Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

September 21, 2013

I.D. this Weed

Filed under: gardening — Tags: , , — paragardener @ 5:48 am

This weed looked interesting to me so I let it grow in my lettuce bed. It looks kind of elegant trimmed up, with the seed pods, so I wonder if it has a cultural use. Any idea what it is?



The plant is about 4 feet tall and grows in small stands by the roadside. Its widely spaced leaves grow bigger than saucers but smaller than dinner plates. The flowers open up into some modest yellow cups.
Thanks friends.


February 16, 2013

Plants Talk, but Who Listens?

Plants and fungi communicate with animals, and each other, through chemical signals. An apple skin fills with pigment to announce its ripeness to animals that might eat it and excrete the seeds far from the tree. A flower’s smell carries on the breeze and attracts just the right butterfly to spread its pollen around.

The worldwide web of chemical chatter helps to keep habitats vibrant. For example, if a tree limb is invaded by insects, it will not only pump pesticides through the vasculature of that limb, but also emit a signal chemical to alert other nearby limbs and trees of the threat. If the forest is on the brink of killing off an insect species, it may select a tree to cease pumping pesticides and serve as an insect sanctuary — thus maintaining a balance between trees and their pests, and preventing both killer infestations and the evolution of pesticide-resistant “superbugs.”

Humans are animals. We are affected by plant talk — it’s how we decide what kinds of fruit, vegetables and grains we like. Yet, we are not lately respecting what plants have to say. We tend to think of food plants and medical herbs as something to buy preprocessed at the store, with no roots in the Earth. In consequence, we don’t know how to act on this planet. As a species, we’ve become like someone who is way too drunk for this early stage in the party, talking too loud, not listening, and obliviously stepping on everyone else’s toes.

A variety of tropical plants speak through caffeine, a chemical deadly to insects, desired by humans, goats, and certain other animals. It is entirely appropriate for sub/tropical peoples such as Arabs and Han Chinese to live symbiotically with coffee, tea, or cocoa trees. Yemen is a land of dry, rocky mountains, but some valleys are terraced and planted with lush coffee forests. Yemenis use coffee “cherries” as well as beans, since they live close enough to the tree to utilize the fresh fruit. Yemeni men stop to gather and drink coffee between morning prayers and the start of work, and men and women drink it throughout the day. Coffee inspires prayer and poetry.

Qat farming in Yemen

Actually, these farmers are raising Qat, Yemen’s other stimulant with its own traditions and rituals. A number of old Yemeni poems concern the debate between coffee and qat.

“Oh Coffee, you dispel the worries of the Great, you point the way to those who have wandered from the path of knowledge. Coffee is the drink of the friends of God, and of his servants who seek wisdom.

No one can understand the truth until he drinks of its frothy goodness. Those who condemn coffee as causing man harm are fools in the eyes of God.

Coffee is the common man’s gold, and like gold it brings to every man the feeling of luxury and nobility….Take time in your preparations of coffee and God will be with you and bless you and your table. Where coffee is served there is grace and splendor and friendship and happiness.

All cares vanish as the coffee cup is raised to the lips. Coffee flows through your body as freely as your life’s blood, refreshing all that it touches: look you at the youth and vigor of those who drink it.

Whoever tastes coffee will forever forswear the liquor of the grape. Oh drink of God’s glory, your purity brings to man only well-being and nobility“

–Sheik Ansari Djezeri Hanball Abd-al-Kadir, 1587, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

There are no significant caffeine plants that grow in the temperate latitudes. Yet, we have a large proportion of caffeine-dependent people (myself included). In order to pull caffeine from its natural place in the order of things, Western powers imposed insane colonial policies on the tropical nations, forcing people out of villages and small farms and onto plantations that raised coffee, cocoa, tea, or sugarcane — the last, largely so that even the humblest of Westerners can add sugar to their coffee or tea or afford the occasional cheap chocolate bar. People in the global South are held in poverty and oppression for our cheap perks. Although we typically use caffeine in a fairly healthful way, caffeine expresses a negative social consequence of making long, dull work days more tolerable and tolerated. I rather suspect that things on Earth would run a little more harmoniously if caffeinated plants were known in the temperate zone as exotic novelties, instead of almost a human right like water and food.

Sugar, the sister of caffeine, sets an example of a substance casually ripped from its physical and chemical plant matrix, a different sort of distortion in the ecological chatter. Sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia, where it was grown to be chewed or juiced from about six thousand years ago. By a few centuries after the time of Christ, Indians were crystallizing sugar from the juice. Greeks were using expensive imported sugar in medicine. By the Middle Ages, humans had plainly lost perspective over sugar, with Arabs irrigating the desert to grow the water-loving cane. People all over ate it until our teeth rotted out and we died of diabetic complications.

