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Archive for June, 2010

I suppose for a bit I should attempt to be more cheerful. The thought of collapse really doesn’t depress me that much, though. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way, because I’ve been reading more and more lately where I find the same view expressed over and over again, and usually more eloquently than I’ve been doing it here.

But let’s talk for a moment about recent successes in community building. I’ve been lucky to rediscover in a sense two friends who had fallen a bit to the wayside in recent years, and even better to discover that they were right there with me in the whole concept of creating a workable community. It started with one of my community building posts a while back, when I mentioned I was up for bartering my sewing skills to anyone for anything I needed. Miss Zumba took me up, and we made a deal that I would hem her dress in exchange for… well, that was the issue. We couldn’t think of anything off hand that I needed.

No worries, I told her. Give it time, and something will come up. In the meantime you’ll just owe me.

We’ve been taught that this is a bad thing, owing people. I talked about this a little before. If I go to a store and buy something, I pay for it. And then I’m done. The relationship has ended, and I have no further responsibility to anyone involved in the making of the object. But if I make something and someone does not pay me for it, but “owes” me, we have a relationship. We have a bond that we aren’t going to be as quick to break, because we owe each other something. And I hope that doesn’t end there. I hope we can continue to owe each other things, because the minute we’ve “paid up,” that’s it. All relationship ends.

It’s in this way that money destroys community. There’s a fantastic article that helped me to understand this, since I have such a poor grasp on economics in general and don’t care to know any more than I do:
Reality Sandwich: Money: A New Beginning

But what else? We’re working on changing the regulations in our town so we’ll be able to have chickens in our yards (I can’t wait!). We’re working on educating everyone in the vicinity about raw milk. And we got a brilliant idea while talking about books the other night- we’re all going to catalogue our many, many books, and then start a library among ourselves. For too long we’ve been spending too much money on books, and unfortunately our small library doesn’t tend to delve into too many things like permaculture. There’s the inter library loan, which is great and all, but we also have each other. Out of this we’re also hoping to start tracking patterns- what books we’ve all read that shaped our thoughts, and got us to where we are now. Hopefully, out of that will come something of a curriculum, a guide so to speak of books to read that we can recommend to others who are looking to travel down a similar path. And the books that eventually we will be using to teach our own children, when we’re all working together to home school sometime in the future.

Suggestions welcome. Soon I’ll probably put up one of those spinning Amazon recommendation things, though really you should be borrowing books or, if nothing else, buying them from a local book store. Avoid Amazon, killer of relationships and small independent bookstores. Says the girl sharing her thoughts on community on the internet. Don’t think I haven’t realized the irony.

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Well.

I’ve only been blogging (on this particular blog) for eight months, and it has already become quite a “thing.” In other words it has in some ways taken over my life in ways I did not anticipate. This month has shown how much a blog can take off with a little bit of free advertising- suddenly (and the month’s not over yet!) I am averaging 40 unique visits per day- over 700 so far this month. Considering the first few months were more like 200, that seems like a big jump to little ole me. Thank you to all the mysterious people who are reading! Feel free to say hello in the comments. I like to start conversations.

So now that all these people are reading (or so it seems to me), I thought, hey, maybe it’s time to do what those other bloggers do and put a paypal button up, or maybe one of those spinning amazon widgets where you can see books I recommend and if you buy them after clicking them from my site, I get some money. All money would go into the fund for the farm, of course. We’re about… well, let’s just say several thousands of dollars away. But come to find out, wordpress.com does not allow money making widgets “for security reasons,” or at least that’s what amazon tells me. That leaves me with a dilemma.

I have always intended to get away from using wordpress.com. It’s great if you don’t want to mess with your site at all. If you do, it is an immense pain in the ass. Unfortunately, my web skills are minimal. I can make a website if I can copy a lot of the code. I can design. But I sure as hell can’t do the programming required to build a blog. I took one look at the wordpress.org stuff and my brain nearly exploded. I have no interest or desire to figure out that mess, either. I am perfectly happy with the level of skill I have now. But at some point, and possibly soon so I can maybe make a few bucks out of all the time I’m spending blogging, I will need a for real site and not a wordpress.com.

