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Posts Tagged ‘Collapse’

In the Beginning

 

era-timelineThe Earth is an old place.  Roughly 4 and a half billion years old is the date agreed upon by scientist. Starting out as an orbiting cloud of dust, rocks, and ice that eventually came together with the help of the gravitational pull of our sun, the Earth has had many makeovers and changes throughout the long eons.

 

Volcanic activity, tectonic shifts, comet and meteor strikes, erosion causing weather patterns, the forces of water and rain, climate change, and biological protagonists like fungi, plants, animals, and humans have all played a role in the constant evolution of our planet.  From the rise of mountain ranges, the carving of river valleys, the spread of deserts, the birth of a forest, or the extinction of a species, the Earth has had many stories to tell.  Each eon a chapter with its own characters, settings, and plots.

 

About 2 and a half billion years ago the first life forms began to appear in the fossil record.  Starting as single celled organisms, life progressed throughout the millennia changing and adapting with the earth.  Slowly but surely, life forms grew more complex.  Starting with bacteria and simple fungi that could break down inorganic rocks and minerals (and eventually organic materials like plants), other life forms figured out how to create their own food using the power of the sun (photosynthesis in plants and certain types of bacteria), and yet other life forms (animals and insects) learned how to survive by consuming plants, fungi, bacteria, and other animals!  The cycle of life was well under way.

 

This dance of evolution has spanned the ages with the different characters (bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals) trading places of importance countless times over, always with the sole intent of filling open niches and reaching some kind of habitable equilibrium.  Often times this equilibrium was achieved and sustained for long periods of time (sometimes for hundreds of millions of years), but eventually some disruption or imbalance occurred signalling the end of one age, and the dawning of another.  Geological events and mass extinctions have often been the benchmarks for defining these different ages of the earth.

 

Some of these times are more well known than others.  Some are downright popular, such as the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era (the age of reptiles),  when the dinosaurs ruled the earth.  The Jurassic period lasted for more than 50 million years, and that only constituted a portion of the whole Mesozoic era.  It is a great illustration of how old the earth actually is, how slow time can move, and how young of a species we humans actually are.

 

The fossil record puts the age of modern humans at around 200,000 years old.  A long line of monkeys, apes, and gorillas share our direct evolutionary path.  But somewhere around 40,000 years ago, humans ruled supreme, beating out the last of our closest relatives, the neanderthals, who had walked the earth for close to a million years previous to us humans. Since then, it’s all history as they like to say!

 

In that time, humans have risen to the position as the number one, global apex predator that has been shaping, transforming, and dominating the Earth, its landscapes, and all of its other inhabitants for at least the last 10,000 years.  When humans mastered the skills of both language and fire, we ceased being just another primate amongst the natural world, and instead went on to create cave paintings, songs, religions, government, and so many other visible and invisible structures that are now inseparable from the human experience.

 

Since those early days, we have gone on many adventures and have built legacies that have lasted millenia.  Cultures come and go, but their footsteps make up our history, and the biggest and easiest trail we can follow is the one that has shaped the earth and humans the most, agriculture.

 

The First Green Revolution

 

pack_of_harvesters

Around the close of the last ice age, 10-12,000 years ago, a radical experiment began to take place in how humans inhabited their landscape.  The earth entered an interglacial state and the climate slowly began to change and warm, thus giving us different options on how we could live with the land.  Agriculture did not happen overnight, but rather it played out over seasons and centuries, adapting and refining itself, and taking us and the land with it.

 

Those who lived through those early days of agriculture could not have known how the world was about to change.  In those 10,000 years since the first horticultural societies gave way to an agricultural revolution that changed the world, humans have shaped and molded the planet in almost all aspects.  Our tinkering is evident almost anywhere you look, whether with the naked eye or with a microscope.

 

We have logged the planet of almost all its old growth forest and lost billions of tons of precious topsoil to the wind and rain.  Along with the loss of the trees and our soils, comes a release of millennia’s worth of stored carbon that now finds itself freely traveling through the atmosphere. Our air and waters have been polluted from erosion and industry, we divert rivers, move mountains, and change the lay of the land in unprecedented ways.  Our oceans have been overfished, our prairies overturned.  Our fingerprints are everywhere.

 

There are millions of tons of plastic floating in the ocean.  There are thousands of active landfills in America today, and over 10,000 retired ones, all evidence of mans presence, our modern day midden piles.  Every disposable product, every plastic trinket, every outdated or broken do-dad has a traceable path to a real place somewhere on the Earth.

 

All these creations, whether a paper napkin or a pickup truck starts in a place where a natural resource can be found.  Trees and other natural fibers, minerals, metal ores, fossil fuels, water, and agricultural products can all be found in any number of these common everyday products and goods that are used throughout the world.

 

People and animals are displaced from their native lands and habitats to make way for the logging, mining, growing, and processing of these materials that are needed for all these industrial products.  There are now very few places left on our Earth that have not felt the impact of man, and the “progress” that is left in our wake.  But the journey of those first farmers and city builders is still our story.  It is a story that is always looking to grow bigger and wealthier.  It has cast humans as the main characters, and everything else, whether an old growth tree or a northern white rhino is a disposable extra.  This is life in the anthropocene!

 

Life in the Anthropocene

 

dotanthropocenesign-jumboThe anthropocene as defined by wikipedia as “an informal geologic chronological term for the proposed epoch that began when human activities had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.”  The term was coined by scientist Paul Crutzen in the year 2000 and has been gaining acceptance throughout the scientific community ever since.

 

Until Crutzen proposed the idea of the anthropocene, the world had been living in (and still technically is) what is known as the holocene, the geological age starting at the end of the last ice age.  While this distinction is still being debated, for the purpose of this essay I will follow Crutzen’s thinking and accept the anthropocene as the new geological age defined by man and his impacts on the natural world. Whether it is mining, logging, agriculture, pollution, or any of the other myriad activities that bear the fingerprints of man, these are all defining characteristics of the anthropocene.

 

So where does that leave us?  If the anthropocene is our legacy, one that first started because of fire, language, and religion and continued with the domestication of the living landscape, and climaxing in industrial (agri)culture, resource extraction, suburban sprawl and biological extinction, than it is a legacy based on death.  The Anthropocene by its own definition requires the disruption of the earth’s ecosystems for modern man to survive.

 

If our time on this good Earth is being defined by the natural wealth we have plundered, the pollution and garbage we have created, and all of the land we have stolen and destroyed, than it is not only a legacy of death, but also one to be ashamed of as well.  What do we have to carry forward?  What stories will be told about us?  What will we ultimately be remembered for?

 

If the anthropocene is the defined theme of our collective narrative, are we subject to a self created demise?  If we stay on the same path that we are currently on, are humans to expect a rough road ahead?  For all of our technological advances and mastering of the Earth, the fact remains that we still live on a finite planet that is ruled by limits to how much we can take and how much we can pollute before global ecosystems, weather patterns, and biodiversity begin to change and ultimately collapse, thus affecting the project we call civilization.

 

If humans are to move into the future, a future that still includes the basic tenets of modernity for all who want them and need them, then we need to radically shift the way we inhabit our landscapes and redefine what it means to be a human civilization in the 21st century.  That redefinition will be less of a revolution, and more of a complete paradigm shift.  If the anthropocene has been based on theft, destruction, and the ill intentioned manipulation of the natural landscape and its inhabitants for an ever growing economy, than this paradigm shift will have to include principles, ethics, and actions that are the antithesis of those that are symptomatic of the anthropocene.

 

For too long our mark(s) on the land and ecosystems of the earth have been those of a selfish landlord, and not those of a humble steward preserving our historical and cultural commons.  Until we can begin to move away from these most basic and underlying habits of greed and dominion over others, we are doomed to keep repeating the cycle of destruction for profit that we are stuck in.

