham, where we spent the day filming the first two instalments of our new online gardening course for eco-idlers. The principle is low effort, high productivity. Alys is a brilliant instructor and I wish I’d consulted her before I started growing vegetables and herbs. It would have saved me a lot of pain . . . We’re also organising an event with Alys for the Chelsea Fringe Festival. Her idea is that we create a Plant Cemetery at the Idler Academy, a resting place for neglected houseplants. There will be a wake with gin, and  you can read more about the idea here.

We are all gardeners

Pomo woman harvesting seeds

Pomo woman harvesting seeds, 1924, by Edward Curtis

After a break for camping and other things, I’m returning to the series of posts I initiated a couple of weeks ago under the heading, Back to the Garden. While this series is meant to be practical, I have a little more “thoughtstyling” as we say around here before I turn to the hands-on material. Look for new series entries every Thursday.

We are all gardeners.  What does this mean? It’s a saying which pops up in all sorts of contexts. Gardening, after all, is a universal metaphor, so the idea that “we are all gardeners” appears with equal validly in conversations about spiritual matters as it does in those about child development. The phrase is also often used in permacultural circles, where — by oral tradition, at least — it is attributed to Bill Mollison, though after a solid half hour of searching I haven’t been able to find a citation of him saying this in print.

In permacultural terms, to say we are all gardeners means simply that everything we do influences our environment. Whether we will it or not, our daily decisions shape the natural world around us, as surely as a gardener shapes her plot.

Every time we shop for food, every time we drive our cars or mow our lawns or choose where we’re going to live or just when settle down on the couch with our laptops, we are deciding what the world looks like. We choose to extract certain things from the natural world, and we choose to…er… supplement…our soil and our water with various substances. We choose what may and may not grow, when and where. We decide what may and may not crawl, creep or fly in our lands. We’ve already chosen to develop most of our land for human use. Consciously or unconsciously, we dominate the land.

Our influence is permanent, and huge. (Have you heard about the anthropocene epoch?) Somewhere in our group subconscious we like to believe there is always more wilderness, more chances, somewhere for the wild to be. But there simply isn’t. For example, check out this light pollution map of the U.S. How much undeveloped land is left to beast and bird and tree? Or, to put it another way, what isn’t a parking lot these days?

But this isn’t just about the abstract protection of species of fish, bird and insects we’ve never even seen. It’s about us, and the quality of our future as well. One of our best hopes for softening the effects of climate change is to work with nature as our ally. If we bring nature back into our cities and suburbs, if we build soil and plant trees and encourage biodiversity, we can do amazing things, like sequester carbon and regulate temperature and protect our lands from flooding. We can do all these things and support other species at the same time.

And on another level, we need nature to remain healthy and sane. It’s not just about food or water or air quality, it’s about spirit. We are programed to be in relationship with the natural world. This is the subject of a whole different essay, but if you need convincing, check out books like Last Child in the Woods and Your Brain on Nature, or more immediately, articles on “nature prescriptions” like this one in Slate.

Embracing our role as gardeners and stewards of creation is a thread of hope in an otherwise grim time. It’s a way of telling a story which counters our prevailing narratives of hopelessness and destruction. It’s also something we can do on our own. Every bit helps, so you don’t have to wait for the government to clue in, or for your neighbors to agree.

We’re already gardening, as I’ve said. It’s not that hard to simply choose to be better gardeners. It starts with acknowledging our deep reciprocal relationship with the natural world. After all, if we’re looking for atonement with the natural world, it is well to remember that atonement literally means “setting as one” — at-one-ment. To heal the natural world we have to admit we are part of it, that we need it, and it needs us.

If we could restore this relationship, we’d be a long way toward returning to Eden.

In this I’m greatly influenced by M. Kat Anderson. (See my review of her book, Tending the Wild.), Tending the Wild is about Native American management of the the California landscape, an active management which was subtle enough to be invisible to European colonists, but so successful that it created a literal paradise on earth, a landscape rich with fish and game and meadows of tall grass and riotous wildflowers, shaded gently by spreading oaks.

None of this was accidental, or Providential, as the colonists believed. The land was rich because the land was loved and actively managed by the tribes to ensure that they had the food and materials they needed, while supporting the rest of creation to the mutual benefit of all. They were practicing a form of permaculture so advanced that we can only hope to emulate it one day.

