Posts Tagged ‘books’

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.

Beechnut Butter

October 8, 2011

I’m pretty much crazy about peanut butter. Give me a packet of biscuits and I will have munched two thirds of the way through it before realising, but I’ll feel bad – physically rotten as well as guilty – afterwards. I crave something in peanut butter though. Maybe the fats and oils (typically 50% by weight), maybe the sheer whoosh of carbs and protein, maybe just something in the taste. I don’t know, but I feel satisfied, sated after bingeing out on it, like it has provided me with something missing from the rest of my diet.* Back in my bread-eating days (nearly two months behind me now) I would think nothing of tearing through three or four slices covered in ‘fat with fat’ – butter & peanut butter – topped with maybe a few salad leaves.

Mmmm…

Anyway, looking at the ingredients list on the £3 jar of organic stuff I sometimes treat myself to – ‘Peanuts (97%), Palm Oil (3%), Salt’ – I asked myself how hard it would really be to make my own. A quick internet search provided the answer: not very. Basically the process goes something like this:

  • Shell nuts
  • Roast briefly (eg: 10 minutes in a hot oven)
  • Rub off skins
  • Blitz in blender with a steel blade for a few minutes until paste-like
  • Add small quantity of oil if too dry – ie: not spreadable
  • Add sugar/honey & salt to desired taste
  • Add whole nuts for a few seconds at the end if you like it crunchy
  • Spoon into jars & store in refrigerator (to avoid oil separation or rancidity issues)

Then I thought of all the wild nuts currently drying out in the kitchen and a light went off. Walnuts, Acorns, Hazelnuts, Beechnuts – why wouldn’t the same process work on these? So here are the results after following the same recipe to create my own ‘Beechnut Butter’:

Step 1 – Gather nuts:

This is one of the first times I’ve ever been grateful for a tarmac surface! Good back-stretching exercise too, if you squat down on your haunches rather than bending down from the waist. Aboriginally I would be inclined to cut back or burn the undergrowth under my favourite trees to facilitate gathering. Tip: Some of the kernels will be empty. You can test them with a quick squeeze between thumb & forefinger, but soon enough you learn to judge by sight the most obviously ‘fat’ specimens, which often come in a glossier & slightly darker shade of brown.

Step 2 – Shell nuts. This is the longest, most mundane stage. I find it best to use a small knife to prize the nutmeat out of the 3-corner shell after having peeled one side off. A good evening activity – let the mind concentrate on something else (film, music, tv, conversation…) and the fingers settle in on their own rhythm. I estimate about 3 hours on good-sized nuts like the ones pictured above for the equivalent of one jar. This teaches you some respect for the amount of energy that goes into a lot of the food products we take for granted. I guess it also shows you why the beechnut, while just as tasty as any of the more famous nuts, hasn’t made it into the modern diet – difficult to imagine a machine that could shell these beasties en masse! (I assume the cooking oil they made from beechnuts during WW2† just required them to be squeezed through a typical press, leaving all the solids behind.) I actually found working with the nuts quite nice, once I got into it. A slow, steady accumulation of something with real value, leading to a warm satisfaction at the end. A bit like how I imagine knitting must feel like…

Step 3 – After washing the ‘fluff’ off in a colander, roast the kernels:

Your kitchen will smell pretty great after this, and the nuts themselves move to whole new level of tastiness. Apparently roasting lowers the levels of Trimethylamine (the PFAF page calls this a ‘deleterious principle’ and suggest that because of this ‘[t]he seed should not be eaten in large [read: 'epic'? - ed.] quantities’). Shame, I do like a bit of that Trimethylamine…

Step 4 – Rub the skins off:

Slightly tedious picking out the ‘clean’ nuts individually after rubbing them together in one big mass. Not sure if this step is really necessary, although eating them whole at this stage (delicious BTW!) does seem to dry my mouth out more when the skins are left on. Will have to experiment with how this manifests in the butter…

Step 5 – Blend ‘continuously for 2 to 3 minutes or until the mixture forms a ball’ (wikihow, ibid.):

The second image shows the nearly finished ‘goop’ after adding extra nuts for crunchiness and a small glug of walnut oil (perhaps a little too much in retrospect), as the mixture seemed a little dry on its own. I didn’t add any salt or sugar, as my tastebuds liked it just fine on its own. Small warning: the overall bulk goes down a fair bit during this stage, which you might find rather dispiriting after all your hard work! The smashed-up nuts smell pretty amazing though… Seems like you could duplicate this process with a mortar & pestle, albeit at greater length, if you wanted to further indulge your inner puritanical primitivist ;)

Step 6 – Spoon and tamp down in a jamjar, refrigerate and enjoy:

I’ve received thumbs up from everyone who has sampled this, most comparing the flavour to peanut butter or tahini. I find it starts out with the vegetable-like taste of the latter, with a delicious roast-nuttiness kicking in after the 3rd or 4th mouthful. I don’t know if I’ll have the patience to do many batches of this through the season, though. It does rather represent a lot of work for not much reward, in my estimation, and perhaps you would get a better ‘return on investment’ with some of the other nuts (I’m looking forward to trying this out with leached acorns, for instance). That said, I don’t suppose there’s any pressure to process the entire beechnut harvest in one go and I imagine they would keep quite well in their shells somewhere dry and out-of-the-way, waiting for an evening when I felt like doing another load. As long as I didn’t nibble them all away as a snackfood in the meantime!

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* – and after reading Lierre Keith’s awesome book,  The Vegetarian Myth (chapter 1 online here) I don’t feel guilty about the fat either. She quotes a story from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions about newly liberated POWs treated to a welcome-home feast:

The buffet was laden with roasts, vegetables, assorted breads, pies, salads, enticing deserts and fresh fruits, the likes of which they had not seen for several years. What did these men grab first? The butters, margarines, salad oils and creams. They were after fats. They consumed nothing else until the bare fats were gone. (Fallon, p.139)

Recognising the ‘physical compulsion for fat, “the primordial craving for the substance”‘ from her decades-long experience as a vegan, Keith comments:

You put your head down and you don’t come up for air until the food—the fat—is gone. In that moment it’s better than air. It’s everything you could want, and the relief radiating from each mouthful tells you it’s true: there’s nothing better, nothing else, but this.

