Category Archives: Sustainability

Sachs on The Age of Sustainable Development

sachs-sustainable-developmentThe Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs is a good, textbook sort of volume for what I believe to be the general consensus view of the totality of what we are up against, along with potential solutions from a liberal, Keynsian perspective. It is massive, as you might imagine.

Such a simple statement from the Rio Declaration, 1992 — such a basic place to start: “development today must not threaten the needs of present and future generations.” Such a massive failing of ours. The following summits moved to a more practical approach. The 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg looked to accomplish: “The integration of the three components of sustainable development — economic development, social development and environmental protection — as independent and mutually reinforcing pillars (WSSD 2002, 2).” (5)

Sachs adds good governance to this list, and sees this group of four pillars as complex systems — he explains:

sustainable development is also a science of complex systems. A system is a group of interacting components that together with the rules for their interaction constitute an interconnected whole… We talk about these systems as complex because their interactions give rise to behaviors and patterns that are not easily discernible from the underlying components themselves…. Complexity scientists speak of the emergent properties of a complex system, meaning those characteristics that emerge from the interactions of the components to produce something that is “more than the sum of its parts.” (7)

Thus the four complex interacting systems of sustainable development:

global economysocial interactions of trust, ethics, inequality and social support networks…Earth systems such as climate and ecosystems; and it studies the problems of governance… In each of these complex systems–economic, social, environmental and governance–the special properties of complex systems, such as emergent behavior and strong, nonlinear dynamic…are all too apparent. (8)

He is not one to discount the progress we have made or question capitalist foundations. I found it interesting that instead he outlines the history before and after the industrial revolution that has brought us into crisis. Before:

The world before 1750 was a world of poverty; one that could nonetheless produce beautiful treasures for human history, like the Egyptian pyramids, the Acropolis… Yet for all of those grand monuments, most people in most ages lived difficult rural lives, always on the edge of famine, disease, and early death. (73)


New technologies…were certainly vital, but many complex economic interconnections were needed as well. Rural areas needed higher food productivity to produce a surplus for the industrial workforce… Transport was needed to carry food from farms to industrial towns, and industrial goods such as linnens and apparel from the factories to the countryside. New ports and global shipping carried manufactured goods abroad as exports, to be traded for the primary commodities needed for industrial production. A worldwide supply system began to take hold. And these increasingly complex transactions required markets, insurance, finance, property rights, and other “software” and “hardware” of a modern market-based economy. (75)

This is such a curious reframing of past into a technological modernity. I honestly am amazed that anyone could argue that most inventors and scientists are in it for the money, but he does.

James Watts was after profits and the patent; his aims included intellectual property, glory, and riches. He was working in an environment in which he could succeed, because the beginnings of commercial law existed in England, as opposed to many other places on the planet where such property rights had not yet been recognized. (76)

Side note: Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations same year as Watt produced the modern steam engine — 1776.

Just to show he’s down with the left economists, if not the socialists, he quotes Marx and Engels in support of this view of historical progress.

The bourgeosie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls… (78)

He makes a distinction in this linear progression between endogenous growth and catch-up growth, unrecognised in much economic development theory:

The first is based on innovation; the second on rapid adoption and diffusion… (81)

I think political ecology has a whole lot to say about the politics of that small statement – about all of this. At least Sachs does acknowledge that most of Africa and Asia were held in stagnation by colonial powers, thus unable to even start trying to catch up. He also notes that the legacy of conflict and slavery in the Americas continues today, and the high rates of inequality around the world reflect a legacy of conquest. There is no questioning, though, of the beneficial nature of the economic growth emerging from these roots.

Modern economic growth began in the dark green temperate climate of England, and quickly spread to similar locations in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and the Southern Cone of South America (Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay)… We see that modern economic growth diffused not oly according to geographical proximity (distance from London) but also what we might call “climate proximity,” the similarity of a location to that of England. (117)

So to move on from how we got here to the crisis we face. I am happy, myself, to accept the science on the facts of climate change,  I think this is a great chart to summarise the multiple threats — what the Stockholm Resilience Centre calls planetary boundaries:


So I’ll move on to the social pillar, as I confess if the UN isn’t going to go full-on world-revolutionary-and-transformational, this is possibly as good as it gets.  So his definition of social inclusion:

aims for broad-based prosperity, for eliminating discrimination, for equal protection under the laws, for enabling everybody to meet basic needs, and for high social mobility (meaning that a child born into poverty has a reasonable chance to escape from poverty). (232-233)

Where does that exist I wonder? He continues:

… we must address the challenges of social inequality and human rights across several dimensions. Race, ethnicity, power, conquest, and individual characteristics are all determinants of inequality in society. So too are the political responses, the extent to which power is used to reduce inequality or the extent to which power is used to exacerbate inequalities. (238)

It’s got all the right words in it, you know? Sachs continues to list three of the fundamental forces behind widening inequalities in the

United States, several European countries, and many of the emerging economies around the world.

  • the rising gap in earnings between high-skilled and low-skilled workers

  • the increased use of robotics, advanced data-management systems, and other information technologies, which seem to be shifting income from labor to capital.

  • the political system, which in the United States has amplified the widening inequalities caused by market forces. (239)

He talks about deregulation, the weakening of unions, and throws in this chart on spectacular inequality:


So what is needed?

Education for All:

Yes. He describes the role for universities in:

helping society to identity and solve local problems of sustainable development … Every issue which which we are grappling — poverty, disease, climate change, new information technologies, and so on — requires locally tailored solutions, often based on sophisticated management systems. (273)

So top down. Ah well, he is an expert.

Health for all

Yes. It was way back in 1978 that World health officials adopted the Alma-Ata Declaration — universal health by the year 2000. (276)

We all know how that failed. Sachs can still celebrate the Millennium Development Goals developed that year though.

Food Security:

Yes. Achievable now, but political will? Sadly lacking.

The agricultural sector is in fact the most important sector from the point of view of human-induced environmental change. Many people imagine the automobile or perhaps coal-fired power plants to be the biggest cause of human-made environmental damage. And they are indeed major causes of global environmental unsustainability. Yet it is food production that takes the dubious prize as the most important single driver of environmental harms (SDSN 2013). (339)

Crazy. Another reason to support permaculture, or other locally based, minimal-footprint systems like Fukuoka‘s, or New Mexico’s acequia agriculture, which solve all kinds of problems while at the same time improving the planet rather than destroying it.

Another interesting chart:

greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-economic-sector-ipccAFOLU here stands for ’emmissions data from Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)’ (342)

Instead of any minimally emitting and socially beneficial and extremely cheap systems, though, Sachs promotes more technology, more GMOs, making crops more drought resistant. Making crops more nutritious. All capital- and resource-intensive. And third, using ‘precision farming;.

Precision agriculture depends on information technologies, on detailed mapping of soil types, and often on global positioning systems that can tell a farmer exactly where that farmer is in the field and what is happening in the soil in that part of the farm. (351)

Soil mapping, testing, localized chemistry… Ugh. Nothing about environmental justice here either.

Resilient Cities

Ah, we turn to cities. Sachs gives a summary of the three major features of urban sustainability:

  • Urban productivity. Cities need to be places where individuals can find decent, productive work, and businesses can produce and trade efficiently. The basis for success is a productive infrastructure: the networks of roads, public transport, power … Infrastructure also includes “software,” like an effective court system to enforce contracts. When the urban infrastructure fails, the city is overwhelmed by congestion, crime, pollution, and broken contracts that impede business, job creation, and forward-looking investment.

Enforcing contracts? There will be no tampering with capitalism here, and cities are for business and development and trade.

  • Social inclusion. … (366) The social stability, trust, and harmony in the society (including political stability and level of violence) will be affected by the extent of social mobility. When it is low and falling, protest, unrest, and even conflict are more likely to ensue. Effective urban planning and politics can lead to cities in which people of different races, classes, and ethnicities interact productively, peacefully, and with a high degree of social mobility and trust. With ineffective planning, lack of civic participation, and neglect of social equity, cities can become deeply divided between rich neighbourhoods facing off against slums.

There is nothing here I disagree with actually, though I think a shift in the whole paradigm of effective ‘expert’ planners needs to happen before we can begin to create socially inclusive cities, never mind everything else that needs to happen.

  • environmental sustainability. … Cities need to make two kinds of environmental efforts. The first, mitigation, is to reduce their own “ecological footprint,” for example, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by urban activities. The second, broadly speaking, is adaptation, meaning preparedness and resilience to changing environmental conditions, for example, rising temperatures and sea levels (for coastal cities). (367)

On Climate Change

Ah, the energy sector, such a money maker! 7 of the 10 largest companies in the world in 2013 as ranked by Global Fortune 500, are in the energy sector

1 – Royal Dutch Shell
3 – Exxon Mobil
4 – Sinopec Group
5 – China National Petroleum6 – BP
7 – China State Grid (396)

and then of course, 8 is Toyota, and 9 is Volkswagon — very closely related. I looked up the list for this year, not much has changed:

Fortune's Global 500 2016

The consequences of climate change are, of course, terrifying. There’s lots about that. And once again, Sachs’ solutions are more of the same — capital- and resource-intensive top down solutions that don’t really disrupt business as usual. He gives three. DESERTEC — a network of renewable energy production that links North Africa, the Middle East and Europe into a single grid (you can guess where most production happens, and where most consumption happens).


Second, to tap the wind power along the US coasts.

The third — finally destroying the Inga Falls in the DRC to build the great Inga Dam Project. Surely we can do better.

There is carbon capture, Sachs writes (and this is so damn revealing I think):

If carbon capture and sequestration (abbreviated as CCS) proves to be successful, then there is a wonderful way to reduce CO2 emissions without having to change out current technologies or energy mix! (431)

Yes! We can just keep on keeping on! That somehow really does seem to be the fatal flaw in all of this.

On to the loss of biodiversity. My heart breaks as we lose species after species. I suppose I care about the economic cost of that, but, actually, no. Not really.

So to summarise:

This chart is illuminating if nothing else…

ecosystem-services-and-wellbeing-wriIt sort of lays it all out there, at least. I will have to go to the source for a deeper critique, but I kind of hate one-way arrows.

At Rio 20+ there was a shift from MDGs (not achieved) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 10 of them proposed in 2013  by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) — there are now more.

