Taking up smoking

March 25, 2013

I’ve been toying with the idea of smoking herbs for a while, having seen experiments reported by fellow bloggers and thinking that it might make for another interesting (or pleasurable) way to take the qualities of wild plants into my person for medicinal purposes or simply to add the much-needed feral spark to my oftentimes dull, civilised character. I already do this with a myriad varieties of plant teas made from the dried or fresh leaves, stems, flowers, seeds and roots of the many species I’ve come across and experimented with over the years in my locality. So I asked myself: What’s the difference between herbal tea and herbal tobacco? It’s all dried plants (tea and tobacco are herbs just the same) – why not try smoking them instead of drinking them? That way, for one thing, the compounds go straight into the bloodstream via the lungs rather than having to slowly seep out of the digestive system. Plus it does look cool when all the other kids are doing it…

I first tried it a couple of summers ago in Italy. I’d heard that Mugwort was a good candidate for a smoking herb, and had found some pretty lush specimens growing in the sunny pastures of the mountain village where my uncle is fortunate enough to own a house:

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I let it dry in my room for about a week then brought it downstairs late one night when a few of us were getting ‘merry’, and we smoked small, torn pieces of the herb in roll-up cigarettes. The strong aroma of the growing plant came through in the taste and smell of the smoke, with one wild enthusiast comparing it to smoking incense(!), and there followed a very relaxed and pleasant light-headed feeling and the promised vivid dreams which a at least two of us reported the following morning*. We hoped there wouldn’t be any awkward questions at baggage control after one of our number had made a harvest to take with him on the plane back to Spain!

What tipped the balance for me, though, was seeing fellow herbal apprentice Charlie give a talk on ‘Herbal Fumigants’ at the Springfield Sanctuary ‘Celebrating Herbs‘ festival last September. She brought a bong and various smudge sticks and incense balls she had prepared in the preceeding months along with many plants to sample and hear associated stories, science and folklore about. It was a feast for the senses, especially when we got to try some of the herbs at the end. I tried Mugwort, Sage, Coltsfoot and Mullein.

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She writes:

Many people believe that burning herbs and smoking are something brought to us from the New World with tobacco, but tobacco is just one plant.  It’s true that a huge amount of the herbal lore that is current in the UK today has been imported or reimported from America but burning herbs to release their properties has been Old World practice for as long as recorded history has existed, whether we are referencing the Oracle at Delphi or Bald’s Leechbook which tells us in Anglo Saxon, “geréc þone man mid þám wyrtum“. (Translation: smoke that man with herbs).

Apparently Coltsfoot is the big one to check out here in Britain, with many smoking it during WW2 when tobacco became too expensive or impossible to import. Funnily enough it was a well known remedy for coughs and bronchial troubles, as indicated in the Latin name, Tussilago Farfara (‘tousser’ = French for ‘to cough’), making it potentially very interesting to people trying to quit ‘regular’ tobacco smoking. I’m told some continued to smoke it even after the war was over. As Maude Grieve wrote in her 1931 classic ‘Modern Herbal':

[...] Coltsfoot has justly been termed ‘nature’s best herb for the lungs and her most eminent thoracic.’ The smoking of the leaves for a cough has the recommendation of Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, Boyle, and other great authorities, both ancient and modern, Linnaeus stating that the Swedes of his time smoked it for that purpose. Pliny recommended the use of both roots and leaves. The leaves are the basis of the British Herb Tobacco, in which Coltsfoot predominates, the other ingredients being Buckbean, Eyebright, Betony, Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender, and Chamomile flowers. This relieves asthma and also the difficult breathing of old bronchitis. Those suffering from asthma, catarrh and other lung troubles derive much benefit from smoking this Herbal Tobacco, the use of which does not entail any of the injurious effects of ordinary tobacco. (link)

Tussilago farfara ColtsfootNow’s the time to be on the lookout for the flowers, which perplexingly come out before the leaves. I’ve spied a few of the yellow beauties, whose location I will be doing my best to remember for when the leaves come out later in the season.

All this inspired me for a winter project: making my own pipe. Brief e-research told me to use a hard, non-resinous wood for the bowl and (obviously) something hollow for the stem. I heard good things about cherry wood and happened to know where a few trees were growing nearby. I couldn’t find any handily seasoned, non-rotting wood of the right kind of size around the base of my chosen tree so I climbed way up and selected a green-wood branch that it looked like the tree didn’t need too badly, carefully sawing it off close to the trunk with my pruning saw and carrying it back down with me. The next step, a few days later was to choose a section of the branch that looked most suitable and saw it off:

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I attempted to carve out the bowl with my pocket knife but it turned out the wood was too hard so I had to use a hammer & chisel instead, tilting the piece of wood and using the angled edge of the chisel on the inside of the bowl so it didn’t cut too deep:

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Then I used a drill to make a small hole downwards and then, measuring the likely position, from the side (it took a few attempts before they lined up, as proved by my being able to blow through the piece):

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Finally, selecting a larger drill bit, I drilled a small distance into the side and whittled the piece of bamboo I was intending to use as a stem to the right size to wedge inside:

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Et voila, my fully functional pipe (I’ll need to find a better stem once it dries out and gets too thin, and maybe the bowl will get de-barked or some further carving to show off the red cherry finish. Also there’s some research needed on filters to intercept as many of the bigger ash particles as possible, which might otherwise result in health issues if I become a regular smoker…):

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…which I proceeded to load up from my Mugwort tea stash and have my first enjoyable (albeit rather chilly) back-garden smoke of the year:

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Well, there you have it. I thought I’d share :) Further onwards I’m looking to try Lemon Balm, Angelica, Sage, Coltsfoot, Mullein, Yarrow, Rosemary, Lavender… There’s what looks like a great online resource of ‘Herbal Smoking Mixtures’ by Howie Brounstein over here, if you’re interested to find out more. It includes handy tips on how to prepare your herbs, which plants combine well together and recommended mixes depending on what you’re looking to get out of the experience. Puff away, kids!

