Saturday, October 30, 2010

Death, life and vegetables

Good morning,

Joan Dye Gussow's new book is titled Growing Older: a chronicle of death, life and vegetables.

I've been reading it chapter by chapter, enjoying her humour, finding that I agree with much of what she says, discovering that I'm also a curmudgeon (as she describes herself), and see just about everything I do as it relates to environment.

Joan's book is not an easy read, as I'd wanted it to be. I wanted her to tell me what to do. What was I thinking? She's a professor of nutrition, developer of a course on how nutrition, food production and environment are all related matters. She's at the heart and start of this whole field of food-related thought (in North America anyway) and her ideas have influenced academics and activists like Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Barbara Kingsolver.

What I mean is, she's not academically or personally geared to telling someone directly what she or he should do. And ultimately this gets people on side to doing what should be done. Smart woman, eh?

Gussow analyzes her own life and I bet I'm not the only reader who will be taken aback in the first chapters when she acknowledges that she didn't 'miss' her husband after he died. But then, as she talks about their relationship - the who-did-which-tasks during their marriage, the habits they each had, their individual strengths, and joint projects - there is my recognition that they had mutual as well as individual strengths. They planned together, and they each had individual lives; this left her with her own life and abilities to change when he died. People don't often talk about how being one’s own person keeps you going after a partner dies. I think that’s cool. And an honesty one doesn't hear often.

She talks about how, in 1979,she read a paper by Joanna Macy about despair and how to keep going after facing the worst, and this got her looking at her own worst fears: that we humans were harming the interconnected environment systems from so many directions that we really were/are on a path of system collapse. She had to realize that she really did believe this, and move through the despair. Relating this to her reactions after her husband died, she realizes:

Reflecting on my early confrontation with despair has helped me to understand my failure to seriously grieve after Alan’s death. Losing him was not the worst thing that could happen in my world. That I had already confronted.

The book covers varied topics; many have to do with what happens inGussow's garden the year ‘round, connecting to issues of local food production, international issues and human connections of all sorts. She describes her ongoing problem of a backyard garden that is lower than surrounding lots and subject to flooding again and again. Apparently, this spring, while her book was going to press, she had the money and volunteers/friends/workers to bring in soil and raise the yard, which all her friends and readers (like me) surely hope will solve a lot of problems. But even those ongoing struggles and observations of plants that recover gave something important.

from the chapter, Watery Lessons:

Hope is the lesson Nature keeps teaching me. She keeps producing. She recovers. She creates beauty out of loss. She forgives us our impatience and frustration and insistence that things turn out the way we planned. They don't. They turn out the way she planned. We need to be willing to sacrifice control; to learn by adaptation. We need to pay more for food grown by local farmers who can find something to feed us no matter what - even if it's not what we planned on this morning. And that's going to have be be okay. What an important lesson to learn as we face a world that is changing in ways that we don't really want at least partly as fallout from our demand for the things we really thought we needed.

I’ll end the book report here, lest it get really too long. (maybe there'll be a part 2 book report; I haven’t finished the book yet. ) But absolutely, if you get a chance, get the book. Tell your library to get the book.

As always, best wishes to you all,

Why's Woman

Growing Older: a chronicle of death, life and vegetables. Joan Dye Gussow. White River, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010. (
Other great book by Gussow: This Organic Life: confessions of a suburban homesteader.

(If possible, buy your copy from an independent book retailer!)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Techno-fix won't change the changes we've made

Hello all,

I’ve just watched the last episode of a 5-part series called How the Earth Changed History. It’s been shown on TVO over the last few weeks. The show summary says: ‘How have the natural forces of the planet shaped everything from the birth of agriculture to the industrial revolution? Geologist Iain Stewart explores how geology, geography and climate have had a far more powerful influence on humankind than has previously been acknowledged."

The presenter was geologist Iain Stewart, Professor of Geosciences Communication, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Plymouth University, UK.

Tonight’s episode was about how people have influenced the earth. He went over the way we’ve changed river courses, scraped away huge chunks of Alberta to get at tar sands for oil. He ended up in Svalbard, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole.

