Our Earth’s history is still shrouded in many mysteries and I enjoy reading about new ideas that enlighten our intimate relationship with our home planet: about young Earth and its hazy methane atmosphere, about the early oxygen producing organisms that caused the haze to lift and turn the sky blue, and especially about how early life colonized the Earth’s land surface through an ingenious mechanism that connects all life through the water cycle. Life and Earth’s atmosphere evolved together.

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The water cycle, such an integral part of our lives that we may forget how special it is, how fragile, our illusive partner we think we know, but still holds some big secrets. When come the clouds? The fluffy ones, the large cumulus ones, water droplets moving up, evaporating from the surface, sticking together in the sky and falling down, precipitating, after having traveled together, moved by winds in artful formations. Clouds keep us cool by blocking the sun’s rays, but also keep us warm by trapping the heat of the sun’s radiation reflecting back from the Earth’s surface. We know quite a bit about the changes that occurred near the Earth’s surface, geology, biology, climatology… but clouds? So important in our water cycle and our atmosphere, yet we know so little about the history of our cloudscape. Ephemerals are hard to grasp, yet crucial to do so if we want to have an idea of where we are going.

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Flowers, the other ephemerals, in our time frame at least. We still don’t know much about how they developed either, or how old they are exactly, as the time gets pushed back further to around 209 million years ago, the age of the latest, oldest fossil find. Our modern atmosphere is only a tad older in geologic time, about 290million years ago. What is so special about these flowering plants is that they have intimate relationship with animals that call the atmosphere their home, birds and insects, whizzing and soaring around at multiple levels but coming down to earth to visit their colorful and fragrant fuel sources, in turn helping them to spread their kind. 

We look up, we see blue, we see clouds, we see some or flocks of birds, but we don’t see the millions of insects flying overhead, hitchhiking on the wind, carrying them to greener pastures if they are lucky. If they didn’t become lunch for a passing bird, as food on the wing. It begins to dawn on me, this giant network of migration, hoping to arrive just in time for the opening of the flowers, who in turn do their best to display their best colors and nicest aroma’s to please their visitors who come to feast and help spread the love and without knowing, together provide food for our human kind. 

I look up in the sky, a giant cloud flower is opening up. The Times They Are a-Changin,’ again, 

cloudflower

http://cloud.web.cern.ch/cloud

https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/06/01/128389587/look-up-the-billion-bug-highway-you-cant-see?t=1596295512715

The chaos in my current corner, in the land of milk, is ongoing, I am longing for the desert.

I am not sure where it stems from, this longing for wide open landscapes, desert and desert-like environments. A 360 horizon in which movement of my body seems to make very little impact, my perspective shifting slowly, yet becoming aware of other shifting bodies as changes in light sets other processes in motion that can be observed even from my own stationary position. But I know this, dwelling in such setting connects me to the universe at all scales and transcends my being, becoming simultaneously. aware of the fragility and force of life 

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Finland view toward Norway 

 

People have made interventions in the landscape to observe planetary movements since time immemorial and a range of small to monumental structures present in our current landscapes  testify of this fundamental human need to understand our larger context in relationship to our daily needs of producing and sharing food, Stone Henge, Nazca lines, to name a few, even though many of these monument are still shrouded in mystery. Why did people spent so much labor and energy in these works, what was the purpose?  And now, did we lose this ability to connect to our lands in such a way?

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Stone Henge Spring 2020

In our current capitalistic worldview we tend to consider the planet as an exploitable resource, compartmentalizing our shared planet into commodities, ours for taking. But in our modern societies this  need to understand the bigger picture, to feel connected and provide meaning in our lives was taken up specifically by the land art movement in the 1960’s in tandem with an emergent ecological movement. Lightning fields (Walter de Maria), Spiral Jetty (Robert Smithson), Roden Crater  (James Turrell). The latter, 45 years in the making is nearing completion in northern Arizona. About 400 miles west of Roden Crater, Charles Ross, a contemporary of Turrell is also finishing a major land art work, Star Axis, after about 50 years. Both works consist of chambers and tunnels, as a gateway to experience space and time in transcendental ways. 

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Northern New Mexico Spring 2020

Without a doubt, it is an incredible landscape to be in and in between Roden Crater and Star Axis is Chaco Canyon. At its center lies a magnificent ancestral site of the Indigenous communities living in the larger region today. Not only does greater Chaco exist of a network monumental structures, the history of the people is inscribed and enshrined in the landscape in multiple ways, a spatial language that is difficult to understand coming from a world of written words. It is a language of ongoing conversation with the land in which ancient sites play an important part, vast in temporal and spatial scale. The land that is fragile, the land in which people have lived for centuries, taking care of the land and its waters to sustain life. Of the many extraordinary aspects of Chaco the astronomical heritage stands out. Brought to broader attention during the late 1970’s, the Sun Dagger as it then became known, is an ancient instrument that was used for instance to align the architecture with the cycles of the sun and the moon, connecting land, people, and cosmos.

Over the last decades the region has experienced record droughts, which has affected many types of trees in detrimental ways. It is during this time that the oil and gas industry is expanding its reach, especially in the San Juan Basin, Chaco homeland. Fracking, a drilling process of using high pressure water to release gas, has made the US fossil fuel producing nation and the promise of jobs and revenue had led to opening up public lands for oil and gas exploitation and extraction in New Mexico. A different type of intervention, consumptive instead of sustainable. 

Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out at the head of the well, a process that is promoted as being risk- free. Fracking however is controversial, not in the least because it keeps us hooked on fossil fuel. Fracking uses enormous amounts of water, at a significant environmental cost. Furthermore, potentially carcinogenic chemicals may escape during drilling and contaminate the groundwater around the fracking site. 

In a fragile environment this is disastrous. 

If not in New Mexico, wherever you are, please find a way to connect to your land in a meaningful way. Roden Crater and Star Axis are almost finished, supported by generous donations. Unfortunately, and critically so, Chaco Canyon is under threat, not just, but especially by current oil and gas exploitation. Please consider keeping this incredible heritage alive. 

https://www.frackoffchaco.org/our-coaltion

https://solsticeproject.org/Preserving_Chaco/Fracking/index.html 

https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fracking-boom-ransacks-four-corners 

https://www.nps.gov/chcu/index.htm

http://rodencrater.com

https://www.staraxis.org 

The composition of the cheesemaking team I am part of has been plagued by personnel changes over the last two years. Unlike the problems caused by the current pandemic elsewhere in the world, problems here seem to be site-specific.  Last year I was part of the team for about half a year when a landslide change occurred; somehow those of us who remained were able to keep the Kaserei on its course. Returning a year later, the team has grown, but so has chaos. A new leader whose competence and integrity is now being questioned, has plunged the current team in disarray. I am not sure what my role is in this drama, the stage is set, Chaos in der Kaserei.

To recharge, I often go for a run or walk in the nearby forest, seeing green, inhaling the aromas and hearing the avian dwellers satisfies and resets the senses to equilibrium. The forest patches are a mix of tall deciduous and pine trees and walking along the pastures, giant oaks rustle in the wind. I wallow in Psithurism. I pick up some odd looking balls that remind me of truffles, but that I recognize as a type of oak gall, the product of a parasitic visitor. Over the years I have picked many of these in different places, often looking slightly or very different in shape. Over a number of centuries, up until recently, oak galls were used to make ink and many old manuscripts are written with this oak gall ink, the standard ink in Europe from about the 5th well into the 20th.

psithurism

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To grow a nursery for their offspring the gall wasp, Bassettia pallid pierces a leaf of stem of her selected host. This part of the tree swells, forming tumor-like growths called galls, also called crypts. Within each, a wasp egg develops until it is big enough to chew through the gall wall and enter into the larger world. Unless…the crypt-keeper wasp joins the nursery. Euderus set, as this creature is called, injects her eggs into the young gall wasp. As both develop, the crypt-keeper feeds off the baby Bassettia’s body. When Bassettia starts to chew her portal to a new world, Euderus stops him or her and by feeding on its head from the inside, is able to crawl through the hole that was started by baby Bassettia. Wow, that sounds rather cruel to us. But no matter who makes it out of the gall, the abandoned nursery has served us humans for a long time, to tell amazing stories in many languages.

Is there a lesson in this for me to assist me in my role?  As the first Act of Chaos in der Kaserei begins, I hope something good comes out of it.

 

Making my first Gouda, 1000 liters of raw milk. I am well aware of where I come from. Back to my roots? In a way, maybe, but maybe not in a straightforward way. Disclaimer: I never drank milk in my life, my body can’t handle it, yoghurt and cheese on the other hand are fine and have been dietary staples for most of my life. 

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https://www.clinicalnutritionjournal.com/article/S0261-5614(18)32583-4/abstract

Sicily 2018, I spent a winter on a hill near the modern town of Aidone, close to the ancient site of Morgantina. The story of Morgantina is that of an old indigenous, SIkel, village, that later became a Greek settlement, through integration between the native and colonial communities. The local belief centered on the cult of Demeter and Persephone, which, under Greek influence spread widely and served to explain the changing of the seasons. Persephone, the daughter of Demeter was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter, goddess of harvest and agriculture, giver of food and grain, who presides over life and death, who after learning about Persephone’s fate, plunges the world into metaphorical darkness where nothing can grow. After mediation by Zeus, Persephone is allowed to return to her mother, but Hades has one more trick up his sleeve, allowing her only to return part of each year to Earth while during winter she returns to Hades’ underworld. 

