The place that waits for me

Sorry for the lack of posting, various projects on the go, not yet borne fruit… The big news is that I’m out of the garden maintenance job, out of rented accommodation and back on the wwoofing trail, the idea being to pick up more organic farming experience and eventually try to find work in that sector. I’m currently on a farm in Wales acting as ‘veg intern’ and have been here since mid-March, then I’ll be heading out to Italy to work on a hazelnut farm and I expect to finish the year in the south of France if I find a place to host me there (any recommendations please let me know!) I’m keeping a diary so various bits might get posted up here in the future if I find the time to write it all up. For a teaser here are some pics taken back in the spring of one of the few patches of broadleaf (ancient?) woodland I’ve been able to find, in a little valley which the stream has rendered too-steep-for-sheep. Then, just so I don’t give you the wrong impression and for the contrast, a typical area of conifer forestry (click to embiggen):

In the meantime I recently discovered that there’s a whole ‘Tending The Wild’ TV series on a Californian TV station, where they’ve taken the trouble to speak to native people about their food and land-use traditions, past and present. It can be viewed on their website here: and there’s a lot a really good articles if you click around, for instance this one about the consequences of the loss (more often active destruction) of traditional foods and related cultural practices. Key paragraphs (my emph):

The native people I have worked with in southern California for the past 16 years have a profound spiritual connection to the land through their ancestors and their long history of living on the land. They pay homage to plants and consider them as their teachers. They’re dedicated to passing on what they know to others. All stress our interdependence with other species. All have a fierce devotion to revitalizing their culture as part of the larger cultural revitalization sweeping California.

Cahuilla/Apache elder Lorene Sisquoc describes a reciprocal relationship with the plants and the land. “The plants are waiting for us to come take care of them so they can take care of us. In Temalpakh, Katherine Saubel writes that the Cahuilla word for an oak grove, meki’i’wah, means ‘the place that waits for me.’ It’s our responsibility to take care of the land, to get out there and gather, to sing songs, tell stories, do ceremony, share our laughter and our language. To preserve our oral traditions by passing our knowledge to our kids and grandkids. It’s important that they start learning very young. Taking care of the plants helps make our families healthy. We’re working hard to heal our communities by deepening our connection to the land.”

[…]

Sisquoc teaches at the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, a former boarding school created to assimilate Indian children into the dominant culture. Sisquoc relates that students were instructed: “‘Forget about your traditional plants. Forget about the acorns and pine nuts and mesquite waiting to be gathered. You’ve got to get over here and make a garden and milk that cow. That’s what the boarding schools were about. It was lactose-intolerant kids being fed dairy products and introduced foods, and taught cooking and home economics that were different from theirs. They were taught that their ways were wrong. Many of our gathering practices and our culinary secrets and specialties were not passed down because the boarding school students weren’t home to learn them.”

Shimwich Chumash educator and CCC member Tima Lotah Link echoes Sisquoc: “If you want to wreck a culture, hit it in the kitchen. Boarding schools did that in one generation. Take away the kids, take away their plants, take away their knowledge of the kitchen. Parents and children no longer gathered their plants together. They no longer spoke their language or shared information.”

There’s a really important segment in the ‘Decolonizing the Diet‘ episode where Lois Conner Bohna, Cultural Educator & Basketweaver from the North Folk Mono talks about the importance of acorns to her people. The closing comments from around 4:42 are vital:

There’s maybe five of us in the North Fork area that gather acorns and we can’t even find enough for ourselves at this point. It is difficult to find acorn because the trees are unhealthy because of the mistletoe, because of the competition from other trees taking their water. A long time ago there were more oak trees. A lot have died, a lot. My grandmas would not allow their environment to look this way. They’re gonna either cut trees, prune ’em, when they would go through they’re gonna burn, their number one thing was their oak trees, and that sustained not only them but the squirrels, and the squirrels provide for the other animals, so we’re back to balance. Now it is totally out of balance. If you don’t use something, you neglect it, it goes away. So the oak trees are gonna go away.

I thought that this provides an excellent answer for those who dismiss the plausibility of a hunter-gatherer / horticulturalist subsistence base on the grounds that it couldn’t support the current human population level. Well first off, nothing can support the current population in anything like a sustainable manner. Around half the nitrates in global circulation now have been generated in factories from fossil fuel derivatives. It would be simplistic to say that when the oil goes half of the population will starve to death, but that’s probably not far off in the final analysis (some would say more because much of the topsoil which underpinned global agriculture while it was still totally organic has since disappeared). Also, 7.5 billion people are obviously impacting the nonhuman, especially nondomesticated species in a catastrophic way, indicating the fundamental unsustainability and undesirability of maintaining that high level of population in the first place.

