Archives for category: temporary nest

I am reading a book entitled, “Unworthy Republic” by  Claudio Saunt, with the subtitle, The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (2020).  A well-documented book that provides a different story of the conquest and colonization of the North American continent, a story of theft, violence, politics, and bureaucratic smokescreens as a means to justify, and legitimize mass deportation of original inhabitants, and taking possession of their land and homes. I am not sure what is most disturbing, but maybe it is this method of legalizing atrocious behavior, laws through which robbery and disrespect became defined as a service, an act of kindness. Making empty promises. A story that continues until today. 

Robbing people of their livelihoods and resources. It is something many of us engage in, often with the law on our side. Maybe not as instigator, but as part of a system that allows such behavior to continue on a global scale. 

Think global, act local sounds like a motto to address such behavior. It is something I take seriously, and which I interpret as to mean to be aware of the global problematic trends and to undertake local measures to correct these trends for the better. Think twice; is my interpretation universal? Maybe in the circles I mostly move, but I realize this is just an assumption. It can easily mean the opposite, Act local, like you’ve always done, and divert any problems onto the global scene, preferably not too loudly.  We call it trade, not always legal initially, but rules can be made and bent. Enter carbon-trade and land-grabbing.

Resource Exploitation is your problem too!

Kyoto 1997, some 180 countries signed the protocol that calls for the 38 industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Act local? The Protocol is a scheme that includes global carbon trading, because the task of reducing carbon is considered a collective (global) responsibility.  Environmental brokers enter the trade market, scouring for carbon assets,“environmental services”, forested areas, tree-planting projects that can help off-set emissions by their clients. 

Although it seems that this can help reduce emissions globally, while at the same time supporting sustainable development in poor countries (World Bank), a win-win, it has a dark side. Planting fast-growing eucalyptus trees with EU support in Sicily, is not a good thing. Removing Indigenous peoples from their land, in order to create a nature reserve is even worse. And in order to continue for instance their highly polluting meat and dairy production at home, many industrialized countries grow their animal feed elsewhere, the Global South, where local populations pay the price of emission. Many of these lands are cultivated through complex trade and investment rules and regulation that are far from fair, as ‘license to grab’ And these practitioners are not your regular thugs, these are established firms, governments, and the like.

The story continues, different rules, but the plot is remarkably similar. Maybe we finally confront our Colonial pasts, Imperialism, however, is here to stay. Think local, think for yourself and ACT. 

https://www.tni.org/en/publication/landgrabbing-contested-meanings-of-land

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286375482_Four_Problems_With_Global_Carbon_Markets_A_Critical_Review

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/colonialism/

https://www.sdgwatcheurope.org/documents/2019/08/whos-paying-the-bill.pdf/

In the early years of our current century I lived in New Mexico, far away from the place I was born. I was a student in the department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and during the summers of the early 2000’s I was part of a bilateral US-Mexico project conducted near the site of Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, Mexico. Crossing the Columbus/Palomas US – Mexico border for the first time for this project I was in for a surprise. In the little trailer where we had to have our visa’s stamped we joined a line in which a family stared at me as if they’d seen a ghost. It is not impossible they interpreted my gaze in the same way. I was told the family belonged to the Mennonite community, returning home in northern Chihuahua. 


Remembering the Chihuahuan Desert, Homeland of the Rarámuri 



Fast forward to 2021. Just moved from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany to -culturally related- Friesland in the Netherlands, a place where, according to my mother, my relatives from my mother’s father’s side come from. Only in the back of my mind do I recall the Mennonites coming from this region, but I have very little knowledge regarding their history. But since I live in these different worlds, I am curious about the relationships between these places I feel connected to, the histories of cultivators of the land.

It is a complicated history, for which I need a bit more time to flesh out, but alas, in a nutshell the Mennonites are a religious group, anabaptists, rising up during the Reformation in Europe, and are named after Menno Simons (1496-1561) of Friesland. The Mennonites followed the teachings of the Bible, initially following Luther. After Luther condemned the German peasant Revolt (1524-25) and chose a state-church model, their relationships changed dramatically as the Mennonites believed in a peoples’ church, with room for multiple denominations. The anabaptists were persecuted and because of their commitment to pacifism, many chose to move rather than to fight for their religious freedom in place. Taking the word of the Bible very seriously, the Mennonites have always been dedicated and successful farmers of the land that was given to them to cultivate. 

