Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hill-walking with Janko

During our recent family reunion in Shrewsbury and the surrounding Shropshire countryside, I came to the realization that we are a pretty diverse and eclectic bunch. Among our number are a glass artist, a naturopath, a newspaper journalist, three linguists, two kindergarten teachers, two community social workers, a housing consultant, an organic farmer, and a renewable energy specialist.

It was important for me to spend a day out walking with Janko, my nephew and the recent graduate in renewable energy studies in Berlin. We have a common love of wild places, open country, the great outdoors, so it was only natural that we chose a walk up on the high Shropshire hills, with magnificent views in all directions. We set out at the ancient stone circle of Mitchell’s Fold, which sits high in the Shropshire hills, on the long ridge of Stapeley Hill, 1000 feet above sea level and close to the Welsh border. Its exposed position gives fine views of the Stiperstones to the east and the Welsh hills to the west. From this heathland height, we clambered down the steep valley slopes to fenced woodlands. Here we were happy to stir up no end of pheasants and were taken aback by each new sudden ruffling and noisy flight of pairs. We stopped at an old ruin of a homestead tucked into the fold of the valley, a pastoral setting at one time for a sheltered orchard and meadow. On the slopes above grew corn and grain, carved out of the autumnal brown ferns and the green uplands shorn by roaming sheep. As we climbed again past ponds through the soggy soft grasses, light shafts flitted across the distant hills bathing the land in that poetic light so special in British hill country. At the craggy tors atop the ridges, we paused to inhale the clear crisp air and reflect on the splendour of the 360-degree view.

We talked about the endless opportunities for Janko as he sets out exploring possibilities with wind, solar power, super-efficient energy-saving alternative power systems and the places around the world to effect and implement them. Living in Berlin, Janko loves to get away to the woods and lakes of northern Sweden, sharing in food growing, bee-keeping, fishing, living on the land within a local community with a number of friends from several countries. To return to the land after an arduous spell of urban confinement is to let out a primal roar and then open up one’s soul to wonder. I am fortunate enough to be opened up most of the time, living in the hills, working the land, and growing fresh food for Gundi and myself and to take to market. However, I do envy young man Janko as he sets out on a fascinating path that – I have no doubt – will lead to much invention and fulfilment, as he helps to introduce brilliant, simple energy-saving systems that make homes, communities, businesses smarter and more efficient. “Why didn’t I think of that?”, they will all ask about each new innovation. If I had my time over – with more of a pragmatic bent - I would be following Janko’s path, effecting change based on simple, natural methodologies.

Our walk ended at dusk, up on the Long Mynd, with spectacular views to the distant Brecon Beacons, Welsh Hills, and the Malverns. It seemed we looked out on forever, with the bewitching lights twinkling on in the farms, towns and cities all around, and we two blown away by the cold wind, steep drop-offs, and a deep sense of communion.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Autumnal Killarney

The afternoon paddle to our campsite home for the next four nights and days is leisurely as we glide over translucent aqua waters against a backdrop of vibrant October foliage and a deep blue sky.

Arrived and settled in, the late afternoon sees the sun sliding down to the west and an orange glow illuminating the white quarzite mountains rowed up on the north side of Killarney Lake. Dotted with a variety of trees in resplendent autumnal colours, the knobbly ridges become increasingly electrified as purple shadings alternate with ever deeper sun-dappled ochres and burned golds.

We sit perched on our rock-face, overlooking the rippling waters stretched out below, sipping a beer, as dusk descends, and then – oh, wow – the plumpest full moon comes popping up over the dark silhouette of white pines on the eastern horizon. The waters ripple in a frisson of vibration, as a faint breeze whistles through the trees.

The campfire - primed with paper, twigs for kindling, and rafts of scoured dry branches from the lakeside - is ceremoniously lit; sparks drift up through the high pines and fade away into the night air. Our senses blaze with the wonder of being truly out there, wrapped in the welcoming embrace of ancient rock, primal forest, clear lakes, and open skies that reveal worlds, planets, constellations, nebulae beyond our tiny temporal home. For this fleeting moment in time, at this pure place on Earth, we feel centre-stage, truly here now, supremely alive and transfixed by the beauty of it all.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Up on Kinver Edge

Kinver Edge is a spirited ridge overlooking glorious rolling countryside in the middle of England. Below and around are forests, heathlands, farms, fields, villages, and at the foot, the busy little town of Kinver. As one climbs gently towards the ridge top, spectacular distant views open up in all directions. Walkers sniff the fresh air and exhale heartily, in thrall; unleashed dogs release their pent-up energy.

