Usually we’re away from home for Thanksgiving: In the seven years of Thanksgivings from 2010 to 2016, we’ve been home twice, in 2011 and 2015. Otherwise, we generally spend a few days in Middlebury or Manchester, Vermont. Barring a last-minute get-away (came inches from one Monday morning), it looks like we’ll be home this year, and I’ll be making a vegetarian meal using our winter CSA veggies. My plan of the moment is a pumpkin pot pie (though a squash risotto is not out of the question), and probably this lemon and parsley roasted fingerling potatoes dish, plus an arugula salad with either fennel or roasted beets and shaved pecorino romano cheese. And rolls. And a Moosewood cookbook mocha pecan pie I’ve made many times before. Plus, there’s Gethsemani fruitcake in the house!
I’m grateful for the winter CSA and all local food, for the warm and cozy house, for the opportunity (time, money, energy) to travel over the holiday if we want to, for not having to travel anywhere.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.
Last month, we (spouse & I) visited the Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area, in Owings Mills, Maryland (just northwest of Baltimore) which “is comprised of 1,900 acres of serpentine barren. The area has over 39 rare, threatened, or endangered plant species as well as rare insects, rocks and minerals. … There are 7 miles of marked hiking trails.” We walked on the red, yellow, and orange trails — Choate Mine, Dolfield, and Red Run trails — shown on the trail map.
Though the Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources page referenced above calls Soldiers Delight a serpentine barren (and so does the Maryland Geological Survey, linked below), another MDNR page calls it serpentine grassland, which was dubbed “the barrens” by English settlers. I’m not sure whether these habitats are the same or not. (The U.S. Forest Service serpentine barrens webpage references only the habitat in the Klamath-Siskiyou region southwestern Oregon and northwestern California, but that may be because it’s a nationally managed serpentine area; Soldiers Delight is a state area).
Serpentine itself is
“a mineral producing dry, nutrient-poor soil deadly to plants not specially adapted to its unusual chemistry. In folklore, the name ‘serpentine’ is attributed to the soil’s resemblance to a mottled greenish-brown snake dwelling on similar soils in northern Italy. The greenish soil color comes from fragments of the underlying bedrock containing magnesium silicate. Toxic to plants, as much as one-third of the bedrock may be made of magnesium. … High levels of magnesium in the soil block a plant’s ability to take in soil nutrients, especially calcium. Because they are shallow and low in organic material and clay, serpentine soils also cannot hold water or nutrients well. Serpentine soils often have pockets of naturally occurring heavy metals toxic to plants, such as chromium, cobalt, and nickel” (and iron).
It’s quite beautiful in a stark way.
Serpentine stone is used as a decorative building stone and for road material, but the chromite — “a significant accessory mineral in the serpentine” and in fact in Maryland occurring only in serpentine — found at Soldiers Delight in Maryland was mined from 1827 until 1860 to make ferrochrome and chrome: “During the 19th century Soldiers Delight and the Bare Hills district of Baltimore County were the largest producers of chrome in the world” (Wikipedia).
Chromium is mainly used to make ferrochrome, which is used in making high-grade steel. Chromium is also used “as a refractory substance – chiefly as a lining in the basic open-hearth steel process, which produces three-quarters of the steel of the United States.”
Most of the mining was fairly small-scale, in small open pits; the Weir mine at Soldiers Delight, on the Ward’s Chapel Road, …. was the largest in the county, and the workings, which consist of two vertical shafts 60 feet apart, are said to have reached a depth of 200 feet” (Maryland Geological Survey).
As noted above, serpentine areas support a number of rare plants and insects. The MD Dept. Natural Resources website page says that Soldiers Delight is “one of the most species-rich” serpentine areas in the world.
The plant adaptations necessary to allow plants to live in this challenging environment include extra efficiency at absorbing calcium, avoiding heat by being very hairy or having specialized leaf types (like serpentine chickweed), preventing excessive water loss by rolling long, narrow leaves inward (e.g., little bluestem grass), and having extensive root systems. Streams and seeps also help “moisture-loving species to survive in the otherwise hot, dry grasslands.”
