The Myth of Convenience

Atwater flower market
Beautiful flower stalls at the Atwater Market, Montreal, Canada.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but sometimes I wonder if we must examine every little itty bit of it, even our trash, even how we store our food, even what we use to wipe our asses?! The answer, I am afraid, is an unavoidable yes.

Why is this worth doing? Well, as Jaren Diamond writes in Collapse:

“All of us moderns…can get away with a lot of waste when the economy is good. We forget that conditions fluctuate, and we may not be able to anticipate when conditions will change. By that time, we may already have become attached to an expensive lifestyle, leaving an enforced diminished lifestyle or bankruptcy as the sole outs.” page 156.

So, it seems to me, that it is much preferable to start now to downsize and simplify your life in a proactive rather than a reactive (and crisis-driven) manner. We can’t know when the system will crash (and following Taleb’s ideas about how Extremistan operates, that can be very suddenly! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq2_nyyugVk), but a lifestyle that is “antifragile” and flexible will weather the weather, as it were, more successfully than a day-to-day life that is dependent on large complex fossil fuel systems for food delivery and waste disposal.

Last summer, a visitor to my place in Montreal suggested Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home. I took it out of the library here in Dallas, and worked my way through it. (As an aside, the Dallas public library system automatically renews my books, unless someone has put in a request for the book, which is a really nice service! It means I can keep books for an unlimited time!)

Now the zero waste movement (and the minimalism movement which I will talk about in another post) is not the easiest thing to do. I am finding that it takes quite a bit of work.

https://www.texasenvironment.org/campaign/zero-waste/
https://www.goingzerowaste.com/
https://zerowastehome.com/

The difficulty with this, is that 1) we are hardwired to create habits, and then live as much as we can on autopilot, and 2) we get these habits from our cultural traditions.

Unfortunately, most places in the Western world, we are operating on very recent habits that have nothing in the way of a track record or deep traditions behind them. They are, at best, two generations old; and though they have been “brilliantly successful and understandable in the short run” as Diamond writes, they can fail and create fatal problems in the long run. They are based on two pillars of our current lifestyle: convenience and (its reason for being) hyperindividualism.

Hyperindividualism is a term Bill McKibben describes in his book, Deep Economy, as the idea that we deserve to have everything that we want when we want it, no matter the consequences for our community or the earth. It is the habit with which all of us here in North America have grown up; and it is virtually invisible to us.

And for all of us hyperindividualists, convenience and its partner personal comfort are the rationale for our way of living. It is more convenient to sit in hours long traffic jams alone in our air conditioned car with iPod and internet than wait a couple of minutes on the corner for a shared bus with its set schedule. It is more convenient to toss all the “trash” into a plastic garbage bag and throw it out (but exactly where is “out?”) than to take a few minutes to sort the trash into recyclable and compostable containers.

Local laws can help support lifestyle changes (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/what-you-need-to-know-about-montreal-s-plastic-bag-ban-1.4451421), but as long as we privilege convenience and our own personal comfort above all else, nothing will change.  As Tim Wu in his opinion piece for the New York Times, Feb.18, 2018 wrote: “Convenience has the ability to make other options unthinkable.”

So some other options: https://www.treehugger.com/green-home/11-easy-ways-reduce-your-plastic-waste-today.html

P.S. My apologies for not posting the past two months! It was planting season first in North Texas, where I was very busy getting everything in the raised beds at the Bridge Recovery Center before the weather got hot. You can follow my gardening blog at: ourbackyardgardenatthebridge.wordpress.com.

Then it was and is planting season here in Montreal where I spend my summers, and I am filling in the boxes and planters on my small balcony. I keep a gardening journal (not virtual but in sketchbook form) which I will photograph & post soon.

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Shopping Opt-out

Genesis Thrift Store copy
My favorite local thrift shop. Money spent here is used to support programs that help women & families struggling with domestic violence: https://www.genesisshelter.org/

“If we live like there is no tomorrow, we will create just that-no tomorrow.” Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth.

This blog is not only a catalog of better choices for a more sustainable lifestyle; it is also the record of my struggle to embody those choices. Jim Merkel’s book is a map of what to do to get to a life lived equitably, which is, to say, in support of the health of the Earth and her peoples, and in the care of the Earth’s resources. But how is that expressed in my very unimportant life?

