4/17/15

Feed the World... One Porch, Balcony or Rooftop at a Time

The so-called “Green Revolution” of the latter half of the 20th century, in which yield-per-acre in industrial agriculture increased by orders of magnitude due to the use of improved technology and intensive fertilization, coupled with the use of herbicides to reduce weed competition and pesticides (including genetic modifications in crops to allow them to produce their own pesticides) to reduce insect depredation, all in the name of improving crop yields in order to “feed a starving world”… it’s all based on a lie.

There is a fundamental problem with the idea that we can increase food production to match population growth,
Most of the world's extreme food security issues are in Africa....
and it is an obvious problem, one which a simple look at two graphs can tell you is at the core of a whole host of global ills – first, a chart of who experiences the most food stress, and next a chart of who imports the most food.


Yes, the amount of food being produced is now greater than it ever has been before, that much is true.  But even before you begin to calculate the nearly incalculable damage that these methods have done (and are continuing to do) to our environment, we really ought to face the fundamental fact that all that extra food is going directly to wealthy people and making them fat.  Virtually none of that extra production is feeding the people who are actually dealing with food security issues.
Virtually none of the world's chief food importers overlap
with food security issues


Between 1961 and 1999, food exports globally increased by over 400%; much of that increase has come in the form of diets becoming westernized in most of Asia – the fastest growing businesses in the Pacific Rim are franchised fast food restaurants like Domino’s and McDonald’s, which to their credit do a fairly good job of localizing their menus in their new locations, but… an island nation like Indonesia is not exactly a great place to grow wheat.  As a consequence, all that flour for all those hamburger buns and pizza crusts comes from somewhere else.

The same dynamic is playing out in pretty much every country on earth where trends toward modernization and urbanization are drawing people out of the countryside and into cities that are increasingly homogenous in form and function.

There is a temptation to say, well, it’s working in Asia, and if you look at the map of underfed persons, Africa seems to be the only real problem child, so let’s just export Big Macs to Ethiopia and presto!  Problem solved!

Apart from the fact that Ethiopian Big Macs would need to be halāl (Arabic “حلال‎ “ or English “permissible”), and producing that much halāl meat is not really possible using modern factory-farming methods (animal cruelty is harām – “forbidden” – in Islam, so if the cow came from a slaughterhouse, a Muslim cannot eat it), there is also the very real problem that cattle production on the kind of scale necessary to let everyone in the world eat beef with the same wanton, hedonistic abandon as Americans do would require the use of more freshwater than the world has available.  Raising more cattle in Ethiopia than is done at present would leave no fresh water for other purposes.  It simply isn’t an option.

Even as an export… the only places in the world with sufficient freshwater for an increase in cattle production are not amenable to the industry – Lake Baikal in Siberia has 20% of the world’s freshwater.  It is also so remote and cold that unless you are either Siberian or Mongolian (or a geography geek), you’ve undoubtedly never heard of it.

The current model of feeding the world, in short, is haphazard and doesn’t work.  Numerous organizations recognize this problem and are leading efforts to reconceptualize how we approach issues of food security.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has over the years evolved a framework for discussing food security, and their work has been adapted by many other organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and numerous others.

In 2009, the World Summit on Food Security stated that the “four pillars of food security are availability, access, utilization, and stability.”  Which brings us back to our initial premise – the “Green Revolution” methodology of throwing technology at the problem of food security is actually counterproductive, and tends over time to limit the availability, access, utilization and stability of food, particularly in the most food-stressed parts of the world.  To take each pillar in turn:

Availability – Numerous complications make food unavailable under the current paradigm, most notably that technological advances tend not to make production cheaper, but rather only to make production more profitable.  That is, advances in production techniques (better tractors, more powerful fertilizers, etc.) do, in fact, lead to higher yields, but they also require greater capital outlays, and (more to the point) incentivize producing food crops which will lead to a greater return on investment (ROI), not necessarily the same thing as producing crops which will be available for low cost to those who do not have enough to eat.  Poor farmers can’t produce without technology, and rich farmers don’t produce for poor consumers.

Access – Much as with availability, the economics of increasing production also limit access.  A prime example of this problem relates to rice production – the Asian economy has exploded over the past fifty years, with most of the world’s fastest growing local economies over that time period being in the region.  And rice is still, today, the most important foodstuff in every Asian city.  But because the economy has boomed for most, the price of rice has gone up for all.  And so, this simple food most Americans take for granted – and think of as cheap – has become increasingly difficult for poor families to put on their tables at dinnertime.  They have been priced out of the market – even when rice production is good (and that is not always a given thanks to pollution and global warming, both of which have wreaked havoc on rice crops in recent years), increasingly large percentages of the population simply have no access to this food staple.

Utilization –.Farmers down through history have almost never been concerned with whether or not the food they are producing is actually good for a human being to eat, and as a consequence, the marketplace is flooded with alleged food, things no one ought to ever put in their mouths, and including these poisonous calories right alongside nutritious items, and we pretend that this calculus is somehow healthy.  
Any urban space can replace a farm...
if enough of them are used


Increasingly all that improved agricultural production and all those food exports come in the form of high fructose corn syrup – that ridiculously sweet bottle of Coca-Cola started its life as somebody’s corn field.  Maize may have been one of the “three sisters” that allowed the aboriginal Amerindians to thrive, but it has turned into an addictive toxin.  It requires massive chemical intervention (in the form of fertilizer and pesticide) to grow, which poisons our waterways to the point of choking all the oxygen out of large parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and does nothing to feed malnourished children in the Sudan.  It sure has made a lot of folk exceptionally fat everywhere from Miami Beach to Seattle, Washington, though.

