toensmeierbookcoverI just received Eric Toensmeier’s Carbon Farming Solution, A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (Chelsea Green, 2016). Reading this, along with Peter McCoy’s mind-blowing Radical Mycology, as well as the third US Department of Energy Billion Ton Report (just released today), and also listening to presentations such as the one in Concord last week, on carbon sequestration by a group called Biodiversity for a Livable Planet, I realize I feel optimistic again.

Cautiously optimistic, of course. And not hopeful.

I love it that none of the writers of  the blurbs and reviews on the back of Toensmeier’s book use the word “hope”. They use instead “opportunity”. This is so very important to me.

Early on, in all these years of doing to work – educating myself and others and practicing it – I did away with hope. I am one of those people who, in Transition Inner Work and Work That Reconnects gatherings, has an almost visceral reaction to the word. The concept (we call it a feeling – “I feel hopeful” – but I doubt it is one, I think it is instead a cultural construct) is useless to me and, I fear, destructive to what needs to be done. In most cases, hopeful people just don’t allow themselves to be upset enough to get off their asses and start doing the work. Their hope that “it will work out” (notice the expectation in this expression that the speaker doesn’t have to do anything) is based on fear – fear of work, fear of failure, fear of having to give up entitlements, fear of guilt. To combat this fear, they use more hope, the third in the trinity of cope and dope. That’s the thing with hopium: when the buzz wears off, it makes you believe that all you can do to make it better is to take another hit. It is not based on scientific data, on a real community and fellow-feeling or, most importantly, on actual work. And it is only by work, now, that we build the future, but “I hope” keeps putting it off. This made, and makes me, angry, and obviously I stopped going to these workshops which inevitably end on the hopeful note.

Not that I advocate hopelessness. Hopelessness too leads to despair and paralysis.  No, I reject the false choice between hope and hopelessness. What I have instead is work, because it has to be done, because it is the right thing to do, regardless of the outcome. I opt for now, put all my eggs in the basket of now, not some hoped-for (or despaired-of) future. I don’t count on hope, but on joy. Hence the subtitle of this blog, the quote from Wendell Berry: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts”.

That joy is now growing, because some of those facts have changed. Namely, it is increasingly becoming clear that, if we work with her, the earth can sequester the excess carbon that we already put in the atmosphere. This was the missing piece, the missing fact. Previously we feared that, even if we stopped putting carbon in the atmosphere, we’d still be dangerously overheating because of our past emissions, which are called, powerfully, “legacy carbon.” I am awed and convinced that the earth, the soil, the soil bacteria and fungi and plants can do it. In fact, it doesn’t surprise me at all, but here now we have scientifically convincing proof.

Can this realization, which effectively wipes away the “it’s too late anyway” argument, silence those who are against quitting fossil fuels? Can we now do both, stop putting new carbon in the atmosphere and sequester the legacy carbon? Toensmeier, p. 36:

So can carbon farming alone solve our climate change problem? Not even close. Carbon farming doesn’t work without dramatic emissions reductions (including clean energy an reduced consumption in wealthy countries), as even a small fraction of the remaining 5 to 10 trillion tons of carbon in the fossil pool would far overwhelm the theoretical maximum sequestration capacity of soils and biomass, estimated at 320 billion tons. (note) Emissions reduction also doesn’t work without carbon farming  since even if emissions stop today, we’re already over the tipping point with no way to return without sequestration.

This isn’t hope, this is opportunity. And what Toensmeier gives us in this book is also not hope,  but a toolkit. The opportunity and the toolkit are here: you grab it now and get to work. Or not. I know what I’m going to do. You?

 

(note) Rattan Lal, “Managing Soils and Ecosystems for Mitigating Anthropogenic Carbon Emissions and Advancing Global Food Security,” BioScience, 2010, 60, 9, pp.708-721. (You can read this fascinating paper here).

After a couple of unseasonably cold and gray days that warranted warm socks and a sweater, we’ve returned to hot (+90F) and sunny again. I return to monitoring my one barrel of rain water, which is about 1/5 full (empty). The couple of rain storms we’ve had and the one night of drizzle failed to fill the bin, let alone my array of four 275 gallon bins. One can have all the storage one wants, but one can’t make the rain fall.

