Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tending the Wild

“Nature really misses us,” laments M. Kat Anderson.  “We no longer have a relationship with plants and animals, and that’s the reason why they’re going away.”  Anderson is the author of Tending the Wild, in which she describes the relationships that California Indians have with the plants and animals, the rocks and streams, the sacred land which is their ancient home.  It’s an essential book for pilgrims who strive to envision the long and rugged path back home to wildness, freedom, and sustainability.
In medieval Europe, hungry dirty peasant farmers succeeded in painstakingly perfecting a miserable, laborious, backbreaking form of agriculture that depleted the soil, and produced minimal yields with erratic inconsistency.  They were malnourished, unhealthy, and most of them died young — whilst the lords and ladies, who claimed to own the land, wallowed in a rich sludge of glitter and gluttony.
When European explorers arrived in California, they discovered half-naked heathen barbarians who were exceedingly healthy, and enjoyed an abundance of nourishing wild foods that they acquired without sweat or toil.  Clearly, these savages were people who suffered from a lack of civilization’s elevated refinements: agriculture, smallpox, uncomfortable ugly clothing, brutal enslavement, and religious enlightenment from priests who preached the virtues of love, but practiced exploitive racist cruelty.
In 1868, Titus Fey Cronise wrote that when whites arrived, the land of California was “filled with elk, deer, hares, rabbits, quail, and other animals fit for food; the rivers and lakes swarming with salmon, trout, and other fish, their beds and banks covered with mussels, clams, and other edible mollusca; the rocks on its sea shores crowded with seal and otter; and its forests full of trees and plants, bearing acorns, nuts, seeds, and berries.” 
The greed-crazed Europeans went absolutely berserk, rapidly destroying whatever could be converted into money:  forests, waterfowl, whales, deer, elk, salmon, gold nuggets.  Grizzly bear meat was offered at most restaurants.  There were fortunes to be made, the supply of valuable resources was “inexhaustible,” and the foolish Indians were so lazy that they let all of this wealth go to waste. 
There were 500 to 600 different tribes in California, speaking many different languages.  In North America, the population density of California Indians was second only to the Aztec capitol of Mexico City.  They lived quite successfully by hunting, fishing, and foraging — without domesticated plants or animals, without plowing or herding, without fortified cities, authoritarian rulers, perpetual warfare, horrid sanitation, or epidemics of contagious disease.  The Indians found the Europeans to be incredibly peculiar.  The Pit River people called them enellaaduwi — wanderers — homeless people with no attachment to the land or its creatures.   
The bulk of Tending the Wild describes how the California Indians tended the land.  They did not merely wander across the countryside in hopes of randomly discovering plant and animal foods.  They had an intimate, sacred relationship with the land, and they tended it in order to encourage the health of their closest relatives — the plant and animal communities upon which they depended. 
Fires were periodically set to clear away brush, promote the growth of grasses and herbs, and increase the numbers of larger game animals.  Burning significantly altered the ecosystem on a massive scale, but it didn’t lead to the creation of barren wastelands over time, like agriculture continues to do, at an ever-accelerating rate.  California has a long dry season, and wildfires sparked by lightening are a normal occurrence in this ecosystem.
Nuts, grains, and seeds are a very useful source of food.  They’re rich in oils, calories, and protein.  They can be stored for long periods, enabling survival through lean seasons and lean years.  The quantity of acorns foraged each year was not regular and dependable, but many were gathered in years of abundance.  A diverse variety of wildflowers and grasses can provide a dependable supply of seeds and grains. 
The Indians tended the growth of important plants in a number of ways — pruning, weeding, burning, watering, replanting bulbs, sowing seeds.  Communities of cherished plants were deliberately expanded.  The Indians were blessed with a complete lack of advanced Old World technology.  They luckily had no draft animals or plows, so their soil-disturbing activities were mostly limited to digging bulbs, corms, and tubers, and planting small tobacco gardens. 