Well, two days ago I stopped shopping. I have not bought anything for two days. Now this may seem like a very small thing, but in the doing of it, I realized how habituated I am, and have always been, to shopping. Please understand that I am not a binge shopper; my purchases have always been very modest: a second hand book, a piece of used clothing (https://www.genesisshelter.org/), some art supplies, groceries.

But my need to shop everyday, my expectation of shopping is unrelenting! My mother was a professional buyer, and I was taught early on how to shop well, which is to say getting the most quality for the least money; and I taught my daughter these skills. Buying stuff every day is as natural for me as breathing…and as unexamined!

However, at my late stage of life, I find that I really need very little. So shopping becomes what it is for me and most of my friends: a way to entertain ourselves; a mode of anxiety relief; a distraction for loneliness. I am, of course, describing a particularly middle class (and richer) lifestyle, though poorer people are also being impelled toward buying things that they don’t need. The act of shopping assures every one of us our place in our commodified society. It also guarantees that the powerful corporations and their owners will get richer, and we will get poorer! Resisting the urge to shop is a way to slowly but surely change the balance of power, by husbanding our financial resources and denying the wealthy our money.

So we will see how long I can go without buying something that I feel I “need,” but which isn’t really a necessity.  How long before I can’t resist scratching the itch? Wish me luck!

Meanwhile, if you are interested, check out one person who went without shopping for a year! :

and some more radical ways of non-shopping:

https://www.facebook.com/RobGreenfield/

 

 

Protect your Fungi!

lasagna composting copy

What if the things that we think are so important in our world-money, status, political affiliation, religious beliefs, etc.-turn out to be as transient as foam on the ocean? What if the bedrock of our world, the engine of our existence, the support of our sustenance, turns out to reside in a microscopic population beneath our feet and embedded in our bodies?!

I have mentioned the microbiota of the soil in other posts, especially the last one on vermiculture, but I am being reminded of this reality again because I am in the middle of work on a garden attached to a local homeless center, The Bridge Recovery Center (https://www.bridgenorthtexas.org/) in downtown Dallas. And the first task, as we start the Spring garden (in March! how lovely is that?!!), is to revitalize the soil which means giving the microbes-fungi, protozoa, nematodes, etc.-as much help as possible.

The reason that the Earth feeds us is because the microorganisms that live in the soil feed the plants that we eat. These little guys are living beings, and their habitat, much like the habitats of larger plants and animals, can be ruined and made uninhabitable. This happens when the soil is left uncovered (many of these soil dwellers are killed by the UV rays of the sun); or is filled with chemicals from industrial fertilizers or herbicides; or is dug up or tilled by heavy equipment that breaks the soil up or crushes it down. And when the soil is depleted of these important microscopic beings, the plants that live in and on the soil become undernourished and diseased.

So here I am: raring to go; wanting to dig up the weeds; till in some fertilizer; and (finally!) put in my transplants, seeds, and seedlings. But I will have to make some better choices if I want to see a healthy harvest: I will need to slow down and first feed the soil while protecting its tiny (fungi, bacteria, protozoa, etc.) and not so tiny (worms and insects) ecosystems.

The best way to do this is by not disturbing the microorganisms, especially the fungi, that are already in the soil. The fungi play a particularly pivotal part in soil fertility. Fungi are responsible for bringing nutrients and water to plant roots; and what is called the mycorrhizal network extends far beyond the reach of individual plant’s roots. So when weeds are pulled up, or tilled under, the mycorrhizal network that was in place is destroyed!

The solution to this is no-till gardening. One way of doing this is as follows:

  1. The weeds are covered with cardboard carefully overlapped so there is no place for the weeds to come through. This kills the plants but leaves the roots and fungi network in place; make sure to take off any plastic tape from the cardboard.
  2. The cardboard is soaked so it is wet top to bottom;
  3. Then a layer of organic compost is put down (or good organic soil if you are beginning a raised bed); and this is watered;
  4. And finally a layer of mulch (chopped up leaves & wood chips work well) is laid on top.

