Sciencewriters Archive


The Morel of the Story? Think Like a Mushroom

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Calling all you fungi (and fun gals), it’s time to celebrate National Mushroom Month.

Our mycological-minded authors know more than a thing or two about the fascinating world of mushrooms—whether its foraging, cultivating, or concocting tasty recipes, we here at Chelsea Green have the books that are sure to answer your mushroom musings.

NEW Mushroom Books in 2014

Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation - In this comprehensive mushroom guide, mycologist Tradd Cotter shares innovative new methods for urban and off-grid growing, making mushroom-infused beers, morel cultivation, and more. Hear from the author himself and get a taste of his infectious enthusiasm for fungi as he urges people to “think like a mushroom” during his interview on Radio Vermont’s Mark Johnson Show. And, check out Cotter’s wild and cultivated mushrooms in the slideshow of images at the end of this post.

Farming the Woods - This book by Ken Mudge and Steve Gabriel looks at agriculture from a completely new perspective—one that relies on forests for growing a wide range of food and medicinals, rather than open fields with straight rows of crops. Chapter 5 is all about mushrooms including stats on US production, cultivation tips, consumer demand, and species profiles. Here’s a preview of the foreword and introduction for Farming the Woods.

Chelsea Green Classics Featuring Mushroom Content

The Resilient Farm and Homestead - Ben Falk, award-winning author and expert permaculturalist, has written a manual for developing durable, beautiful, and highly functional human habitat systems fit to handle an age of rapid transition. Read what he has to say about the power of fungi and how, in addition to providing food and medicine, their existence makes ecosystems more resilient.

Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist – Think mushrooms and cocktails don’t mix? Think again. Michael Judd shares this recipe for a Maple Mushroom Martini featuring mushroom infused vodka.

Chanterelle Dreams, Amanita Nightmares - This fascinating and fresh look at mushrooms—their natural history, their uses and abuses, their pleasures and dangers—is a splendid introduction to both fungi themselves and to our human fascination with them. Author Greg Marley sat down with us back in 2010 to talk about mushroom culture around the world and of course, his favorite edible mushroom.

And now, a slideshow of ‘shrooms…

What Can Humans Learn from Bears?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Imagine having an all-access pass to the world of bears. Being so comfortable with them, and they with you, that you are able to crawl into their dens, take photographs of their cubs and come nose to snout with them everyday.

Welcome to the world of black bear expert Benjamin Kilham. He has been studying wild black bear behavior for nearly two decades and his findings have shattered conventional wisdom about how these animals live their lives. Author Sy Montgomery calls his work, “more than just revealing; it’s revolutionary.”

Once thought to be solitary creatures, Kilham discovered that black bears actually have extraordinary communication and interaction with each other—creating and enforcing codes of conduct, forming alliances, and even sharing territory and food when supplies are ample.

Kilham’s book, In the Company of Bears (originally released in hardcover as Out on a Limb) tells the story of his experiences rehabilitating bear cubs and reintroducing them into the wild. Observing one bear, affectionately named Squirty, for the past 17 years, has given Kilham a unique and intimate lens into the black bear brain as he is allowed to watch his “foster daughter” find mates, form family units, and interact with other bears in her vicinity. Through these observations, he notes what bears can teach us humans about our past, present, and future as a species.

The book also details how Kilham’s dyslexia helped him to both gain insight into how bears communicate and how to best research them — through constant study and a hands-on approach rather than detached experiments.

“This fascinating book has detailed descriptions of bear body language, oral communication, and behavior—and how Ben learned to read them,” writes Temple Grandin in the book’s foreword. “I can relate to Ben and his story because his dyslexia and my autism have made us both visual thinkers who are very observant of small details that most other people miss. Animals live in a sensory-based world, and if you want to understand them, you must get away from the confines of verbal language.”

Learn more about the secret life of black bears in this interview with Ben Kilham on VPR’s Vermont Edition and watch him in action with his adorable bear cubs in this video:

In the Company of Bears is as much a peek into the personal lives of black bears as it is a look into Kilham’s own interactions with others. It is the story of a scientist once kept from a traditional science career by his dyslexia, only to find that thinking and seeing differently was his greatest gift and his best tool to interpret the non-human world.

In the Company of Bears: What Black Bears Have Taught Me about Intelligence and Intuition is now available in paperback and is on sale for 35% off until September 2.

Janisse Ray to Keynote First Annual Harvest Conference

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Do you have a green thumb? Perhaps you’re more of an activist, interested in preserving the integrity of heritage produce? Or, maybe you’re just looking for some guidance and optimism in an era that seems irrevocably scarred by environmental unrest and a lack of community spirit.

Join like-minded individuals at the First Annual Harvest Conference this September 5-6 in North Carolina hosted by the Organic Growers School.

Chelsea Green’s own activist, naturalist, farmer, and award-winning author Janisse Ray (The Seed Underground) will be giving the keynote address, “A Field Guide to Hope,” on Saturday, September 6 at 8pm at AB Tech, Asheville, NC. Her presentation offers wisdom and hope in an era marked by environmental turmoil and celebrates individuals and organizations, both large and small, who are reclaiming local, diverse food and creating more sustainable communities.

Here are two other ways to connect with Janisse Ray at the conference:

Full-Day Workshop: “Speaking of Nature—Place-Based Creative Writing”
Friday, September 5, 9am-4pm
The Pavilion at Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, NC
If you are a nature writer, garden blogger, or farmer with a love of literature, join Janisse Ray and other writers at this full day writing workshop. It offers the unique chance to hone your skills through writing prompts, nature-as-muse experiences, and journaling, all guided by Ray herself.