Smilax must also be adapted to these difficult soil conditions. There are four kinds found at Soldiers Delight: Smilax rotundifolia (common greenbrier), S. glauca (glaucous greenbrier), S. hispida (bristly greenbrier), and the non-woody S. herbacea (carrion flower); I don’t know which of the first three it was (probably S. rotundifolia), but I saw it everywhere:
Also lots of shrubby sassafras (Sassafras albidum) :
I liked the oak trees, different from the ones we have in New Hampshire; there are many oak species at Soldiers Delight — Quercus alba (white oak), Q. ilicifolia (bear oak), Q. marilandica (blackjack oak), Q. montana (chestnut oak), Q. prinoides (chinquapin oak), Q. rubra (northern red oak), Q. stellata (post oak), Q.velutina (black oak) —
and I don’t know which these are:
There were a few wet areas, more seeps than streams —
And then a stream between the woods and the field:
Some of the rare species in serpentine grasslands include true prairie grasses (little bluestem, Indian grass, purplish three-awn); serpentine aster (Symphyotrichum depauperatum), which actually evolved on serpentine soils; sandplain gerardia (Agalinis acuta), sometimes called sandplain false foxglove, found only at Soldiers Delight; the fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita); fameflower (Talinum teretifolium); the Edward’s hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii) butterfly; a rare black pear-shaped beetle (Polypleurus perforatus); and “a brightly colored leafhopper species so new to science that it hasn’t yet been given a name,” only at Soldiers Delight. For more info: list of Soldiers Delight wildflowers; list of Soldiers Delight woody plants; list of Soldiers Delight graminoids (grasses, rushes, sedges, cattails).
I didn’t see the pink-flowered plants listed (the sandplain false foxglove or gerardia, or the fameflower), or the fringed gentian, but I may have spotted the serpentine aster (or it could be some common narrow-leaved aster) —
And I saw another false foxglove, Aureolaria flava (smooth false foxglove):
Other plants I was happy to come across were common chicory (Cichorium intybus), which I think is gorgeous,
and also partridge pea (yellow) and a purple liatris (either L. spicata, dense blazing star, or L. graminifolia, grass-leaf blazing star):
I came across lots of these little tiny brassicaceae rosettes; someone suggested they’re shepherds purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), which is not on the wildflower list for Soldiers Delight (though they are listed as a plant at Nottingham Park Serpentine Barrens in Chester County, Pennsylvania). Also possible it’s Arabis lyrata (lyre-leaved rock cress).
I think this fungus is Trametes versicolor (turkey tail) but it could be Stereum ostrea (false turkey tail); I should have checked underneath for pores:
No pear shaped beetle was seen (I don’t think the black beetles in the chicory are Polypleurus perforatus), nor the new unnamed leafhopper (if I had known about it, I would have been looking for it!), nor the Edward’s hairstreak (actually, I did see a hairstreak or two but couldn’t get photos), but I was happy this common buckeye butterfly remained motionless for me:
And this orb weaver spider, which didn’t stay quite as still and I didn’t bring my camera as close to it:
And we have these large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) in NH (also orb weavers), but it was fun to see them in two instar stages on some milkweed:
I knew nothing about this place when we walked these trails; next time, I’m going to be looking more closely for some of the rare plants and insects found in these unusual, life-challenging serpentine areas.
Here’s some beer-bottle art? to end on. Rolling Rock — get it? :
(* Post title from the 1979 film “The In-Laws,” with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. Hilarious.)
Fruiting bodies of British soldier lichen (Cladonia cristatella).
Polytrichum (hair cap moss), looking all spikey.
All in the space of a few inches.
“Landscapes of great wonder and beauty lie under our feet and all around us. They are discovered in tunnels in the ground, the heart of flowers, the hollows of trees, fresh-water ponds, seaweed jungles between tides, and even drops of water. Life in these hidden worlds is more startling in reality than anything we can imagine. How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?” — attributed to Walt Disney
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Here are my highly personal notes on Chapter Three: Gardening the Planet in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.