Wisely applied, we can use a little chemistry to extract the good stuff from plants and make better medicines or flavorings. Yet, our tendency is to go all-out in purifying something all the way down to a white powder or a volatile liquid, regardless of the results. We believe in the myth of the “active constituent” that supposes only the most predominant, loudest-speaking chemicals in a plant are of any interest. Our economic mindset is scarcity, so we always try to get the most “bang for the buck.” Dosages and nutritional values are distorted, and secondary chemicals that enhance a plant’s flavor or effects are purified away. White flour is little more than starch, cocaine is hundreds of times more problematic than coca tea, clarified beer and wine (fungal products) lack protein and B-vitamins, and so on and so forth.

“Yellow butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin corn,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant throng.

Blue butterflies,
Over the blossoming virgin beans,
With pollen-painted faces
Chase one another in brilliant streams.

Over the blossoming corn,
Over the virgin corn,
Wild bees hum;
Over the blossoming beans,
Over the virgin beans,
Wild bees hum.

–Hopi planting song

“High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical in composition to table sugar.” — Corn Refiners Association

The processed food around us has been designed to taste good, store forever, and come cheap. In order to fulfill all three requirements, food technologists have essentially been forced to engineer deceptive food. This food compensates for the lack of fresh, quality ingredients with chemical artifice. A few kinds of fats, salt, sugar (often chemically bastardized) and sometimes MSG provide flavor in place of the cornucopia of interesting herbs and vegetables that would make for healthy food, but require care and freshness. Plants mainly tell the truth, and food technologists mainly lie.

We have two human systems at work here that are incompatible with the web of life. Our system of science places a premium on isolating variables, on taking things out of life and into the laboratory to see how the smallest parts work in isolated conditions. We need to orient ourselves more to field observation to learn how things actually work in nature — biologists of many sorts need to be listening to plants, not bombarding their genes with crude inserts.

The second problem, and I would guess the much larger one, is our model of industry. To a subsistence farm family among the Amish or ancient Celts, pigs have a certain role on the farm: eating scraps to produce meat and fertile feces. To industrial people, a pig is a component in a production process, consuming costly inputs to produce a return on investment. It makes sense to farm pigs in tiny cages in warehouses, feed them a diet that causes them to bloat up, and dump their waste anywhere you can get away with, because only money is real. This degrades the environs around pig farms and brings us flavor-and-nutritionally depleted pork, but again, only money is real. A similar ethic affected industry under Communism, wherein Moscow would decree certain production goals, and Soviet managers would aim to meet those goals regardless of who or what they destroyed in the process. But, farmers who live among their plants, who are not economically forced into planting-by-numbers, are sensitive to the needs of the environment around them and degrade it very slowly, if at all.

Field edge boundary hedge - - 1001684

Half-wild hedges between fields represent a fine compromise between ecological needs and immediate human needs. The hedges can be a source of wild food, medicine, and pollinators, not to mention protecting soil from erosion and preserving species from extinction. English hedges are full of the plants you will find in old English songs and literature: holly and ivy, wild roses, oaks…  photo by Dr. Duncan Pepper

What would our culture look like if it listened to plants? I could imagine a permacultural utopia and present it here, but that would be relatively boring. The real point is to learn about that from the plants themselves, anyway.

One change we might make is to drop the use of coffee from the Eastern US to take up sassafras instead. Sassafras is a tree used as medicine in both native and settler traditions. It is the root used in genuine root beer, or it may be consumed as a tea. Sassafras was emblematic of the American colonies, being widely seen as one of the great delights discovered in the New World. It was used to feel warm in the winter, get vitamin C, resist colds and flu, and to reinvigorate oneself in the spring. It is thought to be a subtle stimulant or mood lifter and to help maintain a general state of well-being, as well as offering cures for a number of more specific ailments. Sassafras sounds like just the thing to lift the cultural malaise resulting from the coffee-structured work day, making us healthier in the winter and more cheerful, instead of aggravating anxieties. We could be supporting polycultural farmers here at home instead of practically enslaving workers on plantations abroad.

Sassafras seedling.

Naturally, the FDA bans the use of sassafras in regulated food and drink. In a laboratory setting, sassafras oil was administered to rats (biologically similar to beavers, a natural enemy of sassafras trees) at such high doses that the rats experienced chronic kidney irritation, and subsequently developed kidney cancer, which is somehow interpreted as demonstrating that the substance is a dangerous carcinogen in humans at any dose. The DEA even takes note whenever the essential oil is purified from the plant, because of the oil’s chemical similarity to MDMA (ecstasy). These organizations are dedicated not to the logic of nature, but to the logic of reductive laboratory science and profiteering industry. Consider the US government’s alphabet soup of agencies and their strange relationships with tobacco, as well.

