Betelgeuse is close, only about 600 light-years away in the constellation of Orion. It is one of the largest stars known, a red super-giant with a radius around 1400 times larger than the Sun’s. It’s also pretty young, just about eight million years old, and it won’t last much longer, heading for a supernova pretty soon.
When that happens, the resulting explosion will be visible from Earth, even in broad daylight. I hope I’m around long enough to see it, but then again “short” for stars and “long” for humans rarely overlap. Though they must, sometimes.
Following my nose, trying to find what was smelling so bad in the front yard, I almost stepped on him, the Barred Own. Flattened over his prey in the growing dusk I hadn’t seen him. He took off silently. Startling. Here’s what he had been covering: a headless cottontail in the front yard (photo taken from inside the house).
Soon the hunter reappeared and we could take photos and video of him, ripping and eating, trying to move the rabbit (but he could only drag it a few feet), all the time keeping an eye on the surroundings, us included. He stared right at us, not intimidated.
Darkness fell fully and we could no longer see him. In the morning this is all that was left:
A friend found a dead sparrow and brought it to us for our home school. It resided in our freezer for a couple of weeks until today we remembered it.
We unwrapped it and studied it for a bit, which wasn’t easy as it was frozen stiff. Then Amie suggested a funeral. We brought it outside to the compost bin. I put it in there, and Amie said some words. She had no connection with this individual bird, so it was a different, exploring kind of speech. She tried “Have fun in heaven” and “You flew so high”. Then she remarked that we all have to die, “like Gilgamesh learned”. (I had told her the story of Gilgamesh yesterday evening.) That was fitting. She poured some “happy sand” (yellow sand) on the little corpse. Then we turned the compost over it so it can feed new life.
After that we visited the chickens, which were yelling for us. They are such complainers, but they’re very generous: in the nest boxes we found eight eggs.
Our last stop outside was also with a bird. This was a chicken Amie made in summer out of clay. This is what it looks like after a winter on the porch:
Amie knew exactly what had happened. It had been wet and then frozen, so it exploded from the inside.
This is a cool tool. Put yourself on the north pole, or at, say, 74.8 degrees N latitude.
Is this nature study?
I’ve rediscovered Tim Morton’s books on ecology, among them Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought, where he introduces the concept of dark ecology as a means of expressing the “irony, ugliness, and horror” of ecology. Yes, that’s what we need, or what I need: to ditch the neutral theoretical ground on which to articulate ecological claims. Instead, all beings are always already implicated within the ecological, necessitating an acknowledgement of coexistential difference for coping with ecological catastrophe that, according to Morton, “has already occurred.”
With a friend I’m also working on a series of events and a documentary film about dying, death and burial. How can it be that death is a rumor? And I also suspect it is about endurance as well. “The Sovereignty and the Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed,” by Liz Waldner:
“Time” is a word. “Love” is a word.
Between them are words and between them
an entrance. I pray to be
entranced, starting right now again I do.
I am old enough to understand
to go on is a great gift.
We had the clothesline out on Sunday to dry out some tarps, and it was graced by two dragonflies who really liked their perch: they let us photograph them from pretty up close, and whenever they flew off, they returned immediately, so we got to try the new camera’s macro function and lens.
On MLK day we went to the Boston Museum of Science with friends. We mostly hung out in the Green Wing with the New England birds and natural history displays. I enjoy studying the stuffed animal skins, the skeletons and fossils in their glass cases. No doubt some of my preference is due to the old-timey-ness, the absence of moving parts, sparks, recorded voices talking at you, and screens. The MoS unfortunately does have computer screens and games all over the place, and for this reason I prefer the Harvard Museum of Natural History, specifically the upper floor, where the animals, frozen behind glass, are accompanied by small labels, often even just a number.
While most visitors over and under 8 were “interacting” with the screens, I came eye-to-eye with the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and tried to understand why I am particularly attracted to these animal skins. It’s not like they look alive. The first thing we as eye-oriented animals seek in another is engagement with the eyes, and these eyes are invariably glass or plastic. They don’t fool us. In fact, the robin’s beady eye was like a bud from which the deadness blossomed to cover the entire animal.