Their path first took the Anabaptist from Friesland to Russia where they lived for about 250 years, then around 1880 many migrated to the United States, Canada and Latin America. Around 1920, Mennonites who had settled in Canada in Manitoba, moved and established themselves in Chihuahua and later in Durango and Guanajuato in Mexico. 

During the time I worked in Mexico almost a century later, things however changed quickly, and in recent years, growing poverty, water shortage and drug-related violence has made many Mennonite families decide to leave Chihuahua and migrate to Canada. I remember the Mennonite families as very distinct people of the community in Chihuahua, their clothing, houses and agricultural practices. Especially, all my colleagues in the project praised the Mennonite cheese, well known and popular all over Mexico.

Today, I am in Friesland, land of dairy cattle and the land of Menno Simons, and since not all Anabaptist left, the communities in the area I live, Holwerd, Dokkum, Ameland, all are considered Anabaptist. The majority of dairy farmers do not make their own cheese anymore, their milk is  collected and mostly processed in large dairy plants especially by Friesland-Campina, following production-oriented conventional farming methods, heavily subsidized by our state, cows and potatoes. 

And so I wonder, the teachings of Menno Simons, the peasant revolt of 1524-25, the defeat that left the peasants with little rights at the mercy of the justice system operated by the clergy or wealthy burgher. And I wonder, has anything changed since that time, farmers are still at the mercy of the ‘wealthy burghers’, politics, banks, and corporations.

During our  present time, voices rise up to live and cultivate sustainably, we desperately seek other voices, we invite Indigenous leaders to share their stories. Do we listen? And what I wonder, does the Bible have to say, the stories that underpin the road the Anabaptists took from Friesland all over the world. A peasant revolt, maybe this time it can be successful. 

Northern Friesland today

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/05/coronavirus-global-south-pandemic-food-production-farmers

https://corporateeurope.org/en

https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/08/07/we-are-very-good-friends-two-school-directors-build-bridges-between-mennonite-and-raramuri-communities-in-chihuahua-mexico/

The title is a Dutch proverb, its meaning is something like, ‘doing something in a relaxed way’, the origin of the phrase is unclear. Strangely in English it translates literally into something like “in my dead field”

So I was happy to see the first cows in the pasture last week in the green fields. Not sure about their diet, it looks homogeneously green, no unruly flowers sticking up. Not complaining though, cows in pasture is encouraging, hope to see it again and more. 

Further changes in the land around, tractor activity is increasing, preparing the fields for new crops, potatoes and sugar beets mainly. I haven’t gotten all my facts in, but I look at it all with a bit of suspicion, since the ground looks pretty poor to me, coming from the lush biodynamic world. On some fields, left-over vegetation is turning browny-orange and maybe an indication that Roundup remains the rage in agriculture, even though in the Netherlands it is prohibited to use for home/garden use since 2014. But again, I have to do some fact-checking to ground my suspicions. 

Walking and running through the fields, my daily activity, tractors left and right, temperatures are rising a bit this week and I can smell the salty air coming in from the sea, a reminder that we are close, even though separated from the water by the sea dike. Last summer also happened to be the driest year ever measured in the Netherlands, a problem for the agricultural sector. A shortage of water is a bit ironic in a country that is for about half of its area below sea-level. If we let the Earth’s water run its course, it would look very different here. Water shortage never seem to become a problem, until now. Watermanagement still focused on keeping the water in check.

This is of course the pride of the Dutch. Where elsewhere in the world I have learned to welcome and reverence water, the relationship with water in the Netherlands is different. 

The landscape I currently reside in is land that is ‘won’ by the people in their struggle against the water, their ongoing ‘fight against the sea’. War-like metaphors characterize the relationship of the Dutch with the water. The land is theirs, conquered in this fight, the landscape a manufactured feat. A different mindset altogether. These kind of metaphors are all around us now, in our so-called fights against climate change. How is it we made nature our enemy. What we should struggle with is maybe our own behavior. Climate is doing its thing, always has, like water. Maybe it is time to ditch the war-like metaphors and embrace nature as a friend. An altogether different mindset. Focus on the living fields. 

Last weekend I went to buy some vegetables at the lone biofarm for miles. The weather was nice, not too much wind, a lovely bike ride through the fields. Far off I see tractors plowing, spraying and seeding, although I am not exactly sure what they are using. Slowly a green sheen starts to appear on the clayey surfaces. 

