I have a birthday later this week, and as I am statistically into the category of ‘old,’ time and how much time I have left has been much on my mind. Time also seems to me to be something much constrained by how our society insists that we use it. In other words, only certain modes of time use are allowed if we wish to be included in this culture and not marginalized.
We are obligated to abide by the clock, which has dissected the body of our lives into equal, small, standardized parts. We must go by the clock’s law if we want to work in most jobs, or socialize easily with other people, or even organize our daily routines in an acceptable fashion. We are habituated to living fast and being constantly entertained; the hours of the day determine what we do and when.
Farmers and gardeners, on the other hand, work with the weather, the seasons, and Nature. This structure is in some ways less forgiving than the clock. If seeds are not planted in time, food not harvested promptly, or animals not cared for regularly, failure, starvation, and penury can ensue. But these actions are made in larger, slower chronological increments: mornings, afternoons, evenings, seasons, and years.
I am a gardener as well as an artist. This Spring, gardening trumped the painting! It took me the month of May to get all my seeds and plants into my balcony garden (this year my garden is focused on plants that can be eaten). I therefore, unfortunately, missed the magnolias and lilacs which bloom in May in the Botanical Gardens. Still, I am in time to paint the peonies which will bloom all through June.
The experience of painting a blooming flower is a surprisingly active one: the peonies can open their blossoms and then loose their petals even in the couple of hours as I paint them. They are, in essence, a type of clock based not on mechanical numeric equal divisions, but on the natural cycle of birth, growth, setting seed, and death. And since painting and drawing also are both not clock-based activities (although it is interesting how often I am asked by non-artists how long it takes to make a drawing or painting: it seems to me that the question represents a way for non-artists to somehow make more concrete an activity that feels mysterious to them!), I have the happy daily opportunity to step out of the confines of mechanical time!
I am lucky in my life that I have chosen to experience the exterior time of biological reality and the interior flow of artistic production. It allows my mind to escape the urge to speed and the habit of entertainment that keeps us all alienated from Nature and our true selves.
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:
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.
The cardboard is soaked so it is wet top to bottom;
Then a layer of organic compost is put down (or good organic soil if you are beginning a raised bed); and this is watered;
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.
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.
Instagram is filled with seductive photos of food from high end bloggers, chefs, and assorted foodies. Some of these creative food aficionados were even kind enough to respond to my recent posts. A thank you to all the bloggers who commented and responded!
Now, as a practicing foodie, I appreciate both the pleasure of food sensually and visually. However, our present huge interest in using food as a creative outlet gives me pause. It seems to me that it rests upon a faith that the supplies that support it, the diversity of crops, both vegetable and animal, coming in from all over the planet, will continue to exist, certainly through our lifetime. I think that is very unlikely: what is more to be expected is that we will lose, in the very near future, many of the foods that we take for granted:
In our present situation, it is heat that is, in the next couple of years, going to radically change the way we eat and drink. It is going to mean that the huge fields of corn, soy, and wheat-with which the mammoth industrial corporations support their empire of fast, processed, and cheap food-will be burned and destroyed by fire and drought. It also means that smaller crops like barley which supports the cheap beer that is the main alcoholic beverage in the States will also be affected.
Finally, the change in the weather and the creation of what Elizabeth Kolbert calls the new Pangaea – the unimpeded spread of microbes, fungi, and insects carrying diseases throughout the globe – are leading to the destruction of crops and the disappearance of foods we have learned to take for granted like bananas and oranges.
This does not even begin to cover the destruction by industrial fishing of ocean habitats that support the seafood we are all encouraged to eat for better health. (Here in Dallas, the grocery stores sell a relatively inexpensive shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico. Needless to say, I am hesitant, knowing what I do about the dead zones and massive pollution in the Gulf, to buy these shrimp!)
So one issue is that cooking as if the whole world is one’s grocery store is a reflection of a fossil fuel dependent mentality that refuses to imagine that this way of living will shortly end. Even health books promote, without being aware of it, a static delusional world view. Recipes, such as those I just found in Dr. Mark Hyman’s Eat Fat, Get Lean cookbook (which advertises a combined paleo and vegan diet), depends heavily on foods, like coconut and avocados, which have a huge carbon footprint for North America.