“Most human agriculture consists of cultivating weeds in simple systems.” — Peter Bane
Permaculture Ethics: Care of Earth <-> Care of People <-> Fair Distribution of Surplus (or Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share, Limits Aware).
Permaculture includes and extends indigenous knowledge + empirical practices of science. It “provides people who have been cut off from their own traditions, lands bases, and even from basic contact with nature with the means to restore a healthy and productive relationship to the natural world around them. One basis of that relationship is ecology, or informed observation of the living world; the other is design — a positive, creative response to our own needs and the logic of natural systems. Permaculture is thus a system for taking responsibility for our lives at a most fundamental level, that of energy.”
Ecosystem Insights (insights permaculture draws from ecology):
1- Ecosystems have open boundaries, “exist in a matrix of other forces.” Not isolated or separate. Everything affects everything else.
2- And because of (1), ecosystems are dynamic, always changing. They can be thrown off balance.
3- Larger system = more stable (homeostasis)
4- Almost all energy for life on Earth comes from the sun.
5- Everything eats something else. (“Plants eat sunlight” ??) Overshoot = a population “has exceeded the carrying capacity of its environment.” Overshoot not realised right away but after a lag, because of resiliency in most systems. “Humanity has been in overshoot on planet Earth since about 1989″ (cites Global Footprint Network). Each year we go further into ecological deficit; “we are now running an uncontrolled experiment involving humanity and the biosphere.”
I would not call this meditation, sitting in the back garden. Maybe I would call it eating light. ― Mary Rose O’Reilley, The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd
6- All eating results in some waste — which can be potential food for another being.
7- Energy flows through ecosystems, and is stored in them. “The energy captured through photosynthesis is about five times the energy generated by fossil fuels.”
8- Materials that make up all living bodies cycle. Most of animal and plant biomass (97% of it) consists of elements in atmospheric gases: carbon, oxygen, hyxdrogen, nitrogen. The other 3% are minerals, stored as salts and other compounds in soil, ocean, earth’s crust. Minerals are often a limiting factor in ecosystems.
“We humans may think of ourselves as solid objects, all flesh and bone. But take a close look, and it’s clear our bodies are composed largely of oxygen and hydrogen. We are essentially ephemeral – akin as much to wind, water, and fire as to earth.” — Curt Stager, Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe
9- Information flow is the chief resource in ecosystems: “Information arises in ecosystems as feedback and is stored genetically (and among settled people, culturally). The loss of information can be more disruptive to life than the loss of biomass or even minerals.” Healthy ecosystems have redundancy built in so the loss of a single element doesn’t harm it; “[b]ut simplified systems (such as our agriculture) are easily disrupted by a change of information because they lack redundancy. In 1971, most of the U.S. corn crop failed due to a rust organism. … This was only possible because the information content of most of the fields was very low, with only a single variety of a single species present. The picture is not very different today.”
10- Species composition and ecosystem architecture change over time. “Disturbance triggers succession, though it doesn’t guarantee it.” E.g., when soil is disturbed, weeds and then pioneer plants show up. “Most human agriculture consists of cultivating weeds in simple systems. Farmers who plow and suburban lawn mowers both work against succession. That effort takes an enormous amount of energy and work.”
11- In nature, cooperation is the rule, competition is the exception: “Individuals within species compete for similar food resources, but within the larger community species are most often in relationships of cooperation. … When two species require the same niche, it is far more likely that one will adapt its behaviour to eliminate competition than that either will go extinct (“Better to be different than dead.”)
The permaculture system of design is not limited in its application to agriculture. The term itself has also come to be understood as ‘permanent culture,’ a paradoxical notion that nevertheless conveys the aim of an enduring adaptation to the natural world.” Permaculture can be applied to businesses, community currencies and credit unions, labor exchanges, urban neighbourhoods, ecovillages, universities, etc.
