Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

‘The Environment of Early Man in the British Isles’

February 12, 2014

http://www.pendleburys.com/shop_image/product/166557.jpg

I recently learned a lot from reading this book, which was recommended by a commenter under one of George Monbiot’s rewilding articles. It was published back in 1975 so I’m not sure how much of it still holds true or whether there has been much development or debunking of the theories he presents from various scientific disciplines in the time that has elapsed since. But I can say that it made a lot of sense to this reader, who found it eye-opening, provocative and highly informative (if a little heavy-going at points) nearly forty years after it was written.

The main thing it got me thinking about was this polarisation of whether human cultures are ‘meant’ to exist in a largely open or closed environment – basically the choice between grasses and trees which we talked about before. Evans makes clear that this isn’t a simple delineation between forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers and field-based farmers. In fact there have been very large differences in the patterns of subsistence adopted by hunter-gatherers in this land even before the arrival of agriculture, around 6,000 years ago, heralded the more active management of the land with which we’re familiar today at its totalitarian extreme. The main cause for these differences was the background climate, to which prehistoric man adapted along with all the other creatures in the surrounding ecology. Evans separates them into two main types – the Upper Paleolithic (old stone-age) cultures, who hunted herds of large game feeding on the grasslands that prevailed during the glacial Devensian period between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago:

In the Mendips, pollen analysis of cave deposits indicates values of between 25 and 40 per cent trees and shrubs, mainly birch and willow. An environment of park tundra—scattered birches in a generally open landscape, but with denser woodland in the sheltered valleys and ravines—can be envisaged for much of Britain at low altitudes. A fauna similar to that prior to the Full Glacial was present with large herbivores predominant. Horse and reindeer appeared early in zone I [beginning 14,000 years ago]; elk was present by zone II [10,000 years ago], and in Ireland [...] the Allerød period [ie:  zone II] is characterized by the giant Irish deer. But the mammoth, wooly rhinocerous, hyena and lion were all absent, for some reason not having been able to return to Britain after the glacial maximum [...]

In Britain, faunal evidence suggests horse often as important or even more important than reindeer for food and raw materials [haha!]. Abundant herds of horse were probably available along the upland/lowland contact zone as indeed they would be today in the High Altai of Mongolia were it not for modern man [...] The tundra vegetation, on which low temperatures and a short growing season were limiting factors, was not directly exploitable for food on a large scale by man, although seeds and berries were doubtless eaten. But the reindeer and the horse were ideally suited to it and it was through these animals that man’s livelihood was largely gained. (pp.51-3)

and the Mesolithic (middle stone-age) cultures who lived in the forested environment favoured by the more temperate climate of the ‘post-glacial’ which began around 10,000 years ago and continues to the present day:

Man responded to these changes variously. He adopted his methods of hunting to the pursuit of individual animals rather than herds and began to make greater use of the bow and arrow. He widened his range in the quest for food and became less specialized, pursuing a grater variety of animals than in the Ice Age. It is inevitable too, although we have little evidence for this, that a more varied plant diet was exploited than was possible in the sub-arctic tundra.

The earliest forest-dwelling Mesolithic culture in Britain is the Maglemosian, named after the type sit of Maglemose (literally ‘big bog’) in Denmark. It is classically associated with forest, marsh and reed-swamp habitats, and, as far as we can tell, adapted readily to the changed environment of early Post-glacial times [...] The best-known Maglemosian site is Starr Carr where the main animals exploited were red deer (80 examples), roe deer (33), elk (11), ox (9) and pig (5), a fauna reflecting the prevailing forest vegetation. Other animals present were the pine marten, hedgehog, hare, badger, fox, beaver, and domestic dog. (pp.87-8)

Of course, these differences depicted among modern humans (Homo Sapiens has been in Britain for around 40,000 years) probably apply to the different cultures among earlier subspecies, Neanderthalensis, Heidelbergensis and Antecessor, (among others?)  who would have lived through similar swings in climate and either changed their subsistence accordingly, migrated to more favourable climates or become locally extinct. For example the recent news of human footprints and artifacts discovered in Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast, and dated to between 800,000 and a million years ago, mentions a background climate where:

[...] the local vegetation consisted of a mosaic of open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). Alder (Alnus) was growing in wetter areas and there were patches of heath and grassland. This vegetation is characteristic of the cooler climate typically found at the beginning or end of an interglacial or during an interstadial period. (from the original paper)

In other words much closer to the kind of environment where we can expect subsistence on herds of large herbivores rather than smaller forest-dwelling individuals.

Evans wears his prejudices on his sleeve when it comes to describing what the resulting human cultures were like, and appears to see a narrative of progress linking the open-environment people of the Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic farmers, with the woodland Mesolithic people presented as an unfortunate intermediate stage where nothing much happened, possibly because their environment wasn’t ‘challenging’ enough. Compare the concluding paragraphs to his chapters on the two periods:

The Later Upper Paleolithic peoples endured in western Europe for over 4000 years. With their cave art, their carvings, their tools and weapons of extreme beauty, their sophisticated annual migratory movements and their possible near domestication of the reindeer and the horse they drew from Western Europe and gave to it a fitness and a legacy which was not to be surpassed until the introduction of agriculture—and some would say never. The possible future of these communities had the Late-glacial environment been maintained is totally speculative. But there is little doubt that the Post-glacial amelioration of climate and the eventual spread of mixed deciduous forest drove the reindeer herds northwards and broke up one of the finest and most successful life styles ever known. (p.54)

[...]

This then is the environmental background to the early Post-glacial hunting communities of Britain—a warming climate, a rising sea with yet marshy extensions to the east and links with Europe, an increasing variety of game and plant food, and the spread of all pervasive forest—conditions quite different from those experienced by Upper Paleolithic man. These changes may have had a very great psychological impact on man, the equable conditions and diversity of habitats and food supply both obviating the need for specialization and also retarding development [...] it is a fact that not only in Britain but in Europe as a whole Mesolithic man has left little of artistic wealth. We have few clues to his beliefs, and burials, apart from a few examples such as the horrible nests of human skulls at Ofnet in Bavaria, are rare. There is nothing of the brilliance of the Upper Paleolithic hunters living as they were in the stimulating landscape of the Ice Age, nor anything of the vital urgency with which later farming communities were to settle and cultivate the lands of western Europe and the British Isles. (pp.89-90)

This may relate to his personal politics which he lays bare at the end of the final chapter, which left a bad taste in my mouth for several days. After describing the horrors of soil erosion, whereby, because of agriculture and the removal of field boundaries, hedges etc. ‘[w]e are, in effect, returning to an almost ‘Late-glacial’ landscape of steppe, pasture and bare ground, with processes of physical erosion—dust storms and ‘solifluxion’—rife’, the topsoil ‘lost, literally in a day’ through wind erosion, he then questions the value of environmental organisations and conservation efforts, asking:

Do we have the right to lay down the requirements and attempt to mould the environment of the future? And in doing so, are we not betraying earlier, and more important, future generations of man? [...]

By attempting to maintain the environmental status quo are we not denying ourselves and our progeny the opportunity and the ability to exploit challenging new environments both created by our own industrial and agricultural needs and by natural climatic shifts? Evolution depends on environmental stimulus, and the most successful groups of man have arisen in response to specialized simplified environments. If man had declaimed in the past at the felling of the forest he might still be at the Mesolithic stage of development. If there had been one of the specialized periglacial habitats, the brilliant Upper Paleolithic may never have emerged. And had there been none of the rigours of a cooling Pleistocene climate, there may well have been no man. (pp.186-7)

I don’t think this can be forgiven just because it was written the 70s. There’s some seriously insane thinking going on here, alongside the falsity of viewing evolution in terms of linear progress. Maybe he’d appreciate the ‘challenging new environment’ of the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico, or defoliated, dioxin-laced Vietnam, or a tar sands trailing pond, or an ocean stripped of phytoplankton because of the greater acidity caused by excess CO2 in the atmosphere?

Canadian oil sands sitefancy a ‘challenge’? – source

He doesn’t appear to understand that civilised man has already done more than anyone to ‘mould the environment of the future’ – a largely desertified, if not entirely dead planet, but, unbelievably, his ire is directed at environmentalists who are trying to check this destructive ‘simplifying’ process. What gives them the right to try and preserve the rich, generous biodiversity that the natural world has tried so hard to bestow us with?

Anyhow, back on the subject of open vs. closed environments, there may yet be some truth to Simon Fairlie’s comment about ‘the health of the human psyche’ depending on ‘keeping land open to wind and sunlight’ which I criticised at the above link. Remembering the story the photographer Guy Hand tells in ‘The Forest of Forgetting‘ (pdf) about trying to introduce his Scottish wife to the pine forests of his native Idaho, I assumed that this was an attitude born from an abused landscape:

The instant we climbed out of Idaho sagebrush and into a dense stand of pine, in the Sawtooth Wilderness Area, I knew something was wrong. Mairi fell silent. Her pace slowed. I glanced over my shoulder to find the distance between us filled with shadow and half-light. She had hunched her shoulders and dropped her head. She moved with the wary posture of stalked prey. As she passed through a saber of light I could clearly see the fear in her eyes. I waited for her, but she walked past, pointed to a clearing, and by way of explanation, whispered, “too many trees.” Neither of us had known, until that moment, that Mairi held a secret dread of wooded land.

I felt as if I’d failed her, unable to convey the closed-in sense of sanctuary I’d always felt in that forest, the way, even as a child, the thick mat of pine needles and jigsaw bits of bark felt luxurious under my feet; the way the trees provided shelter against wind and mid-day glare; the way sounds were both softened and clarified; the way air held the sweet scent of pitch and the flutter of wings.

On the scree and boulder slopes above tree line, the tension drained from her face. She looked off into a landscape she could again understand: open country, treeless country, country filled with nothing more than grass, rock, and sky. It was only later, after peering more deeply into her Highland past, that we learned forests were part of her history, too, a forest lost to centuries of forgetting.

But the evidence shows that even woodland people also value open landscapes, whether we’re talking about the Native American practice of using fire to maintain the so-called ‘Oak Savannah’ habitats*, rainforest people clearing temporary patches to grow manioc and other vegetables, or the density of prehistoric artifacts found around ancient floodplains or other areas such as lakes or coastlines kept open through ‘natural’ causes:

spey

Over the past 200 years, rivers like the Thames have been embanked to prevent flooding, and the flow of water controlled by locks and weirs. Formerly their course were braided, i.e. split up into several channels which meandered over a broad flood plain [...] For agricultural peoples such a system of braided channels is wasteful of land, and artificial control has been imposed at various times in the past on river systems in the most heavily farmed areas of the country. But from the point of view of Lower Paleolithic man such conditions were ideal. They provided tracts of open ground in an otherwise forested country with the obvious advantages of defence against predators such as the lion, and of concentrating herds of game such as deer, oxen, horse and elephant attracted to the river valley for water. The variety of habitats—open water, reed swamp, woodland, and, as we shall see, at one stage, grassland—together with the variety of game animals both large and small obviated the need for specialization in hunting and food-gathering techniques, and presented man with what was probably a relatively congenial existence. (pp.3-4)

Perhaps climate change-induced flooding of the kind which low-lying areas in Britain have been recently experiencing will force a return to this kind of habitat?