DSCF8121The garden was getting on parched yesterday so I watered with the precious rain water, adding a half cup of fish emulsion and a cup and a half of compost and comfrey tea to each watering can. The tea I had started four days ago: dropping comfrey leaves into the bottom half of a five gallon bucket, adding about two gallons of rain water, then putting about ten cups of fresh compost into a cloth bag and submersing it. Put lid on, put in dark shed, let bubble away. It smelled sweat, going on yeasty, with the typical comfrey smell that I’ve not been able to describe – something like molten rubber? Anyway, it was ready. Though even hotter today, the plants, even the usually droopy tomatoes, look great. I hope the calcium rich comfrey will combat the blossom end rot I’ve spotted on some of the squashes.

Looking west of the garden, here’s an update of what’s going on with the front of our property.

DSCF7053_smallIn February we had a landscaper come with a track hoe to excavate the weeds, brambles and vines that we had combated year in year out – pulling, digging up, covering with cardboard and wood chips – losing the battle. In four hours he had dug them up with the big scoop and put them on one big pile. Then he churned up the massive leaf and wood chips piles that my neighbor had been depositing on our property for years. It looked like a lot of fun, like stirring a massive pot of soup with a massive ladle. This mix he deposited on the newly bared earth, at about a foot deep.

DSCF8032On the slope I sowed white clover, which took really well and is now feeding the rabbit population. I am not sure this is a good idea, but on the other hand, I haven’t had rabbit herbivory in my garden at all this season. Also, it is fixing nitrogen, out-competing most weeds and stopping erosion very well.

Down at the bottom, the hardiest weeds returned slowly, but our neighbor keeps dropping off wood chips and every other weekend or so DH and I go down and pull and cover, pull and cover. The excavation wasn’t a silver bullet that took care of it once and for all, and we never expected that, but our work now is much more manageable, and pleasant. It looks like this now:

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Notice the new pile of wood chips in the center.

The idea is that the micro-organisms need all the nitrogen available to burn up the carbon in the wood chips – leaving less or even no nitrogen for the weeds. That’s how woodsy mulch works. An extra weapon in our arsenal is the deployment of fungi. Most of the weeds we’re fighting are invasive greenies. I’m hoping that aggressively running mycelium in the wood chips mulch will suppress them even more. So I started wood chip fermenting. I learned about it from Paul Stametz in this short and informational video:

It’s an intriguing idea: you basically cultivate a herd of anaerobic bacteria, then you harvest them by killing them by exposing them to oxygen, then give them to the (aerobic) fungi as a meal. It’s like growing fodder for your livestock, only your fodder is bacteria and your livestock is fungi!

Here are my barrels, filled to the brim with a mix of soft and hard woods and tap water that sat out in open buckets in the sun for several days to dechlorinate. I’ll drain the barrels in a couple of weeks and we’ll spread the fermented chips and start a new batch. Hopefully, we’ll have great mycelium running soon!

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DSC_1824_cutoutTurns out Dan of Warm Colors Apiaries sent me two Russian queens, so I didn’t have to choose between replacing Laura (Hive 4) and making another split (Hive 7-to-be). I could do both!

I went into 4 and found Laura where she usually hangs out, in the top box. DH stood at a safe distance and played with his new lens. It’s amazing. Here I am pointing to the queen. Zooming in, you can easily spot her.

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I checked all the frames looking for eggs (very few), another queen (it’s not uncommon for there to be two queens in one colony), and queen cells, of which there were many, full of fat larvae. A sure sign that the bees too didn’t like Laura much. I tore out the queen cells because this colony hasn’t had a laying queen for too long already, picked up Laura, said sorry, and pinched off her head.

I also made a split with five frames of brood, honey, pollen and bees from hives 2 and 3. The weather was chilly (only 65F) and threatening rain, and the bees were all home and not liking it. Still I forged on, since these new queens were being held over with a couple of attendants, a small sponge of water and a dab of honey in a paper bag in my basement.