 

Until we as a society can divorce ourselves from the greed and savagery that is used to grow the profits that keep the wheels of “progress” moving, we will forever remain under those wheels, being ground up and used as fertilizer for growing the economy.  At some point we must face the truth that the planet does not care about any economy other than the economy of nature, the flow of energy that is the living earth.

 

While it may seem that I am advocating for the dismantling of modern civilization, nothing is farther from the truth. It has taken me many years to arrive at this conclusion, but I do think it is possible for humans to coexist, and most importantly, care for this planet at the same time.  Part of the solution lies in the way we view life and our time we have here.  At some point in our story we no longer gave thought to the generations that are to follow in our footsteps, and focused solely on the now.  It was no longer required of us to think about how our actions could affect life generations from present day.  We were now accountable for nothing but our own personal desires and instant gratifications.

 

But when we begin to hold ourselves accountable for our actions, it is possible to see how we can impact the future.  If in every decision we leave room for the future to have its say, than it is less likely that we would continue to clear cut forests, move mountains, and knowingly pollute our drinking water just for a quick buck or a desperate energy fix.

 

When we consider our grandkids’ grandkids in the decisions we make now, we begin to realize that every aspect of how we live needs to change.  We can no longer be short term takers, but instead we have to become the guardians and caretakers of our land bases so that there is something of abundance, substance and beauty available for those who follow in our footsteps.

 

We are at a place in history where we have never been before.  We have more accumulated knowledge and proven, appropriate science and technology available to us than any other humans to come before us.  We have the ability to keep people warm when it is cold, dry when it is wet, and fed when they are hungry.  We have the resources to educate people and the social safety nets to insure a basic level of comfort for all those on the planet.  We also have a history and a shared story that defines what it is to be a human.  It is this last point that is most important.  If we can reconnect with what it means to be a fully mature human, we will see that we have an important place in nature.

 

Towards the Permacene

 

cartoon_permaculture_futureThis is the paradigm shift I propose.  It is a shift and a transition to a new geologic age, where with each passing generation we reduce our footprint. The amount of evidence of our existence is carried forward not by the trash and destruction we leave behind in our wake, but in the books we continue to write, the songs we continue to sing, the communities we continue to build, and land that we help to heal.  This journey is underway, and has been slowly since the beginning, but we are at a critical point in human history.

 

Moving into the future as a unified species will only continue if we face our history.  Human history is filled with tragic abuses and genocides of peoples, animals, plants, and landscapes.  Our cultural and biological diversity has been decimated by the fossil fuel enhanced advancement of industrial civilization.  Countless characters of nature have been swallowed by the pit of extinction, and many more are on the edge of falling in.  If we turn our backs on what has been lost and forget those stories, than we cannot move forward.  It is the ones that are already gone that must be a reminder to us as we move into the future that we must move forward with as much cultural diversity and biodiversity preserved, protected, and regenerated as possible.

 

Our roles as stewards must extend to as many humans that calls this planet home.  When people have a real physical connection to a land base and a community of friends and families to share it with, than our jobs as earth stewards becomes easy because we are all working towards the same goal.  While the role and duties of earth stewards will vary from landbase to landbase and one community to another, the underlying ethics and principles that guide this endeavor are universal and are intrinsic in the transformation from just being a private citizen to a steward of the commons!

 

As we begin to renounce our citizenship to the anthropocene and begin embracing our role as stewards of the Earth, all aspects of our lives will begin to change.  When we are rooted in strong communities and land bases, using technology appropriately, and asking ourselves how our actions will impact future generations, the foundations of greed and domination that rule the world will begin to crumble.  As we begin to regenerate landscapes and communities, the corporate overlords and bureaucrats will find themselves unwelcome in more and more places and eventually cease to be.  But this will only happen where communities are united, diverse, and have a physical connection to a landbase that they can call home.  These communities, interconnected by their diverse patchwork of skills and trades, seasonal celebrations, trade and migration routes, spiritual beliefs, and the passing of information will have to find a human commonality that celebrates our diversity and uses that as a unifying force!

 

As history shows, we are a young species.  We are a species that is full of flaws and destructive selfishness.  But we are also adaptive and creative and occasionally compassionate, three traits that have made possible our evolutionary advances.  So while we have perfected war and hatred and the wholesale destruction of our living planet, we also write poetry and songs, celebrate with family and friends, and have a love so deep that somehow, we still find we have roots that are just waiting to find a place to dig into, a place to call home!

 

So here we are at a cross roads.  We have a choice to keep doing what we are used to, and most likely end up in a bleak and poor world.  One that is gutted of all but humans and the strongest and most noxious of weeds.  Or we can bravely step into the future planting trees and building communities and carrying on this great project we started well over 200,000 years ago.  We can take the next step in our evolution, a step towards the Permacene.  Peace and Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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thefuture

This is our future, and we can choose which one becomes reality!

A few nights ago I had a dream that would fall under the category of post apocalyptic.  It took place in the present day, at my house, on what appeared to be a bright sunny summer day.  My son and I were out back by the garage getting trailers hooked up to our bikes, collecting baseball bats and machetes, cans of food, and other supplies that have now left my memory.  What the cause of our hasty retreat was I also can’t recall, but I knew we had to get going fast.

 

Throughout the dream I was also worried as to where my wife and daughter were.  Maybe we were off to meet them, or worse yet to rescue them from some unseen and unknown antagonist.  Either way, I missed the rest of my family very much, and I knew it was my job to keep my son safe.

 

Before awakening, the last thing I remember doing in the dream was getting the two dogs into the trailers, tying down the rest of our supplies, and then having to say goodbye to our two cats Charlie and Brown.  It broke my heart to have to leave these two little guys behind.  But even in the dreamtime, I realized that they would be fine without us and could fend for themselves living the rest of their days happily eating songbirds and mice.

 

I love dreams, but I usually cannot recall them as well as I can this one.  And most of the time they are not nearly as involved or as intense.  I have plenty of anxiety work dreams, and random fantastical ones with a rotating cast of familiar characters, but rarely do I have a dream that is so realistic and that is set in a familiar, yet somehow mystical and alternative apocalyptic world.

madmax

I couldn’t help but tell my son about this dream, and from that a great conversation was sparked.  He was curious as to what a post apocalyptic world meant.  Having just recently watched Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome for the first time with him, I told him to think back to that movie, but try to imagine it not quite so barren or destroyed.  I think he understood what I was getting at and then proceeded to say something along the lines of “like what happens to you after war comes to your country”.  I was amazed by the depth of his understanding and realized he had a good grasp of the idea. I responded with a “yeah, something like that…”

 

It was then that he asked me what else we would take with us.  He automatically assumed I would take my Chromebook with us.  And in hindsight I probably would take it if I knew it could be recharged and could access the internet!  But I said “no, we wouldn’t take the Chromebook because what good would it do us if there were no power.”  We could agree on this.

 

The conversation stayed on books.  I took a quick look at our bookshelf, and pulled down an old, tattered copy of the Tao Te Ching that I have had for well over 20 years.  I showed it to him, and he wondered why I would take a book like that, and not one of our foraging field guides or a wilderness survival book.  The question was a good one, and now I had something else to explain to an inquisitive 8 year old.

While I am not an overly mystical person, the Tao has been one of those books that I found fairly early on in my journey. It has always been there for me, ready to be picked up, dusted off, and reread over and over again throughout the years.  The 81 passages contained within the Tao Te Ching are a manual of sorts that has helped me to walk lightly upon this Good Earth.  It is not a book filled with answers, or a God, or a map to a final destination. But more of a signpost.  A compass.  A star chart to the infinite.  The book of the way.