Up there now - as was their expressed wish - co-mingled and fully re-united are my dear Mum & Dad, Mary (Mullins) Finch and Jack Finch. Dad ascended first, around five years ago. And now at rest, my Mum has made it there too, her ashes spread on and around the bushes, saplings, trees, some of which my Dad planted in covert missions several years ago. Their three children, four grand-children, one great grand-daughter, son-in-law, and grandson-in-law together strewed the remains in a tender family ceremony that signalled both the end of Mum & Dad’s happy ramblings on this Earth and also peace of mind and closure for the surviving family.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sabrina, Goddess of the Severn

Sabrina was the Roman Goddess of the Severn, the longest river in England and Wales. She poured forth the waters that this time last year flooded around her memorial in Shrewsbury, just down the road from the birthplace of Charles Darwin, evolutionary theorist.

I needed to go back, just as my Dad had - to the source, to discover where Sabrina conjured her magic. For Sabrina and her two sisters were all water nymphs who met on Plynlimon to discuss the route to the sea. Each sister took a different route, Ystwyth to the west and Varga (Wye) away to the south, while Sabrina, who loved the land, lay down her blond tresses and set out on a slow meandering course that took her far into the east, then south.

Unlike the straightforward climbing up a mountain, my brief journey to the source of the Severn was a backward course to the beginning - from sheltered forested valley to exposed bog moorland, on the rooftop of Wales, atop the Cambrian Mountains' highest massif.

On that crisp bright November day, I heard echoes of William Wordsworth:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit that impels. 

Long after we're gone, long after the rapid changes in climate have transformed our known landscapes, rivers like Sabrina - the Severn - will continue to rise in the hills, gurgle, babble, cascade, swirl, wave and flow, following gravity's call seawards, past the lowlands to the open ocean, in continuity, in perpetuity.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Progress on the farm

I live on a rural acreage, so does this make the land a farm? I grow crops commercially, so does this make me a farmer? I prefer to think of the land as mixed use rural and myself as a land steward and market grower rather than farmer. There are too many “conventional” (industrial) farmers for me to relate to this breed, although the resurgence in “traditional” (organic) farmers is very heartening, even if we are a tiny minority.

It is gratifying to see the progress we have made in the eleven years that we have been tending this lovely patch. There have never ever been chemicals spread here; Carman who owned then rented it for growing a variety of crops always farmed traditionally, even though engulfed in a sea of conventional farms. We began growing garlic and lavender, then echinacea angustifolia, before settling on market-fresh greens and herbs as our mainstay and setting up shop as Rolling Hills Organics, certified organic all the way.

We now sell twice weekly at organic farmers market in the city (Toronto), an hour and a half away. We also sell to a handful of upscale city restaurants and I make weekly deliveries to several local eateries (in Warkworth, Cobourg, Port Hope, on Rice Lake). I can genuinely promise all customers exclusively fresh organic produce of premium quality, picked that day or the day previous, washed in pure well water, spun, dried, weighed, bagged and cooled.

Having retired the beast of a BCS walking tractor which doubled as roto-tiller and sickle-bar mower, the grunt work is ably performed by our labour-saving New Holland tractor with its 72-inch roto-tiller, cultivator, plow, and bush-hog, not to mention the front-end loader with its lugging capacity.

Two one-thousand square-foot growhouses now supply mostly salad greens and fresh herbs from mid-April to mid-December, extending our growing and selling season from six months to nine. A third growhouse (next year?) will help us better keep up with demand.

Elsewhere, five acres of fields re-treed five years ago with white and red pine, spruce, and larch are coming along somewhat patchily. This year, beekeeper Ian Critchell placed ten beehives next to the upper fields and so the bees are back and busy (after previous owner Paul von Baich’s six hives and wonderful honey moved away).

In the coming months the first 100 x 300-foot array of solar panels is due to be installed in a pastured field up the hill, the first of an entire acre. We have leased this acre to a Canadian solar energy company and are thrilled to be on the cusp of generating both electricity to go straight into the local grid and supplementary income for, yes, OK, the farm.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

In the guise of a ginkgo

In the guise of a ginkgo, my dear old Mum lives on. This graceful, sturdy tree was planted and dedicated to her in our garden this April after she left this life in the dead of winter in December.

