Archives for the month of: August, 2020

Nothing new, I live on a biodynamic farm, where people take pride in the fact that it approximates a closed system. Most of what we consume here and distribute in the Hamburg region comes from the farm or from nearby farms and producers. But then, …there is coffee. A staple in our modern way of life, my first drink each morning. I have tried to go without it for a short while, but life is just not the same without coffee. To my surprise Hamburg is sprinkled with coffee roasters; rooted in a long tradition, Hamburg, and nearby Bremen being harbor towns, Hamburg grew rich from the coffee trade, the source of a drink with a reputation of contributing to alertness and its energizing effects. The first coffee house in Hamburg opened in 1677 and from Hamburg and Bremen coffee was introduced across Germany during the 18th century. 

Staying in tune with the biodynamic way of life, I opt for slow coffee. I use my pour over filter in which I first put my freshly ground beans. Today Hamburg houses a number of so-called ‘third wavers’, coffee consumers and manufactures who like to consume, enjoy and appreciate high quality coffee as an artisanal food. The third wave movement seeks to disrupt the commodity-focused trade of low prices and standardization and instead focuses on quality, unique flavors, and equitable relationships. My current batch of beans is called El Moreno, grown by the Perez family in Guatemala, the label says, roasted by Elbgold in Hamburg. I love its chocolate, nutty flavor.beans

I look into the coffee grounds that are left over after my brew, a beautiful light brown color, apparently, containing enough pigment that it can be re-used as dye or ink, turning fabric coffee colored, ink enough to write a little story. 


Coffee consumption is so widespread across the human population, that we take its availably for granted; its history reads so matter of factly, that we easily ignore the dark side of human relationships related to its manifestation. 

Although it is hard to pinpoint where and when the first coffee was consumed as a beverage, its tradition stems from the Islamic world for sure, and first evidence of coffee trade is from Ethiopia to Mocha, in present-day Yemen in the 15th century,  where the coffee brew was used as a kind of spiritual intoxication.

Introduced first in Europe through Muslim slaves on Malta in the 16th century, devotion to the coffee drink quickly spread northward, the first coffeehouse on mainland Europe opened in Venice in 1645, its steady popularity was even expressed by Johann Sebastian Bach in his Coffee Cantata composed in 1735.


But it is the Dutch who turn the coffee story dark. In 1616 Dutch merchant, Pieter van den Broecke, allegedly obtains some of the closely guarded coffee bushes from Mocha, from where he took them to the Botanical garden in Leiden. The Coffea arabica bushes thrived and were so the beginning of the coffee cultivation in the Dutch colonies in the East and West Indies, the VOC (Dutch East India Company) quickly emerging as the main supplier of coffee in Europa. 

Whereas other Colonial powers were in the ‘missionary business’, saving souls as their cover-up for atrocious behavior, the Dutch boosted themselves as savvy traders, inventors of the stock exchange, but maybe they were best at public relations. Up until this day they have been rather successful in maintaining an image of decency, whereas their source of capital is build on widespread slavery in Asia and the Americas, direct and indirect. 

The story of Capitalism, although in principle based on wage labor and voluntary exchange, is not one of fair trade, but of exploitation. Although the current historical account of my home country downplays or even ignores this aspect, more likely, as written by Pepijn Brandon, is that “Dutch merchants were involved in global slavery from the sixteenth century onwards and remained so until the 1860’s, as the last European nation to formally abolish slavery in its colonies. The price of coffee is high, maybe not in monetary value anymore, but certainly in human suffering.

Unfortunately, coffee beans remain associated with colonialism, slavery, and other forms of forced labor, ever since it started with the first Dutch plantations. With increasing global markets, cultivation was taken up by many countries in the latter part of the 19th century, in almost all cases it involved large scale displacement and exploitation of indigenous peoples, for instance in Guatemala, the government forced indigenous people to work on the fields, a practice that continuous until today.