 

So that is why I would grab that book if I found myself living in my recent dream.  To help keep me centered and focused, but also fluid like water.  But my son had a good point.  If we were fleeing, not knowing when we would find safety,  I would also pack my favorite field guides and survival manuals.  I can identify many plants and fungi, but I don’t know a whole lot when it comes to cleaning an animal or making a splint for a broken leg.

 

In reality though, I try very hard to keep the post apocalyptic narrative from playing too big of a role in my day to day life.  If I let it dominate my thoughts, it is hard to be productive or a positive role model.  While it is a possible outcome for our world, especially if we stay our present course, I find it more helpful to focus on the present and how we can create a more fulfilling future for ourselves.

 

So even though post apocalyptic stories are my favorite ones to read and watch, it is the story of the Tao and a life lived in accordance with nature that I want to play a role in.  When we take the time to observe our surroundings, draw our conclusions based on evidence, and implement solutions that are balanced and inspired by nature, that is when we can move forward and create a truly wonderful, and self sustaining world.

 

#80

If a country is governed wisely,

its inhabitants will be content.

They enjoy the labor of their hands

and don’t waste time inventing labor saving machines.

Since they dearly love their homes,

they aren’t interested in travel.

There may be a few wagons and boats,

but these don’t go anywhere.

There may be an arsenal of weapons,

but nobody ever uses them.

People enjoy their food,

take pleasure in being with their families,

spend weekends working in their gardens,

delight in the doings of the neighborhood.

And even though the next country is so close

that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,

they are content to die of old age

without ever having gone to see it.

 

 

 

 

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While the title of this essay may be tinted with a bit of doom and gloom, it is not as ominous as it sounds, and it is a fairly accurate description of the events and stories that follow.  For anyone who has followed this blog over the last five years may have noticed, I have gone through periods of consistent, productive writing, balanced out with dry periods of nothing but writers’ block growing up through the cracks of my mindscape.  While these droughts have been few for the most part, this last one has been pretty epic in scale!  The last time I sat down to write was back in February of this year when I continued with an ongoing series of essays about DIY homebrewing.

 

Winter!!!

Winter!!!

Since this last winter (the one filled with all of the Polar Vortexes) many things have happened here at the Dead End Alley Farm, and much of it would have made great copy for essays and DIY how – to’s here on the blog. I am not going to touch on everything, but I guess it is time for us to catch up on current events and happenings around the homestead and the world at large.

 

As I sit here in the afternoon shade with a cold beer in the outside office (a picnic table and some benches, and a hacked together arbor covered in wild grapes and honeysuckle) I am listening to one of the hens cluck away in pride or fear or some other emotion that only a chicken can know.  I can see bumble bees feeding on white clover and catnip, an overcast sky, and my old dog Harvey lying in the grass watching the world go by.

 

There are parts of our yard that are overgrown with weeds that should have been ripped from the ground long ago, and some of our apple trees (especially the big old one in back) are beginning to shed apples like drops of rain.  There is garlic hanging from the roof joists of my back deck and the tomato plants are overloaded with luscious fruit this year.

 

I have three hives of bees this season.  My pride and joy are the Carniolans that overwintered and have proven to be exceptional bees.  They are 3 deep with 2 honey supers (which translates to a very healthy colony that is making a lot of honey), a naturally mated queen (who may be the same one from last year, not real sure if they have swarmed or not this season) leads this tribe, and they are poised to enter this upcoming winter appearing very strong and healthy with adequate food supplies.

 

buckfastbbeeinstall

Installing the Buckfast bees out at our country beeyard.

This spring I also purchased 2 packages of hybrid Buckfast bees that came up from Georgia.  Sadly one perished within the first week (dead queen), but the other one has shown to be a vigorous (if not a bit pissy) hive of bees.  At last check they were finishing up drawing out comb and making honey in 3 deep boxes which should be enough stores for winter. And throughout the early part of the year these Buckfast bees provided frames of brood and eggs to help strengthen my Carniolans, and have also helped out to create a third colony.

 

At the end of June I came across a local company, 4 Seasons Apiaries, that specializes in locally bred queens and nucs.  This is a huge deal for us in Minnesota, not only for the fact that it is hard to find northern bred queens anywhere, but because it was only 20 minutes from my house as the car drives.  I ended up purchasing a really dark queen for $28 and put together a split that was made up of two frames each of the Buckfasts and the Carniolans.  The jury is still out on how this hive is doing though.  The queen is laying eggs, there is brood (both capped and otherwise), and they are actually making quite a bit of honey, but their overall numbers seem low to me.  They will most likely be subsidized with honey from the Carniolans this winter in hopes that they will have enough food to survive the cold, dark days of the upper midwest winter.

 

While I cross my fingers in hopes that all 3 of my colonies will pull through and survive this upcoming winter, observation and common sense tell me that the likelihood of all 3 surviving is slim at best.  Current numbers from this last winters survival rate was anywhere from about 30-50%.  These are horseshit numbers when compared to 20-30 years ago when a beekeeper could expect close to 90% survival rate in their apiaries.

 

My backyard is a refuge for endangered species...

My backyard is a refuge for endangered species…

So the same story continues for the bees.  While the numbers of reported cases of colony collapse disorder have evened out (and possibly plateaued), bee losses continue throughout many parts of the world, but seem especially high here in America.  Why this is such a surprise to people baffles me.  Our modern – mono crop – anthropocentric ways of inhabiting this planet are not compatible with a diverse, living, natural world.  This story is no longer just about the bees, but also of the monarch butterfly, the oceans, the remaining old growth forests of the world, and even people.

 

Habitat destruction, climate change, slavery, edible-food-like-products engineered to grow with poison, industrial pollution, and profit – from – disease are all symptoms of the overarching cancer that is this modern day capitalist society. It has grown up around us over the last 300 years, the whole time was spent in a petrochemical party binge, and now that we are drying out we are starting to feel the hangover!

 

It is as simple as this – when the bees lose, we lose, and that is the road we are going down.  The world that we live in, regardless of your flavor of religion, or politics, or indifference is still ruled by cold hard facts established through observation and the scientific method.  The world is changing, mainly its’ climate, but also the make-up of its varied populations.  Every day the Earth loses another creature, another plant.  The last of manifest destiny is completing itself as the few remaining “wild” people are driven from their forest homes, and the blood of ethnic genocide still waters the tree of “Liberty” for those of us in the privileged world .

 

Here is my flooded basement!

Here is my flooded basement!

This spring my family experienced climate change first hand.  For some naive reason I thought we were insulated from climate change here in Minnesota, but was I wrong!  Starting towards the end of May and going through towards the end of June, we received upwards of 15 inches of rain for the month, with a lot of this rain coming in bursts of multiple inches in short periods of time.  At some point a sewer line about a block and a half away from my home could no longer keep up with the amount of stormwater entering the system and literally collapsed in on itself.  This blockage led to my whole neighborhoods’ sanitary sewers backing up and we had upwards of 14 inches of sewage water in our basements!

 

Lets just say it was a real shitty and smelly problem to clean up.  To add to the mess, the city that I live in is not claiming any real responsibility for the sewer collapsing.  They are saying that the amount of rain that we received is to blame (because no one could have predicted that we would ever get that much rain in such a small space of time), and it is not their problem that the sewer wasn’t designed to handle that much water.  This situation is a good illustration of the intersecting problems of failing infrastructure and its ability to deal with the symptoms of climate change.

 

Not only is it bad enough that our infrastructure is falling apart and failing throughout the country, climate change will only hasten the collapse of these systems that we take for granted.  As there is less and less money to spend on domestic infrastructure projects and basic preventative maintenance, and the ever increasing threats of unstable weather conditions loom closer on all of our horizons, our roads and sewers and all the other systems that make modern lifestyles possible will be challenged and frequently overcome by a force far greater than themselves.