Somerset flooding

There is also some evidence for the use of fire in the opening up or maintenance of favourable hunting grounds. Apparently the man to check out is Ian Simmons, who wrote a 1996 book called The environmental impact of later Mesolithic cultures. Earlier writings of his having to do with the relationship between fire and the ‘vegetation changes associated with Mesolithic man in Britain’ and ‘Environment and early man on Dartmoor’ (both published in 1969) are summarised by Evans thusly:

simmons

Forest glades around springs and streambanks are seen as initial nuclei of open ground, created by animals coming to drink. The dual attraction to Mesolithic man of both water and game in these areas was probably exploited, and their enlargement by burning a logical follow up which in turn would have attracted more game animals. Game avoidance of the area or overkill by man may then have led to desertion of the clearing and subsequent regeneration of woodland. (p.97)

Where this happened on poorer soils it is seen as evidence that Mesolithic people were capable of permanently degrading the land in certain areas to the point where the trees wouldn’t regenerate and only heath- or moor-type plant communities could survive.

Fire is also mentioned whenever the discussion turns towards Hazel – higher representations of which in the pollen records are said to represent either spontaneous or human-encouraged conflagrations because ‘Hazel is a fire-resistant tree, springing up readily from burnt stumps’ (p.81).

[A.G. Smith, 1970] argues that the prevalence of hazel during the Boreal period [increasing warmth 9500-7500 years ago]  may too have been engendered by the continued use of fire. It is perhaps significant that the hazel maximum in the Post-glacial falls at a much earlier stage in relation to the climatic succession as a whole than in previous interglacials.

The purely climatic origin of the vegetational changes in the Boreal/Atlantic transition ['climatic optimum' starting around 7500 years ago] has also been questioned, largely on the grounds that they are so often exactly synchronous with layers of wood charcoal and Mesolithic flint artefacts [...] A secondary hazel maximum occurring around the Boreal/Atlantic transition, and occasionally coinciding with an increase of herbaceous pollen, is perhaps further evidence for widespread human interference with the vegetation at this time. (pp.100-1)

Herbaceous pollen, eh? This has echoes of the Indian practices we mentioned before*, in which fire is used to favour the growth of ‘bulbs and greens’ under a relatively open tree canopy – Hazel coppice, both in their neglected and actively managed states, around where I live have a lot of ground flora, probably due to the greater amount of light filtering through (although I understand he may not be saying the tree & herb pollen came from the same sites). Unfortunately Evans doesn’t consider that Mesolithic people might have been deliberately managing stands of Hazel for a nut crop, as more recent research has begun to explore†.

I felt a weird, nagging sensation while studying the many charts comparing the pollen representation of various plant species in the archaeological record. Here’s a simple one detailing the transition to Neolithic cereal farming at Barfield Tarn, ‘a kettle hole on the south-western edge of the Lake District’ (p.111):

pollen

Evans talks about the decline of Elm, which most researchers accept as diagnostic of the rise of farming, whether through introduced diseases, use as fodder for livestock until exhausted or deliberate clearance (as it often occupied the soils most suitable for cultivation). In this diagram the trees, with the exceptions of Oak and Elm, don’t appear to suffer that much from the ‘two episodes of land use’ although we are assured that ‘[r]egeneration of woodland did not occur’ (perhaps after the depicted period?) Anyway, what struck me as a forager looking at these diagrams is that, while I make extensive harvests from trees themselves, most of the plants that I would consider useful in a culinary sense – Plantain, Dandelion, Sorrel, Fat Hen, Nettle and mustard species – only become prevalent along with the grasses and cereal crops favoured by the Neolithic farmer/herders. I too have adapted to an open landscape! In reality, unless we accept the active fire management scenario described above (or the more passive attraction to ‘naturally’ open spaces), it seems likely that these ‘weed’ species were, if not entirely absent from Mesolithic diets, then much less abundant in their environment than they are today. Chris Thomas of York University’s biology department has made similar points (pdf) drawing on his knowledge of butterflies, summarised here by Mark Fisher:

[Thomas] sought to ask why so many animal and plant species in Britain, and in some other parts of northern Europe, are restricted to open habitats when the majority of the landscape would naturally be forested? He observed that most open-country species would have survived the mostly wooded state of the mid Holocene in the open areas of inland and sea cliffs, dunes, coast and lake shores, and possibly river-valley grasslands, fen, bog and mire, as well as above the tree-line, without the need to invoke major modification of the vegetation by large herbivores. They would have colonised twice: in the early Holocene after the ice receded but failing to persist once tree cover asserted, and then again after the trees were cleared for agriculture. Thus what ever the date of arrival, current distributions largely reflect recent conditions. In addition, the rates at which we see modern distributions adjust to new environmental conditions are sufficient to allow most animal species to assume new distributions within Britain in a few hundred years if conditions change. Current distributions thus reflect recent anthropogenic habitats far more strongly than they reflect the longer-term history of natural populations. (‘What is rewilding?‘)

Evans has plenty to say about the effects of agriculture once it arrived in Britain, and he charts the various technological developments that ensued as well as the negative environmental impacts it had, especially on the soil. He follows these effects right through to the historical period and the modern day, often showing how patterns of land use laid down in earlier times often strongly influenced the organisation of human settlements which we recognise today. Perhaps I’ll come back to explore this properly another time, but for now suffice it to say that nothing in this book has fundamentally altered my understanding of agriculture as ‘a regressive rather than a progressive evolutionary event’ (to use the words of Oak enthusiast David Bainbridge).

[Above images print-screened from the google preview of the book]

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* – ‘There was considerably less chaparral and underbrush [in aboriginal times], due to the Maidu practice of burning off the areas near where they lived each fall and winter. They preferred an open, grassy, oak savannah habitat for several reasons. Open country is much easier to travel in than country with thick underbrush; it is easier to find game and harder for enemies to sneak up on the camp. More bulbs and greens grow in such an environment, and it is easier to gather acorns on bare ground.’ – anthropologist John Duncan, quoted in Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild, p.288

† – for example: ‘The Late Mesolithic phase is defined by the repetitive application of fire to the woodland to encourage a mosaic of productive vegetation regeneration patches, consistent with the promotion of Corylus [Hazel] and to aid hunting. In this phase, weed species including Plantago lanceolata [Ribwort Plantain], Rumex [Dock/Sorrel] and Chenopodiaceae [Fat Hen/Good King Henry] are frequent, taxa which are normally associated with the first farmers.’ (from the abstract to ‘Late Mesolithic and early Neolithic forest disturbance‘ – anyone with access to the full paper please get in touch!)

70%, 60%

June 22, 2013

***Updated July 6th***

A highly distressing new report from Friends of the Earth Europe: ‘Weed killer found in human urine across Europe‘. If you live in the UK there’s a 70% chance that you have Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup, in your body. What’s it doing to you while it’s in there? How long does it stay? How can you get rid of it or at least build up a personal resistance as the superweeds have done? Answers to these questions are not available because of the usual industry-sponsored silence.

I definitely have it in me because we carry it around in the back of our work van all week (garden maintenance). I’ve refused to use it personally but my coworkers aren’t so scrupulous. I’ve worked on a Roundup-sprayed driveway at least once, suffering mild headaches, dulled awareness and difficulty engaging with the outside world for a number of hours afterward. (I figure I’m basically a plant person now so it’s bound to affect me more than the average post-industrial human being…) One of my colleagues has developed the recent worrying tendency of suggesting we reach for the weed-killer when this proves more economical for our time than weeding by hand, although the cost of the chemical – in more ways than one – gets passed on to the client. They responded to news of this recent report with tangential comments about the safety of drinking water, ignoring the threat sitting right there, a few feet away. I really don’t want to be around when they commit these atrocities, if I can’t first persuade them to not do it. My boss, who has previously worked with Monsanto and accepts their safety claims at face value, is broadly sympathetic to my decision (he doesn’t spray it on his own garden, possibly in part because of the concerns I’ve expressed) but insists that the herbicide has a place in the service we provide, again for economic reasons when it’s cheaper to do the requested work that way, eg: clearing weeds [sic] off driveways, patios etc.

Anyway I recommend reading through some of the different pdf sections via the above link to educate yourself a little about this chemical and the corporations pushing it on you. It’s not just direct contact you have to worry about. As they say, ‘All volunteers who gave samples live in cities, and none had handled or used glyphosate products in the run up to the tests’ and:

Once applied, glyphosate and its break down products are transported throughout the plant into the leaves, grains or fruit [5]. They cannot be removed by washing, and they are not broken down by cooking [6]. Glyphosate residues can remain stable in foods for a year or more, even if the foods are frozen, dried or processed [7]. (‘Human contamination by glyphosate‘ – pdf)

Even if you’ve found a way to avoid ingesting GM foods you’re probably not safe thanks to an insane practice used by farmers called ‘dessication':

glyphosate-containing herbicides may be sprayed just before harvest onto non-GM cereals, pulses, sunflowers and oilseed crops. This is done to remove weeds and dry out the grains (ibid.)

ie: to kill the plant and pump it full of poison just before it gets isolated from the environment and passed on for consumption by humans. Genius.

But it’s not all about us of course. I found the ‘environmental impacts of glyphosate‘ (pdf) to be the most harrowing read. Turns out that, contrary to Monsanto’s lies*, glyphosate does not biodegrade, stay where you put it, cause no harm to mammals, birds, fish, pets, children, gardeners… In fact it fucks up the lives, lifecycles, hormones, body development and ecological feeder relationships of birds, butterflies, frogs, fish, mussels, invertebrate insects, ocean- and river-dwelling microfauna, and, of course, plants – ‘undesirable’ or otherwise. Anything it touches, basically. Read this and weep, made especially compelling after the recent news that 60% of species in the UK are in decline:

Common weeds can be important food sources for insect, bird and animal species in agricultural areas. Weeds provide food and nectar sources for insects, which in turn feed birds. Weed seeds can also be vital winter foods for many declining bird species, such as corn bunting and skylarkxxxi. Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) of GM crops in the UK between 1999 and 2003, examined the number of weeds and their seed production in non-GM intensively-managed sugar beet fields, compared with those in GM glyphosate resistant sugar beet cropsxxxii. The results showed a significant loss of weeds and weed seeds in the GM glyphosate resistant sugar beet, compared to the conventional crop. The UK government’s scientific advisory committee spelled out the significance of the results, stating that ‘if [GM glyphosate resistant] beet were to be grown and managed as in the FSEs this would result in adverse effects on arable weed populations [which] would be likely to result in adverse effects on organisms at higher trophic levels (e.g. farmland birds), compared with conventionally managed beet.’xxxiii

A follow-up modelling project concluded that the effects of GM glyphosate resistant crops could affect different species, depending on their feeding and life cycle requirements. The authors noted that, in the results of their model, “Skylarks showed very little response to the introduction of GMHT rape. By contrast, the consequences of introducing GMHT sugar beet were extremely severe, with a rapid decline, and extinction of the skylark within 20 years. This contrasts with the cirl [sic] bunting, which showed little response to the introduction of GMHT beet, but severe consequences arose as a result of the use of GMHT rape”xxxiv.

