Year 4, Month 4, Day 12: When We Said We Were “Against Drones,” This Was NOT What We Meant

The NYT’s article on neonicotinoids and bee death has a fine conclusion:

Neonicotinoids are hardly the beekeepers’ only concern. Herbicide use has grown as farmers have adopted crop varieties, from corn to sunflowers, that are genetically modified to survive spraying with weedkillers. Experts say some fungicides have been laced with regulators that keep insects from maturing, a problem some beekeepers have reported.

Eric Mussen, an apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, said analysts had documented about 150 chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.

“Where do you start?” Dr. Mussen said. “When you have all these chemicals at a sublethal level, how do they react with each other? What are the consequences?”

Experts say nobody knows. But Mr. Adee, who said he had long scorned environmentalists’ hand-wringing about such issues, said he was starting to wonder whether they had a point.

Of the “environmentalist” label, Mr. Adee said: “I would have been insulted if you had called me that a few years ago. But what you would have called extreme — a light comes on, and you think, ‘These guys really have something. Maybe they were just ahead of the bell curve.’”

If they can say “you told us so,” we won’t say “We told you so.” Idiots. March 30:

Bret Adee’s grudging recognition that tree-huggers’ warnings about the dangers of unrestricted pesticide use were “ahead of the curve” highlights a central dilemma: environmentalists would love to be proven wrong. We’d love to be wrong about pesticides, about pollution, about ocean acidification, and (most of all) we’d love to be wrong about climate change — but denial is not a viable option.

Facts are troubling things, as American apiarists are now discovering. As the dismaying data accumulates on their doorsteps, even the most ardent climate-change deniers will eventually have to face the painful truth that those hippie liberal scientists knew what they were talking about. But environmentalists are a forgiving lot: if erstwhile skeptics like Mr Adee can acknowledge that we were right all along about neonicotinoids, maybe they’ll pay attention to our concerns about the greenhouse effect — before it’s too late for action to be of any use.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 8, Day 26: Big Bee Gets The Honey

The Kitsap Sun (WA) is one of a number of papers running a Seattle Times story about a scientist who studies flowers:

SEATTLE (AP) — University of Washington researcher Elinore Theobald is studying the relationship between flowers and their pollinators on Washington’s highest mountain. And what she is finding so far — avalanche lilies at higher elevation set seed at one-third the rate of lilies elsewhere on the mountain — points to troubling questions.

Is it possible that the lilies are struggling because of a mismatch in their timing with their pollinators? And does that, in turn, point to trouble as the climate changes?

Theobald, a doctoral candidate, is working with field assistants Natasha Lozanoff and Margot Tsakonas to understand not just how a single species might be affected by even small changes in temperature, but how biological interactions between species respond to changing climates.

It is, if you will, a burning question: The average annual temperature in the Pacific Northwest has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1920, and is projected to increase an additional 3.6 to 7.2 degrees or more by the end of the century, according to the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington.

What might that mean for plant and animal communities? One way to find out is to head to the mountain, Theobald figured, where the range in elevation can be a proxy for the shifts in climate that are forecast.

She posits that understanding how plant and pollinator interactions are playing out at those different elevations today might be a clue to what will occur in the future. And if you love avalanche lilies, it might not be good.

A flower is a lovesome thing. Sent August 21:

One of the most important things to be learned from studying ecological relationships is that every living thing on the planet is connected intricately with countless other living things. Humanity’s perch at the high end of the food chain depends on the millions of complex symbiotic relationships that collectively form Earth’s biosphere — like those between flowers and their pollinators. The University of Washington’s Elinore Theobald and her team of researchers have uncovered some very troubling evidence suggesting that these examples of nature’s genius in fostering teamwork may be at considerable risk due to the rapid acceleration of global climate change.

Just as individual achievements depend on the infrastructure created by a well-functioning society, so is our species’ collective progress built on an environmental “infrastructure” millions of years in the making. While the past century of industrial growth has brought our civilization to a level of remarkable accomplishment, it has also disrupted the climate in ways that seem likely to have disastrous consequences.

If our internet goes out for an hour, we feel sorely inconvenienced. But the planetary environment is a larger, older, and far more essential kind of “world-wide web” — one we cannot afford to lose.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 2, Day 7: Don’t Forget To Mulch

The Albany Times-Union runs another piece on the USDA hardiness zones:

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its Plant Hardiness Zone Map for the first time since 1990. This is the colorful map that is on the back of most seed packs that helps gardeners match their region’s climate to plants’ climatic tolerances.

The updated map has many new features, including finer-scale resolution and more interactive technology such as the ability to view specific regions by ZIP code. However, the most notable change is a nationwide shift in planting zones to reflect how climate change is altering our climate and plant-growing regions. The vast majority of the country finds itself in a warmer zone, including large areas of the Capital Region and the rest of New York.