The other more difficult problem is that cooking as a commodity for consumption by the wealthy (food as art!) normalizes habits that are destructive to the planet. I can imagine in the not too distant future millions of poor people worldwide starving; the middle class here paying much of their income for food and being disappointed that the wide diversity of food they were used to is no longer available; and the superrich continuing to eat as if there is no tomorrow!
(This is probably the best opinion piece on the coming food catastrophe. It is not the first time that I have posted this, nor will it be the last!)
So my suggestion, as always, is to move away from the exotic and expensive in cooking as in life: to focus on your area’s food traditions and local crops; and grow some of your own food. Your recipes will become more wholesome if less photogenic and novel, but the planet will thank you!
*Warning: this post is what I call a Cassandra Report. As many of you may remember from Greek stories, Cassandra was a beautiful woman with whom the god Apollo fell in love. He gave her the gift of prophecy, but she rejected him. Enraged, he cursed her with the ability to tell truth about the future, but the inability to have anyone ever believe her!
So my modest guesses of what the future will hold for us are Cassandra Reports. As a disclaimer, I do not believe that I am clairvoyant. However, I do believe that anyone with a good imagination and the courage to accept change, can “foresee” the future: you do not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows! (Bob Dylan)
It is the beginning of the growing season here in Dallas, Texas. Be still my heart!! I have lived for the past 20 years in a place with a 10 week growing season, so this is pretty amazing! Having found a community garden where I can help with the gardening (more information to come on that in a future post), I have started to research what to plant here in the South (again, very different cultivars than what I am used to); and I found a terrific book at the library that I want to share.
It is James Wong’s Grow for Flavor, published by Firefly Books, 2016. I loved this book so much that I purchased it on Kindle. James Wong is a self-described botanical geek and serious foodie, and the information he supplies in this book is very different from what one usually finds in gardening books, even organic or sustainable ones.
The main focus, as the title tells us, is on flavor. Now, that seems like a given, especially for home gardens, but when James read the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2014 action plan for crop breeding, he found that not once was “flavor” or “taste” mentioned, and surprisingly, that the cultivars promoted for the home gardener are the same as those used in large farms! Happily, as James read through thousands of new studies, he found that there is a shift going on to, not only better flavor, but to better nutrition (and they are connected chemically!) in the new plants being developed.
So, James Wong focusses on flavor and, its partner, nutrition as the goals for your garden, and dismisses advertisers’ hype promoting large sized photogenic fruits (usually bland) and huge yields (unnecessary in a personal garden) to which we have become habituated. Instead, think small but intensely flavored blueberries, cherries, strawberries; carrots of all colors from deepest purple through orange to cream; and salad greens from sweet to fiery including what we mistake for weeds. Wong provides great suggestions of the names of the best cultivars and descriptions of what they taste like as well as super suggestions on how to grow them.
Because the basis of this book is the latest trials, James also gives all sorts of neat tricks (scientifically tested!) for improving the health of the plants. Did you know that you can jump start your tricky-to-germinate seeds like parsley and corn by soaking them overnight in an aspirin and seaweed soak (pg.34)? Or that watering your tomatoes with a 2% solution of salt water twice a year will make your tomatoes taste better (pg.49)? Or that slowly and gently stroking seedlings once they are one inch high makes them stockier and more resilient (p.34)?! And finally, James suggests in his recipes (also included in this book!) that you can cook with tomato leaves (pg.52)?! I have been adding carrot greens to my soups for awhile now, but chefs are starting to add tomato leaves for that leafy smell!
One final note, before I send you out to get this book and I start researching where to get these great cultivars, Grow for Flavor has also a lot of information for us permaculture fans including how to plant trees, best ways to prune, and when to harvest. You can learn more about and from James Wong at http://www.jameswong.co.uk. Happy Gardening!