Today, countless ecosystems are being ravaged by agriculture.  A few visionaries, like Wes Jackson at the Land Institute, are working to develop a far less destructive mode of farming, based on mechanically harvesting the grain from perennial plants.  This research is a slow process, and success is not expected any time soon. 
California Indians developed a brilliant, time-proven, sustainable system for producing seeds and grain without degrading the ecosystem.  So did the wild rice gatherers of the Great Lakes region.  They built no cities, and they did not suffer from the misery and monotony of civilization.  They had no powerful leaders, ruling classes, or legions of exploited slaves.  They were not warlike societies.  Their ecosystems were clean and healthy.  They lived like real human beings — wild, free, and happy.
Tending the Wild is an important book.  It presents us with stories of a way of life that worked, and worked remarkably well.  This is precious knowledge for us to contemplate, as our own society is rapidly circling the drain, and our need for remembering healthy old ideas has never been greater.
M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild — Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2005.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler wrote The Long Emergency, which describes the fossil fuel tsunami, and how it is likely to shape our way of life in the coming decades.  Kunstler’s perspective is based on serious amounts of research.  He describes the future that he expects to happen, not the kinder, gentler, more enlightened future that he wishes would happen.  He lays the cards on the table, and predicts a tomorrow that is going to be more than a little challenging and unpleasant.
I’ve been reading promo material for Amory Lovins’ new book, Reinventing Fire, in which brilliant scientists and engineers design an amazing high tech future, and transform America into a super-green paradise on Earth.  The turbo-charged magical thinking envisions that the Industrial Revolution and endless growth will never end — hopes, wishes, dreams, and fantasies scampering and yapping giddily around the yard, released from reality’s leash.
But the daily news is dancing to Kunstler’s beat.  He has provided us with a stage upon which the unfolding dramas and tragedies of the 21st century can be performed.  The book was published before the 2008 crash, but it very clearly indicated that a crash was coming — maybe even before the book hit the shelves at Borders (R.I.P.).  It was interesting to read the book in 2011, when the world economic system is teetering on the brink of the abyss, the Middle East is going sideways, and resource shortages are stirring up conflicts in many regions — and we’re just days away from the herd reaching seven billion.  The Long Emergency is much less theoretical today.
In Kunstler’s story, our problems largely started with the steam engine and Colonel Drake’s oil well.  He doesn’t zoom farther out, to a 10,000 year view range.  ‘Twas a dirty sweaty ancient farmer who kicked loose the stones that set off the avalanche that’s about to sweep away the world as we know it.  We were already beyond the point of no return when the steam engines began hissing.  But the whole process shifted explosively into high gear 200 years ago.
Kunstler would be satisfied if we could just turn back the clock to 1800, and live in a happy Currier & Ives world of horse powered farms and villages, with laughing children playing in the dirt roads.  That would be an important first step for the healing process.  It would prepare us for the more challenging transitions that follow — abandoning the mining of soils, water, fish, forests, and so on.
I was excited to read his analysis of Malthus, whom he concluded was completely correct!  I’ve always worried that my understanding of Malthus was missing some vital pieces, because nearly everyone in the world says, over and over and over, that he was absolutely and totally wrong.  I have tried so hard to find serious defects in his ideas, and I have repeatedly failed.  I worried that my mental faculties were fading.  It’s not easy thinking at odds with the herd.  A basic misunderstanding has gone viral, put down strong roots, and nothing can kill it.
Kunstler serves us a level-headed reality-based image of tomorrow, and it is sobering.  Despite its gloominess, the book has managed to sell quite well.  The book’s subtitle is: “Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century.”  But the contents don’t focus on revealing effective survival strategies.  The core of the book describes that huge change is on the way, and explains why.  Wake up, take off the blinders, throw your conventional thinking overboard, and prepare for interesting times. 