One could still plant a sassafras tree in the backyard and harvest from it quietly. You would get to know that tree, its growth habit, even moods that affect its oil production. More than merely exploiting a means of production, you would be bound to the tree as an ally, giving it space and water in exchange for its beneficent presence.

Even the weeds in your lawn have something to say for themselves, if you will but listen.

Fringing cypress forests dim
Where the owl makes weird abode,
Bending down with spicy limb
O’er the old plantation road,
Through the swamp and up the hill,
Where the dappled byways run,
Round the gin-house, by the mill,
Floats its incense to the sun.

Swift to catch the voice of spring,
Soon its tasselled blooms appear;
Modest is their blossoming,
Breathing balm and waving cheer;
Rare the greeting that they send
To the fragrant wildwood blooms,
Bidding every blossom blend
In a chorus of perfumes.

On it leans the blackberry vine,
With white sprays caressingly;
Round its knees the wild peas twine,
Beckoning to the yellow bee;
Through its boughs the red-bird flits
Like a living flake of fire,
And with love-enlightened wits
Weaves his nest and tunes his lyre.

Oh, where skies are summer-kissed,
And the drowsy days are long,
’Neath the sassafras to list
To the field-hand’s mellow song!
Or, more sweet than chimes that hang
In some old cathedral dome,
Catch the distant klingle-klang
Of the cow-bells tinkling home!

–Samuel Minturn Peck

January 17, 2013

On the Gruit Path

Filed under: gardening, magic, Vinting — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 3:31 pm

The topic of gruit ale generated more than theoretical interest, so I’ve decided to collate & post some info to empower people to make or find this stuff. The first part of this post is for people making their own; it concerns getting seeds or transplants, growing the herbs, buying the herbs and where to add the herbs in the brewing process. The second part concerns tracking down gruit ale for sale.

Plants and Growing Info:

The best place to buy dried beer herbs appears to be Wild Weeds. You will find the “Holy Trinity” of beer herbs there under the names Sweet Gale, Yarrow, and Labrador Tea.

Myrica gale (sweet gale, bog myrtle) — This is a 2-4′ high shrub that grows along the waterside. It has been a brewing spice in Europe for over 2,000 years. Also native to North America, the Potawatomi Indians used the plant as a smudge to banish evil spirits (a suggestion of antiseptic action). Flavorwise, sweet gale is said to have a spicy aroma and a bitter taste, but also to impart a vanilla-like richness. For the head, sweet gale is narcotic or stupefying, yet it is said to improve the lucidity of dreaming.

Gagelstrauch (1)


North American sweet gale can be purchased for transplant through Fourth Corner Nurseries, a business dedicated to propagating native plants, or New England Wetland Plants.

Sweet gale prefers boggy to wet soil, something you might achieve almost anywhere by applying water almost continuously. However, it also appreciates acidic conditions (pH 4 to 6.5) — presumably the boggy places where it grows naturally are loaded with humic and fulvic acids from the slow decomposition of plants. Any level of sunlight is fine, but some shade will help protect this plant of the North from the summer heat.

Bog myrtle’s chemistry is best expressed with a combination of hot-water extraction and alcohol extraction; therefore half of it should be boiled with the wort, and half thrown in the fermenter (in a permeable bag.) On the other hand, plenty of people just toss it in the boiling wort and strain it out. All of the aerial parts of the plant are used, however, the best time is when “nut cones” are on the stem. Use 1.5 g of herb per gallon of brew. Or, use 1 oz. per gallon, to make sweet gale ale (with no other spices.)

Achillea millefolium (yarrow) — This plant vaguely resembles Queen Anne’s Lace. The leaves have zillions of feathery leaflets. This one has been with Eurasians since Neanderthal times, a very old friend indeed. Yarrow is used to dramatic effect in the binding of wounds, as well as manifold subtler uses (antiseptic, blood-flow promoter, …?). Tossing yarrow stalks is the oldest way to cast the I Ching, and yarrow heals battle wounds in the Iliad, so yarrow was known far and wide for its potent magic. Mentally, yarrow provides enhanced clarity and quells anxiety — except if taken with ale, when it precipitates instant drunkenness.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (2863774620)

Yarrow seedlings can be purchased from Fourth Corner, or seeds from Alchemy Works.

Like many herbs, yarrow prefers mediocre soil with good drainage. For seeds, barely press into moist soil; seeds need light to germinate in 5-10 days at 62-75F/18-25C.

In beer, yarrow is bitter and preservative. Leaves should be boiled in the wort, but delicate aromatics can be taken from the flower heads if they are placed into the cooling wort right after the boil. Use at 1.5 g per gallon in gruit, or 1 oz. per gallon in a single-herb brew, or half that mass of recently dried yarrow.