Class: The Seed Underground
Saturday, September 6, 2pm-3:30pm
AB Tech, Main Campus, Asheville, NC
In her award-winning book, The Seed Underground, Ray shares the inspiring stories of determined gardeners (herself included) who are striving to save increasingly rare heritage seeds from the threat of monoculture. Learn about this startling loss of seed diversity in modern agriculture, and the methods employed by those farmers who are looking to preserve delectable varieties like Old Time Tennessee muskmelon and Long Country Longhorn okra for future generations.

The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food is on sale now for 50% off until September 7.

Whatever your field of interest, be sure to catch Janisse Ray at the first annual Harvest Conference this September!

An Exploration of the Magical World of Mushrooms

Monday, August 18th, 2014

What would it take to grow mushrooms in space? How can mushroom cultivation reduce our dependence on herbicides? Is it possible to use mushrooms to clean up oil spills?

For more than twenty years, mycologist Tradd Cotter has been investigating the fascinating world of mushrooms and researching the answers to questions just like these.

In his new book, Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation, Cotter offers readers an in-depth exploration of best mushroom cultivation practices with the attitude that mushrooms can be grown on just about anything, anywhere, and by anyone. He also shares his groundbreaking research on challenges such as cultivating morels, “training” mycelium to respond to specific contaminants, and using mushrooms in disaster relief situations.

Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation is divided into three parts. Parts 1 and 2 provide a basic foundation of knowledge about mushrooms as well as a series of low-tech applications for both indoor and outdoor cultivation, while Part 3 focuses on advanced and experimental techniques that require a higher skill level and more technical equipment. Finally, Part 4, “Meet the Cultivated Mushrooms,” includes informative profiles of over 30 mushroom varieties.

Cotter hopes this book sparks a passion in its readers and inspires them to contribute their own findings to the body of knowledge about mushrooms. “I hope this book serves you well in giving you the skills necessary to explore mushroom cultivation and empowering you to dream up experiments and ideas on your own, “ he says in his Introduction. “Part skill, part art, part intuition, mushroom cultivation will give you a lifelong relationship with this incredible kingdom of life.” Read the full introduction here.

We asked Cotter about his own relationship and work with mushrooms. Below are a few of his responses. To hear more from the author himself and to get a taste of his infectious enthusiasm for fungi, listen to this interview on Radio Vermont.

An Interview with Mycologist Tradd Cotter

CG: What, or who, inspired you to get started growing mushrooms, and what keeps you inspired to continue?

TC: It’s hard not to be inspired by the mushrooms I grew myself. It just never gets old. After 22 years I can still honestly say I wake up anxious and excited to peek into the growing room or wander down the trail to see if anything is fruiting. From the moment I cultured my first mushroom after many failures, and not giving up, these mushrooms have taught me how to keep challenging myself to make these dreams come true.  Mushrooms are constantly surprising me and revealing their gifts, and I am lucky to have stuck with this so long to access their hidden talents and share them with the world.

My personal support comes from my wife Olga, who also runs the business and shares this life devoted to fungi, along with friends, family, professors, and most importantly our customers and attendees to workshops and lectures, where I look out and see a room full of amazed faces, smiling and grinning, having a good time.  I love to entertain and help people understand complex concepts through basic analogies and a little off-the-hip humor. The mushrooms themselves are very inspiring, too. I love a challenge, and many of them have never been cultivated before, so these mushrooms in particular are life-long dreams to be able to set goals high and keep making an effort to succeed. Fail forward as they say.

CG: One of the most interesting aspects of your book, and which sort of goes against conventional wisdom, is that you don’t need to invest in a huge amount of expensive equipment and infrastructure in order to get good yields. Can you give some examples of the “low-tech” and “no-tech” methods you describe?

TC: I began my journey cultivating mushrooms at a high-tech facility, then worked my way backwards to see how far I could go using very little—next to nothing in fact—to cultivate mushrooms just about anywhere on anything.  Since resources and equipment is a limiting factor for starting a mushroom farm for most folks, I wanted to show the world how easy it is to get started and build on a gradual degree of difficulty rather than trying to invest a lot of time and money into a project that may prove overwhelming. The entire concept of cultivation is scalable, so my best suggestion to growers is to start small, learn the easiest mushrooms to grow, then build on your success and expand your growing to a level you are comfortable with, whether it’s just a few logs at home or a large scale commercial operation. Training yourself to become a great, intuitive grower is better than fancy equipment and high-tech conditions if you don’t understand the fine-tuned details of every species, and failing at that level can be disastrous financially. Only a small percentage of the population will make the leap to the high-tech tier of cultivation, and so that is why this book fills the void for the rest of us! These small scale home and farm systems and experiments are all anyone may need to grow enough mushrooms for themselves or their family, it’s about finding a system that meets your comfort level, and there are many options in this book for everyone. From cultivating mushrooms on spent coffee grounds and paper waste at your home, office, or school to cloning mushroom with cardboard and expanding them like a bread culture into thousands more, this book is designed to teach you that there are no limits to your imagination.

CG:What’s the most exciting project you’re working on right now at Mushroom Mountain?

TC: I am working on several parallel projects, such as the fire-ant cordyceps, which is an amazing find that we are working with that could help millions of people and livestock, which is a fungus I discovered in South Carolina that is target specific to a small clade of ants that include Fire Ants instead of killing all of the insects and organisms in the area with broad spectrum, chemical based insecticides. The fungus mummifies the ants and sprouts small antlers from their brains!