Goal 1: End Extreme Poverty Including Hunger
Goal 2: Promote Economic Growth and Decent Jobs Within Planetary Boundaries
Goal 3: Ensure Effective Learning for All Children and Youth for Life and Livelihood
Goal 4: Achieve Gender Equality, Social Inclusion, and Human Rights for All
Goal 5: Achieve Health and Wellbeing at All Ages
Goal 6: Improve Agriculture Systems and Raise Rural Prosperity
Goal 7: Empower Inclusive, Productive, and Resilient Cities
Goal 8: Curb Human-Induced Climate Change and Ensure Sustainable Energy
Goal 9: Secure Biodiversity and Ensure Good Management of Water, Oceans, Forests and Natural Resources
Goal 10: Transform Governance and Technologies for Sustainable Development

The 17 SDGs now visible at


He ends with a salute to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Kennedy and the English Abolitionists. I suppose that is symbolic of this whole book given those last two were so flawed and highly problematic, yet none-the-less helped win some politically admirable goals. Some good stuff, and some not-so-good stuff all mixed together, very carefully, so as not to really shift any of the broader structures or the profits to be made from them, just share the dividends a little more equally. Until we all die as how can this really stop the environmental crisis already at hand?

[Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2015) The Age of Sustainable Development. New York: Columbia University Press.]




Biosphere II

The entrance to the Biosphere II…

Biosphere 2

I remember this from my childhood, the great experiment to see if we could inhabit space under domes, live completely contained lives under glass. The great (although flawed) experiment here, here! Just outside of Tucson!

They couldn’t do it the way we hoped, the way I had read about in those Daw paperback novels with the yellow spines and the library’s mark of the atom, but the Biosphere II experiments taught so much…I remember the faces of the eight scientists who lived here for two years as seen through this glass. Way back between 1991 and 1993, way back.

I also remember them being a bit too celebrity-like, especially the women, looking at this picture I can see why I might have thought so.

Yet all these years and I had never managed to visit — I even drove all the way up here once with my friend Samantha, but it was too expensive. Worth it? Yes, but too expensive when we just didn’t have the money. Too many things are that way in this country, rather damaging to many of the potential scientists out there. But I digress.

I confess I wasn’t too impressed by the presence of a lawn in a place studying sustainability, but I love the futuristic style.

Biosphere 2

It’s at it’s busiest between Christmas and New Year’s apparently, so we were able to walk through at our own pace rather than on the tour. I’m sure we missed some things that way, but I think I might have preferred it, we had more ability to avoid other people. Best of all, we were able to climb up to the higher dome that served the original inhabitants as library — until they no longer had the calories and the oxygen to make it up the stairs. They are some stairs, I hate how much I can feel the altitude now when I come home:

Biosphere 2

The views — stunning. Out over the rainforest pyramid, with administrative buildings and the Catalina foothills in the background:

Biosphere 2

Looking over the new soil experiments (called the Landscape Evolution Observatory) where the old agricultural section used to be, the desert pyramid, one of the lungs:

Biosphere 2

A sense of the inside:

Biosphere 2

Back down a floor to the original crew quarters, it now hosts some awesome exhibits — a crazy mix up of science, science fiction books and film, casts and models and stamps. They include methane ice worms, the flower shaped ecopolis sitting sustainably (perhaps) on the ocean. But first one of my favourite things — the Lunar Greenhouse Habitat.

Biosphere 2Another experiment with a closed system (much smaller — much of the Biosphere’s appeal is just the scale at which the experiment was conducted), growing plants using hydroponic systems on carbon dioxide from human waste and respiration, along with other inputs from composting, harvesting and other waste. Very cool. The plants they are growing here? Cow peas, lettuce, sweet potatoes and basil, with a recent decision to include strawberries (these are from NASA’s approved list, for more from NASA on space gardening, go here).

Biosphere 2

Humans have been thinking about this for a while, though I think if flights of imagination in fiction were allowed, this timeline might stretch back much further than 1960 — I shall have to look into that.

Any such garden would almost certainly have to be buried underground — I love how much thought has already gone into what would be required to live on the Moon, or Mars.

They have an awesome model of Mars exploration:

Biosphere 2

The Soviet space stamps (made me all nostalgic for one of my favourite exhibitions of all time, on Soviet Cosmonauts in London’s Science Museum)

Biosphere 2

Meteorites used as blacksmith’s anvils in the 1800s:

Biosphere 2

A great deal of ‘miscellaneous’

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

I loved walking through the great glass greenhouses themselves

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

‘We are not gardeners’ said one of the employees in the rainforest dome. The first experiments were to see how much could be grown, how to keep things alive. Now they watch to see what dies and what survives, attempting to trace the complexities of ecosystems by leaving things alone unless they threaten the structural stability of glass and metal.

I don’t know if I could do that, I love gardens. I also loved walking in the belly of the beast, seeing how things worked underneath in the service tunnels — somehow this is where it felt most spectacular, came most alive in giving a sense of what it would be like to live and work in such a domed world.

Here we experienced sudden immense blasts of wind:

Biosphere 2

More tunnels (I really really love tunnels):

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

The inside of the lung itself, designed to help ‘breathe’ and maintain air pressure constant to protect the greenhouses:

Biosphere 2

The lungs from outside:

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

There was an awesome, if small, display on the Arab falaj, or irrigation system, that  works much like acequias (I think this is some of the heritage that Spanish settlers brought with them to the Southwest if I am not mistaken). Ingenious in their engineering, they also define town planning, with the Mosque closest to the water source to ensure the water’s purity.

The last stop is at the ocean section, where they tried to create a coral reef and failed quite spectacularly. I think, above all, this huge structure of overwhelming aspiration has taught us a great deal of humility. My favourite story — octopi (I prefer this to octopuses, say what you will) had smuggled themselves into Biosphere II hidden in the coral, and emerged to hunt at night. It took some time before staff realised why the other inhabitants of the ocean habitat were disappearing. Algae has essentially now taken over — this bears some relation to the actual situation of our reefs — and these bare rocks and scummy windows stand as a reminder of how we have no idea to recreate all the things we destroy.

We are very far from any possibility of survival on another planet. Best we take care of this one — Biosphere I —  and so it is scary to me that the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ were rarely mentioned here in either videos or displays, though they serve as a focus for all of the research. It showed just what scientists have to do in the face of denial from the highest levels, and that’s only going to get worse.






The Spirit Level — Can we just get on with greater equality already?

The Spirit LevelThe Spirit Level marshals all the evidence — for those who needed such evidence — that inequality has a huge negative impact on everyone in a society, the rich as well as the poor. But especially the poor.  There is of course, a minimum level of security and income which human beings require. Many do not enjoy such a level. But for those who do, it still isn’t enough to guarantee a full and happy life:

Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich counties, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. (5-6)

This is good book full of evidence that it is the degree of equality in a  country which leads to longer, happier lives and a stronger society.

Poverty itself is a bit of a slippery concept if you think too hard, I liked this quote from Marshall Sahlins:

Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status . . . It has grown . . . as an invidious distinction between class . . . (Stone Age Economics, quoted p 15)

Poverty as a relationship — it makes sense that this relationship is what matters above the bare minimum required for life.

Their graphs are simple, direct — only as good as their data of course, but that is well documented…This one is from p 20 and p 174, so good they showed it twice!


The best indicator for the whole gamut of health and social problems in rich countries is not poverty, but the difference between rich and poor. Reduce inequality, and you should see marked improvements in all of them.

How Inequality Gets Under the Skin

I read this over the summer, but it’s weird going back over my notes after Trump’s victory, especially reading things like this:

The growing rates of anxiety in the U.S. are very depressing indeed, yet they correlate to more aggressive declarations of self worth.

The answer turns out to be a picture of increasing anxieties about how we are seen and what others think of us which has, in turn, produced a kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism which is easily mistaken for high self esteem (36).

I’m always a little skeptical how we ascertain how society is changing us more broadly, but this rings true. Still, it is hard to analyze the water in which you’ve grown up in. They connect these kinds of psychological anxieties with inequality, and then tend to almost conflate the two in trying to explain the correlation between inequality and many of the social ills and illnesses examined as the multiple indicators of health and wellbeing.

Part 2 — The Costs of Inequality:

So for the great list of indicators:

  • Mental health and drug use
p 67. reproduced at
p 67. reproduced at×465.jpg

One of the things they cite is Oliver James on the

‘affluenza’ virus…is a “set of values which increase out vulnerability to emotional distress”, which he believes is more common in affluent societies. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous. (69)

Interesting, depressing, you can see how hard this would be to live up to.

  • Physical Health and life expectancy

They cite more than 40 papers on the links between health and social capital have now been published. (See M.K. Islam, J. Merlo, I Kawachi, M. Lindstrom and U.G. Gerdtham, ‘Social Capital and health: does egalitarianism matter? A literature review’, International Journal for Equity in Health (2006) 5:3.)

Increasing social capital and reducing inequality improve health across the society, just throwing more money at it doesn’t. Probably because most of that money doesn’t actually go towards health, as in the US, but towards corporate profits, but that’s another story I suppose. Looking at this chart and realising that of all these countries the US is the one that doesn’t actually provide universal healthcare despite the obscene of money going into healthcare makes some sense of the outcomes, and makes you feel sick at the same time. Sadly, there’s no cure for that other than some serious structural changes. Like all of this really.


  • Obesity: Wider income gaps, wider waists — correlates to inequality.
  • Educational performance — correlates to inequality.
  • Teenage births: recycling deprivation — correlates to inequality.
  • Violence: gaining respect — correlates to inequality.

They note that inequality is ‘structural’ violence, and statistically it matches up with…inequality. Again, they connect this inequality with the anxieties that emerge from our unequal society:

…increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more. The impact of inequality on violence is even better established and accepted than the other effects of inequality. (134)

  • Imprisonment and punishment — inequality

I’ve read lots about the crazy amounts of incarceration in the US, The New Jim Crow is miles and away better than this summary. But one fun fact

In California in 2004, there were 360 people serving life sentences for shoplifting. (147)

Jesus wept. And of course, there is this on p 148:


I have to note that in many of these charts I couldn’t initially find the US because it is so often alone up at the top…This chart makes me sick too.

Another brief note they make, there is so much to dig into here but it’s interesting:

In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of ‘us and them’ are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fear of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes… (155)

  • Social mobility: unequal opportunities — inequality

This is so geared towards statistics and policies, digging through data more than into experience, but every now and then they drop into higher theory, like Bourdieu writing about ‘the actions by which the elite maintain their distinction symbolic violence…’ (164) I had forgotten he wrote about this, this book underlined for me the very strong connection between inequality and violence, inequality as violence, and how that underpins everything else.