Rhododendron tomentosum (wild or marsh rosemary) — This low shrub has leaves smooth on top, fuzzy beneath. A second species, Rhododendron groenlandicum, is also acceptable, and this is one of those annoying cases where the scientific name seems to add little clarity to the discussion (you may also read about these plants as Ledum glandulosum, Ledum latifolium, Ledum palustre, or as multiple types of Labrador Tea.) Don’t confuse these with Limonium, a completely different genus known as marsh rosemary, but also as sea lavender or statice: Limoniums are not what you want. In herbalism, Labrador Tea seems to be popular for treating a laundry list of conditions. It is much more widely available than true wild rosemary. Either plant contributes to some sort of narcotic delirium, with higher doses leading to headaches and cramps.

Labrador tea Ledum glandulosum close

Labrador Tea seeds are available at From the Forest.

Wild rosemary likes the same sort of acidic, boggy soil as Bog myrtle (Myrica gale.) However, it is somewhat less tolerant of shade. Seeds are broadcast onto moist soil in Spring when its temperature is 55-65F/13-18C, or in Fall.

Wild rosemary has a fresh, spicy aroma and bitter taste. The brewer should take caution when utilizing any unfamiliar source of wild rosemary, as not all of the plants in this group are of equal potency. As with bog myrtle, half of it should be boiled with the wort, and half thrown in the fermenter (in a permeable bag, weighted with a clean or sterile stone.) Use fresh flowering tops in gruit at 1.5 g per gallon, or 4/5 oz. per gallon in a single-herb brew.

Other plants: Gruit was used over a big piece of Europe for seven centuries or so… the recipe varied quite a bit. Sometimes the mix included juniper berries, ginger, caraway seeds, aniseed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Some sources go on to name mugwort, wormwood, heather, and licorice. Or lavender, lemon balm, chamomile, and sweet fern. These lists are by no means exhaustive, however, some people seem to use “gruit” to refer to any mix of beer herbs excluding hops, regardless of how authentically medieval it may or may not be. Literally speaking, “gruit” is Old German for “herb” (and you pronounce it along the lines of “fruit.”)

Finding Gruit Ale:

There seem to be no gruit ales distributed on anything like a national basis (in the United States, at any rate). To buy gruit ale, you need to find a local brewery that has achieved competency in the style.

I searched the ‘net for “Michigan gruit -fruit.” This technique seems to work fine for other states, although I don’t know if you’ll find a gruit brewery far from the chilly, boggy places where marsh rosemary and bog myrtle grow.

In Michigan, Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. of Warren carries an occasional heather ale. Mt. Pleasant Brewing Company carries “Sacred Gruit Ale” as a regular beer, with the authentic triumvirate of major herbs. Mt. Pleasant brews are carried by a number of distributors across the state. You can look at this map and call your local distributor to find out which stores have Sacred Gruit. Mt. Pleasant brews are also served up at Mountain Town Station brewpub in Mt. Pleasant.

Still curious? Take a look at Gruit… I especially like their pilgrimage to the 50th parallel to harvest wild bog plants!

September 8, 2012

Making Pickles Ain’t Shit

Filed under: food, gardening — Tags: , , , — paragardener @ 11:46 pm

Pickling: a dark mystery lurking in deep shadows.
First of all, understand that grocery store pickles are all counterfeits. They are cucumbers dunked in vinegar and pickling spices, sealed in a jar. Real pickles ferment in anaerobic brine, like a creature that crawled up from a coastal swamp. The sour element is not vinegar, but lactic acid. Many folks have never tasted an actual pickle.
Making my own pickles was simple, and it makes me wonder why doing it is rare. I took my giantest plastic bowl and threw some full-sized cucumbers and green beans in there. I added water, salted to 3/4 Teaspoon per cup. All I had for spice was black pepper and garlic powder. Real garlic and fresh dill are much preferable. Then, a fistful of grape leaves, though a black tea teabag will work just fine.
I put a small bowl inside the big one and weighted it down with a glass to push the vegetables under the brine. Finally, a towel goes over all to protect from dust.
You can peek under the small bowl every few days, but you might as well wait a week or more at the start of the process. Scary molds will grow on thew surface of the brine, but you can scape ’em off with a serving spoon and compost them. Also, you may have to top up with new saltwater.
Viola, it’s pickles! Not the worst I’ve ever had, though the recipe certainly deserves some tweaking (thanks for the pickles, Mom). It only takes about as much work as assembling a salad. Man, making pickles ain’t shit!

August 8, 2012

Escape from Wonderland

Filed under: gardening, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 12:25 am

Today I went to vote and received a sticker claiming that “My vote counted!” I seem to remember a time in the past when you received a sticker that said, “I voted.” Like “I gave blood,” the sticker was a subtle social pressure to get other people doing the same thing. If more people vote, that should tend to make our sham democracy less of a sham.

“My vote counted” means something completely different. It means “I have faith in the electoral system.” Which I don’t… I can’t really say if I fed my ballot today directly into a paper shredder or not. Anyways, the candidates who win are generally those anointed by party machines, which live as a sort of parasite or symbiont on the corporatocracy. By and large, we the people don’t count because we almost  always vote as those with advertising dollars tell us (the more educated will listen to the pet journalists of the corporatocracy, who depend on the advertising rather than writing it. Advertising trumps investigation either way).

“My vote counted” is just a little intrusion of the phony propaganda world into my real life. The worst is when I try to find some news of the world and extend my view beyond my narrow little Michigan horizon (although, to be fair to this fine state, I do  feel like the trees limiting my line of sight, are at the right height.) The politics is all left-right, while the people at the center of it, never mentioned, suck money and life-blood from all the peoples of the world. The science is all gee-whiz, and an unexpected result in a laboratory game is always hailed as a groundbreaking new insight into the human condition. History only goes back as far as World War II. The United States isn’t an imperial power, we’re the champion of freedom around the world. It makes me want to snort bath salts and run amok, naked and howling.

The Powers That Be have yet to attain total control over our information. In fact, you can frequently hear them wringing their hands over the breakdown of consensus and the rising popularity of alternative, odd, and sometimes unbelievable beliefs. When people have been raised by T.V. and the K-12 system to be non-thinking corporate servitors, and yet they can no longer accept the nonsensical mainstream chorus message, they’re going to invent some funky explanations for the way the world is. As long as they’re not blaring hateful vibes, look at the funky beliefs of (biodynamic gardeners, state militia members, Wilhem Reich followers, the Tea Party…) and try to find the grain of truth that’s driving them.

That said, with the help of friends and family, I have developed some strategies for getting less-warped news of the world.

You can avoid the American corporate media. Read a local paper from Canada, available online (that’s how I discovered that U.S. States were floating bills to ban photography of farms, largely to facilitate horrible conditions for animals). Listen to the BBC, Al Jazeera, Russia Today, or even NPR. I don’t particularly trust these sources as truthful, but they will widen up your field of vision.

There are also independent voices you can hear over the Internet. I really enjoy Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert — they are on Russia Today and an Iranian channel, amongst other outlets, including some truly independent ones. It’s true that the duo won’t slam Russia on RT, but Russia doesn’t loom huge on my list of concerns. Max and Stacy’s job is to expose financial scams, which are plentiful and expensive in this world. Max was once a Wall Street broker and knows first hand what kind of rip-off artists inhabit the circles of high finance. There is no kowtowing to “technocrats” or Too-Big-to-Fail institutions from the mighty Max & Stacy.

Now, I don’t have an endless hunger to hear about financial scandal, but there are often other good news items reposted on, or Max will have guests on who you can look up to find out something new. He’s hosted the likes of Dmitry Orlov and James Howard Kunstler, who hold the view that the corporatist economy has grown to its limits and must now crash (credit and investment don’t work so hot in a shrinking economy. And it will be a dark day if the money system becomes so shoddy that, for instance, delivery drivers wake up and decide that it’s no longer worth going to work).

Most recently, I’ve been visiting the Internet home of the Corbett Report, broadcast from “the sunny climes of Western Japan.” Corbett follows the activities of elites to gather “Open Source Intelligence” on them and discover what they are really up to. Hint: the ranks of those with great wealth and power are made up largely of people who crave great wealth and power. Everything Corbett presents is sourced, thus shedding light on many new fields for the Internet-scrounger.

Corbett believes that Peak Oil is a hoax, Orlov believes it’s as certain as gravity. There is no phony consensus outside of propaganda Wonderland, but you can bet that Orlov and Corbett have a reasonable disagreement, and aren’t paid to speak from their particular opposing positions. What kind of person can be paid to hold to a particular line? What kind of credibility should you grant such a person?

It is totally necessary to dig into the dark, hidden side of things, like Smeagol fishing in a dark hole or turning over rocks to find worms and wood lice. If you have no drive to look at the evil, you would totally allow Nazis to take your neighbors away and figure that they were really going to a fun and educational camp. But there is also a wonderful side to life, of volcano-painted sunsets and meteor showers and creative people to appreciate.

Sometimes it’s hard to get out of The Grid, the mile roads and power lines and mowed fields of Southeastern Michigan and ten thousand other metropolitan sprawls around the world. So, I suggest escaping its all-stultifying influence by allowing one corner of your backyard to go wild. You could water it in a drought or cut back a nasty invasive plant, but mainly just support the life there, and don’t try to utilize or prettify it too much. This is a place to forget about the endless echo of human chatter and value judgements and artifice.

Learn from weeds.

July 18, 2012

Food Stamps for Independence

Over 46 million Americans use food stamps (or SNAP or EBT, also called the Bridge Card in Michigan), or over 15% of us. I think that you could say that the program has grown beyond a “safety net” function and become “life support for the rest of the economy.”