Today marks Mum’s birthday, her first re-birthday since she glided into her new life in the great beyond. I will always remember, love and cherish her for her unconditional love, mischievous grin, and ready humour. She gave me the strength to go out into the wide world with a sense of independence and curiosity. On a Severn riverside walk shortly after her passing, I felt her telling me that she had done all she could, her time was up, and it was now up to her little boy, her beloved son to go and do his thing, whatever that may be. Look after yourself, she would always say. So it is that I tend the garden, feeling blessed to be able to cultivate our own as per Voltaire’s - and my Mum’s - sound advice.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lean, green and surprisingly flavourful!
(A review article by Malcolm Jolley in the National Post, June 11, 2010):

Evergreen Brickworks Farmers’ Market (Saturdays),
Riverdale Farmers’ Market (Tuesdays); $5 for small bag (serves four)

Sometimes, I think the locavore movement is less about where things are grown and more about who grew them and how. Concepts like the 100-mile diet are great for introducing folks to the idea of caring about your food, but if you want the very best quality of produce possible, you better buy it from the person who grew it. A few organic growers, such as Cookstown Greens in the Holland Marsh, package their salad mixes and sell them to specialty retailers in Toronto including Harvest Wagon, The Healthy Butcher, Pantry and the 100% all Ontario-sourced shop Culinarium, but to be guaranteed a salad at dinner that was picked after breakfast, nothing beats buying it from a farmer at the market.

Farmers’ markets have sprouted like weeds throughout the GTA and Ontario (a quick Google search will turn up a bunch of listings). Rolling Hills Organics from Northumberland Hills, northeast of Toronto, grows mesclun mixes that it sells in bags at the Riverdale Farmers’ Market in Cabbagetown on Tuesdays and at the Evergreen Brick Works Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. Theirs is a peppery, mustardy blend. In fact they sell a “hot” version and a “mild” version, as well as a straight bag of baby arugula. Unlike import mesclun blends, these greens haven’t been gassed to stay fresh. They actually are fresh, and they’ve been washed with water, so they can be eaten right away.

The point of ingredient-driven cooking is to get out of the way of the ingredients’ flavours, so that they are the star rather than the sauce or garnish. When faced with just-picked greens, I simply toss them in a good glug of quality extra virgin olive oil and season with a little coarse salt (I might add a squeeze of lemon, but only if I’m cutting one up for something else). The salad will accompany some kind of grilled meat or fish, and once the steak, trout or whatever has been cooked and let to rest, I’ll leave the barbecue on, clean it and make simple bruschetta to round out the meal. No pots or pans to wash up!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Loving local Thursdays

As I wind up another Thursday of deliveries to local restaurants – and drive home along the winding south shore of Rice Lake, the sun sparkling on patches of lake between the hillock islands - I feel the luckiest fella in the world.

The day began with picking, washing, spinning and bagging various fresh greens and herbs. Then came the leisurely toodle along the scenic backroads of Northumberland to drop off to first Ken and Penny at the 100-Mile Diner in wonderful Warkworth, then to Edward at the eclectic 66 King Street West and Johnny and the boys at the Northside (both in Cobourg), on to the always-jovial Chef Ray at Zest in Port Hope, to Jeff at the Victoria Inn overlooking the jewel that is Rice Lake. Along the way, kudos for the offerings, genuine appreciation, and heartfelt thanks. To go with the ready pay that comes with it, what could be nicer? Halibut and chips at Cap’n Jacks is a treat, as is the fine summer weather, but it is the delivery of fresh local organic to truly nice people and businesses that brings an upwelling of real satisfaction.

Also rewarding and productive are the good nature and hard work of local helpers in the fields. Meredith is living at her family’s farm for the summer. Like last growing season, she comes to help out three days a week with weeding, planting, and preparation for markets and restaurant deliveries. Lukash is a gifted guitarist making the most of a wonderful music teacher and program at Campbellford High School; his summer job is helping out here, and his enthusiasm and energy are exactly what we need. Natasha was a whirlwind who came in and got the season up and running with planting and early ground maintenance during this explosive spring. She shared her broad experience and exhilarated with her wide-ranging conversation; then was gone in a flash, via Georgian Bay and back to Scotland. And in Toronto at the markets, my trusty co-seller Chris has been ever-present and a lively, dynamic presence. Thanks to all for the warm glow you have brought to our fields, table and lives!

Local flavour and local spirit are a joy to partake of; long may they linger and suffuse.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunshine and rain

It strikes me that – in the quest for healthy food – we are extremely fortunate to have the conditions for growing that we sometimes take for granted. Sunshine, fresh air, fertile soil, rain, and clean pure well water when is doesn’t rain regularly are all here in abundance, most of the time. This summer, we’re benefitting from more than our fair share of sunshine and rain, and always adding to soil fertility, so we’re away to the races with fine plentiful produce. From the Central Valley of California to the Indus Valley of Pakistan, availability of water is becoming a more precarious problem year to year, with less and less water for irrigation to divert for growing food.

Food is naturally at its freshest and most nutritious when crops grown in natural organic soils are fresh out of the ground. Leafy greens and fresh herbs are loaded with nutrients, as are many newly-dug root crops. From these as well as clean water, fresh air and good doses of sunshine, we are able to draw and maintain good health.