But my favorite has to be the medical screening of fungi using a patented process we developed. I describe it in the book in a way that anyone can use the method for basic research, but it has really blown up into an amazing mistake. Sometimes we are so set in our way of doing things that making a error can make you notice another way that was always there, just hidden from view. Fungi are factories, and many mushrooms are tooled to create amazing combinations of antibiotics and enzymes, or medicinal and industrial products, much like an assembly line.  All I am doing in our lab is giving the mushrooms a challenge and direct them to produce a product that I am looking for. Imagine walking into a hospital with strep throat, where they take a throat culture, and one day later you have a personalized cocktail of natural antibiotics the fungus created just for you! I just don’t see any limits to this natural technology and see it as a game changing process that could lead to many discoveries and rattle the pharmaceutical industry.

I love these serendipitous moments of accidental discovery, and the realization that this will never get old to me. Every time we make a discovery of this magnitude it can lead to many more, and that is why I share my ideas like these in the book—so others can build on them and have fun exploring for themselves using my experience as a bridge to a new way of thinking.

 

Join Tradd Cotter and explore the magical world of mushrooms in Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation.

 

Carbon Shock: How Carbon is Changing the Cost of Everything

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Carbon. It’s in the air. It’s in the soil. It increasingly fuels and disrupts our economies, and is recasting geopolitical power.

Enter Carbon Shock: A Tale of Risk and Calculus on the Front Lines of the Disrupted Global Economy, where veteran journalist Mark Schapiro takes readers on a journey into a world where the same chaotic forces reshaping our natural world are also transforming the economy, playing havoc with corporate calculations, shifting economic and political power, and upending our understanding of the real risks, costs, and possibilities of what lies ahead.

In this ever-changing world, carbon—the stand-in for all greenhouse gases—rules, and disrupts, and calls upon us to seek new ways to reduce it while factoring it into nearly every long-term financial plan we have. But how?

From the jungles of the Amazon to the farms in California’s Central Valley, from ‘greening’ cities like Pittsburgh to rising powerhouses like China, from the oil-splattered beaches of Spain to carbon-trading desks in London, Schapiro deftly explores the key axis points of change.

Carbon Shock offers a critical, and often missing, perspective on this important topic as global leaders prepare to meet for the next round of climate talks in 2015, and the Climate March in New York City is planned for this Fall. Early praise for Schapiro’s book notes that his book does what other books often fail to do — provide both critique and solutions.

“Mark Schapiro transcends standard discussions about the well-known culprits and ramifications of climate change and takes us on a harrowing, international exploration of the universal economic costs of carbon emissions,” writes Nomi Prins, author of All the Presidents’ Bankers. “In his path-breaking treatise, Schapiro exposes the multinational corporate obfuscation of these costs; the folly of localized pseudo-solutions that spur Wall Street trading but don’t quantify financial costs or public risks, solve core problems, or provide socially cheaper and environmentally sounder practices; and the laggard policies of the US, Russia and China relative to the EU in fashioning longer-term remedies. Not only does Schapiro compel the case for a global effort to thwart the joint economic and environmental plundering of our planet in this formidable book, but he expertly outlines the way to get there.”

Bestselling author Alan Weisman (The World Without Us) adds, “We can be grateful that Mark Schapiro has navigated some dreaded territory – the arcana of global finance – to show with blessed clarity exactly where we are so far, what’s failed and why, what might work, and where surprising hope lies.”

Who Pays?

At times trying to roll back the impacts of climate change can seem daunting – but not nearly as much as the notion of paying for its effects given today’s fossil-fuel funded political debate. But, as Schapiro notes in a recent OpEd in the Los Angeles Times, the fact is that American taxpayers are paying for the costs of climate change now. These costs don’t hit people all at once but sporadically, in different places and at different times. They don’t feel like a carbon tax, though they amount to one.

“The costs of recovering from climate-change signposts like Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and major drought are well documented,” writes Schapiro in his OpEd. “What’s less known are the costs — the trap doors — that have normally been accounted for in some ledger other than atmospheric chaos.” Those include food, crop insurance, and health care, among others.

For almost two decades, global climate talks have focused on how to make polluters pay for the carbon they emit. It remains an unfolding financial mystery: What are the costs? Who will pay for them? Who do you pay? How do you pay? And what are the potential impacts? The answers to these questions, and more, are crucial to understanding, if not shaping, the coming decade.

Carbon Shock evokes a world in which the parameters of our understanding are shifting—on a scale even more monumental than how the digital revolution transformed financial decision-making—toward a slow but steady acknowledgement of the costs and consequences of climate change.

Carbon Shock is on sale now for 35% off until August 19th.

 

How to Save Tomato Seeds

Friday, August 8th, 2014

As your favorite variety of home grown tomatoes start ripening on the vine this summer, be sure to save those seeds for next year’s planting.

Award winning author and activist Janisse Ray points out in her book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, that, “in the last one hundred years, 94 percent of seed varieties available at the turn of the century in America and considered a part of the human commons have been lost.

In her book, Ray travels across the United States visiting people dedicated to preserving heirloom food varieties simply by growing them and diligently saving and sharing their seeds.

Like Ray, you too can be a seed-saving revolutionary. Read the excerpt below to learn how to save tomato seeds. It takes a bit of care to get the seeds out of the gelatinous tomato goo they’re suspended in, but once you’ve done it you can use those seeds to cherish and perpetuate the unique flavor of your tomatoes.

For more information on seed saving, learn how to breed your own plants from expert gardener Carol Deppe (Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, The Resilient Gardener) and what the right questions are to ask when determining what crops will grow best on your land from author John Navazio (The Organic Seed Grower).