Part 3 — a better society

I appreciated that they ended The Spirit Level with some thoughts bringing everything back together, and from there thinking through what change is possible. There was some interesting things on the racial divides in the US, and again and again this book underlines that while the poor suffer from inequality most, really it is everyone who suffers. Maybe that will have some impact? Though it doesn’t seem to have had yet…

in the USA, state income equality is closely related to the proportion of African-Americasn in the state’s population. The states with wider income differences tende to be those with larger African American populations. The same states also tend to have worse outcomes…among both the black and the white population. The ethnic divide increases prejudice and so widens income differences. the result is that both communities suffer…

So the answer to the question as to whether what appear to be the effects of inequality may actually be the result of ethnic divisions is that the two involve most of the same processes and should not be seen a alternative explanations. The prejudice which often attaches to ethnic divisions may increase inequality and its effects. Where ethnic differences have become strongly associated with social status divisions, ethnic divisions may provide almost as good an indicator of the scale of social status differentiation as income inequality. (179)

It is interesting to look at how the numbers brought Pickett and Wilkinson to these findings that are more often found elsewhere. Again and again the message — inequality hurts the poorest most, but it negatively impacts everyone. Reducing inequality benefits everyone. Evidence also suggests it should make rich countries care more about reducing the terrible inequalities between countries — little sign of that despite how desperately — perhaps even more desperately — that is needing recognition, but the more arguments made the better. This is just a building block in working towards ensuring equality remains on the agenda.


There’s a whole section on ‘can this be done?’, can we create more equal societies, but honestly. They themselves make the point that some countries have done it already.

Another truth;

systems of material or economic relations are systems of social relations. (199)

So what is their solution? They look to worker owned business, cooperatives, give example of Tower Colliery, where miners successfully took over pit operation, combining redundancy money to buy the pit in 1995, for 15 years until seam was mined out. They also, in the bigger picture, argue for what they call a steadd health: does egalitarianism d by economist Herman Daly. (220) I’ll have to look more into this and always prefer to start with the source, so to just finish up with some of their final findings.

Evaluations of even some of the most important services, such as police and medical care, suggest that they are not among the most powerful determinants of crime levels or standards of population health. Other services, such as social work or drug rehabilitation, exist to treat — or process — their various client groups, rather than to diminish the prevalence of social problems. (233)

even more damning, this is my personal favourite sentence:

Rather than reducing inequality itself, the initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people — particularly the poor — can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs. (234)

So really this is an economic and a political problem, they write

The historical evidence confirms the primacy of political will. (238)

Behind this lack of political will? Multiple reasons of course, one being the decline of the trade unions — their decline in power has itself made possible a great deal of this growing inequality. There’s also the fact that many corporations have bigger economies than many a nation state. They quote the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):

Twenty-nine of the world’s 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations (TNCs)… On the 200 TNCs with the highest assets abroad in 2000, Exxon is the biggest in terms of value added ($63 billion). It ranks 45th on the new list, making it comparable in economic size to the economies of Chile or Pakistan. Nigeria comes in just between DaimlerChrylser and General Electric, while Philip Morris is on a par with Tunisia, Slovakia and Guatemala. (244)

Small wonder they walk with such big sticks. Small wonder higher levels of equality should be so hard to achieve, despite the improvements it makes to everyone’s quality of life.





Masanobu Fukuoka: Sowing Seeds in the Desert

Masanobu Fukuoka - Sowing Seeds in the DesertMasanobu Fukuoka…I have now read his first book, One Straw Revolution, and his last, Sowing Seeds in the Desert. There is such a distance between eastern and western ways of knowing and thinking, I like how provocative it is to explore the spaces between them. I like how this book sets them in dialogue. Reading Fukuoka reminds me of seeing the Dalai Lama talk at the LSE — they seem so idealistic, they speak using familiar words but in such different ways, seem so removed and unworldly and thus so easily taken advantage of by a capitalist system that thrives on co-opting everything and turning it into profit. Yet really, seems to me their points are needle sharp in deflating the engorged balloons of western, capitalist ways of knowing and valuing. If you listen.

It also, of course, resonates so much with indigenous systems, with permaculture, with struggles for biodiversity and tradition as against monoculture and many another relationship between generations and the land they are connected to.

From the editor Larry Korn, who also helped bring the first book into the world:

The most conspicuous of the cultural difficulties is that the Japanese way of telling a story or developing a complex argument is different from the approach that is generally taken in English. In Japanese, the author typically begins with the theme or the point he wishes to make, then he offers an anecdote or an argument that helps to take that story or bolster the point before returning to the theme, which is restated. Then the author goes on another loop, again returning to the theme. One might say that these side stories or arguments form the petals of a flower with the theme as its center. (xxx)

In Western writing, however, the linear is preferred. The character arc. The beginning ramping up to a climax and then a tidy conclusion. Even in our non-fiction.

There has never been a generation like the present where people’s hearts are so badly wounded. This is true of every are of society–politics, economics, education, and culture. It is reflected in the degradation of the environment, which comes about through the material path humanity has chosen. Now we have the ugly sight of industry, government, and the military joining forces in the struggle for ultimate power. (14)

I don’t know that this linear thinking can be blamed for our current world, but it is part of the larger pattern I think. Curious that old certainties about cause and effect, our capacity to know everything, so many simplifications are being increasingly challenged by new thinking in biology — and this sounds remarkably like the kind of thing Brian Greene writes about in terms of new directions in physics:

Time does not simply flow mechanically in a straight line in a fixed direction. We could think of time as flowing up and down, right and left, forward and backward. As time develops and expands, multifaceted and three-dimensional, the past is concealed within the instant of the present, and within this instant of time is concealed the eternity of the future. (26)

All made of the same things, connected at the base like a chain of islands whose tops are above the ocean

In the past, present, and future, the true disposition of nature is toward abundance for human beings and for all species. Therefore the question should not be “Why are there too many people?” but rather, “Who has created the scarcity into which they are born?” And then, finally, “How can we heal the earth so it can support future generations?” (42)

On the equality and interconnectedness of all things…

Plants, people, butterflies, and dragonflies appear to be separate, individual living things, yet each is an equal and important participant in nature. They share the same mind and life spirit. They form a single living organism. to speak of creatures as beneficial insects, harmful insects, pathogenic bacteria, or troublesome birds is like saying the right hand is good and the left hand is bad. Nature is an endless cycle, in which all things participate in the same dance of life and death, living together and dying together. (43)

It is in using massive interventions to destroy parts of the cycle, with very little understanding of it and driven by motives of profit, that we have arrived at the point of destruction. This lack of holistic understandings is endemic, seen in many a western method for solving things.

When the specialized Western medicinal approach is used, the question of what gives life and health to the whole body and mind is put off. In other words, modern Western medicines puts the human body ahead of the human spirit. This separation is a starting point for emotional anxiety among people today. (44)

Fukuoka keeps them together:

Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating the actual desert is actually the same thing. (47)

This is all talking about land and spirit and some of us (not me, especially not any more) will be rolling their eyes. But this understanding of the capitalist economy, the ‘Money-sucking Octopus Economy’ (50) as he calls it, is interesting,  it definitely breaks things up in a different way than I am used to. At the heart of the octopus? politicians and the military-industrial-government complex. The legs?

  1. maintenance of the transportation network
  2. control of agencies administering transportation
  3. supervision of communications
  4. establishment of an economic information network
  5. education and administrative advising
  6. control of financial institutions
  7. control of information
  8. control of citizens’ personal computers and registration (53)

I like this list, it’s funny that control of land and resources is not on it.

There is nothing I don’t agree with about consumption and our economic model though:

I have often said that value does not lie in material goods themselves, but when people create the conditions that make them seem necessary, their value increases. The capitalist system is based on the notion of ever-increasing production and consumption of material goods, and therefore, in the modern economy, people’s value or worth comes to be determined by their possessions. But if people create conditions and environments that do not make those things necessary, the things, no matter what they are, become valueless. Cars, for example, are not considered to be of value by people who are not in a hurry.

Economies that aim at production and consumption of unnecessary products are themselves meaningless. (51)

Yet that is our economic model of development. And it is all about control and the marketing of products — whether luxury goods or Monsanto’s technologies:

When I went to apply for a visa from the Somalian government, I was flabbergasted when they told me that any kind of instruction that agitates the farmers and encourages them to become self-sufficient would not be welcome. If such activity went too far, they said, it would be considered treason. (76)

Colonial agricultural policies…Big money into big damns, big irrigation, drawing water from aquifers leading to salinization of land, cash crops, ending nomadic cultures resulting in massive stress on one area of the land and damage to a culture and a people, national parks that its former indigenous residents must leave, and suddenly go all the way around in their movements. The are sudden insights, like the ways that the irrigation of water in high dikes controls the people who surround it, cuts them off from free movement and free access to water. And it puts blame where blame is due:

I started with the recognition that the causes of desertification in most areas are misguided human knowledge and action. If we eliminated them, I believed that nature would certainly heal itself. (87)

It examines the real costs of our current agricultural practices of GMOs, monocropping and etc — Fukuoka writes ‘Agricultural “Production” is Actually Deduction’ (88):

If you really count all the inputs of cost to the environment, mining and fossil fuel extraction, construction of machinery, damage from cash crops etc, we have the most inefficient agricultural systems possible…

It is not just in Africa that these problems exist.

About half of the land in the United States is, or is becoming, desert. I felt that the expanding American desert was at least as great a problem as the deserts of Africa, but most Americans seemed totally unaware that their country is becoming more arid. (123)

We don’t talk about those kinds of things, but it threatens the communities, like New Mexico’s acequia farmers, most likely to offer hope and the capacities to sustainably grow food in increasingly arid condition.

I do like that he toured the US saying this kind of thing:

Everywhere I went I preached the abolition of lawn culture, saying that it was an imitation green created for human beings at the expense of nature and was nothing more than a remnant of the arrogant aristocratic culture of Europe. (129)

This philosophy is a very particular way, very Japanese way of embracing the world, of changing it.