Presently for markets, we are up with the sun, harvesting and preparing for market peppery arugula, punchy mustard greens, lush lettuce, juicy fresh garlic, exceptionally fragrant basils, cilantro, dill, parsleys, and a rainbow of baby carrots, baby beets. It is a joy to receive the appreciation of customers, banter with them, and to sell out of produce most days. And it is with a deep sense of fulfilment that I come home to the sun setting over the fields, sip on a refreshment and partake in the abundance, before falling into a deep rich slumber.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Just Do It!

There are ever more articles published in the mainstream media, recognizing the plight of the industrial food system and suggesting various tentative solutions to the problem – more study, more subsidies, more farmers – and yet all they ever seem to conclude is the need for more money spent on marketing.

More marketing is the last thing we need; we don’t need more fat consultants on excessive stipends telling us we need more this, more that; the real need is for well-meaning people to get up, follow their dreams, and get growing and selling. They will be warned that there is no money is organic farming; that it is a lot of hard work for scant returns. Yet I, and many other ethically-minded farmers like me, live the dream every day. We get up with the first light, look out on the dawn mists across the valley, head out to open up the greenhouses and fields for the day, and get to work with our chores before the sun gets its heat fan going. We harvest greens, beets and carrots, beans, peas, berries and currants, and get them washed and cooled before the heat is cranked up. We just do it, not asking for any support, sympathy, or subsidy, as we know that governments are too busy helping out the big boys, propping up the ailing conventional agriculture model farm system. That’s OK; we can look after ourselves. We can make a very gratifying living by peddling our produce direct to eager, aware customers at weekly farmers markets where we can gauge production to match sales and come home sold out, with zero waste on most days where exceptional circumstances do not intervene – severe thunderstorms and extreme humidity are not good, but the recent G20 summit in Toronto, despite dire warnings, turned into our farm’s most successful market ever, thanks to the vigilance of our loyal customers. They turned out in droves, thanked us for being there, purchased (and, I hope, ate when they got home), heartily.

There is nothing wrong with this alternative regional food system that runs outside the industrial one. It is dynamic, lively, healthy, just missing maybe a few more intrepid, innovative growers and sellers of fresh local organic food to help us all stay healthy.

Best of all, we come home with beautiful breads, berries, smoked fish, cheeses, raw chocolates traded with our fellow producers, and tuck into a freshly-prepared dinner du jour. What could be better?

The perfect rainbow

It was complete, a perfect rainbow, blessing our fields, and especially the garlic that was preparing to be lifted from the soil, all earthy and strong and pungent.

Tonight, as is sit solo chomping on arugula and baby lettuce salad drizzled with infused hot jalapeno oil, our precious little black cat Negra is licking up my plate of curried chicken with fried yellow potatoes traded with a fellow organic farmer. Even our cat is sold on the wondrous sensory experience that is summer organic living.

It has been a hot and breezy day. After the rains, I have been out on my tractor churning up the soil prior to planting more arugula, spicy mesclun, purple carrots. The basils in the greenhouse smell divine; sweet, Thai, purple, lemon, and particularly the lime hit you with a scent sent from another place. Yesterday at the Riverdale farmers market, an encounter with a customer perusing the fresh garlic led to a sensual discussion about the lime basil and what to do with it. She said she just wanted to keep inhaling it.

Today too, I have my freshly-ground dried echinacea angustifolia successfully introduced to its new bed partners – ginger and astragalus root, lemon balm for the Immuni-tea blend, and elderberry and yerba mate for the Vitali-tea blend. Looking forward to tasting before turning in tonight.

The fresh garlic, pulled, cut, stripped of its dirt, and bathed in cold water, is potent and robust. It is indeed a powerful season, heady with herbal scents, healing potential, and vigorous good health, aided and abetted by Carmenere wine from Chile and India Pale Ale from the old country.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The bees have found the buckwheat

It has been the most fecund Spring imaginable. It seems that all of Nature has answered a call to fruition, with blossoms abundant; chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, starlings, grosbeaks, gold and purple finches, bluejays all scurrying, feeding, reproducing; wild apples, grapes have budded ample fruits; and now the wild bees, gorgeous butterflies and a host of other insects have descended en masse onto the flowering buckwheat.

This Spring, first came the intense heat, then the big rainless dry, then at last sporadic rainfall. Now plants and crops are off to the races, with salad greens happy, and flora and fauna, new-born babies all in a growth spurt. We have been working through the rampant weeds; native grasses surprised us early with their spread.

