The Passion of the Grist

“We may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.”
– Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1832)

One of our favorite maxims at Myrtle’s place is that the best garden doesn’t start with the principle of “grow what is easy to grow” but rather with “grow things that are hard to kill.”  To that end, happily, one of the great principles of ecological sustainability – localism – is also one of the cornerstones of conservation of effort.  To whit:  as much as possible, grow food crops which occur naturally in your area.

There are some exceptions to this rule, of course, such as some of your more standard fare.  Tomatoes are grown almost universally now, in spite of originally being native to Central and South America.  Corn (maize to the rest of the world) does not even exist in nature, having been bred by Central Americans over several thousand years, and transported by agriculturalists to every corner of the globe.  Potatoes, pumpkins and squash, melons, etc. have all gotten cosmopolitan.

But the principle still holds that the simplest, most effective, and frequently the healthiest production methods involve growing in your garden those things which you might find growing wild in the nearest undeveloped land near your garden.

For our own part, we recently discovered a living verdant goldmine growing right on our own property, in the form of a number of volunteer passiflora incarnata, or “Maypop” plants.  Most commonly referred to simply as “Passion Flower” plants, they are closely related to the commercially grown passiflora edulis, which you can find in your produce store under the exotic name of “passion fruit”.

The South American variety of the egg-sized fruit is, perhaps, a little more aesthetically exciting, having a reddish-purplish exterior, with bright golden-green pulp that looks a little like the fleshy part of a kiwi wrapped around tiny seeds in little drupe-like pods much akin to a pomegranate.

Maypop, by contrast, is a rich deep green color right up until it turns golden when ripe, and the flesh and seeds are snowy white.  While it is an edible fruit, a surprising number of people grow it strictly for the showy purple and white flowers – understandable, as the flowers are exceptionally intricate and attractive, though unfortunate, as people who miss out on the fruit are not only losing out on the opportunity to eat some incredibly delicious drinks, preserves, garnishes, etc. (not to mention simply eating it fresh off the vine), but also one of the most beneficent sources of phytonutrients available anywhere.

Traditional nutritionists recognize maypop as high in Vitamins A and K, and as one of the best available plant sources of niacin.  In addition, though, it has been shown by several studies to have strong anxiolytic properties, owing to the existence of benzoflavones, essentially functioning on the nervous system like a low dose of diazepam (that’d be Valium® for you brand-name shoppers).  If that makes you nervous, don’t be.  It is theoretically possible to overdose on maypop, but you would need to eat about 30 pounds of the stuff at one sitting to do so, which is not likely.  If, on the other hand, you simply want to have some calming peace-of-mind, a nice glass of herbal tea with a few slices of maypop can relax even the most frenetic of minds.  It has even shown therapeutic benefits in significantly reducing symptoms of withdrawal from and addiction and dependence on alcohol, morphine, nicotine, and benzodiazepines.  If you know someone trying to quit smoking, load them up with passion fruit.

We suspect that one of the major reasons this delightful locally available fruit source is not more widely known is the prominence with which it is featured in gardening literature written by northerners who grow it outside its natural range.  Unlike its South American cousin, passiflora incarnata handles colder temperatures fairly well, being able to grow back after a freeze, but its tolerance only extends so far.

While you can grow it in northern climates (and many people do so, because as noted it is a very attractive vining plant), it only produces fruit in its natural range, stretching from East Texas across to the Carolinas down to Florida.  Occasionally, it can produce fruit as far north as Illinois or Ohio… but for the most part it is a southern crop.

Traditional gardeners in the South have long been familiar with it as a foodstuff, though as people have moved away from the countryside and into larger cities, it has been naturally demoted out of most folks’ larders.

Historically, though, it has had high prominence.  The Cherokee referred to it as ‘ocoee’ and the Ocoee River is named for this plant.  In fact, it is the state flower of Tennessee.  It also featured heavily in Acadian cooking in their diaspora.  To this day, Louisiana’s Cajuns refer to it as ‘liane de grenade’, or ‘pomegranate vine’.  The taste is a bit sweeter, but the comparison is apt, as you can use maypop in pretty much the same way you would use pomegranates.

Typically not found below a thick canopy, it thrives on the edges of thickets, near waterways and in disturbed areas, where it gets the right combination of good exposure to sunlight (it can take medium shade, but not much more than that), climbing supports, and water.  It is pollinated by bumblebees and carpenter bees (honeybees manage to get nectar from it, but can’t generally move enough of the pollen from plant to plant to effect pollination) and is self-sterile, meaning there must be more than one plant to get fruit.