Lake Pergusa, located in the center of Sicily is still considered a site where this scene happened and explains for us the cycle of seasons. Every year we are reminded of Demeter’s anger over the disappearance of her beloved daughter, the personification of vegetation. From my hill location near Aidone, I have view of Enna and the nearby Lake Pergusa. I am amazed how strong the presence of this history is still felt in this land, not just collectively, but also personally. It ties people to their land.

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view toward Enna, Sicily winter 2018

I have a scientific background, so yes I know why we have seasons, but knowing something does not necessarily make you understand the complexity of the relationships that frames such knowledge bits. A belief system underpins our behavior, whether it is organized religion, esoteric cults or science. The advantage of science it that it includes a method to systematically test our beliefs, it doesn’t necessarily devalue the role of myth and stories in our collective behavior. On the contrary, myths can guide us when we are challenged by a lack of understanding of the complexities of life, but neither does it mean we should follow blindly. 

Demeter. Since the early twentieth century Demeter also serves as the trade name of the first organic cooperative and quality control for organic, biodynamic farming. To be Demeter certified requires biodiversity and ecosystem preservation, soil husbandry, livestock integration, prohibition of genetically engineered organisms and viewing the farm as a living “holistic organism.” It is based on strict standards, such as the requirement that the farm produces its own fertility  as much as possible and that 50% of the livestock feed be grown on the farm. All good stuff. Still, there are other requirements that have been criticized because the efficacy cannot be scientifically demonstrated. For instance the preparations that are used to nurture the fields, such as the fieldspray made from fermented cow dung, known as preparation BD #500. 

If you have ever been involved in the making and application of these preparations, you probably know that even if these methods are not helpful, they are probably not harmful either, while the act of preparation can serve another function, namely, collective attention and consideration of the importance of the soil for producing a healthy crop. Collective awareness as an important tool in generating change. 

Demeter 2020, a long way from Demeter 550 BC to BD 500. I am a participant in biodynamic production. While traditional biodynamic requirements are strictly followed, I am surprised that others are introduced less critically and selectively. A century has almost passed since Demeter became our modern – biodynamic – guide and along the way industrial practices have changed our values.

For instance the tractor; It is hard to imagine agriculture without the tractor and biodynamic farms have adapted to include machinery in their daily practice. It is inevitable, but somehow it surprises me that the focus on sustainable agricultural machinery is only a recent one, even though the horse or other kinds of tract animals have long disappeared from our modern landscapes.

Demeter, she of the Grain, doesn’t live in northern Germany. The general history of the this region reads like a series of war and conquests of feuding tribes. This is however also land of the Vikings and good harvest, peace, and prosperity is assigned to the Norse god Freyr. His reputation does not actively live on in modern society like that of Demeter elsewhere, although numerous place names refer to his presence in the land in northern Europe. In Schleswig-Holstein, considered part of Southern Jutland, there is a place called Frøs Herred (“Freyr’s Shire”). Freyr is also known to have been associated with the horse cult. Horsepower; Freyr, give us something sustainable.

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http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/212184/icode/

 

Let me be upfront, for me it is clear that organic agriculture is a necessity if we wish to regenerate our lands and strive for food security for our own and future generations. Although the area of arable land that is cultivated according to organic standards is rising worldwide, it remains to be a fraction of the total area where mostly conventional practices rule. Certainly, the cost of producing organic produce, meat and dairy are higher, since the cost of regeneration are calculated as part of the product sum and presents a cost-benefit consumer dilemma. But then, conventional agriculture diverts these costs that will emerge elsewhere, as human and environmental health costs. Common sense tells me this is a serious sum we are neglecting when comparing organic and conventional practices. One of the challenges we face is the fact that it is difficult to show that eating organic produce would result in better health, of people, of the environment and that conventional practices with its widespread use of pesticides and other toxins adds up to impoverished health worldwide. 

A little story of cloud berries and the sweet bell pepper

I wake up, summer in the northern latitudes is bathing in light, I am in Norway and the sun barely disappears behind the mountainous horizon from the perspective of my hut.  There is at least one who thrives in this light, the cloudberry. The sweet fruit-bearing plant is a native of the sub arctic environment and for many Indigenous communities, picking wild cloudberries is part of their subsistence strategy. In fact, all cloudberries that are eaten are gathered in the wild, because of its unique environmental setting, its acidic soil, its permafrost combined with the 24hour light cycle as its highlight. The berries ripen over the summer and turn into a deep orange later in the season. For me, the light cycle is still a bit of a challenge, my body needs its darkness and rest for about 7 to 8 hrs daily. This period of rest is necessary for healthy growth, not just for me, but for many organisms dwelling on our planet. cloudberry

The sweet pepper, main ingredient of one of my favorite comfort dishes, shakshuka. North African in origin, it combines peppers, tomatoes, spices  as a sauce in which eggs are poached. The first step is to create the sauce, resulting in softened scrumptious bell pepper strips. At least that is what I get when I use good organically grown bell pepper. When none of those are available and I am stuck with firm conventional peppers, the dish never reaches the same stage of deliciousness, the pepper strips remain hard and tasteless. At least that is my experience, and I wonder, is it because many of these peppers are growing 24hr a day, in greenhouses with artificial light, without time to recuperate from their hard work. Common sense tells me that the organic one not only tastes better, but is probably more nutritious. Exceptionally, research exists that tells us that organic bell peppers are healthier than their conventional brethren. 

Naturally, the color of a fruit or vegetable tells us something about its nutritional value, the deep orange of the wild cloud berry means lots of vitamin C. Humans have been selectively breeding  the natives since time immemorial, but the light bulb (and other recent technological tricks) gave man more ammunition to manipulate co-creatures. Looks can be deceiving and the greenhouse bell pepper may have the looks but little else. Dig organic!

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22368104/  

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I am here, I am not here. My body is in northern Germany, may mind wanders from here to other places, primarily back to New Mexico where currently colonial heroes are taken down from their pedestal. I am trying to grasp whether these symbolic acts can lead to meaningful changes in our societies, history rewritten, again. Especially, what has anything I am doing right now to do with my long-term interest in indigenous rights and traditional knowledge. 

It is a constant zooming in and out and focusing on the task at hand. I know, I am involved in making cheese, a relatively straightforward process, that has been done by humans for over 7000 years. What is its relationship to the land within which I reside. 

Going back in time long enough it is clear that pastoralism has been here since the Early Neolithic, with some evidence and prediction of milk processing in northern Europe staring between 6000 and 4000 years ago. Analysis of prehistoric ceramic sieves and changes in animal teeth from that time has led to that conclusion, although the exact starting date is still debated. 

Sure enough, dairy cattle has roamed this region for millennia. 

Northern Germany, bordering Denmark, located between the North and Baltic Sea, between the rivers Elbe and Elder, this region is characterized by shifting borders between Denmark and Germany: welcome to Schleswig-Holstein. From a landscape perspective it is roughly divided into three vertical strips: the Geest, sandy plains, in the middle, bordered on the east by Marshland and on the west by Hügelland. The Geest is where I am,  is where the dominant part of the landscape is traditionally made up of moors, heaths and other land for grazing.

The tradition of dairy farm in northern Europe is thus a long one, but in early modern Schleswig-Holstein a new form of dairy farming developed, called Koppelwirtschaft. It is at the same time innovative in technical modernization while being ‘stuck’ in feudal work organization. Apparently, dramatic contrasts in the social organization of rural society developed with the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. 

Wheat is wheat, or so it goes, and considered a simple form of production. Dairy farming and production on the other hand, the hallmark of Schleswig-Holstein, is considered a sophisticated form, a transition that is often  associated with a change from serfdom to paid labor. Gutsherrschaft, is the word for feudal work organization in German, which is distinct from other forms, such as Rentengrundherrschaft, in which peasants were basically free-holders but paid a rent to the lord of the manor, even though in practice seem to have been fluid and labor service was common, during the late 1700’s about half of the farmland in de geest was practically run as Gutherrschaft.

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Knick

Traditionally more grain producers, during the late 1700’s these manors became specialized in dairy products and grain, and scaled up. Dutch immigrants had brought with them the skills and new technologies of producing cheese, these new forms of dairy production and marketing were therefore also known as Holländerei and Koppelwirtschaft. Compared to small peasant farms these large dairy farms, even bigger than in the Netherlands,  had both advantages and disadvantages, and in that respect we are still dealing with the same old issues centuries later. Modern technologies to keep milk fresh longer, but increasing distance to your market for instance, sound familiar.

Holländerei explained, but what is Koppelwirtschaft? It all has to do with grazing and grain. You see, grain production was not abandoned but expanded and the old ways of just letting your fields fallow, were enhanced as a more intensive practice, known as Koppeln. Fields or Koppel were individually fenced with hedges, increasing yield was achieved through inclusion of more land, different rotation system and using the abundance of manure produced by the many cows to compost the land.

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Knick

I’m beginning to understand the land I have landed in a bit better, my relationship with it and its people and practices. The hedges that line the field, cut almost to the ground regularly, are known as knicks, the fields interspersed with forested areas serve as wildlife habitats and is where I spent many hours, running or walking, when I am not involved in dairy production.

