Aristotle Goes Farming
I have not been able to stop thinking about “man-made” vs. “natural”, and what that distinction means. We had a class recently (interns at Sarvodaya have classes where we discuss permacultural principles) where we floated the idea that “man-made” substances don’t actually exist. Most of what we think of as “man-made”, such as plastic, is ultimately made out of oil (aka dead dinosaurs) or generally a few steps removed from a natural raw material. If you go back far enough, everything comes from nature, eventually.
This relationship between “man-made” and “natural” reminds me of the idea that there are really only two industries: mining and farming. Every other human endeavour is an elaboration of these two basic industries. Mining and farming are inherently different from each other, though, because farming is cyclical/creative whereas mining is linear/extractive, at least on an anthropological, not geological, time frame. (It’s interesting to note that mining and farming are two of the industries with some of the worst safety conditions and employee compensation. Given the nature of our economic systems, which reward the few at the expense of the many, these primary industries have to be particularly bare bones and exploitative in order for all the future markups to happen.)
During class, we further broke down the relationship between “man-made” and “artificial” and arrived at a tentative conclusion that “natural” means health-promoting while “man-made” means disease-promoting. If we stick to eating organically grown plants and limited naturally raised meat, we are healthy. If we subsist on Twinkies, Diet Coke, and animals raised on antibiotics in “man-made” factories, our health quickly worsens.
To expand on this idea of natural/health vs. man-made/disease: Pollution/proliferation of “man-made” materials and chemicals is almost always disease-causing, but natural wastes almost always have a logical and healthy use when properly managed. Poop becomes a medium for growing plants. Wastewater unpolluted with extreme chemicals can be recaptured, cleaned naturally through soil and reused, and the things we cleaned off can enhance nature — even soaps, if we do not add toxic “man-made” perfumes and dyes to them. If we were to limit packaging to paper, hemp, and fabric it would be fine to bury that trash; it’s only when we start dumping styrofoam and noxious chemicals in with them, and plastic bags in the ocean that we create disease. After rolling this around in my head, I think there is something to this idea of natural=health and man made=disease, but I also think the elaboration of this idea is incomplete.
As a counterpoint, there are natural environments that are hostile to humans and that do make us sick. A swamp is an example of a less-than-ideal natural environment for humans. Disease-carrying insects, like mosquitos, breed freely. The water is stagnant or brackish and would make us sick if we drank it. Little vegetation grows there naturally that humans can eat. That is not to say that swamps are polluted or bad; they are a great place to be an alligator or a mangrove or a venemous snake and a perfectly lovely environment, the disappearance of which would surely have a negative impact on the earth.
So, farming and permaculture in general is focused on arranging nature so that it is sustaining for humans, specifically. We thrive in many areas but mostly somewhere between the grasslands and mature forests, on the succession continuum. We can live in swampland, the desert, or the Arctic, but we have to rely a lot more on our ingenuity to feed ourselves and protect ourselves from the elements, and we don’t live as long.
With all that, in my mind, I’ve modified the nature=health idea and instead see health as good management of resources and closing loops, whereas disease stems from messy or ineffective management of resources, and linear life cycles. “Man-made” substances tend to have linear life cycles, by design — and this is simply because humans have conceived of and managed them in this way. Plastic is an incredibly useful material, but we have no way of returning it to the raw material we started with (and, contrary to popular belief, it is not endlessly recyclable). As a result, there’s too much of it stuck at one point of its life cycle and it’s wreaking havoc on our environment, causing disease. Having too much of something stuck at one point in its life cycle is the definition of pollution.
Furthermore, we aren’t doing a good job of keeping the chemicals that are supposed to be used for other things out of our bodies. We aren’t managing our systems well to keep ourselves healthy. What goes around comes around; just as we wouldn’t want to drink from rivers that our sewage drains into, we don’t want to unnecessarily create toxic chemical waste and dump it in our environment, because in both cases hazardous waste finds its way back into our bodies and makes us sick. Of course, limiting the use of these substances whenever they are unnecessary is another way to keep these hazardous wastes out of our bodies. That isn’t going to work with sewage, but it will work for microbeads.
Eventually, organisms will adapt to thrive on a diet of plastic and will proliferate, because nature takes advantage of any backlog of material and finds a way to leverage its potential energy. When ecosystems are being built up, they reach plateaus where “invasive” animals or plants take over. This rapid proliferation creates a glut of food for a new predator to discover. The arrival of this species helps the ecosystem rebalance. (Having apex level predators is therefore an indicator of a robust ecosystem, which makes me particularly happy when I see a praying mantis at the farm.)