So, what’s the answer?  Advocates of the Green Revolution (notably Texas A&M’s own Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug) tend to discount advocates of organic farming:
"Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things"
The problem is, in advocating intensive monoculture factory farming, Borlaug and others threw the baby out with the bathwater.  Sustainable agriculture on the scale previously practiced could not, it is true, keep pace with population growth and urbanization.  But, long term, neither can a chemically oriented system of factory farming dependent upon ever increasing yields.  Eventually, soil which requires continual fertilizing, and tilling, and irrigation becomes played out.  Depending on increasing yields will eventually cause the whole system to break down catastrophically.

What is needed is a shift not just in production methods, but in production philosophy.

Which brings us to the fourth pillar…

Stability – Change is the only constant.  One of the strengths of a global economy, of course, is the idea that when there is a shortage in one region, it may be supplemented by imports from another region.  In practice, however, this kind of balancing of temporary shortages is not what the global food economy tends to implement.  Instead, food exports are planned in advance and tend to take advantage of the most profitable redistributions of agricultural goods, not the most needed redistributions.  That is, wheat or corn farmers will export their grain to the country that pays the most, not the one that is the hungriest.  As such, the increasing weather variability brought on by anthropogenic climate change will hit the poorest people in the world harder than it will hit anyone else – slight changes to crop conditions will lead to increasing starvation wherever people are depending on vulnerable supply chains.

The answer, then, is to decrease the vulnerability of supply chains.  And there are two ways to strengthen a chain:  1) increase the strength of the material being used to make the links – this is the “Green Revolution” approach, increasing yield-per-acre on the lands being used for agriculture; or 2) shorten the chain – this is the approach we recommend.
Potato sacks on an apartment balcony


“Not everyone can grow their own food,” goes the argument from the Green Revolutionists.  Poppycock, we say.  It is true that not everyone can put together a backyard microfarm, owing in great measure to the fact that not everyone has a backyard.  However, we have written before about the apartment porch hanging-potato-sack gardens of Nairobi, and spoken at great length about the guerilla gardeners throughout the world who will grow a stand of amaranth or a row of squash in any vacant lot, alleyway, or unused public right-of-way.

The shortest farm-to-table food supply chain is the one that requires nothing more than opening your back door and picking your salad.

Rather than trying to expand industrial farming techniques to all corners of the Earth in an attempt to turn every developing country into Kansas (which, by the way, is going to increasingly be unfarmable in coming decades, thanks to the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, so Kansas will itself be “food poor” under the current model before too terribly long), we ought to be figuring out the best possible way to turn every porch, kitchen window, alleyway, rooftop and vacant lot in the world into a community garden.  

As for the argument that we ought to focus on crop yields… well, fine.  It is easier, though, to fertilize a container garden than it is to fertilize a 100 acre farm.  And there’s no runoff to worry about. 
Potato sacks on a patio wall
 

Ultimately, food security is only one small part of an overall feeling of security which impoverished persons will never find satisfactorily addressed by anything other than economic self-sufficiency.  Relying on an international economy which not only does not put their faces or names to the issues at hand, but does not care one way or the other, is not an approach we ought to ask the people of Botswana, or Turkmenistan, or East Saint Louis, to just trust us on.

There is a strong impulse to call access to food, shelter, clothing, employment and health care and the like a “right” – we don’t quite go that far, but neither do we dismiss such arguments out of hand.  Regardless of how such fundamental human needs are categorized, the simple truth is that no one can be considered “free” who is, through no fault of their own, unable to meet those needs.  And the fastest route, the surest means, of personal security is having the means of meeting those needs for oneself and one’s family in one’s own control.

Subsistence agriculture has, for as long as the field of economics has existed, been an epithet, the marker of uncivilized humans.  It is time for that to change.  Not only should we be teaching people suffering from extreme food security crises how to be the best subsistence farmers they can be… we in the developed world ought to be doing the same thing.  The less we rely on that incredibly long (and incredibly vulnerable) international food chain, the more truly free we shall become.

Something to think about?  We hope so.

Happy farming!

4/13/15

Hot Time in the Ol' Garden... or, "How to Be Besties With Your Veggies"

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
Masanobu Fukuoka –“The One-Straw Revolution”

Permaculturalists are nonconformists by nature, so it should hardly be surprising that none of them do things the same way as each other.  Oh, there are some commonalities – lots of use of cardboard, heavy emphasis on seemingly random distributions of various plant species, integration of wetlands and orchards with herb and vegetable plots, heavy reliance on native plants and, of course, plenty of animals around who not only fertilize everything, but also get to eat their fair share.

But in general?  No two permaculture gardens are going to look more than vaguely similar.
Only one of many, many different "Permaculture" or "Forest Garden" schematics


We were thinking about that singular fact recently when we were asked a question about tomatoes by an online chum of the straight-and-narrow twentieth century square-garden-plot-enhanced-by-Miracle-Gro school of thought.  Seems he had moved from Colorado to Central Texas a few years ago, and wondered how to keep his tomatoes producing for as long as possible; when he lived in Denver, he got tomatoes all summer long; last year, living as he does now in San Antonio, they petered out in early June, when the heat simply became too much.

“When it gets over 90°, they just stop producing.”

A common misconception, the truth of which is invisible to anyone who does not practice some form of “forest gardening” or “edge gardening” or “permaculture” – depending on which one of us hippie freak gardeners you are talking to, and what we happen to be calling it on any given day.

The problem is not the daytime high being so ridiculously hot.  No, the problem is the nighttime low not being low enough.

“Well, great,” you may be thinking, “but I can’t do anything about that, either.”

Oh, ye of little faith.  There’s plenty you can do about it.  Fruit set for large swaths of the United States, of course, involves the opposite problem (if it’s too cold at night, fruit will either not set, or else if already set, will not ripen), but that, too, is solved by placing your beloved tomatoes in a broader context, making them part of a wider and more diverse little ecosystem.


Without all the jibber-jabber… give ‘em plenty of shade (put them near a row of shrubs, or a trellis covered with beans, or any of a number of vining squash, or passion fruit, or some such), mulch them heavily with leaves, or straw, or wood shavings, get indeterminate varieties and instead of putting them in cages, let them trail along the ground.  And for y’all Yankees who might be reading our humble blog, the same works in reverse – the things that aid in the prevention of a heat sink in the southern garden also insulate against the loss of heat in the northern garden.