I am here on this biodynamic farm that has long been run as Community Supported Agriculture or in German, Solidarische Landwirtschaft, in essence its principles are close to those I have witnessed in New Mexico, as Native American relationships to the land. It all seem close yet so different, different  historical trajectories. Where farms in Schleswig-Holstein such as my current residence are firmly rooted in rent, ownership and varying degrees of labor service of this region, indigenous practices in present day New Mexico were communally tended for centuries before being brutally uprooted through enforced Colonial practices of landownership and labor service. 

I am in it, trying to understand all these different forms of labor organization, of producing food, of hard work, the hierarchies on the -ever expanding- farm that are not easy to grasp from a worker perspective, of principles and practice, of businesses and communal responsibility for the land we depend upon. History is being rewritten, statues are coming down. I am here, I am not here. Histories that we take for granted, trying to understand what would be the best way forward for taking care of our lands and lives. 

reference: Rasmussen https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e124/cd11eec211d88b6694e529a88728a3006e9b.pdf?_ga=2.14166583.1208104747.1592748295-2060587577.1592589502

When I was young, in my elementary years in small town low lands, I learned about the bio industry and the, to me, horrific ways that humans treated animals for their pleasurably consumption. Animals used for testing beauty products and even more animals in artificial, confined spaces as a means to grow meat. I stopped eating meat and started an animal club, collecting small change from my class mates to buy treats for the abandoned animals who found a home in the animal shelter. Small gestures. During those days my wish was to become a veterinarian. 

All this changed when my world expanded, when my focus sharpened and I figured out that the way animals are treated is just the tip of the iceberg. Certain human beings treat other human beings like they treat animals, with disrespect. I then became a student and scholar of human behavior.

The basics of life, any living creature needs energy, in other words food, and humans are no different. Lack of nourishing food, and people go hungry, then problems arise. Some things are simple. Basic foods are commodities in our current world economic system, as is labor, the currency is money mostly. Sounds simple but becomes tricky because there are two values, use value and exchange value, which can be similar in monetary value, but not necessarily so. The use value reflects the amount of labor necessary, whereas the exchange value is linked to supply and demand. 

In our capitalist society only part of the exchange value is paid to the worker who made it, the other part is unpaid labor and is retained by the owner of the means of production, and retained as rent or profit. . The means of production encompasses the site where the commodity is made, the raw products that are used in the production and the instruments or machines that are used for the production.

This is where my current chapter as cheesemaker begins.

In previous years while working on farms I have learned some lessons, an important one is how much work and resources goes into good food, a price that is almost never paid in full. That’s why many small farmers rely on volunteer workers. Like many of those organic or biodynamic farms my current workplace relies on employed workers as well as interns, who receive food and lodging in return and some pocket change. It is common, but considering that food is fundamental I experience and observe this practice with growing disbelief and frustration, beyond personal it is a systemic problem. 

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My labor, my commodity. The term commodity is used for goods or services that have so called fungibility, which means that the market pays no regard to who produced those goods or services. Commodification then is the transformation of goods, services, ideas, nature, personal information, and people into commodities or objects of trade. 

Wheat is wheat, no matter where it comes from. But cheese is cheese? Cheese, a food, a work of art, a manifestation of the love of the land, at least that holds for most farmhouse cheese. 

Human beings in our system are still commodities, no longer considered  slaves, where the whole man was sold as a commodity, nor serfs, capitalism reduced the commodity part to man’s labor power. In this system we have to negotiate what is the price and value of the product we are making. This also means that not all commodities are reproducible nor were all intended to be sold on the market, like human labor, works of art, and natural resources are priced goods treated as commodities.

Whatever the issues at my current farm location, I do believe strongly in its foundational principles as a closed system production cycle, where the land is regenerated before the cows can graze again, the milk is turned into cheese, they whey fed to the pigs. Farmers as agents of climate change mitigation, is how it should be, but only a fraction of the world’s foods are produced in this way. Most of agricultural practices are depleting and even polluting the land and water sources. I, and I am not alone, would argue that keeping soils healthy, animals and humans treated with respect is a societal responsibility, those who pollute should pay, those who regenerate should receive our support, unfortunately this is not our current reality.

And thus the story starts, I am a worker on the farm, which is of course also a business, and I will have to negotiate my value, my labor as good/service in the world food system. A humble start, important for understanding the whole nonetheless. Let’s start with the cows.

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Just arrived in Germany, back to making cheese, a year after I left this farm to go herding in the Norwegian mountains. This is an established biodynamic farm, started during the 1990’s by two families. It has grown enormously since its early days into a community supported agriculture business serving the Hamburg region. It has also changed dramatically in leadership; the two families are ‘divorced’ but still feuding, while other families have joined the remaining original partner. Besides the different families, a fair number of employees, interns, and volunteers are working here in changing composition, which makes the dynamics interesting. I am returning to a place that is different, but in many ways the same and that is challenging.  

What I learned over my years of rural residence is how much the human factor matters, is however mostly overlooked in economics.  Frustration and inefficiency result when people have ever so slightly diverging interests, let alone when short and long-term goals are diametrically opposed, which is what happened on this farm. Even though these are all experienced farmers, one wants to grow bigger, the other wished to stay small. Bigger it is, but not without roadblocks. Balancing the books of course, of producing sufficiently to serve all its members, is an economic challenge, but then there is the question of how to retain and keep you workers happy, or at least satisfied during this process. A solution that was found was to organize the decision making processes according to a  specific form of democracy, called sociocracy.  Within this form of management, all members have a say, it is not a democracy per se because it is not governed by majority vote, rather it operates by consent, where in principle no decision can be reached if one of its members brings up justified objections. 

I have only just arrived, and due to the current health crisis, I am still isolated, but I have already heard a number of critical voices from different directions. It is going to be an interesting second ride.

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My last days in New Mexico for now, beautiful land, the mountains serene and majestic. It is managed though by different people and institutions having diverging interests, where Los Alamos borders Indian land, where fracking operations are destroying and poisoning land and water. Home also to the Santa Fe Institute, the cradle of complexity science, where big questions are asked and investigated. Stated on their website, “complexity arises in any system in which many agents interact and adapt to one another and their environments, such as the nervous system, the internet, ecosystems, cities and civilizations.” Maybe the land of New Mexico begs for the big complexity questions to be addressed, where, as a human, it is easy to feel part of something grander. The biggest question maybe whether we are we smart enough to understand it all, or could there be a ‘being’ that could, and could we actually create it? It is a serious endeavor: enter AI

Artificial Intelligence: we are placing our bets on a being of our making that will supersede us, can do all our work, only better, we just sit back and relax. Self-driving cars, robots that clean our house and can even give us emotional support. Not just any kind of intelligence, we are talking super intelligence as our ultimate invention. And once these super intelligent machines are able to create even more intelligent machines, our days may be numbered. Somehow this is not how I imagine this will play out.  Somehow it sounds too old-fashioned and unilinear to me.  

Sideways: People have done it since our early days, manipulated material and shaped tools to make our life possible and possibly better, whatever that entails. In archaeology such artifacts can be called ‘extrasomatic means of adaptation’, simply meaning that we can adapt, not by natural evolution but by creating an artifact that is not part of our biological body, a chainsaw to chop some wood for instance. These are not intelligent tools, they are no-brainers, they require our manipulation. But boundaries are fuzzy, biologically, philosophically. A prosthetic, as a specific artifact, is defined as an artificial body part and these have also been around for a long time, false teeth, and Captain Hook; functional, cosmetic and at times giving the body something extra, a bodily extension. We are lost without our prosthetics today, our communication devices that are coterminous with our bodies, as our brain extensions. We seem to coevolve, a symbiotic relationship that at least for us seems beneficial, although we may surrender some of our innate brain power in the process. Not coercively, simply lack of use. 

Intelligence: to define intelligence is not so easy, but a general way of doing so refers to the ability to perceive or infer information, retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors  within an environment or context – not exclusive to our species. What constitutes the neural network through which we are connected by means of our prosthetics? Does it make us a superorganism or are we enabling monsters in our midst, overarching creatures slowly infiltrating, manipulating, usurping our organic elements, electronically, while other metacreatures do it synthetically, collectively we consent. Maybe it is time to come up with different categories for these creatures, take away their personhood, to distinguish them based on the harm they inflict. For instance, toxic substances sprayed on our fields, killing life, killing part of our collective intelligence on which we depend.

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I hike up the Sangre de Cristo mountains, my phone says ‘no service’, I am free to roam,  it is comforting to perceive the world around me with my bodily sensors, the wind through the trees, the sun heating up the ground, releasing all kind of smells. Then I see her, the little flower. I bend down, she stares me in the face. It makes me smile, but then I realize she shows me a different face. We tend to forget we are not the only intelligent creatures on our planet.

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https://www.santafe.edu

Stop Fracking

 

“I” am a fan of Lynn Margulis’ ideas on symbiosis and the concept of holobiont. Simply defined, a holobiont is a collection of species that are closely associated and have complex interactions, an assemblage of a host and the many other species, such as viruses and bacteria, living in or around it.  Exactly, like you and me. Or, wait a minute, you and us. When we feed our community, things can change: an existential question arises. Who am I,  and who are these creatures with whom I cohabit? In what way do they determine who I think I am, I thought “I” was special!