Can this equalizing process really work for “man-made” pollution? Well, since nothing is truly man-made, the answer is: of course it can. Researchers have found that mealworms can eat and digest styrofoam, turning it into nutrient-rich manure. But it takes time for species to adapt and multiply to the point where they can achieve some stasis with an out of control species or material, and it is problematic that our landfills are composed of a mess of different materials, along with plenty of chemicals generally very toxic to most organisms. It is also a problem that landfills are sealed airtight. All these factors can interrupt or complicate decomposition and food chain creation processes. Essentially, we are dropping giant sudoku problems for nature to solve when we create these messes, and it takes a while to figure it out.
In a similar vein, our bodies are not adapted to the “man-made” diets of refined carbs and trans fats, and we have not evolved alongside chemicals such as preservatives and aspartame and yellow #5, so these substances have negative effects on our health.
The natural foods pioneer Ann Wigmore, who is pretty much the reason you’ve ever eaten sprouted anything, had an interesting take on disease. According to her, all diseases are simply an imbalance in the body based on either deficiency or toxicity. Either there is something poisonous to the body that is causing a problem, or the body isn’t getting enough of a nutrient to perform its functions properly. If you think about it, most any disease we understand the mechanisms of on a deep level can be explained in this manner. Analyzing Wigmore’s definition a little deeper, toxicity is the opposite of deficiency; it really means having too much of something. Sure, there are substances so poisonous that any amount is too much. And there are things that are necessary in small amounts but harmful in larger doses (like sugar, trace minerals, and heavy metals).
So, we can define health as simply having the right amount of substances, beneficial or toxic, and good management of resources to bring a balance about. Sustainability is healthy because no huge backlog of materials is allowed to accumulate and no super toxic substances are introduced into the system. Nature is sustainable because it finds a balance and a use for the potential energy in any overstocked resource. This web of interrelated lifeforms and nutrients being managed or functioning well is what a healthy ecosystem is, whether said ecosystem is our farms, oceans, soil, or landscapes. Our bodies are also ecosystems, so these principles apply to human health as well. If we persist in behaving like an invasive species, using the potential energy we discovered locked in crude oil to propagate, we will throw the ecosystem out of balance and nature will correct for it. That probably won’t happen in a way that we will find particularly comfortable. On the contrary, we will suffer as we adapt. But it will happen – just as it happens eventually to every invasive species.
As humans, we have the ability to change our technology, culture, politics, and economics, and to fall in step purposefully with the realities of nature. “Man-made” doesn’t have to mean linear, extractive, polluting, and exploitative. Our intellect makes it possible for us to interact with nature in an intentional, reciprocal way that is not an option for less intelligent life forms. Or, we can submit to our environment as less intelligent lifeforms do, and let it restore balance through plague, famine, predation, and natural catastrophes. The choice is ours.
I’m home from the farm this week because we are finally getting some of that rain they’ve been warning us about for months. Four straight days of rain is unheard of! How wonderful. Every overflowing gutter I see or stream of water flowing down someone’s lawn makes me think of all that could be going into the water table if only there was a swale there, or a lawn removed and replaced with lasagna mulch here. Has anyone made it over to the Claremont Meeting House to see how the swales Rishi designed are working? I would be very curious to see it. Myself and the interns worked there to help when the project was almost complete and it was amazing.
I’ve been working hard at putting in swales at the school I volunteer at. They have a sloped section of the garden with citrus trees. The soil there was hard and rain would fly down the slope into the gutter below which is against a classroom building. The school needed to cut back on their water usage as we all do, so we capped the rain bird sprinklers which watered the citrus trees much too often in favor of swales and lasagna mulch to catch this winter’s rain. The picture below is the project when we first started. Swales are cheap to create as long as you consider your physical labor cheap! I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into digging and moving manure and wood chips but it’s working out great so far. I checked on the garden during the rain yesterday and there are no puddles, no streams of water. Everything is soaking in. The contrast is extreme when you walk right outside the school property and find a small river of water running down from the baseball fields, through the city park and into the parking lot and drains. Now I need to find a way to get the water off the school roof and into the swales as Rishi has done at the Meeting house.
