Category Archives: Backyard

Your Garden Matters

bk beyond organics.jpgOne of the last books I read while living in Bolivia was Beyond Organics: Gardening for the Future by Helen Cushing, which is available for FREE from the Soil and Health Library online. As should be expected of books on the cutting edge of agriculture, organics and gardening the author is Australian. While many of the examples in the book are from the Australian context and therefore not as relevant to a North American audience, the overall principles are easily translatable to whatever context you find yourself in.

Probably because of their particular climate and the problems they have had to face long before the rest of us related to changes in climate, drought and other agricultural issues, Australia, the birthplace of permaculture, is often way ahead of the rest of the world in ideas about sustainable agriculture. Beyond Organics is no exception.

It isn’t until the end of the book that Cushing lays out some of the facts about how we treat our yards, but it’s worth sharing up front.

According to the EPA ‘almost 80 million pounds of pesticide-active ingredients are used on US lawns annually’. Also astonishing are these statistics from the US National Wildlife Federation:

  • 30 percent of water consumed on the US East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60 percent on the US West Coast.
  • The average suburban lawn receives 10 times as much chemical pesticide per acre as farmland.
  • More than 70 million tons of fertilisers and pesticides are applied to residential lawns and gardens annually.
  • A motorised lawnmower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as an average car; a brushcutter emits 21 times more; and a leafblower 34 times more.
  • Where pesticides are used on lawns, 60-90 percent of earthworms are killed. (196)

These statistics seem much more dire after reading the preceding 195 pages of her book in which she explains what gardens have become and casts her vision for what gardens can be. Cushing takes on the concept of the isolated backyard garden and expands it into a network of havens for species, plants and life to thrive. Her concept is an environmental garden that stretches underneath, around and over the garden fence.

250px-European_honey_bee_extracts_nectar.jpgShe takes us through the history of organics and gardening showing how gardens evolved into what they are and how we can reorient our ideas around abetter way of thinking and gardening. It’s also a very empowering book as she reminds over and over again that these gardens in our backyards matter. She paints a portrait of the unseen and unnoticed world of our gardens.

There is a whole society of birds, insects, reptiles, mammals who come here to wash, drink, feed, each attracted by the water and also by each other, with some becoming the meals of others. Plus there are the unseen millions, billions, of micro-organisms – the politics of ecology requires that this silent majority are not forgotten. (38)

It is easy to miss the life teeming around us whether we live in the suburbs or the inner city. We tend to focus on what we have been taught to see, the large animals, flowers and aesthetics of our gardens. What we miss is the web of life that makes the whole thing work. The other thing that tricks our minds into thinking badly about our gardens is fences.

The boundaries exist only in the minds of the property owners, where they allow that owner to limit his or her sense of responsibility to the space within those fences. It is easy to think that we don’t have much impact, because our land or garden is not so big. But the biosphere is fenceless, and time is long, longer than the river. The effect on the environment beyond our fence is the combined effect of many individuals over many years, many generations. In the same way, our concept of ecosystem is generally flawed, because it packages them into neat concepts that satisfy our desire to contain and present our understanding, as though ecosystems also have fences. But they don’t. (41)

Maybe your desire for a garden is simply to please your eye (or your neighbor’s eye). Perhaps instead it is to produce more of your food and be a good steward of the environment. Either way we still tend to think of our small gardens in isolation. Cushing pushes us to realize that this is not the reality of the world of biology and ecosystems. Life does not recognize fences or borders. This goes both ways.

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There are things we do in our yards that are harmful, using chemicals, planting non-native (or invasive) species or selecting plants for our own aesthetics. Chemicals and seeds do not respect the fences we build. They find their way into other places, our neighbor’s yard and waterways. Our gardens can do great damage, not just by themselves, but along with all the other gardens and gardeners contributing an excess of water and chemicals to our shared environment.

On the other hand, if our garden considers the world beyond our fence and provides habitat for birds and animals, plants for pollinators, insect and other life, then it becomes one strand in an ecological web providing sanctuary for species rapidly losing habitat in many places and food for pollinators, insects and animals that need it. Our gardens can be a force for sustainability, not only as isolated plots trying to carve out an organic, sustainable niche, but as part of an interlocking network of gardens . Cushing describes the environmental garden like this,

The more the plants give in terms of food, shelter, habitat, nutrient cycling, soil stabilising and so on, the more they maximize the garden’s environmental positives. They are a resource for the environment, rather than a sink. If these same plants are low need, that is, virtually independent of you, the ecological profits go up even more. Ecology is based on the economics of nature. The words ecology and economics even have the same Greek root, which is oikos, meaning household. (171)

I was delighted when the author made this connection between economics and ecology. This way of thinking about our little plots of dirt connects them to the greater whole and makes them more important than just “keeping up with the Joneses”. So, as you think about what to do with that plot of dirt, no matter how small, wherever you live, remember that your garden matters. It is part of the web of life and can be a vehicle for transforming our environment.