All of these suggestions fly in the face of conventional wisdom, of course.  Practically everyone has a story about their grandmother or great-uncle, or some such, who grew State Fair grand prize winning giant tomatoes in cages, with so-and-so’s miracle fertilizer, and made sure to pinch the suckers from the base of the plant on a daily basis, and did the whole “shake-pollination” thing where they tap the blossoms with their thumbnails.

It’s probably true.  You can produce humongous individual fruit, and humongous bushels of bland-tasting produce from a genetically modified hybrid tomato plant, provided you are willing to suck your soil dry of all other life, and are willing to hang up your garden hat by the middle of June, when the plants will have all gotten crispy in the blistering Texas sun.

We’ve never run out of tomatoes when they are “in season” in spite of not doing all those things common wisdom deems necessary.  We have never had problems with pollination, because we take care of the local wild bee populations, and as a result they take care of us.  Weeds and the like do not bother us because they are a sign of healthy soil, and when harvested in moderation make for excellent salads for us and forage for the chickens.

And those suckers so fastidiously removed by other tomato fanatics?  Yeah, removing them will increase the fruit yield on the plant, but at the expense of the plant’s overall health.  If you don’t mind it dying in June, then by all means, prune away.

We would like to suggest a different course, however.

Rather than thinking of tomatoes as either “Spring tomatoes” or “Fall tomatoes” why not just call them “tomatoes”?  In their natural habitat (something slightly misleading, since they have been bred into ridiculously contorted varieties no longer resembling the wild ground cherries of ages long gone by) they are a perennial fruit.  And in some greenhouses, tomato trees (really just trellised indeterminate vines) live for not just multiple seasons, but actually for multiple years.
Epcot's famous tomato tree


Even if you don’t have a greenhouse, you can still protect the plants from the ravages of the extremes of the year.  We would suggest that step one in such a cause would be to change philosophies regarding your relationship to the plants and to the soil in which those plants grow – a couple of helpful concepts from other cultures (taken in a slightly different context from their usual associations) will illustrate what we mean.

First, the Japanese idea of “Wabi Sabi” – this word is all the rage among interior designers and antique dealers.  Wabi Sabi is the appreciation of imperfection; typically it refers to liking the weather-beaten look of a “lived on” sofa, or the gritty texture of centuries old silverware that has been polished a few too many times, or the beauty of the lines around an old woman’s eyes, showing clearly that she has spent many, many decades smiling and laughing and loving.

In the garden, Wabi Sabi means not clearing away “last year’s crop” – those dead plants?  They are next year’s mulch, and the following year’s soil.  Nothing ugly about them at all, they are a beautiful part of the cycle.  And once your new year’s tomatoes are growing, all the “weeds” in the bed are not ugly, either, nor are they a detriment to your plants’ health.  They are trap crops (attracting beneficial insects, and distracting detrimental ones), living mulch, keeping moisture in the soil and – most important – regulating temperature.  “Better Homes and Gardens” may think your tomato bed looks imperfect; we say, “So?”

The other borrowed concept we’d like to address is the Swedish concept of “Lagom” – loosely translated into American English, this means “plenty good” and we need more of it.  You can never have too much moderation.

Basically, lagom in the garden means not worrying so much about getting the biggest tomato, or the largest yield, and instead having big enough tomatoes, and harvesting enough for your purposes.  A healthy relationship with your environment means not just doing as little harm as possible to the environment on a macro scale, but also treating each part of it with respect on a micro scale.

Our daughter is an avid animal rights activist, and eschews the eating of meat on moral grounds, and she asked us a question recently that we have heard asked in a sarcastic manner before by cynical devotees of the exploitation culture:  “What are the ethics of eating plants?”  Understand, she was not asking whether it is right to chomp on a carrot or not – no, she was asking what are our responsibilities in our relationship to carrots and such?

Understanding that we are actually in a relationship with everything around us, including our garden vegetables, is an excellent first step towards making those relationships right.  Lagom teaches that if we are truly grateful to our plant friends, we will only ask what we need, and will only take what we need.  No more.


As such, any gardening philosophy geared towards getting more than we need may as well be geared towards learning how to grow 7-11 Big Gulp fountain drinks, and McDonald’s Supersized fries.

On the other hand… taking just enough means we get to take for a longer period of time.  We fully anticipate having ripe tomatoes in July and August, in spite of daytime highs in the 100°-plus range, and nighttime lows in the 78°-plus range, because the plants will not be stressed, they will be shaded by velvet bean vines, and cooled by a host of so-called weeds, earthworms, mulches of old vines and oak leaves, and plenty of their own leaves as they trail along the ground, preventing the soil from soaking up all that daytime heat.  They are our friends; we will support them, but we would never presume to tell them their own business – they know how to be tomatoes far better than we do.

However you go about getting friendlier with your garden, we hope you have fun with it.

Happy farming!

4/1/15

Fear and Loathing, both With Hummus and Without It

"The root cause of terrorism lies not in grievances but in a disposition toward unbridled violence. This can be traced to a world view which asserts that certain ideological and religious goals justify, indeed demand, the shedding of all moral inhibitions.”—Benjamin Netanyahu, 1987  (article in Awake! magazine in 1987, entitled "Terrorism, How the West Can Win")
We have observed many, many times since the events of September 11, 2001, when a handful of Islamic extremists from a handful of countries with strong ties to the United States (most notably our putative ally Saudi Arabia) violently commandeered four commercial airline flights, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center, and murdered just under 3,000 innocent people for the sole purpose of spreading fear and panic in the non-Muslim world, that the terrorists have already won.
It’s the simple truth.

They had one goal – instill fear.  They accomplished it.  And our response was as predictable as it has been lamentable – we have debased ourselves to their level.