Join the dots, people.

I think I’m going to start wearing a black armband with the extinction symbol on it:

Extinction Symbol

Otherwise, I believe the roots of dock, dandelion and burdock are the place to go to get support for an overloaded liver and kidneys. But I consider it insufficient to merely adapt to the new toxic status quo in this way. What I’d like to see is the toxic behaviour of Monsanto et al cut off at the source so the planet no longer has to deal with the cascading negative effects of their appalling chemical weapons in the first place. Here’s a petition for starters, but I don’t think it’ll be enough on its own.

Oh, and this is what happens after long-term exposure to Roundup and/or Roundup-Ready GM crops (industry regulations only required a 90-day trial):

GM corn fed rats with cancer tumors during study headed by French biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini‘One of the rats fed GM maize NK603 for two years. The animal has developed an abdominal cancer tumour. Photograph: Tous des cobayes/J+B Sequences’ – source

In a peer-reviewed US journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology, [Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini, professor of molecular biology at Caen university in France] reported the results of a €3.2m study. Fed a diet of Monsanto’s Roundup-tolerant GM maize NK603 for two years, or exposed to Roundup over the same period, rats developed higher levels of cancers and died earlier than controls. Séralini suggested that the results could be explained by the endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup, and overexpression of the transgene in the GMO.

Less toxic than table salt my arse.

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* – A brief reminder of the claims made in adverts which a New York attorney forced Monsanto to pull back in 1996 – exhibits A through J:

a) Remember that environmentally friendly Roundup herbicide is biodegradable. It won’t build up in the soil so you can use Roundup with confidence along customers’ driveways, sidewalks and fences …

b) And remember that Roundup is biodegradable and won’t build up in the soil. That will give you the environmental confidence you need to use Roundup everywhere you’ve got a weed, brush, edging or trimming problem.

c) Roundup — biodegrades into naturally occurring elements.

d) Remember that versatile Roundup herbicide stays where you put it. That means there’s no washing or leaching to harm customers’ shrubs or other desirable vegetation.

e) This non-residual herbicide will not wash or leach in the soil. It … stays where you apply it.

f) You can apply Accord with … confidence because it will stay where you put it … it bonds tightly to soil particles, preventing leaching. Then, soon after application, soil microorganisms biodegrade Accord into natural products.

g) Glyphosate is less toxic to rats than table salt following acute oral ingestion.

h) Glyphosate’s safety margin is much greater than required. It has over a 1,000-fold safety margin in food and over a 700-fold safety margin for workers who manufacture it or use it.

i) You can feel good about using herbicides by Monsanto. They carry a toxicity category rating of ‘practically non-toxic’ as it pertains to mammals, birds and fish.

j) “Roundup can be used where kids and pets’ll play and breaks down into natural material.” This ad depicts a person with his head in the ground and a pet dog standing in an area which has been treated with Roundup. (link)

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UPDATE:

I portrayed my boss too generously. Weedkiller came up in conversation between us during a lunch break and I mentioned this report and its main findings. At first he wanted to know, reasonably enough, what concentration of glyphosate the research found in peoples’ urine. I didn’t know at the time but went away and looked into it (results below) and may pass on my findings at some point. But after a short spell of silence I was treated to a barrage of denial, justification and misdirection. Highlights included ignorant smears against FoE (a leftist conspiracy against Monsanto: “They’re like a dog with a bone”, “They’re anti-business”, “They hate success”), evidence-free assertions that glyphosate isn’t as bad as some of the other chemicals out there (“I’m sure there are much worse things on my driveway”, “What about all the petrol fumes and machine oils?”), strong implications that there’s nothing you can do about it and you just have to accept & cope with it as best you can, blaming consumers for demanding cheap food with disregard for the consequences (an old disagreement – I think the manufacturing processes call the tune and people adjust their habits accordingly, largely because they have no choice. If it’s all demand driven why the need for so much advertising?) and reiterating the supposed economic imperative of the company needing to use Roundup because “If we don’t someone else will – they will get the work and we will lose out”.

I couldn’t think of any way to respond productively to all this, so I did my usual bit of listening while The Man With Experience lays out The Story of  How Things Are, while making a conscious effort to keep it at arms length and not internalise it all automatically, reserving my own conclusions for a later date. For now, apart from having the usual Upton Sinclair quote ringing in my ears (‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’) I’m thinking this ‘If not me someone else – but worse’ is a bullshit excuse that has probably been used by every tyrant and holocaust-facilitator in history. But what’s the truly responsible course of action? Personal boycotts might be morally satisfying but they don’t really have an effect on the system as a whole unless coordinated and specifically targeted (so why not conspire against Monsanto :D ). Otherwise I think it’s broadly true that you just take yourself out of the competition, leaving another to take what would have been your share. You may not consider it to be worth taking in the first place, but that’s irrelevant if your concern lies with how things play out in the bigger picture. My unscrupulous colleague has more earning potential than me by not ‘turning down work’ in this way. One day this may be the crucial difference between us if the boss decides to lay one of us off. Whatever happens those driveways will continue to get sprayed in the meantime…

Maybe the answer lies in talking to the clients and wider public, ensuring this information gets out to them and perhaps persuading them to change their habits. Comparing the garden sheds of older and younger generations offers some hope – you often find a massive cocktail of lethal, long-expired chemicals in older sheds and much less in the younger ones, indicating a growing distrust of these industrial poisons and a greater inclination towards organic principles. But then, if this process of change is in reality driven by manufacturing practices and mass PR indoctrination rather than consumer demand, appeals to reason and emotion might not cut it. Answers on a postcard as usual!

Here’s the stuff on urine concentration:

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Having checked out the original paper, I see that, of the ten samples from the UK, seven had a level of glyphosate higher than 0.15μg per litre of urine (the ‘Limit of Quantitation (LOQ)’ below which the chemical is apparently considered to not be present) – hence the 70% detection rate, which could actually be 100% as far as I can make out. The mean average is 0.47μg/L, second only to Malta at 0.82μg/L, with the lowest averages coming from Switzerland, Macedonia and Hungaria at 0.09μg/L. There were two UK results over 1μg/L with the highest coming in at 1.64μg/L, second only to the unfortunate individual from Latvia with 1.82μg/L (see table 4 on p.12). The paper gives a ‘reference value’ of 0.8μg/L but I don’t understand what this is meant to indicate and can’t make head or tail of their explanation:

The reference values for Glyphosate and AMPA are only tentative. They were derived from an urban collective (n=90) and are defined as the 95. percentile of the measured values. They were established by Medical Laboratory Bremen in 2012 during the process of the method validation. Strictly speaking they are only valid to the region of Bremen.

Any enlightening comments from someone from a more scientific background much appreciated! It doesn’t seem like regulators have decided on a ‘safe’ level of glyphosate in human urine. The main focus (and controversy) revolves around something Orwellian called ‘Acceptable Daily Intake’ relative to the total body weight rather than the fluid content of urine. In the EU this has been set at 0.3 mg  per kg of body weight (mg = 1000x greater than μg) but there is a stink about the way in which they arrived at this figure – from the FoE report, ‘Concerns about glyphosate’s approval‘ (pdf):

One of the core purposes of pesticide safety assessment is to set the ‘acceptable daily intake’ (ADI) for people’s everyday exposure to the chemical, for example through residues in food. In its 1999 evaluation of glyphosate, the German authorities proposed a high ADI for glyphosate of 0.3 mg per kilogram of body weight. They calculated this figure by reviewing the industry feeding trials using glyphosate and choosing the one they felt to be most sensitive to the effects of the chemical. In this case, the German authorities considered the most sensitive test to be a rat feeding trial. From this they calculated the ‘no observed adverse effect level’ (NOAEL). The ADI was then set at 100 times lower than this [10]. This ADI of 0.3 mg/kg was agreed by the European Commission, and is now law. But even four of the companies applying for approval of glyphosate differed in their interpretations of the industry feeding trials – based on the same studies; they suggested the ADI should be lower, ranging from 0.05mg/kg to 0.15 mg/kg [11].

In 2012, the ADI for glyphosate was re-examined by a group of scientists (including four professors) from universities in the UK and Brazil [12]. When they looked at the industry-funded feeding trials assessed by the German authorities, they noted some studies showed adverse effects at lower doses than in the rat feeding trial, but these findings had been ruled out for various reasons. They claim this led to “significant bias” in the data used. They commented that, if all the industry-funded studies had been included, a “more objectively accurate” ADI would be 0.1 mg/kg bodyweight per day. The group then examined the findings of independent trials of glyphosate published in scientific journals since 2002. Based on these, they concluded the ADI should correctly be 0.025mg/kg bodyweight per day, or “12 times lower than the ADI… currently in force in the EU”.

The ADI for glyphosate is not monitored.

I don’t know how the concentration of glyphosate in urine would relate to the concentration coming in the other end. What seems obvious is that the approach of finding an ‘acceptable’ level of any poisonous substance favours the industry manufacturing that substance at the expense of those humans and nonhumans who get lumbered with the job of storing it in their bodies. ADI? Try UDI!