*****

How to Save Tomato Seeds

By Janisse Ray

Pick nice tomatoes that would be perfect for a mean kid to mash up. If they’re large, slice them in half at the equator. Hold them over a canning jar. (Try not to use plastic for anything. Plastic is bad stuff.) Milk the pulp, meaning the gelatinous matrix that suspends the seeds, like frog eggs, into the jar. If you’re working with cherry tomatoes, you’ll have to hold the whole tomato between your fingers and squeeze. The only thing left will be the skin.

Put the jar lid on, give it a shake, and label it with the name of the variety inside. If you don’t label the jar, you will forget what it contains. If you have two tomatoes you’re saving, you think you can sit Yellow Mortgage Lifter on the right and Pruden’s Purple on the left and remember what’s what, and pretty soon you’re wondering if Yellow Mortgage Lifter was on the right or the left. Just do it.

The tomato hull can still be eaten. I think sauce is a good idea at this point.

Fermenting, which is what you are doing with the goopy mess in the canning jar, is the best way to save tomato seeds because the process dissolves the gel—which contains chemicals that inhibit germination. Fermentation causes the seeds to germinate more quickly when you plant them the following spring. Fermenting also breaks down the seed coat where seed-borne diseases like bacterial canker, spot, and speck can lurk. Let the mess stand for two or three days in a warm location, longer if the temperature is below 70°F. The books say to stir daily but I don’t.

When a layer of blue-gray mold covers the surface of the tomato-seed funk, the process is complete.

Occasionally in hot weather (seven months a year here), I have had the seeds start to germinate inside the goop, which means that I’ve left them too long untended and they think they’ve actually been planted and it’s time to race off again into plant-building and fruit-making. Don’t be like me.

Look at the underside of the jar. The viable seeds will have sunk to the bottom. Pick off the scum, then fill the jar with warm water and begin to pour off the now-rotten goop, being careful not to pour out your seeds. You may have to add water or rinse seeds off the insides of the jar and pour again, slowly. Viable seeds keep sinking to the bottom. Do this until you have mostly seeds and water in the jar.

Now dump the seeds into a large metal strainer whose holes are smaller than the seeds, rinse, drain for a few minutes, then spread them on a screen or on a plate covered with newsprint or a clean rag (don’t buy paper towels). Leave the seeds until they dry.

Label—very important!—and store.

 

Photo by Jonathan Billinger, Wikimedia Commons

What Happened to the Essential Nutrients in Our Food?

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Everyone needs vitamins and minerals like potassium, calcium, magnesium and others to stay strong and healthy. In the following excerpt from Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country, author Courtney White explains why these essential nutrients have decreased in our food and how we can get them back. 

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Essential Minerals: Cover Crop Workshop, Emporia, Kansas
by Courtney White

It must have looked silly. Twelve of us were hunched over in a corn field under a blazing July sun, a few miles north of Emporia, Kansas, swishing butterfly nets among the corn stalks like deranged collectors chasing a rare breed of insect—deranged because it was a record-breaking 105 degrees! The federal government announced two days before I arrived that the Midwest was in the grip of the worst drought since 1956. Legions of farmers had begun plowing under or chopping up their stunted corn and soybean crops, already writing off the year as a complete failure. There we were, however, swishing our nets back and forth fifty times in a good-looking corn field owned and farmed by Gail Fuller, with nothing between us and the blazing sun except our determination to follow instructions and find spiders.

We found lots of spiders.

Back under the shade of a large oak tree, we handed our nets to our instructor, an affable entomologist with the US Department of Agriculture, who searched through them enthusiastically, pulling out spider after spider with his bare fingers (most spiders are poisonous, he told us, but very few can pierce human skin). Peering over his shoulder, I was amazed not only by the quantity of spiders in my net but by their diversity. I never knew so many odd-looking spiders existed! And who would have expected it from a corn field, in a record drought, during midday heat … which was exactly the point of the exercise, of course.

In a conventionally managed, monocropped Midwestern corn field, planted with genetically modified (GM) seeds, fertilized with industrially produced nitrogen, and sprayed with synthetic chemicals, there would be no spiders, the entomologist told us— drought or no drought. There wouldn’t be much of anything living, in fact, except the destructive pests that could withstand the chemicals. The corn field we had just swept, however, was different, and I knew why. Fuller’s field was no-tilled, it had a cover crop (and moisture in the soil as a result), it didn’t use GM seeds, its corn coexisted with a diversity of other plants, and livestock were used to clean up after the harvest—all the things I had learned in my travels so far. All in one field, all under a broiling sun.

Seeing them together, however, wasn’t the reason I had driven across humid Kansas in mid-July. I came to hear Jill Clapperton, an independent soil scientist and cover crop specialist, and to ask her a question: What happened to the nutrition in our food? And a second one: How can we get it back?

These questions first formed in my mind two years earlier, when I heard pioneering Australian soil scientist Christine Jones say at a conference that it was possible to buy an orange today that contained zero vitamin C. As in zilch. It got worse. In Australia, she continued, the vitamin A content of carrots had dropped 99 percent between 1948 and 1991, according to a government analysis, and apples had lost 80 percent of their vitamin C. She went on to say that according to research in England, the mineral content of nearly all vegetables in the United Kingdom had dropped significantly between 1940 and 1990. Copper had been reduced by 76 percent, calcium by 46 percent, iron by 27 percent, magnesium by 24 percent, and potassium by 16 percent. Furthermore, the mineral content of UK meat had dropped significantly over the same period as well—iron by 54 percent, copper by 24 percent, calcium by 41 percent, and so on.

This is important because all living creatures, humans included, need these vitamins and minerals to stay strong and healthy. Iron, for example, is required for a host of processes vital to human health, including the production of red blood cells (hemoglobin), the transportation of oxygen through our bodies, the conversion of blood sugar to energy, and the efficient functioning of our muscles. Copper is essential for the maintenance of our organs, for a healthy immune system, and to neutralize damaging “free radicals” in our blood. Calcium, of course, is essential for bone health. And every single cell in our body requires magnesium to function properly. Vitamins are organic compounds, by the way, composed of various chemicals and minerals, including carbon.

A deficiency or imbalance of these minerals (necessary to us only in small amounts) can cause serious damage to our health, as most people understand. That’s why taking vitamin pills has become such a big deal—and big business—today, especially where young children are concerned. But few people stop to think about why we need vitamin pills in the first place. It’s not simply because we don’t eat our veggies, or because we drink too much soda, but because the veggies themselves don’t have the amount of essential nutrients that they once did. As Jones quipped, for Aussies today to gain a comparable amount of vitamin A from carrots that their grandparents could, they’d have to eat themselves sick.

What happened to the nutrition in our food?

Well, the quick answer is that industrial agriculture happened. The hybridization of crops over the decades for production values—yield, appearance, taste, and ease of transport—has drained fruits and vegetables of nutrients. But the main culprit is what we’ve done to the soil. As a consequence of repeated plowing, fertilizing, and spraying, the top few feet of farmland soil has been (1) leached of its original minerals and (2) stripped of the biological life that facilitates nutrient uptake in plants. Some farms, especially organic ones, resupply their soils with mineral additives, but many farms do not, preferring to rely on the Big Three—nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (NPK)—to keep the plants growing. According to the industrial mind-set, as long as crops are harvestable, presentable, digestible, and profitable, it doesn’t matter if their nutrition is up to par. If there’s a deficiency, well, that’s what the vitamin pills are for!

However, it was the next thing that Jones said that spun my wheels. There was another way to remineralize our bodies without having to rely on pills or their corporate manufacturers: restore essential elements the old-fashioned way—with plant roots. With carbon, specifically. Building humus by increasing the amount of carbon in the soil via no-till agriculture, planned rotational grazing, and other practices that stimulate mycorrhizal fungi/root activity and the production of glomalin, she said, would (1) increase the availability of potassium, calcium, phosphorus, sulfur, copper, zinc, iron, magnesium, and boron to plant roots (which are good for plants); (2) reduce availability of sodium and aluminum (which are bad for plants); and (3) increase the pH in the soil (from acidic to neutral—good for everything).

Access to these essential minerals in combination with carbon means vitamins and other types of nutrients, including acids, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, can be produced within a plant.

One key to building soil carbon on farms is cover cropsplants that keep the land covered with something green and growing at all times, even in winter. I went to Kansas to find out more.

“A feast for the soil”

Clapperton, who hails originally from Canada but lives today on a Montana ranch, told the workshop audience that the key to rebuilding soil health is to start a “conversation among plants.” Cool-season grasses (such as barley, wheat, and oats) and cool-season broadleaf plants (such as canola, pea, turnip, lentil, radish, and mustard), she said, need to dialogue constructively with warm-season grasses (including millet, corn, and sorghum) and warm broadleafs (such as buckwheat, sunflower, and sugar beet). Who gets along with whom? Who grows when? Who helps whom? If you can get these plants engaged in a robust conversation in one field, she said, you’ll be creating “a feast for the soil.” That’s because increased plant diversity, as well as year-round biological activity, absorbs more CO2, which in turn increases the amount of carbon available to roots, which feeds the microbes, which builds soil, round and round.

This is exactly what happened on Fuller’s farm. When he took over the operation from his father they were growing just three cash crops: corn, wheat, and soybeans. Today, Fuller plants as many as fifty-three different kinds of plants on the farm, mostly as cover crops, creating what Clapperton called a “cocktail” of legumes, grasses, and broadleaf plants. He doesn’t apply any herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers either, despite the recommendations of his no-till neighbors and chemical manufacturers who advise them. That’s because Fuller considers “weeds” to be a part of the dynamic conversation as well. Besides, chemicals kill life, Clapperton reminded us, including spiders, dung beetles, and even grasshoppers.

As a result of this big, robust conversation, Clapperton said, the carbon content of the soil on the Fuller farm has doubled from 2 percent in 1993 (when they switched to no-till) to 4 percent today. That’s huge. But what about the mineral content of Fuller’s crops?

That’s risen dramatically too, she said, and it’s done so for two reasons: First, no-herbicide/no-pesticide no-till means the microbial universe in the soil remains intact and alive, and if the soil dwellers have enough carbon (as an energy source) they will facilitate the cycling of minerals in the soil, especially earthworms, who are nature’s great composters. Second, a vigorous and diverse cover of crops will put down deeper roots, enabling plants to access fresh minerals, which then become available to everything up the food chain, including us. And by covering the soil surface with green plants, or litter from the dead parts, Clapperton said, a farmer like Fuller traps moisture underground, where it becomes available for plants and animals (of the micro variety), enabling roots to tap resources and growing abundant life.

“Aboveground diversity is reflected in belowground diversity,” she said. “However, soil organisms are competitive with plants for carbon, so there must be enough for everybody.” Predator-prey relationships are also important to nutrient cycling, she said. Without hungry predators, such as protozoa and nematodes, the bacteria and fungi would consume all the nutrients in the soil and plants would starve. Predators aboveground play a positive role too, including spiders and especially the number one predator, ants!

