Sunday, January 29, 2012

Not All Composts Are the Same

Not all composts are the same. I know this sounds obvious, but I recently did a little experiment anyway just to see for myself. Last summer, I found myself back in the Sierra Nevada of California camping at an elevation of maybe 7,000 feet. We were near an impressive grove of old red firs. By the parking area I noticed that a pile of soil had fallen from the forest above an exposed bank of earth. It was dark and rich, very different than the pale dirt of the exposed bank. When I looked closer at the forest I realized that the soil was a thick matting of decomposing fir needles. It was then that I decided to conduct my little experiment.

I gathered a bag of the soil and took it home. Then I went looking for another large grove of trees with a thick and naturally composted soil. I found it near the San Joaquin River north of Fresno under some very large California sycamores. Finally, I gathered some of my own backyard compost made of yard leaves and kitchen scraps – pretty much a mix of everything urbanely biodegradable.

I then cleared a small area in the garden at the end of the summer and spread the three kinds of composts next to each other. Then I purchased a couple of varieties of lettuce and placed each one in the three composts. By Thanksgiving time, they were big enough to eat and I was ready to see if my little experiment would have anything meaningful to show for itself. I wanted to see if different kinds of soil would grow plants that tasted noticeably different.

In a way this seems fairly obvious, at least to serious gardeners. We, who have grown our own food for any amount of time, know quite well that a home-grown vegetable almost always tastes better than the same vegetable purchased from a supermarket. But being the experimentalist that I am, I wanted to see for myself in a direct comparison.

And I knew I would have a good chance to run a blind experiment on Thanksgiving. Erik and Tabitha were coming for the holiday and so were Alton and Bonnie (Kathy’s parents). They all agreed to participate in my little study. First, I cut enough of the lettuce for each of us to taste samples from each kind of compost. Then I arranged them so that only I would know which kind was which.

Almost immediately my participants could tell a difference in taste. Then Tabitha and Erik noticed a slight difference in smell too. Bonnie and Alton both came to the same conclusion. The lettuce grown in red fir and sycamore soils had a stronger bitter taste than the lettuce grown in the yard compost.

We decided that this might be caused by the more acid nature of the fir and sycamore soils. That’s my running hypothesis for the time being. In any event, the experiment was worthwhile. The differences were quite apparent. And it also made me think about soils in a broader context.

We truly are what we eat, and the things that we eat are made of the very substances of where they grow. Native animals and plants are not the only things that are tied to specific places. People are too. We don’t normally stop to consider what this means though. A typical day of a typical American involves eating food from all around the world – from soils that have no influence of any kind in purchasing decisions. We eat the food from cheap and expensive restaurants (and pseudo-restaurants) without an agronomic care in the world. I think this is bit naïve.

And I admit that I am mostly naïve myself on such issues. We should do better. Maybe we like the idea of owning an international body; fed, that is, from around the world. The only trouble with this thinking is that we really don’t know what it means. Does it mean that we are corporally (even viscerally) generic? I hope not. I expect that it partly means that we live in cages. The only internationally nourished animals that I know of are either kept in zoos or are otherwise domesticated and fed by humans. Wild animals all find their food locally.

But maybe I’m taking my little lettuce experiment too far. I’m not sure. Certainly “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [my] philosophy”. But then again, Hamlet was talking about heaven and earth. And so am I.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Raven's Wire Nest

There used to be a bird nest in the basement of the Bean Museum. It wasn’t built around a light fixture or above an exposed truss, nor was it made of twigs and lined with feathers. It was positioned artistically behind display glass in the hall outside of the auditorium, and it was made of carefully interwoven lengths of barbed wire. Mounted guardedly atop the whole was an erstwhile relative (now stuffed) of the former engineer: a raven.

You have to love a bird that can make a house from a dilapidated fence. There’s a bit of spite in the act, and maybe a sense of raw survival too. In a spare land, one learns to be resourceful – whether that one be a bird or a human being. But how could such a thing be done? At some point the raven had to drag, bend and otherwise maneuver a long heavy wire into an available tree. Presumably it had to fly to the chosen branches with the metal in its beak.

Ornithologists have been telling us for years that corvids are smarter than we think. Maybe all it takes is for one of them to be large enough and strong enough (like a raven) so that hefting a piece of decomposing fence into a home becomes inevitable. What would an elephant-sized magpie be capable of doing?

