Turn your pandemic garden into a Tiny Victory Garden

Building a lasagna bed at a community pandemic garden. (Grafton Agricultural Commons, Bowen Island, British Columbia)

It was more than a year ago now that grocery stores started struggling to keep toilet paper on shelves. Not long after the words “global pandemic” started being thrown around, the whole world stopped. Stuck at home we found ourselves thinking hard about resilience and self-reliance. Deep in our lizard brains, a great many of us knew that when faced with a worst-case scenario-type situation we’d need more than toilet paper to survive. So we stocked our pantries, ordered seeds, and started planting “pandemic gardens.”

A study published by Dalhousie University and Angus Reid found that in the spring of 2020, almost one in five Canadians started to grow food at home. Sixty-seven percent of poll respondents were new to gardening. A study by Kwantlen University, published in December, showed that consumers in British Columbia remained concerned about how variables such as trade policies and natural disasters would affect their ability to access food in the future. Many also stated their worry about increasing prices. People might be onto something, so… how ‘bout we keep those gardens going?

I would imagine all the first-timers discovered what the gardening veterans among us already know – there’s an endless amount of learning to be done when it comes to growing food, especially if you hope to enjoy the fruits of your labour. So the timing couldn’t be better for the release of Acadia Tucker’s new book, Tiny Victory Gardens: Growing Food Without a Yardwhich also happens be a great resource for people with yards.

Tucker is a graduate of the UBC Department of Land and Food Systems, a regenerative farmer (currently based in Maine), and a prolific writer. Her first two books (Growing Perennial Foods: A Field Guide to Raising Resilient Herbs, Fruits and Vegetables, and Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Carbon Farming) were inspired by the possibility of “building out a foodscape large enough to help cool our planet.”

I’ve been driven by similar motivations since October 2018, when the IPCC gave us 12 years to sort ourselves out and limit atmospheric warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Business as usual and plans to tinker at the edges of our suicidal status-quo seemed to be the standard institutional reaction to this news. I had to find some way to keep myself sane and building a healthier food system that could help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, that enhances biodiversity and human health, seemed like hopeful work. 

Half of the carbon released into the atmosphere every year is absorbed by the ocean, plants, and soil. Soil, when left undisturbed, absorbs four times more carbon than plants. Illustration from Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Carbon Farming.

Tiny Victory Gardens recognizes that potted plants and raised beds are unlikely to be effective tools for carbon-sucking.  It is inspired, rather, by the belief that anyone with access to a small patch of light can become more resilient.

While Tucker’s day job is growing ingredients for craft breweries on a regenerative farm, her side gig (and obsession, it seems) is her “mini-farm.”

“I experience February a little differently than most New Englanders,” she writes and then goes on to describe her house mid-winter: herbs in the kitchen; root crops and kale (brought in from the outdoors) in the living room; avocado tree in the bedroom; fig, lime, banana and cherry tomatoes growing under lights in the dining room.

Tiny Victory Gardens provides all the tips and tools you need to start your own indoor, or indoor/outdoor, mini-farm. 

If you don’t trust the potting soil purchased in bags (Tucker doesn’t particularly seem to) Tiny Victory Gardens includes recipes for you to make your own. There’s a section on raised beds. There are planting charts to make your season as long as it can be. There’s information on indoor composting, and DIY pollination, what plants to put under lights, and how to make really pretty pots of edibles. 

There is truly something for everyone in this book. If you are a long-time gardener and deep into your own method, you will want to swap tips and compare notes with this master-grower. If you’re looking to take the pandemic garden into year two (or year one, for that matter) you will undoubtedly find answers to your questions, and tips to make your garden, whatever size it may be, more abundant. 

We’re going to have to do a lot more than become really great gardeners to build a truly resilient food system, but getting our hands dirty is a great place to start. Growing food is a gateway to understanding and caring about the system that nourishes us. The gifts of this work also happen to be very tasty.

The Sense of Home

Elmer Starr (Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation) gathers his share from a harvest of herring eggs on hemlock boughs, Klemtu, March 2017.
photo by Alejandro Frid

Throughout my reading of Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene, I found myself distracted by updates and conversations on social media about blockades, arrests, and ceremonial fires in northern British Columbia, then in Vancouver and across the country. A group of hereditary chiefs from the Wet’suwet’en Nation had been in court battling plans for the construction of a pipeline through their traditional territory since 2012, and in the winter of 2020, the fight was raging on the ground. “Land defenders” blocked roads and faced off against militarized police, helicopters… 

It occurred to me that the common acceptance and use of the term “land defender” indicates a willingness to acknowledge that human beings are more than self-serving consumers. We can also be protectors. This is the shift Changing Tides’ author, Alejandro Frid, hopes to promote with the stories he tells in his book.

Frid works with a group of Indigenous nations on the central coast of British Columbia who have joined forces to actively manage the marine resources in their territories. One of his central learnings from this work, he writes, is that despite having had the ability to deplete critical marine resources in the area—in pre-colonial times, the human population of this area was robust, and people had access to sophisticated technologies used for hunting and fishing— the first people in this area did not do so. To be clear, Frid does not claim that pre-industrial humans lacked destructive abilities or the inclinations of modern humans. Hunter-gatherers spent centuries, he writes, wreaking havoc and causing extinctions on new continents. Eventually, though, they settled down. “The land ceased to be an expanding frontier and became home, the place where we humans can find our medicines, our songs, our stories—the reasons why we humans exist at all.”

Despite the damage inflicted by the past several hundred years of colonial oppression, this sense of home is still alive among many indigenous peoples. As one hereditary chief explains: “Heiltsuk have been present in traditional territory since time began and will be present until time ends.” The implication of that belief, writes Frid, is a “cascade of commitments and responsibilities.”