It is the month of Earth day (April 22), it is also the month of international day of peasant struggle (April 17). A few days apart, only one day a year. I wonder how many people think about the relationship between the focus of these days. 

Last year I was fortunate to be witness of a process of language revitalization, within a land-based knowledge system where language, cultural practice is intimately related to the surrounding land. Respect for the land is at the core of thinking and doing. 

Along my years of working in bio and biodynamic farms I have learned a thing or two about the importance of the land for us people. How taking care of the land, your natural environment, gives so much in return, much more than mere sustenance. 

Even though I have always enjoyed nature and shared that with family and friends, I realize that within the culture I was raised, northern Europe, I didn’t get educated with the same kind of respect for the land on a day to day basis. Of course, awareness is growing that we are doing our supportive environment a disservice with our current, often exploitative, behavior and we need to change. We also (begin) realize nature can heal us, and we seek nature’s therapeutic assistance. 

Cycling and walking along the roads through the fields that are dissected by narrow ditches, endless view, a land dotted with farm houses and barn, but nearly a soul in sight, I ask myself what I am doing here. Not in a so much in an existential way, although a bit, but more from a practical viewpoint. Is there something I can do. How do I nurture the kind of respect for the land that I have experienced elsewhere. I wonder how wealthy countries like the Netherlands like to ‘do good’ elsewhere, but seem to neglect their own hinterland. Respect, I start from the backyard, and contemplate the challenge ahead of me further afield. 

https://viacampesina.org/en/events/

Walking across the land, trying to optimize my wind exposure in such a way that my home stretch is driven by tailwind. My paths lead along ditches that criss cross the fields. Although the fields are not always hospitable to the birds, I get acquainted with a specific set, the waterfowl. The ducks fly up in tandem when they sense my approach. Always a female and male mallard, always just two of them. They are not monogamous, something I thought seeing them in this way, they are serial monogamists, each year they form a new couple. That is different for other couples, swan couples. They are not as abundant as the ducks, but wherever I look there seem to be a swan couple somewhere in the field. My daily morning runs provide me with some wonderful sightings, unfortunately I don’t carry my camera all the time while doing short runs. Swans are partners for life, and their persistent presence in the fields make me wonder if they have some special meaning in this cultural landscape. 

There are some other indications that this may be the case and I don’t have look far. From my bedroom window I see the top of my neighbors house carrying two stylized swans. Uilenbord in Dutch, ûleboerd in Frisian, is something that I cannot translate in English, but ‘uil’ means owl. So what has an owl to do with swans. 

The uilenbord, is an architectural element, a triangular wooden cover on the side/top of a gabled roof. The board functions as ventilation while protecting it against water entering the interior. The hole also allows owls to fly in and out. The presence of an owl on the farm is considered a good omen and the owl is also a welcome guest who eats mice. The top part of the board, the stick called ‘makelaar’ and the swans are stylized elements.

View from my current window and roof elements

I remember seeing similar elements in Germany, north of Hamburg, where I lived before coming to Friesland. Here however, it was not swans but horses that adorned the roofs. Time to break down borders. Friesland, where I live now, has long been a part of the Netherlands, but historically it is much more connected to the regions along the coast, covering present day northern Netherlands, northwest Germany and Denmark. And even though the presence of these boards may date back only to the 16th century, the symbolism of swans and horses is likely more ancient, going back to old Nordic mythology. At least that is what some people argue and it makes sense to me. For those of you who read Dutch the article by Boppo Grimsma tells an interesting story (see link below). 

Around my previous home north of Hamburg

The Frisians, a germanic people who came to present day Friesland via northern Germany, migrated back to Germany in the 12th century, especially the region north of Hamburg, das Alte Land, the region where I just moved from, the region with the horse symbols. 

There is a lot of speculation about the meaning of the swan and horse symbolism, but there seems to be some general consensus that swans are companions of the sun, specifically, they take the sun in the fall and bring the sun in spring. They are in this way related to the seasons. In old nordic mythology a similar role is suggested for both horses (earlier) and swans (later), accompanying the sun during the day along the living world and during the night around the world of the dead. The change of seasons, day and night, the living and the dead. Interesting stuff. I am happy to see the swans in the fields. 

http://www.stellingwerven.dds.nl/folklore/Oeleborden/uleboerd.pdf 

https://nds-nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oelebred

Schild-dak image: Arend041, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons 

