Archives for the month of: June, 2021

I have been roaming around with little possessions. I have left things behind, physically but also mentally, sometimes these are personal things, and it was a nice surprise when a friend brought me some old photo albums I had totally forgotten. One in particular brought back good memories from the desert Southwest, where I lived for about 15 years. In this particular photo album were photo’s from the time my mother came to visit us and we took some trips around the state. 

The land of New Mexico imbues an interesting and peculiar human history. Foremost the long history of indigenous peoples, an ongoing cultural tradition that despite environmental and societal challenges can sustain themselves in this challenging, but awe-inspiring land. Monumental architectural sites are conspicuous testimony to this incredible history. I have been fortunate to learn some lessons from people today and learn about the more subtle stories embedded in the land. 

The peculiar, recent history of Los Alamos, a settlement and laboratory of more recent immigrants, the site where the atomic bomb was developed and still is shrouded in secrecy concerning the research that is conducted. White Sands, a beautiful, otherworldly landscape of white gypsum dunes, dotted with yucca. It is also the location, Trinity, of the first atomic test. Getting closer to more peculiar, Roswell. We visited the UFO museum, which is dedicated to the purported crash of a UFO near Roswell in 1947. Although the story has been debunked, the Object being part of a secret military mission, Project Mogul, the incident started its own life of the landing of extra-terrestrials. On view at the museum is replica of the  ET being that was sighted during the time of the incident. Interestingly, this being looks much like us, just smaller, and sort of embryonic stage. This has always baffled me. Why on Earth, would ET life look the similar to us? And why do we portray it as somehow inferior state, smaller, less intelligent maybe? We hope?

And that is a whole other ballgame. Is it fear, ignorance, arrogance, that we believe we are the most intelligent beings roaming planet Earth, but when confronted with the possibility of life beyond our daily realm of existence, we tend to control it by imagining it as smaller, dumber, inferior. I don’t want to generalize, but many of us project it not only on aliens, we do it to our conspecifics, we conquer by justifying inferiority of others, even to control all other creatures that share our world, or so we believe.  It keeps our fears in check. 

I like to imagine the world beyond us. New Mexico is an interesting place. The wisdom embedded in the land of centuries of human stewardship of these lands, knowledge that I am fortunate to have been given a glimpse of. On the other hand, the recklessness of detonating the first nuclear device, the consequences of which are horrific for life. The desert sand, largely made of silica, melted as a consequence of the explosion and then became a mildly radioactive light green glass, that was named trinitite. Artifacts; transformation of matter on a large scale. 

“The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined …”

I am now in Friesland, the so-called temperate zone and life seems to ripple gently onwards. And maybe it is here that I start to ask more mundane questions. I’m talking about the blackbird. 

“It must be seen to be imagined.” The blackbird is a common bird in northern Europe, with their black or brownish coat, yellow ring around the eyes, their visual appeal is not extraordinary, but wait until you hear them sing. So, we can travel to the moon and beyond, detonate nuclear devices to terminate life on Earth on a large scale, yet we are still in the dark  about what this little bird is communicating. What is the meaning of their message. Apparently, the blackbird, born with a specific singing capability further learns singing from his/her parents, and is a keen observer of the environment and able to incorporate and respond to the sounds in their specific surroundings. Even more interesting is the focus on creating a unique voice, setting the individual apart from the other community members. How cool is that!. 

So I wonder, why go through all this trouble of creating unique songs, if your message is simple? Especially the ability to incorporate contextual information, does this not indicate a way of commenting on and communicating the changes that occur in your home-range? A complicated dialogue, discussing many life questions and possible how to adapt to changes?  

We already know that changing birds symphonies are early warning signs of environmental change, better indicators than for instance satellite imagery. Isn’t it time we started to pay better attention to what these animals (and other creatures) are showing us. Apparently, they listen to us, and I am not sure they like what they hear. 