Frid points to traditional stories to demonstrate how the principles of restraint, responsibility, and respect of other species operated in both spiritual and social realms. These values also translate into reciprocity, which goes beyond conservation and “stands out for its tangible marks on the landscape in the form of tended landscapes that enhance wild species, allowing them to thrive in ways that are completely unlike industrial agriculture and its objective of homogenizing the landscape into a few domesticated crops.”

In rock walls built at the intertidal zones to increase the productivity of clams, in patches of shoreline modified to boost the productivity of root and berry plants, we see evidence of reciprocity. We humans are capable not only of restraining ourselves but also of nurturing the living world. In return, it nurtures us.

The colonial mindset, writes Frid, thrived on the simplification of the world. The result was the severe diminishment of native species and the suppression of any culture that stood in the way of the land “over which they believe they have been granted divine authority. The consistent outcome has been a suppression of world views about how humans might interact with all other living things, a narrowing of the collective psyche.”

Frid sees the story of industrial fisheries on the west coast as a reflection of that collective psyche. These fishers, he writes, “have a track record of targeting the best and easiest pickings first—whatever is closest, shallowest and has the best market price—until the near annihilation of a resource forces them to go farther and deeper in pursuit of other species that might yield a lower financial profit.”

Between 1970 and 1990, commercial fishing fleets removed more than 90 percent of rockfish biomass along the BC coast (less than 1 percent of the documented history of indigenous fisheries for rockfish). This decimation, however, pales in comparison to what happened to the herring. Between 1954 and 1967, industrial fishers removed an estimated two-thirds of herring biomass every year.

And all those fish were caught to be processed into fish meal and oil, meaning that the overexploitation of an ecologically significant species that is also a cultural keystone occurred not to feed people directly but, rather, to produce fertilizers and animal feed—key ingredients for industrial agriculture that exacerbate climate change and other global problems.

While Frid acknowledges that a lack of good data on fish populations may have played a role in this devastation, he states his belief that there was—and remains—a more significant force at play than mere data. “The declines of herring and other culturally significant species is rooted in racism,” he writes.

The story of Indigenous leaders on the central coast of British Columbia fighting to protect the health of local crab populations is enough to make a reader think he just might be right. Traditional laws of the Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk people dictated that if fishers caught a male crab that was large enough to have reproduced for several years, it could be harvested. Harvesters were also expected to make qualitative observations about the health of local crab populations:

They would also watch other crabs walking along the bottom and, based on prior experience of the place, assess whether local crab numbers were going up or down, or were stable. Then they would think about relatives back home. Who has not had crab for a while and could use some? How many do I need for my own household? Do I have enough for the next potlatch? All these pieces of information would then determine whether the harvesters would haul the hoop trap with crab or empty, and whether they would reset it.

During the 1990s, the levels of commercial crab fishing increased in and around the traditional territories of the Wuikinuxv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk. The commercial fisheries managers (from the Department Fisheries and Oceans) were allowing only the harvest of large males. They had no data to back them up, but they assumed that if females and smaller males were not harvested, then reproductive rates would remain adequate. For a decade they ignored contradictory evidence brought to them by local Indigenous leadership.

The three neighboring communities started working together to ask for the closure of the commercial fishery in traditional areas. Frid says that by the time he started working with them in 2013, the relationship with the DFO had become combative. “‘Prove that you have a problem,’ had become the tired, and vacuous, challenge from one particular crab manager.”

In 2014, community leaders, invoking legal principles that require hereditary chiefs to protect resources within their tenure areas, closed off ten areas to commercial and recreational fishers. They asked DFO crab managers to recognize those closures, writes Frid, but they refused. So, with the co-operation of commercial and recreational fishers, the communities worked with Frid to conduct a ten-month experiment that would produce data showing the impact of the commercial fishery. Frid writes that he expected the data to settle the issue, but DFO countered with a request for more data—to prove that Indigenous fishers were having problems catching enough crab to satisfy their cultural needs.

In the years following, further research set out to create quantitative data to do just that. Researchers found that until the 1990s, fishers caught an average of twenty-two crabs per trap. At the time, the interviews were being conducted, that number was closer to five crabs per trap. Perhaps it was this “proof” that people were struggling to access an important traditional food that caused the tone of conversations between community leaders and fisheries managers to shift. Since 2017, the DFO has honored four requests by these communities to shut down commercial fisheries.

For Frid, while this story exemplifies the racist attitudes that allow over-exploitation, it also offers hope: things can change. Indigenous groups who were historically at war now work in close collaboration with one another. The Supreme Court of Canada now recognizes oral narratives as valid evidence used to reconstruct historical land relations in support of land title cases brought by indigenous nations before the court. Science and policymakers, like those at the DFO, can embrace traditional ways of knowing. If they do, it will create stronger foundations for resource management and fundamentally alter the “collective psyche of industrial civilization.”

Frid points to the system of Hereditary chiefs, who are responsible stewards of specific places, as being critically important in the Anthropocene. Their authority, he writes, is contingent on the chief maintaining knowledge of those resources and their sustainable management, transmitting that knowledge intergenerationally and redistributing his or her own wealth derived from those resources. “Staying connected to place, for the long run, is a key responsibility of the chiefs.” In his work with Indigenous communities, Frid says this system of governance is often invoked to push for the establishment of marine protected areas. While such actions can’t stop the change that comes with a warming climate, they can give certain species a better chance of survival and keep ecosystems from tipping over into a state from which they will never recover.

Most of us, like Frid, are “descendants of wandering ancestors.” We can’t be expected to understand or adopt the visceral sense of “home” felt by indigenous peoples. However, he urges that what we can do is learn, respect, and embrace the laws and ways of knowing that came before us. Based on his explanation of the system of Hereditary chiefs in this book, it seems to me that finding ways to engage with them in the co-creation of the laws we all live by seems like a critical step to becoming naturalized citizens of the lands we live on.