 

What is the quick take away from this conversation?  That as we face the future of a world that struggles to adapt to a changing climate with far fewer cheap resources on hand to work with, we can no longer rely on the long term support of our governments to solve these problems or to even help clean up the messes that ensue.  Just think back to hurricanes Katrina or Sandy (or any number of other climate disasters that happen regularly around the world) and you have all the evidence that you need to show government ineptitude when a climate-crisis strikes.

 

Most of the collapse will be slow and unnoticeable except for those places directly affected by whatever natural disaster decides to strike next.  But with each changing season, and every new climate change induced disaster, bit by bit the comfort and convenience that we are used to will begin to erode away. As long as we keep spending our resources, whether that be gold or oil, in a way that denies climate change and resource depletion, we will find ourselves in a world that is an empty shell of the one we now know.

 

If I were a religious man I may start praying extra hard right now, but thankfully I let science rather than superstition guide my life.  Critical observation and the ability to make rational decisions based on the facts is important.  Not just for a nation or a civilization, but also on the personal and family level.  I think if there is anything I have learned, is that when we can look at problems on multiple levels, do the research that is needed to educate ourselves on these problems, and then make decisions based on these observations to correct the problem, we can do a lot just in our own lives to change the course of events, and add a bit of resiliency and human spirit back into our everyday lives.

 

Nature reclaiming what is rightfully hers!!

Nature reclaiming what is rightfully hers!!

As briefly mentioned here in other posts, a year and a half ago I quit a long time job of mine in favor of one that affords me far more free time.  The trade off has been huge, and sometimes quite challenging.  This has been my second summer off, and my first full season as a partially self employed, full time stay at home dad.  It has probably been the most eye opening, and sometimes hardest role I have ever had to play.

 

Being use to the role as the main breadwinner in my family for so long and then giving up that economic control is not easy, but a lesson that I urge you to all try at some point in your life.  After these last few months of being at home with the kids, I have a far greater appreciation and respect for the work that my wife (as well as all you other moms out there!) has done over the last 8 years.  Child rearing is the hardest thing I have ever participated in, but I am glad that I have had the chance to dive in full time.

 

For me the hardest part has been balancing time between time actively spent with the kids, chores, and coordinating our CSA.  The CSA we run is small.  2 full shares, and 2, ½ shares, but it gave me a nice chunk of cash in the spring and early summer for things like groceries (I can’t grow cheese cake!) and gas money.  That cash is gone now, so my new endeavor is working on a business plan that expands out from the CSA in other directions to increase my summer cash flow for a few more months.

 

Eventually I hope to start making a bit of money by raising bees to sell, starting a small plant nursery, and I am also exploring some options for teaching classes.  Using outlets like the public library system, community education, and space at my local co-op, I am hoping to put together a selection of classes that will include introductions to beekeeping and Permaculture, and also a tree grafting workshop each spring.  I am in the early phases of research and planning, but I hope to teach my first official tree grafting class this upcoming spring (contact me if you are interested in hosting a class).

 

I guess when I really sit down and think about it, my ultimate long term goal is to not have to ever work a full time job again, unless it is for myself.  I am not scared of hard work, but it comes back to the fact that I am no longer alright selling my time to some asshole when I am fully capable of doing something(s) I am passionate about and generate an income for myself at the same time.

 

You can't stop nature!

You can’t stop nature!

Is this selfish?  Maybe, but I am okay with that as well.  I have begun to realize more than ever most people are just clueless drones.  Who after years of taking orders, and numbing themselves with TV, processed food, and fanatical beliefs in fairy tales can no longer truly take care of themselves or make desicions that impact their destiny.  As it stands, with humans being prisoners to their own creations and all,  I do not have a lot of hope for humanity right now.

 

If you follow David Holmgren’s work Future Scenarios, we are most likely entering into the Brown Tech future.  A world where we will continue draining the Earth of its fossil fuels, destroying the last of the wild lands, converting more and more  of that land to desertscapes of monocrops, and the further erosion of our shared cultural heritage, modern Homo Sapiens have perfected the art of extinction.

 

It is a bleak future.  One that leaves less and less room for those of us who seek freedom and justice.  It is a world that has been reduced to cultural poverty by traditions and tragedies alike.  It is a world where all life on Earth has been reduced to interchangeable and disposable parts in the pursuit of Progress.  It is a world filled with death and injustice, but it is also falling apart.

 

Whether humans can survive this collapse of our own making is yet to be determined.  It will be hard, but even the strongest rock is defeated by water and wind in the end.  It is in these cracks and fissures that we can seek our refuge.  The spots forgotten about and overlooked.  The areas where literal and figurative weeds grow.  The edges.  The TAZs where humanity still flourish.

 

Go on hikes.  Hunt mushrooms.  Raise bees.  Raise Kids.  Bake bread.  Love.  Hate.  Grow some carrots.  Chop some wood.  Pull some weeds.  Laugh.  Hug a puppy.  Cry.  Resist!  Grow.  Take a nap.  Rise up!  Read a book.  Lend a hand.   Take notes.  Have fun.  Fish.  Visit a friend.  Hug your mom.  Plant trees.  Be human….

Freedom!!

Freedom!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Long before the rise of annual grain based industrial agriculture, and the dismantling of our food and cultural traditions, humans lived in ways much closer to the earth.  In some places hunting and gathering remained a viable option (even up to the present day), and in other places this relationship with the earth manifested itself through horticulture and various forms of animal husbandry.  In many places it was a mix of these two ways of procuring food that shaped and defined a culture and/or a region.

For untold millennia (until relatively recently), humans had been able to provide for their basic needs through a combination of these two actions:  Hunting/Fishing/Shepherding/Husbanding and the cultivation/gathering of plants for all of their dietary needs.  These ways of life are not mutually exclusive, but rather a complementary set of skills and traditions that have formed the long and diverse history of humans, the food we eat, and how we inhabit, impact, and transform our landscapes.

The transition from hunter/gatherers to industrial agricultural farmers did not happen overnight.  It has been a long drawn out story that has seen countless empires and kingdoms rise and fall, climate and weather patterns change, landscapes transformed, and cultural practices (some good, and some bad) that have led up to the present day.  The part of this story that really interests me, and what this essay is going to explore, are some of the horticultural practices that came between the gulf of the hunting and gathering lifestyle and the transition to the industrial agricultural paradigm, and how the ultimate survival of the human species rests in reconnecting with these horticultural traditions.

For the last ten thousand years humans have undergone a transformation that has slowly eroded our abilities to be self reliant as communities.  Year by year, and season by season unseen and unnoticed by most of those living through these changes, we have become more dependent on others to grow, raise, and process our food for us.  But even as this has occurred, and continues to happen to this day, there are examples of resistance to the transition of mass produced food that is based on annual grain agriculture.

The kitchen garden, which in many regards is the original resistor to monocrop agriculture, is the heart of any homestead.  They provide us with an abundance of fruits and vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, flowers, forage, liquid gold from honey bees, fodder for livestock and pollinators, beauty, a sense of well being, and a bit of self reliance.  The kitchen garden, whether it is covering thousands of square feet as part of a rural homestead, or is an intensively managed set of raised beds in an urban neighborhood, has traditionally provided us with a majority of our essential vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that we need each day to remain healthy.

The kitchen garden has been the difference of merely surviving on a subsistence diet of staple grains or other forms of cheap industrial grown carbs, and thriving because of a diet consisting of healthy leafy greens, fruits, berries, legumes, stems, nuts, tubers, roots, and different forms of animal protein.  It is the kitchen gardens, allotments, community gardens, urban farms, and small scale polycultural farms found throughout the world and its history that have helped to feed the civilian population in times of war and peace, economic prosperity and downturns, and periods of climate change and stability.