How do essential minerals get into plants?

There are two principal paths: First, minerals can dissolve in water, and when the water is pulled into the plant through its roots, the minerals are absorbed into the cells of plant tissue. Whichever minerals the plant doesn’t need (or doesn’t want) will remain stored in the cells. Second, mineral nutrients can enter a plant directly by being absorbed through the cell walls of root hairs. Some minerals, such as phosphorus, can also “hitch a ride” with mycorrhizal fungi, which then “barter” them for carbon molecules from the plant roots. Of course, if there aren’t any minerals in the vicinity, no uptake into plants is possible!

It all begins with a dynamic conversation at a cocktail party for plants—where everyone is gossiping about carbon!

Standing under the oak tree at the end of the workshop, after we had oohed and aahed over a giant wolf spider someone discovered under a shrub, Clapperton reminded us why using nature as a role model—for cover crops in this case—was so important: we need to recycle nutrients, encourage natural predators to manage pests, and increase plant densities to block weeds, which in a natural system are all integrated and interconnected strategies.

This reminded me of something the great conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote:

“The black prairie was built by the prairie plants, a hundred distinctive species of grasses, herbs, and shrubs; by the prairie fungi, insects, and bacteria; by the prairie mammals and birds, all interlocked in one humming community of cooperations and competitions, one biota. This biota, through ten thousand years of living and dying, burning and growing, preying and fleeing, freezing and thawing, built that dark and bloody ground we call prairie.”

One biota. With carbon at its core.

 

Photo: Ben Collins, Wikimedia Commons

One Man, One Wheel, and the Open Road

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Mark Schimmoeller’s Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America is about more than a cross-country trip on a unicycle; it’s a meditation on a way of life that Americans find increasingly rare: one that practices a playful, recalcitrant slowness. Award-winning author Janisse Ray (The Seed Underground) identifies with this pace.

“Schimmoeller’s narrative—of his slow and deliberate journey across the country, of his homesteading off-the-grid life in rural Kentucky, and of his battle to save old-growth forests from the developer’s ax—demonstrates that one’s worth is not defined by how much can be accomplished in five minutes, days, or even years, but by what is done with that time,” writes Ray in her foreword to Slowspoke.

She goes on to impress how important a book like this is for our throw-away society. “I really love Slowspoke. It has made me happier than any book in a long time, because it’s the kind of thinking that humankind needs right now, in that it asks that we claim what we value—what we believe in, what we call precious—and divine how to preserve it.” Read Ray’s full foreword, along with all of chapter 2, in the excerpt below.

Author Bill McKibben echoes Ray’s sentiment, “This is just the kind of epic we need right now—humble, sweet, and very deep indeed. As good a travel story—within and without—as you’ll read anytime soon!”

Schimmoeller’s writing style engages you right from the beginning. You feel an intimate connection with him as he guides you seemlessly through his past, present, and even subconscious recollections. “There are books like this that are so nice that, like Holden Caufield, you want to call up the author and tell him (or her) what a great job he (or she) has done,” writes a reviewer from RALPH Mag (The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and Humanities).

“This is not only the tale of a man on a unicycle, one who has turned his back on freeways and power plants and supermarkets and television. More, it’s a man who has honed a fine edge to what he has learned: what works, what doesn’t work, what you need, what you don’t need in life; details that end up making Slowspoke a classic.”

Why a unicycle? Why a cross-country trip? Why leave a prominent New York magazine and return to the simple life in Kentucky?

These are all logical questions you might find yourself contemplating when settling in to read Slowspoke. However, as Schimmoeller introduces you to his slow pace and draws you in to his simple world, answers are revealed.

“My parents gave me a unicycle for an Easter present when I was twelve,” Schimmoeller writes. “About the time my classmates began focusing on four wheels, I became obsessed with one. Unicyclists, it occurred to me, experience arrival less often than others. They must become devotees of anticipation. Rushing, I learned under the tutelage of my unicycle—whether down the driveway or toward adulthood—would cause a fall. Instead, after school and on the weekends, my task was to dwell in inefficiency, to wrinkle speed, to arrive somewhere only after much ambling about.”

Written with poise and humor, Slowspoke earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, who described it as a, “profoundly simple, funny, and sincere memoir.”

Anyone who has gone back to the land or wondered if they could, who has slowed down to experience life at a unicycle’s speed or who longs to do so, who has fallen in love, who has treasured tall trees or mourned their loss, will find a voice in Slowspoke.

Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America is on sale for 35% off until August 7th.

Slowspoke: Foreword and Ch 2

Stop Inviting Bears to Dinner

Monday, July 21st, 2014

As conflicts between humans and black bears continue, it seems the message “Don’t feed the bears” bears repeating.

Just this month, a man in Montgomery, VT was charged by the Fish & Wildlife Department for allegedly feeding bears. It was the first time that a person has been charged under a new law in Vermont that makes feeding bears illegal. Listen to the full story on NPR here.

Ben Kilham, author of In the Company of Bears: What Black Bears Have Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuition, knows a thing or two about dealing with bears both at home and in the wild. He recently told the Concord Monitor that he’s seen an increase in the number of abandoned cubs delivered to his bear rehabilitation facility due to mothers being shot and killed after getting into backyard chicken coops. “That has had the biggest impact on us, without any questions,” Kilham said. “Unprotected chicken coops are crazy – we live in bear country. An electric fence can solve that problem.”

In this excerpt from In the Company of Bears, Kilham provides more insights on best practices when it comes to keeping bears from feeding at your back door, and offers his tried-and-true tips on what to do if you encounter a bear in the wild.