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* – I’d had similar experiences previously after drinking a tea of the plant before bed, but strangely the most powerful experience was a prolonged sequence of crazy, tricksterish dreams I had while drying a couple of long stems above my head where I was sleeping:

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More striking visuals

January 16, 2013

via Shaun – Speaking of grass as an invasive species (see previous post), check out this video animation of changes in ‘global land cover’ over the last 8,000 years, detailing the loss of ‘natural vegetation’ during that period:

The problem remains of how to define ‘natural’. If it simply means the presence of human beings  then practically nowhere on the map should be coloured dark green even at the start because a) all the continents except Antarctica were populated by humans by at least 14,000 years ago, b) there’s no way to inhabit a landscape and not affect it and c) hunter-gatherer peoples are known to have shaped plant and animal communities, sometimes drastically, even before the onset of full-scale cultivation. If ‘non-natural’ vegetation means that native species have been gradually replaced by non-natives then this gets us a little closer to the above depiction but you then have to define what you mean by native, a task that runs into difficulties as soon as you observe that 1) no species has been around since the dawn of time and, 2) they have all come to the space they currently occupy through, if not physical migration, then a journey into existence through evolutionary design space. Also, wouldn’t you have to admit that the various crops and weeds responsible for changing these ecologies had their own native ranges? Therefore, strictly speaking, China should stay green because of its subsistence on native rice, as should the Middle East (the home of wheat and barley) and the various regions in Africa and South & Central America who developed their own crops. Maybe the best description for what is being measured here is the spread of plant & animal domestication. Again, this runs into problems of definition, given that i) low-key forms of cultivation have been around in one form or another since the dawn of humanity ii) (again) there’s no way to inhabit a landscape and not affect it and iii) where exactly are you supposed to draw the line anyway? I suppose it would correlate pretty well with deforestation too. But, dammit, where do you draw the line between ‘pristine’ forest and planted fruit & nut orchards? It would help to know what data this was based on…

Anyway, what I meant to say originally was that it was interesting to watch this while reading Marvin Harris’ classic, Cannibals and Kings, which talks about the origins of ‘hydraulic societies’ (a term coined by the historian Karl Wittfogel) in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, each of which developed

[...] amid arid or semi-arid plains and valley fed by great rivers. Through dams, canal, flood control and drainage projects, officials diverted water from these rivers and delivered it to the peasants’ fields. Water constituted the most important factor in production. When it was applied in regular and copious amounts, high yields per acre and per calorie of effort resulted. (p.174)

These massive public works, which were necessary if the settled populations were to be fed (an important factor was the lack of opportunities for subsistence in the wilderness surrounding the floodplains – beyond a certain level of population density the people were trapped), led to the emergence of totalitarian hierarchies, enforced by bureaucracies acting out of self-interest for their share of the spoils of the wealth which was produced by the masses, most often living in a state of abject poverty a few steps removed from starvation.

Interestingly, Harris thinks that these states were initially quite self-contained and that the sickness took quite a while to reach the same ferocity in the Northern regions of Europe and Russia – a contention which the above animation seems to confirm. While he describes iron age societies in Britain, France and Germany as ‘secondary states called into existence to cope with the military threat of the Mediterranean empires and to exploit the possibilities of trade and plunder provided by the great wealth of Greece and Rome’ (p.183), the fact that meltwater and rain provided all a peasant farmer needed meant there was no need for a huge state superstructure:

Despite the rigidities introduced by serfdom into the feudal system, the post-Roman political organisation of Europe continued to contrast with that of the hydraulic empires. Central bureaux of internal and external plunder and of public works were conspicuously absent. There was no national system for collecting taxes, fighting wars, building roads and canals or administering justice. The basic unit of production were the independent, self-contained rainfall-farming manorial estates. There was no way for the more powerful princes and kings to interrupt or facilitate the production activities that took place in each separate little manorial world.

Unlike the hydraulic despots, Europe’s medieval kings could not furnish or withhold water from the fields. The rains fell regardless of what the king in his castle decreed, and there was nothing in the productive process to necessitate the organization of vast armies of workers. (pp.185-6)

Indeed, he even goes as far to say that ‘Long after the great river valleys were packed from horizon to horizon with human settlements, northern Europe stood to the Mediterranean and the Orient as America was later to stand to Europe: a frontier still covered by virgin forests’ (p.183) – forests into which they could escape if the going got too rough. At least until iron axes, saws and ploughs became cheaply & widely available enough to allow mass felling and the instatement of the open field system….

Okay, next: a cool little animation by Steve Cutts, simply titled ‘MAN’*:

And, one I’ve been saving – You know you’re making progress when a video about the chemical extermination of unwanted plants and the whole culture built around this act upsets you more than a documentary about the Nazi holocaust. Witness Dow Chemical’s 1947 advertisement / propaganda piece for 2,4-D herbicide (later used in Agent Orange as previously discussed), ‘Death to Weeds':

OMFG I nearly crapped my pants when I saw this footage in a BBC/Discovery documentary series, ‘Human Planet‘. If you think I’m exaggerating when I describe agriculture as an all-out war against the rest of the living world, just … wait for it:

(There’s some context missing from this clip. You can watch the whole Grasslands episode here, with the relevant passage starting from 24:30. Count how many military metaphors the narrator uses.) This is what I mean by my talk about ‘wealth redistribution’. Brief wikipedia research tells me that the Red-billed Quelea ‘is the world’s most abundant wild bird species’ with a total population of up to 10 billion individuals all living in sub-Saharan Africa. They feed mainly on ‘annual grasses, seeds and grain’, although they apparently feed their chicks with caterpillars & insects for a few days before switching to the seed diet. Here’s the telling passage:

Being such a considerable part of the savanna biomass, Red-billed Quelea flocks and colonies attract huge numbers and diverse types of predators and scavengers. Birds known to live extensively off queleas include herons, storks, raptors, owls, hornbills, rollers, kingfishers, shrikes and corvids. Additionally, snakes, lizards and several types of mammals, especially rodents and small carnivores, are regular predators.