My vegan time is punctuated by those moments. “Binges” we called them, or “lapses,” thus identifying them as a moral weakness, a political slippage, not a starved body, a shriveled brain, overriding a mind’s ideological demands. (The Vegetarian Myth, p.178)

† – British wild foodie extraordinaire Marcus Harrison dug up this fascinating tidbit:

Back at the beginning of the eighteenth century a British gentleman believed we could pay off the national debt by extracting the oil from the nut. He worked out that there were enough bushels of unused beech masts in a 50 square mile area around London to make our own oil and stop importing from France or Germany. At that stage beech mast oil was a commodity. It was used for lighting and also as cooking oil. It was thought to have a better keeping quality than olive oil.

Advertisement: See ‘Wild Food Mentor‘ for loads more foraging info, including historical snippets like this from Harrison’s extensive research (***declaration of interest*** – as an ‘affiliate‘ I get 30% of the sign-up price if you become a member after following this link)

Forests Revisited

April 22, 2011

I’ve been reading Marion Shoard’s excellent 1987 offering, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for Britain’s Countryside, and thought I would share a few passages that particularly struck me as part of a broader effort to find out where I stand on the issue of preserving and/or expanding woodland cover on the British Isles and, presuming the desirability of this outcome, how best to go about this. I’m not sure how much of the information she provides applies directly to the present situation (for example, I get the impression the Forestry Commission isn’t as keen on pine plantations now as she makes out they were back then) but the analysis still seems largely relevant and, for me, it provided a useful and interesting historical perspective on how these issues have developed over the decades.

After criticising 38 Degrees for their lack of ‘nuance’, it seems my plea of basically indiscriminate expansion of forest cover (as I put it to the local MP: ‘It seems insane to allow +any+ possibility of renewed impoverishment in this regard’ – ibid.) failed to take longstanding politics of land ownership into account. I was surprised and chastened to read Shoard’s description of afforestation as a disaster for both human and non-human communities, at least the way it has been carried out over the past century. It didn’t occur to me that my entirely reasonable desire to reverse the drastic deforestation of this land over the centuries and millennia might play further into the hands of those primarily responsible for the damage:

[I]f agriculture does at some stage in the future prove less profitable than it is now, landowners can be expected to switch their effort deftly into another sphere which will allow them to secure their age-old goals. One such sphere already suggests itself. This is forestry. Minister of Agriculture Michael Jopling prophesied in 1986, ‘If surplus agricultural production throughout the European Community is to be reduced – as it must – then I see forestry as offering perhaps the most promising alternative use for land which may no longer be required for agricultural production.’69 The NFU proposed in 1986 that one and a quarter million acres of farmland in England and Wales – 4.6 per cent of the total – should be turned over to forestry during a twenty-five year period through annual income supplements from the taxpayer of £50 million.70 At the same time, the organisations that lobby on behalf of forestry have been energetically considering the various forms which lowland forestry might take and calling for an array of new government grants to support it. For instance, farmers might sell some of their land to forestry companies. Or, they might retain ownership and shift production from crops to trees concentrated in plantations. Or, they could combine forestry with cash-cropping of cereals and livestock on the same establishment. If forestry does come to play a bigger role in the lowlands it will bring with it an array of implications for the rest of the community which upland Britain already knows all too well. (p.205)

[...]

Altogether, 90 square miles of the land of Great Britain, much of it bare moor and glen like Glen Ample, were afforested in the year ending 31 March 1986.71 Four per cent of this new planting consisted of broad-leafed trees; the remaining 96 per cent conifers. While the government agency for forestry, the Forestry Commission, carried out one fifth of the new planting, the private sector was responsible for the remaining eighty-one square miles of new planting. During the sixty years up to 1986, the planting of new forests in Britain proceeded at the average rate of about 41,000 acres a year; the result is new planting of around 2.7 million acres, the vast amount of it coniferous.72 And there is much, much more to come.

Imagine an area the size of Kent, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire combined: 3 million acres in all. This is the area that will be covered in new plantations by the middle of the next century if the plans of the Government and the Forestry Commission are fulfilled. In 1980, the Government gave an essentially open-ended commitment to the expansion of forestry. The then Secretary of State for Scotland and Forestry Minister, George Younger MP, told the House of Commons that new planting (as opposed to the restocking of existing forests) should continue at broadly the rate of the past quarter century, but with the private sector playing a greater part than hitherto.73 On this basis an extra 3 million acres of Britain’s land will be under forest by the year 2031. As no absolute limit has been set on the ultimate target area for planting, and as applications for grants from the private sector for new planting have essentially been given on demand, the figure could rise higher still. If past trends are anything to go by, the vast forest that will blanket most of Britain’s uplands by the middle of the next century will not have room for many broad-leafed trees. Britain’s foresters prefer to plant conifers because they grow quicker and provide faster returns than the traditional broad-leafed species of Britain like oak, beech, birch, hornbeam, ash, maple and lime. The species most often planted over the past half-century have been Norway and Sitka spruce, larch, Scots, Corsican and Lodgepole pine. Eighty-five per cent of the Commission’s own forests are conifer; and in 1986, more than 95 per cent of the area of private planting in Great Britain consisted of conifers. An appealing prospect for our grandchildren? Certainly an appealing financial prospect for the men, women and companies engaged in a mad scramble to afforest what remains of Britain’s wild country outside the food factories. (pp.207-9)

It might also lead to more ecological destruction and loss of biodiversity:

Apart from sharing a common reliance on photosynthesis, modern forestry has little to do with the ancient practice of harvesting naturally growing trees as they reach maturity. Like modern agriculture, modern forestry takes little more account of the natural environment than does an engineering factory on an industrial estate.

In the past, woodland was not cleared and replanted wholesale every few decades. Nature’s bounty was literally plucked from the forest. Foresters took advantage of the ability of trees to live for ever. Normally, they coppiced or pollarded trees, only occasionally felling them whole. This meant that the ground vegetation of the woods was never radically disturbed. The coppicing and pollarding actually increased the diversity of the wild plants and minibeasts of the woodland floor by letting in more light. What is more, since traditional woodland management relied on nature, it revolved around naturally-occurring tree species. In one area maple would dominate, in another lime, in others elm, hazel, oak, beech or ash, or, in the highest mountains of Scotland and Wales, Scots pine.