As soon as he said he was in Svalbard, I knew where he was headed (and I’ll come to it). But he got there by a circuitous route.

He showed leaf fossils set in stones of Svalbard’s frozen landscape; 55 million years ago the climate was warm enough there for lush vegetatative growth. Then he talked about how India crashed into the continent above (tectonic plate movement times) and the resulting crash sent rocks crumpling upwards and those were the Himalyas; and the north cooled again.

He talked about how there’s a lot of carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere and it’s not good. And then he started to talk about carbon capture, and that we have the know-how to use technology to find a way to take carbon (ie Carbon dioxide, not black carbon) out of the air. Some scientists think that it will be a great idea to use the unusual configuration of the cliffs of Svalbard for this. Long tubes will be drilled down into the cliffs and carbon dioxide will be injected into the lower layers, which are a type of rock with lots of empty space (he called it air space, ironically); these spaces will hold the CO2. And there just happens to be a layer of shale – a more dense/solid material – atop the more porous layer, so the CO2 is supposed to stay put.

The thing is that when I watched the computer animation of the drill and fill process - all sorts of tiny crevices filling up and expanding outward – all I could think of was that once it filled up to a certain pressure the entire cliffside would just explode outward. And there wouldn’t be a darn bit of CO2 captured. He also didn’t mention at all that Svalbaard is several hundred miles off the north of Norway – surrounded by very cold water - and can only be reached by boat or helicopter. He didn’t mention that there would have to be a huge use of fossil fuel to bring in any of the equipment needed to drill the holes and run the pumps; and every bit of equipment would itself use fossil fuel.

And then he finally got to the place I knew he’d come to (I told you I’d get back to this) … because the only context I’d ever heard of Svalbaard is because of the seed bank. The seedbank – ‘the Vault’. There’s an organization/enterprise, initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, called the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It is an international, independent organization and its goal is to house up to three million different types of seeds from around the world in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, deep inside a mountain close to Longyearbyen, Norway (that island of Svalbard surrounded by cold, cold ocean).

Taking the camera tour of the place – actually seeing some parts of it - has made me even more horrifed and cynical about the entire set up than I already was. Seeds from all over the world, stuck on an island that’s freezing cold. The only way to get to the island is by fossil-fueled transport. Every bit of equipment to dig into the mountainside and construct every bit of the vault had to be shipped there. More fossil fuel. What is the air circulation system and the condensation control system controlled by? Fossil fuel, I bet. Who staffs this?

The Vault was set up as “the ultimate safety net for global crop diversity”, since regular seed banks can be vulnerable to conflict and natural disasters. But, in the situation of apocalypse, of real system collapse – the supposed reason that all the seeds from every country are being stored there, who will continue to maintain the place? Who would be able to get there?

I have enough science education to recognize the long term freezing of seeds in climate-controlled conditions as a really nifty bit of technology. And I do like nifty technology. However, I see the Vault as a sad misdirection of science and wisdom, and an undertaking totally removed from agricultural knowledge. Perhaps it is also purposeful international political misdirection away from real issues of climate change, and the need for small scale, organic agriculture and more people being involved in food production, globally.

Seeds are living entities. And there they rest, in the Svalbard Vault, built on an isolated place, a place inhospitable to the growth of (probably) every seed in the vault.

Professor Stewart seems enthusiastic about our ability to have betterment through technology. But every once in a while in the series, I’ve noted a worry across his face. Or I may just be reading this in, based on my own reaction to the things he’s shown. I hope it’s his handlers and the funders or producers of the show who have made him present in such an ultimately cheerful, hopeful way. I don’t want him to actually believe in the big technology fix that he lead us to in the closing of this last show.

Thoughtful regards,

Why's Woman

London has a new mayor

Good morning,

As of December 6/10, London Ontario will have a new mayor: Joe Fontana.

102,944 people voted for the position of mayor.

Fontana received 48,826 votes: 47.2% of the votes cast for that office.

Now, in case you want a bit more detail and accuracy*, let's look at the number of people who actually voted, because not all eligible voters did.