And why do they form ‘such a considerable part’ of the biomass? Because human farmers have made available highly concentrated stores of food that support their population at numbers massively higher than they would otherwise be! I think there’s a message to be read in the huge swarms of these ‘locust birds': If you grain farmers keep on hoarding all of the land’s productivity for yourselves, we will be forced to descend upon you in great numbers, ruining your efforts and returning the biological wealth to those you stole it from; those who will now feed on us.

I could be wrong…

Finally, a hero:

pole-sitter(source – please ask me to take it down if it’s not okay for me to republish)

Later in the day a quick-thinking defender scaled this time not a tree but a telegraph pole on the other side of the road to where the chainsaws were felling. Work had to stop because of the potential danger and this time security climbers found it impossible to evict the defender, unable as they were to find a higher point to secure on to. Instead, a bunch of coppers closed off the road (which was unecessary, and no doubt intended to hack off the locals) and stood about ready to nick the pole-sitter when he came down. Holding out until the contractors had beaten a retreat a valiant attempt was made by supporters to “de-arrest” the defender upon his descent, but were met with the full force of sussex police, who piled out of a nearby riot van screaming “pepper spray them, pepper spray them all”, and duly dispensed their canisters. In the ruckus the pole-sitter cut open his leg and, after being nicked, was taken to hospital for 8 stiches. He was released in the early hours and, just as in the previous arrests, bailed off site. He was charged with obstruction of the public highway (that is, the same public highway that the police themselves closed…?!). (link)

Protestors are resisting the construction of a new road between Hastings and Bexhill (near the south coast of England) which will carve through a valley containing a peaceful water meadow and pockets of ancient woodland. Go to: Combe Haven Defenders for more information and to see how you can help.

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* – Obligatory nit-pick: these actions do not represent all of humanity. As Daniel Quinn wrote:

Man was born MILLIONS of years ago, and he was no more a scourge than hawks or lions or squids. He lived AT PEACE with the world … for MILLIONS of years.

This doesn’t mean he was a saint. This doesn’t mean he walked the earth like a Buddha. It means he lived as harmlessly as a hyena or a shark or a rattlesnake.

It’s not MAN who is the scourge of the world, it’s a single culture. One culture out of hundreds of thousands of cultures. OUR culture.

Where I’ve been

January 6, 2013

Hello,

Sorry I haven’t posted for a while. I’d like to reassure any patient readers still out there that I’m continuing in my growth (is that benign or malignant?) and exploring some pretty disturbed places in both the physical and psycho-socio-spiritual geographies… The trouble is I keep letting the cat out of the bag in comment sections on other blogs instead of actually sitting down, sorting through everything properly and putting the results up here. Then when it comes to it I don’t have the heart to repeat what I feel has already been said. Case in point: I had a huge post about parasites all lined up and waiting for completion, but then I had to put that line about wealth redistribution into the badger thing which completely took the wind out of its sails. I wish I could just run with these things and splurge the ideas out as they came with minimal editing, as many talented bloggers seem to be able to do, but it seems perfectionism has me held too tightly in its grip.

So yes, unfortunately I don’t have the energy or inclination right now to tell you where I’ve been or where I might be going, but if you really want to know I can point you to a couple of other forums where that stuff has managed to leak out:

  1. (Oh boy, this was ages ago) – My old ‘Lessons From Burdock‘ post was published on the Dark Mountain website and subsequently on Energy Bulletin with a few minor edits, a rather waffly introduction and a new fourth lesson comparing starchy foods to fossil fuels and asking why they cultivate and eat Burdock root in Japan but not here. The DM discussion went in some interesting directions including the legality of digging up wild plants (and whether we should care) and some fascinating stories chipped in from a Japanese forager. The EB discussion got into the question of whether lots of people died while getting to know which plants were safe to use for food or medicine, and for some reason it continued in this Leaving Babylon comment section (from #94).
  2. Someone tipped me off about a BBC4 program dealing with traditional woodland management in the UK back in the Autumn – ‘Tales From The Wild Wood’ (unfortunately no longer available on iplayer, but I’ll let you know if I find it elsewhere on t’internet) in which Rob Penn, a writer/woodsman, attempts to restore some neglected coppice woodland in Wales and make some money out of it in the process. I enjoyed it over all but it had me shouting at the screen a lot of the time for reasons I elucidate in several lengthy comments under this article on the Save Our Woods site. Basically, that Hambler & Speight article I linked to under the ‘recent’ post about soil fertility had me questioning and ultimately rejecting a lot of the standard lines you hear about the supposed conservation value and ‘sustainability’ of traditional land management.
  3. I took my humans-stealing-biomass-from-the-rest-of-the-living-community spiel to Charles Eisenstein’s site after he came out with the doozy that ‘permaculture methods can easily feed the peak world population of perhaps 10 or 11 billion we’ll see by mid-century’, roping in all the usual Quinnian arguments about excess food production driving population growth (‘usual’ meaning I’ve never discussed them properly on this site before but you should know I once talked about it in this forum). People seemed receptive, but unfortunately CE didn’t join in. I was polite enough not to bring it up in person when I went to one of his workshops in November.
  4. I led a wild food walk at Sarah’s herb festival in the Cotswolds back in September, and I started out by getting people to notice that the most abundant foodplant around them was actually grass, fed indirectly to humans through sheep and other livestock, and that people had shaped the British countryside for millennia to mainly suit the needs of this species and its close relatives – the seed-bearing annual grains. I mischievously called grass an invasive species and said that there were other ways for humans to subsist in this land, but they had literally been pushed to the margins in hedgerows, woodland edges and ‘waste ground’. Our job as herbalists and wild foodies was to start pushing that frontier back by moving our dependencies away from the big, open monocrop fields and pasture meadows and expanding a co-reliance on the other marginalised plant & animal species. Unfortunately it turned out that my theory was half-baked – Fred the Forager came up to me afterwards and gently let me know that I was technically wrong about grass being invasive in the UK, and that several species (or was it just one? – I forget) made their home in the preconquest woodland ecology.* I was pretty stumped at the time, but came up with a considered response™ which I duly sent to Fred a few weeks later via email. I’ll put it in the comments in case anybody’s remotely interested.
  5. Eatweeds Robin put up a nice video about Sea Kale, noting that it had previously been overharvested in this country for its root and asking people what they thought about this kind of involvement of wild foods in the money economy. Naturally I couldn’t refuse such a generous invitation, so I typed out another lengthy book quote and laid out my case for a militant insurgency defending the integrity of local plant communities from the depredations of foreign imperialistic powers. You think I’m joking??
  6. I used Shaun Chamberlin’s recent, excellent post, ‘Land, and the army marching to claim it, in the UK and around the world‘ to vent a little about the absurd concentration of land ownership in this country (second only to Brazil in its inequality, where ‘70% of land is still owned by less than 1% of the population’, and ‘nearly half the country is owned by 40,000 land millionaires, or 0.06 per cent of the population’) and explore how hunting and gathering and other low-key subsistence cultivation could combine with civil disobedience by simply ignoring the exclusive right to land that the wealthy have claimed for themselves over here. Land ownership? What land ownership?