Modern forestry, by contrast, imposes its own environment. First, the trees of any existing deciduous wood are felled and the stumps bulldozed out or poisoned to prevent regeneration. The ground is then usually ploughed to a depth of eighteen to twenty-nine inches and the new crop, which is almost always a conifer species, planted. Herbicides suppress any plants that might compete with the saplings while fertilizers force the speed of tree growth to the maximum possible rate. The impact of all this on the ecosystem not only of what was once an upland hillside but also of what was once a deciduous wood is almost as devastating as if the land had been cleared to make way for a barley field or a motorway. (p.216)

To my credit, I did make the point in my original analysis that ‘we still have to ask what kind of woodland’ gets introduced through the process of afforestation. Be careful what you ask for… Shoard continues on the subject of ancient woodland:

Many of the woods that have been the subject of post-war coniferization have been not simply old-established deciduous woods but woods whose origins go back thousands of years to the time before Man himself appeared in Britain. They are the remnants of the post-Ice-Age forest cover – the ancient woodlands. One result of the gradual evolution of these woods over thousands of years is that the mixture of tree species varies even from one part of the wood to another. An expert on ancient woodlands Dr Oliver Rackham of Cambridge University explained the unique value of ancient woodlands to a Commons Committee in 1980:

Ancient woods are of value not only for their tree assemblages but also for their communities of herbaceous plants … In Eastern England more than fifty such species have been listed, including Primula elatior (the oxlip), Anemone nemorosa (the wood anemone), Euphorbia amygdaloides (wood spurge) and Carex pallescens (pale sedge), besides trees and shrubs such as Tilia cordata (small-leaved lime) and Crataegus laevigata (two-styled hawthorn). These are a characteristic and irreplaceable part of ancient woodland. Woods are part of our cultural history as well as of our native vegetation. A medieval wood, with its boundary bank and other earthworks, ancient coppice stools, and soil profiles and landforms undisturbed by cultivation, is a record of our environment and civilization as complex and as irreplaceable as a medieval church.79

Leicestershire and Pembrokeshire, Lincolnshire and Gwynedd, Somerset, Clywd and Cornwall – all these counties share the tragic distinction of having lost around half their ancient woodland over the last fifty years according to Nature Conservancy Council figures.80 Cropland or conifer plantation has been the most common fate of the land involved. While Surrey, north Cumbria, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire have lost slightly less of their ancient woodland – around 40 per cent each – in several counties, notably Gwent, Shropshire and Northamptonshire, landowners have seen fit to clear away well over 60 per cent of the county’s ancient woodland during the last fifty years.

Though conifers may yield financial dividends, they spell wholesale losses for wildlife. Fir is the food plant for only sixteen different insect species – compared to the 284 that live on the bountiful oak. The range of creatures that prey on insects – and of the creatures that prey on them – is similarly denuded. It is not only the conifers themselves which are less attractive to wildlife. They shelter far fewer secondary plants, like hazel, holly, rowan, elder, willow, spindle, dogwood or guelder rose. There are usually fewer climbers such as ivy, clematis and honeysuckle, and the trunks and branches are home to few mosses and lichens. (pp.216-8)

So in principle I still see the value in protecting & preserving ancient woodlands into perpetuity, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever been in one of these designated woodlands, so have no direct experience of their quality when compared to, say, the wooded areas of a nearby common which was largely treeless grazing/quarry/barren scrub land until midway through the last century. On that note, our friend Mark Fisher wrote the most ‘nuanced’ piece I’ve yet seen on this subject back in February: ‘England’s Public Forest Estate – public ownership now and for future generations‘. Apparently the government line (and mine – oops!) that the Forestry Commission only ‘own’ 18% of UK woodland doesn’t tell the whole story:

While it is reasonably common knowledge that the forest cover in continental Europe is much higher than the 8.7% of England, I think many will be surprised at the high extent of public ownership in Europe compared to the 30.8% in public ownership in England (6). There may even be surprise at that percentage in England, because the figure most bandied about of late is just the 18% that is owned by the Forestry Commission (FC). As I know to my benefit, because they give me great pleasure where I live, 6% of England’s woodlands are owned by local authorities and the balance of the difference is owned by other public bodies.

In contrast to Shoard’s complaints about ‘dark and forbidding timber factor[ies]‘ which ‘strike a chill into lowland landscapes’ and, in ‘impenetrable blocks [...] continue to march over Britain’s hills and moors, obliterating their wild, open character’ Fisher emphasises the importance that even ‘low-grade’ plantations can have to local people with no other options for woodland access:

Working with Forest Neighbours to defend Gibb Torr from deforestation by the local Wildlife Trust, I came to understand why people liked this conifer plantation woodland awash in a massive sea of moorland in Staffordshire (The defence of woodland – Forest Neighbours and Gib Torr (10). They could see unambiguously the wildlife value it has, especially birdlife, and which the Wildlife Trust ignores for its own choice of creating even more moorland! I saw the wildlife tracks myself, and stumbled over an astonishing drift of orchids deep in its centre. What would happen to these? It is one of those situations where a conifer plantation is the only woodland that local people have, and thus also the only woodland available for woodland wildlife in the area.

He notes the failure of charities and established environmental groups, including the Woodland Trust, to meaningfully oppose the FC sell-off, suggesting they may be out of touch with the causes of public concern:

Save Our Woods, one of the many national campaign groups that have blossomed, pointed to the lack of integration across the broad spectrum of land based interests by those that were meant to be representative of the public voice (27):
“…the large NGOs were very slow to publish their stance or even realise their stance, thus showing a lack of knowledge and certainly a loss of touch with the public and even their members which was quickly criticised by several within and on the periphery of landscape and natural heritage issues”

I would just highlight a few as they relate to Hurn’s forests, and Chopwell Wood.

Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, wrote in the Guardian (28):
“I can’t honestly get really worked up about who owns the small wood down the road from me whose main function is to grow trees for the timber market”

Many of those “ugly industrial conifer forests” that Avery would sell off (29) are what local people are attached to, because that is what is in many cases the local woodland with open access that they have come to enjoy, and it is often the only woodland in the landscape for woodland species. They don’t want to be patronised by Avery or the RSPB in what they should value about their woodland, especially when the prejudice against them is mostly about their undoubted wildlife not being what is valued by organisations like RSPB or Avery. Moreover, the RSPB/Avery would exert their usual pressure for deforestation to open heathland habitat if there was the slightest chance of just one more Dartford warbler (30). This is not what the people of Hurn want to hear.