It also notably serves as the primary food source for two butterfly species, the Gulf fritillary (agraulis vanillae) also known as the “passion butterfly” owing to its larvae exclusively living on and eating passiflora leaves, and the Variegated fritillary (euptoieta claudia) which does not exclusively feed on passion vine, but does so whenever possible.
Gulf fritillary aka "Passion Butterfly"

While conservation of the butterflies seems like it just makes good sense, the relationship of the fritillaries to the passion vine provide an excellent glimpse into the wonders of natural gardening – the typical inclination of gardeners who do not get into permaculture methods would be to keep caterpillars from eating the leaves of their various crops.  In the case of the fritillary butterflies, though, a few leaves are worth the trade-off; birds avoid the butterflies, whose bright orange wings serve as notice to the various jays and other marauding avians that the butterflies are mildly toxic.  As a consequence, birds typically leave passion vines (and therefore passion fruit) alone.

So, as a wonderful exemplar of more principles of natural gardening than we can count, we gladly present for your edification.. the humble maypop.

Happy farming!


Pondering Maunder

“Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
–Richard Feynman, in "What is and What Should be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society", lecture at the Galileo Symposium in Italy, (1964)

Global warming denialists got a shot in the arm in the last few weeks, with news that several prognosticators now believe that we are headed for a new Maunder Minimum type event vis-à-vis solar sunspot activity.  The implication, of course, is that rather than facing catastrophic global warming, we are actually headed (by as soon as the year 2030 C.E., no less) towards a repeat of “The Little Ice Age” which lasted from about 1550 C.E. until roughly 1850 C.E.
Solar weather in the news -- Sun spots are theorized to affect climate.

The conservative blogosphere has, to put it simply, gone giddy with these prognostications.  Unfortunately, the conclusion that warming is going to be magically dissipated is misguided at best, and is more likely calamitously, catastrophically wrong.

To explain why, we will attempt to deliver a crash course in space weather, vulcanology, paleometeorology, the bias of  recent observation, and the nature of ice ages.  After that, we will be making tea, and perhaps taking a nap.

First things first, what is this “Maunder Minimum” of which the news feed speaks?

The phenomenon known as a “sun spot” is a well known solar event similar in nature to a large cyclonic weather system on Earth – basically, it’s a big storm system on the surface of the sun.  We say “big” of course, because it is large enough to be spotted through telescopes and solar spectrometers, but compared to the overall surface of the sun, they are actually pretty small, hence “spots”.

The number of sun spots at any given time is a fairly variable data point.  In modern times, the average is between 40,000 – 50,000. 

During the “Maunder Minimum” there were fewer than 50 observed sun spots at any given time.

And since the “Maunder Minimum” occurred in the middle of the “Little Ice Age” there have been numerous climatologists over the last century and a half who have attempted to draw correlations between the two events.

Wouldn't you just love to be able to explain away the dips
and valleys in this chart?  Too bad it's not that easy.
There are several problems with this analysis, of course.  For one thing, the start of the minimum event was roughly 1645 C.E. – almost a centuryafter the onset of the Little Ice Age.  That alone is cause for healthy skepticism regarding claims of strong correlation between solar weather and planetary climate.  There is still some wiggle room for the possibility of the effect of sun spots on global temperatures, but without even diving into the data, it is easy to see that there is not an overwhelming one-to-one relationship.

Moreover, sun spot activity during the Maunder Minimum was only marginally lower than that seen during the Spörer Minimum, which lasted from roughly 1460 until 1550 – the Little Ice Age began when sun spot activity was coming out of a minimum, not when it was going into one.

To make matters more complicated still, observations of historical climate data are strongly dependent on subjective observations more susceptible to error than would be true of more objective measurements – to whit, the fact that in London the River Thames froze over during several winters in the time period in reference certainly sounds convincing… and evidence from ice core samples suggests that on average, winters in Northern Europe were, in fact, somewhat colder during this time period than for most of the Holocene… but these two facts in isolation do not mean much.   The Thames has undergone so much engineering over the last 500 years that there is no comparing the river today to that of the 16th and 17thcenturies – the water was slower moving when the “old bridge” was still in place, so it was easier to freeze.  In the 19th century, it was removed; no more freezes.  And as for those ice cores?  Yes, they demonstrate that winter was colder… but they also show that summers were right at the statistical mean for the Holocene.

In short, if the Maunder Minimum had any impact, it was only felt for half the year.  Summer was just as warm as ever
The "Little Ice Age" was cold... in winter... (recency bias at its best)
during the Little Ice Age.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report of 2001 noted that “…the conventional terms of ‘Little Ice Age’ and ‘Medieval Warm Period’ appear to have limited utility in describing trends in hemispheric or global mean temperature changes in past centuries… [Viewed] hemispherically, the ‘Little Ice Age’ can only be considered as a modest cooling of the Northern Hemisphere during this period of less than °1 C relative to late twentieth century levels.”

There is another potential cause for the cooldown observed from 1550 through 1850 which would go a long way toward explaining this strange dichotomy – and which makes much more sense when accounting for all the data points.