Arriving in a new place. It always strikes me how the weather statistics do not prepare me for new encounters. The land is flat, open, and then there is the major character in the play, wind. There is no escape in this landscape. Even inside, the wind plays around the house. The house, built in 1872, has beautiful windows with sturdy, functional wooden shutters on the outside. One of the shutters that I keep shut, because it is in part of the house I don’t use right now, is not secured. That was not a problem, until the wind changed direction. Sleeping right above that window, the shutter kept banging against the house, keeping me awake through the night. There is no escape.

today it is calm, time to open the shutters

There is always wind, and it changes direction, I am sure I will learn more about typical characteristics. Going through the land, I feel the wind, pushing me forward or against me. I have to become friends, this is a committed relationship. 

In whatever direction I look there is a windmill on the horizon, an old one, from the early days. No wonder with this kind of wind. Then there are the modern ones, the wind turbines, but surprisingly few, I hear myself thinking. Yet, every large farm seems to have its own. Wind, what an energetic phenomena, especially here, where it has free rein in all directions. Energy, you would think, happily taken for free.

Whereas everybody likes the old windmills, the new turbines have a less favorite reputation in the collective mind of the Dutch. Attached to their wide open views, the dominate objection to building more wind turbines is an aesthetic one, it spoils their view. Second, the blade shadows, but only if you live in the shadow range of one of them, same with sound. Then there are the birds, and of course, it is not a good idea to place these colossus in bird breeding grounds or migrations paths, but other than that, much of the land does not seem to be of interest to the bird population anyway after years of mono cropping. 

I don’t share the same sentiment. Yes they are a novel and visually dominant part of the landscape, but also necessary if we continue on our paths of energy consumption. The damage of our conventional ways, burning peat for the longest time, and only since the 1960’s, drilling for gas on a large scale, is maybe less visible, but all the more impoverishing. Peatlands are unique ecosystems, in addition, they sequester large amounts of CO2. Removing peat from our lands also has caused the land to subside. This of course is also one of the major impacts of gas exploitation, the land is sinking, and the earth is shaking us up with occasional earthquakes. Do we respond.

I get it, wind turbines sprouting up, maybe not the most romantic of views of nature. Maybe not a view that is causing a new Golden Age of painting in the Netherlands. But maybe one that we need as a daily reminder of the amounts of energy we are consuming. The bonus, it is a lot cleaner than what we have been burning.  

I am reminded daily of its power. 

https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/advantages-and-challenges-wind-energy

https://www.milieucentraal.nl/klimaat-en-aarde/energiebronnen/windenergie/

I was born in the Betuwe, on the edge of the part of my home country that is above sea-level. Go west and north and the land is inundated, below sea level, if not for the engineering genius of the people who build dykes and figured out how to pump the land dry. I have always had a strange relationship with this land; I feel most at home in mountains and deserts. So it is a bit strange to find myself on the edge of the ocean, flatland as far as my eyes can see, with the intention to stay here for a while and submerge in its stories.

Maybe now is the time to newly appreciate this land, looking at it with fresh eyes, informed by what I have learned and experienced from land and people in other parts of the world where I have lived over the years. 

Its flatness is not an indicator of its historic depth as people have lived in this region for millennia, and like other coastal zones, it is dynamic, water, plants, animals and people have  moved in and out. But where to start, how to frame the story of this land. Maybe it is best to start with our current concern of rising sea-levels, of melting ice-sheets and focus on moisture, or what Mathur and DaCunha have termed “wetness” as a novel way of looking at our relationship with oscillating air-water, gas-fluid, interfaces, horizontally as well as vertically. 

During the last Ice Age (Pleistocene) is when the ice sheets formed, a time when the Netherlands had a tundra climate. The land, now called the Netherlands was formed as a result of the interplay of four main rivers (Rhine, Meuse, Schelde and IJssel) and the influence of the North Sea and glaciers during the Ice ages. It is mostly made up of sediments that were deposited during the Pleistocene glacial and interglacial periods. The Saale glaciation covered the eastern part of the Netherlands, moving in from the north it pushed moraine forward that remained in the landscape as a long hill, forming the higher parts of the country. Saale ended around 130.000 years ago. During the warmer periods, Neanderthals, moved into these tundra and intermittent permafrost regions and from about 40.000 BC, early modern humans began to settle here. 