They are small, a lot smaller than the Roswell alien, but maybe size is not a good measure of intelligence. 

https://web.archive.org/web/20090827103545/http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/hiroshima-nagasaki/decision-drop-bomb-chronology.htm

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The soil symposium has come to an end, the final days provided some flashy presentations of data visualizations, databases and pilot projects to address our pressing problems. The concluding remarks however were not all optimistic, mentioning the fact that most of the people involved remain in their own bubble, unable to reach out and inspire others to collectively envision the soil as a common focus to address the climate challenges. All the technology in the world doesn’t seem to help to overcome the biggest hurdle, the human factor, too many different and diverging interests, each defending their own territory. 

Meanwhile in Friesland, an ambitious goal, driven by EU demand, is to transition to a circular agricultural system by 2030, that is, yes,  in about 8 years. From my place in this region, it is hard to imagine that it can actually happen and I wonder what the biggest problem is, maybe it is the lack of understanding in politics that agriculture is not a normal business, it cannot follow standard economic rules. It is time to take soil seriously and pay the real price of healthy food cultivation, healthy for people and other organisms that share our ecosystem. 

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View from the Terp, the strip of land along the northern coast, the Waddensea, is suitable for potato cultivation. The heavy marine clay is apparently advantageous over other soils for its disease resistant qualities. The potato, forever ‘married’ to the Dutch identity by Vincent van Gogh’s ‘aardappeleters’, is actually an indigenous crop imported from South America during Colonial times. 

Friday evening, my neighbor knocks at the door for a chat. On his fields he grows potatoes, onions, sugar beets and some summer wheat. He tells me this year he is at least three weeks behind schedule due to the cold and wet spring season, but now everything is planted. I think he knows I hail from the organic sector and is eager to explain me some things, I appreciate that. 

Along with the urgency for soil regeneration is the very troubling issue that globally it is the farmers who take the brunt. Supporting farmers is a cause I feel strongly about.  Even if farmers are willing to transition to a circular or preferably organic way of farming, there is very little (financial) support to do so, leaving farmers with little choice to keep on doing what they know how to do, in order to keep their head above the water. 

As all the crops are in the ground, now the next phase starts, spraying plant protectors, a euphemistic term for herbi- and pesticides. (this renaming ‘propaganda’ is another troubling issue all together). Salinization is another big problem in this region, especially after dry periods when not enough rainfall dilutes the salty seawater that reaches to the core of the northern region underground. The solution for that problem is ‘flushing’, as my neighbor explains, using a pumping system to refresh the water system. Water is a scarce resource, also in the Netherlands.. And if you think this is all necessary because the Dutch love eating their potatoes, well maybe that is not entirely the case. Most of the potatoes my neighbor produces are for export to Africa, a growing market. Meanwhile the algae are lushly blooming in the ditches. 

With me, a number of us ask ourselves: why does a tiny country as the Netherlands need to be the biggest EU and second biggest exporter of agricultural goods worldwide? Why do we need so much money, while our soils are depleting, our fundament is crumbling, toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ are threatening our soils and ourselves? When will it start to click? That it is urgent NOW to support farmers in making a transition to sustainable practices, here, and everywhere. 2030 is less than 10 years away. So far we haven’t met any of the climate goals set on the international agenda, levels of carbon dioxide are rising, despite the pandemic, it is time we take soil seriously.

Even stronger an image than van Gogh’s ‘aardappeleters’, is the scene from the film The Turin Horse (2011), by Béla Tarr, where father and daughter sit facing each other with a single raw potato in from of each of them. Everything that made life possible at subsistence level is stripped away…is there any point in eating the raw potato to stay alive. 