Featured image (top image) is a view — possibly into Canada — from the fire tower on the Magalloway Mountain trail in Pittsburg, NH, July 2015, meant to illustrate the concept of boundary-less ecosystems.
Here are my highly personal notes on Chapter Two: Who Am I To Farm? in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.
.3% of all Americans and 2.2% of Canadians make their primary income from farming, the smallest proportion in the history in either nation: “No other societies have made our basic connection to the earth and garnering a sustenance such a marginal specialty.” (Of course, as he notes, many of our farmers — “Mexicans, Jamaicans, Salvadorans, Haitians and other dispossessed farmers from the South” — are not acknowledged officially.)
Bane talks about some of my favourite people, Helen and Scott Nearing, on pp. 16-17, citing their 1954 book Living the Good Life: “After Scott, who was trained as an engineer and an economist, was blacklisted from academia following World War I for his socialist and antiwar views, the couple retired to the Vermont frontier [and later the Maine midcoast], reduced their consumption of industrial goods and adopted a vegetarian diet based on homegrown food. They built their own house from local materials and disciplined themselves to divide their days equally between ‘bread labor’ (work for sustenance), intellectual pursuits, and socializing. Working six weeks a year in the later winter to make maple syrup and sugar afforded them enough cash income to pay taxes and even to travel.”
Post World War II suburbs: Appeals to millions who had left the countryside for war and jobs but who still felt the pull of pastoral life: “Men continued to enact, in mechanical and often neurotic ways, the ritual of making hay as they cut their lawns into perfect green squares every weekend. Women organized ice cream socials and birthday parties like the collective celebrations of harvest that had ennobled the hard lives of their ancestors. Children were the real crop here.”
Suburbs grew to be dominant habitat for North American societies: “City centers and their surrounding neighborhoods, under assault by highway builders, redlining, and white flight born of racism, hollowed as their outer fringes spread. … The traditional household pattern of life eroded as millions of women moved into the workforce in the 1970s and beyond, largely to compensate for falling incomes and inflating costs of living. While energy concerns and economic hardship during the 1970s put a temporary brake on the expansion of suburban housing, military Keynesianism under Reagan combined with loose banking laws led to a glut of suburban housing and office developments occupying the new niches created by the federally funded interstate highway system. Flight from center cities, which had begun as a backlash against racial integration in the 1960s and 1970s, accelerated. A generation of sprawl had begun whose end we viewed in 2008 and 2009 as the so-called ‘sub-prime mortgage crisis.'”
North American suburbia is ripe for garden farms — the terrain is good (flat to rolling), the compact locations around centers of populations is ideal, there are already extensive water and road networks and lots of labour and other resources all nearby.
Featured image is spouse putting up the bamboo-fishing line fence around our main vegetable garden, May 2014.
“Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.” ― Robert Macfarlane,
I love this Australian digital publication, The Planthunter. Each issue, almost 50 so far, has a theme (e.g., Revolution, Fear, Play, Ephemeral, Feast, Pattern, Desire, Decay) and this issue’s theme is Wild.
Two essays in this issue caught my attention. The first was Wild: the Healing Relationship Between Nature and Grief, by Freya Latona and Daniel Shipp, particularly as I’d just been commenting on a friend’s Facebook post about the emptiness many people feel inside — from loss, suffering, perhaps a focus on individuality vs. community, perhaps just part and parcel of mortal existence — and how it’s often assuaged (temporarily) by addictions to sex, drugs, power, wealth, status seeking and status symbols, shopping and buying material goods, and also by care-taking to feel needed and valuable. I’d replied that I don’t feel the emptiness he describes but I have had significant losses in my life, and when I am grieving, feeling small and sad, feeling misunderstood, etc., my comfort urge is to get outside — on the beach, in the woods, in a park or garden. Being surrounded by the sights, sounds, smells, and/or tactile elements of natural places, the natural world — trees, plants, fungi and ferns, shells, wild animals (even insects, fish), rain, snow, ponds, rivers, brooks, mountains, oceans, marshes, bogs, sand, wind, sun, moon — and walking in those places, usually alone, seems to comfort me and enlarge my soul in a way that nothing else will. Neither of my parents was a caretaker (and I am not) but my father consistently modeled hiking, beach walking, and being in the woods as a way to live, a way to heal.