So here’s my proposal: if there is anyone out there who would like to take on this monumental task, either for money or preferably for exchange of services (ie in exchange for sewing, cupcakes, or jam), please step to the front. It doesn’t have to be fancy. I basically want it to look like it does now, and I want to be able to very easily add posts and widgets and that’s about it. I could in theory switch to blogger but I’ve been using that for years for my other blog and I really don’t like their themes, and the image uploader on there is so screwy. One way or another, I need some assistance, and am hoping for someone in shining web-skilled armor to come forward.

Anyone? There’s jam on the table with your name on it.

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More About Death

One of the other things that came up during our “why trees” discussion on Wednesday was the fact that trees eventually die. But before I get to that, I wanted to explain how these farm conversations look. This past Wednesday, the girls were hoeing peppers and squash, merrily destroying weeds up and down one of the fields. The boys (this only through coincidence, not because boys or girls are inherently better at one or another) were laying drip tape (for irrigation). And so, as we slowly made our way up the rows, chopping at dandelions, the boys were running back and forth laying out tape, meaning the conversation was more or less held at top volume, with frequent interruptions when they were down at the opposite end and couldn’t hear anything we said. It’s a funny way to have a conversation, but somehow it works. We talk a lot this way.

Anyway, one of the boys pointed out that trees die, which I am well aware of. Your typical semi-dwarf apple tree will live about 25 years. Even a full size tree won’t live forever, and long before it dies, it will stop producing apples. For a farmer, this is an issue. Trees that are no longer producing in the wild become the disease attractors we discussed in the last post. It makes sense for the trees- the tree is no longer producing seed so its last act is to sacrifice itself for the health of the other trees.

However, in a farm situation, the diseases then tend to carry over to the other, healthy trees, which means that non-producing trees really need to be cut out and replaced with producing trees. The question was posed to me as if I would have an issue with cutting down a tree that was spreading disease to other trees, which is not the case at all. I am ok with some death so others can survive. That’s how life is. And that’s the point I apparently need to continue to emphasize, because it’s so foreign to this culture we’re in.

I am ok with dying. I mean that. I mean, I’m not excited about it, I’d like to accomplish rather a lot more with my life before I die. But things die. That’s just the way it is. And if I’m not living my life at full productivity- and I don’t just mean if I lose an arm or something, I mean if I lose all of my mental faculties to Alzheimer’s or am suffering from cancer that will eventually kill me or whatever- I’m perfectly happy to be done. Sounds like a great plan, actually. I won’t keep eating up resources and my body can go to feed others who need it (bacteria and trees and plants and soil).

Is this all too morbid for you, readers? This is such a touchy subject with most people. But it comes up constantly in any conversation around sustainability. Things must die. That’s just how it works. But whenever the conversation winds around to the point of, well, none of this can work unless there are fewer people, things seem to come to a screeching halt. You hear cries of, but we can’t have fewer people! What, are we supposed to kill them off? How can it be?

Look. Let me make one thing clear. I am not advocating going out and killing millions of people. It would be fantastic if no one had to die. But that’s not how it works. THINGS DIE, and that includes people. And regardless of whether someone is directly responsible or not, people will die when this system starts crashing. We have artificially sustained ourselves for centuries by digging up oil and using it to make food. When that ends, there will be less food. People will die. The only possible way around this is the singularity, and that is such a huge unknown that I hope to heaven every day that we will hit the crash before it happens. But that is for another post.

I am not saying I am happy that millions (or billions, no one knows) of people are going to die. I am merely saying that I have acknowledged that it is 99% likely to happen. That it is in fact necessary if any people are going to survive at all. If I can accept that some trees have to die in order for the other trees to survive, I am ok accepting that some people will have to die in order for other people to survive, even if one of those people is me. I’m not going to off myself. That would be stupid. But if we are all getting knocked off by disease or nuclear war or climate change or whatever, fine. Not really scared to go.