When people are released from the idea that they are the ones who have created things and have abandoned human knowledge, nature will return to its true form. The rebirth of nature is not simply a return to the primitive, it is a return to the timeless. My method of natural farming aims at liberating the human heart… (140)

I loved this final quote, partially a reminder that even if we are not the ones who love land and roots as farmers, we still can live in sustainable ways. But mostly it is good to encounter — to know — that radically different ways of being are still possible in this world:

I still remember the words of an Ethiopian tribesman who at first rejected my ideas of natural farming. “Are you asking me to become a farmer?” he asked. “To be attached to the soil and to accumulate things are the acts of a degraded person.” (52)










The Colors of Nature: Deming & Savoy

The Colors of NatureI loved The Colors of Nature, edited by poet Alison H. Deming and scientist Lauret E. Savoy, one white and one Black. I took it with me as mum and I drove through the desert, read pieces of it in Tuba City, Chama, Mountainair.

Both women understand that human history and natural history are braided strands in the weave of their existence. This, too, is a common ground given to them by their differences. But no monochromatic sens of human history will suffice to express their certainty that the pain at the foundation of American culture–whether one’s ancestors have been on the side of the wounding or the woundedness–informs our sense of place on Earth and our connections with each other. And so the women begin a new conversation. (5)

First things first though:

…nature writing remains, for the most part, the precinct of the Euro-American privileged class. The editors of this anthology are convinced that the “lack” of nature writing by people of color reflects the limited perspective of both the defining audience and the publishing community more than the lack of interest in the natural world by writers of color. (6)

So now that is out of the way, I loved the conversation between the editors that serves as introduction:

Savoy: What I’ve seen as a great potential strength of writing about nature is that narrative inquiry of a larger world extending beyond human institutions could refocus our attention outward, situate us, and ultimately help us understand better how to live in that world responsibly and ethically. Such writing, and the visions created in story,  can inform and illuminate the processes of understanding ecological relationships, pattern and community within and beyond the human realm. But I also see this strength as only partially realized in that too many experiences of people not of Euro-American descent–experience that transcend history and point to deeply embedded cultural values and conflicts on this continent–seem to lie outside of the genre’s domain. (7)

Yet these are vital. Again and again it all comes back to where white experience is rooted. From Savoy:

The fulfillment of Euro-America’s exploration and empire–of land acquisition and use and expansion of a new nation on what was believed to be a clean slate of wilderness–owed much to the processes of colonization, of slavery, of dispossession and forced removal from homeland to reservation. (9)

From Deming:

Deming: Because the American past is stained with the ugliness of genocide and slavery (“No nation,” wrote James Baldwin, “has ever made so successful and glamorous a romance out of genocide and slavery”), most Euro-Americans continue to prefer seeing their lives as stories of rugged individualism rather than of culture making. And yet, just as every day of one’s life is embedded in nature, every day of one’s life is also embedded in this complicated cultural legacy. (12-13)

So these are writings that re-embed us, in community, in world, in culture. They do it beautifully, and so these selections — as so many of my ridiculously lengthy selections — are what happened to resonate most with me just now.

‘In History’ by Jamaica Kincaid (16-27) — a visceral reminder that our world was once so different. A reminder just how much has changed. A wondering about how we deal with that, think about that, write that.

What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?
Should I call it history?
If so, what should history mean to someone like me? (16)

Before Europeans brought slaves to these Caribbean islands, the genocide was almost complete…

It is when this land is completely empty that I and the people who look like me begin to make an appearance, the food I eat begins to make an appearance, the trees I will see each day come from far away and begin to make an appearance, the sky is at is always was, the is as it always was, the water surrounding the land on which I am just making an appearance is as it always was; but these are the only things left from before that man, sailing with his three ships, reached the land on which I eventually make an appearance. (21)

I have Kincaid’s book on gardens sitting in England, still unread. But a taste, here, of this tension filled love of plants and acknowledgment of the brutal history behind so many gardens and our botanical knowledge:

The botanists are from the same part of the world as the man who sailed on the three ships, that same man who started narrative from which I trace my beginning. And the botanists are like that man who sailed on the ships in a way, too: they emptied the worlds of things animal, mineral and vegetable, of their names, and replaced those names with names pleasing to them; the recognized names are now reasonable, as reason is a pleasure to them. (22)

From ‘At the End of Ridge Road: From a Nature Journal’ by Joseph Bruchac (49-66):

What European cultures call “wilderness,” carefully separating it from “civilization,” remained an intimate part of human nature in indigenous cultures. Rather than pasting human masks over the faces of the animals, we recognized the animals as people with nations of their own. (55)

I learned that all turtles have 13 large plates on their carapaces, and 28 smaller ones ring them!

There are thirteen full moons in any given year, roughly twenty-eight days between one full moon and the next. So it is that native people of the northeast say that the turtle’s back is a lunar calendar… (58)


From ‘Earthbound’ by bell hooks (67-71):

Humankind no matter how powerful cannot take away the rights of the earth. Ultimately nature rules. That is the great democratic gift the earth offers us–that sweet death to which we all inevitably go–into that final communion. No race, no class, no gender, nothing can keep any of us from dying into that death where we are made one. To tend the earth is always then to tend our destiny, our freedom, and our hope. (68)

I loved this story, loved the strength to be found in the land.

My sharecropping grandaddy Jerry would walk through neat rows of crops and tell me, “I’ll tell you a secret little girl. No man can make the sun or the rains come–we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature but the small farmer know. Earth is our witness.” This relationship to the earth meant that southern black folks, whether they were impoverished or not, knew firsthand that white supremacy, with its systemic dehumanization of blackness, was not a form of absolute power.

This reminded me of some of the thoughts of Wendell Berry, some of the ways I’ve been struggling with this difference between city and country.

…when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. (69)

From ‘Sharing Breath: Some Links Between Land, Plants, and People’ by Enrique Salmon (72-89)

All of these authors are now on my list to be read more fully, to inquire deeper. I loved this exploration of the meaning of plants in indigenous world systems. Again, we are back to the wholeness, the interconnectedness of everything.

Iwígara is the soul or essence of life everywhere. Therefore, iwígara is the idea that all life, spiritual and physical, is interconnected in a continual cycle…. Iwígara is the total interconnectedness and integration of all life in the Sierra Madres. (85)

We are back to throwing out that distinction between us and world, that idealization of pristine nature that permeates Romanticism and continues into our present.

When the people speak of the land, the religious and romantic tones so prevalent in Western environmental conversation are absent. to us the land exists in the same manner as do our families, chickens, the river, and the sky. No hierarchy of privilege places one above or below the other. Iwígara binds and manages the interconnectedness of all life. Within this web there are particular ways that living things relate to one another. All individual life plays a role in the cycle. (86)

Salmon briefly describes how through gathering techniques, plant dispersal, controlled burning, and selective pruning and coppicing, the Rarámuri have enhanced their ecosystem, increased diversity … all of these things theorised and practiced through permaculture, and the same knowledge found around the world in indigenous and peasant communities. It isn’t rocket science to understand that such communities have developed immense stores of knowledge that can only come through daily work in the same landscape over generations — but it is only recently, slowly, becoming recognized ‘officially’. Generally, where those groups aren’t getting too much in the way of quick profits.

Cultural survival can be measured by the degree to which cultures maintain a relationship with their bioregions. Ecologists and conservation biologists today recognize an important relationship between cultural diversity and biological diversity. (88)

A more foundational text from one of the founders of environmental justice theory — ‘Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century’ by Robert D. Bullard (90- 97). I find this useful:

The environmental justice framework attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce unequal protection. It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, why, and how much.” (91)

From ‘Dark Waters’ by Yusef Komunyakaa (96-112), a different view of Bogalusa than I am used to, I am looking forward to reading poetry, but I loved this:

I realized that I had attempted to present how toxicity taints the social and natural landscape. (101)

From ‘Burning the Shelter’ by Louis Owens (142-145), again back to deconstructing euro-american understandings of nature, of distance and difference:

Gradually, almost painfully, I began to understand that what I called “wilderness” was an absurdity, nothing more than a figment of the European imagination. An “absolute fake.” Before the European invasion, there was no wilderness in North America; there was only the fertile continent, where people lived in a hard-learned balance with the natural world. In embracing a philosophy that saw the White Pass shelter–and all traces of humanity–as a shameful stain upon the “pure” wilderness, I had succumbed to a five-hundred-year-old pattern of deadly thinking that separates us from the natural world. (144)

‘Becoming Métis’ by Melissa Nelson (146-152) was so useful in thinking through how to move forward, how to decolonise the mind of old ways of thinking, how to embrace other ways of thinking without appropriating. It is a fine line, no? One you hope to walk well:

To indigenous people, the basic tenets of deep ecology are just a reinvention of very ancient principles that they have been living by for millennia before their ways were disrupted, and in many cases destroyed, by colonial forces.

Decolonizing the mind is not disregarding rationality or European heritage. It is transcending the self-centered, ethnocentric, and exploitative patterns of Western hegemony. It is explicitly questioning the so-called objectivity and universal character of the Western scientific paradigm. decolonizing the mind allows other more diverse and mysterious ways of knowing the world to enter the field of perception. (149)

It is not an essentialised kind of thinking, does not depend on blood though it is certainly conditioned by culture. For many, it means abandoning much of what we think we know. It certainly requires great humility.

…there are no special spiritual “goodies” in being part Native American. Traditional knowledge is really a deeper knowledge of the self within a wider ecocultural context. It comes with patience, hard work, and sacrifice.

The reality is that white, academic culture does not teach this or even respect it. It does not demand the inner knowledge, nor the ways in which we must wrestle with history, fight current injustices, make our stands. It is also, to a great extent, about place.

‘They must learn to honor the local, the distinctive, in the place where they live.’ (150)

I want to think more about that.

Environmental justice is so much about place — how certain people are pushed into places, other trapped in places, and everyone fighting for those places where toxicity abides because they are not just places — they are homes, communities, relationships. In ‘Hazardous Cargo’ by Ray Gonzalez (163-170), he describes El Paso, and the I-25. We were driving the I-25, but a little further north. This opened my eyes to a different aspect of this freeway — the running of trucks up and down it to dump hazardous waste. Did we see the HC signs in white on green backgrounds? I did not know to look. We just knew it was beautiful. I suppose corporations only see emptiness, not the beauty, the life.


From a 1997 report on the waste generated by the maquiladoras that fills many of these trucks — Mexico insisted that it be dealt with north of the border when they signed NAFTA. But in 1997, only 12 percent of 8 million tons were found to be adequately treated (167). 8 million tons. I can’t even imagine where this quantity stands now. Where it is dumped, buried.