It seems clear to me that a local relationship of human communities to the ecology – whether forest, heath, moor or any other landscape type – should be the primary locus of decision-making and the starting point for any discussion of the loaded and potentially dangerous question of how to ‘improve’ the environment.


(Bluebells in Glovers Wood, Charlwood, ‘owned’ by the Woodland Trust – their page of info)

The Potato – Egalitarian Crop?

February 15, 2011

Cultural Materialism – ‘an anthropological school of thought (or “research strategy”) that says that the best way to understand human culture is to examine material conditions – climate, food supply, geography, etc.’ (link)

From Charles C. Mann’s 1491, an interesting perspective on the potato; another foodplant that ‘doesn’t belong‘ outside (perhaps) of its home in South America, but was adopted – apparently – for the relative social benefits it conferred when compared to the other major introduced species feeding the growth of civilisation:

The staple crop of the [Peruvian] highlands was the potato, which unlike maize regularly grows at altitudes of 14,000 feet; the tubers, cultivated in hundreds of varieties, can be left in the ground for as long as a year (as long as the soil stays above 27°F), to be dug up when needed. Even frozen potatoes could be used. After letting freezing night temperatures break down the tubers’ cell walls, Andean farmers stomped out the water content to make dried chuño, a nigh-indestructible foodstuff that could be stored for years. (The potato’s cold tolerance spurred its embrace by European peasants. Not only did potatoes grow in places where other crops could not, the plant was an ally in smallholders’ ceaseless struggle against the economic and political elite. A farmer’s barnful of wheat, rye, or barley was a fat target for greedy landlords and marauding armies; buried in the soil, a crop of potatoes could not be easily seized.) (pp.225-6)

More info from Wikipedia:

Following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. The staple was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. The potato was slow to be adopted by distrustful European farmers, but soon enough it became an important food staple and field crop that played a major role in the European 19th century population boom.[7]

[...]

Across most of northern Europe, where open fields prevailed, potatoes were strictly confined to small garden plots because field agriculture was strictly governed by custom that prescribed seasonal rhythms for plowing, sowing, harvesting and grazing animals on fallow and stubble. This meant that potatoes were barred from large-scale cultivation because the rules allowed only grain to be planted in the open fields.[29] In France and Germany government officials and noble landowners promoted the rapid conversion of fallow land into potato fields after 1750. The potato thus became an important staple crop in northern Europe. Famines in the early 1770s contributed to its acceptance, as did government policies in several European countries and climate change during the Little Ice Age, when traditional crops in this region did not produce as reliably as before.[30][31] At times when and where most other crops failed, potatoes could still typically be relied upon to contribute adequately to food supplies during colder years.[32]

I suppose a key factor undermining the potato’s egalitarian potential is its storability*: if it can be stockpiled (to any degree – even if less so than grains) this basically invites an elite group to come along, stick surpluses in a guarded barn and deny access to anybody refusing to pay tribute (as Richard Manning put it: ‘Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth’). Naturally, this would only work if they also found ways to deny access to comparable plants freely available in the wild. (Destroying non-agricultural land to plant more potatoes would be a good start…) Here’s either Ray Mears or Gordon Hillman writing in Wild Food, the book accompanying the BBC series:

Roots were an extremely important food source for our ancestors. In Britain we have more than 90 indigenous species of edible root of which most were probably used by the combined populations across the country. Evan an individual band of hunter-gatherers probably used 20-30 species in the course of their annual round. Compare this to our present-day diet, in which root foods are dominated by a single introduced species – the potato – and in which our cultivated carrots, turnips, swedes and radishes were probably much later additions, domesticated in the Mediterranean Basin from where they were introduced into Britain, although wild forms were native here. The bland taste of these domestic forms probably appeals to a lot of palates in contrast to the broad range of distinctive and often strong flavours offered by wild roots. (pp.80-1)

Of course, decentralised self-sufficiency and a degree of social equality aren’t much good to you if you’re dead. Ask the Irish about the dangers of relying too heavily on a few varieties of non-native foodplants. Not that they had much choice in the matter:

The Celtic grazing lands of… Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonised… the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home… The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of… Ireland… Pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.[25]

If cultures are what they eat, what kind of food staples would lead to the least hierarchical social organisation? The above seems to suggest: as many different ones as possible, and the more uncontrollable (perishable), localised and wild the better.

Food for Freedom!

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* – Indeed, Mann doesn’t mention that conquistadors later made use of it as a ‘convenient food for slaves in the Spanish silver mines and sailors on the Spanish galleons’ (link) – in this instance the plant acted less as an ‘ally’ than a collaborator with the enemy in the indigenous struggle against a foreign ‘economic and political elite’.

Control & Slavery

July 19, 2010

Get myself a car, I feel power as I fly
Oh now I’m really in control
[...]
Press any button and milk and honey flows
The world begins behind your neighbour’s wall

It all looks fine to the naked eye
But it don’t really happen that way at all
(The Who – ‘Naked Eye‘)

‘Don’t you just love being in control?’, the woman asked, speaking on behalf of British Gas in the early nineties before clicking her fingers to magically (or so it appeared) produce a blue gas flame, shooting from the top of an extended thumbs-up – a signal of reassurance that Everything’s Okay:

The image of this slogan came back to me from childhood memories after musing a while on the notion of ‘energy slavery’. If you never heard of the concept, Richard Heinberg illustrates it with typical, punchy succinctness in The Party’s Over:

Suppose human beings were powering a generator connected to one 150-watt lightbulb. It would take five people’s continuous work to keep the light burning. A 100-horsepower automobile cruising down the highway does the work of 2,000 people. If we were to add together the power of all of the fuel-fed machines that we rely on to light and heat our homes, transport us, and otherwise keep is in the style to which we have become accustomed, and then compare that total with the amount of power that can be generated by the human body, we would find that each American has the equivalent of over 150 “energy slaves” working for us 24 hours each day. In energy terms, each middle-class American is living a lifestyle so lavish as to make nearly any sultan or potentate in history swoon with envy. (pp.30-1, crediting John H. Lienhard)

The woman in the British Gas ad is demonstrating the amount of power she can command merely by clicking her fingers. As power trips go it probably only comes second to having somebody carry out a command which you haven’t even verbalised: “All the work household appliances perform for us at the touch of a button… wouldn’t it be simpler if they learned to anticipate our every whim so we never had to suffer a moment’s dissatisfaction?”

