Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mending a Landscape

It is really spring. It has been raining for days. The soil is drenched. The heavy coat of leaves on the gardens is already disappearing, munched away by worms, centipedes, beetles. Some of the early grasses are already flowering.

The perennials we have in our gardens here are, at most, in their third spring. And things are bigger and stronger than they were last year and the year before. It is astounding really. Not too long ago this was a pesticide-drenched 'landscape'...

The lesson so far this year is how the native perennials are creating the landscape in ways that are beyond my control. Not that they are 'out of control', but that they have habits and capacities that let them thrive here. They establish themselves slowly, and they dig in deep. Above is the new edge of what is becoming a stand of Common Milkweed (Asclecpias syriaca). The new edge is what used to be part of the lawn, about four feet from where I planted the seedlings three years ago. They are flourishing in a way that proves the land here is getting better.

Below is the new woodland bed beneath the Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). We planted three Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) and a handful of Wild Ginger roots (Asarum canadense) two years ago; the Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum pubescens) to the right made its own way here from somewhere else. Harebells (I still haven't identified them) appeared in this bed last year, out of nowhere.

I know it looks like a picture of a pile of sticks- well, it is- but the stick pile is part of the bed. It is a pile of sticks covered by a pile of leaves and then covered with more sticks. The pile is summer snake habitat, but it also cools and protects the sandy soil beneath. I planted vines this year that I hope will grow up over the pile.

Out of the shade of the Hackberry is the native grass meadow. Formerly the raised vegetable bed, I replanted it in the summer of 2009 with Ontario prairie grasses. I used a small number of meadow flowers as well, hoping they will use up the nutrients in the soil quickly, which in turn will encourage the grasses.

The astounding thing about the meadow is how few (non-native and invasive) weeds there are. I have taken fewer than ten dandelions out of here this year. I think this is because of the dense root structure the meadow is rapidly developing. When I dug down to get at a Comfrey root last week, I found the top two inches of soil full of roots. (That's the Boy Cat With a Lady's Name who hangs around in the meadow all the time.)

The little Frosted Hawthorn (Crataegus pruinosa) below had two berries and maybe ten flowers last year. This year, there will be plenty more... All of our shrubs are for the pollinators and the birds- they have flowers and fruit.

This year I've also decided to replace my struggling Moosamina (Viburnum trilobum). It has been nearly killed by the imported Viburnum Leaf Beetle. The beetle hitched a ride on viburnums imported from Europe for landscaping in the mid-20th century- think 'snow ball bush'. Since then it has spread north to southern Ontario, and now it has spread to native viburnum species.

Farther north in the Boreal forest, native viburnums are an important food for migratory birds and moose (hence the name 'Moosamina'). But they are also treasured food for people. The thought that these bugs could make it into those landscapes terrifies me. I have spent many late summers picking berries with friends and colleagues along the Albany river, visiting the same shrubs year after year. I have seen how prized these berries are. I have seen how prized these practices are. Beyond measure.

And so instead of supporting the life cycle of the Viburnum Leaf Beetle any longer, I have replaced these shrubs with another treasure, an American Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana).

This little Sorbus has no pests that I could find out about, and non-native Mountain Ash thrives around here, so I have high hopes. I think it does too- it is a sapling, a tiny little sapling, and it is already willing to flower. I hope it produces hundreds of saplings in its lifetime.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Very First Pollinators

I would like to applaud anyone who takes even a single picture of a bee. The black specks hovering around the catkins in this photo are our first bees this year. What kind? Well, I don't know. They are small, early and busy. There are two sizes, actually- sunflower seed and safflower seed. The really small ones burrow down into the catkins, but for what I do not know. When I got too close they flitted off, and so instead of disrupting them, I let them be(e).

It is interesting to me that this year the native plants are keeping the same flowering sequence as last year relative to each other: first the Salix discolor (pussy willow, at the top) which ends its flowering about the same time that the Prunus virginiana (choke cherry, above) starts, closely followed by the Fragaria virginiana (strawberry, below).

Last year the non-native muscari were in bloom before the pussy willow . For me this is yet another indication that native plants suit themselves to the whole pillar of life that make up the local ecosystem.