In late spring or summer of 1257 C.E., Mt. Rinjani, on Lombok Island in Indonesia,  shook the world with one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the modern record.  To be precise, prior to this explosion, there were twin peaks on the island – Gunung Samalas and Gunung Rinjani.  After the explosion, there was only Rinjani, with a massive caldera.  Gunung Samalas  was spread throughout the upper atmosphere, along with a sizable chunk of Rinjani.  Deposits found in ice cores from the Arctic Circle suggest that the dust cloud from this explosion would have lasted for several years, dimming the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth, and quite probably having not just short-term impacts such as crop failure and changes to precipitation patterns, but also quite likely leading to shifts in long-term cyclic behavior in ocean currents.
Mt. Rinjani during a recent eruption.

Most notably among the ocean currents affected, of course, would be the thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic where the warm water of the Gulf Stream travels towards the North Pole, cooling as it travels northward, finally sinking to form North Atlantic Deep Water, which then flows into the various basins of the deep Atlantic, only to upwell in the Southern Ocean to be heated again.  This ocean conveyor belt is the single greatest driver of climate in Western Europe, and as most of modern history has been written by Western Europeans, their natural biases in described weather will be directly related to changes in the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation.

The Mt. Rinjani explosion certainly qualified as an event capable of altering the North Atlantic conveyor belt; several other volcanic eruptions during the same time frame were equally likely to have impacted European winters:  Bárðarbunga (Iceland) blew in 1477;  Kuwae in Vanuatu (South Pacific) in 1452-53; Huaynaputina in South America in 1600; Santorini (Greece) in 1650; Grímsvötn (Iceland) in 1783; Mount Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815.  In fact, the Tambora eruption was directly responsible for the 1816 “Year Without a Summer”.

As it turns out, even short term changes to local conditions can have dramatic consequences for New England, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Britain (and, if the change is dramatic enough, the rest of Europe).  The North Atlantic Oscillation is strongly susceptible to either a rise in temperature, which causes excessive ice melt in Greenland, spilling freshwater into the North Atlantic, decreasing the density of the surface water, causing the Gulf Stream to subside (that is, “dive” further south than it ought, basically turning off Great Britain’s natural space heater), or to a decrease in temperature, which forms a denser layer of surface water, which disperses the heat from the Gulf Stream too quickly, achieving the same effect.
The lake that used to be Samalas... Rinjani's twin mountain

Note that in either case, the total amount of heat transmitted to the planet is more or less the same as it had always been, but the effects on local climate are night-and-day different.  In a plot twist worthy of the most cynical of locally oriented climate denialists, there is a fairly good chance that global warming may actually make several countries (including but not limited to Iceland and the U.K., and possibly the New England states in the U.S.) much, much colder in the future.  No certainties on this score, of course, but it is one of the possibilities in play.

Which brings us to the impending solar minimum of the 21st century.  The causality of impacts on Earth weather from sun spot activity are still theoretical at best, but even accepting for a moment the idea that the Maunder Minimum caused all of whatever cooling happened during the Little Ice Age… the IPCC finding was that the cooling in question amounted to less than 1°C over a three century time frame.

During the Little Ice Age, carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were around 250 parts per million.  During the Industrial Revolution, those numbers rose to the 300s.  The estimated warming for the 21st century in a “best case scenario” has involved a 350 ppm cap on carbon-dioxide, resulting in a 2°C increase in temperatures.  At best the upcoming minimum event might reduce the rate at which warming is accelerating, and not even by half, at that.

However, we are already well past 350 ppm carbon-dioxide.  We are soon going to be looking at 400 ppm in the rearview mirror.

In short, catastrophic warming is every bit as much on the menu as it was before all this sun spot ice age talk started.  Don’t let propagandists take your mind off of the actual science.

Now then, not to leave y’all on a down note….

For those who prepare, climate change is going to present some incredibly awesome gardening opportunities.  We’ll tell y’all about them some time, but for right now, we have a cup of tea and a hammock calling our names.

Happy farming!


Which Cup is the Poison In?

“We scientists are clever – too clever – are you not satisfied?  Is four square miles in one bomb not enough?  Men are still thinking, ‘Just tell us how big you want it.’”
– Richard Feynman

“As a guide to engineering ethics, I should like to commend to you a liberal adaptation of the injunction contained in the oath of Hippocrates that the professional man do nothing that will harm his client.  Since engineering is a profession which affects the material basis of everyone’s life, there is almost always an unconsulted third party involved in any contact between the engineer and those who employ him – and that is the country, the people as a whole.  These, too, are the engineer’s clients, albeit involuntarily.  Engineering ethics ought therefore to safeguard their interests most carefully.  Knowing more about the public effects his work will have, the engineer ought to consider himself an ‘officer of the court’ and keep the general interest in mind.”
– U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover

The line between science and engineering has been blurred for a long time now, probably irrevocably.  What passes for “science” in many university laboratories these days is little more than one form or another of engineering – how to create vaccines that fight particular viruses, what materials make the best semiconductors, or the best solar panels, or the lightest plastics, or the strongest panes of glass.  These are manufacturing studies, not science studies.
The worst offender for this abandonment of the respective responsibilities of the scientist (who ought be concerned with little more than the secrets of the universe) and the engineer (who takes the knowledge scientists offer and turns it into useful products) is the realm of what often gets called “agricultural science” – an offensive term if ever there were one.
Too clever by half...