The splits come to my home bee yard, where I can keep a closer eye on them and baby them a bit more than the big colonies. The lid of the nuc box in which I move bees has warped pretty badly, and despite extra strapping and screws, it turned out that there was plenty of bee space between box and lid. As I was driving (bee jacket and gloves on, but hood down) I looked behind me and saw that twenty bees had escaped and more were following. This is no reason for alarm as long as you keep moving so the bees stick to the rear window. When we pick up packages, there are always stray bees, though perhaps not… thirty of them. Unfortunately I found myself situated behind the oldest lady in the oldest car in the state of Massachusetts, and she paid homage to every red light on the way. Yikes! The woman who was driving behind me certainly was alarmed. She even honked to alert me and I gave her a white gloved thumbs-up. Luckily it’s not too far, and I got home without incident. I went in and squished the ants in the other half of the double nuc, then hived the split.

The next day I queened them: Katharina in Hive 4 and Anna in Hive 7. I taped over the sugar plug of their cages to give them extra time to get accepted, but the bees’ initial reactions looked good. Today I went in again to take the tapes off. The bees will eat through the sugar in a day or two and release their new queens. I will check for eggs in a week or so.

Not to count my chickens before they’ve hatched, but here’s the queen count anyway: three Italians, three Russians, one Sam Comfort Mutt.

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A whole crowd of us went picking at a local horse farm, where the farmers a decade or so ago had the foresight of converting a paddock into blueberries. This year will yield a bumper crop and the picking, in the drizzle, was wonderful.

This was the same field where two years ago we picked with our friend Rebecca, who died in February. I spoke about her to a friend and, when I found myself alone, to her as well.

Then, of course, one comes home to the follow-up work. Two hours of picking, seven people = 14 quarts of berries and heaps of fun. One hour of sorting, four people and also fun, lots of tasting. Then six hours of crushing, cooking, measuring, ladling and canning, by one person (me) = not so much fun, but 36 8 oz. jars of blueberry jam.

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some of the pickers, drenched

 

Doing an inspection of “Hive 6” I spotted Tatjana, the Russian Queen I got from Dan Conlon. She was laying eggs. Can you spot her?

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The frayed, light-colored bee below her, off to the left, is a callow bee: just eclosed. The two dark marks on the queen’s back aren’t mites, but pigment markings. Believe me, I checked!

I encountered the problem with the double nucs I mentioned before: bees crawling up the wall of the other top box and having to be brushed or smoked down before I can replace their second box:

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More problems: the other top box still being in place gets in the way of the wedge tool’s function of lifting tightly wedged/glued frames out. Lastly, the other box being unoccupied by bees, it had become home to ants! I am not liking this design one bit. I may move Tatjana and her people into the 5-frame nuc I have available, depending on what I do this weekend. On Saturday another Russian queen is coming my way, also from Dan. I may use her to replace the very slow-to-start or defective superseding queen in Hive 4 (Laura, who is Bianca’s daughter). Or I may split Hive 3 (Beatrice) and put them in the other side of the box and make Hive 7! In that case, how to get the ants out first…

DSCF7979My two kombucha Continuous Brews (one with a spiced Indian chai, the other a more subtle Earl Grey) are growing vigorously, the mothers in them giving birth to more SCOBYs (scobies?). They are starting to fill up the jars. Time for a special hold-over vessel: the SCOBY Hotel. I learned about this from the Big Book of Kombucha by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory of Kombucha Kamp, both of which (the book, the site) I am liking very much.

First photo: Earl Grey kombucha with sour cherry concentrate flavoring for second fermentation. Nicely fizzy! We like the flavors of fresh fruits better though, and those also create an explosive buzz. The sweet cherry and the watermelon flesh flavorings were more of a hit, but not as colorful.

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Separating the older (bottom one) from the newer mother.

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SCOBY motel with four mothers, so far.

 

 

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I tried again to capture those Indigenous Micro-Organisms, again in the leaf mulch pile, and again I got mostly yellow, pink, blue and predominantly black. It smelled sweet, though, so I decided to make a batch of IMO II, adding 1:1 brow sugar. This can be kept indefinitely in a dark, cool spot.

