building a beautiful and bountiful world in collaboration with nature

Senses and Sensitivity

IMG_4027I’ve harvested several heads of purple cauliflower in the past few weeks. They are beautiful creatures, glowing in a glorious halo of green leaves as they sit regally atop foot high stalks. I always put off  picking them until the last possible moment. Their beauty is a sensory delight that is worth savoring, but that moment arrives when they start to shoot up and another inch of growth will make them begin to resemble a broccoli more than a cauliflower. That’s when I decide to enjoy the taste and smell of the flowerets as they lie enfolded in butter and spices on my dinner plate. A purple cauliflower is complete nutrition for the senses.

I have also been savoring the concept of perception these past few weeks.  Perception, I am coming to understand, is everything. What can be perceived can be interpreted, understood, utilized, acted on.  Perception brings with it the ability to respond.

Perception is a matter of sense and sensitivity.  What are we able to sense?  How much subtlety are we sensitive to?

I talked about Michael Pollan’s article on plant intelligence a few blogs back. In it he mentions that scientists have isolated at least 15 distinct plant senses. The roots alone are able to sense light, moisture, gravity, temperature, and pressure. Plants seem to sense sound waves, as when the roots move to an outwardly dry pipe that contains running water. They may even echolocate – like bats – using clicking noises generated by the growth of their cells to find the location of trellises and other inanimate objects in their vicinity.

How is it that plants can have 15 senses, but we have only 5? Or 6 if you count that controversial 6th sense. Are we really stuck in that narrow of a lens? Is that truly all we get to use to perceive the richness of the world?

I sense – with an undefined and unnamed sense – that we have been short-changing ourselves and that our own list of senses is much longer than 5 or 6.  The Jacobson’s organ senses pheromones, the unscented chemistry of the air. Our hearts are electromagnetic sensors of the highest order. If some grad student wants to take the time to break it out, we could probably generate a list of at least 5 or 6 more senses from the heart alone. The same is undoubtedly true for the gut. While we’re at it, why not count in the sensory awareness of the bacteria that inhabit these bodies? Their presence is integral to our health and survival, and they are the primary educators of our immune systems.

I’m just scratching the surface here – an off the top of my head laying out of how we come to know what we know, think what we think, and believe what we believe.

Why is this important?

Because perception of Self is the most crucial of all perceptions. That is the perception that defines the boundaries, allows growth to happen, and determines the trajectory of our actions.

Limit yourself to 5 senses and you have limited everything you do. Limit yourself to 15 senses and you have moved that boundary line considerably.  Do you want to communicate with plants?  It’s a lot easier when you move the boundaries you’ve placed on your perceptions.

Me? I’m holding out for at least 20 distinct senses incorporated into the design of this brilliantly human bodymind.

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Biology is Resilient!

IMG_2915The rain is falling regularly as we enter into spring, and our little rock bars are helping to slow its flow and sink it into the soil.  The California drought is by no means over, especially with the snow level staying at 5500 feet and higher, but I do imagine that all those hard-working people overseeing water distribution in this state must be getting some sleep again.

The ponds on our property filled about 3 weeks ago, after being dry or mere puddles for most of the winter. It took the frogs all of 2 days, from the time the ponds filled, to commence their evening chorus festivals. I delight in listening to them sing each night. It’s a natural, rhythmic lullaby.

Pear and apple trees are budding out already in some places, a testimony to the early warmth we’ve been experiencing. The chickweed and miner’s lettuce are taking off with the new moisture, and pastures that were brown in mid-February are greening up with grasses and herbs. The baby goats will get to meet a green world!

Water is the most wonderful substance! It’s presence makes a huge difference.

The quick response to the rains also makes me appreciate how resilient biological systems are. The frogs and grasses had a much longer wait for full ponds and wet soils than “normal”, but they’ve handled it well. There is so much we don’t yet fully understand about how this planet and all her components work, but biology is truly incredible stuff.