The Original Sin of Church and State

I’ve been interested in First People, Native American, indigenous issues ever since I spent two weeks on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. I was working at a Lutheran camp based near Ft. Collins, CO and worked with High School youth groups on week-long service trips. We were invited by the local Arapahoe chief to participate in a sweat lodge. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m not so interested in adopting their spirituality or somehow trying to “go native” by putting a dream catcher in my car and wearing lots of topaz. I want to avoid appropriating and co-opting their culture, because it can be easily become another form of colonization, domination and oppression. However, I do believe indigenous people have a lot to teach and remind us about our own traditions and things we’ve lost.

I probably stole this from someone, but I believe that the original sin of the United States (as well as the majority of nation-states in existence today, particularly in the western hemisphere) is what we did to the people that first inhabited the places we now call home. Do we even need to go over the list? Genocide, cultural oppression and extinction, theft of land, desecration of sacred places, broken treaties. The list goes on and continues today. What we in the church often leave out of our theological equations and history of Christianity is the complicity of the church with the state in perpetrating such acts on indigenous people around the globe. I believe strongly that this is a (perhaps THE) most fundamental sin with which we, both church and state, must reckon. Our current economic, political, social arrangement is based on the historical and continuing exploitation of these people, their land and their resources.

Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous people in South America (maybe more than Guatemala which has the highest percent in Central America). Three groups make up most of that indigenous population; Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. There are some other groups mainly from the eastern lowlands that I don’t know much about. In Charagua, where I live, we are on the northern edge of the Chaco region, which is the historic home of the Guarani people extending through northern Paraguay and parts of Peru, Argentina and maybe Uruguay and Chile. Needless to say it’s a large region and crosses many of the arbitrary borders that were created by the Spanish. The Chaco War was basically a conflict between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, none of whose employees participated in the fighting over the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.

This fundamental sin has obviously done damage to indigenous communities everywhere, but some of the effects are more subtle than the more obvious. In working with a couple Guarani communities here, I’ve noticed that they have adopted a lot of industrial agriculture’s methods of production. While they continue to produce a lot of food for their own consumption, they primarily produce commodity crops like sorghum, sesame, corn and soy for sale to large agribusinesses. They use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to manage their crops. These are people who have lived on this land and handed down knowledge about the local flora and fauna for probably thousands of years. They survived in the harsh Chaco climate for millenia without growing these crops or using chemicals. Now this knowledge is all but lost. There are still lots of people with knowledge about local plants that are edible and good for medicinal purposes. MCC’s head of rural and agricultural programs in Bolivia, Patrocinio, showed me four different weeds that could be used to either make tea or a medicinal salve in my own backyard.

This is the effect of our civilization’s original sin. It harms the people with the knowledge we most need to survive on this planet. How many North Americans could name ten native plants that they could eat in their area? Not many. This is our basic relationship between people across the globe. All of our injustices and inequality come back historically to the exploitation of indigenous people and their land. We cannot simply wish that it remain in the past and somehow move on, forgiving and forgetting. This sin is continuing and we continue to participate in it.

If this is our original sin, for both church and state, how can we, as individuals and churches (I have little hope for the state), find redemption, reconciliation and salvation for our complicity? I would like to suggest that the first thing we can do is learn about the people that used to live on the land that now belongs to our house or are church. We must expand our imaginations past the lifetimes of ourselves and our family to the people that first encountered the white man in our area. How did those people live? How long did they live there? How did they survive? Are any of them still alive? What knowledge still remains from the thousands of years of experience living without oil and coal?

Then we must also expand our imaginations forward into the future. What will the world look like in seven generations if we continue down this path? If there is knowledge left from these people left, what can we learn from it? If there is no knowledge left, what can we do to begin learning about the places where we live? How can we partner with indigenous people to begin to steer this boat the right way and if it turns out to be the Titanic to help get people safely off?

I believe strongly that the salvation of our world (including the church) lies in our relationship to indigenous people around the world. What might this mean for Christian theology? If salvation, in some sense, lies beyond the church (perhaps in order for the church to reclaim her own tradition), what does that mean for how we understand what Jesus did and who the church is? I believe that Jesus birth, life, work, death and resurrection is good news for people that are marginalized and oppressed. Indigenous people are marginalized in a way that seems fundamentally different than others. They have been an obstacle in the way of progress and civilization. Now that we are reaching some of the limits of this project, indigenous people provide an alternative possibility for how to live in the world with each other and with nature.