Rewilding the British Isles

June 10, 2013

The Soča river valley in Western Slovenia. Photo by Padraic Giardina/Getty‘The Soča river valley in Western Slovenia. Photo by Padraic Giardina/Getty‘ – source

George Monbiot can be an ass but there’s loads of useful stuff in his latest subject material concerning the rewilding of landscapes and (to a lesser extent) people. The book is called Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding and it looks like it’ll be worth a read. There’s an interesting review and discussion here, with Monbiot pitching in quite constructively in the comments. Otherwise there’s a short video on youtube, a Radio 4 walking interview with a well-known sports commentator (who seems quite blindsided by the whole affair), and an excerpt from the book, ‘Accidental Rewilding‘ published by Aeon magazine and putting forward the observation that disasters for human civilisations often leave room for the rest of the ecosystem to flourish on its own self-willed terms (compare Derrick Jensen’s comment that the recovery of wildlife in Chernobyl proves that the ‘The day-to-day workings of civilization are worse than a nuclear catastrophe‘). But this RSA talk: ‘A New Future For Nature‘ and Q&A seems like the best place to get a feel of where he’s coming from and take a hit of his infectious enthusiasm and obvious passion for the topic (apparently the video will only be available for two weeks):

As usual I don’t buy the line about human hunters alone causing the extinction of all the European megafauna, although I’d like to see his evidence. Obviously I see limitations in his conception of what it might mean for humans to rewild, which looks more along the lines of hands-off ecotourism for ‘ecologically bored’ city-dwellers rather than any real embedding of feral human cultures in these ecosystems as a species in their own right. This comment in the Grauniad thread says it all, really:

I’m not advocating rewilding as an alternative to civilisation. Here’s what I say in the book:

“While some primitivists see a conflict between the civilised and the wild, the rewilding I envisage has nothing to do with shedding civilisation. We can, I believe, enjoy the benefits of advanced technology while also enjoying, if we choose, a life richer in adventure and surprise. Rewilding is not about abandoning civilisation but about enhancing it. It is to “love not man the less, but Nature more”.”

…so he doesn’t know what he’s talking about on that front… [/charitable]

Also naturally I’m not happy with this only happening in the highlands with the agricultural monopoly continuing on the best lowland soils, but I guess you can’t have everything right away… Don’t know what to make of his elephant theory either, but I suppose it’s just crazy enough to be true. Fantastic stuff about the turtles, sea grass, wales and phytoplankton relationships and the ‘trophic cascades‘ by which which the removal (or reintroduction) of even just one particular keystone species can cause huge transformations throughout the ecology. But again, he could have mentioned the importance of having human beings in a beneficial keystone role. Possibly he mentions it in the book, but I’ve heard dark murmurings that the next step after reintroducing wild wolves to Yellowstone Park might be to reintroduce wild people, ie: the indigenous Indians who were excluded when the national park was created. Now where are we going to find some of those over here, I wonder?

Some positive steps over all though, in my humble opinion. Good if this stirs a wider debate.

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.

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.

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.

Giving Back #2 – Lessons from Burdock

March 5, 2012

(#1)

It’s been over two years since I last dug up Burdock for the roots and something like five since I first started searching for this plant after seeing Ray Mears unearth some huge specimens and talk about their potential, not only as an important starch-filled survival food, but as a likely caloric staple for the hunter-gatherer cultures who lived here before farming took hold some six thousand years ago. In my eagerness and enthusiasm to partake in this (pre-)history and get my teeth into a hefty wild food that could even compete with cultivated rootcrops like carrots, parsnips & potatoes for size and bulk, I jumped in head first and ended up making my first serious foraging error – mistaking the first spring growths of Lords and Ladies (aka Cuckoo Pint) for Burdock, based on the aforementioned TV footage and a handful of pictures and descriptions I’d seen on the internet. I’d dug up a few plants that had hallelujah’d at me during a walk along the Thames near Oxford and brought them back home in my pocket. They didn’t have the same huge, deep roots, and came with a funny little tuber which I’d not heard mentioned. Nevertheless, ignoring the lingering sores on my hands (which I had attributed to unseen nettles during the digging), I proceeded to steam the stems and do a taste test on them. This was unremarkable by itself, but when I took a tiny nibble from the freshly cut, white inner flesh of the raw tuber, it was a different story. Apparently Lords and Ladies defends itself using microscopic dagger-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate interspersed between the cell walls, and these shoot out when the plant’s body is broken or disturbed, embedding themselves fairly reliably in the flesh of the hapless creature responsible for the disturbance. Youch! So after a promising initial rush of sugary starchiness while I mixed the tiny morsel with saliva in the front of my mouth and gave it a cautious nibble, my mouth started to tingle, then ache and then burn all the way to the back of my throat, even though I’d spat and rinsed with cold water almost immediately. I finally ID’d the plant correctly (thanks mainly to my symptoms) and learned that, while they do have a recorded edible use as a ‘poor man’s potato’ and of being rendered into ‘portland sago’ (a thickener akin to arrowroot) or laundry starch, this requires careful baking and/or pulping in water to destroy or denature the crystals, and when eaten raw it has even been known to cause death through inflammation of the throat tissues and subsequent asphyxiation! Oh shit… Happily the burning died down within a couple of hours so I didn’t have to get too worried in the end, but it was still noticeably sore for the following two days.

Lesson #1 - Respect the plants! Spend enough time to be able to ID them confidently and be careful what you put in your mouth!

It turns out Burdock comes up significantly later than Lords and Ladies, and I did manage to find and dig up some plants later in that same year, learning to look for the dried-out 2nd year stalks and remaining sticky burrs to indicate where I was most likely to find a community of younger plants poking through. (The plant is biennial – forming a rosette and taproot in the first year, hibernating through the winter, then lunging back upwards in its second summer with huge leaves and flowerstalk before going to seed and dying back in the autumn – and the best time to harvest the root is during the first autumn or second spring when most of the energy is still underground.) It was during this time that I found some properly massive specimens, growing in gravelly clay soils by an artificial irrigation ditch.

These gave me my first indication that it might be possible to subsist entirely off foraged foods in this country (hence the triumphal, ‘take that, surburbia!’ pose struck in that second image, my sometime banner photo for this site), especially after I got my eye in over several long-distance walks and started noticing the plants growing in large patches in many different places, especially along roads for some reason (probably having to do with water run-off and heat absorption by the dark tarmac). My eyes swelled with fatness* from seeing a new abundance of food in the landscape in this way, but I also felt a new sensitivity towards the plants themselves and a growing reluctance to swoop in and put an end to all their hard work before they even got the chance to reproduce. I couldn’t just take from these beings. Even if some degree of respect lay in the simple, very personal act of expending work calories in exchange for the carb storehouses they had established (which would then fuel more work calories…) – couldn’t a bankrobber make the same claim in defense of his actions? Just because you could do something, it didn’t necessarily follow that you should. So for a long time I avoided digging plants up or, more generally, any kind of harvesting that would prove fatal to them. A small portion of the leaves, fruits, seeds – okay; whole roots – no no, unless they had to come up for other reasons, eg: gardening operations.

Lesson #2 – Don’t kill unnecessarily. Consider the plant’s needs and, where possible, try to fit yourself around them so that both parties can get what they want.

A couple of things clicked in me over the following years. First I heard about Australian aboriginal practices of digging up edible roots and replanting the crown and the rosette so the plant would grow back again, allowing for a sustainable harvest, albeit over a long timespan. Then I saw Derrick Jensen talk about the fundamental law of the predator/pray relationship – ‘If you consume the flesh of an Other, you now take responsibility for the continuation of the Other’s community’ – and how life was only possible through this respectful bargain of looking after the land and all the species sharing the same space with you. Most importantly ensuring that the sum total of your actions contributed to the health and resilience of the community, because in the end every species gets weighed in the balance† and those that are found wanting lose their right to life and become extinct. Finally I got to grips with the notion that humans weren’t exempt from this law, and the rather counter-intuitive idea that our direct involvement, even through heavy-handed, apparently destructive techniques such as fire setting, coppicing, hunting etc, could actually have a beneficial impact on ecosystems, as well as for the individual plant and animal species concerned. As Kat Anderson put it in Tending The Wild, an exploration of land management in preconquest native Californian cultures:

Several important insights were revealed to me as I talked with elders and accompanied them on plant gathering walks. The first of these was that one gains respect for nature by using it judiciously. By using a plant or an animal, interacting with it where it lives, and tying your well being to its existence, you can be intimate with it and understand it. The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with – that one should respect nature by leaving it alone – by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or an animal.

Many elders I interviewed said that plants do better when they gather them. At first this was a jarring idea – I had been taught that native plants were here long before humans and did best on their own without human interference – but it soon became clear to me that my native teachers were giving me another crucial gift of insight. California Indians had established a middle ground between the extremes of overexploiting nature and leaving it alone, seeing themselves as having the complementary roles of user, protector, and steward of the natural world. I had been reading about how various animals’ interactions with plant populations actually benefited those plants – how grizzly bears scattered the bulblets of Erythronium lilies in the process of rooting up and eating the mature bulbs, how California scrub jays helped oaks reproduce by losing track of some of the acorns they buried – and it seemed plausible that the many generations of humans in California’s past had played a similar role. If it was true that native plants did better with our help, it meant that there was a place for us in nature. (Tending The Wild, p.xvi)

I remembered that in the footage I’d seen (has anybody else come across this? I did find it on youtube a while ago, but haven’t been able to track it down for the life of me) Ray Mears had in fact made a point of planting the seeds from nearby mature plants when harvesting his Burdock root to help the plant propagate itself and hopefully replace what he had taken.

Lesson #3 - Ultimately Others have to die so that you can live. In return you have an obligation to look after their brothers and sisters and help their kind to thrive. Someday you too will die and the loan these others have given to you will be repaid in full.

This year, as part of my herbal apprenticeship, Sarah has suggested making a tincture or vinegar from Burdock and Mullein roots. Unfortunately I’ve not yet seen the latter growing anywhere near to me, but about a week ago it felt like a good time to go out hunting for Burdock again, so I grabbed my digging stick (made from a stout piece of Hawthorn), a small hand-trowel & fork and headed down to the river, where I’d gathered from successfully in previous years. Unfortunately there were no signs of growth yet in any of the usual spots, so I made do with some early Ramsons and baby Nettles, and started making tracks back home via a different route. All of a sudden, in a sunny patch by the side of the path, I spied some old flower stems, and – hooray! – some of the flannely, white-bottomed leaves just starting to emerge from the sandy soil in several places nearby.

(Note the shiny, darker green leaves of Lords and Ladies in the top right of the picture.) I judged that there were enough new plants to spare three for my purposes, so I selected a small group suitably close together and set about digging my trench.

The digging stick did most of the work in loosening the soil for me to scoop out with my hands, but there were several tree roots that impeded my progress and the hole started to get too deep for convenience. I think a long-handled fork would have sped things up considerably. In the end I think it took me 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour to get more-or-less to the bottom of the three roots and pull up the best part of them.