Which leads to a TED talk that I would like to highly recommend. Allan Savory gave this talk about greening the world’s deserts in 2013.  A radically biological approach that mimics the systems nature uses to build deep soils and grow prairies and trees. It is both doable and scalable and sequesters atmospheric carbon as well.  Link is Here.  Enjoy!

The Oldest Among Us

IMG_3895I made a pilgrimage last week, taking advantage of the snow-free roads caused by California’s drought, to visit the Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains at elevations of 10,000 feet plus.  Some of the trees in this forest are over 4,000 years old – the oldest known living trees, and perhaps the oldest living individuals on the planet.

Sitting among the Elders of Earth, it’s easier to take a larger perspective.  Easier to remember.  Easier to remember who you are.  Easier to remember why you came here.  Easier to remember what life is all about.

Sitting at their feet, I marveled over and over again at the beauty of their spiraling wood, at the baby pine cones in deep maroon and purple hues, at the awesome view of the Sierra Nevada mountains across the valley, at the patience and steadiness it takes to thrive year after year after year at these high, cold elevations.IMG_3892

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Returning home, rested and refreshed, I remember now that the most important thing is marvel, to live with wonder, to appreciate all the explained and unexplained mysteries of everyday life.  How do a trillion cells cooperate to form my body?  How beautiful is the cacophony of frog song around the pond at midnight!  The marvelous flavors – green, smooth, and comforting – of the chickweed growing on the farm.  How wondrous the deep green of a mallow leaf or the bright green of a blade of grass or the ruby glow of a sunset or the bright blue of a cold morning sky!

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This world loves to be adored, loves to be appreciated, loves to be touched, and loves to return all of that to us.  This is why I came.  This is why I love this planet.  This is why I love to work with Nature.

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Rooting into Place

grass rootsHow deep are your roots?

This question arises from a convergence of ideas. I am currently making my way through Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead, and he makes the point early on that the longevity of our relationship with a place is crucial to our ability to create resilient and regenerative farms, gardens, and homesteads. Familiarity is great, but the intimacy and trust that can develop over the long haul are as real and as key in human-land relations as they are in human-human relations, and this is what leads to well-designed, well-planned, co-evolving farms and gardens. The plans we develop when we are thinking in terms of 1, 2, or 5 years are very different than those we develop when we think in terms of 50, 70, or 100 years – or that seventh generation.

As I ponder this in terms of my own life, I get to listen to my husband – who loves to read aloud – as he explores Topsoil and Civilization, one of those classic books written at least 60 years ago to tell us how doomed we are unless we change our ways. The essential message is that the vast majority of civilizations have been very destructive to forests and soils, degrading their environments to the point where either the civilization moves on to new terrain or collapses. We haven’t changed our ways enough since the book was written to show that we are forging a new path, but there are great ideas, people, and projects out there, and it isn’t a done deal yet.

One of those people with a great idea and project is Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Kansas, who was a keynote speaker at the recent Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference. A visionary with a wonderful sense of humor, Wes gently educated his audience while keeping us laughing, hopeful, and engaged. Forty years ago, Wes pondered the same issues of longevity in one place, topsoil erosion, and the destruction of the native prairies of the Great Plains. The idea he came up with is revolutionary and far-sighted: mimic the systems of the native praires by developing perennial grains to grow in mixed polycultures.

All of the grains we rely on as staple foods are annuals. Wheat, corn, rye, barley, oats, amaranth, teff, millet, quinoa. All of these germinate, grow, flower, set seed, and die over the cycle of one year. The tillage required to grow these crops is responsible for massive amounts of annual soil erosion. Four to six tons of topsoil per acre are estimated to be lost from the Midwestern states each year. This is a serious loss, and one of the reasons that increasing amounts of fertilizers and pesticides are needed per acre to maintain existing yields. It’s a treadmill battle that farmers are losing.

Perennial grains could solve all that. Plants whose crowns and roots winter over after the top growth is harvested not only hold topsoil in place, they are at the foundation of the system that created 12 feet of topsoil in the first place. The trick, of course, is to breed perennials that put enough energy into seed production to give us larger seeds. The initial assessment was that such a breeding program would take 50 to 100 years to complete. Many felt that was too long-term of a project to invest in, but funding has been found over the years, and within the last few years, the Land Institute harvested its first crop of perennial wheat, called Kernza. The work is by no means done, but a giant step in creating a new kind of agriculture has been taken.

(This is NOT genetic modification we are talking about here. This is old-fashioned plant breeding that makes use of new technologies to mark genes and determine what to keep and what to cull. No gene splicing is involved!)

The roots of annual wheat travels 6 feet deep into the soil. The roots of the new Kernza perennial wheat are 18 feet deep! Especially as Kernza is being developed to be mixed with legumes in perennial polycutures, this is soil-building, rainwater harvesting, regenerative abundance in action.

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As a culture, we tend to pride ourselves on our mobility, and I will readily agree that there are big benefits from that. My own life experience has taken me across 3 continents and to many different types of lifestyle and culture, something I wouldn’t change or trade for anything. And so I find myself wondering; If we grow an agriculture that puts down ROOTS, 18 foot deep roots, can it help us to ground our mobility into a more intimate connection with the land we are on at this moment? Can it feed us into the kind of long-term thinking that grows resilience and flexibility in a changing environment? Can an agriculture with deep, perennial roots connect us to the deep beauty of this planet and  to the feeling of belonging here?

mimosa pudicaA friend recently sent me a link to an excellent article by Michael Pollan published in The New Yorker magazine, entitled “ The Intelligent Plant”. It’s a great overview of what science knows to date about the behaviours and awareness of plants. (Check it out here.)

I found the work of Monica Gagliano particularly intriguing. She is an animal ecologist who designed an ingenious experiment to determine to what extent plants are capable of the most basic form of learning: habituation. Gagliano used mimosa pudica, the sensitive plant, so-called because of its tendency to fold up its leaves in response to being touched, shaken, or dropped. She designed an apparatus that would drop each potted plant a distance of 15 centimeters every 5 seconds for a total of 60 drops per “training” session.

Of the 56 plants in the experiment, all of them eventually disregarded the dropping experience, leaving their leaves open once they determined it to be a “safe” experience. Several of the plants began leaving their leaves open after as few as 4, 5, or 6 drops. When these plants were later shaken by researchers, they all folded their leaves in response. They easily distinguished between being dropped and being shaken. In addition, when returned to the dropping experiment after a 28 day vacation, the plants remembered their previous experiences and left their leaves open. They had learned about being dropped.

The nascent science of plant neurobiology (a controversial term for many scientists as plants have no neurons or brain) is demonstrating that plants are fully capable of learning and remembering. They communicate information to each other through chemical and possibly other forms of signalling. They recognize kin. They form networks of mutual support sharing water and food. They have a minimum of 15 distinct senses through which they perceive their environment, using these to perform such amazing feats as sending their roots around rocks and toxic materials before they have even touched them.

Plants are more akin to animals than most scientists are ready to admit. Though many in the scientific community find the words “plant intelligence” to be offensive or unsettling, I find it reassuring. After all, we rely on the plant kingdom for oxygen, food, water purification, soil stabilization, soil creation, primary chemical research, and a host of other services. Clearly, they know what they are doing. Clearly, they have our backs.

Love Those Soil Creatures!

imagesSeedling2I spent last weekend at the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference.  One of the speaker highlights for me was the presentation given by Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb fame.  This is the woman who has single-handedly put soil biology – as opposed to soil chemistry – front and center over the past decade.  The January/February 2014 issue of Horticulture magazine has an article entitled “The Root of Good” that offers an excellent synopsis of Elaine’s work.  The compost tea craze that started up in this county about 2 years ago is a direct result of Elaine’s work.  I assume eco-farmers and gardeners around the country are experiencing a similar explosion of businesses making this microbiologically-rich tea available.