If you ever moved to another part of the world you may recognize the feeling that things you considered normal, suddenly are peculiar and vice versa. If this is a benevolent community, you slowly accept your new normal, things come out that you never knew were within you. We adapt. Or maybe the “us” is changing, some move out or die, others take up residence. Slowly our innards are gentrified. We thrive by keeping up healthy relationships within and among our communities. We are discrete, yet permeable beings, biologically speaking.

But what about me as a person? My being determined by time and place I came into existence as a breathing being, taking the outside world in, becoming and active part of this incredible pumping and pulsing planet. But being is not enough to be a person. Personhood is bestowed on most of the sapiens among us at present, and then some, becoming a legal entity and identity, with rights and responsibilities. The world divided up into persons and things.  It is a bit more complicated than that, but the relationship between person and thing can take only certain forms, person can own thing, person can exploit thing, person takes care of thing,  person does not care about thing.

In general we tend to assume that all members of our species are persons, and only our species. Philosophically it is not that easy to define what this means, are we defined by consciousness, something else?  And legally, many of us were not even considered persons for a long time. Slaveholder owns slaves, Man owns woman. Even now, when it seems the legal playing field has leveled out, the extreme desire to own resources (in other words, greed) has created such a strange world, that if there were a continuum with person and thing on either end, a large part of the human population would probably cluster at the ‘thing’ end. Few persons owning many things, many persons owning few things. 

It is only natural, to a certain extent we are all driven by self preservation, but there is a trade-off since we are also social creatures, and not only that, we host and are part of entire communities with whom we need to live symbiotically to survive.

So what about greed, the excessive desire for resources, is it in our genes?  The pendulum seems to swing the other way, supporting the idea that cooperative behavior evolved and that maybe evolutionary processes take place at the group level. Apparently, groups of highly cooperative individuals have higher chances of survival. If this is so, is the greedy individual a dying breed? 

Are we not only holobionts but are becoming a superorganism, as a group of synergetically interacting organisms of the same species? It is maybe time to question and revise divisions of ‘person’ and ‘thing’ and embrace our newly understood biological being as a basis for re-conceptualizing our connective worlds.

And then there is the curious case of corporate personhood, epitome of ultimate greed, how will we collectively deal with and dissect these malevolent creatures in our midst.  

This is like opening a can of worms… but briefly for now, I am reminded of the Asian giant hornet. Yes, the one who became infamous for killing bees by the thousands, recently migrated from Japan. The Japanese bees however have, over time, come up with an effective countermeasure: by forming a ‘bee ball’ around the hornet and vibrate in place, the bees collectively turn up the heat that will ‘cook’ the intruder. Cooperative behavior at its best. 

To be continued…

insect

 

Every evening it seems there are more than the day before. As soon as dusk falls and I turn on the lights inside, the moths start to flutter. They enter through a few gaps in my screens, and it is hard to coerce them outside without inviting more into my light flooded room. I let them be and hope they figure out a reverse route.

Dark moths, most of us don’t pay much attention, but these nocturnal creatures are members of a large, incredible order to which all the butterflies belong as well, the Lepidopterans. These are the ‘scaly-winged’ creatures, referring to the patterns and colors of their wings that are formed by thousands of overlapping scales. The Noctuidae, the family to which my nightly visitors belong, are not particularly loved; now is the time they come out of hibernation and start feasting on alfalfa, corn, cotton and soybean fields. Unlike their cousins, the colorful daytime butterflies, these creatures are doing well, and the question is: where are their natural enemies, are they dying, just like the beautiful scaly-winged that are disappearing from our landscapes?

The changing colors of the wings are a result of light passing through the different layers of overlapping scales, known as iridescence. Whether as camouflage or to attract attention, the colors can be manipulated by differently received light, and a favorite spot to perch is then a sunspot on the forest floor. When I first read about the sunspot home range * of butterflies, while in Sicily, it made me smile. At that time I was trying to make sense of the relationships between the human inhabitants of the surroundings of my hillside residence that I shared with a big black dog. Tension was always palpable between the farmers and the cow & sheep herders who could let their animals roam free across the hills.

The butterfly, who can dance through this land, from sunspot to sunspot, unaware of human linear boundaries we are now so familiar with. It wasn’t always so, as shared resources, also known as the commons, were once more characterized by intertwined distribution. Not unlike the sunspots, that change throughout the day, the season, the year, creating this beautiful fluid home range, that is shared with many other creatures in the ecological fabric.

The straight line, the division of land often imposed from afar and above, with little consideration of the impact on people’s and other creatures’ lives and livelihood, meant to defer rather than invite interaction. The sunspots are still there, but the colorful butterflies no longer come in that frequently. Like many other insects they are dying out. It is a bit of a mystery to me why we, as humans, don’t realize this is a pattern for us to come if we don’t pay attention, as our lives are built upon and dependent on the evolutionary chain of creatures, all interconnected. Many disappear, while others see an opportunity to take up the void left behind.

That was it for the intermezzo, it is time to return to Homo rapacitas next time.

* A home range is the area in which an animal lives and moves on a periodic basis. It is related to the concept of an animal’s territory which is the area that is defended.

To be continued…

I recently arrived at El Zaguán in Santa Fe due to extraordinary circumstances. 

After a long journey I was excited to finally return to New Mexico, with the intention to assist with a project of indigenous language revitalization in one of the villages. 

On the evening I landed, it was announced that the country was to be closed to all foreign travelers as a consequence of and prevent the spread of the corona virus. Plans were in place for total lockdown, and the Pueblo swiftly took action to protect its people. Even though the work I came here to do could still continue, I was left without a place to stay. 

Fortunately, a fantastic solution was offered through the Historic Santa Fe foundation, via an old archaeology friend. A vacant apartment at El Zaguán that I could call my residence for the duration of my stay. A wonderful place and little did I know how closely the history of this place and its former owners are connected to the current events.

The house on Canyon road was purchased and named El Zaguán by Margrette Dietrich and her sister Dorothy Stewart in 1928. Dietrich relocated to Santa Fe from Nebraska and bought El Zaguán and two other houses to restore and save them from redevelopment. The house is a combination of Spanish Pueblo style with later, territorial style features. Part of the restoration involved setting up apartments for artists. The same apartments in one of which I  am now residing.

Dietrich arrived in Santa Fe from Nebraska, where she served as the President of the Nebraska Women’s Suffrage Association from 1918-1920 and regional director of the National League of Women Voters 1920-1929. This was an extraordinary time when women finally gained the right vote. It happened amidst of, and possibly moved forward by another extraordinary phenomenon, namely the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

Despite the fact that the women were not allowed to organize public protest, likely undermining their efforts, the course of the pandemic was such that many of the women performed much of the work, essential work, to contain the disease and care for those who fell ill. Sounds familiar? The important role of women in this time was recognized and became manifested in the 19th amendment to the US Constitution (1920), granting women the right to vote.

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Entrance at El Zaguán 

Upon arrival in New Mexico, Dietrich continued her advocacy work. She lobbied on behalf of Indigenous groups against the development of dams and exploration in the villages. She became President of the New Mexico Association of Indian Affairs from 1932-1955.

Even though the early twenties also resulted in some changes in the position of Native Americans, such as US citizenship (1924, but not voting rights), the practice of removing children from their homes to be placed in remote boarding schools was in place until the 1970’s, affecting language proficiency and cultural sovereignty. The impending loss of many languages has fortunately led to many language revitalization efforts in recent time.

Some things improve, some things we need to keep fighting for.

When the Black Death swept over Europe during the 14th century and wiped out a third of its population, it also destroyed feudalism in its wake. A good thing. Peasants were free to leave the lands of the lords to try to find higher wages because of the huge labor shortages.

But like women’s rights, indigenous rights, rights of land laborers are still not widely upheld.

Hopefully, our current predicament will result in a similar positive effect in recognizing the value of people who have too long been undervalued and ignored. We need however be aware of another type of threat amongst us, Homo rapacitas*, the seed of which also lurks within and around us…

To be continued…

  • rapacitas [Latin] : aggressive greed, as in “ the rapacity of landowners seeking greater profit from their property”

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Pebble messages anonymous

https://www.historicsantafe.org 

When James Gleick opens his book on Information with reference to African drums, it is testimony to the way humans can solve a design problem collectively and over generations. In this case of African tribes, the problem of  conveying  information over long distances without using a physical message carrier. It was witnessed by the early European Colonials, who did not understand it at first.

For European Colonials who eventually understood that the drums could relay messages over long distances in short time, it was baffling because no such system had been invented by them and it took a few centuries longer before the electrical telegraph could do something similar.

The obvious analogy was then to compare the talking drum with morse code (1838). However, no European was able to decode the messages, simply because there was no such code to represent written words. African languages, Gleick explains, do not have an alphabet, the drums metamorphosed speech.

In short, used from the 1840’s on, the electrical telegraph is a point to point text messaging system which uses coded pulses of electric current through dedicated wires to transmit information over long distances. It consisted of two or more geographically separated  stations connected by wires, usually supported overhead on utility poles

And now we come full circle, drumming and utility poles.