It was hard, sweaty work! A few horseriders and dogwalkers came past during this time, which made me slightly nervous because technically I think you need permission from the landowner before uprooting any plant in the UK. Because this was beside a public footpath I didn’t know who to ask, so I went ahead and assumed it was okay as long as I tidied up after. Who within a ten-mile radius, apart from me, considers Burdock anything other than a noxious weed, if they even can even recognise it in the first place? Hopefully the above writing should make it clear why I disagree with Richard Mabey when he instructs his readers:

Never pull up whole plants along any path or road verge where the public has access. It is not only anti-social and contrary to all the principles of conservation, but also, in most places, illegal. (Food For Free, p.23)

(Honestly, I don’t care what the current lot of bandits and gangsters ‘in charge’ of this country have defined as ‘illegal’, and generally view these as suggestions that I’m free to ignore as long as someone isn’t actually there & prepared to back up the law with violence or the other usual forms of coercion.‡) Anyway, luckily they didn’t seem to mind, and appeared interested when I explained what I was doing. When I was done I scooped all the soil back into the hole, tamped it down a little, seeded it with a few handful of burrs and covered it with a loose mulch of leaves and twigs, making sure to thank Burdock for its generosity, explain my intentions and promise that I would be back in the future:

Can you tell anyone’s been there? It occurred to me that loosening the soil in this way would ease the growth of any new plants germinating either from the seeds or the remaining chunks of root. In time, if I continued to frequent the patch, digging up a few plants here & there maybe every other year, my activities would change the growing conditions for that whole plant community, perhaps leading to larger, fatter roots or more vigorous above-ground growth. A low-key form of cultivation that would truly tie my well being to the plant’s existence (as Kat Anderson would have it), taking the form of a mutually beneficial longterm relationship. Anti-social, my arse!

Back home, after a couple of days I got round to scrubbing one of the roots, slicing it up, leaves’n’all in the food processor and dunking it in vinegar for a liver-supporting tonic that should be ready in a month or so:

(Note the dark ‘ring’ in the cross-section, which I’m guessing marks the end of the first year’s growth as it does in trees.) The following morning I sliced up another half-root’s worth to go into a breakfast fry-up:

(Ingredients: eggs, bacon, onion, red pepper, beechnuts, nettles, linseed, butter all fried together, plus tea, toast, tomatoes, salt, pepper, herbs, ramsons butter, nettle infusion. Mmmm…) The root has a very distinctive smell when freshly cut. A sharp, slightly abrasive smell at the same time earthy and musty that seems to reach deep into your throat and lungs. Like it’s angry about being exposed to the air. The taste is more pleasant – vaguely nutty and radishy raw, more bland when cooked. I slice it at an angle to get bigger chunks and make chewing easier, as the fibres get tough and stringy length-wise, given half a chance (although I’ve seen a recipe that called for ‘julienne’-style matchsticks).

There’s a fourth lesson Burdock has played a part in teaching me, having to do with those greed-swollen eyes I was talking about, but I’ll tell you about that some other time. It has to do with Civilisation’s love affair with carbs and the kind of work they, uniquely, can provide the fuel for. Suffice it to say I’ve grown disenchanted with simply attempting to find alternative kinds of food to feed the slave classes…

If you want to read more about the medicinal side of things, I recommend you read about Home-Sweetening Christine’s experiences with Burdock and check out this comprehensive page of info. I’ll report back in a month or so about how I get on with the vinegar infusion. PFAF go into some of the other edible uses for the aboveground parts.

I wish you luck and excitement as you get to know this remarkable plant.

———————————

* – Psalm 73

† – Daniel 5 (dunno why all these biblical references are springing to mind – maybe because it’s Lent?)

‡ – As I’ve written elsewhere, ‘People (or a class of people) who have degraded and brutalised the landscape so comprehensively over the last few centuries/millennia have no business telling the rest of us how, when (or if!) we will relate to the land.’ See also Banksy’s comments on advertising, where he writes:

You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

(which strikes me as an appropriate attitude towards most landowners) … and finally Umair Haque’s handy little saying: ‘If you want to live an empty life, follow the rules.’ (thanks Vanessa)

Balanophagy for Beginners

November 4, 2011

‘Balanophagy is the practice of eating acorns. Acorns are more than just food for birds, squirrels, and hogs. They have been used for food by millions of humans over the ages. Acorns compare favorably in nutrition with common grains, though acorns contain more fat. (That was not a bad thing during most of human history.) If you have any ancestry among people of the northern hemisphere, there is a reasonable chance that you have some ancestors who ate acorns.’ – Kelli Kallenborn

‘The oak tree, today revered primarily for its beauty, may once have been the central food bearer around which entire societies (balanocultures) built their diet and lifestyle. Recent evidence shows that tools used for grinding and pounding food existed long before corn became popular and may have been used to process acorns into meal. Factors such as the domestication of goats and the burning of oaks for fuel may have contributed to the movement away from balanoculture. By the end of this century severe crises in agriculture world-wide may make a return to some modified form of balanoculture a viable alternative.’ – David Bainbridge (apparent coiner of the term)

So, Bill, you say that the European ‘Dark Ages were ages of forest culture'; that

[...] the trees were highly valued, highly selected, had high yields. You paid for the use of land based on the richness of the tree crop. From the forest, they derived all their bread, all their butter. The butter was made out of beechnuts — highly selected beechnuts. There are still casks and casks of beechnut butter in Europe, buried in the peat, still in good condition. All the bread and cakes in Tuscany and Sardinia and a few other places are still made from chestnuts. Corsican muffins are made of chestnuts, not wheat flour. All the bread was made from the trees, and all the butter was made from the trees. There are your basics.

In your American southwest, the pinion pine nut is a staple Indian food. In one day a family of six can gather thirty bushels of pine nuts, and that’s a year’s supply. In South America, six trees support a family of Indians. Those great supports are a source of staple food. One white oak, in its year, will provide staple food for about six families. A good old American chestnut — how many pounds did we get off one of those trees? At least four or five hundred pounds. There’s a couple of families’ food for a year, with no hacking and digging and sowing and reaping and threshing. Just dash out in autumn, gather the nuts and stack them away. [...]

When the forests were managed for their yield and their food equivalence, they were highly managed. Now there are only a few remnants of this in the world, in Portugal, and southern France. In Portugal, you can still find highly selected, highly managed oak trees, often grafted, and olives. The pigs and the goats and the people live together in a very simple little 4,000 yard area in which nobody is racking around with plows. In that economic situation, there is no need for an industrial revolution.

A few of these tree ecologies still remain up on steep mountain slopes, where it has been difficult to get up there to cut the trees down for boat building and industrial uses. The whole of Europe, Poland, and the northern areas once were managed for a tree crop, and the forest supplied all the needs of the people. (from Bill Mollison’s design course, ‘Forests in Permaculture’)

This sounds pretty good to me – something akin to the ‘better reasons’ for preserving woodland I started looking for last December. What state do we find Quercus Robur, the mighty Pedunculate or English Oak – our national emblem – today in ‘the most wooded county in England’ (Surrey – 22.4% coverage, compared to a 11.8% UK average, 8.4% for England and 14.1% for the South East)?

Mostly I find stand-alone specimens like this glorious creature (who I believe substantially outdates the ‘development’ now grown around him) in agricultural fields, parks, suburban street corners, some gardens. I don’t know that many places where they’ve been allowed to get together and form communities like they used to. A few golf courses, perhaps, and some patches here & there in the parks and on downland. Beech tends to predominate nowadays near where I live, although I’m told we used to have much more Oak woodland before the ship-builders and iron-smelting industrialists got their way. (Interestingly, current expert opinion suggests that actually Small-Leaved Lime was the most common tree in the Southern Lowland areas of the prehistoric, post-ice-age ‘Wildwood’ of the British Isles, while the big Oak forests lay to the West and to the North.) But now we don’t use them for anything. We get timber mostly from overseas sources, and even then we rarely use it for building, fuel, toolmaking or any other of the myriad uses which the forest was once put to. So the survivors of centuries of over-exploitation are allowed breathe a sigh of relief, look pretty, grow massive and provide for the 400+ associated species of insect, bird and mammal which we’re willing to tolerate. And yet, perhaps I’m just projecting my own insecurity, but to me they look slightly uneasy – “If the humans aren’t getting anything from us why would they think twice about chopping us down on the flimsiest of pretexts and, especially when times get hard, for the most marginal short-term gain?” I think we need to use – in fact depend on – the trees in order to really safeguard their future. Probably ours too.

Since we’re talking about Balanophagy  – ‘a compound formed from the Greek roots βάλανος (bálanos = acorn) and φαγεῖν (phageîn, infinitive of ἔφαγον, used as 2nd aorist of ἐσθίω, meaning to eat’ (source) – let’s look at some of the edible uses of the the Oak tree’s fruit, the humble acorn.

Here’s William Cobbett writing in the early 19th century about one form of Balanophagy previously widespread among European peasantry – processing acorns and other woodland nut-masts through pigs:

The only good purpose that these forests answer is that of furnishing a place of being to labourers’ families on their skirts; and here their cottages are very neat, and the people look hearty and well, just as they do round the forests in Hampshire. Every cottage has a pig or two. These graze in the forest, and, in the fall, eat acorns and beech-nuts and the seed of the ash; for these last, as well as the others, are very full of oil, and a pig that is put to his shifts will pick the seed very nicely out from the husks. Some of these foresters keep cows, and all of them have bits of ground, cribbed, of course, at different times, from the forest: and to what better use can the ground be put? (source – ‘Rural Ride’, Forest of Dean nr. Bollitree, Nov. 14th, cited in Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, p.131)

A more intensive version of this still survives in the Portuguese practice of montado (aka dehesa in Spain) whereby:

Oak tree forests were gradually thinned out and the land was ploughed to provide room for livestock grazing. The oak trees that remained grew larger and produced more acorns, which in turn provided additional food for the grazing animals. To further enhance acorn production, the trees were periodically pruned, and the trimmings were then used as fuel or fodder for the animals. (link)

This works out better for the land than conventional agriculture because the trees ‘protect against soil erosion by decreasing the amount of water runoff as they absorb rainfall; their roots reach nutrients deep in the soil and bring them up closer to the surface, making them accessible to other vegetation; and they also prevent desertification by enhancing the structural complexity of the landscape’ while at the same time maintaining habitat for wildlife. The pigs also presumably get a taste of their wild ancestry which they seem to like, judging by average weight gains of 30kg after living with the trees for one season between October and January.