Kunstler, James Howard, The Long Emergency — Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2005. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tree Crops

Joseph Russell Smith (1874-1966) was a geography professor who grew up in the chestnut forests of Virginia.  His book Tree Crops was originally published in 1929.  Smith wrote it because he was horrified by the soil destruction caused by regularly tilling cropland — and hillside tilling drove him completely out of his mind, because it permanently destroyed good land at a much faster rate.  Everyone knew this, but they kept doing it anyway, because they were cursed with a short-term mindset.

Tilling was a common practice in those days (and it’s still popular today).  Farmers tilled because their daddies tilled, and their grandpas tilled, and their great-grandpas tilled in the old country.  It was a powerful dirty habit that was nearly impossible to quit, until the land died — and it provided no long-term benefits!  With great exasperation, Smith exclaimed: “Corn, the killer of continents, is one of the worst enemies of the human future!”

Old World crops like wheat, barley, rye, and oats provided a dense ground cover that slowed the rate of soil erosion a bit.  New World crops like corn, potatoes, cotton, and tobacco were row crops that left the tilled soil exposed, and more vulnerable to erosion.  In America, thunderstorms were common, producing downpours that were rare in Europe.  Heavy rains filled the streams with lost topsoil.  In the Cotton Belt, Smith saw erosion gullies that were 150 feet deep.  Oklahoma was ruined with stunning speed.  We were destroying land that could have fed millions.  An Old World saying sums it up: “After the man the desert.”  In the legends of our ancient wild ancestors, the First Commandment is: “Thou shalt not till.”

Joseph was a brilliant visionary, and one day he received an illuminating revelation.  If you wanted to stop the destruction of soils caused by tilling, quit tilling!  Live in a different way!  Create a cuisine that majors in nutritious soil-friendly foods.  Smith envisioned two-story farms: tree crops on the sloped land, and pastures for livestock below, both perennial.  Farmers could abandon tilling forever, and pass the land on to future generations in a healthier condition.  Imagine that.

Farmers scratched their heads when they heard this idea, and were more than a little perplexed and befuddled.  Agroforestry wasn’t a mainstream tradition in European American agriculture.  The required knowledgebase didn’t exist, so Smith researched it and wrote it down.  His book is mostly a scrapbook of correspondence.  Smith sent letters to hundreds of experts on tree crops, and then assembled their responses into a book.  He created an amazing collection of information, including recommendations for agroforestry in other climates and continents.

Hogs won’t touch corn if there are acorns to eat, and oaks can produce more calories per acre than grain, when done right.  A top quality pecan tree can drop nearly a ton of nuts per year.  Hickory nuts can be smashed and boiled to produce hickory oil.  Pistachios fetch a high price and have a long shelf life.  Many types of pines produce nuts.  The honey locust is a drought hearty US native that will grow where corn or cotton grows, and animals love the beans.  The sugar maple produces sugar.  Persimmons are enjoyed by man and beast.  Pigs and chickens love mulberries.  And don’t forget walnuts, beechnuts, almonds, cherry pits, soapnuts, holly, ginko, pawpaw, horse chestnut, osage orange, privet, wattle, wild plums, and choke cherries.  The list goes on and on.

Trees can produce high quality foods, and they can be grown on slopes too steep to plow.  Once the trees are established, little labor is needed until harvest time.  Tree crops can be much more productive than mere pastures or forests.  They typically suffer less from dry spells than field crops.  Over time, they can actually build new topsoil.  Like any crop, trees are vulnerable to pests, diseases, fire, and extreme weather.  Like any crop, tree crops are not 100 percent dependable, year after year, so monocultures are not a wise choice.  The Second Commandment is: “Thou shalt encourage diversity.”

Smith witnessed the blight epidemic that wiped out virtually all of the American chestnuts, rapidly killing millions of trees.  He personally lost 25 acres of chestnuts.  The blight fungus came to America on chestnut trees imported from Asia.  Knowing this, it’s shocking that Smith advocated travelling the world in search of better varieties of trees, to bring home and experiment with.  Hey, Japanese walnuts!  And the USDA helped him!  The Third Commandment is: “Thou shalt leave Japanese organisms in Japan.”

Smith was a tree-loving zealot who was on a mission from God, and he promoted his great ideas with great enthusiasm.  But the world did not leap to attention, change its ways, and promptly end soil erosion as we know it.  Farmers are almost as conservative as popes, and they are not fans of radical change — especially ideas that tie up land for decades before producing the first penny.  Joseph was heartbroken: “The longer I live, the more amazed I become at the lack of constructive imagination, the lack of sheer curiosity, the desire to know.”  It’s not easy being a brilliant visionary.

Smith's grand vision was reasonable, rational, and ecologically far superior to growing organic crops on tilled fields.  Tree crops remain an important subject for the dreams of those who do not robotically march in lockstep with the status quo hordes.  Planting America’s hills with tree crops would be an immense task, creating many jobs, and providing benefits for generations.  Why don’t we do it?  The Fourth Commandment is “Thou shalt live in a manner that is beneficial to the generations yet-to-be-born.”