Otherwise, I met a few new people at the last Uncivilisation festival who, like me, were interested in the various aspects of ‘rewilding‘ that many have picked up on in the States, and in seeing where those ideas might lead over here. A few of them have websites which I’m sure you’ll enjoy. I’ll be adding them to the links column soon, but for now check out:

Tom’s site, ‘Coyopa: Lightning in the Blood‘,
Nick’s brilliant efforts at formulating a ‘Culture 3.0‘, and
Steve’s impressive attempt of ‘Mapping the Omnidirectional Halo‘ (no, I haven’t got a clue either).

Don’t worry, I have been keeping up with the wild foods & herbs, despite the crappy growing season – it’s just that I didn’t want to repeat stuff I’d already talked about before, and didn’t (yet) find the energy to talk about the few new things I did dabble with. I’ll have some stuff to say about working garden maintenance too at some stage, as I have been doing since last April. I’ll probably feel a desperate urge to talk about school shootings or Palestine or border control or workfare or the olympic legacy or public sector cuts or some other irrelevant bollocks before I get around to that though… Bear with me ;)

Oh, and happy new year!
Ian

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* – More recently I had a ‘duh’ moment when reading about the megafauna that populated Northern Europe during the Pleistocene ice ages. They weren’t eating trees, that’s for sure – practically the whole bloody continent was grassland!

War on badgers; war on wildness

October 15, 2012

Badger and cow
(source)

For the record: I oppose DEFRA’s proposed badger cull, which I recently read ‘could wipe out 100,000 badgers, a third of the national population’. I’ve signed the petition calling for it to be stopped, and apparently this now has enough signatures (over 100,000) to force a parliamentary debate on the subject. However, I don’t accept the unspoken premise underlying even much of the criticism that has been voiced: namely that if it can be proved that the continued, relatively undisturbed existence of wild badger populations poses any kind of threat to the vast population of domesticated cattle in this country then a cull is justified. This agrarian fundamentalist* logic is the main driver behind the current Holocene Extinction in which between 150-200 species are now being driven extinct every day through the actions of farming cultures destroying diverse wild communities in order to impose a chosen few domesticated plant and animal species upon the land – with the purpose of channeling as much of the planet’s biological wealth into the growth of the human population as possible and/or enslaving it to the economic machinations of the vampiric global mega-civilisation. Farmers and capitalists see economic value in cows. They see none in badgers, just like they saw none in wolves, bears, wild boar or aurochs (each driven extinct in Britain over recent centuries and millennia as a consequence of active policies of extermination and secondary effects of other activities such as destruction of habitat, most often related to agriculture) – therefore, on the slightest pretext and with the flimsiest of justifications, they have to go. Witness the insanity with which this topic is debated on national TV, hosted by a household-name naturalist:

Can you hear the sublimated hatred of all things wild – all things living according to an independent will; all things damaging to our religion of total control; all things reminding us of that which we fought (and continue to fight) so hard to put down in ourselves – the coldhearted militaristic language (‘take them out’), the tight grip of irrational fear (those ‘reservoirs’ of disease), the refusal to countenance reality and plough on regardless (‘No, I’m afraid culling will have to take place.’)? Do you see these things as clearly as I do? Do you find them as disturbing?

A while ago I read this article on the badgerland website, talking about the supposed threat posed by badgers to domesticated cattle. This passage in particular made sense to me, supporting Brian May’s contention in the above footage:

Some respectable scientists [citation needed], believe that cattle must meet several conditions before they can catch TB. The argument goes that rather than getting TB immediately they are first exposed to the TB bacteria, the cattle must have most of the following conditions: climate history, certain vitamin deficiencies, compromised immune system, intensive living conditions, high-stress lifestyle, lack of natural immunity to infection and disease, and multiple-exposure to the TB bacteria in a short space of time. In other words, cattle which are raised in natural field-based conditions, with minimum use of anti-biotics and other drugs, low-stress organics lifestyle are much less likely to succumb to TB infection. In organic terms, the higher incidence TB in cattle in the south-west of England is more likely to be due to more intensive cattle-rearing and animal husbandry, than the presence or otherwise of TB-infected badgers.

Another aspect is that TB can be passed from one individual to another by contact with infected breaths, coughs or sneezes, or infected urine or faeces. A very good place for badgers to catch earthworms and dung beetles, is in cow-pats. Perhaps, the argument goes, it is the cows who have TB, who pass it to badgers when the badgers snuffle through cow-pats looking for worms and beetles.

I bet this is the way it works in most, if not all, instances where wild creatures get the blame for the problems plaguing domesticates. I think that, despite what we hear all the time about ‘weeds’, ‘vermin’ and other undesirable interlopers in the grand schemes of human cultivation†, diseases, parasites and other pathological conditions are actually far less prevalent among robust & resilient wild individuals than among the sheltered, dependent, inbred and highly concentrated populations of domesticated plants and animals. As appears to be the case with endemic Bovine TB, the trouble only comes when the conditions have been created for it through the aforementioned hoarding of biological wealth. The disease manifests as ever more forceful attempts at wealth redistribution.