The kids get this right away. One of the older girls (11) said she doesn’t like to see the stuffed animals because they’re dead and that’s “creepy”. She said she likes zoos instead. I offered that I don’t like zoos so much, because the wild animals are kept in cages and I think they might be unhappy. Another computer screen distracted her, so we didn’t get a chance to hash out this live-dead/free-caged/happy-unhappy tangle together. As for myself, I’d rather see a wild animal dead than caged and that’s because death is a natural state for a wild animal (eventually), but captivity isn’t*. I value life, so what attracts me then, in these stuffed bird skins, that I’d rather spend time with them than with their with living counterparts in zoos?
The same question from an another angle is this: what makes the skins different from skeletons? These birds are set up, not so that they look alive, but so that we can recognize them. These specimens get to stand in, quite convincingly, for their species, a class of animals we usually don’t see in their skeletal form when they’re tearing up our garden beds in search of juicy worms. As for the specimens of New England birds I don’t recognize because I’ve not seen them (yet), I try to memorize those, so that when I see the Northern Shrike in the wetlands next time, I’ll recognize it.
Is that the draw then, recognition? It’s part of it. To find what it is part of, there’s a test case, the case in the room that attracts me the most, the one with the extinct birds: the passenger pigeon (extinct since 1914) and, next to it, the heath hen (extinct since 1932). I look at them and part of what happens is recognition: in the passenger pigeon, I recognize the mourning dove that visits my feeders every spring. But something more happens…
Extinct. Steward Brand (TED talk) says that “extinction is a different kind of death. It’s bigger.” Who ever heard of such a thing? Let’s ask the children. Amie, when she was two-and-a-half, had repeated nightmares about a dinosaur. She woke up screaming and often would refuse to close her eyes again, because there was a dinosaur in the room, or it was coming. One evening we told her that the dinosaurs are dead. It was her first conversation about death**.
– What’s ‘dead’?
– Dead means the dinosaur can’t move, can’t walk. Dead means he can’t talk, or listen, or look. Dead means his body is lying in the ground somewhere, buried, often even crushed to pieces. So he can’t get up and come here.
– But this dinosaur isn’t dead.
– That’s not possible. All dinosaurs are dead. That’s why we name them with a special word: ‘extinct’. ‘Extinct’ means that all the dinosaurs, without exception, are dead. So no dinosaur can come here.
It was that simple: Amie’s nightmares stopped. So clearly, extinction is a matter of quality (something different), not quantity (not just “bigger”). What makes the passenger pigeon skin different from the robin’s or the shrike’s skins might just illuminate my attraction to these bird skins.
Back at the museum, DH mentioned that scientists are very close to cloning or genetically manufacturing the passenger pigeon. This is called “de-extinction” and Steward Brand’s organization, Revive and Restore, mentioned in my last post, is a big part of that project. Well, I said to DH, these “revived” pigeons, they would die of fright and heartbreak. It is as for the insect egg that lies a hundred years in the soil, that by the perfect circumstance of light and temperature and humidity and ripeness bursts into life, only to find that all the plants it feeds on are long gone.
I’ll not go into my problems with Brand’s essay, “Why revive extinct species,” which reeks of smokescreens. I’ll just evoke Martha, the passenger pigeon, who was bred into captivity in 1885 in the Cincinnati Zoo, where she died, the last of her species, in 1914. Did she feel lonely? I don’t know, but for a bird that evolved and lived in flocks of over hundreds of millions of birds, her life was at the very least as unnatural as its gets, in zoos.
With Brand’s first “new” bird, we’d be back to that situation. But, Brand and his colleagues rejoice, not for long! What happened in the past – start with five billion passenger pigeons, hunt them so there are less and less of them, down to one, then none – will be reversed – they’ll be one, then more and more and so on, one presumes, to five billion again (?).
All is reduced to quantities (extinction is a “bigger death”) and after that easily reversed simply by adding something on the other side of the equation. Nature and evolution did the work at the left side, now man will do the work on the right side. Together, they will equalize to nothing. Something will be undone. I want to stress that, that de-extinction is not about adding anything to the world, but about cancelling out, undoing something.