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FARMERS! 

https://www.wur.nl/en/Research-Results/Research-Institutes/Economic-Research/show-wecr/Value-of-agricultural-exports-increases-slightly.htm

https://www.government.nl/latest/news/2020/01/17/dutch-agricultural-exports-worth-€94.5-billion-in-2019

Last week and the coming week I am attending an online symposium on soil in the Netherlands. It is called Bodembreed, where bodem means soil and breed can be translated as width. The gist being that everyone that has anything to do with soil in the Netherlands, such as research institutes, governments agencies, planners, builders, is participating in this symposium. It is organized around big themes, such as climate adaptation, energy transition, and watermanagement. Not surprisingly, farmers are not directly involved, only named as stakeholders in the different research projects and policy design issues. Smart people, all investigating the problem of how we can get our society to face our global climate challenges, as we are all aware things have to change, dramatically, outlined in the just released report of the International Energy Agency. 

The research presented at Bodembreed is impressive, but somehow it bothers me that the overall strategy seems to stay the same. We use some technology to patch here and there. When I pose a question regarding the use of biodynamic strategies, or considering the millennia long farming experience, the answer is that we first need to unravel how soil works before we can take action to move away from conventional/ industrial farming methods, that by the way has ruined our soil within a single century. I fear this means no substantial action within our lifetime. 

The Netherlands, and similar countries in the western world have reached their current wealth status based on centuries of overexploitation, gaining resources far beyond their territory.  This might not be problem if these places of resource extraction are unpopulated, void of people and other species who depend on those resources in their own territory or homerange. Such places are hard to find, if they exist. In my field, archaeology, we have long used a concept called Carrying Capacity, probably first used in biology and ecological research in the 19th century, to calculate the number of [people] that can be supported by a specific area. Technology and trade can become factors in such calculations as well, but somehow all the costs have to be calculated, as well as include -natural- climatic variations as a determining factor. This is how we come to understand the rise and decline of societies and civilizations. New technologies and computer models such as agent based modeling can help us understand these complex systems. It can help us now.

Overexploitation however, to me, is a no-brainer. When you deplete your environment faster than the environment can regenerate, the sum is simple. You have to figure out the rate, but at some point you will run out of what we now euphemistically call “ecosystem services”. Venus and Mars may be your next bet, but I wouldn’t count on it in your life time.

Although I am impressed by all the research in support of change, the one big issue that needs to be addressed, namely, what is our level of overexploitation on a global scale, remains largely unaddressed and overproduction maintains its status as a virtue. Our planet keeps pulsing, resiliently, the question is, when will we be considered an unsustainable part and evolve into something else. 

https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-by-2050

Our bulging planet keeps spinning in relation to its cosmic partners
The tide wave, keeps slushing around….

I wake up early, but since I do not work in farming at the moment, I can get up a little later and so I enjoy listening to the birds. They start around 4:30am in the backyard. Not continuously, off and on, while I doze off a bit. Around 6:30 I get up, have my coffee and go for a little run. Through the flat land, where the potato plants are now coming up from their little ridges and I get familiar with more of the wading and meadow birds. I so miss the mountains and consider the possibility of going up and herd for a bit this summer. 

Zur Alp is what it is called, or: to the Alp, when the herd goes up to the Alp to stay the whole summer. This tradition continues in the Alp region, or in Alpine regions up until today. A few years ago I went up in Norway to spend my summer with a 100 head goat herd. 

Summer 2019, Norway
Alpine Grigio, Northern Italy, enjoying the Vineyard

No such thing in flatland, I figured, but it turns out I am wrong. Last weekend we ( a friend and I) had an interesting conversation at the farm where I get my organic vegetables. Besides growing vegetables they have a herd of Gascon cows, as part of their circular strategy. Originally bred in the French Pyrenees, the harsh climate and limited resources led to specific adaptations. They can survive and work hard in any condition. During the winter the cows are at the farm and the manure is used to fertilize the fields, but during the summer, the cows can roam free, not at the farm, but at an island in the Wadden region. An island that is managed by the local nature conservancy, Fryske Gea. How wonderful, the cows will take the boat to the island. No humans live on the island permanently, but monitor the cows from a distance. They return to the mainland at the end of the summer. Happy grazing!

Gascon, Friesland