In Changing Tides, Frid does not offer us a way out of the Anthropocene—out of climate change and species extinction. Similarly, he does not offer us any straightforward manner of resolving the conflicts between industry and the land defenders who stand in it’s way. What he offers is the possibility that with a shift in perspective, we can better manage these challenges. That shift is initiated when we change the stories we tell. When we tell ourselves that humans are rabid consumers and an unstoppable geologic force, we will be so. If we tell ourselves that human nature is not fixed and that collectively we are capable of continuous improvement, we will step up and do the work.

 

This review was originally published by The Centre for Humans and Nature, and is accompanied with an interview titled Reciprocity and Responsibility.

 

A World Away: The journey of a lifetime in social isolation

A socially isolated family dance-party, Bowen Island, BC.

If she were home right now, Mwai Mphande, would be locked-in with her family, homeschooling her sister’s two kids, dancing and playing board games at night. Instead, she’s a world away, on Bowen Island, doing everything she can to not let a global pandemic take away the opportunity of a lifetime.

“When you come from where I come from, to see somewhere outside of Africa is SO huge. It’s everyone’s dream,” says Mwai. “Sometimes I can’t believe I’m here, it’s overwhelming.”

Mwai comes from Malawi, the warm heart of Africa, and one of the least developed countries in the world. There, she is known as Lady Pace and she can be seen frequently on TV and heard on the radio. She’s known for her music, but also simply for daring to step into the world of hip hop as a woman.

Mwai says that in the early part of her career, she wrote her songs just to try and get people’s attention. Once she managed to do that, music morphed into a vehicle for self-expression. In 2016, Mwai’s art took on a greater purpose: to fight for the rights of women and girls in Malawi and around the world.

That year, Mwai met her friend Patti de Sante, who she is currently living with on Bowen Island.

“She was telling me about all these things, and talked about the Chief, who she later introduced me to,” says Mwai. The “Chief” by the way, is Chief Kachindamoto, a former secretary chosen to lead some 900,000 people. She’s made it her mission to end child marriage in Malawi. “When I met the chief, she was in the middle of stripping down a lower level chief who had allowed a child marriage to be performed in his village. When I saw this, I felt like I was meeting the most powerful woman I could ever imagine. Of course, I knew that child marriage happened in Malawi, but you get busy in your life and don’t really pay attention. When I met the girls though, it got really personal for me.”

Mwai Mphande and Patti de Sante on tour and celebrating the UN’s Year of Indigenous Languages, in Zanzibar.

Since meeting Kachindamoto, Mwai has recorded an entire album devoted to the subject of gender rights. She has yet to release most of the songs, as she is considering the best strategies to ensure that her message is heard.

Coming to Canada was part of her plan to also get known outside of Africa and continue her activism by initiating a new organization called, “Music Heals Malawi,” learning from and complementing the Canadian organization Music Heals. 

After a few initial gigs and lots of enthusiasm, Mwai was sure by the date of her scheduled departure in June, she could achieve her goal of recording a few songs with artists here. She was sure that new connections with music therapists and Music Heals would move the organization forward, too. She hasn’t given up on those goals but clearly, respecting the request to stay home, she’s been forced to shift, and rethink the next few months. She’s taking free online courses on early childhood development as well as gender and health, offered by USAID. She’s also HOPING to start an App-development course, starting on April 9 with a leading-edge organization called BrainStation, who she has met with already.

“I’d like to build apps that will actually help us, in Malawi,” says Mwai. “Like my friend Caroline, a medical doctor, she’s created an app that combines data entered by healthcare workers to support evidence-based decision making in the care of newborns. Malawi has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world – 25% of newborns don’t make it. We need more technology that the youth are engaged in and welcoming.  We need these apps designed by Malawians for Malawians. I know that if I can learn how to do this work, I can teach others, and we can work together to get really important things done.”

The catch, of course, is that this is not a FREE course. Bringing valuable skills back home comes at a cost – and not one Mwai can afford to pay. So, she’s looking for support to help make it happen:

The user interface design course costs $2900.00  So far she has raised $200 so she still has $2700 remaining.  She did ask Brain Station for assistance but they have not responded yet, most likely due to COVID and their need like others to pay their bills.  

Mwai is willing to offer some unique programming in lieu of a donation.  She is happy to set up some online educational sessions with school-age kids regarding her life and children’s life in Malawi that would include games, the local language of Chichewa, the geography, animals and food.  For others who might like to hear her journey of becoming a female hip-hop artist and activist Mwai will offer a single session. 

Patti and Mwai want to thank you for contributing and sharing this with others.  The course starts on April 9th. CAN WE DO THIS IN 3 DAYS.. You can send email transfers to insightintegrator@gmail.com and 100% will go towards the course.

2020, the year when…

Apparently, I’m not the only one not driving anywhere.

…whatever you were doing or planning back in January is probably irrelevant by now.

For me, this year started out so well, so ambitious and on-track, despite all obstacles. For a short time, I reveled in life without a car: all the money I was saving, all the exercise I was getting walking up and down hills every day. I was dreaming of a summer vacation cruising by sail through the Gulf Islands, and of creating a car co-op.

Tail between my legs, I was going to write to you about how short-lived that car-freedom was, to tell you about that time that I paid $2000 to make my way to a little-kid birthday party. The car cost $800 and a year’s worth of insurance cost $1,200. The decision felt financially wreckless and also like bad parenting (my kid doesn’t get many birthday parties, she would’ve been crushed, I am clearly a push-over). In the end, though, the decision has proven sound: my husband is one of those rare and brave people who still has to make his way into work every day, and public transportation feels suddenly, unsafe.

While he’s got the vehicle in the city, I am confined to destinations I can arrive at on foot. It is easier than I could have EVER imagined. Going to the grocery store is over, as is loafing around at coffee shops, working in offices, dropping small people at daycare, and so on. Right now I figure I am one of the luckiest people on earth to be able to go nowhere with a paved road in front of my house for the kids to ride their wheeled-things on, and the woods on the other side of that, and the ocean on the other side of that.