Every morning, and later in the afternoon, I hear the woodpecker drumming his message across the street. At first I thought the sound was coming from the trees, then I thought there was not one, but multiple woodpeckers, as the drumming sounded different, deeper, and seem to come from a different angle or location. But then I spotted the ladder-backed guy, drumming away on the utility pole, right across from my window and I started to observe him. 

Drumming woodpeckers. The reason for drumming is generally thought of as territorial marking or to attract mates. Both males and females drum. Whether or not each bird has its own unique drumming pattern remains a question but some research indicates that differences possibly exists between the  sexes.

Yet when I watch my woodpecker, he seems to take great consideration in where to drum. He travels up and down and around the pole to play his next roll and I wonder how far the sound waves carry his information. Not  intended for me of course but for his conspecifics, the other woodpeckers I hear around. and some of whom I have seen and heard drumming on other utility poles. The poles perhaps have some good resonance, better than the trees. Perhaps the birds adapted, and the poles enable them to get their message across despite the human dominating sounds that can be so LOUD. It is only fitting that they choose the utility pole, designed as part of a system to convey information over long distances.

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Gleick, J. (2011). The information: A history, a theory, a flood. New York: Pantheon Books.

https://missiology.org.uk/pdf/e-books/carrington_j-f/talking-drums-of-africa_carrington.pdf

https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/condor/v100n02/p0350-p0356.pdf

 

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Trees are dying in New Mexico due to drought and rising temperatures. One of the first signs might be hydraulic failure, leading to a disruption of sapwood water transport. Xylem and phloem, the two vascular bundles, responsible for transporting water and nutrients up, and transporting food produced through photosynthesis to leaves and other parts down, respectively. 

Eventually, the system stops.

Pinon is not the only one. It is estimated that by 2050 the vast majority of New Mexico forests will have disappeared. Nor is New Mexico, or the southwest the only place where desertification takes place. It is happening in numerous other places around the world and affects the ability of the planet’s tree cover, as we can think of it as one big organ, to effectively circulate moisture around our globe. It is detrimental to our collective ability to grow healthy foods. If you think it is not affecting you, think again, get with the mantra, xylem, phloem…

https://academic.oup.com/treephys/article/35/8/806/1643198

https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/more-trees-dying-in-new-mexico/article_d813b3d9-bd08-5859-a2f9-34cf6b0f16bf.html 

My favorite time of day, no longer sleeping, but not quite awake, I am woken up in the morning by the avian chorus and enjoy listening during my liminal state. When the woodpecker starts to do her/his thing in one of the cottonwoods It is time for me to get up. I live in the city, but close to the foothills. Santa Fe is the oldest city in the US, and even though gentrification is in full swing like everywhere, the strict heritage rules ensures that the new houses mix in well with the historic buildings and old residential houses. Many of the residential roads are unpaved, giving the city a rural vibe, especially in absence of traffic these days. The bird calls can be received, loud and clear. The coyote’s call at night.

I am reminded of my work in Italy. Through a common interest in land-based knowledge, I met Dr. Almo Farina, who is many things, but most notably a specialist in ecoacoustics. Even more specific, he has been recording bird sounds to investigate the song patterns of birds: the time of day the sing, but also how birds manage not to interfere in each other’s communication channels. Super cool.

When we met, we started talking, and wondering whether such patterns would also be present in biochemical communication, the odors given of by flowers to attract bees and butterflies. Surely, some parts of the day, the season, must be better than others to do that. 

In the area I lived in Italy (Montefeltro), you can smell and see it, so many wildflowers, but not all blooming at the same time. It is harder to show the patterns of the aromatope however than the sonotope recorded by Dr. Farina, even in this wonderful smelling landscape, let alone in urban areas. Chemical transformation, sonic interference, it is all part of the game. Along with the loss of biodiversity, we also lose wonderful sounds and aromas.

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It was in one of our conversations on birds and smell that the Venice masks came up, You have probably seen them, the white masks, in the form of a bird beak, associated with Commedia dell’arte. Dr. Farina told me that those masks did not have a particularly festive function originally. These bird beak masks were stuffed with aromatics, to prevent any kind of swirling diseases from entering the respiratory system. The story stuck with me.

If you look closely to the Venice mask, it might have an inscription, Medico della Peste. 

In fact the mask was traditionally part of an outfit that furthermore consisted of an ankle length overcoat and was worn by plague doctors, also known as the ‘beak doctors’ in the 17th century. Especially in France and Italy, but also further north. The mask was shaped like a bird’s beak, and held in place by straps, with the main purpose to keep away bad smells, known as miasma. This ‘bad air’ was considered the cause of diseases.

Besides the mask and clothing,  the plague doctor was equipped with another essential item: the cane. This was used to examine patients without touching them, and to keep people at a distance.

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The mask technology remains basically the same, but surely we can now do better than the stick.

Even if it all sounds frighteningly similar, we now laugh at the idea of ‘bad air’ causing infections, because we know it is caused by germs. But I wonder, how much do we actually know, do germs give off odors, could we possibly smell them? Maybe we should not throw this baby out with the bath water. 

Strange times indeed, based on our current scientific insights, we comply with rules, directing us to keep a certain distances, and wear face masks in areas where closer contact is not always avoidable. Surreal, we speak with muffled voices, unless communicating through digital channels. I start wondering, would I not be more comfortable with a beak mask, instead of a muffled voice mask in the long term. One that I can stuff with aromatics, as long as they are still available, such as fresh rosemary and lavender. Maybe then we can become sources of ambrosia!!!

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http://www.iinsteco.org/index.php

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4705269/

I am trained in things digital and virtual as it continues to hold promise for the work of the archaeologist. Even though we study old things, we have always been at the forefront of new technologies, and virtual reconstructions no different. Imagining how past lives played out, simulated based on the scarce physical clues we find. Even though I always found this exciting, to enter past worlds in this way, it is not a world I ever desired to inhabit myself.Yet now we find ourselves more and more living in such worlds. Our physical world restricted, we find comfort in digital and virtual spaces.

 I really enjoy the other part of archaeology, the part where you cross the land, being able to get lost in space-time, and stumble upon new things to add to our human history. The outdoor part. During the last 10 years or so, the outdoor has taken over and I have become ‘addicted to places where I can see mountains, can smell wildflowers, and breathe normally. Every choice comes at a price though, and often I have to forego the conveniences of modern lifestyle: heating, wifi, making a phone call, all take some effort. But I love the feeling of being alive, of feeling human, free to run around. In a way I guess I was/am fleeing from the busy, congested life of the smart citizen.

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Around Santa Fe, New Mexico, breathing fresh snowy air in spring

A few years back I attended a digital heritage meeting in Krakau, Keeping up my running habit, on the way back from my morning run I went into a health food store to pick up some breakfast. To my surprise, next to the natural looking products, there was a futuristic looking mask displayed. It was advertised as an exercise mask. It turned out, the air in Krakau was so polluted that exercise outdoors does more damage to your health than good. This was a rude wake-up call. Even though Krakau may be badly polluted, it is certainly not the only city, not then, not now. I felt my ‘flight’ response was justified,  I just want to breathe normally, as a human. Call me selfish, I even want to breathe fantastic air! Like clean water, clean air should be a basic human right.

Spending so much time inside our homes these days, within our digital worlds, our outdoor air has cleared up a bit. We are bombarded with updates of the toll of our common – invisible – enemy and emergency alerts on our phones on how to behave. This all helps us respond responsibly and get a grip on our current situation,

BUT, maybe now is also a good time to gain some perspective. The World Health Organization estimates that each year seven million people die prematurely from the effects of air pollution. SEVEN MILLION. 

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It is hardly in the news, we can’t see it, but it fills our lungs. We go on with our business anyway. Do we actually know what it is, breathe normally, as humans? The last hundred years have not been the first time that our species have impacted our atmosphere, but it has certainly been the most extreme. But now, in a world gone virtually mechanically silent, I am sure I am not the only one enjoying hearing the birds clearly, appreciating bluer skies. Hopefully we feel free to breathe again soon and learn some lessons. 

Let’s go for TOP AIR!

  something I wrote a few years ago….inspired by my Krakau experience

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https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_1

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/air-pollution-has-been-a-problem-since-the-days-of-ancient-rome-3950678/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6923778/

 

It is ironic. Farm workers, mostly invisible, undervalued contributors to our societies have now become essential workers. As if that was ever different. People everywhere need to eat, a fundamental necessity,  it only now becomes apparent apparently. 

Although, those who hope this pandemic will alter our societal relationships toward more equitable ones, may be disappointed. I am hopeful, but still skeptical, especially after reading the United States new policy of providing immigrant workers a letter that allows them to work. A good thing, you think, however, deportation is still part of the risk. What has changed, only the fear there are not enough workers to work the land and harvest the coveted crops. It is far from a solidarity measure.

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As someone who has worked in the field and in organic food production, I’m aware of the lurking disease-causing pathogens. It is always there, salmonella, listeria, you name it, it keeps you on your toes to make sure your herd is healthy, your crops are strong and retain diversity. Minimize pharmaceutical ‘aids’ to times when there is no other option, as these can compromise our immunity when we most need it. Awareness of a delicate balance is a constant, trying to nurture a rich beneficial microbial ecosystem, something we can’t normally see, just feel, that will be our best ally in keeping harmful intruders out.