I don’t know how many more ways I can express that to fully understand how the planet functions, you have to understand that things die so that other things can live. When sharks eat too many fish and there are not enough to go around, they die of starvation (actually I think they may even pick each other off, but I’m not 200% on that). When there are more fish, the population will go back up. Agriculture, for centuries, has allowed our population to go up as we become better and better at it. But eventually the system will crash, because it is based on a finite amount of resources. And then there will be less food. And that means less people.

This, I think, is at the heart of why so many otherwise perfectly rational and radical people refuse to believe in the crash and rebuild theory. They flat out refuse to accept the prospect of death. Which is sad, really, because it also means they refuse to accept the reality of life, which I find to be immensely beautiful. We are all made of the bodies of the dead, who have given their lives to allow us to live- as we will one day do, in a never ending cycle of giving ourselves absolutely so that life may go on.

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Why Trees

I went back to yesterday’s post and realized I never quite got around to answering the question “why trees.” I was asked the same question at the farm Wednesday and was unable to give an entirely satisfactory answer then either. I’m not sure I entirely know. I tried to articulate it to the other interns, and could only sort of stumble around this idea of it being less antagonist, though that isn’t limited to trees.

Let’s go back to the talking to trees thing, for a second. Trees work together to ensure the success of the species. They do crazy things- like some species will sacrifice one of the trees of their own species in a grove or stand or whatever to disease or pests, so that all the pests will go to that one tree and the others will remain more or less pest free. They can’t kill all the pests, so they just direct them to another area.

In contrast, when we use conventional farming methods, we do whatever we can to kill all the pests. The two things I do most often at the farm are 1. weed and 2. weed, followed by squashing bugs. It’s like we’re enacting a non-stop war against the things that would like to eat the vegetables other than us. It’s completely antagonistic- we spend more time on the attack than in actually nurturing the plants themselves. Now, there’s nothing wrong with weeding and squashing bugs. I intend to do quite a lot of it on my farm. But here’s the thing. We shouldn’t have to.

Think back to those trees, who somehow get all the pests to go to one tree so the others can be saved. It’s not that there is no death. That is not what we’re talking about, and it was something the other interns kept thinking I meant. I am not talking about not killing pests. I’m talking about helping the trees to do what they do best. So rather than putting my time into going around killing pests, I am going to ask the trees what I can do to help them kill pests. From the trees I have talked to, they have emphasized attracting birds, and also making sure there is somewhere else for the pests to go. Most conventional orchards are big fields that are constantly being sprayed. I very rarely see birds in them. And around on all sides are more fields being sprayed. So there is no place for the birds (or the pests) to go. In so doing, you’ve broken the tree’s ability to fend for itself. The sprays don’t help either- they strip the beneficial bacteria from the surface of the tree’s leaves, which it uses to fight off pests, and also kill the fungi in the soil, which if left intact would fight off fungal diseases that might damage the tree. The point is, the tree can take care of itself.

It’s just that, in a farm situation, especially when the farm is surrounded on all sides by more farms, it might need some help, because it may not have access to all the things it needs. Your job as farmer is to tilt the balance in favor of the trees you want, rather than the other things that might grow up there instead. And so I might be finding myself trying to attract pests to a few trees on the property, so they stay away from the other trees. I will definitely be trying to attract birds (by giving them hedgerows and things to hide in, so they have a safe place to retreat). I might be inoculating the soil with fungi. I might be spraying the trees with compost tea to introduce beneficial bacteria. And yes, when it gets too bad, I will probably be weeding and squashing bugs and maybe even doing a little spraying, but as an absolutely last resort. Because if you’ve created a functional system, the spray should be entirely unnecessary.

Now think of the difference. I’m talking here about engaging the trees, and helping them to do their jobs better. As opposed to being in an antagonistic relationship with the weeds and pests, spending your day working against, not with. This is what comes of talking to trees. You come to realize you do not and will never know what is best for them. You can only do what they ask. But it is the same thing that happens over and over again with this idiotic society. They never think to ask anyone what is best for them. They always presume to know. They think they know what is best for me (by telling me what I can and cannot eat), they think they know what is best for children (by forcing them through public school), they think they know what is best for animals (or they just ignore them), they think they know what is best for people of other cultures, other races, other ways of thought. This is not the case. You have no way of knowing unless you ask, and asking is not the American way.