The Hierochloe odorata (sweet grass) grows centimeters a day this time of year- it is above with the strawberries. This is its second spring in the new meadow garden, and the uncut grass from last summer is popular with the birds. They ramble around choosing which piece to take. Some of the dry blades are three feet long, so I suppose they are picking out the shorter ones.

This is a mysterious tunnel exit/entrance found in the grass meadow. The entrance is about as big around as my pinky finger. I'm going to mark the spot off so it doesn't get trampled in case there is somebody in there.

And this is last year's bee housing! There is still some remnant clay in some of the tunnels, left over from the walls the mother bees built between egg chambers. I think I have to retire these bits this year and replace them with new ones, to avoid the spread of disease. So these will go down into the shady wood pile for slugs to live in. So everybody has some place to live.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Most Cherished Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is a 'non-timber forest product'. Like natural rubber and pine resin, maple syrup production promotes reforestation, forest cover protection and low-input production methods. It is the kind of enterprise that makes rural life possible.

It is no surprise then that people engaged in this type of production are a certain kind of 'environmentalist'. Their 'forest management' is most accurately described as 'knowing' their forest. Walking, looking, listening. Being there in their forest. It is 'slow' economic activity.

I have met this particular type of forest manager in both Honduras and Canada, people living in and making a living out of the forest they protect, nurture and know.

We want to support those kinds of efforts as consumers.

Today we went to buy maple syrup- maybe a year's supply- from the most amazing sugar bush manager, a 66 km (or 44 mile) drive from home. This is a second growth forest on the north shore of Lake Erie, owned and run by Robert McLaren. He exalts in the beauty of his forest, its wildlife, its strength. He grew up in a forest- his father ran a park- and working in its sugar operation.

It is an old tradition in this region, really an Indigenous tradition that was preserved by European colonists. Most farms had a bush lot, many produced syrup, few do to today. "The farmers have just bulldozed them". In 1851, this township produced 5,945 pounds of maple sugar (and only 4,700 pounds of butter).

He splits all of his wood by hand. The syrup he produces is dark, very thick and tastes like woodsmoke. It tastes like a woodstove feels on a cold day.

The view on his farm is of thirty five acres of bush overlooking the lake, bordered by creeks that run through the gullies on either side of his forest.

Robert McLaren's farm is an example of what happens when a producer refuses to let market concerns trump environmental sustainability, and refuses to segregate 'nature' in parks.

The integrity of the product is assured by the integrity of the production. And the integrity of the producer. This is 'slow' production.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The New City Farmer: Breaks With Tradition

These are photos of a very new urban farm up the street from us. We walk by every day; every day I think a bit more about what this garden is telling me.

In these photos of the neighbor's garden, you can see their raised beds and minimal lawn in the first, and in the second their view of their neighbor's more established grape vines growing on an arbor.

About half of their parking space in the front (technically City property) has been devoted to the raspberries you can see in the third photo.

As I've written about before, there is a long history in the neighborhood of people growing food. I interviewed one of our neighborhood elders years ago who told me about people sharing food they grew on their own and the City's property. There were Victory gardens too of course.

But this is not one of those 'traditional' gardens. Rather, it is worth noticing that this is in fact new.

Traditional gardens around here were born of necessity. And a culture that tolerated doing things like growing food in your yard!

The context for this City Farm is very different, however. Today food is both cheap, and suspect- the price of food is at an all time low given mass production, but consumers are increasingly disturbed by the consequences of that mass production.

Consumers are increasingly aware that cheap petroleum makes it possible for food to be produced as inexpensively as possible, meaning wherever necessary to generate profit. This means that the control of key resources- land and water- is more concentrated in the hands of big market producers than ever before. And processed foods have never been cheaper or more available.

This City Farm comes into existence at a time when anyone who eats is more a captive of the market-driven food system than at any time in human history. Rich and poor alike, we are part of this super-efficient system, despite the multiple crises it spells. Unlike my Gramma's City Farm, this City Farm comes into existence in the face of that crisis. For Gramma, she was doing what she knew how to do well- expertly even. Small-scale mixed-plot agriculture, and all that implies about preparing, preserving and sharing food. Unlike the New City Farmers, she was not challenged to launch a new way to look at food.

New City Farmers like the one on my street pose a direct challenge to the processes creating the crisis of the food system today, by abandoning the system that has very nearly made us all captive.