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Back to ‘farm hands’, the people who are invested in making sure the fields are worked and harvested, often risking their own health, now more than ever. They deserve as much applause as our health care workers and hopefully we realize that exposing our farm workers to dangerous practices, such as using toxic pesticides,  can have a trickle down effect. Healthy food is a requirement for maintaining healthy populations, a no-brainer. Respect life, all life.

 

 

I am temporarily residing close to the Santa Fe river, although calling it a  river may be a bit euphemistic. Santa Fe, a city that can brag about having one of the cleanest air quality readings in the world, its waters are dwindling. Even though this year the mountains received a decent snowpack, more than in recent decades, it is still below long-term average. 

Climate change consequences, especially rising temperatures have already caused disastrous effects in the state of New Mexico. Even now in time of coronavirus when we think of cleaner air as a silver lining of our current predicament, the stream, what is the Santa Fe river, reminds me of recent changes in the land due to human generated CO2 emissions leading to rising temperatures. It also reminds us to think about life beyond corona, the necessary changes in behavior we can make, starting now. 

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Looking at the river’s past, its waters irrigated approximate 1250 acres during the early 20th century, a practice that also helped to recharge its underground aquifer. Things changed when the population of the city of Santa Fe grew in the late 1940’s along with a growing demand in drinking water.  Recent droughts have added to that stress. More recently, higher temperatures and more frost-free days during winter, are  making the vegetation in the region even more vulnerable to agricultural pests and diseases. Especially the piñon tree, New Mexico’s state tree.

During the early 2000’s, severe heat, drought and beetle infestations caused massive die-offs, as many as 350 million piñons died across the West. Even if  we can slow heat-trapping emissions, the piñon are predicted to disappear by 2030. Dramatic changes in this delicate landscape.

Piñon tree are known to enhance the soil  in which it grows by increasing concentration of macro and micronutrients. Pinon nuts have always been and remain a staple food in Native American diet. An iconic tree, about to disappear.

Even if global efforts to reduce emissions succeed, the current levels of heat-trapping gases will cause the climate to warm for decades. Air and water, our lifelines. Hopefully the message stays with us.

https://www.santafewatershed.org/the-watershed/river-history/

https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/confronting-climate-change-new-mexico

https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/underlying-cause-massive-pinyon-pine-die-revealed

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I am in New Mexico, where, like the rest of the world, public life has come to a halt. While I am still in the dark what is going to happen to the project I came here for, I count myself lucky to be in this amazing place and be able work outside in the garden, preparing planting beds for future food. The road runners are busy building nests and performing their mating duties, they have the road to themselves.

Animals. Many of them go, and have gone through difficult times like our species is currently experiencing. Insects, bees and butterflies, birds as a consequence of disappearing insects, mammals, including our domesticated herds, all face challenges due to changes in climate and questionable human behavior. 

It is only human that at this point we focus on how to contain the current corona virus that is spreading rapidly among our human populations, but maybe it is also a time to reflect on how we have been treating and considering our fellow creatures. Declining insect populations, bee die-off’s, our domesticated herds that we have been treating not exactly humane. Are they experiencing similar phenomena? And how is their stress and anxiety affecting the chain of events in our shared ecosystem? 

Meanwhile the roadrunners run wild, I have never seen so many. They are nesting in nearby trees.

Considered to be medicine birds that can protect against evil spirits by Indigenous peoples, the deserted roads and neighborhoods now allow the birds to do their thing in freedom. Go roadrunners, show us the way.

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http://www.native-languages.org/legends-roadrunner.htm

  • Talking Heads 1985

I am waiting to meet my next project partners as a precaution after travel. Challenging times. Surreal. It is incredible that a tiny biological component can cause such chaos and spread so easily through our bodies. 

I have been making cheese for a while now and during that time I  have gotten used to the fear of bacteria and all things pathogen. Cheese is a living thing, it  develops and gets its texture and taste when certain microbial communities thrive in fresh milk. Yet there is always the chance that certain microbes dominate this process that are detrimental to our health. Eating such cheese can make us sick.

Working in the modern cheese room is therefore a constant balancing of microbial negotiation. As a supporter of raw milk cheese, I believe the naturally occurring microbial communities in milk are highly diverse and will contribute to a rich and complex cheese. The diversity of these communities, I believe will  contribute to the diversity of our gut community and make us possibly better equipped to curb any pathogen seeking to go viral. What is clear is that these microbial communities play a crucial role in our lives, in our health. They are part of us, without them we cannot live. Paradoxically, what is also becoming clear, that we really don’t know much about how important and powerful they are. We have compromised our immune systems by eradicating many of our bodily inhabitants, diminishing our internal biodiversity that helps us manage unwanted guests.

Work in the cheese room in our current times, is a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand we wish to nurture microbial life (in milk), while on the other hand, we want to eradicate all microbial life that occupies its surroundings. This we try to accomplish through frequent hand washing, and vigorously cleaning every surface on which any milk or cheese has just passed. Continuously aware of the importance and the need to balance the biological world we cannot see or easily monitor, and the need to feed our internal – gut-  communities with microbial richness for optimal immune systems.

Not only does our internal community, one of the most complex ecosystems on earth, exists of millions of bacteria, it is also includes a diverse collection of viruses that infect our own cells and those of our other inhabitants. It is one of the least understood components of our gut microbiome. What we do know, is that these viruses have an agenda, and it is not necessarily in our best interest, although they can possibly protect us against hostile bacteria. Much is to be learned.

Meanwhile, our lives are upended, not just biologically, but socially, philosophically.

I am taking a break from cheese making, but my work habits now continue, washing hands frequently, cleaning surfaces, and questioning how to best listen and respond to the signals of our bodies, the messages in our surrounding, balancing the dynamic interactions in order to stay healthy.

Keeping our internal biodiversity thriving, remember we are all connected.

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February turned out to be the wettest on record in my part of the UK and the last days in particular, dark grey skies, no sign of changes any time soon. On Friday the 28th the downpour begins, which, on Saturday morning on the 29th, has turned the broad valleys into proper wetlands. It is my first day off in a while and I have arranged to meet a friend in Salisbury: it involves a walk and a train ride. I am prepared, I have an umbrella and proper British wellies. 

When I turn my first corner, the road has transformed into a brown muddy lake. Because the roads are lined with thick hedges, there is no way to choose an alternative route. I wade in and hope for the best. Because the movement of my legs creates waves, water soon starts to enter at the rim of my rubber boots. I am wet and decide it is best to continue, there is no alternative, but I go deeper and deeper and the water reaches my thighs. I slip and fall in even further. I can only image how inundated the fields and meadows must be here in this marshland. 

Wet to the bone, or at least the underwear, I finally reach the train station, only to find out that there are no trains running, tracks are flooded and broken at different places. Who knows when things will get better. Fortunately, I get a ride with a friendly local who also needs to travel to Salisbury, it turns out he is a retired water management engineer, and we have an interesting conversation during our trip.

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Starting my ‘wade through’

I must admit, I was a bit cross with the cheese making family I work for and live with. They could have warned me I figured. Then again, they moved into this marsh land less than ten years ago and according to some other locals that I have come to know, this was the worst they’ve seen in a long time. Getting to know the local community and its dynamics is one of the things that fascinates me as I move around, as it tells me a lot about how people take care of their land. Although as humans, we like to keep it simple and categorize others in neatly defined categories, it is never as simple as that.

The family I work for moved here from London to escape the stress of the city, trying to create a more wholesome life. They are smart and their approach to setting up a cheese business greatly benefits from their business and marketing background in the city. The Somerset region has seen a large influx of like minded people in recent years, spurred in part by the settlement of the Hauser and Wirth art gallery. Definitely a different audience than the people who have lived here for a long time.

I meet David and Brian, big guys, who grew up in the countryside, have travelled the world, but definitely call this place their home. Past retirement age, they still are busy with odd jobs in the country and drive around in their landrovers taking care of their sheep and other causes. Brexit supporters and proud of it. It is interesting to talk to them, hearing their arguments why Britain was better off before they joined the EU, and how everything is too complicated now because too many immigrants are admitted in the country. Typical you think, but not so fast.

Continuing our conversation, I begin to understand that what they really resent is that local big landowners hire recent immigrants to do their work for low wages. These jobs should be better paid to begin with. It is a similar sentiment that is beginning to bother me. The exploitation of workers at the basis of our food system, by people/landowners who can and should pay higher wages for the work they need doing. 

It is easy to fuel the sentiment, to create animosity between different groups at the base who are likely both victims of the same phenomenon: the wealthy who come in and explore and exploit a new business opportunity of living off the land while hiding under the invisibility cloak.

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David’s sheep

Last week, a colleague from Germany came to visit. Last year we worked together on a large biodynamic farm near Hamburg. He is a professional cheesemaker and came to help me in my current job making cheese at a young cheese business in Somerset.

The Somerset region is  well-known for its long history of cheddar cheeses and so we set out to visit one of the more interesting farmhouse cheddar makers, Westcombe dairy.

The reason we visited this particular dairy is because they are also suppliers of freeze dried food cultures from Chr.  Hansen, a global bioscience company, cultures that my current employer uses for his cheese making. 