Slavery never went away. Neither did all the attending attitudes and power-relationships. The bulk of the burden simply shifted onto the backs of ‘lower’ lifeforms; upon the exploitable energy which industrial society found in the bodies of plants and animals interred millions of years ago. How do they feel about this? ‘We’ who burn their remains; who drain, extract, deplete, exhaust them as a ‘natural resource’ do not ask. ‘We’ cannot ask: to view them as people ‘just like us’ would fast undermine any continued exploitation to the point of impossibility. Questions of empathy don’t survive in entrenched master/slave relationships. Americans could start to think about what the Africans went through AFTER it became possible to obtain more energy more cheaply and from different sources.

‘Being in control’ – what does this mean? Why did British Gas hold it up to early nineties television viewers as a desirable state for them to ‘be’ in; an unquestionable Good which they must surely crave for, or aspire to? Translating the slogan into E-Prime helps it make some sense and gives it more honesty, as in ‘Don’t you just love having control – over others?’ I suppose that message could appeal to middle/lower-class Britons more used to having the power wielded against them. Perhaps they might enjoy feeling like a sultan or a potentate for a change. (Although, somehow, I think these historical characters would much prefer to be on the top of their small pyramids to being somewhere in the middle of a much larger one.) But what’s so great about that? If slaves get no rest, then neither do the slaveholders: you’ve got to feed them, clothe them, look after them when they get sick*, break their spirits, punish ‘misbehaviour’, fight wars for more of them when your appetites increase, etc, etc. No energy comes without cost, even if you ‘only’ measure this in terms of hardened, calloused personality traits and the inability to relate honestly and openly to others.

Another part of the supposed benefits of the slaveholder lifestyle lies with the idea that “It’s better to get somebody else to do something than it is to do it yourself”. Hard Work may be morally virtuous (according to popular mythology), but the ultimate goal is to manipulate or coerce another person into handing you the world on a platter while you get fatter and lazier and more stupid as each day passes. I find it curious, this idea that we were born with bodies – arms, legs, hands, feet, muscles, bones, nerves, tendons – and we’re meant to strive to use them as little as possible… The more I look at this the more I see a lose/lose scenario. Slaves lose their freedom to live their lives as they please; slaveholders lose the joy of building their lives with their own hands. ‘The best thing since sliced bread’, they say, but really it manifests as a theft & centralisation of personal autonomy – a loss of tactility, coordination and skill in a thousand arms, hands, eyes; another loss in all the energy taken up in building, maintaining and feeding the complexity of one central machine.

I feel more ‘in control’ when I slice my own damn bread! Likewise who has more command over their destiny: one harvesting local fuel for their own use or for the use of their community, with all the knowledge and experience of how to do this in a sustainable manner; or one who makes monthly payments to have North Sea gas pumped into their house by a privatised utility company – into a cooker they didn’t build and can’t repair without expert assistance? To my mind ‘Push-Button-Make-Good-Thing-Happen’ represents practically the highest form of dependency. Where’s your control if you click your fingers and nothing happens?

I get this from people watching me process various wild foods: “Why expend all this energy when you can buy something similar at the supermarket for a fraction of the cost?” To me this would just mean that, economies of scale notwithstanding, someone else had done the work instead of me and they were getting screwed by having to cater exclusively to my ‘needs’ (or rather, those of the supermarket) at the expense of their own. I’m starting to hear an underlying attitude: “This dirty physical work is beneath you. Leave it for the slaves.” Last Autumn it took me several hours of gathering and then several more over several days of processing to produce around 2 kilos of acorn flour (you have to de-husk them, coarse-grind them, leach them in around 5 changes of water to get rid of the tannins, roast them dry and finally fine-grind to finish). While I was sat in the living room, cracking each nut in turn over the head with a small stone to get at the meat inside, my mum informed me that she could get a bag of (wheat) flour for a few pounds down in town. Later we happened to be watching a program about industrial bread manufacturing, and for once I had my wits about me enough to remark that “I didn’t have to build a windmill to grind my flour” before the moment passed. I think I made my point…

I owe Urban Scout and his post, ‘Colonization Vs. Rewilding‘ for seeding a lot of these ideas. Here was a key passage for me:

During the physical enslavement of African Americans, white people who disagreed with slavery, because of their privilege, could help slaves escape slavery. While those white people disagreed with the enslavement of those people, they lived as members of the culture of enslavement. They worked to change the culture they lived as a part of. They could help the slaves escape precisely because they lived as a part of the culture of slavery.

While I don’t identify with Civilization as my culture (i.e. I don’t think of Obama as “my president”, the troops in Iraq as “my troops”, the police force as “my police force”, etc) I make up a part of this culture. I have a job, therefore I pay taxes, which go to support the military that keeps us all occupied. Even if I didn’t pay taxes, I still buy food from the grocery store, pay for movies, coffee, clothes, etc. etc. etc. All of which help the economy stay in place. While I may not feel like part of this culture (I certainly don’t!), I live inextricably as a slave to it, and therefore a member of it. It doesn’t matter what people believe on a personal level, but what we do as a whole culture. The personal level provides a platform for abandoning this culture; it stands as a starting point, but not yet differentiated from it.

I commented, saying that ‘I’ve focused a lot on wringing out my submissive slave blood as part of this process of ‘de-colonising the mind’, but maybe I forget too often to deal likewise with my inherited slaveholder blood, coming as I do from a privileged position (not that it feels that way) near the top of the imperial pyramid.’ I see re-engaging with wild foods and medicines as one way to set off this win/win process of de-colonisation†: on the one hand regaining autonomy in my individual life, on the other lessening my dependency on (and, to an extent, sapping the viability of) the industrial modes of production that enslave us all. I’d love to control that process with a click of my fingers, but somehow I don’t think it’ll be so easy…

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* – Less of this with wage slavery.

† – Other ways might include anything from learning how to cook, cutting your own hair to harvesting rainwater or composting your poo.