This update makes concrete what many researchers have been saying for some time: that climate change is not just the province of the future.

I have a lot to do this evening, so I just re-used another letter on the same subject — rearranged all the words, used synonyms as appropriate, etc., etc., etc. Sent February 1:

The new map of hardiness zones from the USDA will probably make some gardeners very happy. What’s not to like about locally-grown mangos in Minnesota? But as we change our seed orders to reflect these new climatic norms, we need to remember that they’re only temporary benefits — and they aren’t unmixed blessings.

For every new tropical fruit or vegetable we can grow, we’ll lose some of the resilience and interconnectedness of our local and regional ecosystems. Beneficial flora and fauna may suffer from changing weather conditions or the introduction of invasive insects and plants from hotter regions (perhaps the most genuinely dangerous class of illegal immigrant).

The agricultural infrastructure which provides our corn and wheat is extremely vulnerable to the epiphenomena of the rapidly burgeoning greenhouse effect. The USDA’s map makes for pleasant contemplation in the short run — but the longer-term picture is not a pretty one.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 2, Day 2: By The Time The Jackfruit Trees Are Fully Grown, It’ll Be Too Hot

The Chicago Sun-Times is one of many papers noting the USDA’s new map of hardiness zones:

WASHINGTON — Global warming is hitting not just home, but garden. The color-coded map of planting zones often seen on the back of seed packets is being updated by the government, illustrating a hotter 21st century.

It’s the first time since 1990 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has revised the official guide for the nation’s 80 million gardeners, and much has changed. Nearly entire states, such as Ohio, Nebraska and Texas, are in warmer zones.

The new guide, unveiled Wednesday at the National Arboretum, arrives just as many home gardeners are receiving their seed catalogs and dreaming of lush flower beds in the spring.

It reflects a new reality: The coldest day of the year isn’t as cold as it used to be, so some plants and trees can now survive farther north.

Short-term and long-term. Long-term and short-term. Yick. Sent January 27:

While gardeners in Northern parts of the country will welcome the USDA’ revised map of hardiness zones, the fact remains that any benefits from a changing climate are temporary. As the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from our civilization’s consumption of fossil-fuel, the greenhouse effect will intensify, with potentially catastrophic effects for all of us.

Sure, growing figs in Boston will be fun (and tasty!). But as we smack our lips over the new local availability of produce that formerly traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to reach our stores, let’s remember: a rapidly warming planet is going to wreak havoc on our agricultural infrastructure; the monocropped farms providing much of America’s corn and wheat are vulnerable to the rapid temperature shifts and anomalous storms which global climate change will bring. The USDA map confirms that in the long run, we’re likely to reap a harvest of disaster.

Warren Senders

Loaves Of Truth…From My Brother, The Baker

This is not an article about bread. But bread is central to what I want you to read. So just nibble briefly at the first few paragraphs, and plunge downward to find words that taste of truth.

A few years ago, my brother left his career in academia. Weary of endless tenure battles and internecine squabbles between departmental factions, he sought another path.

And in Wide Awake Bakery, he found it.

We live and bake in Mecklenburg, just a few miles from Ithaca, Trumansburg, and Watkins Glen. We love the place and we love the people–and that’s what this bakery is about. We work with local flours, grown just a few miles away in Newfield, Lansing, and Brooktondale, and we work with our local flour mill, Farmer Ground Flour.

Here’s a little snippet from their F.A.Q.:

Why should I care if my bread is made by hand?

Most of the bread, even “artisan bread,” sold nowadays is untouched by human hands. Mixed, shaped, and baked by machines, the bread is flash-frozen and warehoused before being shipped to distribution points where it is eventually warmed (“baked”) in display ovens. Modern bread factories are consistent and they produce a pretty good product, but they require huge quantities of standardized ingredients. Bread factories simply don’t have the flexibility to bake with small crop runs and local grains. Big factories, big farming.

Small local bakeries where bread is made by hand offer something else entirely. We can vary our baking quickly in response to our flours and our customers. When a farmer comes to us with a batch of fruit, for example, we can quickly make it part of your share. We can keep a close watch on the fermentation process and give it the care it requires. We can change our baking to make more of the breads that you particularly like. Hand made bread generally tastes better, and is better for our communities, than factory made bread.

There are other reasons to care about how your bread is made. We bake our bread as if we were going to eat it ourselves, and feed it to our friends and family—because that’s exactly what we do. Baking bread, good bread, is one way we try to take care of our community. It’s a great feeling to know that the pile of flour we start with in the early morning has turned into shining loaves of bread that are nourishing and pleasing our neighbors. Every week we read about another food crisis, and it’s clear that we’ve got to start making food differently. That’s what we’re trying to do.