My privileged circumstances offer a thin layer of protection against inevitable anxieties. If I feel tired or sniffly, sometimes I panic. Then I reassure myself with the reminder that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen other humans in the flesh, and not had to holler to communicate.

Then there’s the anxiety for humanity in general. It doesn’t help that my seven-year-old pulled Lord of the Rings off the shelf for a bed-time reading last week. I’ve now been sucked into a world where the forces of evil are gaining strength, threatening to enslave even the simple hobbits.

When apocalyptic thoughts creep up on me, I think about how air pollution is plummeting. For a second, I got really excited to learn that dolphins have returned to the suddenly-clear waters of Venice (not true). While news about air pollution is true, it is also likely short-lived. Especially given the fact that real-life forces of evil are taking this opportunity to roll back emissions standards.

Author David Quammen compares the legion of 7.6 billion humans on this planet to populations of various insects, that grow exponentially in short periods of time with devastating effects – then collapse. The difference between us and insects, he says, is that we have the ability to change our behaviour to avoid danger. What we are living through now proves this to be true.

None of us know what life on the other side of this pandemic looks like, what will stick with us and what we’ll forget almost instantly. I assume many of us will hold on to our improved our hand-washing techniques and the frequency of the act. Many of us will be better at making bread. We’ll be more comfortable with video-conferencing, and forging-on at the office through the common cold will likely fall out of fashion. But will we have settled into the idea of slowing down and staying put? Will we come out of this with an ability to eat out of the fridge instead of rushing back and forth to the grocery store every thirty seconds?  Will we have gained the patience and fortitude to fight the longer emergencies? 

Your guess is as good as mine. For the moment though, I’m holding off on making any plans beyond my garden.

Car-free in 2020?

RIP family mini-van.

Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car. 
–EB White

Back when I was dipping my toes into the waters of adulthood, I went to a job interview and by the end found myself in an intractable argument. 

Interviewer: Do you have a car?

Me: No.

Interviewer: Do you plan to get one?

Me: No.

Interviewer: Well what if we paid you enough to get a car?

Me: Still no.

Interviewer: I don’t understand.

I didn’t get the job, and that was totally ok with me. I was very young and there were other jobs (there actually were!) I knew very little about what I wanted from life, aside from the fact that I didn’t want a car. I didn’t want to grow old sitting in traffic, and I didn’t want a job that asked me to. I had a bike and working legs when those didn’t cut it there were subways and buses and taxis.

Life was good. 

Twenty years on, I still have working legs and a bike, but now I also have two small(ish) kids. I have a bus that drives by my home intermittently, but there is no actual bus stop anywhere to be found in along any of the local routes. I have no subway, but I do have a mini-mountain between my home and the nearest place of commerce. I believe there is a taxi in these parts, but it is one of those businesses whose operational status I struggle to keep track of.

My local government has hatched a plan of sorts, promising transformative transit services and a network of paths to make “active transportation” an actual thing here sometime around 2040. 

For now though, when we want to get somewhere, we drive.

Until the beginning of December, a 2001 burgundy minivan with one white door handle, a non-functioning air conditioning system (rats, I think), and a cd player hauled my family everywhere, all the time. I’m not too cool to admit that I actually kinda loved this vehicle. It symbolized the completion of my family and had the crumbs ground into the back passenger seats to prove it. Aside from kids and bikes and groceries, I lugged straw and soil and chicken coops in it. I never once stressed that the car might be scratched or dented, it was made to be scratched and dented. Then the engine “got dead,” as my four year old likes to tell people. 

My husband and I were left pondering how to tackle the family transportation conundrum.

We debated the ways an EV would be compatible with our lifestyle, and the ways it would fall short. We got excited for a moment, to learn about a particular model of hybrid, until we saw the price tag and compared it with our financial reality. I think it might have just been fatigue that led us to decide on not replacing the van at all. 

We figured: we get groceries delivered to our doorstep, and our seven year-old gets picked up five mornings a week to get on a school bus that delivers him home again 7.5 hours later. If I can hussle my little one out of bed before 8am, I can hop on a bus that will deliver her to daycare. If that fails, we can potentially hitch a ride with one of the care-givers who drives by our house each morning at approximately 8:25. The bonus of both scenarios is that we can avoid the horrendously overcrowded parking lot at drop-off and pick-up times.

I brought the kids by bus to their off-island skating lessons twice. I not only deemed the ventures to be successful, but perhaps more enjoyable than driving. We met a few other families on the bus, and each kid acquired a friend for the journey. I managed to run errands along the bus route. The kids were as bouncy and crazy as ever, but I’m not sure which I consider more stressful: constantly urging them to stay out of traffic, sit properly and not climb so far up that tree or – being trapped in a metal box with them.

We can do this, I thought, and it doesn’t even have to be a sacrifice.

At some point mid-December, a friend texted to say that she was going away for a month and if I wanted to cover the cost of insurance, I could borrow her vehicle.

“Awesome!” I texted back. “Happy to cover the cost of insurance, but I am planning on not driving it too much anyways.”

Let me tell you, that first day with her little jeep I felt a deluge of relief wash over me. I could just hop in, go to the post office, pick up a package. Freedom.

Several weeks later I am as securely attached to this vehicle as a I am to any member of my family. I would rather not look at a calendar – less than 10 days and I have to give it back. In ten days it’s just me and my feet. I’ll be begging for rides and becoming besties with the local bus drivers. 

Will 2020 be the year of slowing down for me? Will I shift perspective, or lose my mind? Will I feel more connected to my community, or become that annoying person who can never drive the kids to playdates, to baseball and responds laggingly to calls from school saying my kid is sick?

Or will I just crack, and get a car?

My younger self will urge me to stay strong, to fight the man, to start a car co-op, buy an e-bike or maybe just skip the country. I’ll keep fanning the embers of her idealism while paying the mortgage and trying to figure it all out.