The study of plants is called “botany”.  The study of animals is “zoology”.  If you want to be a generalist who studies both, you are a “biologist”.

The study of how to create drought resistant crops through genetically altering existing plants, or new chemical combinations that more effectively deter pests or weeds… that should more properly be called “agricultural engineering” and it has a whole different set of ethical considerations from science, as Admiral Rickover so ably pointed out.  He was only wrong in one respect in his evaluation – the “3rd party” he describes is not merely the entirety of the human population, it is the sum total of all life on Earth.

Farming is a roughly 10,000 year old invention.  It has altered the planet more radically than any previous human invention, and arguably any field of endeavor since.  Being responsible for the consolidation of human beings into larger and larger communities, one could easily make the argument of causality between early man defending stands of einkorn grain in prehistoric times, thereby ending their days as hunter-gatherers, to the fouling of our land, air and water caused by all of the pollution attendant upon the Industrial Revolution, not to mention truly horrifying things like war, crime, and reality television.

We did not stop at merely establishing local borders around our favorite wildly available crops, of course.   We began cultivating them, and even if some contemporary religious fanatics have a hard time accepting the reality of the Theory of Evolution… early man knew full well how natural selection works – and took full advantage, teasing crops along through selective breeding generation after generation.

Numerous plants we take for granted in our gardens only exist because of anthropogenic botanical evolution, in fact.  One of the most common crops in American culture – both for large-scale monoculture industrial farming, and for home gardens – is corn (maize, to most of the world).   10,000 years ago, it did not exist.  But numerous farmers in Central America and Southern Mexico noticed that certain tall grasses had useful succulent seed-kernels, and after selecting those with the most numerous and tightly bunched, generation after generation, came up with grasses that featured “cobs” (stumpy at first, but once they’d gotten to this point, the next phase of their agricultural engineering was obvious – bigger cobs, with sweeter kernels).

Early agricultural engineering has itself evolved, to the point where we are no longer satisfied with selectively breeding plants with desirable genetic traits – no, we are going straight to the source, and altering the DNA directly.  In addition, we are refining our treatment of not just the plants, but the soil, water and air surrounding our crops, in attempts to limit the natural effects of nutrient depletion, drought (or flood), competing plant-life, and herbivorous animals (both vertebrate and invertebrate).

Michael Crighton’s best-selling “Jurassic Park” featured an experiment in genetic engineering which lay towards the ridiculous end of the “suspension of disbelief” continuum, and yet… there are lessons in his fictionalized account of biological engineering run amok.  Ian Malcom, Crighton’s cantankerous fictional skeptic, coins a term for genetic engineers (and others who share their optimistic outlook for their form of technology):  “Thintelligence” – loosely defined, it is the ability to figure out how to do something, especially something very clever while lacking the ability toknow whether or not it ought to be done.

For the time being, we will ignore the question of genetically modified crops – there is certainly plenty of material for discussion there, including but not limited to potential health hazards, declining nutritional value of the food items in question, and the ridiculous notion of patented DNA sequences carried over into patent violations caused by fertilization of other people’s crops (basically, neighboring farmers can be sued because pollen from a field with GMO crops blew in, without the 2nd farmer’s approval… causing his crops to have “unauthorized” DNA sequences).

Instead, we wish to highlight the folly – and, in fact, the lack of engineering ethics – in the objectives of the vast majority of forms of engineered agricultural solutions.

The most thoroughly documented (because it was the first to come to the attention of environmental scientists, who were much more interested in studying the effects of these inventions than were the engineers who made them) are the chemical herbicides and pesticides which have been de rigueur in the agricultural industry (and all too often in home gardens) for over a century now.

Some, of course, have long been illegal – the herbicide known as Agent Orange was manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical for the express purpose of being used as an herbicidal defoliant with military applications, and its widespread use in the Vietnam War led directly to numerous chemical burns and long-term health problems including almost epidemic cases of cancer among veterans of that war.  Additionally, of course, it proved ineffectual both as a tactic (Viet Cong food supplies were only slightly diminished, owing to the dispersant character of rice farming, where affected waters were simply replaced with newly irrigated fields) and also as a practical engineering solution – the concept of clearing away massive swaths of jungle to make guerilla warfare difficult ignored the reality that not every plant defoliates precisely the same way – they managed to change the level of biodiversity in the jungle, but they did not kill it.