I would also question estimates about the size of hunter-gatherer populations, as the civilised culture has a history of purposely underestimating or downplaying the significance of indigenous habitation of the land, as this justifies racist concepts of ‘manifest destiny’ and the willful blindness of ‘terra nullius’ – the empty lands ripe for conquest. Estimates for pre-Columbian population levels in the Americas have been revised upwards by the tens of millions, although admittedly these numbers were for the most part supported by various forms of intensive agriculture, mostly based around corn. It wouldn’t surprise me if researchers discovered evidence for much higher concentrations of pre-Neolithic populations in prehistoric Europe, indicating much more in-depth & comprehensive land-use systems than commonly assumed, but it still serves the narcissism and hubris of the dominant culture to believe that it knows the best way to occupy the land, with all the military parallels that word implies, and that the only true measure of success is the sheer quantity of biomass that you can wring out the ecology and funnel into your own species, consequences be damned.

So yes, back to the main point: of course the living planet in its current state couldn’t support a population of more than a handful of hunter-gatherers per square mile – that’s been the whole point over these last 10,000 years! The majority of land has been appropriated for field agriculture and livestock pastures and the diverse wild plant & animal populations that made a successful hunter-gatherer subsistence possible have been systematically eradicated. Bohna suggests that even benign neglect can cause this kind of decline, so just think how much faster it can slide when you’re purposefully draining wetlands, damming rivers, felling forests, exterminating wolves, spraying poisons everywhere to kill ‘pests’ and ‘weeds’… It shows the importance of habitat restoration – the responsibility to repair the damage done, apart from anything else – over and above simple lifestyle change. Further, it points to a deeper understanding about the possibilities for human existence which the civilised refuse to countenance: that we might be capable of actually improving this place by being here, rather than being doomed by nature to mine it to exhaustion and death. Like Bohna’s grandmothers we must not allow our environment to look this way. We have to make it our business to develop that reciprocal relationship with the land where it can take care of us – once we have taken care of it. Then maybe we’ll finally have our own ‘places that wait for us’; places that will be happy to see our return.

PS: RIP Daniel Quinn, my most important teacher, sorely missed. These are all footnotes to your work, as all philosophy was once held to be ‘footnotes to Plato’.

3 Responses to “The place that waits for me”

  1. Ian M Says:

    Other responses to the population question, Peter Bauer (aka Urban Scout) back in 2008:

    ‘Ask Urban Scout #10

    Dear Scout,
    I can’t help but get the feeling that you are advocating for all 6 billion people to go back to living as hunter-gatherers. Wouldn’t that quickly deplete all of the wild food out there? Wouldn’t all 6 billion of us quickly eat up the wild? How many salmon are left? If all of us started eating salmon exclusively, they would go extinct that much faster. What do you think about this?

    I get this question quite often and my answer is yes, I think that all 6 billion of us should immediately stop farming and start hunting/gathering/gardening for our food. Hunter-gatherers didn’t just kill things and eat them without any foresight the way modern “sport” hunters do. They had complex systems of land management that built soil and created mosaics of habitat, maximizing biodiversity for small areas. This is why I say over and over again that you can’t just throw on some buckskin clothes, grab a bow and arrow and think you’re a hunter-gatherer. The tools are meaningless without the system that created them. Civilized people wore buckskin and hunted with bows and arrows for thousands of years. The management system of hunting and gathering is the real technology. Not the hand-made artifacts they leave behind, but the ecological artifacts like salmon runs so thick you couldn’t walk through the river.

    Civilized people do not understand that hunting and gathering means giving back more than you take. If everyone were to start giving back more than they take, we’d actually begin to build biodiversity and wild food sources back up. Sure, the dams have killed the salmon, and if all of us became hunter-gatherers that means we would become stewards of the salmon which means we would dismantle the dams and build spawning habitats along the river banks.’ – http://www.petermichaelbauer.com/ask-urban-scout-10/

    …and yours truly about a year ago, trying to come up with something to sensible to say for the rewild.com faqs:

    ‘Can the planet support 7 billion hunter-gatherers?

    Can the planet support 7 billion whales? Or 7 billion wolves, or oak trees, or salmon? These questions sound very different to asking about 7 billion human beings because we in the civilised world tend to view our relationship to ‘nature’ (all the other species) purely in extractive, even coercive terms – How can they be made to support us, whether they like it or not. This is based on the experience of agriculture, where it is incredibly hard work to persuade the land to support just a few domesticated species at the expense of all the others who formerly lived there, and involves a constant resistance of the land’s attempts to reassert its former diversity. Consequently civilised people find it very hard to imagine a scenario where human beings through their subsistence activities actually improve the conditions for other living creatures – in the same way that other keystone species like whales, wolves, oak trees or salmon have been shown to do.

    Can there be too many individuals of a species performing beneficial services for the rest? Well yes, 7 billion may be too many, leading to homogeneity of habitat and extinction of species with different requirements. The planet does not have a duty to support a population level of our choosing, a non-negotiable way of life to which we feel entitled even as we hold all other species hostage. In the year 2000 Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP – primary production referring to the total amount of organic matter created globally by the plants through photosynthesis, the foundation of nearly all the life on this planet) was measured (1) at 23.8%, with agriculture accounting for 34% of the total ice-free land area. Clearly, along with the overfishing of the oceans and climate change, this is the main driving force behind the current extinction crisis, in which an estimated 140,000 species are being driven to extinction every year (2). Maybe organic farming, permaculture techniques or agroforestry practices can ease some of this pressure – providing better non-human habitat while still providing the human population with the level of food it has grown accustomed to (the looming food crisis seems far less pressing when I imagine nut trees, fruit bushes and rows of spuds in everyone’s back garden), but ultimately it seems undeniable that a severe reduction in human population will be necessary for the health of rest of the living planet.’

    and a response to a related question:

    ‘So population crash? Are you advocating for mass genocide?