This was not a California-specific phenomenon. People who we call “hunter-gatherers” shape and have shaped the land all over the world, even to this day–though the knowledge is dying, almost lost. This, for instance, is a nice short essay by Bill Gammage about the gardening practice of Indigenous Australians, which sounds very much what Anderson describes in Tending the Wild.

I’m not saying Native practice was perfect all over the world for all time, that they never made mistakes or got greedy, but I will hold on to a vision of humankind returning to a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the rest of life after a long, destructive period of exile. We can do this by becoming conscious gardeners, Edenic gardners.

I know we can do it because evidence says we’ve done it before. And I know we have to do it, if we want to craft a decent future for our children.

We have to do this if we want to ameliorate the effects of climate change, to cool our burning cities, to help the soil absorb the floodwaters.

And we will do this because we love the sound of the birds in the trees and bees in the flowers.

We will do it so children born today will experience the vibrant natural world as something more than a bedtime story.

We will do this because it is the right thing to do.

From here on I’m going to focus on gardening as actual landscape management, as opposed to our consumer choices and civic activities, though those are very important as well. People who own or manage land bear particular responsibility of caring for the land in return for their privilege.

But those who don’t own land are not powerless. First, they should remember that they can work with conservation groups to restore and maintain ecosystems as well as launch guerrilla and otherwise informal initiatives to heal the land around them. Second, remember that we are all influencers. As I said above, every time we vote, every time we buy something, each time we take a trip or choose a place to live, we are influencing the landscape and we are influencing people who have more power over the land than we do.

(An aside: At this point I suspect permaculture folks are going to say what I’m talking about when I say gardening is permaculture, and I won’t disagree. But I’ll also say that permaculture as a discipline can be intimidating from the outside and the cost of training prohibitive. In this series I’m going to be suggesting practices which align with permacultural ideas, but which are perhaps more immediately accessible to the general reader. I do believe people with permaculture training will be in demand and of much use in the coming years. )

The Loving Landscape

I propose a universal rethinking about how we tend our yards and public spaces.

The Old Way:

Lawn-based. Status seeking. Conformist. For show, not use. Value of landscape based abstractly on the value of the property. The yard chores are outsourced. Few species of plants are used (e.g. a front yard may host a total of 3 species: turf,  a specimen trees, a hedge). The species chosen are likely not local species, but exotics, so do not express any particular sense of place, other than a generalized sense of suburbia. The outdoors is kept as tidy as indoors: the grass is raked, the leaves and cuttings are thrown away, everything is rigorously pruned. Wildlife is not welcome.

This landscape is extractive by nature, meaning it is not self-sustaining, but reliant on biological and chemical inputs stolen from other locations, from fertilizer to weed killer to the gasoline and electricity needed to run the tools necessary to to keep the landscape trim, and in some climates, the water needed to keep the grass green.

It is expensive.

It is life-denying.

The New Way: The Loving Landscape

The Loving Landscape invites and encourages life at many levels. Its value is founded on its ability to sustain life in as many forms as possible, from microbes to humans. The focus is not on surface glamor, but on the invisible, but critical aspects of the landscape: the life of the soil and the path of the water. The active soil ecology supports the surface plants without need for store-bought inputs. Rain water is captured and channeled through a variety of means to both irrigate the garden and charge the groundwater.

The plants in the loving landscape promote biodiversity and the local ecology. They are largely native, but not dogmatically so. The landscape represents the unique spirit and history of the region. The plants serve the larger ecology, feeding insects and birds and providing habitat for small animals, birds and reptiles. Loving landscapes join together from house to house to form corridors and refuges for wildlife. There is room for human food crops as well, because abundance is a key virtue in the loving landscape.

The garden is a space of reflection and reconnection for the gardener and their family and community. The land is not always tidy, but it is always vital.

Next week we’ll start talking about how to craft this kind of environment.

041 Sounds of the Homestead

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Kelly and Erik discuss some of the unusual sounds heard around the Root Simple compound: chickens, cats, bees and, yes, Kaiser Permanente’s music on hold.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

The Difference Between Mulch and Compost

The word "mulch" became a running gag in the comic book TK.