We began our musings with a quote from a state-sponsored terrorist with an officially sanctioned position (Benjamin Netanyahu, whose criminal policies in the West Bank and Gaza constitute morally uninhibited ideological, religious, and racist warfare on a daily basis) for an obvious and perhaps even overly sophist oratorical reason – we wish to demonstrate in as unequivocal a way as possible that there is very little difference between the barbaric criminality of those whom we marginalize with the label “terrorist” and those who promulgate government sanctioned policies whose innate character can only be described as violent, immoral and base.

The real irony, the sad kick-in-the-pants to any theory that human beings are self-aware or even remotely sentient, is that along with Netanyahu, the vast majority of supporters of Israel are incapable of reading that Bibi quote from 1987 and seeing the utter hypocrisy and racism which form the entire basis for his statement.  The very title of the article screams it – “…How the West Can Win” means “Terrorism” is of the East.

Newsflash, for Zionists/racists (and while we are only discussing Zionist racism here, rest assured, the same thing applies to Arab racists, who are no less guilty, and also applies to White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant racists, whose pro-Israel stance is biblical, and based on the idea that Jews are their “favorite heathens”) – terrorism is a state of mind, not a political affiliation.

The most active terrorists in the United States are white male militia members.  The most prominent terrorist ever taken on by the U.S. Justice Department was a Jewish racist named Meir Kahane.  Osama Bin Laden?  Bad guy.  But in the same category as WASP and Jewish bad guys.  Bin Laden’s race and religion and geographical point-of-origin had nothing to do with his being a “terrorist”.  His belief in his own theological superiority over others placing him above the law?  That is what made him a terrorist.  It is also exactly the same justification which Netanyahu uses to keep embargoes in place denying food and medical assistance to Palestinian residents of Gaza, which is every bit as sequestered as the ghettos of Johannesburg were during South African apartheid.  The slow starvation and strangulation of the Palestinian people in the Levant?  Why are we supposed to differentiate
Fanatical murderous terrorist.
Would you have known if we didn't tell you?
this from the crime of flying a plane into a building?

The counterarguments come fast and furious, of course, and backed by large money contracts to some of the finest PR firms in the history of advertising and spin-control.  “Israel has every right to defend itself,” etc.

And there is a limited degree of truth to that.

Rocket attacks (even with homemade rockets that exhibit the crudest of ineffectual home-grown engineering efforts) threaten Israeli civilians in an unjustifiable way.  The threat of random violence committed by Palestinian terrorists is a very real problem, and tasked with making its people as secure as possible is a job for which the Israeli government is ultimately and rightly held responsible.

That does not, however, mean that the Israeli people have the right to incur the kinds of depredations they have taken upon the Palestinian people.  Wholesale theft of land, embargo against free movement, denial of freedom to seek employment, jailing without writ of habeas corpus, taxation without representation, summary execution with no criminal court recourse against those responsible… these are all things that caused American colonists to rise up against British oppressors in the 1770s… so why on Earth do Americans have a problem with Palestinians rising up against Israeli oppressors?

We’ll give you three guesses, and any guesses not involving race and religion do not count.

There are simply no other viable explanations for the culturally ubiquitous opinions of the typical American citizen who has not spent time in multiple graduate-level seminars reviewing the various documentation surrounding respective Israeli-on-Palestinian and Palestinian-on-Israeli crimes over the 75 or so years since this conflict first began.

Note we are not claiming that Israel is 100% culpable – there are plenty of examples of Palestinians performing feats of cruelty and inhumanity which are simply unforgivable.  The Olympic hostage crisis alone demonstrates a degree of sociopathology which defies belief.  But on balance… it is the repeated election of racist, violent, criminal government officials on the part of the people of Israel, coupled with their superior economic and military power, that makes them more culpable.

C.S. Lewis (himself a racist, of course, but that’s a topic for another time) summarizes the dictum for who holds primary responsibility in a power struggle for making sure that all persons are respected:  “Never taunt your enemy unless he has the advantage of you.  Then, as you please.”

Of course, there are those who suggest even trying to hold out a measure of blame is inflammatory and
unhelpful.  We are sympathetic to this point of view, even if we disagree with it.  The chief objective of those who say do not attempt to apportion blame is to ensure that a solution is sought, rather than to attempt for retribution or any sort of punitive justice, and to this we say ‘amen’.

Along those lines, the authors of “Jerusalem – A Cookbook” (Yotam Ottolenghi, Jewish chef who was raised in Jerusalem, and Sami Tamimi, Muslim chef who was raised in Jerusalem) argue that “…if anything will bring these people together, it will be hummus.”  While they themselves describe this belief as ‘probably naïve’ it is nevertheless the best we may be able to cling to, for the time being.
It is important in the interim, before culture can win the day, that we do not lose sight of speaking truth to power.  The unspoken assumption for most of America, for as long as we can remember, has been that the United States and Israel are “friends forever” and that Israel is right and the Muslim world is wrong.

That ridiculous way of looking at things needs to end, yesterday.  Israel has been wrong for a very, very long time now.  The longer we stand in the way of changing that, the worse it will be for everyone.

We’ll get back to gardening talk soon, we promise, but this has been sticking in our craw for a while now, and had to be said.

Happy farming!

11/18/14

Thanksgiving, American Style... (whatever that means...)

“All earlier pluralist societies destroyed themselves because no one took care of the common good. They abounded in communities but could not sustain community, let alone create it.”
--Peter Drucker (Austrian born immigrant to the United States)

One of the most cherished of traditions in American education is the presentation of a pleasant reconstruction of the “First Thanksgiving” – a celebration at Plymouth, Massachusetts supposed to have taken place in 1621, prompted by a good harvest in the aftermath of the 1620-21 Winter during which somewhere on the order of 50% of the immigrant population of Puritans had died of cold and malnutrition.  The good harvest is attributed (particularly in stories told to elementary school children) to the good relationship between the Puritans and the local aboriginal communities, the Wampanoag in particular, with local agricultural technology seemingly superior in every way to the inferior European understanding of how to scratch out subsistence from the American wilderness.

There are a few things glaringly wrong with the way the story is typically presented, of course.  For one thing, colonizers in Virginia several decades earlier, though unsuccessful in establishing a permanent community, had made a “Day of Thanksgiving” a part of their very charter.  The celebration of harvest festivals, in fact, is fairly universal, being a part of virtually every culture ever studied.  So what was being done at Plymouth was not really original.

Moreover, the particular celebrations in Massachusetts, though certainly inspired by thanks for survival, and aided strongly by the assistance of the locals, serve only to put in bas relief the cultural duplicity that has been part of the American character since the founding of our country.

The Puritan Pilgrims, you see, were not inventing a new holiday.   They were mimicking one – having abandoned Great Britain in search of a place in which they could live according to the strictures of their own rigid and exclusive religious views (sound familiar?  Sort of like Sharia Law, perhaps?), the Puritans did not immediately set out for “The New World” – no, first they made a stopover in Leiden, in what is today the Netherlands. 

And while in Leiden, they were on hand for the first several decades of what is a profoundly Dutch holiday.  Known as 3 Oktober Feest or simply 3 Oktober, this Leiden festival celebrates the anniversary of the 1573-1574 Siege of Leiden during the Eighty Years War, when the Spanish attempted to capture the city; conditions were so bad at the height of the siege that thousands of citizens starved; when William of Orange entered the city on October 3rd, 1574, he fed the people of the town haring en wittebrood (herring and white bread sandwiches).  Today, these sandwiches are handed out for free at De Waag (the weigh house); lots of beer is obviously also available, along with pretty much every festival attraction you can think of.  Think "Oktoberfest" except with an actual excuse.  Plus herring.

The Pilgrims placed their own stamp on this tradition, not being tied for any particular reason to the herring that saved the Dutch, but being immensely grateful for the venison, turkey, maize, turnips, squash, beans, fish, berries and what-not afforded by their agriculturally superior hosts (and we use that term loosely, given the land-grab they would make over the next few decades), and created the trappings we in this country now associate with “Thanksgiving” – though the advent of tofurkey would have to wait a few centuries, and the vast improvement of pecan pie over pumpkin pie would, sadly, have to wait for Mrs. Myrtle Maintenance to come along, but we digress.

In point of fact, the closest direct descendants (both genetically and culturally) of those earliest Puritan residents of Massachusetts are not, strictly speaking, American.  They are, in direct contradiction of the conceit American patriots like to cling to regarding the whole story, the Tory sympathizers who in the wake of the American revolution had fled to Canada, where they brought the Americanized version of the holiday with them, and superimposed it upon Canada’s own historical tradition of Thanksgiving.

Most students in the U.S., if they hear at all that Canada has a “Thanksgiving Day” on the first Monday of October every year, assume it is in mimicry of the American version of the holiday, and that it is in October because it is just too cold after that to celebrate a harvest festival. 

The reality, though, is that the Canadian holiday came first.

In 1578, the third voyage of Martin Frobisher from England in search of the Northwest Passage set out with the
intention of establishing a small settlement in the present day Canadian Territory of Nunavut.  His fleet of 15 vessels was buffeted by terrible storms, and the fleet was scattered in icy waters, and virtually all hands on all ships lost all hope.  Mayster Wolfall, appointed by Her Majesty’s Council to be the minister and preacher “made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places,” and the Canadian Thanksgiving was born.

Not to be outdone by the English Canadians, French settlers who arrived with Samuel de Champlain, from at least as early as 1604, also held huge feasts of thanksgiving on a more or less annual basis.

And, much as in the U.S., Canada’s thanksgiving festivities were held on a wide array of dates, sometimes in April, sometimes in June, sometimes in October, sometimes in November – ultimately settling on the current date (more or less – November and October have flip-flopped a couple of times) since the mid-19th Century.  In the U.S., Abraham Lincoln had affixed an official Thanksgiving Day in November, but the Confederacy (really, is there anything those people didn’t do wrong?!) refused to take part, so it was not until during Reconstruction in the 1870s that we finally had a national Thanksgiving Day.  And it was not until Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress on December 26, 1941, that the current affixation of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November became official.

The one thing all this history makes abundantly clear is that Thanksgiving, so clearly and tautologically about being grateful has also been multicultural.  But it has also been beset by racism, nativism, ignorance, and fear.

Yes, in 1621, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were saved by Squanto and Chief Massasoit, but the natives soon learned to hate the names of bloodthirsty men like Myles Standish, and betrayal, murder and deceit became the norm of relations between Europeans and Native Americans for the next several centuries.  And even the cultural heritage of fellow European contributors to the Puritans welfare were not merely whitewashed, but outright scrubbed from the record.

Moreover, we glean from history only that the Puritans “sought to worship in their own way” and yet, in modern America, we hear numerous cries from populist politicians decrying the incursion of alien cultures, most notably in calls to prevent the inclusion of Islam in codified American law – the so called “Sharia Law” debates, which, for those who actually look for any factual basis, consist of a whole lot of nothing – there is nothing there to fear, other than the mere fact of the presence of people whose culture is not the same as the one in which the fearful were raised.  The idea that American democracy can be swept away by immigrants holds about as much weight as fears of children that they will be pulled down the bathtub drain, or that the boogeyman will get them in the middle of the night.  There are plenty of anecdotal stories, but the problem is, none of them are real.

This is the month in which a tremendous amount of the trappings of American culture are on display – and yet the spirit in which those superficial elements are supposed to have been codified is on the verge of receiving a black eye.  Debate is currently raging over whether or not President Barack Obama can or cannot, should or should not, show leniency in issuing an executive order whose practical effect would be a dramatic reduction in the deportation of immigrants to this country who have arrived without documentation.

Great timing.  We are about to celebrate a holiday supposedly founded by people who, completely without any legal documentation or say-so from the local government, set up their little haven for illegal immigrants in the illegal immigrant town they called Plymouth.