Finally, I feel I should mention, all this does not guarantee all your fruit will be beautiful and spotless, in fact, it won’t be at all. But that’s another thing we need to relearn. Fruits and vegetables were never intended to be spotless.

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There was actually reasoning behind my post of yesterday, though it may have seemed like I was just rambling on about being a forest fairy. If, in fact, you believe trees feel some level of pain and have some level of awareness about their surroundings, then it follows that this is rather going to affect how you go about farming.

I decided that I wanted to do orchard almost randomly. I had no idea what I wanted to grow, really, other than that I didn’t want to do straight vegetable CSA because we already have two in this area and I know both of them well and have no interest in competing. There is, by contrast, only one farm doing fruit, and I don’t think I’ll have much trouble with them once I get things going. We’d be doing rather different things. And so, without knowing the first thing about orchards, and, after having only worked on vegetable farms, thinking I wasn’t going to like it much, I took the plunge. I started studying how you go about growing fruit trees.

It took me a lot of reading and several classes before I started thinking, you know, maybe this was a good idea. For some reason I had had an image in my head of orchards being more like, oh, I don’t know, forests, and this is so far from the current reality that for a while I was immensely disheartened. And then I started reading about tilling. If you are not familiar with farming practices, tilling is the process of basically sticking blades in the soil and turning it over. This serves all kinds of purposes- it kills weeds by uprooting them, it loosens up the soil to make it easier for new plants to get a hold, and, if you’ve put down fertilizer, it mixes it in.

It also is extremely energy intensive and basically kills the soil.

See, the planet does not like bare soil. This is what plants do. They put roots in the ground to hold the soil in place. Otherwise, it all washes away every time it rains. Over time, plants build up good nutrient dense soil known as humus. This is composed of dead leaves and plants and animal manure and dead animals and all the other things that fall on the ground, which are decomposed by bacteria and fungi into what is eventually soil (humus, ie the organic matter, mixed with minerals from broken down bits of rock and so on). It takes years and years to build up this kind of healthy soil, and lots of roots to hold it in place.

It takes tilling only a few years to destroy it. When land is tilled for crops, it chops up all the roots that had been holding all that material in place. Then for a time there are crops, most of which, because they are annuals, have very shallow roots. At the end of the year, they till whatever is left back into the soil. And leave it there. At that point, anytime it rains, some of the topsoil is washed away. This is why farmers have started using cover crops, which also serve to add at least a little nutrition back in the soil. However, repeated tillage over the course of the years reduces the soil to so much dust, at which point the farmer needs to add massive amounts of fertilizer to the soil for anything to grow. Even with that, the land will eventually become desert (see: the Fertile Crescent, once the most productive land for agriculture, which is now the desert of the Middle East).

Trees, on the other hand, don’t need tilling (I should hope obviously). They are not mowed down at the end of every season as are most crops (grains, beans, most vegetables). Therefore they can build deep root systems to hold soil in place. Unfortunately most orcharding practices do not add much back into the soil, and so after a while the trees, which are basically growing in bare soil (because they’ve sprayed all the weeds), use up whatever nutrients were in the soil and then need to be fertilized, just like the annuals.

Unless, of course, you incorporate animals and herbs and fungi and all the other things you would find in a forest, thereby putting in lots of organic matter that can feed the soil. Which the trees will then hold in place. Thus building the soil. All of this, of course, is something that not a lot of people are doing, but which could very well be the new cusp of alternative agriculture.

And that just makes me feel smart.

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Talking to Trees

People have long thought I’m crazy for a wide variety of reasons. I want to bring down civilization. I’m so far to the left some people think I’m coming around to the right. There are all the superficial reasons: I don’t wear make up, or shave my legs, or eat processed sugars.

And then there’s the one I usually keep to myself: I talk to trees. The few people I have revealed this too, very carefully only revealing it to people I thought would perhaps understand, have greeted this pronouncement with raised eyebrows. I can only imagine what everyone else would think- I can tell, sometimes, from the looks I will get when I say things like, “oh, the trees in Colorado are snobby.”