Interestingly enough, when I asked the owner of Westcombe, whether he used these cultures to inoculate his cheddar and other cheeses, he told me no, instead, they use  a very old local -mother- culture, indigenous to the land. I was excited, a very animated discussion followed about the beauty of milk and the land in Somerset. 

The cheddars are handmade from raw milk, using beautiful presses, wrapped in cheesecloth and ripened in a cellar that is cut out into the hill. Incredible sight, smell, and taste. 

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The cheese slabs, prepared earlier in the day are cut and put in a sort overhead shredder, the bits of cheese are salted and raked, put in the moulds to pre-press, then in a horizontal, sideway press.

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Much of farmhouse cheesemaking is ‘hand made’

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The cheeses ripen….

Over the years I have engaged in agricultural work in a number of ways, enjoying the physical labor, with a keen interest in the history of the relationship between humans and the land in specific places;  how this relationship has changed over time and how surprisingly many things remained the same, old wine in new bags, so to speak. Curious in what way we value our land, the food we grow to raise our children and the people who are invested in tending this process, the farmers, the farmworkers, the social relationships.

Sicily for instance, the ‘granary’ that for long sustained and enabled many empires and kingdoms on the European continent. The island that enjoyed a rich, thriving culture  in which different religions existed peacefully side by side during the Middle Ages while the rest of Europe was shrouded in ‘darkness’, however remained basically a feudal system when elsewhere the rise of capitalism transformed peasants from a life as serfs into freeholders.

In England the Charter of the Forest, signed in 1217 re-established the rights for free men to access to the royal forest, including large areas of commons, such as grassland and wetlands, providing food, grazing and other resources.

Unfortunately, this promise of equality did not hold for long, the free market ideology has created a similar hierarchy of poor peasantry and wealthy landowners for whom money is king. It didn’t develop as a free market but rather was established from above, imposed by a deeply rooted ruling class. Farmers were and still are at the low end mostly, and in our days, are at the mercy of corporate giants and their political puppets. 

Many of us realize that the dominant way we approach our land and our food is taking us into a downward spiral. Sharing-, circular-, care- are now proposed as alternative economies to counter this downfall. 

The organic movement for instance refers to organizations and individuals involved worldwide in the promotion of organic farming and other organic products, which already started around the first half of the 20th century, as an alternative to modern large scale agricultural practices.

It was however much later that the real push began to reconnect people in the city back to the countryside,  likely as a response to the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, chronicling the effects of pesticides on the environment, thereby effectively launching the environmental movement, and the notions of sharing and caring, 

One such sharing network started out in United Kingdom in the early 1970’s, “as an exchange between urban dwellers, who wanted a piece of rural living without giving up their existing lifestyle and small rural landowners, who needed help tending to their daily activities. It basically started out as recreative opportunity in which no money changed hands, but over the years this network, known as wwoof, worldwide opportunities on organic farms, has grown into a global network of connecting people in the organic movement that continues to adhere to the principle of moneyless exchange. 

In my early days of farming, I enjoyed being part of this network and the principles it stands for, but over the years I have grown more skeptical. What started out as an idealistic program has grown into a something more heterogeneous. Although great experiences can still be had, and hopefully this continues, it has also allowed for exploitation of cheap labor, situations where workers are vulnerable and taken advantage of. 

Although my experience is mainly from the land worker perspective observing the exploitative nature these host-worker relationships tolerate, it also lays bare a deeper problem with our food system. The fact that farmers and farm work is undervalued; good food cannot be produced for the price the market is prepared to pay, when (organic) farmers have to revert to cheap or free labor, and when wealthier landowners can exploit vulnerable workers, we have not really moved on from the early days of serfdom.

It concerns me deeply, the slow growth and transformation of well intended grassroots efforts into monsters of inequality and exploitation while on the surface,  apparent “awareness’ numbs our sense of reality and responsibility.  It is happening right under our noses if we care to take a whiff. 

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The gift that keeps on giving. The cultures that can be shared, that connect us all. No, I am not talking about the internet or social media, but the microbial communities that grow our cheese, our bread, wine, makes our food alive and helps our bodies thrive. The Pasta Madre to make sourdough bread, the Mutter Kulturen, starter cultures in alpine cheese making. 

Unfortunately, many of these cultures are becoming extinct, replaced by synthetic bacterial mixes that are all pretty much the same or similar that provide consistency but represent only a fraction of the diversity of the wild mother cultures. 

For thousands of years these cultures sustained our lives. Unrealistic fear of microbes, zealous obsession with hygiene, and hunger for control all contribute to the current eradication of our mothers.

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It’s a man’s world?

No man lives without a mother. It is time to turn the tables.

Many modern cheese making facilities, being it small or industrial type, look like scientific laboratories in which conditions can be controlled and cheese making can be standardized, even for many of the artisan styles. It is a result of our modern lifestyles, in which food consumption is far removed from its sources and intermediate pathways need to be hygienically guarded to minimize any kind of hazardous situation.

Making cheese is actually elegantly simple, and once humans figured out the way to preserve milk in this way over 7000 years ago, there was no stopping us. Cheese has been in the making ever since, but over the last 150 years or so more and more, the natural is replaced by the synthetic.

What happens when you leave milk on your counter. It will turn sour! This is the essence of making cheese. The ambient bacterias (Lactic Acid Bacteria) will turn the sugars in the milk (lactose) into acid and causes it to thicken. We can help by adding some more bacteria, a scoop of yoghurt, some kefir grains, or some whey of a previous batch of cheese. Letting it drain will separate the whey from the curd. Of course over the years we have enhanced our skills and recipes. Cheese, a living thing, starts its life as milk at around Ph 6.7 (7 = neutral), it will lower (acidify) in the making process, but cheeses can have a range of acidic values (>4) and change during their lifetime. Sour blobs on the farm, but that was then. 

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Pasteurization has helped to keep milk fresher longer, especially since it had to be transported over longer distances to reach the growing number of people living in cities. First cows were kept in urban areas before industrialization, but during the early 20th century the supply chains lengthened and risk of disease from raw milk increased. Enter pasteurization.

Through the idea and method developed by Louis Pasteur, the milk is heated up with the intention to eliminate pathogens, to destroy and deactivate organisms and enzymes that contribute to spoilage. 

This was a good thing, but it has also affected our trust in good milk. The milk that comes from healthy cows and other animals living on a grass-based diet. The milk that contains many good bacteria that can turn milk into cheese, not only tastes good but rich in a number of ways. Instead, industry has taken over and provides synthetic mixes to be added to (pasteurized) milk, from which we can make the same cheese over and over, like wonder bread.  Something is lost in translation, biodiversity is diminished. The rich acidified fluid that makes my gut sing, is best when the road from udder to table is short. It is also a great way to get a better understanding of what is going on with a crucial non-renewable resource on a human scale: our soils and grasslands.

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The land looks peaceful, marshland bordered by undulating green field lined with oak and hedges.

Apart from the occasional British flag waved in the villages, everything seems to be the same after independence day. The odors in the land are familiar and omnipresent.

It is winter, the pasture land is regenerating, the animals are inside, except for the sheep. The cows are fed on hay and silage, which together with manure makes up the typical winter pasture land smell. 

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Good hay is good for cows. For cut grass to become hay for winter though, it needs to dry fast. The problem in the UK is that good warm weather in a five to six day row in summer time is scarce. Enter silage. More and more farmers turn to silage to feed their animals through the winter, but it is also affecting the milk, winter milk is just different and you cannot make an alpine style (hard) cheese for instance. Basically, silage is fermented grass, green foliage crops preserved by acidification. When cut and heaped up, the foliage is usually pressed into bales and wrapped in plastic film. 

Grass milk is good. The organic way, very different from conventional practices, where cows are fed  primarily on grains to increase (meat) production. Organic milk is good. Non-organic milk not necessarily.

Milk provides omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are both essential nutrients for humans. However too much omega-6 and too little omega-3 can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, it is a matter of balance.  A recent study found that cows fed on organic grass produced milk with a better fatty acid profile, an omega 6/omega-3 ratio of nearly 1to 1, than for conventional whole milk, for which the ratio turned out to be 5.7 to 1. Take your pick, the odors are a bonus, but do pay attention. 

Silage can be odorless, vinegary, rancid-butter like, or sweet smelling tobacco, but when it smells musty or moldy, move on, your cows won’t like it, and milk and cheese will not be good either. Hay with a little bit of roughage is great, silage only when it smells good.

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Stacked Silage

 

I have been involved in making dairy products from organic milk for over a year now, learning how milk changes with the season, the animals, and the place, the terroir of milk. How love for the animals and taking care of the milk, feeding it, and curating the curd, results in wonderfully tasting forms of nutrition. The Somerset cows, the marsh and upland grass, a specific mix I hope to learn and taste more about.

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I am in Somerset, England, making cheese on a small, nice, family farm that is build up over the last couple of years around the cheese-making business. So far, only one, soft, French inspired cheese is produced here and I am now employed as assistant cheesemaker, together with a cheese making colleague; together we produce this cheese. This is my first time making cheese from pasteurized milk, where the milk is sourced and delivered from elsewhere. It is organic cow’s milk, but it is strange not knowing the animals who gave the milk. 

The idea is that in the near future two more cheeses will be developed by the owner of the farm, who took on cheesemaking as a second career after leaving a city job. Somerset seems to have become a hub for urban escapees re-structuring their life in rural mould.