We’re going to celebrate Thanksgiving Day this year, and we urge everyone else to do the same… but while being grateful for the blessings in our own lives, we are not going to begrudge anyone else seeking to be blessed, too.  So to those who oppose immigration, our message is really fairly simple:  grow up.  You are violating your own foundational mythology – attempting to beexclusively American is the surest way to be unAmerican.

We liken the attempt to co-opt the purity and innocence of the foundational myths surrounding American culture by those who would concomitantly seek to limit the benefits accrued by those previous forays into the world of pluralism and multicultural community to the behavior of fire ants in the presence of a carefully tended crop of sugar beets, or maybe maize, or some other sweet fruit or veggie.  Yes, the ants certainly display all the characteristics of a species on whom Darwinian Natural Selection has shone the most favorable of lights… but when they ravage the crop (as they surely will), there are only a limited number of possible outcomes – either the farmer liquidates the field in a fury of pesticidal apocalypse, or he plants something else which the ants can’t live off of (say, tobacco), or he gives up, moves away, and plants nothing.  In none of those scenarios do the ants thrive.  The farmer doesn’t fare so well, either.

And while we tend to think of ants as “alien” or “invaders”… and even accuse fire ants of being foreign… the reality is, there are four separate solenopsis invictus species, and two of them have been in the Continental U.S. longer even than the aboriginal “native Americans” – the farmer is the new guy on the block, not the ants.  In this story, we’re the bugs, not the humans.

Honeybees, in contrast, live alongside the farmer, pollinate her crops, and if she is the sort who is careful and thoughtful in her interactions, can even get the bees to give her some of their honey.  Too ham-fisted an analogy for you?  Think of it this way – when we work alongside immigrants, we can accrue all sorts of economic benefits.  Skilled labor or not, there is something they can provide (whether medical-degree carrying new doctors, or totally unskilled grapefruit pickers, and all skills and life experiences in between) which we would not have otherwise had.  Either we accept them and live in harmony with them… or life goes sour for all of us.  It’s not either or – it’s not “us or them” – it’s how will we all live?

Multiculturalism sometimes doesn’t work, as when we try to act more like the ants, but sometimes it does.  And when it does, life is sweeter for everyone.  Let’s be more like bees, and have a happy Thanksgiving.

Happy farming!

11/11/14

Bright Lights, Big City (Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight?)

“Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization.  Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome.  Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilization, what there is particularly immortal about yours?”
--G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

We at Myrtle’s place do not believe in the cynical philosophies of survivalists, nor do we believe in the fatalist philosophies of nihilists.  Neither, however, do we believe in the supremacy of human beings central to the dominant moral, social, and economic philosophies of the Judeo-Christian capitalist West. 

People are great – don’t get us wrong.  It’s just that we aren’t the center of the universe, as you would be led to believe if you follow the teachings key to the ideological structures underpinning most of what we recognize as “civilization”.  There is a dichotomy in most systems of thought between “natural” and “man-made”.  We do not make that distinction.  As far as we are concerned… it’s all“natural” and is all subject to the immutable laws of physics.

In fact, in the World According to Myrtle, the inevitable truth of everything being interconnected is so obvious that we sometimes don’t think about the fact that not everyone shares this basic understanding.  Which is why we are so often astounded by things like global-warming-denialism, trust in petrochemical companies, and big grassy lawns.

One of the basic facts of life regarding how so-called “civilization” fits in to the natural world is something called the urban heat island, and though the concept has been around since the first decade of the 1800s, when an intrepid investigator named Luke Howard first described the phenomenon of cities being warmer than the surrounding countryside, there is a surprisingly large percentage of the modern population that is utterly unfamiliar with the idea.

Basically, not only do cities generate more “man-made” heat (though, again, we think this term is preposterous) than do areas outside the urban center, cities also retain more heat, owing to 1) more materials with heat retaining properties, such as asphalt, cement, insulating materials in houses and commercial properties, vertical structures with large volumes of retained non-externally-circulated air (i.e. “buildings”); 2) fewer radiating surfaces such as open fields, tall trees with upward-facing surfaces of high albedo (i.e., glossy leaves); 3) numerous heat-generating entities such as power plants, automobiles, street lamps, etc. and 4) lots of houses with central heat in winter, and air conditioners in summer (which, since most people are short-sighted, they don’t realize put out more heat than cold, only the heat goes outside, not in).


There are a number of secondary effects generated by heat islands, most of which people simply choose to ignore.  Monthly rainfall, for example, is much higher downwind from most cities, in large measure because the urban heat island effect causes a change in the windflow around cities.  In Bryan-College Station, people sometimes humorously refer to the “Aggie Dome” which causes large storm systems to “magically” break up shortly before hitting the city-proper, only to reform once they move South and East of town.  Guess what?  It’s not magic… it’s civilization.  The “Aggie Dome” is a locally obvious manifestation of a very well known scientific principle.  It is a real thing, and it is a direct response of the environment to the activities of human beings.

Conservative blogosphere types frequently decry the possibility of macroscopic versions of this same phenomenon – to wit, they refuse to accept the possibility of anthropogenic climate change – but this strikes us at Myrtle’s place as not only wrong, but downright infantile.  Of course humans have an impact on the environment.  Everything has an impact on the environment, and the last time we checked, human beings are a subset of “everything”.  We promise we will update you the first time we encounter any evidence to the contrary.

The only question is not “do we have an impact on the environment” but “how big an impact do we have?”  There is certainly plenty of room to discuss this question on the macro level (we have done so before, and will unquestionably do so again), but equally important, we think, is a discussion of the micro level, which generally goes unexamined.  Regardless of what is going on in the climate generally – and rest assured, that is certainly a massive question – what is going on in the microclimates of individual human habitations is just as important.