The word “mulch” became a running gag in the comic book Groo the Wanderer.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “mulch” called “compost” I’d be a wealthy blogger. Let’s set the record straight. The Oxford English Dictionary defines mulch as,

Partly rotted plant material, etc.; (Hort.) loose material consisting of straw, decaying leaves, shredded cuttings and bark, etc., spread on soil or around or over a plant to provide insulation, protect from desiccation, and deter weeds. Also: textile or other artificial material used for the same purpose.

I’d argue that compost, properly defined, is fully not partially rotted organic material (or textiles or plastic, though I don’t like plastic mulch). The distinction is important. If you integrate mulch, i.e. partially rotted material, like wood chips or straw into soil you’ll cause a temporary nitrogen deficiency. Mulch should be used as a top-dressing that both saves water and, over time, contributes soil nutrients as it breaks down. The confusion stems from the fact that you can use compost as mulch and from the fact that a pile of mulch will eventually break down and become compost. I’d also argue that there’s a problem with the dictionary’s definition. I consider fresh (not even “partly”) rotted materials like wood chips and straw as “mulch” too. It’s easy to see why “mulch” and “compost” are often mistakenly used interchangeably.

Interestingly, the earliest known use of the word mulch comes from Samuel Purchas 1657 book about bees, A theatre of politicall flying-insects wherein especially the nature, the vvorth, the vvork, the wonder, and the manner of right-ordering of the bee, is discovered and described : together with discourses, historical, and observations physical concerning them : and in a second part are annexed meditations, and observations theological and moral, in three centuries upon that subject (As an aside, I think we need to bring back really long book titles and creative spelling). In this book Purchas uses the word “mulch” as a suggested material for a beekeeper’s smoker, “Then make a smoak of mulch and wet straw.” Later uses of the word mulch are also about the use of half rotten straw as a mulch for top-dressing plants.

As for why you should mulch, especially here in California, see our blob post Yet More Reasons to Mulch.

In Defense of Molding

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Like those invasive Argentine ants, house flippers are busy digging, churning and transforming our old corner of Los Angeles. One of the most obvious markers of a house flipper around these parts is the ubiquitous horizontal “flipper fence.”

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Another unfortunate sign is the disappearance of interior molding. Note the example above. In the process of ripping out interior walls, built-in cabinets and other period details, the molding often ends up in the dumpster. For some reason, it’s never replaced.

This is unfortunate. Molding is both functional and ornamental. Functionally, it serves to hide the inevitably imperfect intersections between walls, ceilings, doorways and floors. Conceptually, it creates a hierarchy between rooms (the living room should have larger molding than the bedroom, for instance) and it serves to mark a transition between spaces. It feels different to walk through an ornamented door than it does through what is merely a hole punched through a wall.

Modernist architects such as Richard Neutra derided molding as “dust catching” and, to this day, you’ll never see any crown molding or baseboard in the pages of the influential Brahmin lifestyle magazine Dwell. But I doubt high minded design is driving the aesthetic of the house flipper set. Rather it’s simple cheapness and, perhaps, a lack of skill. This is a real shame when you’re paying nearly a million dollars for a thousand square foot shack in a city that, let’s just say it, ain’t Paris.

The truth is, it’s not that hard to put up molding and it really does hide bad drywall work or old lath and plaster problems. Our 1920 bungalow, thankfully, had most of its molding still in place. I replaced what was missing (even though my carpentry skills do leave a bit to be desired).

If your molding is missing here’s a video on how to replace it. Baseboard is even easier, and has the added advantage of protecting your walls from vacuum cleaner bumps.

Saturday Tweets: Artisinal Junk Food, Wide Streets and Neon Succulents

Peter Kalmus Talk: Low-Energy Living is Fun!

kalmus

On Sunday, March 29 from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm climate scientist Peter Kalmus (our guest on episode 39 of the Root Simple Podcast) will share his experiences as he and his family journey toward a lower carbon footprint, focusing on how using less fossil fuels turned out not to be the burden one might expect . . . in fact, he’ll show how it has made life even better.

The second (optional) part of Peter’s presentation will guide the audience to calculate their carbon footprints, and discuss concrete ways to decrease their impact on the planet. Please bring a pencil, calculator, and information about your driving, flying, and consuming habits, including a gas and electric bill, to get the maximum from the workshop. If not available, Peter will show ways to guess-timate your usage. More info can be found at http://becycling.life.

The talk will take place at:
Throop Unitarian Universalist Church
300 S Los Robles Ave, Pasadena
Sponsored by Transition Pasadena