And what is the nature of that food-stamp-dependent economy? It seeks to rip off the rest of the world à la the United Fruit company, and then redistribute some of the spoils according to a humane, human welfare model. How can we support multinational companies exploiting all of the people and resources of the world and yet stay comfortable and well fed at home? Equilibrium will be restored, by jobs leaving the country, immigrants sneaking in, or by the financial powers that be putting us in the austerity sights. An EBT that is basically helping its user buy into the corporate food chain is supporting not only fruit company plantation imperialism, but also Monsanto, and Monsanto’s biological weapons, beehive death, and the degradation of the world into sterile salt flats. On the other hand, an American family gets to eat for another month, which is no small thing.

Food stamps don’t have to support imperial trade practices or shitty farming. SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has a couple of neat wrinkles in it that promote independence, particularly independence from the abusive corporate food chain. Firstly, food stamps can be used to buy fruit and vegetable seeds wherever they are accepted (as at a grocery store with a rack of seeds). Secondly, Michigan residents can receive bonus tokens for spending their Bridge Card money at various local produce markets. It’s as if someone has been listening to Michelle Obama.

Food stamps could buy seeds since 1973, yet the fact has not been much publicized. Senator James Allen of Alabama explained at the time:

The recipients of food stamps would thus be able to use their own initiative to produce fruits and vegetables needed to provide variety and nutritional value for their diets.

While this amendment does broaden the definition of food items which may be purchased with food stamp coupons, I would expect that the food stamp recipients would be able to purchase the seeds and plants they need from grocery stores who are now participating in the food stamp program.

I would not expect the Department of Agriculture to undertake the administrative costs of certifying those thousands of additional stores to supply the seeds and plants that food stamp recipients might wish to purchase.

The amendment would allow the food stamp recipient to purchase with his food stamps seeds and plants for the purpose of growing food  for consumption by himself and his household.

It would allow a person to buy  $1 or $2 worth of seed or vegetable plants and possibly have available a plot of land and be able to raise $50 or $100 worth of food for himself and his family.

It would encourage industry on the part of the food stamp recipient and it would be at no cost to the Federal Government.

Now, Senator Allen left out the best part. If someone raises $100 worth of vegetables from $2 of seeds, they’ve just denied the corporate food chain $98. SNAP Gardens is an organization promoting food stamp gardens, and providing information to gardeners. I suggest SNAP non-recipients visit the page to absorb some of its enthusiasm.

The idea of being independent of the Ugliness Economy doesn’t mean everyone must become an atomized individual sewing their own clothes from thread they spun themselves from a sheep they fed from their own garden. Clearly people need to support each other, with gifts, barter, and fair, localized commerce.

In Michigan, some farmer’s markets have a Bridge Card tent where you swipe your card, and then the cashier tells you that the card won’t scan, so you stand there and ask them to manually punch your number in (well, that’s how my Bridge Card worked after a couple of months). Anyways, they give you tokens representing food stamp money to spend at the other booths. And the cool bit is, they double your money up to $20 per day. The program is called Double Up Food Bucks, and if you follow the link you’ll find a list of participating markets. (Thanks, Wilfrid Cyrus, for pointing this one out to me.) These markets are much nicer places to spend money in than, say, Walmart. Other states may have similar programs — for instance, in Rhode Island, you can spend WIC credits at farmer’s markets.

I would love to see a Homesteader Card program, which would give out money for soil, fertilizer, planters, fencing, homebrew gear and all of the other good stuff that allows people to take care of their own household needs. Since that would undermine growth of “the marketplace” — people would get used to getting $100 of vegetables for only $2 — the government would never do such a thing. Oh, well. In the meantime, SNAP gardens and Double Up Food Bucks can still be used to undermine the Ugliness Economy.

Garden for victory!



June 10, 2012

Ozone Alert: Your neighbors’ lawnmowers are killing you today.

I went to this morning to check the weather. There was a little note with a hyperlink stuck to my local forecast: “Hazardous Weather Conditions: Ozone Alert.”






It’s remarkable that the Department of Environmental Quality is not blaming this toxic cloud on industry’s Satanic mills. This pollution is being done neighbor-to-neighbor, through cars, lawnmowers, paint, and grills. Somebody with asthma has to stay inside today for someone else to live the suburban dream of mowing the lawn, driving to the store and barbequing.

For my part, it never occurred to me that lighter fluid was a serious pollutant. I’ll be only too happy to switch to a chimney-style charcoal starter.

Someone gifted me their old gas-powered lawn mower last Fall, and I treated it like crap and it died after about three mowings. To replace it, I got a hand-powered reel mower — American innovation, Chinese manufacture, bought through

Reel mower with a grass catcher.I can’t wait for the grass to grow! Oh, I shall dance the dance of Green Consumer Superiority the day I get to mow with this! It’s quieter and it doesn’t smell bad, besides requiring no gas and generating no pollutants of any type.