Wild Food June – pt.1

June 24, 2010

Here’s some stuff I’ve been getting up to (that’s what blogs are for, right?) and which I presume you could be getting up to too:

1) – Stinging Nettles. Further to picking & eating them raw as a wayside snack / test of manhood, I felled this lovely bunch from a shady part of the local park (I guess they have more incentive to grow tall with a lack of light, plus the books say that they make better eating than those getting scorched in the full sun all day):

I snicked them off at the base with a knife, put gardening gloves on after the 3rd or 4th sting from the bristly stems, then flopped the lot of them over my shoulder and walked the 15 minutes home, people staring all the way*. Usually I’d just pick the lighter green tops off for food use, but I wanted to try my hand at making cordage from the strong fibres in the stalk. Here’s the Ray Mears tutorial I worked off (watch from 2:35):

Here are my stalks, stripped of newer, nice-looking leaves (in the bowl on the right) and older, nasty-looking leaves (in the tub on the left, covered in water to use as a plantfeed when well-rotted after a couple of weeks-or-so†). Gloves not really needed from this point:

I flattened them against the paving stones with my thumb before splitting them from the mid-point and peeling away the pith as Mears demonstrates (top-to-bottom, inner pith, partially split stem, fibres):

Then I hung them to dry, and a couple of days later they looked like this:

I tried to twine the dried fibres together as Mears shows, but they weren’t pliable enough to roll along my jeans so I settled on a threeway plait. I was in my usual doing-things-for-the-first-time mindframe of assumed competency and feverish annoyance when things don’t work out right away, so the result was a bit of an untidy rush job:

Still, not bad for a first attempt. A good length from 5 fibres (feeding a new one in as the old one tapers out) and it felt strong enough when I tugged on both ends.

I made a couple of really tasty soups from the leaves. Pamela Michael’s ‘Nettle Borscht’ recipe of butter-fried onion + nettles + vegetable stock, boiled for 10 mins, blended + cream to finish was my favourite. They also went well in bacon fry-ups, veg casseroles and omelettes. Oh, and I saved a couple of handfuls from the outset to dry for tea, but I’m not crazy about the flavour … seems like a bit of a waste of the incredible 25% dry-weight protein content too – I feel really nourished and full of a nice buzzy energy after eating nettles in one form-or-other. Sadly deceased herbalist & wild food guru Frank Cook said that it should be our ‘national food’ here in England‡ and I’m inclined to agree.

2) – Elder. These guys have been going mad with all the sun lately, poking out their lovely, delicious-smelling flower sprays almost everywhere I turn. I suppose that’s the first stage in the relationship: recognition – the brief interval in the year when a plant species takes it turn to do something incredible and un-ignorable – “Hey, look at me! Check out what I’m doing over here! I wanna be your friend! Remember this meeting and maybe come back to say Hi at another point in the year – perhaps I’ll have another special gift to offer you??!?” I finally went on a trip with my mum to visit my favourite Elder buddy on a field margin down on the way towards the river. He was practically groaning under the weight of berries last Autumn (October?) and this is the second year I’ve gathered his flowers – in fact I only just finished the last batch of tea (just dry the flowers, then infuse at will) which he helped provide:

Closeup:

Recently I’ve read about the importance of Elder as a ‘keystone species’ in plant communities. In The Vegetarian Myth Lierre Keith quotes extensively from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Lost Language of Plants, in which he ‘talks about archipelagoes of plant communities, groupings of intercommunicating plants around a dominant or keystone species, usually a tree. These archipelagoes form in response to mysterious and unpredictable cues, and often announce the wholesale movement of ecosystems.’ Keith continues:

Once established, the keystone plant then calls the bacteria, mycelia, plants, insects, and other animals necessary to build a healthy and resilient community. The keystone’s chemistries arrange the other species and direct their behaviour. “This capacity of keystone species to ‘teach’ their plant communities how to act was widely recognized in indigenous and folk taxonomies.” Elder trees are called elders for a reason.

Among many indigenous and folk people it is said that the elder tree ‘teaches the plants what to do and how to grow,’ and that without its presence the local plant community will become confused … Other indigenous peoples, recognizing the nature and function of keystone species, have said that ‘the trees are the teachers of the law.’ ” [Keith, pp.88-89; Buhner, p.183]

That was about the most awesome thing I’ve read all year. Elder also has a crazy diversity of medicinal applications, known as ‘the medicine chest of the country people’ (Ettmueller via Grieve), though so far I’ve only used the flower tea, fairly successfully, to sweat out colds and fevers before they get into full swing. I think next I’ll be trying out the leaves, which, according to PFAF’s Ken Fern, work to repel insects and are ‘very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance’. For edible uses, I made elderflower fritters (which tasted okay with powdered sugar, but didn’t agree with my digestive system – here’s a recent post, including recipe, on Nick Weston’s ‘Hunter-Gathering’ blog) and, after having a whole batch of laboriously-snipped flowers (the green flower-stalks taste bad) go mouldy, I decided to throw the next lot quickly into Elderflower Cordial. Robin was kind enough to link me to another Hunter-Gathering recipe, which I followed pretty closely apart from the orange zest  and citric acid. So this is a load of snipped flowers + three lemons sliced & grated in slightly over 2l of water, brought to the boil for around 10 minutes:

I left the thing to infuse overnight, then strained through a jelly bag (squeezing hard to get all the juice out of flowers & lemons), added several squirts of lemon juice concentrate and 1kg sugar to the resulting cloudy yellow liquid, boiled for another 10 minutes before allowing to cool slightly and pouring into sterilised bottles. Voila:

To be continued…

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* – Watching people’s reactions to my climbing trees, walking barefoot, smelling flowers, looking up at birds, and especially foraging for wild plants, I wonder if I underestimate the propaganda value of just seeing somebody engaged in these activities, behaving like it was the normal thing to do. Having rather shy & retiring personality traits (in the flesh, at least) I started out quite furtively with my nettles, trying to avoid other people, taking the smaller paths &c. Illicit activity. When I came to a main road, though, I had to give this up and actually started to enjoy my role as walking advertisement for a sane way of life. All the cars zooming past with quizzical expressions on those driving them, behind wheels, behind glass … why should I be the one to feel embarrassed? They’re the crazy fundamentalist revolutionaries, not me!