I’ve only seen badgers on a couple of occasions, but that was enough to utterly endear me to their character. I think going after them in this crass, viciously stupid manner (or allowing others to do so when we might have prevented them) can only serve to alienate ourselves further from the wild world at a time when we desperately need to start learning the lessons it has to offer. If we wish to someday beg a home in the spontaneous ecology of this country – ie: woodland – then we will need to apprentice ourselves to those who know how, having done so for many thousands, if not millions of years through an unbroken ancestral lineage. How likely are we to find willing teachers among those whose last contact with somebody who looked like us was through the sight of a gun?

Oh, I forgot to say: I support those engaging in direct action against any attempted badger culls.

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* – hat-tip: Urban Scout

† – you could even apply this to the cultivation of human cultures: as we touched on before, think of all the diseases attributed to ‘inferior’, ‘mongrel’ groups of people such as Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and any strange immigrant culture. How often has this prejudice been used as a justification for campaigns of persecution, even genocide?

Fertility – Less or More?

June 22, 2012

A few of us have been discussing, among other things, soil fertility, pastoralism, deforestation, reforestation, agriculture (of course) and permaculture-type solutions for restoring the ecologies impoverished by this culture over on this Leaving Babylon thread. Here’s my most recent contribution on the topic of soil fertility vs. conservation:

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I’ve been thinking lots lately about this issue of soil fertility. On the one hand we’re living through a period of extraordinary fertility thanks to the nitrates and phosphates in petroleum-based fertilisers – ‘more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by man (as fertilizer) than by all natural sources combined’ (Ken Thompson, No Nettles Required, p.160) – and all gardening and farming is geared towards maintaining or increasing this. And on the other hand we have a legacy of plant and animal species uniquely adapted to the impoverished soils resulting from hundreds/thousands of years of intensive, organic farming, grazing and forestry; a biodiversity that dies out when the soils get too fertile or specific management practices are discontinued. Here’s Michael Allaby writing in the Woodland Trust’s Book of British Woodlands:

The trees that are coppiced regenerate and go on regenerating for a very long time: far from injuring them, coppicing seems to extend their lifespans, so they become an almost perpetual source of wood. Chemically, the wood is composed of substances obtained from the air and soil, like any part of any plant, and cropping removes those substances. Livestock grazing among the trees returned some plant nutrient, but they, too, were removing vegetation by their grazing. The overall effect is a slow but steady export of plant nutrient and a decline in the fertility of the soil. This makes it sound as though the coppicing system is harmful, but harmful to what, or whom? Some plants are better than others at exploiting rich supplies of nutrient. Feed them well and they grow vigorously and, in relation to the plants around them, aggressively. On a fertile soil, therefore, the natural succession by which plants colonise an area will proceed fairly quickly to a situation in which a small number of aggressive species dominate the vegetation.

On a less fertile soil this cannot happen, because the aggressive species are denied the nutrients they need for more vigorous growth. This allows the less vigorous species, with more modest requirements, to thrive. The final result is a great diversity of plant species. The ecological rule-of-thumb is that the greater the fertility of the soil, the fewer plant species will establish themselves on it; and if you prefer a great diversity of species you need a poor soil. Over the years coppicing produces poor soils, and so coppiced woodlands tend to have a rich diversity of plant species. The greater the diversity of plant species, the greater will be the diversity of animals feeding on them, and since the arrival of herbivorous animals is followed by the arrival of predators and parasites of those animals, the entire ecosystem is enriched. (p.106)

So what direction do we pull in? Obviously the petro-fertiliser era is a blip which is going to end in short order, yet I’m less-than-convinced about the longterm viability of the systems that preceded it. Intentionally working to impoverish the soil? Surely sooner or later that will starve the ecosystem to death (although I’m not aware of any coppice rotations that have been stressed to breaking point in this way, even when supplying charcoal for industrial purposes). I think I agree that we have a responsibility to do right by the species we’ve in effect provided the selection pressure for over all these centuries of domesticating the landscape, whether that’s helping them adjust to the changing circumstances or, if that’s not possible, allowing them to die out with dignity. But I think the conservationists are wrong about greater fertility equating to lesser diversity. Maybe this would be the case in the short term, but after a while I expect it will simply be a different kind of selection pressure leading to an explosion of diversity in the more nutrient-hungry plants. How many different hybrid forms of Bramble, Nettle & Dandelion are there already in existence?

Fire-setting is another case in point. From what I’ve read it sounds like N American Indians burned grasses and forest understory purposefully to release the nutrients locked up in the standing dead plants, changing them into a form that was bio-available to the herbs, shrubs and annuals that would be growing on that spot by the next season. This was also an active selection for plants that provided edible, medicinal and other uses for the Indians (and, I assume, for the wildlife they shared the habitat with). It would be interesting to know the mix of woodland plants in Paleo/Mesolithic NW Europe – whether fire management caused this to differ in a similar way. A local conservationist has told me to look for Nettles and Brambles growing in places where our group had previously set fires in old coppice woodland, due to the nutrients released in the wood ash.

Over all it seems to be the case that humans are associated with enriched fertility in soils. That’s one line of archeological evidence for habitation by prehistoric man – at least in Europe you find seeds or pollen grains of Nettle, Plantain, Goosefoot and other associated ‘weeds’. We pitch camp somewhere for the season, eat, shit, do some burning and maybe a bit of gardening before moving on. My best nettle crops have come from places disturbed by people (the very best being where those people fenced off special areas in parkland for their dogs to come and do their business in the times before the ubiquitous small black plastic bags – mmm, dog poo nettles…) Anyway, the main problem with coppicing and other woodland management seems to be the same old civilisational problem of exporting resources far away from their point of origin. If people lived in the woods, building homes, cutting fuel, crafting necessary artifacts from the trees around them, and letting it all rot down on site, I think that could lead to a thriving & enriched ecosystem, supportive of a wide variety of plants and animals.