Likewise, the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), a 19th century chemical invention the use of which as an anti-mosquito pesticide was developed by Swiss chemist  Paul Hermann Müller in 1939, had numerous unhealthful side-effects; it was largely responsible for the near extinction in the 20th century of the bald eagle and the peregrine falcon, in addition to causing numerous health complaints in humans.  In 1962, Rachel Carson penned Silent Spring,  the seminal environmental work which eventually lead to a ban on DDT in the United States, and was the forerunner to the eventual 2004 Stockholm Convention, which outlawed several persistent organic pollutants. The Convention has been ratified by more than 170 countries and is endorsed by most environmental groups.
The countries in green have agreed to ban persistent poisons in farming;
the ones not in green have not.  Notice the biggest one?

Sadly, the United States, Israel, Malaysia, Italy and Iraq (all significant agricultural producers) are not signatories – while DDT is banned in the United States, and our overall use of agricultural pesticides has dropped slightly in the last decade, the U.S. still used (as of 2007, the latest figures we could find) 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides, comprising 22% of the world’s total.  There are over 20,000 pesticide products marketed in the United States.

And yet… the health effects of a disturbingly large percentage of these products are largely unstudied, especially in longitudinal studies which are, after all, the only way to gather data about the accumulation of these chemicals in our bodies, and the possible long-term conditions caused thereby.  Engineering methods (designed to get “useful” products to market as quickly as possible) disguise themselves as scientific investigations, where a short-term study finds no problems, and Monsanto and Dow get to fire up the production lines.  Engineering ethics, as described by Admiral Rickover, are not a concern – after all, it’s science, right?

Additionally, the effectiveness of these products is debatable.  Both healthfulness and effectiveness are serious questions – most users of pesticides lightly brush aside questions of runoff, yet it is not only inevitable, it is as obvious as the idea that the sun is more visible on a clear day than a cloudy one.  Chemicals on a plant wash off in the rain, or via most forms of irrigation.  They go either into the soil, and then seep into our groundwater, or they drain into creeks and rivers, lakes and oceans.  There is no “away” to which these substances can go – and the fact that those who apply them have to wear protective masks should be our first clue that maybe we should not want them to be used at all.

The World Health Organization and the UN Environment Programme estimate the number of agricultural workers who suffer health effects from pesticide poisoning each year at 3 million.  18,000 agricultural workers die each year from the “marvel” of agriculturally engineered pesticides.

The worst part?  In the long term, these chemical concoctions do not work as well as approaches designed to work withnatural forces instead of against them.  The use of organic pest control solutions is a wide-ranging field, including application of capsaicin-laced concoctions designed to deter rodents and other mammalian foragers, application of symbiotic nematodes and bacteria which work with the plants to deter insects and diseases, companion planting to deter both competing plants (usually erroneously described as “weeds”) and foraging insects, the use of beneficial insects such as ladybugs, the inclusion of bat-houses in agricultural architecture… the list of natural solutions is lengthy… and more importantly, is both healthy and effective.
One of the chief aims of biological pest control, in fact, is the maintenance – and active encouragement – of biodiversity.  Obviously, this approach will not work for large-scale monocropping, which is one of the most important reasons for large-scale monocropping to disappear from the planet.

Biodiversity is important because it drastically reduces predation without opening new ecological niches for either resistant varieties of the existing pest (that is, natural selection causing only those varmints, bugs, pests, etc. who are immune or less-affected by the poison to be the only ones capable of breeding the next generation, who will then be even less likely to be affected, eventually rendering the poison ineffective), or opening up the opportunity for invasive species who more than likely are not targeted by nor affected by the existing poison treatment.

Basically, life finds a way – if your plan is to keep anything from eating your crops at all, well, newsflash, you keep one thing from eating them, something else will take its place.

In a biodiverse agricultural system, however, the goal is not elimination of predation, the goal is to place predation in a more natural, and therefore tolerable, context.  Sure, it requires more work (planting trap crops, for example, like rows of sunflowers or amaranth around your rows of corn, and planting fields of clover between your melons and cucumbers), and harvesting is done more by hand than by machine, but the yields per acre over the long term are much higher.  Why?  Because specific acreage is orders of magnitude less likely to “play out”.

Monocropping systems have certainly increased yield per acre for a specific growing season or year, but over the course of five, ten, twenty, or fifty years, the acres in question become wastelands of infertile ground.  An organic permaculture farm where crop plants are treated with respect as a significant part of a wider ecosystem will continue producing indefinitely.

Which is the difference between intelligence and thintelligence.  The end game is what matters, and if we ever want to get there, we need to stop pretending that new inventions are “discoveries” – they aren’t science, they are engineering.  Impressive, maybe, but only useful if they first do no harm.

Here’s hoping more agriculturalists hop on board the biodiversity train and abandon the chemical-engineering road to perdition.

Happy farming!