Even the most conscientious of organic growers often create biological monocultures in their soils through the practices of ploughing and tilling.  Breaking up the soil like this creates an environment that strongly favors bacteria over the fungi, protozoa, beneficial nematodes, and arthropods, all of which  are essential to the effective cycling of those soil nutrients – all that nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium that we hear so much about.  If we focus on the biology instead of the chemistry, we create an environment where nature can step in and do the necessary tweaking to get it all flowing.

Compost that is well-made, through processes that ensure good aeration, is essential to reintroducing the vast range of microbes to a soil that has leaned too heavily in one direction.  It can be applied directly or used to make a tea that is then sprayed over the plants and soil.  Mulching or perennial plant cover are essential strategies in maintaining good habitat and food resources for those fungi, once balance has been re-established.  Minimizing the amount of tilling and the size of area that is tilled also helps to maintain a diverse soil ecosystem.

The advantages to focusing on your soil’s biology rather than its chemistry are great.  The practices needed to maintain a healthy soil biology also conserve soil moisture (as California heads into a serious drought!), enhance plant health through the balanced nutrition that the microbes unlock, minimize pest damage because healthy plants have greater immunity, and create foods that are more nutritious for us.

The other big benefit lies in the connection.  When we tend to the health and diversity of all biological beings, we tend to our selves at the deepest level.  We acknowledge the power of the smallest creature to make a difference in our lives.  We acknowledge our own power to make a difference in the lives of others.

Note:  Click the link above on Elaine Ingham’s name to hear her on YouTube!

IMG_3847A garden or a farm is a living organism.  This is not only the ideal, but the result of following through on the principles of permaculture.  Every defined garden space has the ability to be a cell in the body of the larger ecosystem.  Each ecosystem is an organ in the body of Earth.  Holons stack inside holons: bounded infinities stack into bounded infinities.

When an embryo begins its journey to fetus and then infant, one of the first things that happens is the development of the heart and circulatory system.  The heart cells are the first cells to differentiate and specialize.  In the creation of your garden or farm, the first order of business is to define the space, to set the boundary lines.  (These can grow out later on, but all organisms begin with a sense of the edge.)  The second order of business is to find the heart, the circulatory center.

At Bluebird Farm, it took me 9 months to find the physical location for this heart.  It took time to get a sense of the whole, to get my feet and my own rhythm in sync with this place.  We discovered the locations for hedgerows and labyrinths, vegetable rivers and sheep pastures, berry patch and salad garden, but the heart felt like something I was still carrying inside myself.  The full conception of this garden-farm had not yet come into being.

Then one day in early October, understanding unfolded.  A patch of ground occupied by six-foot tall wild lettuces kept attracting my attention.  It wasn’t on the list or the schedule, but I knew the time had come to create a water altar, to give Bluebird her center, her heart. It didn’t take long to remove the lettuces and create a mulched pathway to the spot.  The granite rocks needed to frame the area had been waiting patiently for months.  A  few simple statements infused the space with the necessary intention.  It took another week for the water bowl to show up.  Some pretty rocks volunteered to participate: amethyst, emerald, and shungite.  Because Bluebird is open to a variety of people, I wrote a short message, inviting others to also participate in empowering the water of this farm-heart.  That message reads:

Water is one of the most amazing substances on this planet or in this universe.  In 2012, scientists in Germany confirmed that water has memory.  It records in its molecular patterning the energies of the people and things that come in contact with it. This water altar is a place for sharing love and appreciation with water.  Think of someone or something in your life that you love deeply, or remember an experience that made your heart sing.  As you feel that love and joy and appreciation in your body, place your hands on this water bowl and let your love flow into the water.  It only takes a few moments, but the water will remember! This water will be sprinkled on the soil, plants, and animals that live here on Bluebird Farm, charging all with the powerful energies of love and appreciation.  Thank you for your participation!

The flow of water lies at the heart of all living organisms.  A trickle of water can erode the most solid of rocks.  How might your garden change when you find its water-heart?