Herbicide: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

June 16, 2012

I’ve finally started reading a book by Timothy Lee Scott, Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological and Healing Abilities of Invasives (click on the image to go to the website) and it has provided further support and confirmation for a lot of the things I’ve been writing here as well as further provocative fuel for thought while I go about my business with conservationists and gardeners. I’ve just finished the chapters titled ‘Invasive Herbicidal Impacts’ and ‘The Economics of Weeds’. A passage in the latter confirms my earlier contention that ‘Biocidal poisons used to further the Green Revolution in the mid 20th century came directly from the re-tooled factories of World War Two':

Nazi Germany pioneered chemical engineering for combating plants, pests, and people by developing highly poisonous organophosphate compounds used in agricultural pesticides and as chemical warfare nerve gases. In America after the two World Wars were over, there was a movement to find use for the millions of pounds of wasted ammunition and explosives that remained. Factories that once manufactured war machinery were waiting to be filled, soldiers needed jobs, and there were plenty of raw materials to use. The first widely used herbicides and pesticides were nothing but leftover weapons of war. Nitrogen- and phosphorous-based compounds accumulated in massive, stockpiled amounts during wartime, which then led to the practice of discarding them on agricultural fields as a synthetic fertilizer throughout America and, eventually, the world.

DuPont was the largest manufacturer of gunpowder during WWI and now is the parent company of the world’s largest seed company, Pioneer HiBred, and Monsanto saw a one-hundred-fold increase in profits by supplying chemicals to produce highly reactive explosives such as TNT. Dow Chemical and Monsanto have been the leading manufacturers of herbicides for decades, reaping huge profits from Agent Orange’s campaign against the Vietnamese jungles and with the Roundup family of herbicides for every dangerous [sic] plant imaginable. (pp.76-7, citing this article by Brian Tokar)

…while the story of ‘Agent Orange and the Rainbow Herbicides’ in the former is pretty horrific:

File:'Ranch Hand' run.jpg
(source: Wikipedia)

The use of herbicides for warfare was first brought to our attention in the Vietnam War, when rainbow herbicides were sprayed across territories to reveal hideouts, destroy agriculture, and poison the enemy. The barrels containing these agents that Dow Chemical Company and Monsanto, among others, manufactured had a coloured stripe painted on them to identify the contents:

Agent Orange, Agent Green, Agent Pink, Agent White, and Agent Purple

The most common was Agent Orange, an equal blend of two phenoxy herbicides (2, 4-D and 2, 4, 5-T). Between 1961 and 1971, about forty-six thousand tonnes of it was sprayed at intensified rates over 3.5 million acres of southern Vietnamese forests and cropland. Not only were ecosystems completely ravaged by this mass poisoning effort, but also millions of civilians and allied troops were caught in the crossfire. The toxin dioxin used in all of these poisons has been reported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to cause a wide variety of illnesses that affect various bodily systems and is still present in our [sic] environment at high concentrations. Some known ailments that are compensated under VA benefits include type 2 diabetes, prostate cancer, respitory cancers, multiple myeloma, Hodgkins disease, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyries cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, and spina bifida in the children of veterans. Since 1984, Dow Chemical Company has lost various class-action lawsuits regarding these poisonings of American, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and South Korean veterans in Vietnam. All have won health care compensation for the unforseen hazards of their service. (p.69, citing this allmilitary forum post)

Of course the generations of Vietnamese victims have had no such luck, with lawsuits against Dow Chemical and Monsanto and subsequent appeals getting thrown out various US courts between 2004 and 2009. To get a deeper sense of this atrocity, read the Wikipedia article and associated links or, if you’ve got a strong stomach, type ‘agent orange effects’ into an image search engine.

I subscribe to the notion articulated by Hireesh Chandra of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at Gandhi Medical College, who said, referring to the Bhopal disaster, that individuals or institutions “shouldn’t be permitted to make poison for which there is no antidote” (quoted in Jensen, Culture of Make Believe, p.285)

News photo

It seems Agent Orange is still poisoning people in Japan, where:

The U.S. Marine Corps buried a massive stockpile of Agent Orange at the Futenma air station in Okinawa, possibly poisoning the base’s former head of maintenance and potentially contaminating nearby residents and the ground beneath the base, The Japan Times recently learned from interviews with U.S. veterans.

The barrels were apparently abandoned in Okinawa at the end of the Vietnam War — when the U.S. government banned the dioxin-laden defoliant for health reasons — and were buried at the installation in the city of Ginowan after the Pentagon ignored requests to safely dispose of them, according to the veterans who served at the installation in the 1970s and 1980s.

[...]

In 1972, the U.S. removed its stockpiles of Agent Orange from South Vietnam to Johnston Island in the North Pacific where, after a five-year debate over how to dispose of them safely, they were eventually incinerated at sea in 1977.

Scientists researching the dangers of Agent Orange in South Vietnam have discovered that because its highly poisonous dioxin is not dissolved by rainwater, it can remain in the soil, poisoning people for decades. In southern Vietnam today, there are more than 20 dioxin hot spots at sites used by the U.S. military to store Agent Orange.

Where is the accountability for these motherfuckers? How can they get away with this? What incentive do they have to not commit the same crimes in the future?

I don’t expect an answer to these questions anytime soon.

In the meantime I have my work cut out trying to persuade my bosses of the insanity of torching gardens, driveways and even bodies of water with Glyphosate (Monsanto’s patented chemical in Roundup) to kill the plants they or their clients, in their definitely less-than-infinite wisdom, have decided don’t belong.

Giraffe Boy’s Big Day Out

May 19, 2012

Newly escaped from his cramped, low-ceilinged enclosure in the zoo for strange human/animal hybrids (where he subsisted on tasteless fodder, dispensed three times daily, and was prodded and laughed at by his visitors and keepers alike), Giraffe Boy looks to the trees of the English countryside for fleshy, succulent leaves, longing to stretch his long, slender neck up into the tall canopies and feast on the tastes and textures of his idealised motherland.