So, to begin with:  what causes the urban heat island?  Long story short, the principle cause is the fact that short-wave radiation absorbed during the day by asphalt, concrete and buildings of wood, glass, ceramic, and various other modern construction materials is released as long-wave radiation during the night, making cooling a much slower process in urban areas than in the pastoral surroundings.  Basically, stuff people build generally cools down more slowly than stuff Mother Nature built.  There are plenty of counterexamples, but basically the “slow-to-cool-down” stuff in nature is concentrated in the hands of homo sapiens because we feel more comfortable in houses and office buildings made out of such stuff, and such stuff is also easier to drive on/more resilient to store still-other-stuff on.

What are the impacts of this basic reality?  First, night time temperatures in the city are mostly higher than they are in the country.  The people to first notice this truth are gardeners… especially tomato gardeners.  Fruit set for virtually all vegetables, but for tomatoes in particular, depends upon sufficiently warm day time temperatures for energy creation (critical for growth and development) coupled with night time temperatures low enough for consolidation of sugars (a process in large measure dependent upon the differences in fluidity of various chemical components at different temperature gradients which then utilize gravity – basically, the stuff that solidifies at lower temperatures sinks faster than the stuff that solidifies at higher temperatures) in order to create a “fruit” (aka a tomato) which has the proper nutritional value to ensure the germination of its progeny (aka a seed).


As finicky as tomatoes are, it becomes apparent quite quickly to connoisseurs that Fall tomatoes taste better than Summer tomatoes in the Brazos Valley, because while the daytime temperatures stay high enough well into the Fall… during the Spring and Summer, the night time temperatures get too high far too quickly.  Sure, the plants still set fruit… but the flavor is just, well… wrong.  And it’s wrong because it’s too hot at night.

There are other, more dramatic impacts, of course.  You will occasionally hear stories of large tornadoes hitting urban areas.  However… your everyday, ordinary garden-variety tornado almost never hits an urban area.  The trailer park on the edge of town, sure.  But town square?  No way! 

Why?

Because small thunderstorms almost never happen in urban areas.  The urban heat sink causes lower-level temperature inversions that most cumulonimbus constructs simply cannot penetrate – they hit the heat island and “poof!” The system may (if it is strong enough) recreate itself once it moves past the interfering heat source (see:  “Dome, Aggie”), but otherwise it just disappears in a puff of disappointed agricultural chappiness.  Only a very large storm system is likely to be able to penetrate the urban heat island, and as a consequence only a very large tornado is likely to impact an urban environment.

So… what should people do about this phenomenon that we have created?

The answer to this question depends upon the answer to a vast number of other questions, not least of which is “What do we want?”

If what we want is to control nature, then, hey, do whatever you want.  You’re not going to succeed, so you may as well go down swinging with whatever ridiculous philosophy you were wanting to pursue in the first place.  If you’re going to be a failure, you should at least be a self-satisfied failure.

If, on the other hand, what we seek is a way to live in a more sensible, survivable equilibrium, then there are several steps we can take, some of which have plenty of empirical support, and others of which make good sense based on what we know about the laws of physics, in addition to several decades of meteorological evidence.

One of the first cities in North America to take this problem seriously was Atlanta, Georgia, which in the 1990s instituted several statutes related to building and development aimed at lowering the urban temperature.  Rooftops and roadways in Atlanta must be built of certain materials and of certain colors which increased the city’s albedo considerably.  White or grey replaced black and brown… and the citywide average temperature dropped by nearly 3° Fahrenheit over a decade.  Given that during that same decade the global average daily temperature rose… yeah, Atlanta was on to something.


In addition to cool roofs (about which we have written before – if you haven’t yet painted your roof white, hey, get on it!), cool road surfaces, permeable asphalt, increased greenways, replacing lawns with herb gardens, shrubberies, and tall trees (capable of both absorbing heat, and reflecting any unused solar energy so as to avoid heat pollution) are all effective mediators of urban heat.  Replacing combustion engines with electric vehicles is another obvious reduction urban dwellers can implement… and better still, getting rid of engines altogether (also known as “ride your bike to work, ya bum!”)

Sometimes we are accused by traditionalists of taking glee in the idea that Western civilization is going to crumble.  Note that we didn’t say in the possibility that Western civilization will crumble – that is an inevitability, as an serious student of history would know.

Well… we have to confess to being more or less guilty to this charge.  The thing is, the fall of one form of civilization has always led to the institution of another.  And we are not pessimists, focused on what we will be losing when the status quo comes to its inevitable conclusion.

No, we are optimists.  We see that the way of life to which the vast majority of our species has become accustomed is unsustainable, and cannot last.  And we look at the possibilities and realize… you know what?  We can do better.

In fact, we are quite sure that, even though we’ll be dragged there kicking and screaming, humanity will do better.

Happy farming!

9/28/14

Almost Time for Ghoulies, Ghosties, Gremlins and... Gardeners?

“The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”--Oscar Wilde, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’
Scholars from a variety of fields including anthropology, theology, linguistics, history and literature will debate practically anything, including whether or not Halloween is merely a Christianized version of Samhain, or if it evolved independently.

As is the case in many such scholarly disagreements, they’re all being silly – the important thing about Halloween is that it is fun.  We don’t mean to demean anyone’s deeply held convictions, of course, but if your deeply held convictions lead to a drab, dreary, colorless, somber life of drudgery… well, maybe you ought to consider shopping for a new set of beliefs, beliefs which include the idea that being human should be enjoyable, not miserable.  There’s enough troubles that happen to us without bringing unhappiness on ourselves.

Which makes Halloween a perfect holiday, when you think about it – ghosts and ghouls and creepy-crawlies represent all the horrors of our imagination… and Halloween places all of those creepy-crawlies in an ironic and humorous context.  We cringe and cower in fear on a typical Monday morning when our bosses, or supervisors, or teachers (or students), or customers, or suppliers, or whomever, load us down with a laundry list of complaints and problems with which we are ill equipped to cope.  However, if we have a freaky automated rubber hand reach up at us out of a candy dish, our hearts pound with fear… but we laugh.