    A colony of yeast cells makes its home in a jar of sugar solution. Their numbers expand to the point where all the sugar has been consumed and the excreted alcohol reaches toxic levels, at which point the population of yeast cells crashes. 29 reindeer are abandoned by coastguards on a small island off the coast of Alaska. In the absence of predators their numbers rise to 6,000 in just under 20 years, by which point they have denuded the island of much of its vegetation. During one harsh winter their numbers drop down to 42 due to mass starvation and they disappear altogether a short while after (4). Does telling these stories mean I have advocated for a mass genocide of yeast cells or reindeer? No, it merely describes what happens when a population grows beyond the point where the available food supplies can continue to support it at that level. The current global human population of around 7 billion has been made possible by the unsustainable systems of mass agriculture and the limited fossil fuel derivatives that have boosted its fertility to the point where ‘almost half of the nitrogen found in our bodies’ muscle and organ tissue started out in a fertilizer factory’ (3). Pointing out the likely consequences when oil gets too expensive to make this a viable strategy any more, as in the above examples, simply diagnoses the problem, advocating nothing.’

    And watch Dan Quinn talk about it in this extensive presentation with Alan Thornhill: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAqWUxCjisE or read a summary of his argument on this page: http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2004/02/06/population-a-systems-approach/

    Cheery subjects as always…
    😛 I

    ——–

    1 – http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153031/

    2 – estimate formerly on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_extinction will try to hunt down where it came from…

    3 – http://dieoff.org/page80.htm

    4 – ‘A Mixed Blessing’ by Dan Charles – http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2013/05/fertilized-world/

    N. Nitrogen. Atomic number seven. Unnoticed, untasted, it nevertheless fills our stomachs. It is the engine of agriculture, the key to plenty in our crowded, hungry world.

    Without this independent-minded element, disinclined to associate with other gases, the machinery of photosynthesis cannot function—no protein can form, and no plant can grow. Corn, wheat, and rice, the fast-growing crops on which humanity depends for survival, are among the most nitrogen hungry of all plants. They demand more, in fact, than nature alone can provide.

    Enter modern chemistry. Giant factories capture inert nitrogen gas from the vast stores in our atmosphere and force it into a chemical union with the hydrogen in natural gas, creating the reactive compounds that plants crave. That nitrogen fertilizer—more than a hundred million tons applied worldwide every year—fuels bountiful harvests. Without it, human civilization in its current form could not exist. Our planet’s soil simply could not grow enough food to provide all seven billion of us our accustomed diet. In fact, almost half of the nitrogen found in our bodies’ muscle and organ tissue started out in a fertilizer factory.’

  2. wildcucumber/Christine Says:

    Nice to see you posting again Ian. And as always, something for me to take away and ponder, or in this case, shudder over:

    “In fact, almost half of the nitrogen found in our bodies’ muscle and organ tissue started out in a fertilizer factory.’”

    Eeeek! I’m going to guess this is less for those of us who manage to find sources of food from small scale, closed system farms (we found a couple more recently, couldn’t be more thrilled.). And of course we grow and forage a fair bit as well. But my kids and grandkids all live in a city and have far less access to ‘the good stuff’. It’s wholly depressing to think the above quote applies to them.

    Hope this finds you doing well, where-ever you are as I write (late Sept).

    cheers!

  3. Ian M Says:

    Hi Christine, good to hear from you as always.

    Yes, I think it varies depending on lots of factors and I’m not clear on how exactly the molecules go from factory to crop to body tissue – why only ‘muscle and organ’? – I don’t know… The figure I heard was that artificial oil-based fertilisers have doubled the amount of nitrates (different from just nitrogen which isn’t useful to plants directly unless they have those clever bacterial nodules on their roots) currently in circulation on the planet. This gets distributed even in areas that have no adjacent chemically-treated farmland via run-off and acid rain, which partly explains why traditionally biodiverse habitats have been getting crowded out by weedier species thriving on the increased nutrients. It’s ‘the oil we eat’ as Richard Manning memorably put it: http://www.wesjones.com/oilweeat.htm

    I’m in France at the moment and spent a while working on a farm with lots of chestnut orchards. More on that soonish, but not so long ago there were significant populations in southern europe that used chestnuts as their primary staple, mostly in mountainous terrain not suitable for grain cultivation. Zero need for fertilisers there! Even with wheat I heard that the older varieties suffered with too much fertility in the soil, growing tall and flopping over. The dwarf hybrids that came in with the green revolution put an end to that though…

    Can your kids/grandkids get veg boxes delivered to them?

    best,
    I

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