Exploring Arboreality

Mesquite trees kept people in the arid South West fed for thousands of years, and are widely considered to be worthy of eradication.

Metamorphosis is not a term typically associated with human animals. As dramatic as such transformations are, the idea that one of us might undergo the process of becoming, say, a tree, stretches the boundaries of the word. Our differences go beyond mere appearances and nutritional preferences, after all. This does not stop ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan from attempting such a feat, after having fallen hopelessly in love with the leguminous, desert-dwelling mesquite tree. His book, Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair, documents the journey.

Nabhan’s focus on the mesquite tree may well have been lost on me, who couldn’t spot a mesquite if I walked right into one (it lives in the desert and has pods, right?). Yet the strong undercurrent of “arboreality” got my attention. Nabhan suggests that most of us have never “fully seen, smelled, heard, tasted or been touched by a tree.” 

This idea is nearly as absurd as the human-tree metamorphosis, at least at first. What human has not climbed, sat on, sat under, and touched a tree? We all recognize our dependence on oxygen, a waste product of trees and other plants. Many of us have even come to accept that trees communicate with, even defend and support, others in their “communities.” Still, we have hardly shaken the notion of them as hard and unfeeling vehicles for carbon dioxide. They don’t move, see, smell, or hear. This will change, says Nabhan, if we dedicate ourselves to uncovering their hidden attractions. If we do the work, he says, we just might come to see that a tree is in fact “a sentient being of consummate poise, sessile grace, and impeccable instincts. It has the capacity to care for us, to love.” 

And by the way, trees are sentient. Just ask a plant neurobiologist. Nabhan gives a nod to one, Stefano Mancuso, who says that plants have senses analogous to all five of ours, plus fifteen others. Mancuso says (to Michael Pollan, in the New Yorker) that plants have millions of brains instead of just one. A plant’s brains are found in its radicles, the parts from which roots grow. Radicles can sense resources and danger; they can compel the roots to grow toward nutrients; they can encourage relationships with helpful microbes; and much more.[1] 

Now back to Nabhan’s beloved and highly intelligent mesquite. This tree, he says, is not simply coupled seamlessly with its habitat; it responds to it. The tree and its environment are in a lover’s dance, shaping one another with each step, but the mesquite is not passive; it can decide which stimuli to pay attention to and which to ignore. The mesquite can play dead, produce self-healing resins, or send the ants who feast on its leaves to attack a saw-wielding human. 

We see the impact of the mesquite’s decisions when we look underground. Mesquite roots can travel both deep (in one case, an astonishing 175 feet deep) and wide, seeking moisture wherever it might be found. These extraordinary roots attract fungi and bacteria, who tend to the soil by fixing nitrogen and in other ways. What’s more, mesquite roots hold on to moisture and assist in the building of “resource islands” in the desert. In this way, mesquites “bring forth a world.” 

This and much more about the mesquite largely escaped the European-descended settlers of the Southwest. As one “cow-girl” told Nabhan:

When I was growing up . . . they poisoned them trees. They dragged them down with chains running between two bull-dozers, driving in tandem across the range. They grubbed those suckers out of the ground until their roots was upright, danglin’ in the dry air.

Mesquite trees are thorny, and also not grass. That’s two good reasons for a rancher’s dislike of them. Unfortunately for the ranchers, the density of mesquite trees increased in tandem with the growth of the livestock industry in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. It turns out that some breeds of livestock were excellent propagators of mesquite seeds. Also, the effect of grazing was the creation of loose, arid soils inhospitable to grasses during times of drought or other environmental stress. Such disturbances created conditions that allowed mesquite to move in. 

But there’s more to this story. 

The ranchers, as Nabhan’s colleague Steve Archer explains, killed the mesquite in an effort to create the kind of grasslands they had seen in areas of high rainfall, but everything they did just seemed to help the mesquite flourish. The lack of grass caused by the grazers meant fewer hot fires, which had previously kept the mesquite in check. The more mesquite grew, the less grass could grow (grass roots are shallower and can’t compete for water). When the ranchers tried to clip the mesquite down to nothing, the trees just grew back (Archer writes that they have a virtually inexhaustible supply of meristematic tissue that will allow them to propagate from the base.) Burning the trees proved equally useless (only a reallyhot fire that burns through the root system can kill a mesquite). Eventually, ranchers turned to herbicides, which were more effective killers of mesquites—and likely, of other life as well. 

Six or so decades and billions of dollars spent on chemical weaponry has yet to eradicate the mesquite, but the trees are not what they used to be. They are, for the most part, “squat and spindly, unlike the giants of days gone by.” The Great Mesquite Forest—which once covered more than seven square miles along the Santa Cruz River and provided an “unparalleled avian habitat”—is a ghost of its former self. 

“How much we understand or misunderstand the lives of these plants matters very much, not just to the plants themselves but also to critters like us,” writes Nabhan. 

Had the ranchers saved their money and taken some time to understand mesquites, they might not have behaved so mindlessly. Mesquite, you see, was the main source of carbohydrates and proteins for indigenous people living in what we now call the desert borderlands. It also provided shelter, fuel, furniture, sealants, charcoal, medicine . . . and a rich ecosystem. 

Fortunately, as Nabhan demonstrates, perspectives on this pesky shrub are changing, and there’s something of a mesquite revival happening, even among ranchers (at least a few). That revival may well have as many benefits for the ranchers as for the mesquites—at least, it seems that way on Ivan Aguirre’s ranch. 

Ivan recalls that under his father’s management of the ranch, “there was not a single tree to block your view of the mountains,” but the land was too crippled to grow grass. Over the course of a decade, and with the guidance of ecologist and rancher Allan Savory, Ivan brought his family ranch back to a place of prosperity. Making friends of mesquite trees was a big part of that process. Under his system of ranching, Ivan says his cattle act as a tool for regenerating the land: their dung attracts microbes and insects which help with soil build-up under the mesquites. In the off season, his cow-hands harvest mesquite pods and grind them into flour, which sells at a premium, as it is known to help fight adult-onset diabetes. The return of mule deer to his land brings in revenue from game hunting. With these and other new sources of revenue aided by the presence of mesquite trees, Ivan has managed to purchase adjacent rundown properties. Clearly, there is a nice economic argument for mesquite in this story, but that’s not what it’s really about. 