These City Farmers are rebuilding the bond that has been broken between producers and consumers because they are both! Better than that, they are creating a new kind of community around these bonds, because they open this garden to others, on community work days: anyone who wants to come help out with the weeding shares the harvest.

This last quality, of recreating community through the production of food, is the quality I most admire about this garden- well, and that they produce food in their front yard- because it is the most difficult thing to do. That is, we live in an era when we can create community through commercial transaction. The best examples of this for me are 'Food Banks', institutions that affirm this triumph- I buy food at the grocery store, give it to the Food Bank, they give it to my neighbors.

This garden also reveals a respectful relationship with water. They use rain water, sparing the river that run off, full of all the muck it picks up running over our roads. But if they do have to irrigate, they can use City water. And City water is protected and its quality is regulated, because here it is a commonly held resource- which cannot be said of water in many countries which export vegetables. In many exporting countries, water resources are used without regard to any other users- poor farmers especially. Export vegetables are full of this looted water, and leave plenty of polluted water behind.

This New City Farm on my street is a "quiet protest", to quote Deb G over at Bee Creative. This New City Farm welcomes the beauty of producing food on a small scale, like the artistry of Grace over at Windthread (here too.)

And, while I was there taking pictures, a giant bumble bee was buzzing around. So, the bees we grow for need this garden, too. And maybe the New City Farm needs our bees.

The New City Farm on my street shows me one way to disrupt a system of production that undermines community, that cannot value the work of the pollinators, and that separates 'making' from 'living'. This garden is something to celebrate, and be grateful for, everyday.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Grace and Mending

Well, followers...I am starting a new blog today that is focused on cloth, recycling and in general rethinking the ways in which mass consumerism teaches us to interact with 'stuff'.

If anybody wants to stop by, you are welcome!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Whither the Mudlark, Rag and Boneman, the Tramp?

I had to look up 'whither' to make sure I had it right. It makes a great question.

I'm reading a new collection drawn from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor in which he details the multitude of occupations of the city's poor in the middle of the 19th century. Mudlarks collected anything that could be sold from the tidal flats around the city. The cover of this collection features a rag man, seemingly taken by surprise as he sorts rags and bones from a small heap of garbage. I add 'tramp' to this list, because it is a term I grew up with, meaning somebody who traveled around, 'getting by'.I appreciate Mayhew's tone- sociological, journalistic in its reporting of the facts of these occupations, and the lives they support. Never maudlin, never scolding like his contemporary Dickens could be. Nevertheless, Mayhew makes it clear that most of London's labourers are frankly poor, no more than one illness (or other brief break from their work) away from the Poor House.

I also appreciate Mayhew's detailed 'testimonies' from his subjects, his recognition of their expertise in complex economic practices that make up their strategies for getting by. Imagine the complexity of making a living by picking rags, or being a mudlark, or more likely both?

But most of all, I am frankly overwhelmed to read such clear and deliberate accounts of the 'real' economy written a century and a half ago, when today... Well, when today the only 'economy' we hear anything about is the officially accounted economy that the government endeavors to control. When, today, such economic practices persist, here, everywhere, and yet are only acknowledged as the undifferentiated mass of the 'informal sector'.

The shadow economic activity of 'getting by' persists, it is apparent every garbage day when people come by, pulling wagons on their bikes, looking for scrap metal. In the summer, every morning at the river we meet people collecting empty beer and liquor bottles, for the deposit. We forage stuff ourselves, from seeds to cloth to metal for the stuff we do around here- planting gardens, making cloth, building birdhouses. We don't get by with our foraging- we don't need to- but it lets us get stuff we need within walking distance! And, ours is part of a strangely invisible economy that Mayhew recognized as part of the 'whole'.

And, I would add, built in small territories and with short journeys. There is always something small and intimate, minute and highly contextual in informal activities. As much as they are generally everywhere (I've seen them in every part of every country I've been in), they are always specific in their ingenuity.

Now, the work of 'getting by' can't be romanticized- but it can't be demeaned, either. It just needs to be noted for what it is- a mindset, an ethos, an ability. So, the answer to my question is 'no', the mudlark, rag man and tramp are still here. Invisible, but here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011