On the farm, which is located in a broad valley of pasture land, rural roads are lined with hedges leading to small villages with plenty cottages. The  plan is to expand production. We will soon move into a newly built cheese-barn, raised with European rural development funds. One of the requirements of receiving this fund is to employ a certain number of people. I am one of them. Production and sales need to go up to justify all the expenses and to become a profitable farm business.

On the brink of Brexit. In the middle of pasture land. As far as the eye can see, toward the rolling hills bordering the broad valley, green fields, lined with hedges and dotted with mighty oak trees, but not much in terms of produce, vegetables or grains. It is still a bit of a mystery what will happen. Will the price of living go up, will fresh vegetables become an exclusive product only affordable by the privileged?

We will see. For now I focus on mastering a new cheese procedure and a different approach to making and marketing cheese. To be continued…

It is a familiar riddle, if a tree falls in the forest…. 

Not too long ago I was earwitness to exactly this phenomenon. A fierce wind, the tree could no longer stand up, its core was rotten. Over time it had slowly leaned over and now reached a tipping point. It started with short cracking events until at one point the tree fell with a loud crack and a swoosh of the branches hitting the ground, sweeping the nearby vegetation on its way down. 

The question is an old philosophical one, the sound of the falling tree considered an object of perception, without ears in earshot picking up the mechanical (sound) waves, does the sound exist? An existential problem, basically asking if reality exist outside our perception of it. I am not trying to answer that question, I am interested in the perceptual potential of the space in which we are immersed.

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My training as an archaeologist/anthropologist involved a lot of tech of the Earth observing kind. Interested in different perspectives, the view from space is an exiting one, way beyond the ordinary. It was pretty mind-blowing to understand what these sensors aboard the orbiting satellites ‘see’ and collect: reflectance (values) of electro magnetic waves, and how we can use these data to calculate and visualize the changing appearance of our home planet, In some cases, in dry areas, it even let us ‘see’ below the surface. It made me aware that ‘seeing’ is not simple, but complex and multidimensional and related and intertwined with other kinds of wave energy that can be perceived by us and other sensing beings. In a way, learning to process and interpret satellite imagery and other spatial data, extended my natural sensing abilities technologically, but also philosophically. What more is out there that I don’t pick up. 

How about the song of the wings, the dancing fireflies under a starlit sky, and other such subtle and rarely experienced events in our modern lives. Are we losing these perceptual objects? Still there but unperceivable because of sensory pollution? Or worse, transformed into something else entirely? Signal interference that actually changes a message into something unintelligible, and therefore no longer existing as intended. 

It is a new riddle for our times. 

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I cannot decide. It is exciting to have all these technological tools at your fingertips to experience the world in multiple new and different ways. At the same time I search for places that are devoid of technological impact to tap into the natural potential. I count myself lucky to be able to perceive and appreciate these perceptual wonders at opposite sides of the spectrum so to speak and beginning to grasp the complexity of our wavy world. I am not sure which one excites me more: sitting at a computer viewing the whole world on my screen, or dwelling in vast landscape, suddenly becoming aware of the singing feathers. But it dawns on me that these different ways of experiencing the world may not be compatible in the long run and that we have to make some choices. For instance, using our phone actually disturbs the navigation skills of bees in the vicinity.

 A question for our future…

During this winter holiday season I reside in the northern European region with family and friends in mostly urban settings, where the days are short and often overcast. It try to soak up enough daylight, especially when the sun appears from behind the clouds, but what I seek most is places where I do not consciously hear the ‘hum.’ 

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Index of sound architecture

Automobile traffic, rubber tires spinning across asphalt. Sound or noise clouds dispersing in different directions, creating an audible hum, inundating the urban sphere. Vectors of stress, cause of a number of modern day ailments that plague our species.

I am not sure if it bothers everyone else as it does me, but maybe it is because I have a recent sound memory so radically different, a silence so intense, It is inappropriate to categorise it as the absence of sound. A silence so big, it feels like a blanket of potential. 

Walking across the fjells of rocks, moss and lichen, a view of mountain ranges all around, in different formations and character, and nothing to hear but the occasional bird call. When I concentrate I can even spot the bird who is making the call. The air is crisp and clear. Even when clouds fill the sky, their patterns come alive as an organism of aerial performance. It is an incredible feeling: the thought of being a part of this ancient, seemingly inert landscape, stillness in anticipation of potential, vastness into multiple dimensions and scales.

Ma, the Japanese spatial concept comes to mind, roughly translated as ‘gap’, which has been described as consciousness of place, the living breath that measures time and space, not as an enclosed three-dimensional entity but more as the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form, an emptiness open to imaginative possibilities that something may enter enter to the invisible, like a promise yet to be fulfilled and the silence between the notes which makes the music.”

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It rings a bell, literally, as my sound memory.

In the morning I accompany the goats up the mountain after milking. They know their land, they move as one, their beating hooves, bleating conversation and the two bells create a sonic object recurring as daily rhythm. Only when leadership is in question and signs of indecisiveness create random movements in the front, I perform my herding duty and lead the way. 

Music, emergent in this otherwise soft spoken surrounding in time and space, subtly changing the airflow, awareness of form and non-form. These movements across the land, its sounds, smells and sights become part of the landscape, aware of the physicality of emptiness. 

The swallows have started to build their nest in the barn, where I milk the goats. Swift and agile they move around, in and out the barn and around the cabin, and one day, quietly observing them I notice something, their wings make specific sounds, it is like they speak with movement. Can that be true? Apparently it is called, aeroelastic flutter, not only do they sing vocally, but communicate in many other musical ways… find ma, and tune in to the edge of perception.

See also: https://kyotojournal.org/culture-arts/ma-place-space-void/ 

I cannot speak for anybody else, but for me the idea of strolling through mountainous lands while accompanying a herd of animals, preferably goats, sounds like a great way to pass time. That is, when they follow you, or an acceptable pathway. Goats! Quite the characters.

Over the last years I have had a chance to get closer to the mind of the goat and transhumance as a lifestyle. Not to be confused with transhuman as a concept, even though in my life the underlying ideas converge. 

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One is quite old (transhumance), the other conceived only mid last century (transhuman), the latter suggesting the possibility of new evolutionary beings, resembling a human, but equipped with powers beyond the ordinary. Enhanced intelligence, awareness, and strength, all to be anticipated!. According to the early futurologists, typical signs of transhumans indicate physical aa well as mental augmentation, and include protheses, intense use of telecommunications, a cosmopolitan outlook and a globetrotting lifestyle. Formed during the 1950’s and 60’s, these ideas actually describe our current lives pretty well. Our modern day extensions of our sensory selves come to mind, our phones, a kind of prosthetic to which many of us are almost permanently attached, extending our world into the digital realm. Other sensors and enhancements that enable experience beyond our bodily limits, what else is new. 

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Transhumance, on the other hand, does not refer to the human body directly. The word derives from the latin words, trans, across, and humus, ground. It refers to an action, a nomadic, or globetrotting lifestyle. More specifically, people who follow animals into remote locations, where animals can eat, digest, and transform inedibles into something that can be consumed or processed by us into something digestible and nutritious, milk and mutton for instance, but down the line, maybe something else is transformed in unexpected ways.

When I engage in this lifestyle I am thankful for having some transcending equipment, a ‘smart’ phone that lets me connect to people in different places, that can connect to satellites when I am not sure if the path I am taking leads back to my cabin. But actually I am interested in my innate super powers when I cross these lands. The edges of perception of my natural self, ones that have perhaps been numbed by years of tech-assisted living, of inhabiting uninspiring, signal inundated environments. Somehow I believe that spending time with these roaming creatures in remote regions, piques my senses. Can I tap into my superpowers, increase my intelligence, and heighten awareness in this way? Who knows, what I do know is that it is worth the effort to try. Whatever it is, this is pretty awesome. 

2020

It has been a while since I last posted. My life still revolves around the rural and running, but sometimes life takes over. A lot of catching up to do, but first things first. We are entering a new decade and wish all creatures great and small a collaborative, curious and cozy time of continuiing co-existence.

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http://www.valturio.com

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http://www.okeeffemuseum.org/

 

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http://www.thelocal.fr/20140226/15-million-french

http://www.who.int/ceh/capacity/Pesticides.pdf

http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/envir/report/en/eau_en/report.htm

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http://www.bollier.org/

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http://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/

 

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over the last couple of days I have been listening to some of the talks of the Sustainable Small Farm Summit. If you have chance, check it out:

http://www.smallfarmsummit.org/Welcome/

 

 

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(NYT, “Hold the Drug, Go Straight to the Source,” Jan, 26, 2015).

In this day and age, when many of us are worried about personal data and loss of privacy, such reporting reminds us that we should maybe worry more about the physical loss of biodiversity and our rights to use such resources in a sustainable way. Plant knowledge and even genetic material can easily become proprietary, also known as biopiracy. Meanwhile, enjoy all the richness around you.

http://www.ip-watch.org/2014/02/07/developing-countries-urged-to-beat-biopiracy-with-patent-examination-regulatory-frameworks/

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https://commonfund.nih.gov/hmp/index

http://enrd.ec.europa.eu/enrd-static/publications-and-media/eu-rural-review/en/eu-rural-review_en.html