† – PFAF say: ‘The leaves are also an excellent addition to the compost heap[12, 18, 20] and they can be soaked for 7 – 21 days in water to make a very nutritious liquid feed for plants[54]. This liquid feed is both insect repellent and a good foliar feed[14, 18, 53].’ (link) My little tub stank out the whole garden after two weeks, when I finally spread half of it on the flower borders and dumped the rest in the compost. Weirdly, we had a couple of wood pigeons who seemed to love drinking the stuff – I had a good laugh when the one with a limp (who keeps coming back even though I’ve sworn that I’ll try to kill and eat him if he does) fell into the tub and got covered in the stinky sludge trying to flap his way out.

‡ – Watch him speak about nettles. Quote (0:27): ‘[T]he rest of the world of people who know nettles consider it an amazing healing herb, and it’s only here and other places in Europe that it’s considered a noxious weed. And it’s really important: any noxious weed you have around you is rare somewhere, and that’s really important to remember – and that, instead of thinking of it as a noxious weed, think of it as an incredibly abundant friend who’s trying to remind you of something.’

Ian’s Haircare

June 1, 2010

Step 1: Pick a handful of Rosemary.

Step 2 (optional): Pick a couple of stems of Sage and a few extra leaves.

Step 3: Bash fresh herbs with the business end of a rolling pin (because it’s fun but also because people say it helps to liberate the various essences) and place in a pan of cold water corresponding to the size of bottle you’d like to fill, plus a little extra to make up for evaporation loss.

Step 4: Bring to boil, cover to stop the volatile (Latin: volare “to fly”) oils escaping, simmer for 1/4 of an hour then take off heat and allow to cool. Strain & bottle.

There, wasn’t that simple?

I’ve had satisfactory results over the last 3-4 months just washing my hair with warm water, pouring a capful of this stuff on, massaging it all in and toweling dry without re-rinsing. I like the smell, it leaves my (nearing neck-length) hair feeling grease-free & healthy, plus I know what went into it and didn’t give my money to any nasty pharmaceutical company*.

I got the recipe from Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants & Herbs. The first time I just used Rosemary, but she repeats the instructions in the entry for Sage, so I’m experimenting with a mixture of the two†. Michael notes that  ‘All sorts of commercial preparations for the hair are made with rosemary, and its good effects are well known [...] A little rubbed into the scalp daily gives the hair a nice sheen and wholesome fragrance’. She says that ‘it will not keep for more than a week or ten days once opened’ but my last bottle lasted about 2 months, just getting a little darker in colour and stronger-smelling. Perhaps the plant’s strong antiseptic properties help with this. Anyway, they say fermented plant-feed gets more effective with age…

In case you were worrying that this concoction would only suit an aspiring Cro-Magnon such as myself, here’s a decent page of Rosemary info for you, written by a woman who has had ‘many long haired beauties [recommend] rosemary herbal hair teas, oil and rinses’ over the years ‘to stimulate my follicles and grow my hair longer and stronger’. More relevant bits:

Rosemary For Hair

This magnificent herb is widely respected for its value as a hair and beauty aide. Rosemary can also be used in the bath, on the face and as a body or scalp massage.

Believed to stimulate hair follicles and hair growth, rosemary is generally believed to slow down or even permanently hold off premature hair loss and gray hair.

Rosemary oils and concoctions will soothe and condition dry, flaky scalps.  When applied in a concentrated form to the roots and scalp, rosemary is helpful in clearing many cases of dandruff.  Rosemary also mixes well with tea tree and basil for stubborn scalp problems.

Rosemary Hair Oils

Rosemary is known to help darken gray hair over time (although not obvious for a long time) and it is considered to be a stimulant for the roots and the scalp. Many people trying to help stimulate their hair to grow longer or healthier swear by various rosemary infused recipes.

If you have long hair with some hints of gray, you may want to avoid using commercial dyes or colors to protect the health of your hair.  Over an extended period of time rosemary rinses and oils are rumored to gently and softly darken gray hair. Rosemary will also eliminate dryness and act as an excellent conditioner.

Besides being rumored to help grow hair faster & prevent pre-mature baldness (no scientific evidence to that at this point) it is also good for knocking out dandruff.

If you have blonde or light colored hair you may NOT want to try this recipe as it may darken your hair.

Apparently a rinse made with Chamomile flowers is good for blondes, but they haven’t come out yet (the flowers, not the blondes). Other good ones include Stinging Nettle, Yarrow and Burdock. While you’re at it you can use the same plants to make yourself a nice cup of tea!

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* – I recommend Pat Thomas’ snappily-titled Cleaning Yourself To Death for a forensic investigation of all the toxic (including carcinogenic) ingredients and industrial waste-products that corporations have dumped on us in the form of cosmetics and cleaning products. She explains how unnecessary most of these are (of course – that’s why they have to spend so much money on advertising) and provides alternative options including simple recipes you can make in your own kitchen.

† – Try it yourself, but I think I’ll just be sticking to Rosemary in the future. After a week of daily use my hair feels maybe a bit cleaner and ‘fluffier’, but it’s also curling all over the place and getting rather unmanageable. Well, it’s probably time to cut it too…

Biodiversity in the UK

April 28, 2010

I was aware of the horror figures for global species loss (150-200 gone every day, 50% gone by the middle of the century* – the Holocene Extinction) but somehow it always seemed that this was something happening ‘out there’ in the rainforests & such; I didn’t see it as a crisis  immediately affecting me in my home-land. It took about ten minutes’ research to disabuse me of these notions, and I’d like to share a couple of links in case you too were suffering from the same comfortable delusions ;) First, a bit of noise in the press from a year ago about the cuckoo -  the RSPB had put it on their ‘red-list’ after ‘a “shocking” 37% decline in the species since the mid-1990s’. Here’s David Adam’s article in The Guardian: ‘Cuckoo joins official list of UK’s most endangered birds‘.

Mark Avery, conservation director of the RSPB, said: “An increasing number of charismatic, widespread and familiar birds are joining the list of those species most in need of help. This is scandalous. When the RSPB was formed 120 years ago, few would have been concerned about the cuckoo, lapwing, starling or house sparrow. Now, these birds are some of our greatest conservation priorities.”

A few days later Nicholas Milton wrote a CiF piece arguing that ‘The decline of the cuckoo pits the environmental movement against the powerful farming lobby’. He reasoned this way:

As a brood parasite, the cuckoo has a complex life cycle which includes migrating more than 4,000 miles each spring from sub-Saharan Africa. Problems in its wintering grounds and climate change may be causal factors but experts think the answer is more likely to be a lack of food, particularly its favourite – hairy caterpillars. Crucially, a lack of insects has also resulted in the decline of two of its host species, the meadow pipit and dunnock. The culprit? Modern agriculture.