So when I came across this in Latona’s essay, I wanted to share it:
“Meghan O’Rourke, New York based writer and memoirist, lost her mother younger than most and writes openly about bereavement. In an essay published in Slate on her experiences of grieving in nature, she writes, ‘Having my sense of smallness reflected back at me —— having the geography mimic the puzzlement I carry within —— made me feel more at home in a majesty outside of my comprehension. It also led me to wonder: How could my loss matter in the midst of all this? Yet it does matter, to me, and in this setting that felt natural, the way the needle on the cactus in the huge desert is natural. The sheer sublimity of the landscape created room for the magnitude of my grief, while at the same time it helped me feel like a part —— a small part —— of a much larger creation. It was inclusive.’ … [P]erhaps being amongst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I had done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.'”
Second, I saw Swedish photographer Helene Schmitz’s work in “Helene Schmitz and the Sublime Power of Nature” by Lucy Munro. There are ten or eleven photos in two series, the first of which is The Kudzu Project:
“The Kudzu Project, documented by Helene during a field trip to the Deep South of America, is an example of the powerlessness of humans in the face of the natural world. Captured in a series of sinister, apocalyptic, black and white frames are the monstrous forms of one of the world’s most aggressive and invasive plants, kudzu (Pueraria lobate).”
The second, the Sunken Gardens Project — “a series of images that document the ferocious tropical jungle of Suriname, a former Dutch Colony on the coast of South America” — particularly interests me. The photos show enclosed spaces filled with plants:
“‘The enclosures may be interpreted as a garden of sorts. We often regard gardens as a part of our culture, wherein nature is disciplined, trimmed, and formed,’ says Helene. ‘A garden is an aesthetic human construct of nature, a rationale of the wild, a taming of intractable forces into a space for recreation and pleasure. In my photography, the very opposite takes place. The enclosed gardens bear witness to an impossible colonization project where he who attempts to discipline and exploit the jungle instead finds himself trapped behind vegetation that grows increasingly terrifying. What is the outside, what is the inside? Is the door leading to an enclosure or out of it?'”
(Other than the first image on this page, which is a screenshot of Planthunter’s “Wild” issue banner, you’ll have to go to the link to see her photos, as they are copyrighted; the other photos here are mine)
Gardens, as I’ve mentioned before, are a kind of heterotopia — subverting conventional attitudes and actions, melding a real place with an idealised place, blending the past with the present, with access (entrance and exit) to the garden limited in some way (money, status, structure, etc.); in Schmitz’s conception and in her photos, these enclosed gardens are a kind of anti-heterotopia, still subverting normal life and throwing into question our customary, habitual existence, but this time by melding a real place with a dystopia, blending past (contained garden) and present (devolving garden) while hinting darkly at the future, with the garden’s access limited in some way, not by an admission fee, turnstiles, or friendship with the person who owns the garden, but because you may pay for entering by becoming lost or trapped, and exiting is limited by being able to find the way out and make it through without plant tentacles encircling you, hauling you back into the smothering, pulsating ecosystem. “What is the outside, what is the inside? Is the door leading to an enclosure or out of it?”
Jorge Pérez Falconi, in his “The Festival Internacional de Teatro de La Habana (FITH) and the Festival de México (fmx): between Place and Placelessness” in Latin American Theatre Review (Fall 2014) writes that “[A] garden is a heterotopia because it is a real space that is intended, through its incorporation of plants from around the world, to be a microcosm of different environments. It contains the world in one place and, as such, is both particular and general at the same time.”