“Part of our role here on this planet is to generate riqueza,” says Ivan. “How would you best say it in English? Richness? Abundance? Diversity? We are put here to observe the natural world and learn from its structure and vigor.” 

You don’t need a degree in ecology for this. Nabhan would argue that you don’t even need to finish high school. What you need is to apprentice yourself to a tree—to fall in love with it and learn to speak its language. In the process, you will notice transformation, of yourself and of the world around you. “What looks to be dead comes back to life, new inhabitants rise out of the ashes.” 

You might even find yourself sprouting a few extra limbs or start to feel brains manifesting out of your feet. This metamorphosis thing might start to seem appealing, if not plausible. 

 

The original version of this article appeared in Minding Nature, Vol. 12. No. 2 (Spring/Summer 2019), a publication of the Center for Humans and Nature (www.humansandnature.org).

Good work

The wood pile’s good work getting done.

I’m not for a second complaining, but the truth is, we’re facing a bit of an emergency here: the woodshed, which we re-stocked just a few months ago, is almost bare.

Sure we have space heaters and even a few baseboards but, when the thermometer dips below zero and the Arctic Outflow is pulling trees out of the ground, whistling through every door and crack in our little old cabin, it’s the fire that keeps us warm.

Being so reliant on that wood pile has changed me.

I measure winter by it, calculating, constantly, how long it is likely to last and how many cold days lie ahead.

The need to chop kindling, or to re-pile wood closer to the fire forces me outside even when I’d rather huddle under a blanket. Inevitably I come back feeling more awake, more alive, and more ready for whatever else I’ve got to do that day.

Sometimes, when I head out to chop and haul, my kids will follow me and jump into the task at hand. You’d be surprised at how helpful a three year old can actually be….

Robin Wall Kimmerer calls the woodpile the great teacher.

Her book Braiding Sweetgrass is about deepening the human relationships to all that sustains us. If the relationship is healthy, we’ll all flourish. If not, we’ll all suffer, so the deepening is important.

When we understand that wood brings us heat, we’re more likely to appreciate the tree.

“What would it be like, I wondered, to live with that heightened sensitivity to the lives given for ours? To consider the tree in the Kleenex, the algae in the toothpaste, the oaks in the floor, the grapes in the wine; to follow back the thread of life in everything and pay it respect? Once you start, it’s hard to stop, and you begin to feel yourself awash in gifts.”

Feeling awash in gifts…

If we all felt this way, moment to moment with each item we consumed, I doubt we’d be making much garbage. We might even find that we needed less to sustain us.

Now imagine if we could get our heads out of this place where we see ourselves, our species, as a sort of plague or malicious element on the earth. How might that change things?

Until I read Braiding Sweetgrass, the idea of humans as a force of destruction was like a wall in my thinking. I love the human story, and want it to continue alongside all the other beautiful life on this planet… but it seemed like too much to ask. Maybe it still is but, it helps to recognize that my perspective on humanity is worldview not truth: these ideas were built into my brain starting back in the early days of language acquisition initial encounters with solid foods.

Moving beyond our shameful self-perception as consumers, as takers, says Robin Wall-Kimmerer, starts with gratitude. We say thank you plenty to one another, but we need to learn to say it to the birds, the ponds, the water, the trees… and then we need to get our hands dirty.

In a chapter called  “A Mother’s Work,” Robin Wall-Kimmerer writes about her years-long project to “rehabilitate” a small pond to make it swimmable for her children. In the process of caring for the pond, Kimmerer becomes the reluctant executioner to countless tadpoles and plants. She questions her own narrow interests and the meaning of “good.” The work, as it turns out, is not about reaching the desired end, but about the relationship forged from the effort.

“The pond built my muscles, wove my baskets, mulched my garden, made my tea and trellised my morning glories. Our lives became entwined in ways both material and spiritual. It’s been a balanced exchange: I worked on the pond and the pond worked on me, and together, we made a good home.”

The gift was the work itself. Work, brings me back to the wood pile.

Tomorrow morning I will release myself from the warmth of my bed , slip on my snow boots and head outside. I’ll put the heavy splitting axe to work, and I will say thank you to the remaining wood. I will say thank you to the trees above me and to the winter wind.

I’ll source some more wood and use it less and less. Before long I’ll shift my thoughts to the buds on the apple trees and tiny plants poking their heads out of our kitchen garden. I’ll stick my hands in the soil in an act of pure gratitude.

What’s Important

“Henry Rackmeyer, you tell us what is important.”
“A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note of music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy,” answered Henry.
“Correct,” said Stuart.

-Stuart Little, by E.B. White

In the off chance you have not read Stuart Little recently, let me put the above excerpt in context: Stuart is a mouse, born into a human family. His family adores him as they would any new child, and though he never grows taller than 2.5 inches he is accepted and admired wherever he goes (except by the family cat). After Stuart leaves home to search of his bird-friend Margalo, he comes across a dejected looking man sitting on the curb of a sidewalk. The man tells Stuart he is a school principal, but one of his school’s teachers is sick and there is no one to replace her. Stuart, being the hero he is, steps in and saves the day.

In the classroom, Stuart zips through the day’s regular lessons. Spelling? Use a dictionary. Arithmetic? Who needs it. Social Studies? Never heard of it.

He does what any good teacher would do, and asks the students what they want to talk about. He nudges the conversation, of course… which leads to the question:

WHAT IS IMPORTANT?

It is an utterly beautiful bit of storytelling, and as I read it I thought how much better the world would be if every kid got Stuart Little for a teacher.