La Dehesa

Did the peasants ever cut out the middle man, as it were, and eat the acorns directly themselves? In ‘An Iberian perspective on Upper Paleolithic plant consumption‘ Jonathan A. Haws writes:

In his book, “Prehistoric Europe: The Economic Basis” (1952), Grahame Clark discussed prehistoric acorn consumption in the Mediterranean. Citing the geographer, Strabo, he noted the Lusitanians, in what is now Portugal, were observed to eat bread made of ground acorns for three-quarters of the year. Although in later times acorn flour was milled and made into “famine breads” when grains were scarce, many people appear to have subsisted off acorns for centuries (Jørgensen, 1977). Numerous citations from classical sources suggest acorns were viewed as the basis for all of civilization (Clark, 1952; Mason, 1995; Vencl, 1996; Sieso and Gómez, 2002). In fact, the genus name  “Quercus” is derived from two Celtic words meaning “beautiful tree” suggesting its importance in early times (Sánchez Arroyo, 1999). Acorn-eating, or balanophagy, survives today in Iberia where sweets are made from acorns. In Algarve, people eat raw acorns from the evergreen oaks. On Sardinia, local people still gather acorns and process them using traditional methods. Acorns are mixed with a special iron-rich clay and boiled to absorb the tannins (Johns, 1990). In the western Rif of Morocco, acorns are eaten raw, toasted, soaked in water or sun-dried (Peña, 2000). (pp.55-6)

I find it intriguing to speculate that montado/dehesa practices may have hung over from the subsistence economies of earlier cultures. Did the new farmers learn the techniques from the hunter-gatherer peoples they supplanted (viz. Indians teaching the first European colonists how to grow corn)? Or perhaps these were the same people, doing their best to hang on to the proven old ways while the Neolithic revolution swept through them? Haws lays out some tantalising possible scenarios of earlier practices:

Hunter-gatherers incorporating simple forest management techniques such as pruning, burning or possibly intentional planting could have created improved foraging areas for wild boar, deer, chamois and even wild aurochs. Spring pruning in the dehesa /montado is the primary method for increasing acorn yields per tree however this would be difficult if not impossible to detect archaeologically. There is evidence of prehistoric fire management of European woodlands by people during the Mesolithic (Mellars, 1976; Mason, 2000). Much of this burning has been perceived as a means of encouraging new growth for browse to support deer and other ungulates. However, as Mason (2000) points out, burning can encourage the proliferation of desirable forest species for human subsistence. In this case, fire may have been used as a tool to manage oaks or other fruit / nut-bearing vegetation. Fire may permit more light to reach the crown thus increasing acorn yield for individual trees (Mason, 2000). Comparisons between Holm oaks in managed stands and natural forests showed that unmanaged trees are generally shorter, found closer together and have smaller canopies (Pulidoet al., 2001). (pp.58-9)

Other extant Balanocultures show similar evidence of burning, pruning and other extensive management to maximise acorn production. In her 2005 book, Tending the Wild, Kat Anderson builds a picture of techniques used by Indians in California, some still within living memory. Acorns provided a ‘principle staple’ for the people there, with records of charred shell remains going back at least 10,000 years (p.287). This sounds like fun:

Individuals of many tribes harvested acorns by climbing the trees and cutting the limbs, a process Galen Clark recorded among the Yosemite Miwok: “In order to get the necessary supply [of acorns] early in the season, before ripe enough to fall, the ends of the branches of the oak trees were pruned off to get the acorns, thus keeping the branches well cut back and not subject to being broken down by heavy snows in the winter and the trees badly disfigured, as is the case since the practice has been stopped.” The Mono elder Lydia Beecher remembered the former pruning of oaks: “My grandpa Jack Littlefield would climb black oak trees and cut the branches off—just the tips so that many more acorns would grow the next year” (p.139)

As with practically all the other plant communities they ‘tended’, the Indians used fire to manage Oak trees. Apparently this served various purposes such as: helping to facilitate gathering, suppressing pests and diseases, encouraging the growth of long, flexible new shoots (useful for basketry etc.), keeping forest debris levels down so fires wouldn’t rage out of control, and fostering the growth of edible grasses, herbs and mushrooms between the trees (pp.288-9). As ‘Klamath River Jack from Del Norte County’ put it:

Fire burn up old acorn that fall on ground. Old acorn on ground have lots of worm; no burn old acorn, no burn old bark, old leaves, bugs and worms come more every year…. Indian burn every year just same, so keep all ground clean, no bark, no dead leaf, no old wood on ground, no old wood on brush, so no bug can stay to eat leaf and no worm can stay to eat berry and acorn. Not much on ground to make hot fire so never hurt big trees, where fire burn. (p.146)

As late as 1991 ‘Rosalie Bethel, Nork Fork Mono’ could still recall her elder’s stories from the 1800s:

Burning was in the fall of the year when the plants were all dried up when it was going to rain. They’d burn areas when they could see it’s in need. If the brush was too high and too brushy it gets out of control. If the shrubs got two to four feet in height it would be time to burn. They’d burn every two years. Both men and women would set the fires. The flames wouldn’t get very high. It wouldn’t burn the trees, only the shrubs. (p.177)

The resulting ‘Oak Savanna‘ habitats look strikingly similar to the Iberian landscapes pictured above, and were often compared to parkland by early European observers (p.175):

http://oaksavannas.org/photos/savanna-unit12b-0312.jpg

As well as the fact that, ‘Open country is much easier to travel in than country with thick underbrush; it is easier to find game and harder for enemies to sneak up on the camp’ (p.288), fire management would only leave the oldest, most productive trees standing and leave enough space for rounded canopies with more access to the sun (p.179). As I’ve observed over here when on the hunt for acorns and beechnuts, trees in the middle of woodland tend not to crop very heavily, whereas those in clearings, on edges or out on their own are much more likely to carpet the ground with large, sound nuts. Even on individual trees I’ve noticed that the best pickings are usually found on the South-facing (or open-canopy) side. This makes sense from the tree’s point of view too: What’s the point of dropping seeds in the middle of a shady wood? You’re far more likely to succeed in propagating your kind on the edge of the forest or where a fallen tree opens a clearing, allowing more sun in to increase the chances of germination and/or swift, healthy growth.

Unfortunately (for me) there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence for acorn consumption in pre-agricultural Northern Europe. The abstract of the Mason paper, ‘Fire and Mesolithic subsistence — managing oaks for acorns in northwest Europe?‘ cited by Haws above (anyone got access to the full article?), particularly the number of question marks in the subheadings, suggests a fair amount of conjecture, though the attempt to ‘to extend and apply the model for Mesolithic burning suggested by Moore (in 1996) to two pollen and microcharcoal sequences from Mesolithic Britain’ sounds fascinating. Haws notes:

In the Near East there is solid evidence that acorns were used as food as early as 19,000 bp at Ohalo II (Kislevet al ., 1992). At La Sarga, an Epipaleolithic site in València, a painted rock art scene shows several figures collecting acorns as they fall from the tree (Fortea and Aura, 1987). However, inadequate recovery techniques and/or preservation biases inhibit an understanding of the role acorns may have played in European hunter-gatherer subsistence. (ibid. p.56)

I’m still not clear on how far back acorn remains are found in the archaeological records of the more Northern regions, though. In a 2000 dissertation, ‘Food production and food procurement in the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age’, Anne Evelyne de Hingh writes that:

Finds of concentrations of charred acorns are not at all exceptional and occur from the Mesolithic through to historic times throughout Europe. In Northern France, acorns are found from the Mesolithic up until the Middle Ages (Marinval/Ruas 1991, 420). Several authors have listed (pre- )historic finds of acorns in Europe (see e.g. Knörzer 1972; Karg/Haas 1996)’ (from chapter 11, ‘The collection of wild plants: risk reduction?’, p.200 – pdf)

However the table she provides only lists finds back as far as ‘Neolithic’ digs. Now, farming arrived in Greece around 6500 BC, spreading North and West to the British Isles by 4000 BC, yet archaeologists reckon Mesolithic hunter-gatherer cultures continued to occupy land unsuitable for cultivation (eg: mountainous areas), in some places living alongside agriculturalists for upwards of 1,000 years (source: Wikipedia). One way or another it seems the early farmers either acquired or maintained the knowledge of how to subsist on acorns:

Archaeological evidence for the roasting of acorns is known from the German Rhineland. A pit dating from the Late Bronze Age and doubtlessly intended for roasting activities is known from Moers-Hülsdonk in the German Rhineland (Knörzer 1972). The large pit (4 metres wide and 2,4 metres deep) produced burnt loam and other traces of fire in the filling as well as a red-burnt floor surface. Charred remains of apple, hazelnut and large quantities of acorns were found inside the pit. All evidence points towards the interpretation of a roasting or drying pit for the roasting of acorns and other fruits. (p.200)

Interestingly the Northern Europeans all seemed to have preferred this roasting technique (possibly soaking in water or a lye of wood ash beforehand):

The finds of carbonised acorns from our samples consist solely of kernels, often split into halves. [...] This proves that in Northwest European prehistory, acorns were roasted before consumption, which contrasts with North American traditional communities for example, where they were cooked or rinsed (p.201)

Where did this knowledge come from? Maybe they sought help from the people in the hills during times of famine? Or maybe crop failures occurred often enough to ensure that these cultures remembered – and continued to practice – their own old ways? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know… De Hingh is of the opinion that ‘The principal role of Quercus in the agricultural regimes of prehistoric communities should be found in its properties as “reserved food”, which can be eaten in cases of an emergency, like major harvest failures.’ (p.201) So the peasants still maintained relationships with the trees, relying on them to diversify their subsistence base as a ‘risk buffering’ strategy.

This association of acorn-eating with famine and ‘hard times’ lives on in the European imagination. Most of the wild food literature talks about ground, roasted acorns being used as a coffee substitute when importing the real stuff got too difficult (eg: during WW2), although one American source suggests that this practice was invented by ‘industrial economists’ of the 19th Century French Consulate who, rather ironically, marketed it as ‘indigenous coffee’. There are also many references to peasants eating acorns during later famines, though these practices sound much more desperate, perhaps owing to the progressive deforestation of Europe, if not the loss of the old knowledge. Here’s a snapshot provided by a letter from the Governor of the Province of the Dauphine to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finances for King Louis XIV during the French famine of 1675:

Sir, — I can no longer delay in letting you know the poverty to which I see this province reduced; commerce here is absolutely at a standstill, and from all quarters people come to me to let the king know how impossible it is for them to pay the taxes. It is asserted — and I speak to you because I am well informed thereon — that the greater part of the peasants of the said province have lived during the winter only upon bread made from acorns and roots, and that at the present time they may be seen eating the grass of the fields and the bark of the trees. (from The Economic Transition in India by Theodore Morison, p.101 – link)

No commerce, no taxes, subsisting entirely on foraged foods? Sounds like my kind of heaven! It doesn’t look like the peasants had much fun at the time, though… Here’s an account of the earlier 1528 famine:

The stock of provisions was already so far consumed in the first year that people made bread of acorns, and sought with avidity all kinds of harmless roots, merely to appease hunger. These miserable sufferers wandered about, houseless and more like corpses than living beings, and finally, failing even to excite commiseration, perished on dunghills or in out-houses. The larger towns shut their gates against them, and the various charitable institutions proved, of necessity, insufficient to afford relief in this frightful extremity (Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker – The Epidemics of the Middle Ages, p.219 – thanks, e-books!)