Schmitz’s enclosures do not contain different environments but in their way each is a microcosm of the larger world, both particular and general at the same time, a sort of literal synecdoche, one small enclosed untameable space representing and evoking the world as an ultimately untameable place. The enclosures are metaphors for the way we have tried to cordon off safe, rational, well-ordered spaces that separate us from “nature, red in tooth and claw” (to quote Tennyson), only to find ourselves “trapped within the threatening space ourselves, fearful of impending doom and suffocation as the available space for human intervention in this wildness becomes less and less.”
“I am interested in the forces of nature. How these, in a threatening and terrifying way, can take over and destroy the fragile social edifices we have built in our vain need to control and dominate.” — Helene Schmitz
Here are my highly personal notes on Chapter One: Garden Farming in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter will be linked here.
Self-reliance vs. self-sufficiency: Self-reliance is taking responsibility for household needs as part of a resilient local economy, including trade and barter; self-sufficiency is not needing external resources. Self-reliance is an aim of the permaculture design system; it increases resilience, the ability to withstand shocks and get through them. The journey toward self-reliance involves continually “replacing things we consume with things we produce” and “eliminating consumption of needless items altogether.”
He gives examples from his own household: “Our southern Indiana household is unlikely any time soon to grow tea or lemons, or to forge our own wrenches or strike our own nails. We haven’t turned off the water from the public system, but we use very little of it and should the need arise, we could supply our own for many months (or indefinitely) from roofwater caught and stored in tanks.”
He calls the US Dept. of Agriculture “an august but deeply corrupt agency.”
Regenerative agriculture – the kind that doesn’t collapse under its own weight of soil exhaustion, irrigation salt, erosion, climate damage due to overpopulation and over-cutting of trees. We need to see regenerative agriculture “not as a fringe or retrograde activity … but as a heroic and undersung achievement in the face of overwhelming institutional neglect, cultural dissipation, economic monopolies and dire ecological challenges from chemical, nuclear, and genetic pollution, climate change, and an eroding resource base in the land and in society.”
He speaks of industrial agriculture, multinational conglomerated food processing industries, and the pharmaceuticals industry as having “roots [that] run through the death camps of Nazi Germany and the laboratories of the nuclear and munitions complex of war and empire, eventually consolidated into a global oligarchy enclosing food, medicines, and seeds, and vernacularly called ‘Big Pharm,'” from which have come patent-protected seeds and “genetic manipulation of plants and animals to increase their control over the world’s food supply.” (That statement is linked by footnote to Dan Morgan’s Merchants of Grain: The Power and Profits of the Five Giant Companies at the Center of the World’s Food Supply, 1979)
In a section of the chapter called “Another Way,” Bane talks about seed-saving groups and networks, the 1970s “explosion of small-scale experiments in organic gardening,” Mother Earth News (formative for me in my 20s and 30s), Harrowsmith Magazine, poet and farmer Wendell Berry as “a prophet of this new movement with the publication of his 1976 book, The Unsettling of America …, a call for a renewal of the agrarian roots of the country,” and the establishment of subscription-based Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in 1981. (And lots more — the book is very dense and the writing oftentimes blunt.)
Bane predicts a collapse of the “juggernaut of industrial agriculture and Big Pharm,” perhaps suddenly, and notes that “they have grown fat on an empire of oil, that their fortunes are tied to it, and that the empire is now well into its final decades of decline.”
A system that imposes one solution on everything and everyone is death.
A New Science of Holism: i.e., thinking about wholes and their relationship to other wholes – each element as its own integrity, and if alive it’s self-regulating, and it also relates to the other elements in the system. Ecological thinking — studying how living communities relate within and without — is the fundamental tool for regenerative farming and underpins permaculture design. Organised complexities – lots of variables that affect all the others. Gives example of killing a garden “pest” with a chemical spray and how that action has consequences far beyond it because of relationships among elements in the system.
The last section of the chapter is headed Permaculture Envisions a New Commons and describes Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s permaculture vision from the start.
Featured image is one garden — with berries and veggies — at permaculture practitioner Lauren Chase Rowell’s Dalton Pasture farm in Nottingham, NH, taken by me in July 2014.