*****

Up to 900,000 black bears live in North America, and in many regions, like my own, they live in close proximity to humans. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in many regions humans live in close proximity to bears—and that we are moving deeper and deeper into their habitat all the time. So, it’s not surprising that bears and people meet up unexpectedly, and frequently. But of the millions of interactions between bears and people every year, very few result in human deaths.

Bears, on the other hand, have not been so lucky. Many are shot, either as a fear-based first resort or after other techniques have failed to deter what we’ve come to call “nuisance” bears. These are the bears that wander into backyards, campgrounds, landfills, or other places where food is often lying around. People can and sometimes do get injured by these nuisance bears, but even these incidents could be mitigated by understanding how to read and understand bear behavior. Not only would this knowledge help officials deal more effectively and humanely with nuisance bears, but it would also help individuals who find themselves in bear–human encounters.

In short, the solution to the nuisance bear problem is not so much about managing bears; it’s about managing people.

Stop inviting bears to dinner 

First, the best way to end what we consider the nuisance–bear behavior is to just stop inviting bears to dinner. If the food sources in problem residential areas are reduced to a minimum, these areas will no longer be worth the risk to the bear and the problems will cease. How to do this?

    • Remove bird feeders, and any other food placed outside to attract wildlife.
    • Don’t feed pets outside.
    • Keep any livestock feed indoors.
    • Don’t put kitchen scraps in your garbage can. Composting your kitchen scraps in a smell-proof way is as good for the environment as it is for avoiding bear encounters. Try a bear-proof composting container, or an indoor vermiculture bin (in which worms help digest the waste). Or, if you’re using an open compost pit outside, layer fresh waste underneath material that is already decomposed, or add a layer of lime, wood ash, or sawdust to mask the odor that can draw a bear’s interest.
    • If you cannot compost, then secure your garbage can in an indoor area, such as a garage, or freeze your garbage until it’s time for disposal.
    • Use bear-resistant food containers while camping, never keep food of any kind in your tent, and follow local guidelines for cooking or disposing of anything that smells of food, even the water you’ve used to wash your pots, pans, and dishes.
    • Clean outdoor grills, barbeque pits, and coolers after use to remove odors.
    • Remember, the secret to controlling bears is controlling smell.

It’s no surprise, then, that when people do start feeding bears, it ends badly. They get into a situation that they can’t stop by themselves. There are, though, nonlethal measures that can be used to resolve the issue.

With bears and people encountering each other more and more frequently, it is essential to understand how to properly handle an unintended meeting in the backyard or on a hiking trail. The vast majority of all bear aggression toward people is protective, not predacious, and it is entirely possible for people to manage these protective encounters without injury. A key to doing so is to understand how bears communicate.

The most important thing to understand is that when a bear wants to intimidate you, keep you at a safe distance, or otherwise modify your behavior, it will square off its lips—drawing them forward so that they appear square and the face looks long. Then it will perform any of the following behaviors in varying degrees of intensity: chomping its teeth or lips, snorting or woofing (blowing air through the nose or mouth), huffing (inhaling and exhaling air rapidly), swatting, or false charging. These are actions that bears take to help reduce the chance of attack whenever two unfamiliar individuals come together. However, this behavior does not reflect the bear’s true mood. Bears are able to turn this behavior on and off like a light switch. They are simply trying to delay confrontation long enough for communication to take place.

Moods, on the other hand, come and go very slowly. It is therefore necessary to analyze the bear’s mood when it is not displaying these behaviors, its intentions when it is, and then to apply both to the context of the situation. This may be a tough concept to apply in the field, but a necessary and important one to understand. Being faced with a bear that false charges or bluffs is actually a good thing as it means you have time to analyze the bear’s intentions and modify its displeasure or fear.

How do you know the bear is false-charging and not attacking?

The false-charge is done in combination with other bluff displays, like chomping, huffing, and snorting. Depending upon the situation, this usually reflects the bear’s desire to delay or avoid direct confrontation.

However, if you find yourself in such a situation and act in a reckless manner while the bear is within critical distance—as when a bear holds its ground and displays rather than flees—you can escalate this kind of situation into an attack. Reckless behavior would include breaking sticks, yelling or screaming, making yourself big by raising or waiving one’s arms, or basically doing anything in which you could not anticipate a correct response. A safe response would be to de-escalate the situation by standing erect and speaking softly to the bear, thus signaling to the bear that you are dominant but not a threat.

When you have an encounter with a bear, it is always important to try to put yourself in the bear’s shoes.Does the bear have any reason to harm you? Have you provoked the bear intentionally or unintentionally? Is the bear already nervous about other bears in the area? Remember that bears, like all other animals, including humans, have four major drives: hunger, love, fight, and flight. These drives are usually in conflict with each other.

How Close Are You?

It is also important to assess just how close you are to the bear. While it’s always important not to take any action that leaves you unable to predict the reaction of the bear, it is particularly important if you and the bear are in close proximity (normally less than twenty-five feet) and the bear appears reluctant to leave. This twenty-five foot distance is known as the “critical distance” outside of which bears and many other animals are likely to flee. Within this distance, they are hesitant and uncertain as to whether they should act in self-defense or flee.

A conflicted bear in this situation will act as described above. My advice is to stand erect with eyes toward the bear. Do not attempt to stare the bear down but rather maintain a normal facial expression and speak softly. Standing erect and keeping eyes toward the bear will keep him or her honest. Bears, like dogs and humans, may choose to enforce dominance when the opportunity arises. If you show weakness (by lowering your eyes, turning your back to them, lying down on the ground, or showing fear), it increases the chance that they will take advantage and advance on you.