(Though in this instance they may have been suffering of ‘trousse galant’ – erroneously attributed to acorn consumption but actually thought to refer to a form cholera that killed young men – rather than simple starvation.) All of which provides the lesson that you can’t reintroduce a foraging culture at the drop of a hat when your crops fail and expect to support the same population levels for any length of time, especially if the ‘wild’ lands have been depleted by the various impacts of that same population. There has to be a wild food tradition already in place, preferably with management practices already established for maximising yields. As Mark Fisher impressed upon me, we urgently need to restore the ‘devastated landscape’ before sustainable human use becomes possible.

Indeed, shifting our subsistence strategy away from the annual grains and towards perennial plants and trees as the permaculture people suggest strikes me as an obvious first step towards ecosystem restoration without compromising the human food supply. Both Iberian and Californian sylvicultural landscapes host wide diversities of plant and animal life – including endangered species – all while producing human food on land often considered too marginal to support full-scale agriculture. In fact many of the sources I’ve come across compare yields from Oak and other nut trees favourably with those obtained from the common grains, with the bonus that they don’t require yearly ploughing or monocropping (two factors which eventually deplete the soil of essential nutrients) or, in more recent times, regular fertilisation and the chemical extermination of wildlife (aka ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’) with fossil fuel derivatives. In a 1984 Mother Earth News article, ‘Acorns: The Grain That Grows on Trees‘, David Bainbridge made the comparison between Corn and Oak species in terms of blunt productivity:

Corn yields generally range from 2,500 to 10,000 pounds per acre. In comparison, acorn yields in natural forests have been recorded as high as 2,000 pounds per acre from the live oak (Q. virginiana), and—in a good year—I’ve recorded black oak (Q. velutina) yields per tree that would amount to more than 6,000 pounds per acre in a pure stand. And J. Russel Smith, in Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, cited an individual oak that produced a full ton of acorns annually. If a 100-foot spread is assumed for that tree, it seems possible that a yield of 10,000 pounds of acorns per acre could be achieved.

Of course this doesn’t account for all the other productive uses an Oak tree can be put to. I never saw a house built out of the withered remains of harvested corn… Also, if you reinstate Indian-style practices of encouraging the growth of seed-bearing flowers, perennial herbs and other edible plants under the Oaks you can further ramp up food production for years when the trees don’t crop so heavily (Anderson, pp.177-9).

Putting all of this information together you start to wonder how agriculture ever got started in the first place. (As ‘Leavergirl’ noted in a recent overview: ‘In the old days, anthropologists used to ask what took humans so long to become farmers. Now they are asking, what forced our ancestors into this difficult way of life when life as foragers was generally plentiful enough, healthier, and full of leisure compared to the new lifestyle?’) Farmers have spent centuries working hard with their domesticated plants in an effort to maximise the human food they produce, and this has translated into the work-until-you-drop modern insanity of growing economic production at the maximum possible rate, environmental & human costs be damned. But if forager cultures approached similar levels of productivity for thousands of years with a fraction of the effort, surely our end-results-obsessed culture would opt for more intensified versions of their practices rather than sticking with a model that eats the ecology and then fails every other year before finally collapsing in on itself? It doesn’t make sense, given the mantras we hear repeated every day. Unless those in charge are really less interested in total yields than they are in controlling the surpluses and concentrating the subsequent wealth & power… In which case I guess the superior storability (and in the globalised age, transportability) of grains might just give them the edge.

Intriguingly, various scholars have begun to posit that agriculture began among acorn-eating cultures – that the whole project of Civilisation got started when people turned their backs on the trees. This article, for instance, explores the contention that the ‘Natufian’ culture in the Levant, East of the Mediterranean Sea subsisted on acorns in a similar way to California Indians (they had a similar climate and distribution of forests) before shifting into one of the major global starting points for the agricultural revolution. (Check out this equally interesting reply, which challenges the original on various points.) Here’s David Bainbridge again, writing in another paper I wish I had full access to, ‘The Rise of Agriculture: A New Perspective‘:

Interest in and research into the origin and development of agriculture has increased sharply in the last twenty years, yet all of these studies have missed the common link between the areas where agriculture may have begun-the acorn. All three areas considered of significance to date-the Middle East, middle China, and Mexico-are, or were once, characterized by oak woodlands. The experience in California, where ethnographers and anthropologists have been able to study a fully developed balanoculture (from the Greek balanos-acorn) reveals the primacy of acorn use and the complex interaction between people and oak woodlands. The California balanoculture was in fact a very successful agroforestry system that prospered for thousands of years. Balanoculture provided the stable communities necessary for agriculture to develop. The lower time and work cost associated with acorn use suggests agriculture may have evolved as acorns became more scarce from the decline in the oak woodlands brought about by the adverse human impacts resulting from overgrazing, fuel cutting and cutting for timber, and field burning, exacerbated by climatic fluctuation. A reevaluation of the record is in order: agriculture may perhaps be better considered a regressive rather than a progressive evolutionary event.

It occurs to me that a grain-based culture would have a short-term competitive edge over a tree-based culture simply because it doesn’t take so long to establish. If a farming tribe wanted to conquer their balanocultural neighbours, they could cut down their trees, sow seed and be done in a year. If the acorn-eaters wanted to fight back, sure they could burn the wheatfields easily enough, but they’d have to wait several decades before new saplings started to fruit heavily enough to support them again.

Clearly the farmers can’t continue like this forever. You can only fight the inborn tendency of all living beings (including your own – why do rich people spend their lives cutting down the forests of poorer regions in the name of ‘development’ but insist on coming home to immerse themselves in acres of prime hunting woodland?) for so long. Certainly in temperate Europe the land wants to turn into forest – it’s our ‘climax ecology’. No wonder grain farming takes so much effort… Leave even the most completely altered environment alone for an average human lifetime and the various successional stages will revert it to woodland by the end, so long as the necessary seeds still exist and can get in from somewhere. The second we let up on our revolution the Great Rollback begins.

The 18th Century French writer François-René de Chateaubriand wrote that ‘Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them’. I’d like to see this tide reversed and Civilisation pushed back into the desert of its own sick imagination. I’d like to see human beings allied to this irrepressible riot of diverse lifeforms, reclaiming the continent for our own.

*****

Some ideas for reinstating Balanocultures:

  • Quit throwing acorns away! I know plenty of people who just rake them up from their gardens or driveways and stick them in compost bins for the council to tow away. That’s food you’re wasting! I don’t know what happens to them in the ‘Community Recycling Centres’, but I bet they don’t get ‘recycled’ back into human stomachs, except maybe indirectly through compost. I’m not a fan of big centralised solutions, but if individuals haven’t got the time to organise this among themselves would it be too hard for these Centres (we used to call them ‘Dumps’) to separate out the acorns and maybe sell them on as feed to local pig- or chicken-farmers?
  • Look at what Oaks you have around you with a view to returning them to management. I’ve often seen farm or pasture fields in England with huge oaks in them (someone told me there was a law about this dating back to shipbuilding times), and I know a few suburban developments that kept the old trees from preceding land uses:These are already in prime conditions for heavy acorn cropping – rounded canopy, not too crowded, open to the sun – and I’ve found that they do in fact produce far more acorns of better quality than most trees in conventional woodland. I’d say they need a few more brothers and sisters though… Also, I don’t suppose they like being surrounded by all that concrete (acorns bruise like apples, especially if they land on hard surfaces). Even when grasses grow at the base, the habit of raking/blowing/’tidying’ away the annual leaf litter robs the tree of the nutrients it depends on from its own self-generated ‘mulch’. Either leave the leaves be, or you could consider introducing small-scale burns in Autumn/Winter which would release the nutrients much faster and allow other plants to grow from the ashes. Sure, you’d get an unsightly black scorch-mark for a while, but think of all the other interesting plants you could get growing in the place of yet-another-boring-lawn by the start of the next season.
  • Get in touch with your inner squirrel and start storing, processing and eating acorns yourself (more on how to do this in a subsequent post) – link your fate co-dependently with the trees.
  • Preserve the f*&%ing forests! When it gets too expensive to pour massive amounts of petroleum-based energy on the fields, and we run out of imperial leverage on the other countries who we rely on to supply our needs, Britain’s crops will fail and famines will return with a vengeance. This will open up more space for agro-forestry techniques to step in and take up the task of food production, but how much time will these take to get established? Far quicker & easier to step up management on existing trees than to wait for new ones to grow to maturity. This won’t work if we already cut them down for ‘necessities’ like free newspapers, biomass, office/toilet-paper etc…
  • Spread the word!

Fascism in the garden

May 23, 2011

[***May 31st updates in bold***]


(The Forest Swastika)

I’ve touched before on the ‘curious parallels’ between the language people use when speaking about so-called invasive species and the ‘language of racism and genocide’, especially when you compare it to tabloid-style attitudes toward immigrants ‘stealing all the jobs of our native-borns’. It has also become increasingly apparent to me – as I work in the gardens of acquaintances and friends of the family doing all the ‘necessary’ but physically taxing tasks of mowing, weeding, pruning, trimming, and as I continue to work with a volunteer conservation group manipulating local habitats in an effort to replace ‘unwanted’ with ‘wanted’ plant & animal species – that the prevalent cultural attitudes and subsequent actions toward those we term ‘weeds’ closely resemble the irrationality, fear, prejudice and blind hatred so often evident in acts of genocide. Even dictionary definitions, faithfully reflecting cultural values, practically froth at the mouth at these plant ‘mongrel races’. For example:

weed

–noun
1. a valueless plant growing wild, especially one that grows on cultivated ground to the exclusion or injury of the desired crop.
2. any undesirable or troublesome plant, especially one that grows profusely where it is not wanted: The vacant lot was covered with weeds. (source)

Ouch! ‘Valueless’, ‘undesirable’, ‘troublesome’, ‘not wanted’ according to who? Ah, I see: according to the one who invested his energy in cultivating the ground; who expects to maximise the return from his ‘desired crop’. The definition is written from the point of view of the farmer/gardener. Of course: he has chosen to fight a war (of extermination, no less) and, as we all know, the victor gets to write the histories – and definitions, it would seem – as best suits his self-image and ongoing propaganda purposes. I imagine the plants in question would describe themselves rather differently…

Anyway, what I didn’t realise was that at least one person had already arrived at this analogy between weed-killing and genocide, only they had come to it from rather the opposite direction. Here’s the quote that was waiting for me near the end of Derrick Jensen’s book, The Culture of Make Believe, which I finally got round to finishing the other day:

The fundamental metaphor of National Socialism as it related to the world around it was the garden, not the wild forest. One of the most important Nazi ideologists, R.W. Darré, made clear the relationship between gardening and genocide: “He who leaves the plants in a garden to themselves will soon find to his surprise that the garden is overgrown by weeds and that even the basic character of the plants has changed. If therefore the garden is to remain the breeding ground for the plants, if, in other words, it is to lift itself above the harsh rule of natural forces, then the forming will of a gardener is necessary, a gardener who, by providing suitable conditions for growing, or by keeping harmful influences away, or by both together, carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds which would deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun. . . . Thus we are facing the realization that questions of breeding are not trivial for political thought, but that they have to be at the center of all considerations, and that their answers must follow from the spiritual, from the ideological attitude of a people. We must even assert that a people can only reach spiritual and moral equilibrium if a well-conceived breeding plan stands at the very center of its culture.” (pp.589-90)

Jensen comments that ‘We still believe in the metaphor of the garden’. In fact it’s a reality – I was in a garden center just last week and an advertisement for the latest brand of herbicide came over the tannoy, bristling with Darré’s justifications for ‘ruthlessly [eliminating]‘ weeds/lesser races which still have the audacity to ‘deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun’, basically ‘stealing’ – using for their own independent purposes – the resources which we ourselves wanted to appropriate for our favoured crops.