Well, he doesn’t mind starting out a little lower to the ground. Here he gets his teeth into the miniature jungle of Lime leaves, suckering from the base of a tall tree at the entrance to a local graveyard:

Mmm, soft and flannelly and soothing to the mouth and throat, only just emerged from their red buds. The Southern lowlands used to be full of Lime woods until they were cleared by the first farmers or herdsmen. Now they are nearly all planted specimens of the small-leaved, large-leaved or hybrid varieties. Later on in Summer the leaves get all sticky and sweet from aphids sucking on the sap and pooing out the sugary excess. Yum!

A little further on he finds a rare Wych Elm which he recognises from the thousands of small, flat-winged seeds (also edible) he saw earlier in the year:

Wych Elm seeds - Ulmus glabra

A deeper, richer, more mealy flavour. Thought to be the first elm to establish itself in the primeval woodland, and, like Lime, a large component of that ‘wildwood’. Beloved by livestock and susceptible to disease, so it has suffered and dwindled long in this land. Giraffe Boy grazes only where he can reach and leaves the rest of the tree to drink in light and air and produce its vital pollen and seeds.

Mmm, let’s try some more Lime. Higher up this time:

And now a venerable Silver Birch:

A bit more bitter, but refreshing, and it’s lovely to see the the slender tree sway and shiver in the wind. If he gets really hungry, Giraffe Boy can nibble through to the inner bark. The yellow catkins also have an interesting, polleny flavour. And if he gets cold he has heard that the flaky outer bark is really good for lighting fires (though his hooves make it difficult to make a friction ember). Here’s another one he found later on that day:


Ah, Beech. Some beautiful, tall specimens occasionally generous enough to lower branches down to a young Giraffe Boy’s height:

Best when young, soft and slightly hairy (older they get more tough and papery), the leaves have a delicious lemony tang, leaving the mouth feeling wonderful. Giraffe Boy likes to reach down and feast on the small, pointy brown nuts in the Autumn.

A little further on, Giraffe Boy finds a hedge of Hornbeam. He tastes the leaves, which have a rather strong, not entirely pleasant flavour. It looks similar to Beech, but the leaves have deeper grooves, more like the Wych Elm. Hmm, not sure about this one…

Later on he finds a full-grown tree with its curious knarly bark:

Ooh boy, here’s a lovely Hawthorn!

Both the flowers and the leaves taste delicious. Heady & aromatic, and sweet & nutty. ‘Bread and Cheese’ as the country children used to call them. Mind the thorns Giraffe Boy! They start out soft but toughen up to a sharp point later in the season, and you wouldn’t want to impale your tongue on one! Don’t eat too many of the flowers, either – you know how much you like to eat the sweet, red berries they turn into by Autumn-time!

Oh dear, Giraffe Boy seems to be suffering from a headache. No fear! Someone has been good enough to plant an ornamental Weeping Willow by the lake. A brief nibble releases the salicylic acid – present in all Willow species, and a precursor to aspirin – into Giraffe Boy’s body. In a little while he feels as right as rain (and appears to have discovered that he has thumbs):

Giraffe Boy doesn’t care if a tree isn’t ‘native’ to Britain. If it feeds or heals him well then he will accept it joyfully. After all, he and his long-necked, rough-tongued ancestors came to these shores in exactly the same way. Likewise, for obvious reasons, he doesn’t get all pompous about the genetic ‘purity’ of any weird or wonderful varieties, noticed and propagated by human individuals. Speaking of which, oh my goodness, would you look at this glorious Copper Beech – what a luscious feast for the senses (taste included)!

All the same, Giraffe Boy feels at most at home among the trees in English woodland.

But, oh no! What has happened here?

Our story ends in tragedy, for Giraffe Boy has eaten the deadly foliage of the Yew tree! Oh Giraffe Boy, you felt your freedom so sweetly, but you didn’t know that some plants refuse to be eaten by curious human/animal hybrids, and instead of sustaining life they bring death. Oh the high price of wisdom! What a sad fate befalls the wide-eyed and innocent!

I bid you all to learn from Giraffe Boy’s example. Stretch your necks high and escape into the wonderful wildness of trees, but take care not to dive too deeply or too quickly without reasonable confidence in your knowledge, and keep a gentle, loving regard for your own safety and well-being.

[Photo credit: HC]

The Revolution comes to Britain

April 24, 2012

Forgive me for posting another video (I’ve got quite a bit of original stuff waiting on the production line but am having some trouble engaging the machinery needed to crank it out) but last night I watched the second episode of ubiquitous Scot, Neil Oliver’s BBC series, ‘A History of Ancient Britain‘, and thought it provided a pretty decent exploration of the arrival of intensive agriculture in the British Isles some 6,000 years ago – an important subject to me for obvious reasons. Anyway, some kind soul put the whole thing up on youtube, so when you’ve got an hour to spare…

I wasn’t aware of the theory about multiple ‘first contact’ with farmers in Kent, Ireland and even the Orkneys (voles in grain sacks, you say? – well okay, unless they arrived on driftwood or hitched a ride with a friendly eagle), or that the Carnac stones in Brittany were put in place by hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic (‘We will be remembered’, eh? – reminds me more of the civilised preoccupation with stamping a mark on the landscape in the form of dead monuments rather than preserving a living legacy in thriving ecosystems, but I could be wrong…)

I spotted the old trope of hunter-gatherers ‘struggling for survival’, even alongside evidence of the backbreaking nature of the farming lifestyle – cutting down all the trees, killing all the wild animals & plants, building walls to protect livestock, yearly ploughing, the ‘daily grind’ of an hour or more of processing wheat for a family’s daily bread, the insecurity of next year’s crop being dependent on this year’s harvest…etc. He also says they stuck to the coasts and waterways and perceived the forested interior as a ‘dangerous, forbidding world’ [8:06] after making it clear that they derived a large proportion of their subsistence from hunting woodland animals and saying himself that ‘these people didn’t just live close to nature – they were part of nature’ [2:36]. I would’ve thought it was the farmers who were far more likely to see the forests in that way. As Luther Standing Bear put it:

We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’. Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was it infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.

Although he does his best among the Carnac stones and with the meditation at the end on how ‘sad’ it was that the farmers were trying to ‘separate’ themselves from the wild, undomesticated world (or rather, I would say, trying to impose their way of doing things and thus destroying that world), I thought Oliver’s account was rather ‘embedded’ in the experience of those oh-so courageous pioneer farmers. He could have looked at examples throughout the historical record of clashes between hunter-gatherer and farming cultures to convey the likely attitudes of prehistoric British tribes towards the people clearing the land of all the species necessary for their subsistence. I even saw an exploration of this on the BBC in the form of Marco Bechis’s film, ‘Birdwatchers’, about the struggle of the Guarani Indians in Brazil who are in the process of being displaced from their land by cattle ranchers and sugar cane farmers:

I was struck by the stark contrast in the visuals throughout the film of lush, green rainforest on the one hand next to bleak, brown farmland on the other. There must have been a similar disparity between the early wheatfields and stone-walled livestock enclosures of Neolithic Britain and Ireland and the vast, peopled Wildwood they too were setting out to conquer. At one point in the film a Guarani shaman instructs his pupil to not eat the meat from a domestic cow the tribe has just poached, because such a beast does not belong to that landscape in the way that the rainforest species – considered brothers and sisters by the Indians – do. After showing us [55:33] the difference between the ankle bone of domesticated and wild cows in prehistoric Britain, I wish Oliver had followed in the footsteps of Jared Diamond and Weston A. Price in showing us the difference between domesticated and wild humans. Is the evidence here consistent with evidence around the world indicating that hunter-gatherers lived longer, were taller, healthier, stronger, less stressed, more … human than their genetically identical farming counterparts? Who most truly belongs to the British landscape; to any landscape – Homo sapiens domestico-fragilis or Homo sapiens neo-aboriginalis?

(hat-tip to C)

Altogether, though, I want to applaud Oliver’s effort here in shedding light on this important transition, putting modernity into its ancient context and going some considerable distance towards rescuing what was surely an epic, richly meaningful drama from the precious few scraps of evidence that survive.

March 17, 2012

Gone wwoofing in Italy.

Back in a coupla weeks.

Take it easy y’all :)

I

3 vids

March 15, 2012

Excellent animated intro to Peak Oil by Dermot O’Connor, sometime blogger at idleworm, in case you’ve been living under a rock (or more likely relying on the corporate media to inform you) for the last ten years or have friends and family in a similarly deplorable state of ignorance (although consider Dmitry Orlov’s health warning: ‘when introducing this to people, please remind them that they will need a couple of years to come to terms with this, and should try to not panic in the meantime’) – ‘There’s No Tomorow‘:

Beautiful, inspirational vid exploring the work of Charles Eisenstein, directed by Ian MacKenzie – ‘Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Community In An Age Of Transition‘:

Excellent, subversive talk by Craig Murray, former ambassador to Uzbekistan turned whistleblower, at the Berlin Freedom of Expression Forum. Ironically it appears this talk was censored – ‘removed by the user’ – while all the other videos from the conference stayed up. If you want to know what I think about recent politics he just about sums it up, speaking authoritatively from his own personal experience. The talk is titled ‘Realism or Hypocrisy? – Western Diplomacy and Freedom of Expression':

You could also check out the latest output on Matt Carr’s excellent blog, ‘Infernal Machine‘ (sample quote: ‘the attitude of both governments to the ‘Arab Spring’ has not been driven by a concern for ‘the human rights and dignity of all people’, but by an opportunistic attempt to turn the upheavals of the last year or so to their strategic advantage’) or the ever-brilliant Media Lens, whose message board I still follow compulsively. I still can’t bear to get into this filthy stuff again, despite telling John-‘bomb Iran‘-and-now-‘take out Syria‘-McCain to ‘fuck off’ in rather heated tones while watching C4 news last night with my family. I’ll just say that I knew the R2P, humanitarian intervention stuff was bollocks and that it would only end up harming the people it ostensibly set out to help, having looked at the history of the CIA and NED involvement in other ‘noble causes’ from Tibet to Burma to Zimbabwe to South Africa. Check it out:

The CIA cooked up a fresh operation in Mustang, a remote corner of Nepal that juts into Tibet. Nearly two thousand Tibetans gathered here to continue their fight for freedom. A year later, the CIA made its first arms drop in Mustang. Organised on the lines of a modern army, the guerrillas were led by Bapa Yeshe, a former monk.

‘As soon as we received the aid, the Americans started scolding us like children. They said that we had to go into Tibet immediately. Sometimes I wished they hadn’t sent us the arms at all,’ says Yeshe. The Mustang guerrillas conducted cross-border raids into Tibet. The CIA made two more arms drops to the Mustang force, the last in May 1965. Then, in early 1969, the agency abruptly cut off all support. The CIA explained that one of the main conditions the Chinese had set for establishing diplomatic relations with the US was to stop all connections and all assistance to the Tibetans. Says Roger McCarthy, an ex-CIA man, ‘It still smarts that we pulled out in the manner we did.’

Thinley Paljor, a surviving resistance fighter, was among the thousands shattered by this volte-face. ‘We felt deceived, we felt our usefulness to the CIA is finished. They were only thinking short-term for their own personal gain, not for the long-term interests of the Tibetan people.’ In 1974, armtwisted by the Chinese, the Nepalese government sent troops to Mustang to demand the surrender of the guerrillas. Fearing a bloody confrontation, the Dalai Lama sent the resistance fighters a taped message, asking them to surrender. They did so, reluctantly. Some committed suicide soon afterwards.

Today, the survivors of the Mustang resistance force live in two refugee settlements in Nepal, where they eke out a living spinning wool and weaving carpets. ‘The film is for the younger Tibetans, who are unaware of the resistance, as well as for Americans, who don’t know how their own government used and betrayed the resistance,’ says [film maker] Tenzing. (link)

They only care™ when it pays them to care™, and we’re fools if we go along with it uncritically. Ask: why don’t you hear impassioned pleas for the defense of ‘freedom fighters’ in Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan…etc?

Anyway, that’s already more than I intended to write. I’ll go drink some nice, soothing chamomile tea now.


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