As the Summer Solstice is upon us, all is well with the natural world immediately around us. Meantime in the Gulf of Mexico crude oil continues to gush into the ocean at a catastrophic rate and it is with dread that the ultimate toll of devastation is anticipated. Marine life will never be the same again and the environmental and economic fallout are bound to be colossal and cruel. Once more corporate greed trumps common sense.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Growing naturally

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Never truer than today, as the major political powers continue to divvy up the states and borders of the world like they own it, and as goodly individuals hunker down and do their own thing in their neighbourhoods.

Honest farmers hearken back to the good old days BC (before chemicals) when the air and soil were pure and naturally chock full of nutrients. Some of us hearken back to the days BO (before organic) and wonder if by natural farming we can dispense with all the terminology, from organic to sustainable to environmentally-friendly to ecological. Our method of growing is just plain natural. It would be nice not to be boxed in any more; to be liberated to roam, grow, and explore, spiritually and physically. It would feel good to re-establish our deep ancient connection to the soil, to the plants we nurture in it, and all the microcosmic world we share life with.

In parts of the Japanese countryside, this practice has gone on continuously, uninterrupted all through industrial, agricultural, technological and digital information revolutions, and through world wars too. Farmers there have always understood that Nature in all its complexity and wealth simply provides. It provides a healthy environment for plants, animals, birds, insects, and human beings in community too. It provides food, medicine, shelter, all the basic needs for optimal health.

Underlying Natural Agriculture is a profound reverence for nature, and the farming involved is guided entirely by nature’s intrinsic wisdom. Rather than seeking to control nature, farmers listen and respond to it. Mokichi Okada, who developed Natural Agriculture in the 1930s, envisioned it not only as a means of cultivating pure and wholesome food, but in addition as an art and also a spiritual pursuit.

Natural Agriculture is not merely a horticultural technique; it entails a change in the way we think about nature, and the advancement of a more sustainable style of living. As an agricultural method, it relies on an understanding of the subtle physical relationships and spiritual bonds that exist among all elements of the cultivation and consumption of food: the earth, sun, rain, wind, the farmer, the people who eat the food, and the society in which these people live. All these benefit from its practice; it is Natural Agriculture's purpose to make all these elements spiritually and physically healthy.

The unique contribution of Natural Agriculture is its fundamental respect for all the elements involved in the natural growing processes – light, soil, water and air. Natural Agriculture fosters a deep awareness of the contributions of each element and the benefits derived from working in harmony with them. In today’s consumer society, some people have lost the understanding of the underlying interconnection of all life; one reflection of this has been a severing from the natural world. Some no longer see their relationship to the natural elements, as they have for millennia. The manipulation of nature has taken an enormous toll on human heath and the well-being of the planet. Natural Agriculture seeks to restore the vital and sacred relationship between humankind and the environment.

A seed is planted in the earth. Rain comes and the seed sprouts and takes root. The germ of consciousness begins to grow. The root derives its nutrition and water from the soil. The leaves absorb the light of the sun and through photosynthesis change inorganic matter into organic matter. This spurs growth. Tens of millions of microorganisms in the soil help to transform organic matter. In its natural state, soil is pure and contains all the elements needed for healthy plant growth. Eventually plants blossom and, with the help of insect pollination, bear the fruit that contains the next generation of seeds. Too much human intervention in this process can hamper and harm the forces of nature, causing all sorts of deviations. But by forming a spiritual collaboration, we can guide, aid and enhance natural food production.

A plant grows amid a myriad of relationships: relationships with neighbouring plants, with the weeds near it, with the insects, birds, squirrels, earthworms and moles. All of these elements make up the natural environment of the plant, and the plant is affected by its interaction with each one. Additionally, the ponds, rivers, trees, surrounding woods and mountains also contribute to the plant’s natural environment and growth. The effect of sun, rain, wind, changing seasons, annual weather conditions, and the region’s climate all have to be considered as part of this plant’s place in Nature. The energy and heat received from deep within the earth and from the sun and other planetary bodies also impact its growth and composition. Equally important is its relationship with the farmer. According to the philosophy of Natural Agriculture, plants respond to the thoughts, emotions and deeds of the people who care for them. The more conscious the farmer is of the interrelationships within nature, the more he or she is able to play a part in fostering the balance and harmony needed for healthy plant life.

The basis of Natural Agriculture is to work in harmony with the natural environment for the benefit of the plant, for the well-being of those who eat the food, and ultimately for the whole environment. One of the goals and commitments of Natural Agriculture farmers is to bring physical, mental and spiritual benefit to people, helping those who have health problems as well as mental and emotional challenges. The ingestion of food grown by Natural Agriculture brings a balance to the bodily systems that ultimately affects one’s whole well being.

Thus Natural Agriculture involves more than agricultural technique; it means changing the way one thinks about Nature. It means relating to the natural world through one’s heart, not only one’s head. And it means listening, respecting and responding to, rather than dictating, the needs of Nature. It leads to the development of a lifestyle that creates a harmony with oneself, one’s community and environment.

