Be Relevant

Relearning everything we've forgotten.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The 3 Things I Learned at Growing Power

There were a lot more than just 3 things that I learned this past weekend at Growing Power.  But these 3 points have shifted my way of thinking.

1.  We can't exclude anyone anymore.  The context that it was used in was talking about excluding the WalMarts of the world from the organic roundtable.  There tends to be a shared distrust, rightfully so, of corporate America in the environmental/organic realm.  So Will Allen's, CEO and founder of Growing Power, point is that we are at such a tipping point that we can no longer exclude them.  This is a problem that we all need to fix together.

I agree wholeheartedly and I also think that statement encompasses our lives in general.  Let's strip away the obvious connotation of discrimination that a statement like that may induce thoughts of and look at it a little deeper.  How many of you actually let people into your lives?  Including the normal immediate family?  I know that I don't.  I know that I can keep most people at arm's length.  I don't want to open myself up to be vulnerable to their needs.  So I exclude people from thoughts and actions.  My sense of community starts with me at the epicenter and encompasses all of those within my wall of shared beliefs. But it cannot be that way anymore.  We, collectively, are a single entity and to exclude anyone is akin to not listening to our conscience.

2.  Its about building the relationships.  I took a composting class while I was there.  During this class we had to build an urban compost pile made out of wood pallets and hardware cloth.  Then we had to fill it.  The first layer was wood chips about 4 inches deep.  This is the carbon layer.  The next layer was vegetables and fruit also 4 inches deep.  This is the nitrogen layer.  The layer after that was 4 more inches of carbon.  Then 4 more inches of nitrogen.  Then carbon.  Then nitrogen.  All the way to the top with the last layer being carbon.

When we were done Will Allen asked us if we were surprised at the amount of material required to fill the compost bin?  Everyone said yes because it had taken at least two dozen produce boxes and numerous shovels of wood chips to fill it.  Then in passing, and I am not sure how many people heard him, he said, "Its not about getting the materials its about building the relationships to get the materials."

It stuck with me and it resonated.  Everything about farming is about building relationships.  We get so focused on growing the food that we overlook the relationship between the soil and the plant or the plant with the environment.  More to the point, life is about building relationships.  We become so focused on the end results in life that we don't focus on what really matters: the relationship.  If we build and nurture the relationships, the results will take care of themselves.

3.  Be relevant.  On Saturday night I awoke at midnight and stayed awake till almost 4 in the morning.  My brain just turned on and wouldn't turn off.  I think I was just excited about what I had learned that day and how I could implement that into the farm I volunteer at and eventually my own.  Yet there was another feeling/thought that I had.  I couldn't help but feel very small next to Will Allen.  Besides the fact he is a large man I felt my entire being was small.  My accomplishments in life pale in comparison to his.

I realized in the course of my insomnia that the difference between him and I came down to relevancy.  We both want to help and we both want to do good.  There are real problems that the community within which Growing Power resides faces.  Growing Power has been set up to answer those problems.  Growing Power is relevant to it's community.  The majority of our actions, though good, are not relevant to the problems we face.  Most of the things we have, if we are honest about it, aren't relevant either.  Most people, myself included, tend to judge actions through the lenses of efficiency and effectiveness.  I think we should start measuring it against relevancy.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Forgiveness & Salvation

Forgiveness & Salvation

“Grass is the forgiveness of nature -- her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter, it withdraws into the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality, and emerges upon the first solicitation of spring. Sown by the winds, by wandering birds, propagated by the subtle horticulture of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude outline of the world. Its tenacious fibres hold the earth in its place, and prevent its soluble components from washing into the wasting sea. It invades the solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and forbidding pinnacles of mountains, modifies climates, and determines the history, character, and destiny of nations. Unobtrusive and patient, it has immortal vigor and aggression. Banished from the thoroughfare and the field, it bides its time to return, and when vigilance is relaxed, or the dynasty has perished, it silently resumes the throne from which it has been expelled, but which it never abdicates. It bears no blazonry or bloom to charm the senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than the lily or the rose. It yields no fruit in earth or air, and yet should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the world.” [1]

Grasses, to too many of us, mean the sullen stubble that we esteem to adorn our living spaces. We even give it it's own name, a lawn, and it's vitality and care is an indicator of social success. Yet this is the lowest form of Nature's forgiveness. The beauty of grass is in the diversity of Nature's benevolence. For Nature does not dole out forgiveness equally. Nature's forgiveness can be as great as the cereals: wheat, millet, oats, rye, sorghum, barley, rice and maize. Or as limited as a lawn. We began with the forgiveness of Nature. Teff, spelt, einkorn, emmer, and durum are species of wheat that stood by us in the beginning. Buckwheat, quinoa, and amarynth are pseudo-cereals but grasses none the less. There are the grasses of the plains and grasslands that for centuries held fertility from the grasp of the winds across the open land of the midwest. The sedges and the rushes are found in the grasslands as well as the marshes. They filter water of it's impurities and make it fresh for all life. Papyrus, a rush, gave a bed for the written word to lay in. Bamboo is a grass. Nature's forgiveness feeds, clothes, and shelters us.