A Walk in the Woods

“One day when the sun had come back over the Forest, bringing with it the scent of May, and all the streams of the Forest were tinkling happily to find themselves their own pretty shape again, and the little pools lay dreaming of the life they had seen and the big things they had done, and in the warmth and quiet of the Forest the cuckoo was trying over his voice carefully and listening to see if he liked it, and wood-pigeons were complaining gently to themselves in their lazy comfortable way that it was the other fellow's fault, but it didn't matter very much.”
Christopher Robin in A. A. Milne's Winnie-The-Pooh

One of the things we most enjoy about permaculture gardening is the feeling we get when we sit comfortably on our back porch under a giant arbor of wild grapes.  It is many things – peaceful, quiet, private, cool… a perfect harbor safe from the tossing storms of everyday life.  We try as much as possible to make the rest of our garden exhibit many of these same qualities, and to a certain degree, we pride ourselves on being fairly successful.

Nothing, however, comes as close to being in nature as you can get from actually being in nature.  And it turns out, the health benefits of doing so are not merely limited to the peace-of-mind one can find from thoughtfulness, mindfulness, and ecological oneness-with-it-all.  Being in nature is quantifiably healthier than being in an office cubicle.

News stories since the 1970s have made note of a variety of health complaints related to being inside an office building – Sick Building Syndrome made its way into the vernacular after a 1984 World Health Organization reported that up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide were subject to complaints related to poor indoor air quality, volatile organic compounds (VOC), mold, exhaust from office machinery, chemical exposure, design flaws (including some systemically unavoidable contamination issues) with HVAC systems, psychological problems related to changes in brainwave signatures due to fluorescent lighting, and who knows what all else.

Numerous solutions to these problems have been propounded over the years, and we welcome many of them as obvious and proper (non-VOC paint, for example, has become the norm rather than the exception), but one of the most telling is the suggestion to include toxin-absorbing plants in office spaces.  Some of the more common are sansevieria (also known as “Devil’s Tongue”) and various palms, canes and bamboo species, all of which are routinely provided by interiorscaping companies, which since the 1980s have raked in money hand-over-fist by making office spaces greener not just in terms of pollutants, but quite literally greener.

Improving the buildings in which we live and work, though, is only scratching the surface of improvements we can make in our everyday lives which will help us stem the tide of self-inflicted maladies.

We should listen to the evidence screaming so loudly at us from the giant planters tucked into every corner of every lobby in every building in the industrialized world – plants make things better.  Not just because they are prettier than concrete, but because theymake things physically better.

There is a concept in Japan and Korea which, when Americans hear about it (if they ever hear about it at all), our desensitized Western ears translate as “just so much mystical hokum” – maybe relaxing in the same way as a hot bath or massage, but not really important.  And, as is so often the case, our jaded Western sensibilities are pretty much completely wrong.

Forest bathing, called Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) in Japanese and Sanlimyok (산림욕) in Korean, is a brief stroll through the woods.  The original motivation behind the formalizing of this ritual was simple relaxation and stress relief – in fact, in 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan proposed making forest bathing trips a part of everyday Japanese life.  Since that time, Japan has accredited 44 Shinrin-Yoku forests, and numerous studies have been done showing that subjects who regularly walk these paths have clinically significant reductions in stress, anger, anxiety, depression and insomnia.

There is more to the story, though, than the simple fact that those who walk through the forest are enjoying themselves.  Exposure to the natural world does have some psychosomatic benefits, as changes to the nervous system are known to result from numerous other relaxation techniques.  However, in addition to the healthful meditative qualities of Shinrin-yoku, there are measurable biochemical changes, as well. 

When adiponectin levels are low, humans are susceptible to obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorder…. Precisely those conditions, in fact, which have been afflicting Americans in alarming numbers since the 1970s… and as it turns out, the reason for improved adiponectin levels in forest bathers is that the woods themselves are helping out.  Practicing breathing in the presence of a multitude of trees means breathing in everything that the trees are emitting.  We tend to think of trees as static entities, not really doing much… but they are actually quite active.  And one of the things they are doing is emitting volatile substances known as phytoncides (wood essential oils) which are antimicrobial compounds the trees use to protect themselves from bacteria and mold.

Some of these compounds are particularly beneficial to humans, such as the aforementioned adiponectin, or the oh-so-useful α-Pinene, which at low exposure levels such as might be found in a forest, is a bronchodilator, with high bioavailability when taken through the lungs.  It is also anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and is even an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, meaning it aids in memory.  And as much as you might like the pothos ivy on the corner of your desk… it is not as good at putting out beneficial chemicals as, say, a stand of oak or pine trees.

Russian biochemist Dr. Boris Tokin coined the word “phytoncide” in 1928 while studying the compounds emitted by plants as a defense against rotting or being eaten by various insects or other animals.  Trees are the most powerful emitters, as might be expected given that they are the largest category of phytoncidal plants, but spices, onions, and garlic all use many of the same compounds as defense mechanisms.

The kings of emissions, though, are the tea tree, oaks, cedar, locust, and pine.  Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese and Japanese medicine utilize these naturally occurring pharmaceutical factories aka tree oils, but the Japanese and Koreans have gone one better, and suggested that people go out into nature and take advantage at the source.  The fact that it makes for a very nice exercise in mindful meditation is just one more benefit.