Undoing what? Here’s Brand, in his TED talk, asking how extinction at our hands should make us feel: “Sorrow, anger, mourning? Don’t mourn, organize.”
Mourning is the experience of loss, a relearning of ourselves in a world where something is missing. We don’t mourn the death of a loved one, or the extinction of a species, we don’t even mourn them. We mourn their absence in our world. That is what brings us grief. Brand’s denial of mourning is therefore absolute, for he denies even the loss itself: we will not have lost, he says, it will no longer be missing. We don’t have to mourn, we just have to make it like it never happened.
How does this reflect in the light of a story told by Weller, in the talk I referred to in my last post, of a man who asked him how he can be done with the grief for his deceased wife? Weller answers that he can’t: “This is your new relationship with your wife. This is the evidence that you chose to love.”
The 11-year-old who find that room at the Museum of Science “creepy” because it is full of death, gets it. The room is full of death and that is why I like it there. Because when I look at the American Robin with the plastic beads for eyes, I recognize Turdus migratorius as wellas the fact that it’s dead, and I mourn the loss of its unique way of being in the world. When I look at the passenger pigeon, I recognize and mourn the loss of its entire species’ unique way of being in the world. And I sit with my grief, accepting that death is the last refuge where the truth can simply offer itself without provoking the impulse to undo it, where I can let things be and accept that it’s not all about me and my species. That is loss, that is grief, and that is love.
– end notes –
* Killing, whether for food or sport, is a trait humans share with many organisms. Humans are, however, the only species (or mammals, at least) who capture, cage and keep their captives alive. (There are probably insects and fungi out there who capture and keep other specie, like ants farm aphids. If you know of any others, let me know.)
** If you would like to read more about our conversations about death, read here, here and here.
Today I had planned to clean the house. It badly needs a vacuum and a scrub. But before I could get started, a friend called and said she wanted to go on a walk that my group, Transition Wayland, was organizing though Wayland Walks. Wayland Walks is a great spin-off, run by two of our core group members. They set up a walk every month, each one with a new theme (Full Moon, Wild Edibles, Walk on Water, etc.). Exceptionally, this one wasn’t local, but a half hour drive away. We used to have cranberry bogs in Wayland, but no longer.
As we drove toward Wachussett Reservoir, the clouds drifted away. By the time we got there, the sun shone on the water. We couldn’t believe our luck! And there were the berries. What a delight! As Amie said: “They like to play hide and seek!” Who knew cranberry plants were so tiny – well, they’re actually quite extensive, but you only see the “uprights,” the branches that poke three or four inches up above the ground. The real meat of the plant is the tangle of underground runners. You can walk forever and still be stepping on the same plant. The berries are hidden low in the brush: you have to almost get down to their level to spot most of them, and rake the foliage with your fingers.
We picked for hours, Amie with her friend, her friend’s sister with her friend, the adults mostly by themselves. Before two others arrived, the kids were in the majority, which was a joy to behold. Their squeals of delight and their laughter was wonderful. The adults were quieter, no less intent on collecting. There was a lovely, meditative quality to the picking: focused on the bright or darker red, hidden in the red foliage. Kneeling down, water soaking the knees of my jeans. The slow loss of sensation in my fingertips, a creeping clumsiness there, dropping berries…
We picked quite a few berries, gaining real appreciation for cranberry harvesting. In certain situations, the Native Americans and those after them would flood the bog so the berries would float, making them easier to find and scoop up out of the water. We donated all but a couple of handfuls to a Veterans Thanksgiving dinner.
Look at those intrepid pickers and their harvest!
By then the sun was setting and we were all cold. Two of the girls had found the warmth in the car and wouldn’t come out for the picture.
Some time ago (April 16) we returned to the field of the Full Moon/Grief walk. Our group was smaller this time. We had timed our congregation to dusk, because that is when the male woodcock performs its sky dance for the benefit of the females of the species. Woodcocks are crepuscular, most active around dusk and dawn. Every year around April, a flock takes up residence in this particular hay field in the Greenways Conservation Area in Wayland, to woo, mate and nest. Every evening for a month or so, one, two or three males perform a dance in the sky above the wide-open field for who knows how many females watching from the bushes on the field’s edge.