Through the practice of Natural Agriculture the producers and consumers of food develop a unique relationship, based on a support system of deep appreciation and gratitude. The exchange of gratitude within this community becomes a key element to its success. Indeed, consumers suddenly realize their relationship, through the farmer, to the soil, seed and subsequent agricultural product. Similarly, as the farmer works the soil, he or she is mindful of the consumers who will eventually eat the produce. This process of exchange forms a bond that benefits each person in the chain.

The farmer/consumer relationship is a vital link, which when activated can lead to a much healthier, more wholesome and aware mode of living, as well as a greater understanding of community.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Snow falling silently on cedars

The end of February, Saturday morning. The softest snow is slowly descending from an empty sky. It appears to come from nowhere, out of the grey. The fields are blanket white. The bare trees’ dark limbs, the cedars’ bulky body are clearly defined by the contrasting lightness that garnishes them. Cotton-wool balls perch on the pines, then disintegrate as gravity tugs them downward.

Animal tracks snake across the landscape, sinking deep into the yielding surface. The birds are quiet, on low energy, observing. The silence is all-consuming. It is a winter scene of delicate grace, transitory in nature. Temperature changing, sunlight bursting through, wind whipping up will transform it. The moment is nature’s gift which stirs this human soul. If only more souls could see it and share in the wonder…

On the other side of the world, buildings are lives are turned upside down by convulsions from deep in the earth. The young Nazca tectonic plate moves violently under the South American Plate. The ground shakes violently and a tsunami ravages the coastline in a display of mammoth upheaval, voices scream in terror, cracks appear, houses and highrises collapse, waves demolish villages. Instantaneously, the devastation is colossal. Communication with the outside world is dead, concentrating the mind on the surreal scene. On the other side of the world, snow is falling silently on cedars…

Thursday, February 25, 2010


In the mainstream media we are inundated with statistics, surveys, studies, claims that purport to tell us the truth about developments in science, medicine, crops, foods, economics, climate, resource use. As consumers of foods, medicines, materials, and money, we need to read very carefully between the lines. Sometimes, we need to reject untruths, distortions, biases out of hand, and we need to be increasingly vigilant and smart at this, as ploys to make us consume more of the same swill are becoming increasingly brazen and devious.

The mainstream media has become an ethical minefield where we must tread very prudently to avoid explosive lies and deceit. This is the propaganda forum dominated by large corporate concerns with considerable clout. He who shouts loudest gets the point across to the widest audience. It is up to us as individuals to sift through the fallout of bad ideas and poor practice based on greed and fear-mongering.

We resist as individuals and groups, but above us, committees, councils, governments, blocs cave to the pernicious proddings of vested interests. We could give up, yielding to our collective powerlessness. Yet the world is filled with individuals who have started, and continue to start, unimaginably bold initiatives at the grassroots community level. The Grameen Bank, Gaia Hypothesis, the Hippocratic Oath, Slow Food, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, bio-dynamics, organics, non-violence, small is beautiful, truth and reconciliation were seeds started in the creative minds of individuals like Hippocrates, Vandana Shiva, Carlo Petrini, James Lovelock, E. F. Schumacher, Rudolf Steiner, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela …….. Each ethical code set roots and caught the imagination of a broad group of followers. Now, many codes have been co-opted, diluted, by those out to corrupt their followers and convert them to something totally at odds with the original pure precept.

In farming, bio-dynamics, permaculture and organics staked out the moral high ground. To my mind, organic certification should confer credibility to the way a farm operates in the eyes of the consumer. It should establish a level of trust that means that the customer does not need to dig deeper – she knows that the salad greens she is buying are natural, full of nutrients and devoid of chemical additives. She should not need to wonder if they have been bathed in chlorine or gassed with ethylene to last the long trip. To accommodate the big boys of rampant capitalism, regulators have diluted standards to such an extent that consumers don’t know what is organic any more, what natural means. How can they, with all the competing and misleading claims? When new pharmaceutical products lay out the results of their latest study (carried out by their own experts and specialists, and certainly not independently verified), and small-scale producers of natural remedies are prohibited by law from making any health claims, what does this say about the ethics of our society as a whole?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Protecting the honeybees

It’s happened before of course. Our greed has wiped out vast herds of bison, swarms of passenger pigeons, teeming fish in the oceans, and mussels in our rivers. Now we have turned on the billions of honeybees that provide us with so much of our food through the simple act of pollinating fruits, berries, nuts, and vegetables. As humans, we have a symbiotic relationship with bees (through foods from plants), so it is critical that we protect them.