Well, I’m happy to change one practice at a time towards sustainability / not poisoning my neighbors. It’s a long road out of mutually-imposed suburban Hell, but making the trip is better than living and dying this way.

May 24, 2012

Great Pacific Garbage Patch, My Ass!

Filed under: gardening, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 3:13 am

Lost and thrown away plastic is said to be accumulating in the middles of the big ocean gyres. Bottles, bags, nylon ropes and fishing nets, party cups and sundries are carried by winds, rivers, currents and boaters into the sea and swirl out towards the center. Some of the plastic gets tangled in nylon ropes or fishing nets to form little trash islands. Most of it is broken down by the sun, leaching toxic plastic additives and leaving lots of tiny fragments hanging around to choke marine animals.

Yes, this does seem to be a fact, but how about my backyard garbage patch? Back in a quiet corner, where I do my composting, plastic fragments seem to blow in from all over the neighborhood.

Plastic strewn over ground.

As a consequence of plastic coming to rest here, the soil is full of plastic bits and the compost I dug out to fill my vegetable box is full of plastic bits, too.

Similar plastic fragments

Plastic debris makes Bella sad.

Capris Sun packet buried under a weed.

When I moved into this house several years ago, I picked up a slew of trash from this area. Yet, I continue to unearth it. I wonder how long the neighborhood gyre has been dumping on that spot?

A root with numerous plastic hangers-on

Yes, I feel bad for the strangled sea birds, but also for my earthworms and viny creepers. Paper and cardboard debris would be destroyed here within a couple of years, and feed those roots and weird bugs.

I don’t see everyone around me about to become super-aware of this problem and avoid all plastic packaging and junk. And even if they all stop littering, little pieces of plastic tend to blow away (I’m even finding my own plastic label stakes from past years’ gardens). Could we please ban the use of plastic disposables? The problem with plastic is pretty clear, and it deserves some kind of response…

Did we really need to see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to figure something’s gone awry?

May 21, 2012

The Inner Slave-driver

Filed under: gardening, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 3:11 pm

I decided some time ago to swear off employment and support myself. I floundered around for awhile tying macrame hemp jewelery, but I didn’t really like selling it. Now I grow medical herbs for a steady group of clients.

My problem is that I can still feel pretty oppressed. Nowadays it isn’t my conditions of employment or my boss oppressing me; it’s just me.

The slave-driver within is a rude bastard to me. He gets me up in the morning, yelling about how I have to get ready to work. “Other people have to get up at six in the morning and drive to a factory,” he tells me, to guilt out any pleasure I might feel at getting up naturally, when I want.

Be your own boss.  While I’m working, the inner slave-driver watches everything I do and second-guesses me. A real slave-driver would have to pick on the other slaves sometimes, but this overseer is ever-present. What starts out as a concern for the plants and clients morphs into an obsession with correctly carrying out some program I’ve invented. I might as well work for a corporation!

Set your own hours.  By three in the afternoon, I’m exhausted of being picked on and picking on myself. I may yet force myself to work until five or six, if there’s anything to do, or I may shout at the slave-driver “I quit!”. In any case, once I’m “off,” I’m not going to touch anything dealing with the herb garden until the next day.

Well, a couple of days ago, I alleviated my boredom at 10:30 at night by going back to work with some little seedlings I’ve got under lights. It was strangely liberating to work at an odd hour. Why should I worry about clock time? The sun rises and sets. That’s reality — punching in and out, keeping track of time to the second, those are inventions of management. I am known to be unmanageable. And all of my friends run late, anyways.

Make money!  “If you were a more effective gardener,” says the slave-driver, “you would be making as much money as someone with a corporate job.” Um… so what? Life is not a money-making contest in the first place. In the second place: I don’t commute; I don’t waste money buying my lunches at Burger King or drinking with my coworkers when our shift ends. I have time to do things like brewing my own beer, which save money. Working for The Man doesn’t just make you money — it makes you spend money, too.

The money issue is inextricably tied up with the time issue. During “work time,” I must work at making money. The oppression of it all wears me out too much to attend to the brewing, baking and food gardening. Making money has taken priority over quality of life, and the quality of life stuff saves money anyways!

Mr. Slave-driver, you are fired. All of the school teachers and bosses I’ve had seem to have created you by colonizing my mind — you’re not even a real part of me, and you’re not helpful in any way. I get more done when I’m not listening to you. Self-employment apparently means using myself, so I’ll stay creatively non-employed but working. From now on, the slave-driver will be answered by the voice of Eric Cartman: “Screw you, I’ll do what I want!”