Then, last week, I participated in a workshop called The Art of Hosting. For three days, the 50 of us involved stepped forward to hold the conversations that were burning inside of us. Some of us spoke in specifics, but I tended to gravitate towards the all-encompassing conversations. The best I can do to label them is something to the effect of, “conversations about healing the world’s deepening crevasse of pain and separation so that we humans can start working together to fix this mess we’re in.”

Of course, it is very easy to get lost in a topic like this, but we learned that getting lost is actually the point. It’s in wading patiently and open-heartedly through the stories that we shift perspective, shift direction and shift the problems we are trying to “solve.” Questions are critical, answers are multiple, and outcomes are unforeseeable.

What is important?

The question just kept coming to me.

I feel like it’s pretty good question to put forward when we find ourselves stuck in a state of conflict.

I feel like it is a question that can lead us, eventually, to common ground.

We all want to have food on the table, but really… don’t we also want food that has a smell and taste to fill our hearts?

We all want a roof over our heads, but don’t we also really want a place that feels like home, that feels comfortable and maybe even inspires us just a little?

We all want to feel safe and secure, but so much more than that, right? Loved. Connected. Valued.

And really, what kind of person would not agree to the importance of the smell of a baby’s neck?

Curiosity, beauty, love… I’m sure we’ll find them if we take the time and the risk of diving into the messy stuff of life.

Maybe, like E.B. White (author of Stuart Little), we’ll even come out of it with a good story. After writing Charlotte’s Web he apparently said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”

If we move forward with intention like that, I we can’t go wrong.

Doing the Floss for climate action

Waiting for the Prime Minister.

“Come on, get your rain pants on, we’re going to go see the Prime Minister!”

It was a rainy Thursday and the kids had barely had a moment to wind down after school and daycare, but  we had a ferry to catch and a protest to attend.

“I hate rain pants!” Declared my six-year old. He’s a determined warrior against weather-appropriate clothing.

“Me too!” Echoed his little sister, adding, “You’re a poopy!”

Neither particularly cared about the Prime Minister. Climate change, and the importance of stopping it didn’t peak much interest either.

I managed to get some fried egg into them, and packed a cloth grocery bag with hats, mitts and rain gear. I might have bribed the kids with another pick from their halloween loot, but I did manage to get them strapped into their car seats and and across Howe Sound.

We arrived at the entrance to Gleneagles Golf Course to find forty or so people standing silently and holding large and banners that said things like, “BC LNG is One Big Lie,”  or “Trudeau Pull Your Socks Up on Climate Change.” Police officers milled about, politely ensuring that everyone knew the rules of engagement. Part of me thought, “Hey, maybe this is what democracy looks like?” Another part of me thought the scene was so polite and demure, that it was actually a little awkward.

Then the kids settled into the scene. They started twirling their umbrellas, jousting and laughing. Someone started playing a drum. My daughter happily seized a pot and a spatula from my hand and started banging away. This was starting to feel like a proper protest.

Talk among us banner holders turned to Trudeau and his expected cavalcade of black SUVs.

Did we have an ETA for him? Would he come from the highway, or would he drive past all the coastal mansions? It was possible, someone said, that, he’d arrive through a back entrance.

Maybe, he’d want to stop and hang out, maybe even seek out a few high-fives?

He’d had a good week, after all. The roll-out of the national carbon tax might have stopped instantly the moment the governments of Saskatchewan and Ontario announced they would not play along, but Trudeau skilfully wooed the citizens of both provinces. After announcing that people in those provinces would get rebates, support for the tax climbed by eighteen points in Saskatchewan and to 54% across the country.

Personally, I will take news of a successful climate change fighting initiative when I can get one. I need this news, in an emotional sense. That said, I want to see even braver leadership and bolder initiatives. To me, the plan to spend $4.5 billion in tax dollars on a pipeline to facilitate the flow of fossil fuel is both gutting and absurd.

The world’s top scientists have told us we’re headed for catastrophic global temperature rises within twelve years, and if we are going to stop it we need to cut emissions by 50% within that time frame. Yet we’re all stuck in the hamster wheel of business as usual. It’s like being told you have a treatable but deadly form of cancer, and then being shuffled around to different appointments where the doctors offer little more than a pat on the back and gentle reassurance.

What does leadership look like in this scenario?

I see it in 15 year-old Greta Thurnberg. Instead of going to school this September she decided to  sit on the steps of the Swedish Parliament and demand climate action for three weeks. She did go back to class after that, but kept taking Fridays off to make sure the politicians didn’t forget about her. Apparently Greta’s parents were rather annoyed with her, but they have clearly followed her lead somewhat: her mother gave up her international career and stopped flying, the family bought an electric car but barely use it as they all prefer to travel by bicycle.

Recently, Thurnberg spoke to a crowd of 10,000 who had gathered in Helsinki, Finland, to demand that politicians commit to zero emissions by 2035.

“Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every day,” she told them. “There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground, so we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to change. Everything needs to change and it has to start today.”

Now, I’m glad that Trudeau managed to swing a majority of Canadians in favour of a carbon tax, but I’m not sure the way he did it sets us up very well for making the changes we’ll need to make to stop, or even slow climate change.

So when I sat down to think about why I would bother dragging my kids out to a protest, this is what I came up with: I want our Prime Minister, and all our leaders to know that I am willing to give up my time, my comfort, and my energy to clean up the mess we’ve made. I’m also volunteering my kids to be a part of that effort. I’d like our leaders to deliver the corresponding policy changes to make effective change. The future that scientists have been talking about since before I was born (and before Justin Trudeau was born) is here. There is no time to waste. As a country, as a species, we need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels.

We never did get a glimpse of Trudeau. I’m told he arrived at the golf course at 8:50, one hour exactly after our departure. Sure, we felt a little disappointed, wet, hungry and tired, but we actually had a pretty great time. We sang, we banged on pots and flossed our hearts out.

And on the way home, I heard tiny voices chanting from the back seat:

What do we want?

Climate action!

When do we want it?

Now!

Let’s bring back Birth Days worth celebrating

Scarlet, Southern Resident Orca
The world celebrated the birth of Scarlet (J50) who is now a critically ill three year-old.
Clint Rivers, Showtime Photography and Eagle Wing Tours

If there was any excitement at the birth of a new calf to the dwindling population of Southern Resident Orcas on July 24th, it was short-lived. The baby died just half an hour after birth, and its mother, known as Tahlequah, made sure the world knew it.If somehow you missed it, Tahlequah carried that baby for 17 days.

The general consensus is that the mama whale was sending us a message and plenty of writers and researchers have made speculations about the contents of that message.

I’ve been wondering what it was that hit us so hard about Tahlequah’s “grief tour.”

Is it the fact that we cannot un-see that limp and yellowing corpse, the baby whose life we should be celebrating?

Maybe it’s not just the grief, but the injustice that gets us. Yes, babies die, but Tahlequah’s shouldn’t have and we know it. What we felt watching Tahlequah carry her child around was the same devastation we felt seeing images of a child’s body washed ashore because his parents tried to take him to a safer place. It was the same gut-sick feeling we held for the children taken from their parents by immigration officials at the US-Mexican border earlier this summer. It’s the same horror we feel when we hear about a teenager in our own city dying of “professional indifference.”

The more I learn about these whales, though, the more convinced I am that our grief is even deeper than this. We are bearing witness to the death of birth*, to extinction.

In an interview by Mark Leiren-Young in his orca-focused podcast, Skaana, researcher Ken Balcomb laid out the hard truth about this population:

There have been dead babies in the past and there will be dead babies in the future, and the problem is, there will be no successful reproduction if we don’t have a viable ecosystem for them to live in. That’s the problem.

Just look at the past few years in the life of these whales, and you’d be inclined to think Balcomb is on to something.

In 2014, an eighteen year-old named Rhapsody was found dead near Comox, an autopsy revealed she was pregnant.

In February, 2016, a whale named Nigel disappeared, researchers say his ribs were showing on the last day they saw him.

Throughout that summer, researchers followed 23 year-old named Polaris and her young son, Dipper. The pair appeared to be starving, and in October of that year, they disappeared.

Researchers announced the loss of Granny, believed by some to be more than 100 years old, shortly thereafter.

In the past month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been trying to help three year-old Scarlet, who is also starving, but these efforts have ground to a halt now that she’s in Canadian waters.

In an article about the current situation, and his struggle to get answers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Leiren-Young writes:

Today, if I thought anyone would answer me, it’d be time for hardball questions like: “If Scarlet starves to death because no one signed off on feeding her in Canada, which Canadian official or organization would be responsible?”

It’s a great question.

Governor Jay Inslee could order the breaching of the Lower Snake River dams assisting in the recovery of salmon populations and cut Washington State’s tanker traffic. Premier John Horgan could let the licenses for 20 open-net salmon farms expire, and he could encourage the federal government to cut the allowable catch for the commercial chinook fishery by more than 25%. Prime Minister Trudeau could come up with a better way to spend  $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars than to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline (especially now that the Canadian courts have rejected the legitimacy of the project’s approval).

If these things happened and the Southern Residents made a miraculous comeback, we could celebrate these leaders as heroes.

If their action are weak and ineffective, can we hold them responsible for the subsequent deaths?

I’ve left voicemail messages urging these leaders to act, and intend to follow up in writing (I’m better in writing). Honestly, my efforts feel scant and futile. The chances are low, I figure, that our leaders will take more than half-measures. A determined policy shift aimed at protecting our Southern Resident friends and rejuvenating the ecosystem they live in would probably be pretty disruptive to the status quo, and let’s face it, the status quo is quite comfy for most of us.

If every last Southern Resident disappears into the deep abyss of the ocean, we will mourn their passing and carry heavy hearts on our sleeves, but I doubt we will change much. As J.M. Cotzee writes in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians: The jackal rips out the hare’s bowels, but the world rolls on.

I finished Cotzee’s book last week. Although it was written in 1980, I felt like it was incredibly timely. It’s about empire and oppression, but it’s also about seeing the future and making a half-baked attempt to change its course. The unnamed protagonist is an aging, lecherous man who holds (at the beginning at least) a position of relative power. The protagonist makes muffled protests against the injustice he sees around him, but ultimately, he is a party to the crimes of his empire.

The same could be said for most of us, myself included.

If our leaders take half-measures and turn our whale friends from living, breathing, sentient gems into artifacts for natural history museums, they are guilty. If the rest of us fail to speak up with the required force, we’re guilty too.

The good news is, we’re not at the end of the story yet. We still have Tahlequah and her fellow chinook-eating orca swimming the ocean. We still have the chance to listen when they send us a message. As far as I know, there’s no single solution to bringing this population back to health, but hope for these whales lies in a genuine commitment to saving them. A commitment to saving is also a commitment to saving their ecosystem and our own. If there was ever a challenge worth stepping up for, here it is.

We might not succeed, but also, we might, and when we do there will be babies to celebrate.

 

  • “The Death of Birth” is a chapter in Paul Hawken’s book, “The Ecology of Commerce,” but I think that EO Wilson is the one who coined the phrase.

Feel like making some calls or writing some letters?

Premier John Horgan:
Telephone:(250) 387-1715 (Legislature number)
Email: john.horgan.mla@leg.bc.ca

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau
Telephone: 613 992-4211
justin.trudeau@parl.gc.ca

Canadian Minister of Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard 604.775.6333
JONATHAN.WILKINSON@PARL.GC.CA
102 W 3 Street
North Vancouver, British Columbia
V7M 1E8
HILL OFFICE
613.995.1225
JONATHAN.WILKINSON@PARL.GC.CA

Governor Jay Inslee
Telephone: 360-902-4111 | Fax: 360-753-4110