In the pursuit of higher yields, industrial agriculture is now so dependent on the pollinating powers of honeybees that continued precipitous decline in bee populations threatens our very food system. It is hard to imagine a world with way pricier and scarcer coffee and tea, orange juice with our morning breakfast. Nor can we begin to envisage the impact of much-reduced production of apples, oranges, lemons, grapes, peaches, cherries, melons, nuts, squash, beans, carrots, sunflowers and yes, honey. Just one pollinator, the Western honeybee, tends over 130 food crops.

Bees are now bred to perform on an industrial scale, to help produce astounding harvests of all these crops. In the U.S, fruit farmers pay commercial beekeepers to truck bees thousands of miles to pollinate their crops. In the face of disastrous declines in bee populations they have been replenishing with stocks from Australia. In China, in the province of Sichuan, pear trees have been pollinated by hand after the overuse of pesticides in the 1980's wiped out the honeybee population. Is this the road we are heading down?

Around five years ago, honeybee populations started going into a tailspin, a trend that continues now. Why so precipitous? Although the bees had been in a slow decline for years, something happened between 2005 and 2006 that changed everything: a sharp and catastrophic collapse of bee colonies in dozens of countries simultaneously. This was unlike anything seen before, even by the oldest beekeepers in the U.S, Canada and Europe. In the USA, approximately one third of all hives have collapsed over the last two years. These losses are account for the loss of around 800,000 colonies in 2007 and a staggering 1 million colonies in 2008.

The European Parliament voted late in 2009 for tougher controls on bee-toxic chemicals. Hoping to avert a growing catastrophe, it has approved the creation of bee "recovery zones" across Europe. Intended to boost plummeting bee numbers – as well as stave off further agricultural losses – the measure garnered the support of an overwhelming majority of members when they voted on the measure. The recovery zones will provide bees places to buzz that teem with a diversity of plants rich in nectar and pollen, as well as free of pesticides.

In another significant stand, the Co-operative Group, which owns 25,000 hectares of farmland in Britain, recently banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on all its farms to protect honeybees. Simon Press, senior technical manager at the Co-op group said: "We believe that the recent losses in bee populations need definitive action, and as a result are temporarily prohibiting the eight neonicotinoid pesticides until we have evidence that refutes their involvement in the decline."

Movement to stem drastic honeybee population declines in North America has been much slower. Now, in light of the mounting evidence that new seed chemical coatings are deadly to bees, Sierra Club has been urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the use of specific chemical treatments to protect our bees and crops until it obtains scientific evidence that sublethal effects do not cause harm to America's critically important honey bees.

At issue are neonicotinoids being used in a new way - as seed coatings. For years, farmers have been spraying neonicotinoids onto their crops to stop insect infestation. Now huge agribusiness corporations have acquired patents to coat their proprietary corn seeds with these neonicotinoids. These “neonics” are extremely persistent. They enter the plant and are present in pollen and on droplets of water on leaves. As plantings have grown larger, the need for concentrated pollinators at bloom time has grown. Any changes in their health, abundance and diversity will influence the health, abundance and diversity of the prevailing plant species. This is a mutual dependency as bees rely on a steady nectar source and pollen source throughout the year to build up their hive.

The State of California has required that almost all 282 nicotinyl pesticide products be immediately re-evaluated because of toxic concentrations in pollen and nectar, and high residual concentrations in soil. Unfortunately, the EPA is moving too slowly to take action to suspend nicotinyl pesticides.

Kevin Hansen and Krista Keenan have just released a new documentary film called Nicotine Bees, on these catastrophic die-offs of the honeybee. They filmed across the US, in Germany, in Canada, and in India. To Kevin Hansen, neonicotinoids are implicated as the most important factor in the bee die-offs. He thinks the situation is grave, worsening, and has very direct explanations - contrary to earlier reports.

The Sierra Club is urging the American public to view Nicotine Bees. They suggest showing the 45-minute film at organizational meetings, home parties, classrooms and community events. To purchase the video or request a screening, see

After viewing this documentary, you are invited to add your voice to demands to protect our pollinators. Contact EPA's Steve Owens at <> or call him at 1-202-564-2902 to request a suspension of the neonicotinoid seed coatings until independent scientists verify safety.

Another documentary film, The Vanishing of the Bees, warns that if our favourite foods and flowers such as broccoli, cherries, onions, melons, cucumbers and sunflowers do not get pollinated, our diets will consist of lots of rice, wheat and corn, which happen to be the main crops that the chemical giants have huge financial stakes in. It can be no coincidence that the commercial beekeepers who isolated their hives from the crops being sprayed with chemicals have reported no bee losses. Similarly, the organic and biodynamic beekeepers who work on diversified systems of food production and improving the immune systems of their bees have not suffered significant losses in their hives.