The plight of the cuckoo has therefore become highly political. After years of cooperation it threatens once again to pit the environmental movement against the powerful farming lobby. This time the battle is over the future of set-aside, the European Union agricultural scheme designed to take surplus land out of production which was abolished last year. The British government has just closed a consultation looking at two very different ways of trying to replace a scheme which by default has thrown a lifeline to many beleaguered farmland birds including the cuckoo. The option favoured by conservationists is for farmers to manage a small percentage of their land in return for subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy. Unsurprisingly, the option favoured by farmers is a voluntary approach, not linked to their subsidies.

I was surprised to see wildlife’s enemy again named so openly in a more recent article for the Sunday Times, which got picked up elsewhere in the press in almost a ‘flurry’ of attention to this criminally neglected subject. The reason for the attention? David Attenborough has come out in support of a new book, Silent Summer, ‘in which 40 leading British ecologists detail how factors such as pesticides, population growth and intensive farming are destroying the plants, insects and animals on which the rest of the country’s wildlife depends.’ The article links farming to declines in butterflies and moths:

[...] the caterpillars of many species need particular plant species to feed on — but these are often targeted by farmers as weeds. “Nearly every butterfly decline can be attributed to habitat loss or the degradation and increased isolation of surviving patches of habitat,” [Jeremy Thomas, 'professor of ecology at Oxford University'] said.

to the killing of rivers:

[...] scientists [chart] a general collapse in populations of caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies.

Such species were once renowned for forming vast, shimmering swarms as their aquatic larvae hatched and took to the air in summer. They also provided an important source of food for birds, fish, bats and predatory insects.

Cyril Bennett, a researcher with the Riverfly Partnership, whose research is featured in Silent Summer, said such sights were now rare.

In the book he links the decline with the growing use of pesticides on sheep and cattle. “If sheep or cattle are allowed to enter a river after treatment the entire invertebrate population can be wiped out for miles downstream,” he said.

and to diminishing populations of even the ‘weedier’ bird populations:

Robert Robinson, of the British Trust for Ornithology, said the intensification of farming, and the consequent loss of habitat and food sources, had been “catastrophic” for farmland birds.

Starlings and swallows, both insect eaters, are among the worst affected with populations down by two-thirds since the mid-1970s.

How do we react to news like this, and where – what experience – does this reaction stem from? What do we make of Norman Maclean’s (Silent Summer‘s editor and ‘emeritus professor of genetics at Southampton University’, no less) statement that ‘The evidence is that we could be in the middle of the next great extinction of wildlife, both globally and in Britain’? Here are some of the rather conflicting reactions that flitted through my mind – see what you think:

  • That’s too bad for them (on the ‘outside’; in ‘the wilderness’)
  • What do I care about caterpillars and caddisflies? What services do they provide me?
  • Meh. This ‘wildlife’ is obviously not up to the challenge of Natural Selection. (Okay, I didn’t really think this one – but how many people do?)
  • These ivory tower scientists don’t know what they’re talking about. I saw two butterflies in my garden the other day!

  • What an impoverished world without birds and insects!
  • Could we live without them?
  • Would we even notice if they were gone (we certainly don’t spend a lot of time with them during office hours)
  • What has happened to us that the destruction of biodiversity – of all ‘non-essential’, non-human life – barely raises a shrug? Why isn’t this all over the front pages all of the time?
  • What a bunch of cold-hearted killers we’ve turned into!

People who get all of their food from agriculture, all their medicine from pharmaceutical industries, all their wonder and enjoyment in life through pixels on a screen: what reason do these people have to care about ‘wildlife’? How dearly will they fight to save (or ‘preserve’) it? I think part of the reason I’m able to move into the lower group of reactions above and find this news more acutely distressing is because I’ve started to move into a position where I actually depend upon the surrounding ecology (rather than upon its destruction† – something inherent to all – not just modern – farming, if you ask me) for my sustenance. Here’s my slogan: Eat the Wildlife: Save the Wildlife.

And for anyone who thinks ‘we’ don’t really need a diversity of lifeforms on this planet, here’s an analogy Daniel Quinn came up with which I hope you’ll find compelling:

We’re very like people living on the top floor of a high rise who every day set off two or three explosions in the lower floors of the building, weakening and even demolishing walls. Still–so far–the building stands, and the top floor where we live continues to sit on top. But if we continue to set off two or three explosions a day in the lower floors, then eventually and inevitably, one of these explosions is going to create a critical weakness–a weakness that combines dynamically with all the other weaknesses to bring the building crashing down.

We can say, “Yes, it’s true that we drive a couple hundred species to extinction every day, but there are tens of millions–hundreds of millions–between us and catastrophe.” We can SAY this, but the sheer number is no guarantee, because like the random bombers in the high rise, there’s no way of telling which extinction will be the one that suddenly combines dynamically with thousands of others to bring the whole structure down. (link: ‘Technology And The Other War‘)

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* – 150/day and 50% figure from Jared Diamond who discusses the topic most extensively in The Third Chimpanzee, 200/day comes via Daniel Quinn who has this to say about it. Of course, for now, these figures will most often be the subject of ‘controversy’ and denial (if they’re acknowledged at all) for the same reason that nobody knows that there have been over a million excess civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion/occupation – the dominant power interests always downplay the true extent of the damage they’ve caused. Especially when it comes to the Enemy; the Other Side, well … ‘We don’t do body counts’ as some murdering shitbag put it.

† – I think the ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ which has been decimating bee populations made headlines and penetrated public consciousness to a greater degree because, well, as the Wikipedia article puts it: ‘Colony collapse is economically significant because many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by bees’. There you have the logic of farming: If it serves no ‘productive’ use, fuck it: it has no business being alive, stealing OUR valuable resources. Perhaps the RSPB can put a spin on the cuckoo, saying it’s valuable for nature tourism and thus worth saving. Either way it seems fairly clear which side is going to win (and which side is going to capitulate away into nothingness) in any contest between Nicholas Milton’s ‘environmental movement’ and ‘powerful farming lobby’. Well, ‘win’ in the short term at least…


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