The Lazy Way of Farming

I’ve been intrigued by Fukuoka and his natural way of farming for a while. This precursor to the modern permaculture movement developed a way and philosophy of agriculture based on his observations and experiments in Japan. Eventually he was able to produce as much rice using his method as others did with more traditional (mono-cropping) techniques. One of the things Fukuoka did was go into a field and just throw seed randomly out in the field and see what happened. If something grew particularly well in one place, he would make observations and try to figure out what nature was doing. In this way he tried to base his way of farming on nature.

Fukuoka’s method actually reduces the amount of labor needed, because you aren’t trying to apply lots of inputs, use tillage and cultivate the ground in a way that works against nature. Instead you do your best to let nature do all the hard work and you sit back and reap the results. I’ve been wanting to experiment with this way of cultivating food. Well, I had a bag of seeds that were not labeled. So, I had no idea what they were or what to do with them. This was the perfect chance to begin developing what I would like to call the lazy way of farming. Sounds good right?

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Here’s the bags of seeds without any labels. I might have learned something by trying to identify the different seeds. Instead I thought it would be fun to plant a bed in my garden Fukuoka-style.

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Here is the result of mixing my seeds all together in a bag. Then I prepped a bed in my garden for them by hoeing it up (I know this is not pure Fukuoka, but I’m experimenting okay?). Then I just tossed the seeds out on the bed, watered them in and then mulched them with some weeds.

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The thing I’m most worried about is birds getting to the seeds before they germinate, but so far so good. My hope is that something will grow this season and the seeds that don’t grow will lie dormant until the time is ready. So, I won’t replant this bed. I’ll just knock down whatever grows, let it mulch the bed for weeds and see if anything else comes up when the rainy season starts in November or so. I’ll let you know what happens and what I learned from the experiment. Hopefully, down the road it will develop into a low-labor, low-input way of farming a la Fukuoka and permaculture that will result in sustaining ourselves more and more off of whatever plot of ground we happen to be on.

Our Own Walden

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Photo of current Charagua workers cooking giso over the fire in what will soon be our yard.

We recently visited Charagua and decided to accept a position there working with Low German Mennonites, local Bolivians and Guarani (an indigenous group) on water systems, dry latrines and small-scale vegetable production. This is not the position we originally accepted, but it is within the same program. We’re excited about a more rural life and working with both LGMs and the Guarani people. Our house is on the same property as the center where we work and serves as a demonstration plot with a big yard and small pasture.

IMG_6442.JPGI’m excited about all the possibilities this position will provide. Both the more rural setting and living where we work mean that the pace of life will be much slower than in Santa Cruz. I have plans for the garden, but also to experiment with some tagasaste trees as a forage for a couple milk goats in the pasture by our house. I’m also hoping to work on a simple water filtration system (our water gets pretty murky when it rains), maybe rainwater harvesting and a compost pile, of course.

There will be a lot of time for reading, relaxing and just being. I plan on getting a charango and spending lots of time on the porch learning how to play this guitar-like instrument with ten strings and traditionally made out of an armadillo shell. I already have a stack of books to take with us (most of which are fiction this time). I’m also hoping that this will afford me the opportunity to return to my Food in the Bible series.

We will not have internet access. So, I may not be regularly updating the blog at least for the first couple months. If I am able to find a routine for writing, then I will space out those posts over time when I’m in the city.

Cooking With Free Energy

It’s not unusual in Bolivia for families to have a solar cooker (see pictures below). This is a great way to cook your food with free energy. There are lots of different ways to create solar cookers. There’s also lots of easy DIY ways to use solar energy to heat greenhouses, purify water and even dehydrate food. Solar cooking is not as easy or convenient as using a microwave, or even gas/electric stoves and ovens. It takes time to warm up and it cooks slower. Obviously it works best in areas that get strong sun for most of the year. You also have to aim the cooker at the sun and rotate it during the day as the sun moves through the sky.

Solar cookers are a great way to reduce your energy consumption on a household level, but is it really practical on a larger scale as a solution. I recently read about a restaurant in Chile that used only solar ovens to cook its food. They feed about 70 people a day this way. At World Hunger Relief the raggedy one would sometimes cook community lunch using a solar cooker and the Lorena stove (a low-tech efficient stove that uses wood for fuel) in about 3-4 hours. Not to mention the solar powered tacos coming to a corner near you.

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The solar cooker is on the roof at our host family’s house in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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Cochabamba is a little higher in altitude and the sun is much stronger. You can’t tell in the picture but the contents of the pot are bubbling.