Beekeepers have been meeting with representatives of pesticide companies in an effort to re-focus how new pesticides are tested for harm to honeybees. Registration requirements for most new chemicals don’t require those tests to determine the long term effects of pesticides that adults eat or store to feed to their young later. It’s already known that some of the newer nicotine pesticides are deadly to adult bees if sprayed directly, and now it is suspected that, when taken back to the hive and stored in nectar and pollen, they are causing problems later.

Beekeeper Kim Flottum notes “… honey bees that pollinated, flew by, or even thought about crops sprayed with the new systemic nicotine pesticides did worse than honey bees that did not come in contact, fly by or even think about them. At first it seemed to be mostly eastern bees that were having this trouble, but when beekeepers actually looked, it is obvious that bees and nicotine don’t mix anywhere on the map. Nicotine Bees is pretty damning in its presentation and accusations, but it’s probably not the whole story yet. Still, it is becoming increasingly clear that these chemicals, either by themselves or as a contributing factor, are causing all sorts of hell for honey bees everywhere they are. And you can be pretty well assured that if honey bees are at risk, so are all the rest of the pollinators out there. All of them.”

David Hackenberg, former president of the American Beekeeping Federation, has been urging the U.S. regulatory agencies to suspend these seed treatments. "Look at what's time based. The massive bee decimation started when regulatory agencies rubber stamped the use of neonicotinoid spraying and coating," he said.

Honeybees have lived successfully on the planet for 20 million years before the arrival of humans up until this point in time. Bees are the ultimate selfless workers that have provided humanity with the miracle of honey; the full implications of its contribution to medicine are still emerging.

As individuals, we can help the honeybee. Apart from working to ban indiscriminate spraying of pesticides and promoting organic agriculture, we can plant native flowers, trees and shrubs that are bee-friendly in our gardens. We can learn about beekeeping and start hives going in our own backyards. We can grow, buy and eat food that supports local, organic and small-scale agricultural practices and producers. When we take care of the honeybee, we take care of ourselves.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Wild Places

Every year as summer ebbs into the memory and fall is in full flow, it feels good to get a break from our civilized world. It is my time to recover flagging energies and truly connect with nature and the wild. In Temagami, after a long day’s paddle across large lakes and along narrow rivers, the reward is to discover an ideal island at which to set up camp. A waterfall roars off in the mid-distance, beyond the bend. The sun is going down as we gather wood for the evening’s campfire. Dusk is magic hour as our canoe draws us past ancient rockfaces. We bear mute witness to the spirits of the ages, their reflections dancing wistfully on the waters as night descends. These custodians of the canyon wrap us in fog as we glide along the waterline, transients, water-boatmen on the silky surface, a liquid bond straddling the twilit heavens and the dark untapped depths beneath our paddles.
We have been guided in to this old-growth sanctuary by ravens, and now loons announce their welcome. At this season of change marked by the onset of cold nights, the odd shower or flurry, gusty winds and the continued shedding of foliage, there are likely no other humans in our midst, but deer and bear, beavers, fish, frogs, ducks and birds are around. To share time and space with them is to feel a definite spritual connection to the wild and to those who have trodden these paths, paddled these waters before us. At dawn a cluster of pines stands sentinel over the misted lake. A stroll reveals the island to us. Pink rocks are partly cloaked in moss and lichens, partly bare but drenched in early morning moisture. The sun suddenly pierces through the trees across the lake. The ground between the towering white pines and clumps of birch is soft with decomposing matter.
I try to make nature part of my every day but there is no substitute for raw exposure to the wilds and the elements. Temagami transports us into a magical realm where the cycle of life and the vision of death are seen stark and true. Seeds germinate, struggle for survival; plants live long, age gracefully, and finally return to the earth, embraced by the living forest floor which nurtures the cradling soil for a successor seed blowing in on the wind. Plants, wildlife and weather perform an absorbing, never-ending play, in which we are incidental participants rather than masters. We soak up the charged energy; nature challenges us and rewards us with fleeting epiphanies and visions of great beauty.
Native peoples endured the extended cold of long winters out here in the woods because they embraced nature, respected it, and gave thanks to it. They were part of it, and it became them. The blowing snows, the numbing cold, the evolving climate are a reminder how intimately connected we all are to the Earth, and how we meddle with it at our peril. As a ‘civilization’, we are accelerating the extinction of species; toxins in the air, water and soils; an altered climate; irresponsible resource exploitation; unfettered corporate greed.
We should be preserving every wild place, setting them aside for future generations. Our wide-eyed wonder is the key to our souls, and our intimacy with nature in the wild enables us to affirm all life. After all, “Once wonder has been chased from our thinking about the land, then we are lost ” (Robert Macfarlane – The Wild Places).