We laugh because we know the fear is not real, and that knowledge equips us to rise above our fears of those things which are real – it gives us the hope and courage necessary to face harsh realities, whether they be in the form of the coming of winter and desolation (oh so important to farmers for as long as there have been farmers, and even more important to hunter-gatherers before that), or more modern fears, whether of problems at work, school or in our personal lives.

Not all of the traditions associated with Halloween speak to this psychological reality, of course; some are simply festive.  Candy corn, caramel apples, bonfires, costumes of all sorts (frightening and – more and more frequently – not so frightening), silly songs, silly movies, and silly decorations form the centerpiece of what is really just one extended party marking the end of summer, and the beginning of something else.

Samhain was the Celtic New Year for a reason; harvest marked the dying of the old year, when the plants have given their bounty and are returning to the dust from whence they came.  There are equivalent harvest festivals in most of the world, and even in places where religious fanaticism drowns out the individual freedom to get freaky on Halloween, something takes its place.

The Puritans, for example, strongly discouraged recognition of All Hallow’s Eve (the evening before All Saint’s Day) – not because of any sort of direct satanic influence, as is frequently the case among extremist fundamentalist Christians in our own era, but because the holiday was seen as essentially Catholic.  (Though, to be fair, they considered Catholics little better than Satanists, but why quibble?  One flavor of crazy intolerance is as good as another.)

In spite of their innate problems with All Hallow’s Eve (and associated harvest festival traditions, Celtic or otherwise)… the Puritans brought us Thanksgiving, which is nothing more than a dressed-down Protestant version of Halloween.  Simple clothes and formal dining (or at least as formal as working-class families get) take the place of free-wheeling frivolity… but the basic message is the same:  the time has come to give thanks for the bounty we have received, that we may be prepared for what follows.

There is plenty of room for both ways of celebrating the harvest; most people never even stop to consider the subtle tension between the perspectives offered by these two intimately related holidays – the vast majority of Americans celebrate both Halloween and Thanksgiving without giving it a second thought.

Halloween is not a uniquely American holiday, of course, but what Americans have done with the day says a lot about why it is important to us.  Historian Nicholas Rogers writes that “some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia,” but that “it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain,” which comes from the Old Irish words meaning “summer’s end”.

The mish-mash of traditions in modern American Halloween festivities have stripped virtually all of the religious overtones of the holiday and replaced them with purely secular meanings and traditions – even where religious or mystical festivals such as Día de los Muertos are celebrated alongside Halloween, they are clearly seen as two separate entities.  You celebrate the one the night of October 31st, and the next day you move on to the festival honoring the dead.  Where there is overlap, it feels very much like a meeting of friends from different backgrounds at Yule, some of whom are celebrating Chanukah, others are celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa, or some other festival.  (Except maybe Festivus, because those people don’t get along with anybody.  But we digress.)

Much of the mish-mash of American Halloween is to be expected, based simply on the idea that the American melting pot is itself a mish-mash; we are the mongrels of the world, a mix of ethnicities, races, religions, cultures, languages and traditions so diverse we often lose track even within our own families within a generation or two of just exactly who we are.  It makes perfect sense, then, that what we do will not have the same degree of continuity you would find in places in the world where families have been in residence for hundreds or even thousands of years.

But the strongest influences on the holiday also tend to make it a particularly prone set of traditions to have evolved over time.  The Celtic celebration of Halloween is not altogether easy to enumerate – yes, we know that “Samhain” was the fall harvest/New Year celebration… but exactly what early Celts did during this time is a matter of conjecture.  Many of the traditions passed down as “pagan” actually originated during the long and influential era of Celtic Christianity, and how to draw distinctions between which Irish traditions date from the first millennium C.E., and which came from before then is an almost completely pointless exercise, both intellectually, and philosophically.

Is your Jack O’Lantern carved from a turnip really more authentic than one carved in a Boston Squash or some other kind of pumpkin?  And even if it were, would it be any more fun?  Probably not.  Probably, you’d get to display your “authentic” Jack O’Lantern at the kind of party where no one else was much fun to be around, either.  (But hey, that’s just us.  We like candy corn, so what do we know?)

And ultimately, that is the American contribution – while many bemoan the crass commercialism of Halloween (and make no mistake, there is clearly a lot of that on display), this is missing the point.  Commercialism is the manifestation of a vibrant truth, one which is not so negative:  If life is a game, then whoever throws the best parties wins.  We prefer the kinds of parties where everything is homemade… but make no mistake, the reason Halloween sells is because whoever makes “the stuff,” it is stuff people want.  And even if life isn’t “a game,” learned optimists know that you frequently only get where you’re trying to go if you treat it like a game.

This is the optimistic American contribution to All Hallow’s Eve – some are frightened by the idea, because it smacks of the kind of licentiousness which at its worst brings us things like Detroit’s “Devil’s Night” – but that is just one extreme.  At the other end of the spectrum, this spirit of freedom (best represented by the tradition of wearing costumes, and freeing our identities from our workaday selves, which, after all, are just another disguise we wear, albeit on a regular basis) helps us escape the fears and troubles which all too easily overwhelm us.

We have nothing against other harvest festivals:  Jewish Sukkot, Turkmen Hasyl toýy, Persian Mehregan, Russian Dozhynki, Yoruban Ikore, and Korean Chuseok all have unique stories to tell, and each contribute in their way to the succor of the human spirit.  Some are more closely tied to the simple life which we advocate on a regular basis, and there is much to be said for celebrating traditions in a more agrarian manner, as a means to encourage people to return to the land… but in America, Halloween is what it is because people have become what they are.  As such, we approve.  Strongly.

We’re a little over a month away, but the supply of pumpkins and other strangely shaped winter squash and gourds has started making its way to the vegetable stands around town.  It’s almost time to break out the black and orange, string up some “ghosts” in the trees in the front yard, and hang “Witchy-Poo” on our front door.  Because, you know…. fun!

Happy farming!