I stare down my coffee cup, and imagine the way of the bean. My Elbgold roasted beans originated in Guatemala, bought by me in good faith that  the beans are sourced from small families who are paid a fair price, a living wage. It is hard to know what goes on. 

The world’s coffee industry is once more in crises. Due to global warming affecting plant growth and  a surplus production from Brazil, the current price of coffee crashed to their lowest price in over a decade, and rapidly from 220 in 2015 to 86 dollar cents per pound today, not enough for growers to make a living. It has forced many farmers, especially from Guatemala to give up their fields, and as a result are now forming the single largest source of migrants attempting to enter the United States through its Southwest border. It is a very dangerous way to cross and apparently worth the risk, but many die in the desert. The Sonoran desert, Tohono O’odham’s original lands, where until recently their farms used to grow from the alluvial fans. Current U.S policy has changed that and made the Sonoran desert a more barren and dangerous place, cutting down of saguaro cacti in border lands to put up wall. Desecration, a cultural and environmental disaster. Crimes against humanity, there are many, but somehow all connected. 

As for coffee beans, It is time we pay up. 



I am drained, but also relieved. During the last couple of weeks, the mood in the Kaserei, where I currently work, has been steadily declining (see post July 21 “Growing Pains”). This week the head cheesemaker was fired, or freigestellt, as it is euphemistically called in German. It is a strange feeling to be so energy-drained from interpersonal dynamics; activities that normally are not that hard and even energizing, like running, suddenly become strenuous. A person in your midst who drains energy. An energy vampire.

When I look up Energy Vampire, a wikipedia entry defines it as “a fictional and religious creation said to feed off the ‘life force’ of other living creatures” furthermore, …There is no scientific or medical evidence  supporting the existence of the bodily or psychic energy they allegedly drain.”

It puzzles me; how is it possible that one person accomplishes these, for me physical, changes through subtle behavior. What puzzles me more is that there is no explanation for it, especially since we are all well aware of the effect of the opposite: the motivational speaker. TED talk galore, inspiring us to do greater things. Whether this is an actual driver of productivity is not clear, but the sheer number of motivational speeches shows that we have a need for this kind of behavioral interaction, it gives us energy. How does it work? 

This question is also the foundation of Kou Murayama’s research, based on the premise that motivation is important in almost every aspect of human behavior, he proposed a multidisciplinary approach and now Motivation Science is an emerging field of study. Being motivated is necessary to succeed in life, he states.  It makes evolutionary sense, but it still not addresses my energy vampire problem. Is there a biological precedent?


Naturally. parasitism comes to mind, a symbiotic relationship where one creature benefits at the expense of the other. “Parasites increase their own fitness by exploiting hosts for resources necessary for their survival.…. social parasites take advantage of interspecific interactions between member of social animals such as ants, and bumblebees.” Wow. Maybe it is not so strange after all, this idea that one creature feeds off the ‘life force’ of another, but parasitism is mostly discussed between two creatures of different species. The gall wasp lets its babies feed off the oak tree, who in return has its babies eaten by the crypt-keeper (“Growing Pains” July 21)

Then again, in our Kaserei case, is its just metaphor and are we imagining that we are being energetically exploited? In the last days before his release however, I got a hunch that our leader did not have the best intentions, at least not for us, and was on a mission to get rid of at least some of us. Deception, the opposite of honesty. Honesty is what motivates people and other creatures alike. And yes, there is a biological precedent. It has to do with the balance between individual gain and social cohesion. 


As written by Ifiguez and co-authors,  honesty plays a crucial role in any situation where organisms exchange information or resources. Dishonesty can thus be expected to have damaging effects on social coherence if agents cannot trust the information or goods they receive. Their research shows however that honesty and dishonesty are more like a continuum in supporting social cohesion and diversity. Somehow, maintaining social cohesion in the face of deception must require lots of energy. The authors distinguish between different kind of lies, we all have used so-called ‘white lies’ to protect someone or the greater good. These are different than lies that are used for  purely personal gain. The researchers use a type of network analysis/ agent=based modeling to track how information moves through the network and effect on cohesion. They pose, among other things, that deceptive relations eventually break the link between the agents, who are then eager to make new links to avoid becoming marginalized.

The last couple of weeks were a bit rough, but also informative, a learning moment on how subtle behavior can make people feel inferior, confused, uncertain; who to trust, I am glad for the insight on how the coherence of a small group of people can become unhinged as a result, and can only imagine how this plays out on larger scenes, when whole populations are treated in such way, being deceived, being lied to, being made to feel inferior,  In our case we were able to turn the tables, the effort to devalue our work, eventually turned against him, we rearranged ourselves. The effect of deception, not just within our species, seems to be widespread. I believe that with the emerging science of motivation, it would be wise to pay equal attention to its nemesis, deception, in order to expose its destructive power. Energy Vampire, maybe not so fictional after all. 

One of the happy news items during the last couple of months has been the fact that around the world in many places the air has cleared up. Not everywhere, but in formerly extreme hazy locations, such as Mexico City, Los Angeles, New Delhi, people were able to witness blue skies never seen before in their lifetime. It is encouraging that in a relatively short period of time, forced collective behavioral change can result in slowing down and even reversing our path toward climatic catastrophe. A brighter future with cleaner air is within our realm of possibilities. 

It is thus ironic that we cannot fully enjoy this clean air by inhaling and exhaling fully and deeply, as most of us are mask-muffled to protect ourselves and fellow human being from being infected with a virus that has taken this air as its favorite form of transportation. Conversing at close distance can be a health hazard. Reading however is harmless.

I am reading a book that has been on my wishlist for a long time. “Scent of the Vanishing Flora” by Roman Kaiser, who is a fragrance chemist. It is a record of his scientific research capturing the scents of endangered flowers  throughout his career. Ephemeral as they are, these chemical, volatile, voices have been muffled all over the world by the heavily polluted air that swirls around our globe since we seriously started our combustion of coal, oil and gas about 150 years ago. Although free to let it all out, unfortunately many of these flowers are now endangered or are already extinct, lost is their visual beauty and their contribution to biodiversity. Also lost are their chemical messages, signaling their pollinators at specific times. Lost are their chemical compositions that have contributed to our atmosphere.

The subtle ‘voices,’ poetic yet essential, sometimes so powerful because of their sheer number, such as experienced when moving along a citrus orchard in bloom. Remembering the wheat fields of my youth full of cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus, now a rare sight and I cannot even remember what they smelled like. Victims of our overzealous industrial agricultural practices, aromatic messages muffled by our fossil fuel hunger.

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What may the future hold, is it possible for us to keep our skies blue after the virus disappears from our airspace or is no longer a deadly threat. Are we going back to living as were climate change not a deadly threat.

In northern Germany and vicinities the current days are hot, we are experiencing tropical temperatures reaching over 30 degrees Celsius. Cheesemaking is difficult because the cheese sticks to the forms, too hot, and we have no air conditioning. Of course this is the western world and we can adapt technologically. This is however not the case in many other places in the world where heat and droughts is forcing people to leave their homelands.  Climate change is not a problem that affects us all equally though, instead it further drives a wedge between rich and poor. 

I don’t know anybody in the western world who has decided to give up their car or second car recently. We are still discussing how to address rising energy needs for the near future, with ‘green’ energy preferably, and amply time and energy is spent to make that happen. Just so we can for instance continue to produce massive amounts of milk products, feeding our cows fodder from fields far away. Wait a minute, from places where many flowers are disappearing due to over exploitation. The flowers speak a beautiful language but too delicate for us to take notice.


If we could speak these languages and hear the messages conveyed throughout our airspace, blue skies and scented signals I hope that we not only understand the poetics but the necessity of what these messages or the absence thereof tell us. At least now we have an idea what it is like to be muffled, maybe it will generate some empathy toward our floral co-habitants and trigger some needed behavioral changes. Flowers for me are the origin of aesthetic appreciation, and much more, I don’t think I can live without them. 

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.


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.


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,