As far back as ancient Rome, before it was an empire dominated by politicians and imperial armies, citizen farmers worked the land as families.  Their farms were small, diverse operations worked by hand that provided all the food a family needed to survive.  David R. Montgomery, the author of Dirt – The Erosion of Civilisations, sums up early Roman horticultural practices in this passage –

“Early Roman farms were intensively worked operations where diversified fields were hoed and weeded manually and carefully manured.  The earliest Roman farmers planted a multistory canopy of olives, grapes, cereals, and fodder crops referred to as cultura promiscua.  Interplanting of understory and overstory crops smothered weeds, saved labor, and prevented erosion by shielding the ground all year.  Roots of each crop reached to different depths and did not compete with each other.  Instead, the multicrop system raised soil temperatures and extended the growing season.  In the early republic, a Roman family could feed itself working the typical plot of land by hand.  (And such labor – intensive farming is best practiced on a small scale.)  Using an ox and plow saved labor but required twice as much land to feed a family.  As plowing became standard practice, the demand for land increased faster than the population.”

romanfarmers2

Farmers from ancient Rome.

This passage highlights a few points that are well worth looking at in more detail.  First, the description of the crops grown illustrates the importance of genetic diversity.  While the Romans did not have the word Permaculture, the fact that their horticultural choices included tree crops, vines, ground covers and annuals shows that they understood the importance of genetic variation within their farmsteads.  Genetic diversity within a particular crop selection almost always insures a harvest of some kind, and by designing this resilient feature into our farms, we can avoid complete famine in a bad year.

Second, these early Roman farmers knew the importance of a healthy, living soil even if the finer details of microorganisms and soil life were not fully understood.  By returning manure and organic matter back to the fields, and growing a diverse selection of perennial food crops (along with some annuals), the soil health was maintained and continually improved upon. But gradually throughout the empire the Roman family farm began to be replaced with annual grain production that depended on the tilling and plowing of the fields to support an elite urban empire.  Once this occurred the resilience of these small horticultural farms was lost to the history books.

At this point in Roman history, absentee land ownership took over, soil was lost to water and wind erosion, and farm labor moved in the direction of slavery.  These are all signs, still seen today to some extent, of what happens when our horticultural traditions are replaced with annual monocrop grain production to feed the cities.  This transition does not happen overnight, and is almost invisible to those living through it.  Only in hindsight and with an accurate historical narrative can we see the effects of what annual mono-crop based agriculture does to a once thriving, self reliant culture.

Moving on to another example of a multi species, horticultural society, we find ourselves in pre-industrial China.  While China has suffered many famines, environmental degradations, and massive amounts of soil loss due to poor farming practices and land stewardship, not everything in this ancient culture’s history is doom and gloom.  Focusing solely on southern China, there is a roughly 10,000 year old agricultural tradition of growing rice along with fish and ducks.

Chinese rice farmer, Seven Stars and Moon viewpoint, Dragon's Ba

This farmer is carrying on a tradition that is millenia old.

This polyculture of rice, fish, and ducks provided a substantial part of southern China’s diet on land that was marginal at best.  Through intensive land management of irrigation ditches and rice paddies, and the continual addition of human and animal manures to these areas, the pre-industrial Chinese farmers were able to work these same lands for millennia without degrading the soil.  This technique of multi-species farming was so successful that the population would balloon in times of prosperity and occasionally overshoot the carrying capacity of the landbase, leading to isolated periods of collapse, famine, and death.

In addition to the rice, fish, and ducks, Chinese farmers also raised chickens and pigs, and cultivated amaranth, asian beans, barley, brassicas, leeks, melons, millet, turnips, and many other old world annual vegetables that added richness to their cuisine and health.  Fungi and herbs that have traditionally been used in Chinese medicine have now gained notoriety throughout the world, and as far as perennial contributions from their horticultural traditions, apricots, apples, bamboo shoots, citrus, lotus roots, and peaches also played large roles in feeding the pre-industrial farmers of China.

Like the example of the Romans, as ancient China grew and added more and more urban areas, the population increased and demanded more from the land.  As this happens, shortcuts are taken and eventually people start to change the way they grow their food.  Demand dictates efficiencies, so rather than keeping age old methods of growing and raising food for small communities using proven sustainable methods, new ways are invented to grow and export more food to the ever growing urban areas.  As this happens land stewardship ceases to matter, and as a consequence soil is lost, and civilizations fail.

potatoes

An example of genetic diversity within the indiginous crop of the Andes mountains – potatoes!

Moving along to one last pre-industrial horticultural society, we find ourselves across the two great oceans in pre-European North, Central, and South America.  While this land mass is huge and contained many diverse cultures, there was a shared, underlying similarity displayed by many of these first nations of the Americas.  While it is true that the Americas’ had its own agricultural revolutions with crops like maize and potatoes (and flourishing kingdoms and urban centers that were supported by these crops), the pre European Americas were highly managed landscapes overflowing with an abundance of useful plants and animals despite what the first Europeans thought was an untouched, virgin wilderness.

One major difference that set the Americas apart from Europe and Asia is that there were no domesticated animals aside from the dog that were a part of their horticultural systems.  While it could be argued that the guinea pig and possibly the turkey were partially domesticated, there were no beasts of burden prior to the arrival of the Europeans (and the animals they brought with them) that aided in the transformation of the landscape, thus giving it its wild appearance.

This fact alone sets the stage for the reasons that the original inhabitants of the Americas managed the land the way they did.  With no domesticated animals to keep track of or feed, there were no fences or pastures in the landscape.  Therefore all meat and animal products were procured from undomesticated sources.  The work of clearing fields was done first with semi controlled fires, and then using wood and bone hand tools to finish removing charred stumps and other debris, fields were then planted in any number of indigenous crops.  The same way manure adds nutrients and minerals to the soil, so too does fire from the (semi)annual burnings.

Fire not only cleared out fields where they grew the Three Sisters (maize, beans, and squash – Roughly  Mexico north through Minnesota ), potatoes in the central and southern American highlands, and manioc root in the tropics, but fire was also used to keep undergrowth in the forests (continents wide) from getting out of control.  The great savannas in the Eastern and Central United States, described by Lewis and Clark in their journals that contained American Chestnuts, oaks, maples, and many other trees were not wild tracts of land, but highly managed food forests that provided a variety of nuts, fruits, greens, medicinal herbs, and meat protein from the animals that also called these forests home.

Variations on this theme of the food forest could be found throughout the Americas.  From the northern climes all the way down to the tropics and beyond; each region had its own diverse set of species that flourished with the help of the native populations and the fire they used to shape the land.  Even the tropics and the great Amazonian rainforests are now thought to have been food forests and gardens that were managed by the local populations whose numbers are now believed to have been much larger than first thought.  The evidence of terra preta, a mixture of charcoal, fired clay, manure, and other organic matter that is highly fertile that is found throughout huge swaths of Amazonian soil, is now thought to be evidence of a very hands on approach to the management of land that was once considered to be virgin wilderness.

With the arrival of the Europeans to the Americas, the world changed forever.  Disease spread like wildfire and decimated native and imperial populations alike (this included non human species as well).  Plants and animals from all corners of the globe began their international migrations.  Maize, potatoes, and tomatoes from the Americas, wheat and barley from Europe and the Middle East, and apples, citrus, melons, and rice from Asia all became global crops.   Honey bees, horses, cows, chickens, and pigs all became global animals and farming practices around the globe began to radically change, which in turn affected how communities prospered or failed, and how landscapes were altered.  So while it can be said that monocrop grain agriculture started well over 10,000 years ago, it was with the advent of the Columbian exchange that it took on a new global approach that has altered our planet radically.

Today our kitchen gardens and small scale farms are made up of global plant immigrants.  Whether you are in Africa, America, or Australia, the joy of a garden fresh cucumber, tomato, or onion is now a shared experience.  And while the globalization of plants and animals has had downsides such as the spread of pests, disease, and “invasive” species, it has also provided us with many new opportunities to help feed ourselves and heal the land after so much abuse and mismanagement at the hands of modern civilization and the agriculture that has made it possible.