This “lasagna” garden should be left for awhile to allow the worms and insects to begin their work of eating through the cardboard and dead weeds. When the transplants and seedlings are ready to be put in, the mulch is pulled aside to expose the soil underneath.

Just be careful not to use wood mulch in beds where you are direct seeding. Pill bugs and other good predators will eat small seedlings, though they will leave larger ones alone. I have been told that wood chip mulch also can attract slugs. I am coming from a very different planting zone (5a!) so I will see if our wood chip mulch does, in fact, attract slugs.

If you would like to see how Our Backyard Garden at the Bridge is progressing, please follow my blog: https://ourbackyardgardenatthebridge.wordpress.com. Check out YouTube for videos about sheet or “lasagna” mulching and no-till gardening.

Two great books about the soil and microorganisms are Sir Albert Howard’s seminal The Soil and Health; and David Montgomery & Anne Bilké’s The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health.

The important points, again, are to treat the soil with respect; and the denizens of the tilth with gratitude and care.

Happy gardening!

My Own Worm Herd!

red wigglers
A handful of composted wood mulch hosting red wigglers.

Yesterday I attended a two hour class at the Texas Worm Ranch (www.txwormranch.com) in Garland, Texas; and I am now the proud owner of my very own herd of red wiggler worms! They are in a bin with air holes, bedding, and cover. I fed them yesterday with the bits & bobs left over from my dinner salad; but I am resisting the urge to keep looking at them: worms dislike the light, so unlike a new puppy, they do not appreciate being played with!

What I will have after two weeks of feeding my herd every 3 to 4 days a handful of scraps (no meat, dairy, or grease!) will be lovely vermicompost. Vermicompost is the finished product made up of worm castings (poop), digested food scraps, and microbes. It should be a chocolate brown, fluffy, moist like a wrung out sponge, and smell like the deep forest…aaah!

finished vermicompost
Sifted finished vermicompost at the Texas Worm Ranch. Vermicompost at home can have more wood mulch in it.

The exciting part of this is not only that I will now be able to compost my kitchen scraps, but that the worms come with a complete ecosystem which makes the fertilizer that they create both healthy for the soil and the plants that grow in it, and nutritious for us who eat the plants and their fruits.

As Heather, owner & head worm whisperer, explained yesterday, the worms are part of a underground system of living microbes that “modern”, very mistaken, gardening information has both ignored and disparaged.

The denizens of this microbiota include fungi (responsible for feeding and watering plants’ roots and extending the reach of plants’ roots); bacteria which eats organic matter; assorted protozoa (amoebas, flagella, & ciliates) that eat bacteria and give off nitrogen (nutrient cycling); and nematodes, that also help keep the ecosystem in balance.

Unfortunately, almost all of these microscopic creatures do not do well in sunlight or in the presence of chemical fertilizers or herbicides. Which means, when traditional (the past couple of generations) advice urges tilling the soil in the Spring, or amending with commercial fertilizers, you will be killing the very microbes that would otherwise feed your plants and improve your soil!!

So best garden practices are:

  1. Keep your garden beds covered with mulch at all times. The mulch can be wood chips (except black walnut) or straw (not hay!). Do not dig the mulch into the soil. Layering should always remain: soil, compost, mulch (from bottom to top).
  2. Cover the walkways between the beds with mulch. This encourages fungi to extend its root system between beds and get even more nutrients to the plants in the beds.
  3. Move the mulch aside to add compost or vermicompost. (Never put red wiggler worms in the garden, even in their own compost. Red wigglers do not burrow so they can not escape heat or cold! Red wigglers are strictly indoor pets; they appreciate the same temperatures we do.) Then put the mulch back over the compost.
  4. Remove mulch where you plant seeds or put in transplants. Keep the seed rows and transplants free of mulch until they have sprouted and established themselves.

Like Permaculture, vermiculture uses the methods that are in place in Nature. The bins that the Texas Worm Ranch uses mimic the forest floor with composted wood chips as bedding and leaves as the top layer.

worm bins
Worm bins covered in leaves at the Texas Worm Ranch, Garland, Texas.

Treating the soil and the beings (microbes, worms, insects, etc.) who live in it with care and tenderness is, for me, an expression of gratitude for their support of our lives and of respect for them as living creatures.