But there is also a timeless propriety in the subordination of a modern technology to a wild creature. It makes one pause to consider the fate of our own constructs. To what use might a feral species make of a computer, for example.

The power chord is, no doubt, easier to nidify than barbed wire. And maybe the circuits could warm frail nestlings when the sun is low in the horizon. A more likely use would be as a parasol for kangaroo rats. Eventually though, the miraculous innovations of decades to come, just like those of decades past, will be piled into heaps and left for the penetrating roots of organisms that are better adapted to live in raven-inhabiting austerity.

Unless, of course, we decide to adapt to a landscape that can keep us. Or, to put it more accurately: unless we learn to live sustainably where we are. Let our technologies come and go. Some people will get rich from them and others won’t. But most of the technologies themselves will not endure. Unless we are wise enough to treat them much like a disposable fence, our dependence on them may become too great. Human beings, just like ravens, can’t ultimately make a life from a rusted wire.

What we need is a soil that will sustain us for a thousand years. You may wonder what is so special about a thousand years. A lot of things are actually. You see, in a thousand years the only people left on Planet Earth will be those that are living on sustainable soil. This might be a handful of hunter-gatherers who wander in search of whatever the post-apocalyptic earth has to offer. Or it might be a world filled with our descendants living on a land that feeds them, because they have learned how to feed it.

Our traditions include a belief in a future Millennium when we will live in peace and harmony. Some of us have interpreted this to mean that a magical transformation will suddenly eliminate all evil and suffering from the world. If we have destroyed the land because of greed or of ignorance or even war, surely a divine providence will make it all better, or so we seem to assume.

I disagree. My millennial expectations are more in line with those of Brigham Young who insisted that “When we have streets paved with gold, we will place it there ourselves”.

Much of our confusion revolves around a misunderstood word in the Creation account found in the first chapter of Genesis (verse 28). “And God blessed them [referring to Adam and Eve] and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” The same command was repeated to Noah after the Flood (see Genesis 9:1).

What are we to make of this word replenish? In many exegeses it is understood to mean reproduce. In fact all three injunctions are understood this way: be fruitful, multiply, and replenish. In this view mankind is commanded to have a lot of descendants and this is all the scripture means. I’m not convinced that this is correct. Having a family is certainly a big part of the verse, but I doubt that it is all that is meant.

In my Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition) replenish has ten definitions. Only one of the ten means to occupy with people (Definition 6). The others are transitive verbs referring to filling up or stocking with something. Definition 7 specifically refers to filling with food. Definition 10 means increase.

The overall sense of replenishing is to provide an abundance of something. In reference to a viable place like the earth, it carries the sense of fertility and health. As it refers to people it refers to that which sustains people: the soil, the water, the air. In reference to the earth the command requires that mankind make it abundant with life. It is a command to assume stewardship of the planet.

And, in fact, this is what the raven is doing in its own way on top of its barbed-wire nest. It is taking a lifeless length of wire and using it to give life. The raven, it seems, is filling the measure of its creation. What about us? Are we doing the same?

Sadly, I think, the answer is no. The posterity of Adam and Eve are expected to do more than just reproduce. If that is all we do, and then over-extract the life-giving resources of our world, we then become no more than the animal creation – intent only on increasing our Darwinian fitness. Actually we are worse than this. If we only use our super-natural intelligence for Darwinian ends, we will (and do) cause much harm. And, ironically, this is a mindset that will destroy the world.

Only humans, in harmony with the gifts of Creation, can make a fallen world a garden. The desert can blossom as the rose, but it can only do so over time if soil is built up and water is used wisely. These are gifts that we give back to the earth, not as beasts, but as divinely inspired and responsible stewards. Gardening is an act of the Children of God. On the other hand, ruthless (“limitless”) extraction is a Faustian game that never ends well for mortals.

So what is the human equivalent of the opportunistic raven? How do we replenish the earth amidst the piles of multi-generational refuse? I think that each one of us is left to answer this question ourselves. But while you’re thinking about it, I’m going to go out back, find my man-made pitchfork, and turn over my compost pile.


Thanks to the M.L. Bean Staff at BYU for the raven picture. I am also indebted to Wendell Berry’s insightful piece in Harper’s Magazine: Faustian Economics: Hell hath no Limits (May, 2008). Brigham Young’s quote is from Discourses of Brigham Young by John a Widtsoe (page 29).