If grass is Nature's forgiveness then soil is our salvation. It is the soil from which Nature's forgiveness will sprout. And it is the soil that will pass judgement on us. It's very nature and structure will dictate if we are deserving of forgiveness. Nature has carefully been building it from the beginning. Mountains crumble slowly beneath the slow pressures of rain, wind, snow, and the sun. Freezing, thawing, expanding, contracting, cracking they turn all mountains to soil. Rivers cut through rock layer by layer. Glaciers moving at glacial speeds grind rock against rock to create sand, silt, and clay. These are the foundations of soil. Names given to indicate size and drainage.

Sand is the largest, followed by silt then clay. Pure sand drains water quickly. Watch the waves retreat off a beach. Does the water slip back into the ocean or does it disappear into the sand? Look even closer and see the dampness chase after the waves like a following shadow. Never holding water, without the waves it becomes a desert, loose and dry. Only special plants with roots that grow exceptionally deep or have leaves that can absorb moisture from the air can tolerate sand.

Clay is microscopic particles of soil that may as well be powder. Once wet those particles bind and create an impenetrable layer for water. Causing the land to shed needed rainwater, instead of soaking it up and recharging our dwindling ground water, which then causes many problems – flooding being one. When dried after being wet, clay creates a cement like surface from which there is no forgiveness. Dried clay is the archetypical cracked and blistered earth.

Silt is between sand and clay. That would lead one to believe that silt is the optimal building block for soil. But one would be wrong. Silt's size make it easy to be carried away by both water and wind. Clouding water supplies, which chokes fish, or clouding the air, which choke us. Silt is the most vulnerable. It cannot repel or accept the forces pitted against it.

The perfect soil is a mixture of the three. In nearly equal parts. It's called loam. It soaks up water and holds it as well as lets it drain. Plants need it both ways. They require the water for growth but not so much that their roots drown. The three are stronger together then apart. Yet this is only the inorganic material that Nature has used to create structure. Soil is also organic material.

A living thing will return to the soil from which it comes. Nature carefully takes apart the nucleotides and peptides she so precisely organized into DNA. The nutrients and building blocks from which new life is made. Humus is the dividing line. Beyond humus is the realm of inorganic. It is a line as fine and fragile as a spider's thread. Beyond humus no longer provides the nourishment that plants need. Humus is the work of community. Nature enlists the help of earthworms, dung beetles, sow bugs, millipedes, and many more. The slow process of breaking large into small is repeated many times. Each time a new member of the community steps in. The smaller parts are broken down by fungus and molds to even smaller parts. Finally those are broken down by billions of microbes. It is said that a teaspoon of soil contains more life than all the people on the planet. We share a kinship with soil when we try to comprehend the vastness of space.

The dust kicks up off the freshly tilled earth and with each gust of wind we lose our salvation. The soil must be covered. Either from decaying material in the form of a mulch or by Nature's forgiveness as a green mulch. This covering of the soil is it's skin. The protective layer that keeps moisture in and harmful heat and wind out. The forgiveness given by Nature will hold the soil in place through the toughest rain storm. It protects the soil in its entirety. For here is the secret. Soil is not just sand, silt and clay.

Our salvation lies in it all: sand, silt, clay, humus, earthworms, fungi, molds, sow bugs, microbes, and mulches. Without the clay there is no water retention and we have the barren space of a desert. Without the sand there is no drainage and we have floods in the rainy season and parched, cracked earth in drought. Without the humus there are no building blocks. Without the life in the soil there is no humus. Without a protective covering there is no moisture or life.

Soil is our salvation. Because our salvation lies in our ability to allow Nature to forgive us. But Nature's forgiveness is conditional. We may have the loam but no humus and Nature will forgive us enough to cover the soil. Nature will pass on the deficiency in nutrients to us. Externalizing her costs. It is only fair. We may even have the humus but we don't protect it. Nature will again forgive us but slowly, and at the cost of precious water. We can and have tried to bribe Nature into forgiving us through the use of chemical fertilizers. Each time Nature has turned the other cheek. Forgiving us though we surely are not deserving. At what point will she stop? Our salvation lies in the soil beneath our feet. All we need to do, is to finally ask for forgiveness. 

[1] "In Praise of Blue Grass” by John James Ingalls (1833-1900), Senator from Kansas from 1873 to 1891. Excerpted from Grass - The Yearbook of Agriculture 1948. U. S. Government Printing Press. Washington 1948.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Some good news for a change

One of the mailing lists I am on sent these out.  Some good news!

Kellogg's pledges to purchase sustainable palm oil certificates
Business Green
GreenPalm, which is operated by Hull-based Book&Claim, enables palm oil ... standards established by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). ...

Campaign success: Indonesian palm oil company pledges to end ...
Wildlife Extra
September 2010: Burger King drops contract with GAR and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil(RSPO) criticises GAR for its environmental and social ...

The mailing list is simply called the "Palmoil" list and more information can be found here: