Archives for the month of: March, 2020

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….