Having this plethora of plants (and animals) at hand to work with can now be considered an asset and another tool for us to use as we adapt to our new living arrangements.  As Bill Mckibben has so eloquently wrote about (see his book Eaarth), we no longer live on the planet that we grew up on.  The realities of climate change are real, and when combined with peak oil, habitat loss, and nuclear contamination humans have been backed into a corner that will be hard to get out of alive.

The horticultural traditions from the global past may now be our best shot for the survival of the human race along with all the good parts of our collective culture – i.e. – music, art, poetry, community, family, etc.  When we can all become producers again, rather than just blindly consuming, we begin to occupy one of our historical roles as land stewards.  Since so few of us have any connection with the Earth anymore, we no longer know what it needs or how to care for it.  When we no longer live with the Earth, we no longer know its rhythms and fall out of balance with our evolutionary roles as caretakers.  Every year more soil is lost to erosion, aquifers are drained and contaminated, wild habitat is plowed under for field crops and development, and human culture moves further away from our evolutionary roots.  This has been our fate, but now is the time to free ourselves from the shackles of civilization and move onto the next stage of evolution.

Our shared horticultural traditions, whether that be from the terraced slopes of China to the food forests of pre-Columbian America are examples of what is possible.  While we may never be able to recreate some of these systems as they once were, the lessons they have to teach us are timeless and offer real solutions for our journey into the future.  The ecological design science of Permaculture gives us an opportunity to take all of these diverse traditions and blend them into a new, adaptable way for us to inhabit the Earth.  As we begin this journey, we will see that modern, industrial grain based agriculture is incompatible will our ultimate survival on this planet.  Only when we begin to think long term and include future generations into our plans will we be able to affect real, positive change.

So while planting biodiverse gardens with fruit and nut trees in and of itself is not the answer to all of the problems we face, it is a big part of the solution.  The challenges we are up against are compounded by so many factors, but food is one of the underlying commonalities that ties everything together.  When we begin to rethink how we grow our food and look to the past for examples, that is when we can truly move forward and begin the healing process of ourselves and our one planet.  I leave you with one final thought, a favorite quote of mine that sums up our journey thus far.  “Societies grow great when old men plant trees  whose shade they  know they will never sit in.”  It is not too late for us, lets do something epic and grow old together as one human culture!  Peace and Cheers

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Here are my two helpers.  We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard.  The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free.  They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

Here are my two helpers. We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard. The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free. They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

As happens this time every year, I have hit a lull in my writing.  Not that there hasn’t been plenty to write about, I just haven’t had the energy to sit down in front of the computer screen and pull all my thoughts together and put them into written words.  The summer of 2013 has seen our backyard bees doing great,  my wife just picked our first real harvest of Haralson apples, and it has been a very bountiful year for us on our urban foraging adventures which yielded us more than a dozen pints of mulberry jam and close to forty pounds of really great apples gleaned from an old neighborhood tree.

One reason for the lack of activity here at Autonomy Acres is that I am now working two jobs, and neither of them are the one that I have spent the last 10 years of my life working at.  Back at the end of May I called it quits at the adult beverage factory where I had worked and took the summer off to rediscover what it means to be human.  I was burnt out and depressed by the endless daily routine of factory life and knew I had to make some positive changes in the way I live and walk on this Earth.

Having a couple months off to gather my thoughts, and to let my body heal was the right medicine at the right time.  When I decided to take my life back, it was one of the most empowering moments I have ever felt, and the energy and self knowledge that I gained from that choice has changed my life.  I have realized that all the “Things” that society tells us are important and that matter are meaningless.  No longer will I let a “job” define who I am as a person.  The accumulation of money and “Toys” is not a measurement of happiness nor are they milestones that should be enshrined in our personal stories. Finally, it was reinforced in my mind that nothing is more important than our relationships with our families, friends, and the Earth.

While I wish I could say that I am now a gentleman of leisure, relaxing in a hammock sipping cold beer and reading Edward Abbey novels, sadly, I am still just a common worker!  I find myself back in my old haunts though – line cooking!  I worked restaurants for many years and truly enjoyed the kitchen work, but not the hours.  But I got lucky and I am now  slinging hash and eggs, cooking up real stocks and soups, and working with a terrific crew of Food Service Pirates at a local music college in the early morning, Monday through Friday.  It is nice to be appreciated for my talents and skills, and to also work for decent folks who treat me like a human being, and not a machine; a big change from where I previously worked.

I am also pulling a few shifts a week at a “Hip” national grocery store chain.  And while I do enjoy this as a part time gig, the pay is horseshit, and the health care benefits I was hoping to get through them just got put through the guillotine because of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which translated means – the big bosses saw this as an opportunity to make a shitload of money.  At least I still get a small discount on groceries!

It is interesting though to see a new side of the food industry that I was previously only a spectator and consumer in.  While I have written extensively about the global food supply chain and how it affects farmers and communities, and how it is ultimately not based on sustainable and local means and resources, seeing this first hand has been very educational.

freshly picked Haralsons!  These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard - No semi-truck needed!

freshly picked Haralsons! These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard – No semi-truck needed!

It is easy to use Wal-Mart as the poster child for the just-in-time, warehouse on wheels delivery model, but it is everywhere, whether that be a grocery store or a local brewery.  Anyone who has spent time researching food, how it is grown, and then how it is shipped to all parts of the world has seen the figures that say if a natural disaster or collapse of some kind disrupts the supply chain, grocery store shelves would be empty in 3 days.  Seeing how a grocery store runs, is managed, and is stocked I completely believe this.

Our food supply chain is balanced ever so gently on a global house of cards that when it does fall, it will fall fast.  It could happen because of the loss of honeybees that is now in the news almost everyday, or it could happen from a natural disaster or escalating climate change, or in a worse case scenario could be triggered by a terrorist attack or a war that shuts down the supply chain.  Whichever way you slice it, this scenario is all the evidence anyone should need to dig up that lawn and get growin’ as much of their own food that they can and begin adding a bit of resilience into their lives!

To echo past essays here at Autonomy Acres and other sources that touch on these issues, this predicament of global climate change, energy descent and food security that we find ourselves in, need to be looked at as an opportunity to move the human race forward into the future.  While it may seem like a futile prospect to think we can take on, and ultimately overcome these challenges, the words of Permaculture Pioneer Geoff Lawton come to mind -”All the worlds problem can be solved with a garden”!

It may seem like an idealistic statement, but I truly think that there is a lot of truth and wisdom from such a simple idea as planting a garden.  If everyone who has access to a bit of land, whether that be in the city or out in the country began to grow a portion of their own food, we would realize the abundance that this Earth can provide for us.  And a garden is more than just growing food.  Once you make the leap to becoming a producer and not just a consumer, many other wonderful things follow in the footsteps of a garden.

Compost is one of them.  Food scraps, garden waste, animal manures, leaves and other plant debris can all be composted and be used to start healing our soils.  When our soils are healthy and filled with organic matter, not only can we grow lots of great food, the soil also becomes a living ecosystem, a sponge for holding water, and most importantly a place that can capture and store carbon.

When we start to tend the Earth as stewards rather than rulers, and begin to see how humans can have a positive impact on our surroundings, beautiful things begin to spring forth.  Where once there were manicured lawns that were maintained by a regiment of poisons and pointless labor, now there can be gardens packed full of both annuals and perennials providing food for humans, habitat and forage for wildlife, and many other products that range from fibers, fuel, and pharmaceuticals.

Where once there were boulevards and roadsides, those pieces of land that are cut off from each, now there can be fruit and nut trees, fruiting shrubs, and forage for all the pollinators.  These pieces of land can be reclaimed and planted with species that need little to no human maintenance that once again help to feed us, provide us with fuel, store carbon, and heal the soil.