But I didn’t invite you here to tell you about my brother’s right livelihood, wondrous though it is. Or about his bread, which is mindbendingly delicious. Or even about the fact that those fabulous loaves fed the Occupiers in Zucotti Park.

Commendable though these things are, they’re not what prompts this post, or what’s brought me to tears of pride.

I want to share what he said to the assembled crowd at Monday’s day of action against hydrofracking in Albany, NY.

After handing out over 200 loaves of bread to the assembled crowd, my brother spoke. (I am reproducing his words in full. We’re family; it’s cool.)

My name is Stefan Senders, and I am a baker. Beside me are Thor Oechsner, an organic farmer, and Neal Johnston, a miller. We work together.

Today we bring bread to Albany to intervene in the self-destruction of the great State of New York. We come, Farmers, Bakers, and Millers, to remind our state and our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, that despite the promises of industry lobbyists, the exploitation of Shale Gas in New York is bad and broken economy of the worst kind.

This bread is the product of our community and our farms. The wheat, grown, tended, and harvested by our local organic farmers, is fresh from the soil of New York. The flour, ground in our local flour mill, is as fine as concerned and caring hands can make it.

To resurrect a term long since emptied by advertisers, the wheat, the flour, and the bread are wholesome: they bring our communities together, give us work, nourish us, please our senses, and make our bodies and our land more healthy.

This is good economy. It is wise economy. It is a steady economy that nourishes the State of New York.

We know that for many New Yorkers, Fracking sounds like a good idea. We have all heard the fantastic tales: Fracking, it is said, will save our state from financial ruin, release us from our dependence on “foreign oil,” and revive our rural economy by bringing cash, if not fertility, to our once vibrant farmland.

For politicians, these stories of money and growth are hard to resist: the numbers are large, deficits are unnerving, and elections are expensive.

For many farmers and land-owners, the promises of cash are dizzying, and to risk the land’s fertility to extract gas is only one step removed from risking the land’s fertility to extract a few more bushels of corn or soybeans.

But farmers might know better.

Farming has not always been, and need not be, an extractive industry. There was a time when farmers worked with a longer view, keeping in mind their role as stewards and caretakers of the land. That long view is the farmer’s wisdom, and it is as good and wise today as it ever was.

The promises of the gas industry are demonstrably false, and they miss what farmers know well: There is no independence that does not demand care and responsibility. There is no quantity of cash that can restore fertility to a poisoned field. There is no adequate monetary “compensation” for poisoned water. There is no payment, no dollar, no loan, that can restore life and community to a broken world.

Our work and the work we provide others—on the farm, at the mill, and at the bakery—depends on fertile soil, pure water, and a viable community. All of these are put at risk by Fracking.

What happens to our land in an economy bloated by gas exploitation? Prices rise, rents rise, and good arable land becomes scarce as acres once leased to farmers are set to quick development schemes—flimsy housing, storage barns, parking lots, and man-camps.

And what happens to our water when gas exploitation takes over? Storage pools, as safe as the Titanic was unsinkable, overflow, contaminating the soil; inevitable leaks in well-casings allow gasses and Frack-fluids to pass into our aquifers, into our bodies, and into the bodies of our children.

And what happens to communities held in thrall to gas exploitation? As we have seen in other parts of the country, the boom-bust cycle of the petroleum economy fractures communities, undermining our capacity to act wisely and civilly.

With every boom, a few get rich, a few do better, but all are impoverished. For every hastily built motel there are dozens of apartments with rising rents; for every newly minted millionaire there are many dozens who see nothing but the pain of rising costs and receding resources. For every short-term dollar there are hundreds in long-term losses that can never be recouped. To go for gas is to go for broke.

With this bread we are here to remind you that there is another economy, one that works.

This bread symbolizes a commitment to the health of New York State. It embodies the knowledge that good work, not a gambler’s dream, is the basis of a sound and sustainable economy.

This bread symbolizes the farmer’s simple truth that without fertile soil, without pure water, and without strong community, we go hungry.

This bread reminds us all that the promises of gas exploitation are empty: What are we to grow in fields broken by the drill and tilled with poison? What are we to feed our children when our water and wheat are unfit? Shall we grind money to make our bread?

We do have a choice. We need not poison our land to live. We need not taint our water to drink. We need not sell our future to finance our present. These are choices, not inevitabilities.

With this bread we say: take the long view; pay attention to the health of the soil and nourish it; treasure pure water; remember the value of your community and keep it whole.

If something must be broken, let it be this bread, not shale. Break bread, not shale!