So, the next time someone calls you a tree-hugger, remember.  Hugging trees is not just a metaphor for having a proper respect for nature and our place in it, it is also a prescription for happiness.

Happy farming!


Is Enough Enough, or Is It Too Much?

“Happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are highly cultivated in their minds and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.”
--Aristotle, in “Politics”

There is a grand irony in using a quote from Aristotle to begin this particular diatribe, since there is an almost limitless supply of other ancient Greeks from whom to pluck the fruits of philosophy regarding happiness and the (relative) unimportance of material wealth.  Aristotle, you see, was the ultimate pragmatist.  In contrast to Diogenes, perhaps the perfect exemplar of self-satisfaction, Aristotle was (in large measure) all about “how can we Greeks get more (at the expense of everyone else)” – and yet, he managed, in this one sentence in his “Politics” which was a precursor to Machiavelli’s “Prince” as a foundation stone for Gordon Gecko’s “greed” speech, to contradict all the cynical materialism found in the rest of his works.

There is a long standing tradition among humans to think that progress can be measured by the acquisition of more stuff.  This dates to the Olduvai Gorge in modern Tanzania, when (millions of years ago) our ancestors were concerned mostly with defending those territorial sweet-spots where there were sufficient supplies of food and materials for crude weapons with which to defend oneself and one’s tribe from incursions by saber-toothed tigers, other hominids, and the occasional pissed-off rhinoceros.

That instinct, in that particular iteration of our species, was perfectly understandable.  However, we now have only one natural predator – ourselves.  And “more stuff” isn’t a deterrent to other humans, it is an invitation.  You want to steal our DVD player?  Well, we don’t want you to do so, but we’re not particularly interested in defending it with our lives, either.  We can always entertain ourselves with shadow puppets, but we cannot replace even one second of happiness by risking our lives and increasing our fear, paranoia, and vigilance, all in defense of “stuff”.

As it turns out, while we at Big Myrtle’s place are often at odds with our fellow Americans over the issue of “exactly how much stuff is enough,” we are somewhat more in tune with the standards most of the rest of the world are attempting to follow.  Numerous international organizations make rankings of “happiest” or “most livable” or “most satisfied” cities/countries/etc. and, while the U.S. is not absent from the top half of most of these lists… it is hardly ever in the top quartile.

There is a reason for that.  In most American versions of “best place to live” economic opportunity and chances for advancement/wealth rank high in our lists of desirable characteristics of a community in which to live.  Most other countries and cultures, however, do not place nearly so much emphasis on wealth creation. 

For example, since 2006 the lifestyle magazine Monacle has published an annual list called “The Most Livable Cities Index” featuring 25 top locations for quality of life, using criteria such as safety/crime, international quality of architecture, public transportation, ethnic/religious/cultural tolerance, environmental health and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, proactive policy development, and medical care.  Portland, Oregon is the only U.S. city to consistently make this list, cropping up around number 23 on an annual basis.
Portland, Oregon... the one U.S. city that doesn't make
the rest of the world queasy. 

For the sake of fairness, the Mercer “Quality of Living Survey” is produced by an American (with global contracts) human resources and financial services consulting firm, which compares 221 cities based on 39 criteria.  The baseline “100” score is New York City (because, hey, they are an American firm, and there is no more American city).  All other cities are assigned scores as they compare to New York.  The Top 10 in the Mercer Index for 2014?

  1. Vienna, Austria
  2. Zürich, Switzerland
  3. Auckland, New Zealand
  4. Munich, Germany
  5. Vancouver, Canada
  6. Düsseldorf, Germany
  7. Frankfort, Germany
  8. Geneva, Switzerland
  9. Copenhagen, Denmark
  10. Bern, Switzerland

There are a number of things that these “most livable” cities have that are missing from practically every American city.  Universal health care is one obvious example – opponents of “Obamacare” all screamed about how awful socialized medicine is, but… the fact is, hardly anyone in the world envies the American health care system.  In the developing world, maybe, but… in the industrialized West?  Nothing but crickets.  Hardly anyone in Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, etc. ad nauseum, would prefer American health care to what they have now.  As far as they are concerned, Obamacare is a pathetic attempt on the part of the Americans to move towards a “real” (i.e. single-payer) health care system.

Among the myriad other differences, though (and stepping aside from the politically charged issue of health care which Americans are seemingly incapable of discussing as a purely mathematical and economic issue, resorting instead to the paranoid fundamentalism of American-style-“let’s all get screwed by the rich”-capitalism), is the concept of “satisfaction” as an economic principle.

Essentially, there is very little in the American ethos which tells us as part of our foundational mythology when “enough is enough” – in fact, the very phrase is a cry to revolution, instead of a simple statement that we need to step back from the feeding trough.  For an American, “enough is enough” means the tyrants have finally gone too far, and by God we’re going to holy war over the installation of that stop sign/the issuance of a school bond/the ability of our lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered-nonidentifying neighbors to love one another/the lack of an alien-defense-system-alarm…  “Enough is enough” is usually expressed in American English as an epithet.