My futue looks sweet!  We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive.  It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

My futue looks sweet! We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive. It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

The future is full of possibilities.  If we continue down the road we are on now, then there will not be a future for the human race.  Turning the ship around is not enough – we have run out of time to do that, we need to jump overboard and start anew.  It will not be easy, but for the sake of the generations that follow, and all the other critters and plants that call this planet home it is what we must do.

Starting over will require participation from everyone.  It will not happen because a government or a corporation tells us too.  It will happen organically, and from the bottom up.  When the people demand an end to the destruction of the planet and are ready to start the healing process, governments and corporations will have no choice but to listen, and eventually cease to be.

It is possible, and it is starting.  It is happening everywhere that there are gardens being planted, where land is being reclaimed, and where communities are being built.  It happens when people band together and stand against the machine of oppression.  It happens when people realize that everything we have been taught is an illusion, and that when we change our lives, we have the power to change the world!  Peace & Cheer

A great video about living a simple life …

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Purple cone flowers and sunflowers in our back garden.  Both are great pollen sources for pollinators and also add beauty to our landscapes.

Purple cone flowers and sunflowers in our back garden. Both are great pollen sources for pollinators and also add beauty to our landscapes.

It is a beautiful afternoon here in West St. Paul, Minnesota.  There are a few clouds in the sky and a light breeze keeping this early August day at a nice temperature.  I am enjoying the modern luxuries of a few cold beers and a laptop in my backyard, a pork roast and chicken breasts being slowly smoked on the grill, and looking out over a garden filled with apple trees, sunflowers, and all other kinds of plants that the bees, birds, and butterflies are loving!

 

There are a few monarchs flying about and perching on the purple coneflowers, presumably enjoying the sun just like I am, and aside from the honey bees, there are also bumblebees, solitary bees, mason bees, and many other types of pollinators that I do not know the names of.  Some are wasp like insects that are all black with a blue sheen and long abdomens, others appear to be half  honey bee half fly, some look like apis mellifera, but are just different enough to be their own species.

 

But one thing all of these little critters have in common is their love of a healthy place to live.  All of our gardens, but especially the backyard garden that I am writing this next too, is a fairly overgrown collection of native and non-native perennials, self seeding flowering annuals, fruit trees, cooking herbs, and an assortment of other “weeds” that call this piece of ground home.

 

A wild cousin of apis mellifera.  I have no idea what this little critters name is, but it sure is pretty...

A wild cousin of apis mellifera. I have no idea what this little critters name is, but it sure is pretty…

For at least the last ten years there have been no pesticides or herbicides used on my property.  While I can not say the same of some of my neighbors, most of the yards around here have a bit of a wild side on parts of them.  Our neighborhood is one of the older ones in this part of town with some of the oldest  houses dating back to the late 1800’s.  Due to this, the demographics around here tend to lean towards the lower-middle class end of the spectrum, and many people that surround us (but not all of them) do not bother with heavy chemical lawn and pest treatments, which, as far as the bees and other pollinators are concerned, is a good thing.

 

As a result there are catnip plants, thistles, burdock, wild lettuces, purple loose strife and all other sorts of flowering weeds along the forgotten edges and property lines throughout the neighborhood.  You do not have to look hard or far to find fall asters, lambs quarter or dandelions, and there is a perennial ground cover of Creeping Charlie and white clover in many of the yards around our hood.

 

While this may not be aesthetically pleasing to the city council, or the folks who tend to their lawns with a devotion that is on par to religious fanaticism, this is a good thing for the honey bees.  These overlooked edges, and backyard weed orgies may be the honey bees (and their wild cousins) best hope for their ultimate survival.  It could be argued that urban neighborhoods like mine, with all the traffic and smog of city living, may be cleaner places to live and provide a more complete, and diverse diet if you are a honey bee.

 

A bumblebee and another wild cousin foraging on wild lettuce flowers.

A bumblebee and another wild cousin foraging on wild lettuce flowers.

While I am not typically a doomer, and try to stay rooted in reality, the honey bees are in a bad place right now.  You do not have to look far in the world of online or print media before you come across a piece about the plight of the honey bees.  Millions of bees dead in Canada, CCD getting worse, and struggles to get crops pollinated are all making headlines on a daily basis.  Are these headlines exaggerations?  I do not think so at all.  While I do not think the honey bee is going to go extinct anytime soon, I do believe that the food production system (which is based almost solely on honey bee pollination) that we have built over the last 100 years or so and rely on for almost all of our food is in great danger of collapse.  Mainly for the simple reasons that it is too big, too polluted, too dependent on fossil fuels, and no less damaging to the planet and her inhabitants when compared to things like clear cutting, mountaintop removal, tar sands, or hydraulic fracturing.

 

It is almost a catch 22.  If it weren’t for the honey bee, we would never have been able to start growing our food the way we have over the last 100 years.  But now it is this same mode of food production, the megalith of industrial agriculture that would not be possible without apis mellifera,  that is killing off the honey bee.  Because we have plowed up so much land, or in the words of Earl Butz – “Fencerow to Fencerow”, and have replaced it with monocrops of  GMO corn and soybeans, almonds and other regional crops that are all dependent on huge inputs of fertilizers, fuel, herbicides, and pesticides; we have basically created food deserts for all of the pollinators and other wild critters that use to called these areas home.

 

So is it possible that urban and semi urban (especially those in lower income) areas could be the honey bees saving grace?  I think it may be so.  Acre for acre, more poison that is harmful to insect and plant life (and all life in general) is being applied to rural land, especially in the areas that are growing corn and soybeans.  Glyphosate and Neonicotinoids make up the majority of the chemicals being used in modern agriculture and are being implicated with each new study as one of  the main causes in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Add to that fungicides, loss of habitat, varroa mites, and an artificial diet of high fructose corn syrup that is being fed to the bees to replace their stolen honey and lost forage of flowering “weeds”, and you have a perfect man made storm that is wiping out the bee population around the world.

 

Now that we have a fairly clear picture of the situation that the bees and other pollinators are facing, we can start to act in ways that can benefit and promote their survival.  As far as our broad scale agriculture is concerned, it ultimately may not be salvageable, at least in a form that is recognizable to most privileged humans if we want to insure the continuation of pollinator genetics.

 

Bee hives in an almond orchard.

Bee hives in an almond orchard.

Looking at the almond orchards of California as an example gives us a perspective of how large and complicated modern industrial agriculture has become. These orchards, which bloom once a year and cover an area of around 800,000 acres (or roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island), leave nothing else for bees to forage from after the spring bloom is done.  The orchards require close to one million of America’s honey bee colonies for adequate pollination each year, for about a three to four week period early in the spring.  Once the almond trees are done blooming, the migrating beekeepers pack up their bees by the semi load and move on to the next stop in their annual travels.  It may be fruit orchards in the Pacific Northwest, or tomatoes and melons in Florida, or fields of alfalfa and clover in the Dakotas, but the constant movement of the bees to one pollination center to another is also weakening them by exposing them to disease due to the high population density of bees from around the country.

 

If these orchards could move away from the monocrop mentality by reducing the amount of chemicals being used and provide other forage (perennial weeds, polycultural alley cropping, etc…) for the bees throughout the year, less bees would have to be shipped in each spring, and little to no high fructose corn syrup would need to be fed back to the bees, and we would start to reduce the demands that we have put onto a large segment of the bee population.

 

Will this happen?  Probably not anytime soon.  The almond business in California, the largest area in the world where almonds are grown, is a multi-billion dollar industry for California.  To question this industry or any other giant agricultural venture and it’s impact on the bees is bad business, and one of the reasons that our food system is balanced on a precipice overlooking collapse.  When we value money and profit over the health of ecosystems and all their inhabitants, we are no longer stewards of the land, but slaves to the almighty dollar.  Almonds, just like corn or soybeans (these two are not directly dependent on bees though), have gotten so large and complicated, that they are bound to eventually collapse underneath their own weight and hubris.

