Photopost: Camping at Wolfe’s Neck Farm


Last week we celebrated the end of the school year with our somewhat annual stay at Wolfe’s Neck Oceanfront Camping in Freeport, Maine. We tented in the woods by Casco Bay, roasted marshmallows, biked nearly everywhere, shopped in Freeport, visited the Wolfe’s Neck Center farm, and most significantly, we went hiking with goats!

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Fall Foliage Festival at Arnold Arboretum


On Sunday, October 26th, the Arnold Arboretum hosted their first ever Fall Foliage Festival, an autumnal counterpart to spring’s Lilac Sunday. What a great idea!  I mean why drive to New Hampshire and Vermont for leaf peeping when there’s a little bit of the great outdoors right here in Jamaica Plain?  The timing is difficult of course as the foliage was actually more brilliant a week earlier, but it was a great event all the same.  There were demonstrations, tours, hayrides, and great music.  I saw a group of parents and children gamely dancing the Virginia Reel to the Bagboys and everyone was having a blast.

My son Peter & I checked out festival, albeit only the last hour as Peter was napping.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed this great event and hope to return next year.  And if anyone from the Arboretum is looking for ideas, I think it would be cool (no pun intended) if they held a winter festival focusing on the conifers.  That way the flowering plants, deciduous trees, and evergreens would all have their special day.

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan


When I was a kid, my grandfather grew string beans and tomatoes in a planting box on his balcony 23-stories above a major elevated highway interchange in Brooklyn.  My sister and I would smirk as my grandmother proudly stated “Your grandfather grew these himself,” as she ladled the limp, brownish-green string beans on our plates.  My mother had better luck growing bumper crops of green beans in the Connecticut soil of our backyards as well as all the vegetables necessary to make a delicious spaghetti sauce.

Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) by Michael Pollan it occurs to me that these may be the only meals I’ve eaten that don’t come from the chain of industrial monoculture.  And even then both my grandfather and mother relied on the seeds and fertilizers sold by big agribusiness.  Pollan’s conceit in this very important book is to trace the chain of events leading to four very different meals:

  • a fast food meal from McDonald’s
  • an “organic” meal from the industrial suppliers of Whole Foods
  • a meal from a “beyond organic” symbiotic farm in Virginia
  • a meal made entirely of food gardened, foraged and hunted by Pollan himself

For the fast food meal, the central crop is corn grown in sturdy rows and harvested with industrial efficiency.  While corn may not obvious in many meals it is a key ingredient in feed for cattle (even though by nature they eat grass) and corn-derived additives and foodstuffs are the integral to many foodstuffs (especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup).  Pollan demonstrates how this industrial form of agriculture is destroying the earth through overuse of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides.  The corn products and corn-fed beef are less nutritious than they would be otherwise, not to mention the incalculable suffering of the feed lot.  Plus industrial agriculture’s reliance on government subsidies and fossil fuels adds a great cost to this supposedly cheap crop.

By comparison, the “big organic” meal from Whole Foods is tastier and more nutritious by comparison.  Organic farmers proudly proclaim that they’re protecting the earth by not using fertilizers and pesticides.  Yet by following the agribusiness industrial model, these farmers are still creating unsustainable food networks whether they’re unaware of it or simply greenwashing.  Pollan points out the energy required to import out-of-season goods from distant regions plus the additives used to preserve them.  Free range animals rarely live the pastoral live imagined by organic food lables and instead are not all that different from the non-organic factory farms.

Pollan spends a week on a farm of a farmer whose philosophy goes beyond organic and into the symbiotic relationships of plants and animals.  While he calls himself a grass farmer, he’s raising cattle and chickens as well in innovative ways where each being supports the cause of the others in a cruelty-free way.  The farm also serves only local customer, the importance of food networks where buyers know their suppliers are stressed.  While this philosophy is critiqued as inefficient and elitist, Pollan illustrates how it is in fact more efficient in food production as well as cost when the hidden costs of agribusiness are added in.  The benefits to plants, animals, and humans are high as well.