New Year’s Resolutions
This week was a tough one because my family all came down with some illness or another and were just generally recovering from the holidays. I was only able to make it to the farm on Friday, New Years day. Which I thought was an appropriate way to begin 2016. Alex and I planted flower and onion bulbs while Katie thinned out the radish bed. Out with the old and in with the new. Digging in the dirt, planting things that will nourish body and mind. Working quietly, dig, plant, dig, plant. It gave me time to think about my plans for the year and what changes I want to make. My internship is coming to an end in January and I will be refocusing on the school garden I volunteer with. How can I impart what I’ve learned here to the students? How do I engage them in growing their own food best? I want to make major changes in the way I eat – cut out the sugar, all processed food, and eat more plants. What is that famous Michael Pollan quote? “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I want to read and learn more on modern homesteading to continue my dream of buying several acres of land in the near future and growing food for my family and the community. And that will make it a very good year. What are your plans? Are you going to try to attend more farm events and talks? Take a weekly walk in a beautiful place? Grow more? Enjoy what you have? Good luck with your resolutions and happy 2016.
Christmas on the Farm
Most everyone was on vacation and out of town this week. Myself and Alex were the only interns remaining in town so we shared responsibility for checking on the chickens. Rishi also left us with the single task – “don’t let anything die” – while he was gone this month so we didn’t need that happening while everyone was on break! I think we were successful… right? Ha!
I brought my kids to the farm to help me with chicken care and egg collection. They were very excited because they desperately want farm animals and pets but our townhouse doesn’t allow for them. While we were collecting greens to feed the chickens from the rows, my 6 year old would pick for the chickens and then pop some in his own mouth. Kale, asian greens and cilantro all got a taste. The 3 year old is in a no-green-food stage so she was not as adventurous but she’ll come around eventually. The great excitement came when a chicken escaped the coop during feeding time and we had to run around and catch the silly girl. Her punishment was having to sit in my lap for a selfie (below).
I picked a small bag of kale to take home for lunch. My son sat with the bag in the back of the car and munched on the fresh kale like it was a bag of potato chips. Half of it was gone by the time we got home. And he’s not a big vegetable eater at all. Scratch that. He’s not big on store bought produce. He will eat anything out of the garden, fresh. And I don’t blame him. The kale from the farm is better then any I’ve ever had. You can eat it raw and it’s a lovely snack. Growing your own food or getting it fresh from a farm through a CSA is the only way to go. Once my internship is over I am signing myself up for a weekly box through the farm because I need the awesome variety and quality of this produce.
Brrrr… it’s a little cold out there. It seems Pomona is a little cooler in the evenings then Arcadia because when we arrived at the farm this week there was frost everywhere. And a hose bib that had a slow leak in it caused icicles to form on a nearby plant. All the hoses had frozen water inside and we were glad we had already removed all the automatic timers on the germination sprinkler lines because they would have burst if they had turned on in the early morning.
The back third of the farm gets a lot of morning shade this time of year because of neighboring trees. So on most cold mornings several rows are still covered in frost at 9am without the sun’s rays to warm them. Whether by intention or accident, the crops planted there have no problems with the frost. In fact, the kale tastes even better, even sweeter, then before. The leaves of these frosted crops may look droopy initially but once they warm up again they perk right back up and are no worse for wear. Intern’s fingers while picking these for the CSA boxes however… FROZEN! Gloves are an important part of the farmer uniform on these mornings. For my own gardening efforts, I will be sure to plant many of these same winter crops knowing they will survive and in some cases thrive in cold weather. As long as they are started early enough so that they are established before the frost arrives, they should still produce all winter long.
I will admit that I had never heard of daikon before interning at the farm. I’m not a huge radish fan so perhaps thats why I never looked into them. But Manju kept talking up this huge radish and said they make great stew. I replaced potatoes with daikon in a beef stew I simmered on my stove for several hours and they were delicious. So I’m a believer. They are a low calorie food while also providing 27% of your recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C in a 100 gram serving.
Farm notes: We have now replaced all the rows with new irrigation lines that are easier to install and more heavy duty then the disposable lines that were in use before. Starts are arriving from Cal Poly frequently so there is baby lettuce, broccoli, cabbage and beets going. The winter vegetables we planted from seed a month or so ago are growing so fast. Daikon, kale, asian greens, etc. Only the carrots and beets seems to be taking their sweet time. That’s it for now!