It’s too dark to spot him (let alone the silent females), so you mostly catch the woodcock by ear. When on the ground, he makes a distinctive peent-ing sound. I think it means: Are you watching me? Here I go! Then you know he’s taken flight when you hear the whistling, twittering sound from his voice and the airflow through his feathers. If you’re lucky to spot him against twilit (or street lit) clouds, you’re taken aback by how diminutive he is, and his lack of grace. He is all wings, a small ball of feathers flung up into the sky in a messy, wind-driven spiral. What falling up would look like. Your eye invariably loses him against the dark horizon, the dark earth. Still, you know he landed, and more or less where, when he betrays himself with his peent.
But as I describe it – and even as Aldo Leopold describes it, much better than I can, in The Sand County Almanac – it just sounds way too… big. I’m afraid that I’ve raised your expectations, that when you go looking for the woodcock you’ll be disappointed. He is really only the size of a robin, a small, ruffled silhouette barely distinguishable against the pewter grey sky. The peent is subtle at a hundreds yards’ distance. The pretty twitter is even more subdued and you have to turn your head to aim an ear at it. The wind will try to rob you of your already fragile experience of him.
But we were there to witness the woodcock and we were determined. There we stood, seven humans, in the middle of the grey, breezy field, hummocks of hay, timothy and weeds still small, but tenacious, underfoot. “Where is he?” someone whispered. “Wait. Listen.” Peent! Snickering. “That sounds kind of rude!” Then, “He’s up! Hear it? Sounds like…” and “I see it! It’s there!” I looked from the sky down to the group: six dark statues, all with heads raised, some pointing. The question presented itself: what are we doing? What’s with the words, the pointing (like that helps anyone)? The answer struck me hard: you have to care.
There were some among us who didn’t care. Their words, their body language were of puzzlement bordering on disappointment. Was that it? Was it these woodcocks? (There were three hard at work in the field that day.) Or are all specimens of their species this… fragile? Or was it the place, the car noise and orange street light? Or the weather, the thieving wind? No, it was that they couldn’t bring themselves to care.
I realized that I was having to work hard at it myself. These birds, their dance, they live on the edge of our common senses. I was pushing my caring to act like an extra sense to allow me to experience these birds. I wasn’t just paying attention, though that too was necessary. Not content with just hearing two faint sounds and seeing a ghost of a shape, I was also investing myself, digging deep, giving much, caring, so as to drag every bit of marvel and awe out of the experience.
What I found was, again, grief, quite specific this time. This field, where the woodcock has been coming, decade after decade, gets mowed around the time the females lay their eggs on the ground on the edge. The noisy, colorful combine will come for these dull-colored, quiet birds. This field is also being considered for sports field. The flash and shout and strife of bats and balls and orange-clad running bodies, the flood lights at dusk, the fuming parking lots, the weekly mowing, the trash… the woodcocks will not compete.
There are two extinctions here. The birds’. Ours, at least the extinction of a part of us. The suburban noise of the leaf blower, the honking cars, blaring sirens, the slick feel of our plastics and shock of “butt-kicker” movies, the flash of street and traffic lights, computer screens, the clothes we wear have robbed us of our experience of these dull, small animals, who are nevertheless more alive than cars, leaf blowers, movie action, computer models, gaudy fabrics, plastics…
But they will not show themselves. It is up to us to care about them. So unless we can get more people, more than just seven, to come and stand in that field and to care that much, the Greenways’ woodcock’s passing will not even be noticed, and we will have lost yet another opportunity to connect, the practice connection, to care.
Been thinking about that slope: will the soil support what we ultimately want to plant there, and how do we best prepare it?
This south-west facing slope, relatively sunny – somewhat shaded from the southeast and northwest, more so as you go further down the slope – will be a fruit orchard: we’ll plant blackberries and blueberries on top, and currants, gooseberries and elderberries further down. We’d also like to stick some semi-dwarf fruit trees in there if we can (cf. Garden Plans for 2013 and Beyond). We’ll coordinate all these in guilds, of course, at least at first so the guild can nurse them to maturity.