And finally from ‘Crossing Boundaries’ by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (171-180), this description of the concentration camp at Manzanar.

…we finally emerge into glaring light, Mount Williamson rising before us in the distance, my spirit’s life, as I remember how that peak inspired us during our imprisonment. Solid and steadfast, it remained immovable through all times. (176)

Manzanar monument

There was so much more here, so I have an expanding list of people to read more of — Al Young, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Gary Paul Nabhan, David Mas Masumoto, Diane Glancy.

A wonderful book.

[Deming, Alsion H and Lauret E. Savoy, eds. (2002) The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World. Minneapolis: Milkweed.]




Farm archaeology: barrows, mines and medieval fields

The farm archaeology is fascinating here, and best of all there is a folder full of articles and reports on what can be seen, and what experts know about it. The information here comes from a report done by Frank Robinson in 2001 (FR), an English Heritage designation report (EH), and a lovely packet put together by a Geography teacher for the local secondary school (G). These maps are from Robinson:


The farm sits at the top in the middle. For the farmhouse – the house and stone buildings built in the late 18th and early 19th century, and they originally made cheese in what is now the kitchen (G). The oldest building stands along the lane and supposedly ‘from the lane can be seen a sandstone cheese press block used to fill part of an old doorway’ (FR). I read that too late to go look for it, coming to Glasgow meant I didn’t quite get to process everything. Whitewash (made of quicklime from the lime quarry on the farm itself) mixed with cow’s blood, dung, sand and horse hair worked as building mortar, and this was used in construction of the farm itself, along with more quarried limestone, and rubble infill.

The old shed along the lane:

Farm 3.6

Farm 3.6

The farm itself from the lane:

Farm 3.1

As interesting are the hedgerows – The presence of 8 different woody species age a hedge at roughly 500 years, the hedgerow here is probably about 800 years old due to the presence of 13 different woody shrubs: Hawthorn, Buckthorn, Guelder Rose, Holly, Elderberry, Willow, Hazel, Honesuckle, Field Maple, Field Rose, Dog Rose, Blackthorn and Ash (G).

Farm 3.13

Almost as cool is that the age of the hedgerow may show date of enclosure — Robinson notes that the land was enclosed by agreement so there is no act as such, probably the field boundaries were established by early 19th century. These now serve as windbreaks and habitats for small mammals and birds – wrens, bank voles, badgers, foxes, rabbits. Other plants found here are wood anemone, townhall lock, goldilox buttercup, ground ivy, red campion, dog’s mercury, and lords and ladies (G). For years these would also have been the main source of firewood, and food as well — the tender shoots of hogweed boiled or steamed! Delicious.

Before enclosure these were open fields, plowed in a ridge and furrow pattern which shows the old medieval fields. These ridges were to be found all over the farm, but I found them difficult to see in many places. Apple Sitch Pingle (a name I never heard, this field was always top block) shows them clearly in the late afternoon light however, especially after mowing:

Farm 3.14

Robinson notes the meaning of this old field name – sitch is an old English word for a muddy stream, Apple probably a spelling of Aplow – low old English hlaw – hill or mound. Ap could refer to a hill or lost barrow. Pingle term often used to describe a meadow by the side of a stream.

You climb up to the top of the this and get the most lovely view of the farm and surrounding hills:

Farm 3.5

The next field up is Stanlow Close, between this and Stanlow Nobbs is:

The dew pond


These were needed before the existence of water mains and hoses. Built to provide water for upper fields, Robinson describes their building as almost a lost art. They were made with a special clay lining to retain water, sometimes ‘puddled with pig manure and dock leaves’. The Department of Agriculture ordered these filled in during the 1950s — there are evidence of several on the farm.

Continuing on to Stanlow Nobbs (limekiln field or the quarry to us) are

The barrows

Climbing up from the other side:

Farm 3.1

And another view of them (and me! Hello!):

Farm 3.1

The view from the top

Farm 3.1

Farm 3.1

From the very dry English Heritage Monument documents: There are two bowl barrows, joined by an earthwork ‘not yet fully understood’. Lucas and Carrington partially excavated one of the barrows in 1869, dated it to Bronze age and found a pottery urn, amber ring, perforated stone axe and bronze 3-rivetted dagger with ivory pommel (the axe and dagger are buried somewhere in the British Museum — they were once thought lost but refound, probably in a pile of things all gathering dust in London. I can’t help but feel they should have remained with their dead, or be found in the local museum). Cropmarks (3 rectangular marks of lush growth in dry weather) show probable location of Anglian secondary burials dating to c AD 700.

This would also be shared in common with Wigber Low — which is visible from here but this view of it makes it seem most unremarkable.

The cropmarks weren’t visible sadly. Robinson gives a bit more information — most such bowl barrows are from the Late Bronze Age, dating between 2400-1500 BC. Of these, there is actually some debate as to whether the smaller of the two is simply a natural mound, as well as the connecting ridge between them. This hasn’t yet been resolved as there has been no excavation since the 1800s.

Just to the other side of them, a rise followed by a dangerous drop off shows the presence of:

The Quarry

Climbing down and around it is beautiful here in the afternoon light:

Farm 3.1

Farm 3.1

Farm 3.1

This area is left uncut and ungrazed through July so rare limestone flora can grow as part of a conservation scheme – Stone Crop, Cowslip, Primroses, Wild Carrots, Sheep’s Bit Scabious and Field Scabious, Yarrow, Meadow saxifrage, Kidney Vetch and others:

Farm 3.1

Two quarries appear on 1850 tithe maps, by 1880 they had been combined and extended. In 1941, the farm owner (Jack Oakes) and a butcher in Ashbourne (Herbert Plumbley) were recorded as operators, and providing crushed Limestone for construction of Darley Moor – Ashbourne’s airfield during WWII.

This quarry is also the site of the

Lead Mine

The two were worked together. I wasn’t sure quite where the seam was to be found, assuming it to be somewhere amongst the rubble in the middle:

Farm 3.1

Lead mining was another way to supplement farm income, and lead was used widely before plastics became available, especially for plumbing. There are a number of records relating to the mining, and showed a number of people in the surrounding area had worked the quarry, not just the farmer. The more recent 20th Century mine shaft has been explored by a local group, and they found evidence of folded iron rails and a wooden sleeper from narrow gauge track, as well as a winching beam standing over a shaft .

Other records are to be found in the Wirksworth Wapantake General Barmasters Book vols 24 and 77, though there were much older workings here as well. The English Heritage records note that this is described as a King’s Field, where the crown has the right to assign mining rights. The below is all from Robinson:

1806 land staked out as Bonyhole (bony hole) by William Bearisford of Weston. I know some of you will find that name hilarious, there is no speculation on its origin.

1938 H.G. Plumbley and John Oakes (the butcher/farmer combo) claimed a vein in the quarry with the Barmaster. In October and December 1948, two others (W.J. Brooks of Wirksworth and John Matkin of Carsington) applied to be given rights to work Bonyhole mine – notice was served on Plumbley on 23rd December ‘that unless his mine, Bonyhole is put in proper workmanship within 3 weeks it will be given away. Notice is also posted at the mine’. The new owner of New House Farm, Major F.C. Linnel-Gosling, then sent his own notice of registration as owner, saying that he had been working since Jan 1948 and that others had unlawfully taken lead from it.

Brooks returned the lead.

As of 1950 when Bob’s father bought the farm, I don’t think there was any longer activity in the quarry or mine.

Close to the quarry is also to be found a gravel pit:

Farm 3.1

Along with ruins of the:


Farm 3.1

Limestone used to be quarried both as a source of income and for the farm itself – quarried limestone was used as a building material of course, but could also be heated in a kiln to produce Calcium Oxide – Quicklime. This was sprinkled in plague graves to reduce infection. It was a also mixed with water to make slaked lime – ie whitewash — which was also known as ‘bug-binding’ as it disinfected walls in houses and barns and got rid of insects. Whitewash, as mentioned at the beginning, could also be mixed with blood, straw and sand to create mortar for building. All in all, limestone is a very useful material.

From the edge of the field you can look into Rye Close

Farm 3.1

Clearly used as a field for planting rye — once the main grain for consumption in this area. This was known to his parents as the football field as there used to be a football pitch on it! Old ridge and furrow is supposed to be visible from medieval plowing, but I couldn’t really see it. I’d have hated to play football on it.

Coming back down the central field you can some more of it though, not so much from the top

Farm 3.1

but further down, where the electric fence now keeps everything safe from the goats.

Farm 3.14

This place was rich in history, and visible markings of the different ways people not just grew food and raised livestock for survival here, but also dug out metals and processed rock. I so loved being part of this.

Strange after thinking of land and history in this way, to wake up to the news that we have left the EU. The area where I was voted overwhelmingly for leave…signs were posted everywhere, and I know a meeting of farmers was held to discuss the issue, and they were all for leave which disappointed the conveners immensely. An American friend asked what I thought about it all and I am still not sure, but this is sort of what is in my head — and I wished for us to remain.

Most of us are pretty depressed, because it feels like a vote for the right wing and xenophobia and racist anti-immigrant rhetoric and insularity and fear… and at the same time there was a strong left argument for leaving because the EU is a neoliberal shit that has been working to build a (metaphorical-ish) wall around the EU to stop all non-white immigrants from getting in (while allowing free movement within it) and pushing austerity and layers of bureaucracy without much accountability, and I’ve heard some argue it’s a working class vote against politics in general, which may be true — but seems as usual cities full of working class and immigrants tended to vote one way and rich and rural people who live in areas without immigrants voted another, with some exceptions for areas in the north that have been truly fucked economically for a very long time. Brixton/South London was 78% remain, and of course scotland also voted remain so another vote for their independence will probably take place again in light of this. It will be years two years at least, of course, before it ‘starts’ and at least one booming job market in legal wrangling and regulation writing. I wish I could celebrate Cameron’s resignation properly but I just can’t.

Many on my facebook feed see it is a failure of the (Blairite) left to respond to concerns of the working class facing stagnant wages and a shrinking economy and fewer and fewer services and opportunities.

But the news has been heartbreakingly unbearable lately, even more than usual. It hasn’t helped too much to spend every day working so hard physically to produce food rather than politically or with community as before, nor helped much to think of how many bloody and horrific periods of history these barrows or the ridge and furrows have existed alongside and survived, but it resets the perspective a little perhaps.