Finally, Pollan creates a meal himself from his garden, finding mushrooms with some of Northern California’s most obsessive foragers, and hunting for wild pigs.  At one point in this section Pollan experiments with vegetarianism using as a way to debunk animal liberationist theologies.  This is the one section of the book I had trouble with since as a vegetarian myself I feel Pollan tied together all vegetarian philosphies with the most extreme adherants and the benefits of vegetarian lifestyles weren’t given a fair shake.

I looked forward to reading this book because I previously enjoyed reading Pollan’s Botany of Desire. Like that previous work, this book is written in Pollan’s engaging style that is both alarming and compelling without being preachy.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma is worthy of the hype it has received and I recommend reading it.  Anna Clark of Isak sums it up best: “This is an astonishing, engaging, hilarious and revelatory book that should be required reading for every American. At least every American that eats.”

Online resources mentioned in the text:

Favorite Passages

It’s difficult to control the means of production when the product you’re selling can reproduce itself endlessly.  This one of the ways in which the imperatives of biology are difficult to mesh with the imperatives of business. — p. 31

I’ve oversimplified the story a bit; corn’s rapid rise is not quite as self-propelled as I’ve made it sound.  As in many other “self-made” American successes, the closer you look the more you find the federal government lending a hand — a patent, a monopoly, a tax break — to our hero at a critical juncture. In the case of corn, the botanical hero I’ve depicted as pluck and ambitious was in fact subsidized in crucial ways, both economically and biologically.  There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will tell you in disgust that the plant has become “a welfare queen.” — p. 41

For corn has been exempted from the usual rules of nature and economics, both of which have rough mechanisms to check any such wild, uncontrolled proliferation.  In nature, the population of a species explodes until it exhausts its supply of food; then it crashes.  In the market, an oversupply of a commodity depresses prices until the surplus is either consumed or it no longer makes sense to produce any more of it.  In corn’s case, humans have labored mightily to free it from either constraint, even if that means going broke growing it, and consuming it just as fast as we possibly can. — p. 56

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is the ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turning it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.  This one, however, is able to suffer. — p. 84

I’d always thought of trees and grasses as antagonists — another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other.  To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass.  But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands.  So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as indeed, with all the species sharing this most complicated farm.  Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. — p. 225

A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market.  This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism — the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society.  Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty. — p. 318

Author : Pollan, Michael.
Title : The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals / Michael Pollan.
Published : New York : Penguin Press, 2006.

Book Review: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman


The World Without Us ( 2007) by Alan Weisman is a book length exploration of what the earth would be like without human beings. Long story short, a whole lot better off. Weisman investigates the question by recreating what the world was like without humans, what has happened since our evolution and spread, vignettes of places that humans have abandoned for one reason or another, and theorizing what would happen to the world should we vanish. Weisman puts forward unlikely scenarios of how our species could vanish: a human-only virus, alien abduction, or the rapture. In all likelihood there is nothing that could wipe out the human race will leaving the rest of the world untouched. And since some of Weisman’s world without us scenarios demonstrate the unholy terror that will be unleashed by the things we’ve created without us there to manage them, perhaps it will be better if we stick around and try to figure out how to fix things up.

Here’s a quick summary of scenarios of Earth without her most invasive species:

  • Białowieża Puszcza forest in Poland and Belarus, the only old-growth forest remainig of what once stretched across Europe. Here animals like bison may still thrive if the border fence that prevents their breeding is removed.
  • Destroying a home is easy. Just cut an eighteen inch hole in the roof and then stand back.
  • A vision of New York City without us begins with the subway tunnels flooding. The freeze/thaw cycle breaks up roads and concrete and makes foundations crumble. Ailanthus trees take root everywhere. Fires break out and spread unchallenged. Expansion joints on bridges get clogged and the bridges collapse. Central Park will revert to marshland. Bronze statues and stone buildings will last the longest of human artifacts.
  • The western hemisphere once had a great number of megafauna such as the giant sloth. Weisman believes that overhunting by prehistoric peoples brought their end. As evidence he points out that only on Africa where animals and humans evolved together are there still large mammals afoot.
  • In Africa today, grazing animals are unable to migrate freely and thus overgraze land which turns it to desert. Parks surrounded by agriculture create two competing environments that don’t work together well. The plague of AIDS is starting to erase the human population and changing age-old settlement patterns.
  • Seaside hotels on Cyprus remain abandoned, overgrown, and crumbling since the war in 1974 between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The Green Line, a no man’s zone between the two warring sides preserves remains of once-human habitats.
  • The sturdy remains of the underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey may be a long-lasting remnant of past (and future?) human habitation in a world without us.
  • Plastics do not biodegrade and may end up outlasting our species by millennia. They break down into smaller particles where they will continue to be a hazard to creatures and plants of the sea. Worse, today in the North Pacific Gyre is today a floating trash dump of plastics run off from land and carried to these doldroms where the trash accumulates.
  • The expansive “city” of petroleum refineries and chemical plants covering hundreds of square miles between Houston and Gavelston in Texas. This is one of those places that without human intervention is something of a time bomb that would explode and may never be cleaned up by natural process.
  • The world without farms. Rothamsted in England is a place where research in agriculture has been conducted since the mid-1800’s. This includes the Broadbalk and Geescroft Wildernesses where land has been allowed to simply revert to nature. Another place where the woods are regenerating is New England!
    • “Unlike almost anywhere else on Earth, New England’s temperate forest is increasing, and now far exceeds what it was when the United States was founded in 1776. Within 50 years of U.S. independence, the Erie Canal was dug across New York State and the Ohio Territory opened — an area whose shorter winters and loamier soils lured away struggling Yankee farmers. Thousands more didn’t bother to return to the soil after the Civil War, but headed instead into factories and mills powered by New England’s rivers — or headed west. As the forests of the Midwest began to come down, the forests of New England began coming back.” – p. 147
  • The fate of ancient and modern wonders of the world. 6 of the 7 ancient wonders are already gone with the pyramid at Khufu rapidly eroding. The Chunnel and the Panama Canal are equally doomed with human care, but Mount Rushmore will prevail.
  • The Korean demilitarized zone, like the Cypriot Green Line, is a place devoid of human presence where nature has rushed in to fill the void. Unfortunately, human encroachment on each side of the DMZ has prevented it from becoming the protected space some hope it to become.
  • Birds coexist with humans although many species have been wiped out by us as well (the dodo, the passenger pigeon, et al). Without us they would still collide with radio-transmission towers and power lines which kill millions of birds each year, at least until those things collapsed from inattention. The common housecat also slaughters songbirds for sport and without human care would continue to do so in places where cats would never have existed naturally.
  • Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps. You don’t really need to read this book to imagine what would happen to them in a world absent humans. Oddly, Chernobyl shows an example of wildlife returning to the land abandoned by people after the disaster there. Still, it’s hard to believe the world would recover so easily if all 400+ nuclear power plants melted down simultaneously and contaminated the earth.
  • The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement are people who’ve sworn to not reproduce and simply wish to convince everyone to voluntarily let our species die out. Reading their arguments they actually seem to have a point and are at least convincingly not crackpots.

Oddly it seems that humanity’s greatest achievements (skyscrapers, etc.) are the least permanent, while trash, plastic, and oil — the detritus of civilization — are the most permanent.
There’s a lot more in this book which makes for a thoughtful, sometimes depressing, but always fascinating read.

Friday Sillies: Simulacraceae


Simulacraceae

I heard about this project on the Scientific American podcast “Science Talk“.  It is no less than exhaustive, six-year project in the taxonomy of artificial plants.  Be warned, the Ethnobotany Journal article (pdf) contains requires knowledge of Pig Latin.  The publication date is interesting as well.