I can’t add anything more to his words. Beautifully spoken, bro. I love you. And your bread.

28 Aug 2011, 11:14am
Gardening Personal:

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  • Catching up…

    …we are waiting for Hurricane Irene to hit. Lots of rain.

    Yesterday I spent the whole day outside battening down the hatches, which mostly meant securing the garden. Wire screens, tarpaulins, rope, string, wire, weights. Later on I’ll put up some photos. The whole thing looks flimsy and rickety, but I suspect it’s more robust than it seems.

    I’m going to go out into the gathering storm and do some cleanup before the winds get too heavy.

    There may be power outages. Good thing I’m a couple of days ahead on letters. I’ll get to pictures later in the next couple of days if we have electricity.

    Garden Photos On The Way Out The Door

    I am in the airport getting ready for the first leg of my India trip. I’ll be heading out in about two hours to Paris and from there to Mumbai. Concerts in Mumbai, Nasik and Pune, and some lec-dems & workshops. And some family time, of course. I’m told my daughter caught a cold — hope she’s feeling better soon.

    Anyway, before I left I took some photos of the garden and thought I’d share them. This year most of the plants are doing very well. The squash vine borers attacked my zucchini and pumpkin plants and totally killed them — but for the first time left my tromboncino squash (waaay better than zucchini IMO) totally alone. I win.

    The first pictures are from my front steps, looking out over the slope.

    …there are some potatoes in buckets in the foreground.

    Some vegetable porn:



    …these will be orange pimiento peppers.


    Now a new set of garden beds next to my garage, with some very productive tomatoes and peppers.

    Coming along nicely…

    And an amaranth plant, a volunteer from last year. I have an entire bed planted in amaranth but I forgot to take pictures of it. Too bad; the red plants are spectacular en masse.

    And now, here are pictures of the container garden on top of our garage. This year I finished building a deck on this surface, and have moved almost all my other containers to be in the center of the space. The result is impossible to believe; we have a fabulous crop. For the next two weeks various friends will be picking, watering and keeping things going; we get back on the 25th, just in time for the really serious harvesting.

    For some reason I can’t get photobucket to rotate these pictures so they embed correctly. Just turn your head 90 degrees, ‘k?


    Cute little eggplants…

    There is a karela vine in my greenhouse as well as several climbing the sides of the garage. They are producing very heavily. Good thing I like karela.

    A Japanese karela. The Indian kind are rougher.

    Ho Chi Minh hot peppers. Amazing.

    Here’s what the garage-top garden looked like last year in early July. We’ve come a long way.

    Year 2, Month 1, Day 24: The Farmer Is The Man Who Feeds Us All

    The Montreal Gazette reports on a new study by the Universal Ecological Fund (sounds like hippie tree-huggers to me) that predicts higher food costs as a consequence of climate change. Damn. Jeez, that’s counterintuitive, all right.

    One wonders how many warnings can be ignored by climate-change deniers. The Universal Ecological Fund report simply applies common sense to the relationship of agriculture and weather patterns; while alarming, its analysis is hardly surprising. If the weather is more unusual and extreme, crop failures will be more likely. Climatologists’ predictions have been repeatedly vindicated over the past several decades; any errors are almost invariably ones of underestimation. At this point ignoring climate science requires a readiness to embrace a bewilderingly complex conspiracy theory in which scientists all over the globe are attempting to “usher in a socialist world order” or some similar farrago of nonsense. The facts are in: climate change is here; it’s real; humans (especially industrialized humans) are causing it; it will make our lives enormously more complex, inconvenient and expensive in the coming centuries — and the costs of action are dwarfed by those of inaction.

    Warren Senders

    My Big Fat Garden Project

    It’s Independence Day! And I’m just going to brag on my garden a little.

    Our little household will never be able to get off the food grid entirely (can’t grow rice in the Boston suburbs! No room for the spaghetti trees!) but we’ve been getting better at it every year.

    Let me describe our layout. We live on the side of a hill. 47 steps lead from street level to our front door. When we bought the house, the front yard was a very steep slope, covered with weeds and debris. There is a garage at street level, inset into the hill. When we bought the house, the garage had a peaked roof in wretched condition.

    I started a garden four years ago. It took a lot of work. The weeds and debris had to go — and individual planting beds had to be made out of rock, rubble, and concrete. I mastered the technique of building a leaky stone structure (dig shallow ditch & fill with gravel; plop rocks and rubble on top of gravel; slap concrete on top of rocks and rubble; allow to dry; add more rocks and rubble; add more concrete; repeat until you’re at the height you want, then add soil) and at this point have fifteen or sixteen fully operational planting beds in my front yard.

    My front yard during the off-season. Note the drip-irrigation hoses.

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