 

This is where the small scale farmers, urban homesteaders, permaculturists,  guerilla and backyard gardeners, environmentalist, and nature lovers can all play a huge role in supporting honey bee health, and ultimately their continuation on this planet.  It is true that it will take a massive paradigm shift to change agriculture as we know it, but we forget how powerful individuals, communities, and backyards can be.

 

This is a polyculture of wild majoram, borage, winter savory, comfrey, apple trees, and creeping charlie.  This area has been covered in pollinators for the last month and a half, providing nectar and pollen.

This is a polyculture of wild majoram, borage, winter savory, comfrey, apple trees, and creeping charlie. This area has been covered in pollinators for the last month and a half, providing nectar and pollen.

Let’s start in the backyard and boulevards of Everywhere America.  The first and most effective step an individual or family can take is to stop treating our lawns like it is royalty.  The lawn was a creation of the rich upper class in the 1700’s in western Europe, and was a symbol of wealth by showing you no longer had to devote your land holdings to food production.  This has continued on into the present and has only gained momentum.  There are whole sections of hardware stores and Wal-Marts devoted to this weekend pastime and all of the “Toys” you need to maintain a perfect Victorian lawn.

 

Lawn Boys and Yard Man mowers, leaf blowers, home scaled amounts of broadleaf herbicides to keep the dandelions (and other bee forage) at bay, and a whole universe of different sprinklers, fertilizers, and ornaments that tell your neighbors that you have succeeded in life!  All of these to some degree play a role in pollinator habitat destruction.  So the first simple step is to ditch all of these inputs and the traditional lawn and start planting bee friendly habitat.

 

While it has become my goal to eventually have no more “lawn”, I do still have areas for the kids to play on and the dog to roll around in.  However these areas are packed with creeping charlie and dandelions in the spring, and white clover throughout the summer, all forage for the bees.  I will never completely get rid of our lawn because my lawn is an ecosystem, filled with flowering groundcovers and nutrient accumulators that provide pollen and nectar for the bees. It is also a self fertilizing closed loop system that stays green most years with no water except for that which it receives from the rain.

 

One of our girls foraging on a catnip plant.

One of our girls foraging on a catnip plant.

Lets now take a quick look at boulevards, those small strips of land between the sidewalks and the streets and are typically planted with grass.  Not only are these once again useless lawn spaces that require watering, fertilizing, and fuel for excessive mowing, they also shed water in huge amounts.  If we made it a national effort to start planting our boulevards into rain gardens that were filled with bee friendly natives, perennials, fruiting and flowering trees and self seeding annuals we could increase total acreage of habitat by thousands, if not millions of acres.  This is huge when you think about how easy it is to convert a boulevard (or a whole lawn for that matter) to a no-mow, low maintenance landscape that can provide pollinators with forage and retain water in our drying landscapes.

 

And briefly, let us discuss park lands, roadsides, and other forgotten parcels that can also aid the bees in their quest for survival.  In my essay Guerilla Forest Gardens I talked about taking guerilla gardening to a new level by starting and tending clandestine orchards and food forests using edible woody perennials, shrubs and groundcovers.  This same principle can also be applied when it comes to planting habitat for honey bees, and many of the trees and shrubs that may be used in a Guerilla Forest Garden also provide great forage for bees.

 

Focusing on trees, there are many different kinds that also provide great forage for our pollinating friends year after year.  Here in Minnesota great trees to have around for the bees are Basswood, Black Locust, Autumn and Russian Olive, Poplars (bees use resin from these trees to make propolis), Mountain Ash, and any of the common fruit trees that are found in backyards.  Even though trees like these only bloom once a year, they can provide so much pollen and nectar at such a crucial time in the season that the more of these trees that are around, the larger the population of bees that can be sustained and thrive in any one region or neighborhood.

 

Trees that thrive here in Minnesota are obviously going to be different than ones that thrive in other parts of the country, so find your local and regional equivalents and get your cities and counties to plant more of them!  And if you are so inclined to plant trees yourselves (whether on your own land or in a Guerilla Forest Garden), many extension and county services have tree sales each spring where you can pick up bundles of trees like these for wholesale prices.

 

So aside from making our own yards and farms, local city parks, boulevards, and highway roadsides friendly to bees, what else can we do to aid the honey bees?  Ultimately it comes down to education.  First and foremost is educating the next generation about honey bees specifically, but nature and biology in general.  There has been such a disconnect over that last few decades involving our youth and the natural world that first needs to be addressed.  This trajectory follows the bulldozing of what was once rural, agricultural and wild lands, and the rise of the ever present and sterile, cookie cutter suburbs.

 

Most kids no longer have the luxury of getting lost in the local woods, or having adventures around a small creek; mainly for the reason that places like this hardly exist anymore.  So not only do our kids suffer from growing up in artificial environments mediated by a TV, an Xbox, and junk food, but these same woods and stream banks that once fueled a childs imagination and play time can no longer feed and house our pollinators.  So if there is any hope for the ultimate survival of the bees specifically, and a diverse ecosystem to support them, it lays in the hands of the next generation of young people and adults.  People who are not scared of the outdoors or bugs, people who can appreciate simple pleasures, and people who care for the natural world are what we and the bees need to successfully move into the future.

 

And second we need to help educate our families, friends, neighbors, and communities about honey bees and what they need to live healthy, productive pollinating lives.  The good news is that everyday, more people are becoming aware about this issue, and all the implications and connections that can be made to habitat loss, GMOs, and pesticide use.  The bad news is getting people to act on this new awareness that they now have.

 

A bumblebee on a comfrey flower.

A bumblebee on a comfrey flower.

Not everyone needs to run out and become beekeepers.  Some people just aren’t suited for it, and that is okay.  But something everyone can do, and quite possibly more important, is help to create the habitat and healthy environments that the bees need.  Tear up your lawns and start planting food for yourself and the bees!  Plant your boulevards in rain gardens that provide forage for the bees throughout the seasons.  Quit using the pesticides and herbicides that are killing the bees.  Contact your local and state governments about these issues and advocate for ordinances and zoning laws that are friendly to beekeepers and bee friendly habitat.

 

On the local level we can change things, even if it is one small yard or park at a time. True change, no matter how small, starts at home and with ourselves. When our lives and our actions are put out there to be positive examples to others, we can start to change the world.  Have the conversations with people who are ready to hear about these issues.  Take a class at a local nature center and learn more about the bees.  Write letters to your state representatives, boycott and protest Monsanto, go to city council meeting and make your voice heard, volunteer to help out a local beekeeper for a day, read books and watch movies about the bees, and always keep educating yourself.  And if you are moved by these little critters to the point of becoming a beekeeper, go for it and find the joy in getting stung a few times (it is really not so bad)!

 

The problems that face the bees are huge and are bigger than any one person or homestead.  But just like a colony of bees, when we do our individual jobs along with what everyone elses contributes, cooperation helps us to reach our goals.  We all have a part to play, and if we can succeed and overcome these problems together, the world may just end up a sweeter place to live upon.  Peace & Cheers

 

 

 

 

 

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Hey Everyone!  It is not often that I just throw a post together, especially on a Tuesday, but here ya go.  A while ago I was asked by Scott Mann, who is the host of the Permaculture Podcast, if I would be willing to record my article, “All Roads Lead to Permaculture” for his show.  I said I would be honored to.  Well here it is.  If you haven’t already heard Scott’s show, this would be a good time to give it a listen.  He has had many wonderful guests and it is a truly great resource.  Hope you enjoy it!!  Peace & Cheerspermaculture podcasr

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