Walking through a permaculture garden

Permaculture as a way of life and process for design is quite amazing. I asked Alex before he moved on to the next farm what his favourite thing about working here had been, and that’s the first thing he said — the incredible thoughtfulness of the design. I would agree with that with one addition — how beauty has been incorporated as part of that design for usefulness, this is an extraordinarily beautiful place. I think I have pictures from each section of the garden to do a quick walkthrough to share and remember its scope and design.

It’s hard to imagine that when they arrived here twenty years ago it was just one enormous field, bare and windswept, though with some quite beautiful and fertile soil. Everything you see has been built and grown over this period.

You walk out of their door, past the washing line, and you see this:

Farming 2.3

Three greenhouses (all recycled before they were torn down in other places and the third finished the second weekend I was there with the help of Julian, who had wwoofed with them before). These are full of seeds to be planted out into the garden, and have become ever more important with global weirding, as the weather has been more and more unpredictable over the past few years. I mentioned this with the runner beans, but it’s such a visceral way to understand climate change in counterpoint to everything else I am reading.

To the right you can just see the top of the caravan, and somewhere there is also a giant underground water cistern that collects rain and water run-off which is used to water the polytunnels and the beds when there is a bit of drought. This was constructed with a small grant.

The flower bed closest to the path is full of flowers and herbs, lots of beautiful aquilegias, some old roses, valerian, ornamental grasses. Here it is after our weeding efforts, and beyond it a bed of onions, also weeded on my last day with the use of the splendid English hoe:

Farm 2.6

Continuing forward  you walk into the square we actually spent most of our time — you can see the tracks of our feet marking the grass. The hedges are of beech, and very beautiful — this once giant field has been divided up to create sheltered micro-climates that plants can better thrive in. The differences between this beautiful hedged squares and the open bit of meadow that has been left as a piece of the wild is quite amazing.

There are three sheds here, all very beautiful. Rob & Diana had been considering straw bale or cob, but received a small grant to build these on a very short time frame, so they are wood. I have completely failed to take a good photo of the shed to the right but here is a piece of it — it is where veg and boxes are stored in three different sections, and has a most wonderous wisteria climbing across the front of it. There is also a porch to shelter timber, and you can see the wheelbarrows.

Farming 2.3

Here are the others (or is it just one long one with two entrances? I somehow don’t know, I should have finished this while I was there):


The entrance on the left leads to two rooms, one containing the beautiful collection of old hand tools, which we carefully cleaned every day and oiled with WD-40 on wet days to keep from rust, and another where I prepared the salad bags and Diana dries the herbs she uses in her practice.


The other entrance leads to the room where Diana carries out her practice.

Continuing straight ahead through this square we come to two polytunnels and a line of grapes and berries recently mulched.

Farming 2.3

The polytunnel on the right, where I was collecting salad leaves:

Farm 2.2

Polytunnel on the left:

Farming 2.3

Farming 2.3

Behind this polytunnel could be found the very sheltered and warm area perfect for the herb garden — with the terribly overgrown bed we weeded and the one we began to create:

Farm 2.6

You continue straight ahead on the path between the polytunnels and arrive here, the stack of willow poles we used for the beans in sight (everything is used once, twice, three times — nothing wasted is a key permaculture principle):

Farming 2.3

To the right, the Szechuan pepper and the willows we planted my first day, here almost hidden by their mulch donuts:

Farming 2.3

Continuing straight through you arrive at the orchard and chickens and geese:

Farming 2.3

There is one main henhouse and a couple of smaller ones with runs, to separate mums and chicks from the others and give them a little more protection against foxes and the magpies and jays and crows that regularly predate eggs — Rob was checking down here several times a day to regularly collect eggs before the birds got them. The geese are kept in a separate enclosure with their own house just behind me here.

Farm 2.5

So back up to the sheds, towards the house (meeting Biddy as she stalks down the paths of gravel laid just last winter),

Farming 2.4

Turning right here you would come to the main outdoor vegetable beds, looking straight ahead:

Farming 2.3

Left — I realise I actually have no idea what this shed was supposed to be for, but we never did use it

Farming 2.3

Looking to your right (this closest bed is before we weeded it and where we created the willow wigwams for the beans) towards the bog garden and flower meadow, Rob’s little writing shed in the distance (he never did have energy for writing at the end of the day — something for me to remember):

Farming 2.3

Continuing straight down the main path you can see the duck enclosure (again they have a secure house within a secure fully covered pen, these are within a much larger pen with just a low fence surrounding it where they spend their days — more pics here)

Farming 2.3

And looking to the left, the rest of the beds and the berry enclosure, to protect delicious fruit from birds. There are, of course, lots of berries planted outside for the birds, because this is a smallholding to encourage all kinds of life.

Farming 2.3

Turning right you head down to the wildflower area and the writing shed — Rob has just been down here with the scythe to start to reclaim the bog garden, but I failed to take a picture of this, or the lovely yellows of the buttercups being dug up all over the rest of the smallholding.


Looking further down the wildflower meadow to the end of the property, the Hawthornes blooming beautifully:


To the right is the old veg bed that had been plasticed over to help kill the couch grass and nettles that we partially reclaimed for more runner beans:


Beyond it more fruit trees (Rob has over 60 heirloom apple trees and myriads of others), here is more of Alex’s amazing mulching work with the grasses and nettles scythed down from the forest garden path you can see beyond:


We walk down it and see the little crossroads:


Turning left we come to the far polytunnel


A bit battered from last winter’s storms but still very serviceable, this held most of the spinach and chard we’ve been harvesting for market, all now run to seed so in the process of being cleared and replaced with tomatoes dying to get out of their little greenhouse pots.


Back to the crossroads we turn left now


Newly cut grass and poles coppiced and left here to cure


Looking right we’re back looking at the area behind the two polytunnels that we were working to weed and clear for the herb gardens proper


We can keep walking straight past more poles


and down to the open area just in front of the chickens and orchard (to your left here):


Back up this little path of flagstones we have traversed before to the polytunnel


And then back between the two heading towards the house.


I haven’t really even started on describing the contents of the beds or the rotations — as much thought goes into that as anything else, but it is all in Rob’s head. So impressive. This smallholding is hovering at the line at which it can be maintained by Rob and wwoofers using hand tools and learning the great arts of permaculture and gardening, earning almost-but-often-not-quite-enough income through sales at Tavistock market (Rob is looking for another outlet as he has excess veg at this point) for true sustainability. It definitely feeds them exceedingly well. To make an income it needs to be a bit bigger, but that would require mechanization and more outlets — hopefully we are moving more towards a world in which a smallholding like this one, as well as Ian and Tania’s, become more viable propositions for those working in ways that leaves the planet better for their work here.

As you can see, it is a wonderful place that reflects the wonderful people who have created it. I learned so much but there is clearly so much left to learn here…not least the great wisdom of Diana around herbs and their uses. You can see her website here, she runs day courses as well as her practice, and I couldn’t recommend them highly enough based on our little session on dandelions.

You can read some of the theory and thinking behind permaculture here.

Off to the next farm on Monday! Peak district, here I come.


Vandana Shiva: Biopiracy

3354758Vandana Shiva is amazing — I only recently read her for the first time and had my giant activist-writer crush, but Biopiracy might have been even better. Another three of her books were sitting on the shelves here, happy days, so I picked this one up.

Colonialism and capitalism vs life with insights into all three. I loved it, and am finding it very useful in thinking about how we arrived where we are now and just what we are up against as well as where hope lies.

I’m going to be a little sneaky and start with the summation and quotes from the conclusion as an overview. Shiva is arguing that there have been three waves of globalization – the 1st through the initial colonization by European powers, the 2nd through the imposition of the ‘Western idea of ‘development’ during the postcolonial era over the past five decades, and the 3rd  unleashed approximately 5 years ago through ‘free trade’ and the commodification of life itself. Biopiracy. She argues that

… each time a global order has tried to wipe out diversity and impose homogeneity, disorder and disintegration have been induced, not removed. (105)

This process of continuing destruction and disorder is, in many ways, all rooted in that first wave of colonisation, that initial period of destruction and violence that continues on through our present. This is one of the key transformations I think, and this environmentalist and feminist lens such an interesting angle to look at the issue from:

‘Resource’ originally implied life…regeneration…With the rise of industrialism and colonialism a shift in meaning took place. ‘Natural resources’ became inputs for industrial commodity production and colonial trade. Nature was transformed into dead and manipulable matter. Its capacity to renew and grow had been denied. The violence against nature, and the disruption of its delicate interconnections, was a necessary part of denying its self-organizing capacity. And this violence against nature, in turn, translated into violence in society.

Anything not fully managed or controlled by European men was seen as a threat. This included nature, non-Western societies, and women. What was self-organized was considered wild, out of control, and uncivilized. When self-organization is perceived as chaos, it creates a context to impose a coercive and violent order for the betterment and improvement of the ‘other’, whose intrinsic order is then disrupted and destroyed.

This is such a key insight on the intrinsic connection between violence and capitalism, the ways that violence against nature is mirrored by and indivisible from violence against society. The nature of this violence has changed, but has the same roots and is manifested through all three waves.

I don’t quite know why I am so fascinated by its beginnings, but so I am. So are many others, luckily, and the intro really gets into it–   ‘Piracy Through patents: The Second Coming of Columbus’:

Columbus set a precedent when he treated the license to conquer non-European peoples as a natural right of European men. The land titles issued by the pope through European kings and queens were the first patents. The colonizer’s freedom was built on the slavery and subjugation of the people with original rights to the land. this violent takeover was rendered ‘natural’ by defining the colonized people as nature, thus denying them their humanity and freedom.