In contrast, the Swedish “lagom” is essentially a statement that “that’ll do” – It’s not merely “good enough” it’s “any more would be too much; yes, I see why you want that 3rd piece of cake/next drink/extra million dollars, but isn’t that bad for your health?”

And they are right.  It IS bad for your health.  American obesity rates are climbing through the roof compared to every country on Earth; longevity comparisons, long buoyed by comparative wealth and access to technology, are actually shrinking for Americans, even as health and longevity in other countries (especially in Europe) continues to increase apace.  Clearly, there is no connection between “wealth” and “happiness” – though, as we shall see, there is a connection between enough and happiness.

The top 25 countries on the 2013 World Happiness Report published by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network are as follows:

Happiness Rank
Costa Rica
New Zealand
United Arab Emirates
United States
United Kingdom

There is an “Economic Freedom” index put out by several institutions from the Austrian school of economics which more or less parallels the American Conservative movement as funded by the Koch brothers and exemplified by Senator Rand Paul – Not all of the countries in the Top 25 for happiness are listed in their top 50 rankings (Costa Rica, the UAE, Venezuela, Belgium and Oman apparently not being worthy of notice), but a comparison of the lists is interesting.  For the top 10 happiest countries, the average ranking by libertarian economists is 20.1; not a one-to-one relationship… but not inconsequential, either.

However… none of the top three “free” economies make the top 50 in the list of “happiest” either.  Hong Kong, Singapore, and New Zealand are 1,2, and 3 for the free market purists of the world, and they provide less satisfaction than the vast majority of their international contemporaries.

There is a bias in many circles (including, if we are honest, Big Myrtle’s place, where we found this next data point a little surprising and not a little disappointing) to educational performance being linked to happiness – the data says it just ain’t so.  Based on UN “Student Performance Ranking” data, for the top 10 “Happy” countries, the average ranking in student performance is 14.  Closer as a ratio than “economic freedom” but still not exactly 1-to-1, and, more to the point, only Finland among the top 3 educational countries made the top 10 in happiness.  South Korea and China (numbers 1 and 3 respectively) do not make the top 50.  Smart don’t mean happy. 

It is worth noting, though, that for the top 25 Happy countries, while some are not listed on the Student Performance measures (Costa Rica, UAE, Venezuela, Belgium and Oman… what up, Belgium?  Too good for surveys?) those who are listed average 22nd for educational performance.  It is obviously a better measure than that used for freedom to control capital, even if it is not precise.  Our faith in this measure is shaken, but not discarded – it is hard for us to believe that there is any happiness greater than that found in reading a good George Eliot or Jane Austen novel, save perhaps in watching a Pedro Almodovar movie, something the typical American (… or Singaporean, or Hong Kong resident, or Koch brother, etc. etc.) does not fully appreciate. 

For the overall economic numbers, rather than taking GDP as a total, or even per-capita GDP, Myrtle chooses to use the UN’s “Financial Development Index” which is more or less a measure of the ability to accumulate financial reserves (not just ownership of stocks/real estate/intellectual property/doo-dads and doohickeys, but ability to convert them to cash if need be).  For the UN’s top 10 “most financially developed” nations, numbers 1,4 and 7 (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan) fail to rank in the top 25 “happy” countries.  Which is interesting, when you think about what it means… basically, apart from a few outlier Asian nations that have whored themselves out to currency exchange markets for the glorification of national ego, the happiest countries are those in which it is easiest to get rid of your crap.  Those places where it is easiest to sell the stuff you don’t really need?  In general, those are the places where overall satisfaction is the highest.

This explains a phenomenon we have noticed on countless weekend excursions looking for castoff furniture, children’s clothing, etc.  The ubiquitous American tradition of the “garage sale” represents hope for the future of our culture, but it also illuminates our current folly.

All too often dumbed-down at present, it is nevertheless true that garage sales are the quintessence of a recycle/reuse/repurpose economy – stuff we don’t want, we sell at pennies on the dollar to anyone and everyone who might want it.  And, if you pay attention at these affairs, you realize that there are two classes of garage sale patrons – the happy ones, who may haggle for a dollar or two, but overall, are just happy to meet folk and oh-by-the-way every once in a while run across some item they may actually want… and then the folk (usually on the seller’s side) who are offended by the idea that they are not getting every last dollar out of a given transaction.  Rich people (let’s face it) are usually just plain assholes at garage sales, especially at their own.  We would love to be more polite, but there simply isn’t any other way to express it.

If your definition of happiness and satisfaction includes money, it is our sincere hope that you would stop and ask yourself… “Yes, but can I get by without this thing for which I am lusting?”  For those who truly need more money, there is no question that the answer will be an honest “no”… but for far too many, particularly in this country, that “no” is exceptionally dishonest.  C’mon… we know you can do better.  You can do better with less.

Happy farming!