Smith, Joseph Russell, Tree Crops — A Permanent Agriculture, Island Press, Covelo, California, 1987.  Originally published in 1929.  The contents of the original edition are here: http://soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/010175.tree%20crops.pdf

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Language Older Than Words

Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older Than Words, is a landmark in environmental writing.  A standard formula for eco-books is to describe the evolution of a problem, provide charts, tables, and illustrations to document the extent of the problem, and then present “solutions.”  Typically these are theoretical, politically impossible, pie-in-the-sky solutions based on the premise that humankind is fundamentally rational and reasonable — solutions that require minimal adjustments to the machinery of consumer society, will not significantly interfere with perpetual economic growth, and will let us keep our cell phones, lights, and cars.
Happily, Jensen is not stuck in these ruts.  Obviously, reason is not the guiding force in the journey of humankind.  Obviously, if a workable and intelligent win-win solution to the Earth Crisis existed, we would have already found it and implemented it.  Jung had a name for episodes of mass insanity, like Nazi Germany, or consumer society: psychic epidemics.  Psychic epidemics are far more devastating than natural catastrophes (earthquakes, hurricanes), and reason is powerless to resolve them, because reason does not communicate with the unconscious.
The “language older than words” refers the voice of the living planet — the wind, the burbling brook, the ravens, the howling wolves, the rattling leaves.  Everything is communicating, sharing, cooperating.  Unfortunately, civilized humans have isolated themselves from the rest of the family of life.  We no longer listen to the ancient language, which is always talking to us.  We have become space aliens in our own home.  Not coincidentally, we are racing toward catastrophe. 
Most eco-writers do not reveal a spiritual connection to life on Earth.  Jensen clearly does, and this adds much power to his work.  He is not a professional scholar who is systematically analyzing a sub-optimal process, he’s a man who radiates love for the wild natural world, and deeply cares about it.  This passion is a treasure, and it is slipping through our fingers as each generation lives in greater isolation from the sacred natural world.
Jensen’s father was a fundamentalist Christian and a wealthy businessman.  He was abused as a child, and he grew up to be a violent, controlling tyrant.  He physically and sexually abused his wife, sons, and daughters, including Derrick.  The family lived in fear of his rage, and all of them suffered permanent emotional damage.  Many years later, his father still refuses to acknowledge his violent past, and Derrick still has trouble sleeping.  Jensen says that if he had to do his childhood over again, he would kill his father.  He believes that it’s essentially impossible to rehabilitate an habitual abuser.
During the years of violent rage, the family members lived in a world of make believe, blocking out the fear and suffering.  In order to survive the terror, they had to shut down emotionally.  This family was not an unusual freak.  Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse are commonplace in our society. 
In many ways, on a larger scale, our global civilization resembles Jensen’s family.  It’s beating and raping our planet.  Similarly, we feel powerless to stop the senseless savagery.  We shut down emotionally.  We pretend that everything is OK.  We ignore vast amounts of information, and what we can’t ignore, we forget or dismiss.  Living behind a wall of fear, we become isolated from life, from our bodies, from our spirits.  Isolation is poisonous.
Humans are not essentially bad, but we have had the misfortune of being born into a culture that is speeding down the path of self-destruction.  Jensen says: “Within any culture that destroys the salmon, that commits genocide, that demands wage slavery, most of the individuals — myself included — are probably to a greater or lesser degree insane.”  The central question of our time is this: “What are the sane and appropriate responses to insanely destructive behavior?  In many ways, it is the only question of our time.”
One gift of Jensen’s traumatic childhood was that it knocked off his cultural blinders.  His father was a respected member of the community — and he was also an abusive monster.  Jensen came to the terrifying realization that our celebrated modern culture was as crazy and brutal as his dad.  The first step on the path to healing is to acknowledge the existence of problems, to recognize the truth.  Then, the process of awakening involves a series of deaths and rebirths, as useless things are tossed overboard, and replaced with healthier ones.  It’s about growth, and it’s not quick or easy.
This book is a dizzying non-linear tilt-a-whirl ride that zooms round and round in the insanity of our culture.  It’s a slideshow of stories, describing various outbreaks of the disease that’s destroying the world — the Sand Creek massacre, Peruvian dictatorships, the sadism of animal testing, devastating clear cuts, the destruction of the salmon, and on and on and on.  He also includes stories about indigenous people who are eager to promote healing.  He tirelessly explores many paths in search of coherence and understanding.  It’s a messy business.  The results are not neat, clean, or consistent.  Jensen explodes with pain, love, intelligence, and a burning hunger for a brighter tomorrow.  He is a man you will never forget.

Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words, Context Books, New York, 2000.  Jensen has written a long series of books on our dysfunctional relationship with the living planet.  A number of essays and interviews are provided at: http://www.derrickjensen.org/.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

One Round River

One Round River, by Richard Manning, is a book about the ecosystem of the Blackfoot River, which runs by his home near Missoula, Montana.  The title implies that everything is connected, and moves in circles.  Manning presents the history of the region in a number of acts.
We begin with geological history, and the vast lakes that formed and flooded at the end of the last Ice Age.  He describes the Salish tribe, who enjoyed a good life in the region, until the white man’s horses arrived, and intensified inter-tribal conflict.  But the horses did not cause as many problems as the white men, who came later, and went crazy on the land, with their grazing, logging, mining, ecocide, and genocide.
The grasslands and the buffalo had coevolved magnificently.  The original vegetation remained nutritious year-round, so the Indians did not have to haul in hay bales for winter feed.  Buffalo were fine-tuned for surviving in a semi-arid climate with severe winters.  Then the whites came with their northern European cattle, which had evolved to thrive in wetter climates with mild winters.  The whites planted many species of northern European vegetation, which led to many unintended negative consequences.  Cattle stayed close to the streams, where they removed the vegetation, and promoted erosion and flooding.  Cattle do not belong in the western United States. 
Damage to the streams was multiplied by logging, which accelerated water run-off and soil erosion.  The history of logging in the region is impressive from a robber baron point of view, but not from an ecological perspective.  In recent years, some logging companies have abandoned conservative forestry, and have shifted to asset liquidation — cut everything as soon as possible.  This popular method of forest management is known as rape and run.
The destruction caused by grazing and logging can sometimes be reversed, but the destruction caused by mining is often permanent and irreversible.  Manning takes us on a tour of Butte, a mining center upstream from Missoula.  It is a toxic catastrophe.  The open pit mine turned into a poison lake when mining ended, and the pumps were unplugged.  The lake is rising, and will eventually overflow, and poison everything downstream.  A treatment plant is planned.  Scientists are trying to invent technology for purifying large volumes of poison water.  If they succeed, the plant will run until it is disabled by rising energy costs and/or economic collapse.
Manning’s primary motivation for writing this book was the struggle to stop a proposed cyanide heap-leach gold mine on the Blackfoot River.  Gold mining is insane because it causes incredible ecological damage to produce a metal that is primarily used for hoarding, decoration, and status display.  Cyanide heap-leach mining is an especially insane mode of gold mining because of the toxic pollution it causes, and the ecologic devastation it leaves behind.
The basics are that a thick plastic sheet is laid on the ground.  Then a mountain of crushed ore is dumped on the sheet.  Then large quantities of toxic cyanide are poured on the heap, to absorb and carry away tiny pieces of gold to the bottom, where they are collected and processed.  Heap leach mining enables corporations to make a profit by extracting one ounce of gold from 60 tons of rock.  When the mining is over, the bars and bordellos disappear, the boomtown dies, the corporation moves on, and future generations are left with a permanent super-toxic nightmare.  I've come to understand that there is at least as much dark karma in a gold earring as in 10,000 full length mink coats.
I read a lot of books.  Many books, a year after reading them, have left no tracks on my memory.  Other books are burned into my DNA, and I will never forget their power — One Round River is one of these.  This book is a full-immersion baptism in highly concentrated madness.  The power of greed and ignorance can make humans behave in a manner that is spectacularly crazy.
Happily, the forceful burning truth in this book contributed to a magic act.  After the book was published, and people understood the foolishness, the mine project was killed.  The mining industry has long been a controlling force in Montana politics.  They almost always get what they want.  In 1998 Montana became the only state to ban cyanide heap-leach gold mining.  In 2008 the US Supreme Court shot down the last appeal by the mining industry.  So, the land will be safe from this madness, for a while, hopefully.  It’s enjoyable to find a rare story where the good guys win.
Manning, Richard, One Round River — The Curse of Gold and the Fight for the Big Blackfoot, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997.