Michael Phillips’ basic recommendations for the rhizosphere (root-sphere) of an orchard are:
pH in 6.3-6.7 range
Calcium (Ca) between 2000-3000 lbs/acre, phopshate (P2O5) and potash (KO2) both at least 200 lbs/acre
carbon-rich, fungal, porous
organic matter (OM) a minimum of 3%, better 5% and above
In 2009 we had a soil test done of the soil in the vegetable patch before any plants went in. The situation in the veg garden has changed quite a bit, I should hope, and a new test is planned. We never really tested the soil on the slope, which is mainly subsoil dumped during the work on the septic system before we bought the house. When we terraced it we added brought-in loam and spread quite a bit of compost (for the strawberries), but it wasn’t as intensively taken care of as the veg garden soil. The soil in the broad path didn’t even get that. There especially the erosion continued. So, another soil test is in order before we begin on that slope. But while waiting for the soil to defrost and dry out, I’d like to play around with the old test results and practice my “soil detective” skills.
In the following I rely heavily on Phillips’ incomparable study in Holistic Orchard (p.61-74). I also refer the undaunted reader to my Calcium in the Soil Series, a very long but (I think) valuable explanation of soil test results and some of the soil chemistry that is relevant here. That series starts here.
pH and CEC
The pH at 6.4 – 6.5 looks good. But, as Michael Phillips writes, it’s the cation exchange capacity (CEC) and percent base saturation that are truly indicative (cf. Part 2 of the calcium series).
The CEC of a soil indicates how porous a soil is nutrient-wise. Our soil is 15.6 MEG/100g. That means that, in every 100 grams of our soil, 15.6 meq of soil can hold onto the goodies, both basic and acidic: calcium (Ca), potassium (K) and magnesium (Mg), that come along in the soil water, as well as hydrogen (H), and sodium (Na ) and aluminum (Al), which are not plant nutrients. All this also indicates a fine-textured loam to clay soil and that figures with our observations of our soil.
According to Calcium in the Soil, Part 6, the percent base saturation data mean that, of the 15.6 meq that can hold on to cations, 7.9 meq is occupied, or saturated, by calcium (50.6% of 15.6 = 7.9), 1.65 meq by magnesium and 0.64 meq by potassium. So 10.19 meq/100g of soil, or 65.3% of the CEC, is saturated by bases. That leaves 35.3% of the CEC (*) for the acidic cations (hydrogen and aluminum). That explains the pH and indicates a fertile, slightly acidic soil. Acidic soils (3.5-6.0) are low in fertility because too much of the CEC is occupied by hydrogen or aluminum. Alkaline soils (8.0-9.0) are oversaturated with calcium and/or magnesium.
The fertility of this soil can be increased by adding organic matter. My soil test didn’t include an organic matter measurement, but it must be low. In any case, before contemplating this, there are more mineral considerations to be had:
Ratios of Ca:Mg:K
Magnesium pulls soil closer together, while calcium spreads the particles further apart. Clay soils require higher levels of calcium to improve porosity, thus drainage and aeration. The Ca:Mg ratio for us is 50.6:10, or 5:1. A clay soil that is porous enough and that is balanced (so that enough of each cation is available for plants, not tied up) should have a ratio of 7 or higher to 1. A 5:1 ratio more resembles the nutrient holding capacity of sandy soil. Something is off here. Now enter potassium (K). According to Phillips, a good Ca:Mg:K ratio for clay soils is 76:10:4-5. Ours is 50.6:10:4.1. The ratio between magnesium to potassium is spot-on for clay soils, but the main player, calcium, again throws it off.
This means one of three things: 1. either our soil lacks the calcium to make it porous, or 2. the levels of magnesium and potassium ares too high, cancelling out the effect of the calcium, or 3. both. We’ll have to take a closer look at the absolute numbers, which we’ll do below.
Recommended absolute levels for macro-nutrients
Phillips’ recommendations for good orchard soil indicate optimal lbs/acre, but my soil test gives me those numbers but in ppm (parts per million). Luckily Phillips addresses this in a footnote (chapter 3, footnote 47 in case you’re curious). The conversion formula (called the Cornell equivalent) is (Ca in ppm x 0.75) x 2 = Ca in lbs./acre.