It started, I think, well back in my childhood. It never really occurred to me that talking to trees (and other plants in general, though trees are usually easier to hear) was in any way strange. I had a violently overactive imagination (by normal societal standards) and it seemed to me that everything around me was alive and at least somewhat sentient. I remember once sorting change with my grandmother and thinking the pennies had opinions.

And so I talked to trees. Fern Gully, which came out when I was about 7, was another major influence. At one point, Krista, the rainforest fairy or whatever she is, puts her hand on a tree and says, can’t you feel its pain? This is actually a fairly accurate representation of talking to trees, or at least how I talk to them. You don’t have to be in direct contact with them, but if you aren’t used to doing it, it helps to focus your mind. One way or another, you aren’t listening with your ears, and you aren’t listening for words. Trees, at least in my experience, don’t speak English.

The problem most people have, I would imagine, with speaking with trees (besides the fact they don’t think it’s possible) is that they speak rather a lot slower than we do. It depends on the tree, certainly- young trees talk a lot faster, and some species tend to be really chatty, while others will only say one thing over the course of an hour. For me it’s more of a series of impressions and sensations. One tree, recently, started telling me all about the soil and the creek that was nearby and how much it was enjoying the sun, and about some other people that had passed through recently (which might have been months or years). It very much enjoyed the company of people, as evidenced by one branch which had grown at the perfect height to make a bench.

The trees in Colorado, at least the aspens I tried to talk to, were very pissy, and really you can’t blame them. Aspens live in colonies, all growing from the same parent tree, and sharing the same root system. They are the tree version of a hive mind. And throughout Colorado, aspen colonies have been disturbed for development, destroying colonies which may have been in the same place for thousands of years. I’d be pissed too- it would be, I imagine, something like having someone come along and chop off half your limbs, if your limbs also had some level of sentience.

Most trees are, I believe, connected very closely to one another, though not necessarily as closely as aspens. Very often when talking to trees in a forest you will hear many voices at once, and one tree will be able to tell you things about the trees over on the other side of the hill, though the tree itself obviously cannot walk over there. This connection comes from the nervous system of the forest: the rhizome structures of fungi, which connect in a tangled web to all the roots in a forest, and to one another, and to the soil. No one knows exactly how they function, but scientists do know they communicate, and through them, every tree can be connected to all the others- something like having a wire to the internet permanently inserted into each of your fingers. This, if nothing else, should be evidence that trees communicate.

This may be why the trees in cities are so desperately heartbroken. Most of the street trees in cities, especially those planted in concrete, cannot reach any of the other trees with their roots. They have nothing but sterile dirt to stand in- no fungi, no neighboring root systems, no deep swelling nutrient rich water source far below. Nothing but poor air and poorer water, toxic and absent of the things trees need to survive. It’s a wonder they do survive, but then again it’s a wonder humans survive, captive as they are. Most trees in cities scream. Endlessly. Or the equivalent of standing in the corner muttering, absolutely mad out of self defense, because the alternative is the despair of realizing you have nothing to look forward to but more hell. I have found a few trees in cities who have managed to eke out an existence and maintain some level of sanity, but they are very few, and they are usually the ones that have had some care in their lives. This, really, along with the non stop volume of the thousands of other voices all around, is what makes it almost impossible for me to stay in a large city for more than a day or two. I start to feel like my metaphorical ears are going to bleed. There’s simply too much pain.

But most humans, unfortunately, have learned to turn that off. I don’t know how hard it is to learn to speak to trees as an adult, since I have never tried to teach anyone. I think the hardest part, and the necessary first step, is to know that the beings around you are alive, and speaking. And the next step is to learn to listen. You’ll know it’s working the first time a thought enters your head that is so distinctly not your own, you will be shocked that you never heard those thousands of other voices before.

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Mmm Dinner

Just saying. Vegetables are good.

PS Look I got a profile picture! Taken by the handsome fella himself on the beautiful Colchester Farm.

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