April 20, 2012

Potatoes, Peasants and Paradeisophobia

Filed under: gardening, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 4:05 pm

“The indolent and turbulent habits of the lower Irish can never be corrected while the potato system enables them to increase so much beyond the regular demand for labor.” – Reverend Thomas Malthus

During the mid-1600’s, England seized most of Ireland’s good agricultural land for Protestant owners, and forced Catholics into swamps and other lousy areas. Catholics went from owning 60% of the land to 8%. Many of the new owners made their living by exporting wheat or other commodities to England, shrinking away Ireland’s food supply. This was a disaster, and many Irish clans might have been headed for extinction. Fortunately, the potato had recently been carried to Europe from its home in the Andes. Potatoes generated more food per acre than any other crop known, and they provide as nearly complete nutrition as you could hope for out of a single food. The Irish increased  on a fraction of the land they’d once farmed, going from three to eight million in a century.

English economist Arthur Young. in his Tour of Ireland, found potato plots ranging from half an acre to and acre and a half in size. Typically, a plot would be sharecropped for no money, but merely the right to live on the land, keep a cow or two and eat some potatoes! Young found this potentially exploitative, but on the other hand, it meant that peasants were not subject to fluctuations in the price of food (the English poor sometimes rioted over the price of bread). In several ways, having no cash and farming your own milk and potatoes was better than the English system of getting paid wages of almost no money, and being subject to firings, price spikes, or costly vice binges.

William Cobbett, an English journalist and politician, railed against potatoes as a trap for the poor. He believed potatoes to be less nutritious than wheat, fooling the poor by filling their bellies with worthless bulk. Cobbett also had a visceral aversion to potatoes: they had to be stored in root cellars instead of pantries; they reduced potato eaters into uncultured hogs; they lacked the elegance of uniform white flour and its rise into airy bread. Potatoes didn’t require “preparation, forethought, and attention,” thus depriving the poor of character-building opportunities. To Cobbett, growing your own food meant exiling yourself from civilization and culture. It would be better, in his view, to buy white flour on the free market and die if the free market didn’t need you. (See “Selections from Cobbett’s political works.”)

Concern for the plight of the poor really drifts towards the genocidal in the works of Thomas Malthus. “Does [Arthur Young] seriously think that it would be an eligible thing to feed the mass of people in this country on milk and potatoes, and make them as independent of the price of corn, and the demand for labor, as their brethren in Ireland?” To Malthus, there should be no more poor people than the wealthy need to employ — the rest of the population is “redundant.” The price of grain is a free market mechanism for regulating the numbers of poor people — when their wretchedness and misery is uglying the country up, it’s time for a rise in grain prices to kill some of them off. Potatoes were a problem because they lifted the poor too far from starving. (See “An essay on the principle of population.”)

As I was shoveling two years’ worth of compost into a raised bed, I contemplated how worthless my yard is to the market. I don’t fertilize the lawn or herbicide the weeds, and I laugh at the little cards Home Depot sends me, telling me what projects I’m supposed to be working on at this time of year (invariably, these projects are purely decorative). Practices like composting and seed saving add nothing to the GDP! How useless!

Governments seem to have an irrational hostility to gardens, as I wrote about a couple of posts ago. Someone pointed out to me that the hostility exudes also from the upper classes. The aversion could be termed paradeisophobia, to carelessly jam together a couple of Greek roots. People with a little power want to keep the wee folk dependent and under control — whether on government or capital, or just on Home Depot’s outdated, consumerist, Leave It to Beaver vision of suburban bliss.

The power dynamic of paradeisophobia is shown in the putting-down of the Whiskey Rebellion, when our country almost fought a second Revolutionary War over attempts to tax whiskey. In the far hinterlands of Pennsylvania, pioneers were using whiskey as currency. Whiskey was relatively valuable for its bulk and weight, and enough people wanted it that anyone could confidently trade in it. Hard liquor is agricultural wealth, distilled. Pioneers needed their own currency, being far removed from sources of official money — so they grew their own! Taxing the whiskey was a way to force the pioneers into using the government’s currency, undercutting the independence of their communities. Government forces put the rebellion down but never succeeded in collecting much of the tax, which was repealed in 1800.

You don’t need to even grow food or medicine to inspire paradeisophobia. Pygmies were recently hunter-gatherers, not known to grow any crops except cannabis. Consider the rainforest as a no-tech garden. In 1985, Sandor Katz took a tour of Africa and saw Pygmies working on plantations, farming cocoa. Says Katz, “We came to understand that the government was trying to force these people to settle into cash-crop agriculture. Their migratory lifestyle was being outlawed, phased out because it was of no value to a state in desperate pursuit of tax revenue and foreign exchange to pay off debts to global financial institutions.”

I can understand why people at the top of the heap feel differently, but in my view people don’t exist to serve markets, markets exist to serve people. If there is such a thing as a “free market,” that means at a minimum that you are free to walk away and provide a need for yourself. Think I’ll try to get something edible planted today…

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