John Locke’s treatise on property effectually legitimized this same process of theft and robbery during the enclosure movement in Europe. Locke clearly articulated capitalism’s freedom to build as the freedom to steel: property is created by removing resources from nature and mixing them with labour. This ‘labour’ is not physical, but labour in its ‘spiritual’ form, as manifested in the control of capital. According to Locke, only those who own capital have the natural right to own natural resources, a right that supersedes the common rights of others with prior claims. Capital is thus defined as a source of freedom that, at the same time, denies freedom to the land, forests, rivers, and biodiversity that capital claims as its own, and to others whose rights are based on their labour. (8-9)

This is well on point too:

It seems that the Western powers are still driven by the colonizing impulse: to discover, conquer, own, and possess everything, every society, every culture. The colonies have now been extended to the interior spaces, the ‘genetic codes’ of life forms from microbes and plants to animals, including humans. (9)

On to biopiracy:

At the heart of Columbus’s discovery was the treatment of piracy as a natural right of the colonizer, necessary for the deliverance of the colonized… Biopiracy is the Columbian ‘discovery’ 500 years after Columbus. Through patents and genetic engineering, new colonies are being carved out. The land, the forests, the rivers, the oceans, and the atmosphere have all been colonized, eroded, and polluted. capital now has to look for new colonies to invade and exploit for its further accumulation. These new colonies are, in my view, interior spaces of the bodies of women, plants and animals. Resistance to biopiracy is a resistance to the ultimate colonization of life itself–of the future of evolution as well as the future of non-Western traditions of relating to and knowing nature. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse species to evolve. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse cultures to evolve. It is a struggle to conserve both cultural and biological diversity. (11)

There is so much in here specific to law and policy — lots about the General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade (GATT), the Uruguay round in 1994 that set up the requirement of signing on to TRIPS, or Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights that brought patenting into international trade agreements. I have focused more on the broader ideas and philosophies, though I love that this a book to incite and facilitate meaningful struggle to change these terrifying and unjust world systems.

She starts with a very interesting look at the nature of creativity.

1: Knowledge, Creativity and Intellectual Property Rights

What is creativity? This is at the heart of the current debates about patents on life. Patents on life enclose the creativity inherent in living systems that reproduce and multiply in self-organized freedom. They enclose the interior spaces of the bodies of women, plants, and animals. They also enclose the free spaces of intellectual creativity by transforming publicly generated knowledge into private property. Intellectual property rights on life forms are supposed to reward and stimulate creativity. their impact is actually the opposite–to stifle the creativity intrinsic to life forms and the social production of knowledge. (13)

She examines three different kinds of creativity:

1. The creativity inherent in living organisms that allows them to evolve, recreate and regenerate themselves.
2. The creativity of indigenous communities that have developed knowledge systems to conserve and utilize the rich biological diversity of our planet
3. The creativity of modern scientists in university of corporate laboratories who find ways to use living organisms to generate profits. (14)

Only the third kind of creativity is acknowledged under Intellectual Property Rights systems as defined under GATT, the biodiversity convention, or the lovely U.S. Trade Act which includes the Special 301 clause – this is, she argues ‘a prescription for a monoculture of language’ (15)

All of this marks the ongoing shift from common rights to private rights, as well as a world where knowledge is recognized only when it generates profits, rather than when it meets social needs. Central to this is the idea that people will only innovate if they can profit from their innovation through a system of patent protection. This is so ludicrous yet so ubiquitous.

It is clear why such a lethal combination of ideas leads to the destruction cultural commons and skews research away from areas that are key in terms of importance and or social need, to focus on profit-generating studies.

This is an enclosure of the intellectual commons, and I am loving the idea of commons broadened in this way.

2: Can Life Be Made? Can Life be Owned? Redefining Biodiversity

This describes how the patenting of genes and new strains created in laboratories have been redefined as ‘biotechnological invention’ so that they can be made proprietary. The corporate argument for the right to patent such things is that they are new, ‘invented’ by human beings. For tehse same genes present in food that people are attempting to refrain from eating or demanidning that they be identified, corporate arguments are that they are perfectly natural and therefore harmless.

Again to the subject of violence:

Patenting living organisms encourages two forms of violence. First, life forms are treated as if they are mere machines, thus denying their self-organizing capacity. Second, by allowing the patenting of future generations of plants and animals, the self-reproducing capacity of living organisms is denied. (29)

I also found this look at reductionist biology quite interesting, and a critique that is interesting to think through around other issues of diversity in relation to other kinds of  positivism in the social sciences.

Reductionism biology is multifaceted. At the species level, this reductionism puts value on only one species—humans—and generates an instrumental value for all others. It therefore displaces and pushes to extinction all species whose instrumental value to humans is small or non-existent. Monocultures of species and biodiversity erosion are the inevitable consequences of reductionist thought in biology, especially when applied to forestry, agriculture, and fisheries. We call this first-order reductionism.

Reductionist biology is increasingly characterized by a second-order reductionism—genetic reductionism—the reduction of all behaviour of biological organisms, including humans, to genes. Second-order reductionism amplifies the ecological risks of first-order reductionism, while introducing new issues, like the patenting of life forms. (30)

Epistemologically, it leads to a machine view of the world and its rich diversity of life forms. It makes us forget that living organisms organize themselves. It robs us of our capacity for the reverence of life—and without that capacity, protection of the diverse species on the planet is impossible. (35)

Living systems are self-organized, complex, diverse, characterized by self-healing and repair. They are resilient (one of the latest buzzwords) and adaptable, all those things being praised by the new thinking around networks and connectivity being written about by Fritjof Capra, Nabeel Hamdi, permaculturists, transitionists, and slime mould enthusiasts among others.

The freedom for diverse species and ecosystems to self-organize is the basis of ecology. Ecological stability derives from the ability of species and ecosystems to adapt, evolve and respond. (36)

Seems like it makes sense that we do our best to think this way all the time. I like how this is as true of a smallholding such as the one I am working on now, as it is for the East End community I was in before I came here. Instead we have the likes of Monsanto with their weed killers, and scary chemical escalations. There is plenty in this chapter about such things, if you needed more ammunition for your Monsanto-driven fury.

3. The Seed and the Earth

Regeneration lies at the heart of life: it has been the central principle guiding sustainable societies. Without regeneration, there can be no sustainability. Modern industrial society, however, has no time for thinking about regeneration, and therefore no space for living regeneratively. Its devaluation of the processes of regeneration are the causes of both the ecological crisis and the crisis of sustainability. (47)

Only capitalism and the placing of profit above all things, including life itself, would strive to erase the capacity to regenerate, because that is just insane. Yet Monsanto and others have been working at it for years. This is, of course, connected to power, and Shive argues it is rooted long ago when the facilitating ideas of production and value emerged.

The continuity between regeneration in human and nonhuman nature that was the basis of all ancient worldviews was broken by patriarchy. People were separated from nature, and the creativity involved in processes of regeneration was denied. Creativity became the monopoly of men, who were considered to be engaged in production; women were engaged in mere reproduction or recreation…looked upon as non-productive. (47)

Thus we enter the third phase of globalization and biopiracy, as organisms become the new colonies. While the colonisation of land became possible through new technologies of guns etc,

‘Biotechnology as the handmaiden of capital in the post-industrial era, makes it possible to colonize and control that which is autonomous, free, and self-regenerative. ‘

‘While ancient patriarchy used the symbol of the active seed and the passive earth, capitalist patriarchy, through the new biotechnologies, reconstitutes the seed as passive, and locates activity and creativity in the engineering mind. (49)

‘From Terra Mater to Terra Nullius‘ — a subheading that ties all of this back to the land, back to the redefinitions of words to justify conquest and murder over centuries:

All sustainable cultures, in their diversity, have viewed the earth as terra mater. The patriarchal construct of the passivity of earth and the consequent creation of the colonial category of land as terra nullius served two purposes: it denied the existence and prior rights of original inhabitants, and it negated the regenerative capacity and life processes of the earth. (50)

Colonialism redefined indigenous peoples as part of natural flora and fauna, while the Green Revolution served as a second colonisation of earth defined as terra nullius through an erasing of the existence and importance of the ecological diversity of soil. It needed massive and expensive inputs for profit to take place.

The commodified seed is ecologically incomplete and ruptured at two levels: First, it does not reproduce itself, whereas by definition seed is a regenerative resource…Second, it does not produce by itself: it needs the help of other purchased inputs… (54)

A perfect pairing to maximise profit. Thus the patenting of seeds.

Another definition I quite love, and hope to think through more are these conceptions of ideological boundaries defined and contested:

The transformation of value into disvalue, labour into nonlabour, knowledge into non-knowledge, is achieved by two very powerful constructs: the production boundary and the creation boundary.

The production boundary is a political construct that excludes regenerative, renewable production cycles from the domain of production…When economies are confined to the marketplace, self-sufficiency in the economic domain is seen as economic deficiency. The devaluation of women’s work, and of work done in subsistence economies in the Third World, is the natural outcome of a production boundary constructed by capitalist patriarchy.

The creation boundary does to knowledge what the production boundary does to work: it excludes the creative contributions of women as well as Third World peasants and tribespeople, and vies them as being engaged in unthinking, repetitive, biological processes. (65)

Here the importance of rebuilding connections, where salvation lies:

The source of patriarchal power over women and nature lies in separation and fragmentation…Understanding and sensing connections and relationships is the ecological imperative.
The main contribution of the ecology movement has been the awareness that there is no separation between mind and body, human and nature. Nature consists of the relationships and connections that provide the very conditions for our life and health. This politics of connection and regeneration…(66)

4. Biodiversity and People’s Knowledge

The cradle of Biodiversity is the tropics, yet it is even now being destroyed through destruction of habitat and homogenization of crops and culture. Once a commons, all of it is now being enclosed as local knowledge is displaced and devalued in favour of specialized scientific knowledge, and gift economies around seeds replaced with patents. There is lots here about ‘Bioprospecting’, and how it is given ‘legitimacy’ by the WTO or world bank through corporations paying off indigenous peoples for the knowledge they share only to find they are then refused access to it. Really it is all biopiracy.

We need to recover our biodiversity commons.

5. Tripping Over Life

This focuses on the TRIPs agreement in GATT (get the chapter title now?), and how it: allows for the monopolization of life; promotes monocultures so destructive to biodiversity; requires more and more chemical inputs and thus causes more pollution as well as new forms of pollution through GMOs and resistant weeds and pests;  undermines any ethic of conservation trough instrumentalisation of people and other species. It also alienates rights of people to the land they live on as produce sold elsewhere, cuts their connections and sense of stewardship.

You want ammunition to win the argument that all these acronyms are evil? You will find it all here.

6. Making Peace with Life

A final paragraph on violence and monoculture — this fascinated me perhaps more than anything else, as I have worked so much researching segregation and white obsessions with purity and homogeneity that they have defended with such everyday grassroots violence. These are so clearly associated one with the other, and there is so much more here I think to be investigated.

Homogenization and monocultures introduce violence at many levels. Monocultures are always associated with political violence—the use of coercion, control, and centralization. Without centralized control and coercive force, this world filled with the richness of diversity cannot be transformed into homogenous structures, and the monocultures cannot be maintained….