CALCIUM. Calcium benefits the fruit’s skin and cell strength, which leads to lower bruising susceptibility, better keeping ability and better pathogenic fungi resistance. Phillips’ bare minimum total Ca for an orchard = 2,000 lbs/acre for a lower-CEC-value soil (below 25 CEC). Ours is 1548 ppm, so 2322 lbs./acre [(1548 ppm x 0.75) x 2]. Our calcium level is good. (The ppm bar chart on the soil test say it is too high – actually, off the charts – but this interpretation was for vegetable garden soil, not for orchards.)
NITROGEN. Phillips explains this so well. Most nitrogen in any soil is locked up in organic form (as protein) and needs to be converted into mineral nitrogen that can be taken up by plants. This conversion start with the protein form of nitrogen being ammonified, and a portion of the ammonified nitrogen can then be nitrified. This is done by bacteria and fungi who constantly immobilize (take up) mineralize (release) it by digesting it and the other soil microorganisms who have absorbed it. In a soil dominated by bacteria, nitrifying bacteria rapidly convert the ammonified nitrogen into nitrates. However, in a fungally dominated soil, the acidic enzymes produced by the fungi will lower the pH, making it unfavorable to nitrifying bacteria. More of the ammonium therefore remains available. It is this kind of nitrogen (ammonified, not nitrified) that is preferred by woody perennials like berries and fruit trees. Too much soluble nitrogen causes problems with calcium and other mineral uptake. High levels of nitrogen, particularly as nitrate, encourages fungal diseases like powdery mildew and rust, as well as bacterial diseases. That our soil is fungal is indicated by the low level of nitrate (NO3-N) on the soil test, but…
PHOSPHORUS (P). The right amount of phosphorus determines the nutrient density (Brix) of the fruit as well as root development. Phosphorus too is a very fungal affair. It is made available by fungi that feed and then die and decompose and delivered to the plant by mycorrhizae. In biologically managed soils, potassium is constantly replenished by the decomposition of organic matter. Phillips recommends phosphate (P2O5) to be at 200 lbs/acre, or P levels at 43 ppm. Our P is only 12 ppm, a marked deficiency in phosphorus. This indicates something wrong with the “fungal machine” in my soil, no doubt because it was at the time of the test so disturbed and eroded. Phillips writes that getting this phosphate system working is challenging. You kind of have to already have in order to get it. The trick here seems to be organic matter: a good quantity of that with a good population of beneficial fungi in balance with bacteria (brought in by enough, not too much nitrogen) should do the trick. Ha! I will have to do some more research here. Maybe now, after several years of non-disturbance and checked erosion, the phosphate levels are up again?
POTASSIUM (K). Phillips recommends 20o lbs/acre of potash (KO2) or P levels at 83 ppm. Our potassium level is very high at a whopping 243 ppm. As we saw, potassium plays a large role in the cation balancing act. Our high levels of K are which is reflected in the skewed Ca:K ratio and the recommended 1:1 to 1:2 ratio for P:K is also well off.
CONCLUSION. If the new test on the soil on the slope comes back looking like this, then it seems like we will need to bring the Mg and the K down, the P up. The Ca and pH can remain the same.
One recommendation I found was to add gypsum to leach out the excess potassium and magnesium. Gypsum (calcium sulfate) would also up the calcium without changing the pH (which is fine). It also helps slow the nitrate release of decomposing organic matter. However, Phillips warns that the calcium cation saturation needs to be over 60% before adding gypsum to lower excess magnesium, otherwise the sulfur in the gypsum will take out the calcium first. Mmm. Then the potassium will need to be increased. Wood ash seems a possible candidate for this: it is 20-30% calcium, with 4% potassium, but only 2% phosphorus, magnesium, aluminum and sodium. It may, however, increase the pH, and also, because of its potassium content it should be applied only when active growth has engaged, so wood ash could be my liming agent after planting…
A new soil test is in order, because these numbers are just too out of whack for me to make sense of. One thing I know for sure, though: we will also want to add lots of organic matter. That’s where the hugelswales come in. And that’s another post.