There are approximately 260,000 eligible voters in London.

102,944 of the 260,000 eligible voters voted for mayor: this means only 39.59% of people voted.

I have a sad feeling that, for a Canadian municipality, this is a 'not bad' voter turnout.

Take Fontana's 48,626 votes as a percentage of 260,000 and you find that only 18.7% of eligible voters in London voted for the person who will be London's mayor... for the next four years.

The mayor is one person on City council, and I was told recently two of the best things a mayor can do is bring people together and let councillors and staff get on with the work they are at City Hall to do.

I hope Mr. F. will do this.

And, to those who didn't vote ... if you happen to come to my station at the store where I work, I sure hope I don't have to listen to your complaints about City Hall.

Best regards to all,

Why's Woman

* numbers are based on results posted on the London City website as of 2:40 a.m., Oct. 26/10.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Community Garden open house & compost

Hi guys, I'm back on ...

Blackfriar's Community Garden showed off today, with garden talks and displays and lots and lots of talking. A city rep came and talked about composting on a larger than usual backyard scale. Greg S. took us through the basics of green and brown and layering and what not to put in the compost ... and kept plugging even when people in the audience threw out a 'yes, but what about?' sort of question for everything he said. He had - literally - a lot to show us, because his 'props' included the oversize composting containment units used at this demonstration site. Pallets have been used to section off bins that are almost the size of horse stalls (maybe sheep stalls?) - so there was a growing mountain of leaves, a beautiful pile of finished compost, a mound of half finished, and a pile in progress that had a heap of recent garden leavings on the top. Active gardener Robyn H. heaved shovels full of soil atop the one heap and then a couple large buckets of water to show how to not be afraid to tackle a really big compost. As a matter of fact, Robyn was the instigator behind the composting zone, and today's open house. It was great, and Robyn, you've 'done good' on this day. Including ordering up beautiful sunshine. I met a fellow who's left his job in computers and is spending times on various organic farms, in preparation of having his own small organic farm. I truly wish that his plan - his dream - comes true. Had another conversation with a fellow who said that opportunity knocks on the door of people who are prepared to answer. I think I'm paraphrasing, but I really liked the idea. I'd taken a load of books down ... ended up not looking in any of them for answers to garden questions; their titles were simply conversation starters - about beekeeping in London, Barbara Kingsolver, Elliot Coleman's 4 season harvest ideas, Rodale press ... gardening. A good day.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Spirituality of Gardening

Good morning,

It turns out that writing a blog was in my mind for quite a while before I actually got started! An e-mail I sent to some friends in July 2007 records that "I'm thinking of writing a blog ... a diary that goes places". It goes on to mention a book I'd just acquired, The Spirituality of Gardening, by Canadian journalist and garden lover Donna Sinclair. What I said in that note is still true, going back to the book this morning.

The photos are wonderful, and I love the ideas the author has and the many stories and quotations she uses. Her last chapter is titled Gardening as Resistance. 'Resisting what?' you may ask. Resisting the current culture of not caring about or for things, resisting the growing of food by pouring on artificial fertilizers and pesticides, resisting tendencies to disconnect from nature.

Sinclair writes: "The thing is, gardeners are in love with a beauty inherent in the earth. We just try to help people see it. The whole earth is a garden that we have been given by our Creator. Our own vegetable patches and perennial borders, boxes of plants that grace apartment balconies, vivid borders installed by civic-minded mall owners, old downtowns exploding with tough petunias in huge baskets from every lamppost - all these teach us that life is not solely about achievement. It is about beauty for its own profitless, extravagant sake. It is about stubborn resistance to all who would harm the earth. It is about living in obedience to sun and rain and living in gratitude for this lovely, sacred vital planet.'

As you see above, the photos selected for the book are wonderful. Not just pretty flowers or gardens but shapes, textures, colours and ideas that enhance Sinclair's ideas about gardens as connection, balance, memory, healing, hope, spiritual practice and resistance. One doesn't have to follow any particular faith to appreciate the images, ideas, and philosophy Sinclair presents.

Best regards to all,

Why's Woman