Monocultures are also associated with ecological violence—a declaration of war against nature’s diverse species. This violence not only pushes species toward extinction, but controls and maintains monocultures the,selves. Monocultures are non-sustainable and vulnerable to ecological breakdown. Uniformity implies that a disturbance to one part of a system is translated into a disturbance to other parts Instead of being contained, ecological destabilization tends to be amplified. (103-104)

This book is wonderful, and I am looking forward to reading more. Like Making Peace With the Earth, this was quite short, packed full of information, equally rich in theoretical insights as well as devastating factual information.

Always, she tries to point a pathway to a better future, and this is never tacked on at the end.

[Shiva, Vandana (1998) Biopiracy: the Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Totnes, Devon: Green Books.]


The Terrible Truth About Ducks

Yesterday started with ducks. They get shut in at night, to protect them from the fox. When released, they erupt from their prison with a joyful waddling quacking, leaving their little wooden hut in a waddling quacking line of joyfulness.

I thought to myself, how wonderful ducks are! They headed straight for the water.


I don’t know if it was the waddling or the quacking, but I really loved ducks at that moment.

After feeding them, all of their water gets emptied out and refilled — the three of these and a large almost -paddling-pool size one in the larger enclosure. They’re allowed into the larger enclosure where they can hunt for slugs and snails (the main practical reason you want ducks possibly) if they’ve laid eggs. They had laid two eggs. Out they went. More waddling and quacking. More joy.

We were refilling the water here and a sudden splashing made me turn around. I am sorry to say that possibly the most violent sex scene I have possibly ever seen was being enacted in the paddling pool. Apparently this is just the way it is for female ducks. More than one male was involved, and I would not be surprised to find that more than one female ends up drowning in such encounters.

Lady ducks of the world unite, is all I have to say.

It was a bit anticlimactic, but realising I personally wouldn’t be able to organise the lady ducks effectively to overthrow patriarchy, I agreed to continue to rescue the herb bed, and when done we used hazel from the hedges to build cages to support the great sprawling valerian

Farm 2.5

and the soon to be sprawling elecampane, which will soon send forth great yellow flowerheads.

Farm 2.5

If you build the cages early enough, they will disappear into the foliage as it grows ferociously in the spring and summer. The valerian was my hazel weaving work, but because these branches were cut from the hedge which has been lopped many times, they were quite unideal for such a weaving. Still, they were usable. You use all that is usable, and most things can serve multiple purposes over the course of their development, this is the philosophy of permaculture.

We had weeded these beds while Rob was mowing the orchard with the scythe — necessary before the docks flowered and seeded. So we spent some time raking up the leavings, which we will at some point use to mulch the apple trees. This is where the chickens live, along with Gandalf the Grey (gander) and Galadriel the white (goose).

I have stared my gander fear in the face and won.

Farm 2.5

Farm 2.5

Today we weeded a different bed full of herbs and flowers, transplanted some comfrey, and began work on a new bed using a brilliant tool called an azada, which scrapes the root-matted tops off of the earth infested with the terrible cooch grass, allowing you to turn over the earth and rid it of the deep clinging roots of said grass. It went from this (we’d started a bit here):

Farm 2.6

To this:

Farm 2.6

You can see how the roots infest this beautiful soil. This is the grass that makes no-dig permaculture gardening impossible here (after reading Masanobu Fukuoka I was so excited about that, but ah well). You have to turn it over and over and pick it through, and still you know it will be returning. I did most of the azada work, so I am happily tired.

I quite love hard work.

Also, yesterday, we picked a huge amount of beautifully ripened strawberries — the lovely varieties you can’t buy in supermarkets because they bruise and don’t last forever and will make other strawberries pale in comparison.

Farm 2.5

So today we made some jam. Well, I watched Diana make some jam. I think I will be able to make jam in future. A kilo of strawberries, a kilo of sugar (yep, half and half), some lemon rather than pectin for it to set. Boil, stir, get it up to temperature. Boil a minute or two more. Let it sit a minute and the fruit settle. Fill jars sterilised with boiling water. After a little while, turn the jars upside down. A few hours later turn them right side up and that creates a seal.

Also today I sent off yet another job application and made dinner which people actually enjoyed. A good day.

To end by continuing the herb lessons from Mrs. M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, here is some awesome info on valerian and elecampane:

Valeriana officinalis – Valerian

It was afterwards found to be useful in certain kinds of epilepsy. The plant was in such esteem in mediaeval times as a remedy, that it received the name of All Heal, which is still given it in some parts of the country.

The drug allays pain and promotes sleep. It is of especial use and benefit to those suffering from nervous overstrain, as it possesses none of the after-effects produced by narcotics.

During the recent War, when air-raids were a serious strain on the overwrought nerves of civilian men and women, Valerian, prescribed with other simple ingredients, taken in a single dose, or repeated according to the need, proved wonderfully efficacious, preventing or minimizing serious results.

Though in ordinary doses, it exerts an influence quieting and soothing in its nature upon the brain and nervous system, large doses, too often repeated, have a tendency to produce pain in the head, heaviness and stupor.

Inula Helenium – Elecampane

The herb is of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny. An old Latin distich celebrates its virtues: Enula campana reddit praecordia sana (Elecampane will the spirits sustain). ‘Julia Augustus,’ said Pliny, ‘let no day pass without eating some of the roots of Enula, considered to help digestion and cause mirth.’ The monks equally esteemed it as a cordial. Pliny affirmed that the root ‘being chewed fasting, doth fasten the teeth,’ and Galen that ‘It is good for passions of the hucklebone called sciatica.’

Elecampane is frequently mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon writings on medicine current in England prior to the Norman Conquest; it is also the ‘Marchalan’ of the Welsh physicians of the thirteenth century, and was generally known during the Middle Ages.

It was formally cultivated in all private herb-gardens, as a culinary and medicinal plant, and it is still to be found in old cottage gardens. Not only was its root much employed as a medicine, but it was also candied and eaten as a sweetmeat. Dr. Fernie tells us, in Herbal Simples:

‘Some fifty years ago, the candy was sold commonly in London as flat, round cakes being composed largely of sugar and coloured with cochineal. A piece was eaten each night and morning for asthmatical complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling by a river, to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exalations and bad air. The candy may still be had from our confectioners, but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is of barley in Barley Sugar.’

In Denmark, Elecampane is sometimes called Elf-Doc. Here one sometimes comes across the name Elf-Dock locally, also Elfwort.


James Lovelock and Gaia

James Lovelock - GaiaJames Lovelock opens Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth is SF fashion thus:

As I write, two Viking spacecraft are circling our fellow planet Mars, awaiting landfall instructions from the Earth. Their mission is to search for life, or evidence of life, now or long ago. This book is also about a search for life…

His questions — how do you detect life? How do you know life on another planet when you see it?

In our efforts to explore space and its far planets we traveled far, but the real magic happened when we turned around. That moment we were able to view the earth from such a distance in all of its extraordinary beauty as a planet forever changed how we see it, how we try to understand it, the scale at which we are able to think (though then as now, people continue to work and think at narrowed, focused, reductionist scales).

So how do you know there is life under vastly different conditions? It might take completely different forms…

Lovelock’s tentative suggestion is that you can know it is there through the slowing down or reversing of entropy. When you look at the earth it is immensely improbable that we should have life here, that there should be an atmosphere, that the temperature should remain so constant despite changes in sun’s own heat. It should have, could have settled down in any number of states of equilibrium as entropy did its work and things fell apart and died away. But on earth it didn’t. In his metaphor that I rather liked, most planets are windswept beaches, while earth is the sandcastle.

He quotes his own thinking from 1967:

Disequilibria on this scale suggest that the atmosphere is not merely a biological product, but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like a cat’s fur, a bird’s feathers, or the paper of a wasp’s nests, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment.

The climate and the chemical properties of the Earth now and throughout its history seem always to have been optimal for life. For this to have happened by chance is as unlikely as to survive unscathed a drive blindfolded through rush-hour traffic. (9-10)

I love this idea of earth as a wasp’s nest, as biological construction. It sparks all kinds of imaginings. He continues:

By now a planet-sized entity, albeit hypothetical, had been born, with properties which could not be predicted from the sum of its parts. It needed a name. Fortunately the author William Golding was a fellow villager. Without hesitation he recommended this creature be called Gaia… (10)

Blimey. William Golding as a neighbor.

I found the unfamiliar science in here a bit dense, apparently most scientists found this far too poetic. I suppose it does quote H.G. Wells, refers to Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke. I rather love this tie between his attempt to make a leap in science based on a vision of our planet from space, and imaginings emerging from SF.

Lovelock looks not to the source and the start of everything, but to the creation of a planetary system able to maintain life. Imagining an early world of anaerobic life and stromatalites. One of the earth’s first cataclysms was the eruption of oxygen into the atmosphere, killing it all dead, though it probably entered the atmosphere little by little, allowing time for adaptation. But if there were too much oxygen? Things would get explosive. Too little? Life as we know it would die. How then, do we have just the right amount?

Through constant corrections made in myriads of ways. I loved the comparison with cybernetics, how it works not like linear thinking and moving towards a goal through cause and effect a la Descartes, but rather through a constant circular feedback-driven cycle of correction to maintain the goal. No clear beginning, rather constant movement, oscillation. Thus a focus on cycles that fits also with earth and agricultural systems and the many ways of life and thought most dependent on them.

Lynn Margulis is someone else on my list of books to read. She and Lovelock were colleagues and he quotes her saying that in each creature optimising its chances for life, the sum total is Gaia. It is an expression of how everything is connected, and life itself works to maximise the conditions for life.

Originally published in 1979, these theories have, of course, been much further developed since then. They are no longer new, no longer ridiculed in the same way. It was good to read where it started. Interesting also to see how much Lovelock himself has moved, not from thinking of Gaia as a kind of world system maintaining life on the planet, but in understanding just how much human beings are having an impact on it. Though he described a doomsday scenario in the book arrived at through genetic engineering, it is clear he thought us creatures of earth ourselves and thus integral parts of this system, our technologies were above all beneficial and could not have too desperate an impact.

He doesn’t feel the same way now, the preface makes that clear.

I am glad of that, though I rather liked the attitude that earth and life is so vastly bigger than we are, it doesn’t much matter if we manage to destroy ourselves. That reminded me a bit of Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys.

This place has an amazing library. I hardly know what to read next. Yay weekend.

[Lovelock, James (1995) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.]