The best-selling herbicide worldwide ‘since at least 1980′ is agro-bio-tech giant Monsanto’s Roundup, based on the patented active ingredient Glyphosate. It seems between 1996 and 2009 the company was accused and finally convicted of false advertising, having claimed, among other things, that:

  • Glyphosate is less toxic to rats than table salt
  •  “Roundup can be used where kids and pets’ll play and breaks down into natural material.” This ad depicts a person with his head in the ground and a pet dog standing in an area which has been treated with Roundup.
  • You can feel good about using herbicides by Monsanto. They carry a toxicity category rating of ‘practically non-toxic’ as it pertains to mammals, birds and fish. (source)

In fact Roundup comes with a whole host of toxic effects for animals, including humans, and entire ecosystems (see Wikipedia page linked above for details), but what interests me more is that nobody’s complaining about the avowed intent of the product, explicitly stated in the same adverts, namely: to kill plants. It’s not the same one I heard in the garden center, but if you can stomach it have a look at this Roundup infomercial, which I’m guessing has been specifically targeted for a UK audience. I predict future generations will find this shocking and disgusting:

With Roundup rest easy knowing that your problem weeds will soon have died, right down to their roots, so they can never come back.

Right down to the roots!! (Can you hear the repressed hatred behind the announcer’s calm delivery?) Then, necessary cleansing rituals performed, the Brave New Briton can return to his civilised activity of ‘[relaxing] with a tea and the Sunday papers’, secure in the knowledge that his ‘enjoyment’ won’t be ‘spoilt’ by ‘unwanted weeds [...] which look unsightly and compete with our treasured plants.’

It’s Genesis all over: We, the farming cultures, have eaten at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and consequently feel able to take over the gods’ (or, if you prefer, evolution’s) work of deciding who shall live and who shall die.* We take it for granted that we have the right – indeed, the obligation – to take these matters into our own hands, and we feel compelled to continue even when the results prove manifestly catastrophic for the biosphere and for ourselves.

And it’s a war we’ve chosen to fight. Biocidal poisons used to further the Green Revolution in the mid 20th century came directly from the re-tooled factories of World War Two. I always remember the sequence of visuals in this episode of Bill Mollison’s ‘Global Gardener’ series (watch from 15:35):

[16:48] I came from traditional farming families and we’d cared for soils for over 200 years, but in the period from 1950 to 1990 most of those soils were destroyed. In 1951 I saw the first chainsaw, in 1953 we saw the modern tractor arrive, by 1954 many farms were pouring phosphate all over their fields. We didn’t have to worry about the soil any more. We were in charge of fertility. In the 50’s, therefore, we declared war on the soil. We were using just that equipment we would have used had we gone to war: heavy machinery, crawler [?] tractors, biocides, poison gas, the lot.

Daniel Quinn made the point this way, referring to Isaiah 2:4:

[...] what you see in this business of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is not people turning from war to peace but rather people turning from one war to another war–from an inTRAspecies war to an inTERspecies war. From the conquest of nations to the conquest of nature–the mythological war that the people of our particular culture have been waging here for the past ten thousand years.

The plowshare has always been understood by the people of our culture as the sword they follow across the face of the earth. They followed it out of the Fertile Crescent eastward to India and China, they followed it northward into Europe, and finally they followed it westward into the New World. (link)

For me, the distinctions between tractors and tanks, cropdusters and fighter-bombers, or DDT/Agent Orange/Roundup and Zyklon B have been blurred ever since.

And if we’re starting to think of plants as people in this way, maybe we can also begin to look at ourselves as plants; ourselves in the employ of the Master Gardener. How did your school or higher education experiences, for instance, compare to life in a plant nursery, with every effort on the part of your keepers geared towards maximising your value at the point of sale? An extract from a poem I wrote a year ago:

…They had me trained, they had me staked, they had me pruned and brutalised ever-constant to wring the greatest possible harvest from my twisted form. So for them I would provide no fruit; I would send forth no shoot – I reserved all my growing for where they could not see. They could not touch me, reaching through the starving soils, growing strong, growing hard and deep and long at the root…

Back in Culture of Make Believe we read more about the garden metaphor:

There are useful species, off of which we can turn a buck, and, there are species in the way. Likewise, there are useful people—those who are instrumental, productive—and, there are those who clutter up land we could otherwise use. (p.590)

and previously:

Within our culture there are tremendous pressures on people to be “high-functioning,” to be “productive,” to “realize their potential.” When I finished my degree in physics, which I did not enjoy, then bailed partway through a graduate degree in economics, which I enjoyed just as little, and took up beekeeping, the father of one of my friends decried the waste of my potential. Never mind that I was happy. When he later learned that I was a writer, he was mollified. At least I was, in his worldview, producing. (p.513)

This is so true it hurts. Even beekeeping is an ‘instrumental, productive’ way for a human plant to occupy itself, looked at from the economic perspective (the arbiter of all value in our culture) whereby bees provide a service by pollinating our crops. So the lifestyle / business model is tolerated, as are the bees. For now.

This shit makes me so sick I can hardly speak. It’s why last year I wrote (personal correspondence) that ‘all ways of making a living that don’t kill the planet have been (are still being) systematically uprooted to ensnare people in centralised modes of production.’ It’s why the year before I drew this cartoon of Nazi parents persuading their child to enter the deathcamp economy. What other option does the boy – silent, head bowed under the weight of lies – have?

I don’t want to grow for Them or their life-ending agenda.
If I grow I want to do it for Me & Mine.

Fortunately there exist ways of relating to other plants & animals in mutually beneficial ways that don’t involve a constant war-footing. As Ken Fern wrote in the Plants For A Future book:

For so many people, growing plants is a constant battle against all the setbacks nature throws at us. It really need not be like this. Instead of fighting against her and always complaining about our lot we would do better by trying to work with her. Nature is self-regulating and, when left to her own devices, finds a balance between the various species of plants and animals. A natural woodland receives no artificial fertilisers, fungicides or herbicides yet its lush growth feeds a wide range of mammals, birds and insects. There are fluctuations in the populations of different species but the overall picture is one of balance. (pp.5-6, online preview)

I’ve noticed this in myself as well. Like Jean Liedloff pointing out that children are naturally sociable (duh); like Ran Prieur writing that ‘after many years of activities that were forced’ it can take ‘years before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish’ – it’s so obvious: The plants want to grow. All the shouting, all the worrying, all the external input over the years intended (perhaps sometimes with the best of intentions) to encourage, to foster, to guide, ultimately to control my development, and eventually I just wilted under the constant pressure, stress and strain. Now, fiercely guarding the growths that, miraculously and to my surprise and wonder, still manage to arise from me, I feel like telling it this way: The plants grow best when you leave them the fuck alone. Maybe there will be opportunities for mutually supporting relationships in the future, but for now hands off!

Let’s finish with more from Derrick Jensen, here describing how things used to be and (by extension) how they might start to look once again if things take a turn for the better:

It is significant that oftentimes when Europeans searched for Indian gardens to destroy, they could not readily tell what was garden and what was forest (not that, ultimately, this stopped the Europeans, as, in time, they destroyed them both). To not see the world in strictly utilitarian terms is not to cease having preferences. It is merely to see that—and sometimes how—things (or, rather, beings) fit together, how they move in short and long patterns of rhythm and consequence. And it is to attempt to fit oneself into those patterns, taking care to not upset the sometimes delicate balance that must remain between those one considers friends and those one considers honored enemies. Hitler did not understand this, and, for the most part, neither do we. (Make Believe pp.590-1)

I think that’s where the plants will take us, if we can allow ourselves to follow.

***

Epilogue

***

An experiment: Watch what happens inside you when you read these words: Kike, Wog, Nigger, Paki, Pikey, Gyppo, Chink, Gook, Queer, Faggot, Spastic, Retard, Chav, Slut, Whore. Have you ever used any of these or been on the receiving end of one of them? How did it feel? Funny? Neutral/descriptive? Spiteful? Normal? Scathing? Belittling? Physically traumatic? Now ask yourself about the historical relationships implied by these words. Now think about where you fit into these relationships, both during your formative experiences in the past and in your current state in the present. How does where you’re coming from affect your reaction? Some of these words have acquired new significances or gone out of common parlance due to association with historical events (eg: the Jewish holocaust) assertive cultural movements (eg: civil rights) or otherwise changed social circumstances. Others, not.

Now try this one: Weed.

My understanding of prejudice is that it arises to fulfill a specific purpose: to block the senses and otherwise erect barriers which impede the spontaneous emergence of relationships when this proves expedient in the pursuit of other social goals. Thus the dehumanisation of the enemy during wartime (the depersonification of others in inTERspecies wars). Thus the biting epithets used to put down the natives and lower classes and the deference and glorification accorded to the upper/aspirational classes – all to make sure people ‘know their place’ and stick to their given roles. Thus the cold language of bureaucracy and ‘regrettable necessity’ when a culture feels the urge to exterminate those it can find no ‘use’ for; to destroy that in which it sees no value. These situations require the death of empathy: you have to kill the Other inside yourself before you can do the same in the outside world. If we started to view ‘weeds’ as individuals in their own right, with their own unique lifestories and personalities, could we continue to kill them in droves so callously, so thoughtlessly, so absent-mindedly in the blind pursuit of our insane Master-Race-1,000-Year-Reich goals? Of course not.

All the more reason to do it, says I!

—————

* – see chapter 9 of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (online)

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…

—————–

* – 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.’


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