To plant some stinging nettle plants that a new friend – new, but he understands me all too well already! – brought for me, I went into a seldom-visited patch of our property. While digging the trench, I found the soil there to be super soft and hyphal, especially around an old beech tree. It may be that the indigenous micro-organisms are all the colors of the rainbow, not snow-white, but I may try one more time under that tree. I will have to brave some fast growing nettles to get there. Might as well harvest some of the tops and make a nettle tea…

 

 

I visited the two buckets of FAA today – they’re nicely tucked away in the cool, dark basement. Amazing how it doesn’t smell awful or even fishy at all, since it’s just fish and sugar, and some apples. The apple smell dominates, along with a sweet fermented smell. The top of one had a lot of mold, which I just scooped up and fed to my compost bin buddies.

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Underneath that layer the liquefying action is well and truly happening. Basically, only the big fish heads are left. This is what it looks like after a stir:

 

 

 

Meanwhile, outside, this, in case you too were wondering where some of those sumptuous ripe peas went (click to enlarge):

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I decided to give the double four-over-four-frame nucs a la Mike Palmer a try and ordered a set from Better Bee. Whether it was their milling or my hammering the boxes together, I don’t know, but the two top boxes don’t fit together well. With some careful placing, they do the job, but they’re not snug.

I took Queen Sam’s split out of her five-frame nuc box and shifted her into one side of the double nuc a few weeks ago. They filled out the bottom and top boxes in no time. A few days ago, I moved another split (for Queen Tatjana, a pure Russian from Dan Conlon’s Warm Colors Apiaries) into the right side and promptly ran into problem number two.  As I was working the bottom box, many bees insisted on sticking to the side of the other nuc’s top box. I had to brush them down quite aggressively, and even then too many to my liking were squashed when I put the second box on. I wouldn‘t have put that second box on, because the new colony still only covered three frames, but with this kind of outfit you can’t of course work with just one box on one, two on the other. If you do, it looks like this:

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And this is exactly what it looked like today.

I moved Sam’s people to the full hive you see on the left: they were more than ready for a lot more space. After inspecting all eight frames, I had not found the unmarked Sam. There she was: on the inside of the bottom box, hiding among a good three hundred bees who had also decided to hang out on the box. If that box hadn’t been attached to the other nuc, I could have easily picked it up and gently shaken them all into their new home. As it was, I was fortunate to have my hadny-dany queen catcher available and after much searching, spotting and losing her again, I grabbed her and moved her over. I had to keep that box open like that so the other bees could make their own way over there as well. (Forget about unplugging their entrance: too many foragers would have flown into the wrong box.) Luckily there was no wind because the contraption wasn’t quite stable. A few hours later, the nuc box was empty and I closed it up:

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It goes to show that one best has two colonies in one double nuc that are more or less on a par, but I think I will only use this setup as a true nuc, that is, one box with four frames each, for increase and mating purposes only. That avoids the problem with the ill-fitting top boxes and the bees climbing up them as you work the lower box.

Both splits so far have been off one hive (Borgia’s hive), and I have one more strong hive that I could split, maybe once, maybe twice. Time is running out, because the bees need the time to build up before winter. So far I have four Italian queens (Borgia, Constanza, Beatrice and Laura, who is the daughter of the superseded Bianca – she is in the house but not yet laying eggs), one Sam Comfort “mutt” (Sam, who is a beauty!), and now the new Russian, Tatiana, whom I’ve only glimpsed through the screen of her cage.

I’m hoping Sam keeps laying the way she is, then I may steal one frame of her young larvae and try my hand at grafting. I have all the tools and some of the know-how ready. I am planning on using the Cloake Board on Queen Constanza’s hive, which at last inspection was the strongest, most populous hive. If it happens, it will be soon, so stay tuned!

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A quick update on Queen Bianca: alas, she is no more, but her daughter, whom I have named Laura, made her appearance and was laying eggs. She looked good enough to kiss!

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For now, a photo reportage of a find today in our front yard (“down there,” we call it), in a spot twenty feet from where the big King Stropharia resides.  I will be traveling for a week, so expect no posts during that time.

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And I am reading this tome, fascinating! Will write a review when I get back – hopefully I will have read all 600+ pages by then. Peter McCoy and his Radical Mycology, it’s the bee’s knees!

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