My advice to keep your eyes on the bear conflicts with almost every other message given about what to do when you are in close proximity to a bear. I look at the bear to remain dominant while I decrease the threat level with my voice. Others will argue that you should avert your stare because a direct stare is aggressive and may provoke an attack. My experience tells me that this is not the case with bears. Animals that live in group-social environments often have hard, top-down hierarchies. A stare at an alpha chimpanzee or wolf may be perceived as a challenge to its position of authority. Bears are different; they interact and cooperate with strangers on a regular basis and are used to negotiating with unfamiliar individuals.

Baby Bears

The bear that gets too close is usually a sow with cubs. Her concern is the threat you present. She is perfectly capable of assessing that threat. Give her a chance, and she will walk away from you, sometimes even leaving her cubs up a tree nearby. I have been inside that critical distance with more than thirty wild sows with cubs, been false-charged and circled (bears circle to check scent, to see who you are), and have then gone on to peacefully spend up to two and a half hours with them. Every female will exhibit a different level of aggressiveness. Most of the wild sows and cubs I have encountered ran, hid nearby, and waited for me to leave. There are many myths about sows with cubs—the prevailing one being that if you get between a sow and its cub you are toast. The reality is that sows with cubs have been responsible for only 3 percent of the fatal attacks on humans in the last 109 years. Their cubs are usually safely up a tree when close encounters occur. Having preconceived ideas in your head at these times will only make it more difficult to control the situation.

So, imagine that you meet a sow with cubs on a trail. You are torn between running and standing your ground. She is torn between running and defending her cubs. She would like to run, but her cubs are up a tree. She chooses to display aggressively in an effort to prevent you from attacking. You would like to run, but you know that she can run faster. You try to relax, knowing that fearful behavior could be seen as a threat. You speak softly to her as a gesture of appeasement. She acknowledges your gesture by reducing the intensity of her displays. Be patient. Eventually, she will stop displaying altogether and her true mood will be revealed with a relaxed facial expression. Slowly, she will walk off. For obvious reasons, the drive to escape is generally stronger than the drive to fight. She knows a fight could leave her wounded or dead. Yelling and screaming to drive away a female bear away, on the other hand, may inadvertently frighten her cubs and escalate the situation.

If you meet a male bear, the situation may go somewhat differently, but the same advice about handling the encounter applies. Male bears are much more likely to run off than be caught inside the critical distance. If you see a bear coming in your direction, it is a good idea to let it know that you are there. Bears read scent in the wind, but sometimes the wind is coming from the wrong direction and a bear may be completely unaware of your presence. Let the bear know that you are there by moving, talking to it, or making other noise; it will run off.

But there are situations where attacks are more likely. A bear that is surprised while eating–or while its senses are otherwise compromised—may strike out without warning. For instance, a bear feeding on a carcass is highly concerned that other bears may be attracted to the carcass by smell and is preconditioned to attack. A person who suddenly appears in this situation may trigger that preconditioned attack.

Bears are highly tolerant of humans

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bear encounters every year where humans do everything wrong without any negative response from the bear. It’s important to remember, though, that in the vast majority of cases, black bears are dangerous only if you make them so. The situation is in your control; they tend to signal their intentions, and you can modify your own behavior to influence theirs.

Putting Grasslands to Work

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

This year’s annual international conference of the Savory Institute will be held in London the first week of August, and will feature two Chelsea Green authors – Courtney White (Grass, Soil, Hope) and Judith Schwartz (Cows Save the Planet) along with Joel Salatin whose books Chelsea Green distributes.

The conference theme — “Putting Grasslands to Work” — will focus on ways in which holistic management can improve soils, increase nutrient density, sequester carbon, and reverse desertification. In other words, have grasslands do the work of healing the planet.

“The age of Holistic Management is upon us. There is an undeniable need for humans to honor the complexity of the natural world,” notes the conference website. “We’ve seen a new awakening among people to embrace living in harmony with their environment.The movement has reached critical mass and is exploding all around the globe.”

White and Schwartz will take part in a two-part panel discussion about the untapped potential of soil. As both authors point out in their respective books, soil can be seen as a way to solve some of our most intractable environmental problems.

“I don’t mean to come across as naive, or to suggest that we can throw some cattle and compost on the ground and go on wasting and polluting as before. But neither am I willing to be paralyzed by despair, nor take refuge behind that barricade of indifference, no matter how tempting at times. I know how bad things are. But we’ve got to start somewhere. Soil restoration can be done anywhere: one watershed, one community, one abandoned field. At whatever scale, attend to the needs of the soil, and the ecological cycles will begin to get back in sync.,” writes Schwartz in the introduction to her book.

As White notes in the prologue to his book, “Here’s the really exciting part: if land that is bare, degraded, tilled, or monocropped can be restored to a healthy condition, with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles, and covered year-round with a diversity of green plants with deep roots, then the added amount of atmospheric CO2 that can be stored in the soil is potentially high. … soils contain about three times the amount of carbon that’s stored in vegetation and twice the amount stored in the atmosphere. Since two-thirds of the earth’s land mass is grassland, additional CO2 storage in the soil via better management practices, even on a small scale, could have a huge impact. Grasslands are also home to two billion people who depend on livestock—an important source of food and wealth (and culture) to much of the earth’s human population. Both these animals and their human stewards could be mobilized for carbon action.”

And mobilize for action is what the Savory Institute conference is about. Check out their website, and if you’re in London the first week of August, be sure to stop by for information and inspiration.


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