Looking out from my desk at the window over fallow fields that, I assume, will soon be planted with potatoes and imagine early hunter gatherers roaming these regions of tidal sand flats and peat marshes 10.000 years ago. Suddenly it is not so flat anymore. The interplay of life, land, and water. I am ready to listen to the stories. 

https://www.mathurdacunha.com

Just moved to my new location from where I will start my return to academia. 

Driving through the northern Netherlands landscape with my housemate from the biodynamic farm, she calls out: ‘the green desert!’ 

I have a soft spot for desert environments, but I had never heard the term Green Desert, and certainly not referred to as a place in the Netherlands; I associate my home country with wetlands and rain. 

My housemate, who hails from this region and studied environmental science before her training as a Gartnerin/ biofarmer, explains to me that the green fields are in fact monoculture fields of English ryegrass. Although chosen for its great ability to set seed and germinate easily, the obvious downside is its reputation as invasive species, outcompeting native plants.

Arriving in Brantgum, noord-oost Friesland.  The land characterized by the ‘low hills’ of the terpen villages, man made mounds in the otherwise low-lying, marine-clay land behind the current dyke. The terp protects the villages when the sea entered the land in the past, creating fertile grounds, the kwelders. The hills are of a different dimension, but running around I begin to detect the subtle topological differences in the landscape. 

The first ‘Terpen’ date from the fourth century B.C. Throughout the history of this coastal landscape new terpen were created, the location of the village mounds were dictated by agricultural potential of the surrounding area. The lowest areas served as pasture lands. 

Contrary to popular belief, this area was not poor, nor isolated, as evidenced by the many archaeological finds of precious metal artifacts, brought into the area from Scandinavia, England and Roman origin. During the Middle Ages, things began to change, building of dykes, and pumping the land dry created a sweet water landscape. 

Arriving in this land in 2021 it seems not much has changed since then, the villages, the fields, resilient features of time-tested agricultural practices. 

Time to expand my knowledge of the Northern coastal landscape, especially around Brantgum, the area that is currently proposed as an addition to the UNESCO Wadden Sea – World Heritage – region, “the largest tidal flats system in the world, where natural processes proceed largely undisturbed. It extends along the coasts of Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands.”

Operating from this small town, Brantgum’s population lies around 250 inhabitants,  a small town, bu the closeness to the tidal flats cultivates my awareness of a global connection.

In that sense, I am also more than thrilled with the news that Deb Haaland is confirmed as new secretary of the Interior in the Biden administration. This is good news for the U.S., and I believe will also spark new initiatives and collaborations across the globe to address socio-environmental challenges that humanity is facing. I will start in Brantgum. 

https://www.waddensea-worldheritage.org

https://www.holwerdaanzee.nl/nld/inschrijving-symposium-unesco-biosfeer-waddenkust-geopend/

Soil, the delicate layer that covers the land of our planet, that makes life possible. Our resource extraction, especially over the last hundred years or so, has left many scars on this skin. 

Usually in remote places, removed from our gaze, they have been brought to our attention by the beautiful photographs of Edward Burtynsky. 

Zooming in via Google Earth can give an idea of the vastness of these places, but still difficult to grasp how our resource hunger impacts the soil on a global scale. Not just an effect of these mining operation, since all things are connected, and the land beneath our feet is losing the ability to support life. Droughts and desertification are no longer restricted to arid regions, land degradation is a global problem.

More than 75% of the Earth’s land are substantially degraded, meaning, these have become deserts, are polluted or have been deforested, severely threatening biodiversity and probably your ‘back yard.’

Time to act is now, or better, yesterday, 20 years ago, for a sustainable and equitable future. But a good source to read up, is the World Atlas of Desertification and don’t let the title mislead you, degradation is all around you. 

https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20181017-striking-photos-of-human-scars-on-earth

https://wad.jrc.ec.europa.eu/#about World Atlas of Desertification

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/ipbes-land-degradation-environmental-damage-report-spd

https://www.ipbes.net

It is that time. I am getting ready to move, as strange as that may sound in our current locked-down world. Not particularly far, going west and down south along the coast. Moving into the location of the largest natural gas field in Europe, discovered in 1959 and first exploited in 1963. The Dutch fossil fuel boom, still going strong after about 60 years, but not without hurdles and the end is in sight. Extraction has resulted in subsidence of the land surface and has induced earthquakes. This has caused health, socio-economic, and environmental  problems locally in such ways that the government has announced halting gas extraction entirely by 2030 for safety reasons, and only in special circumstances from 2022 onward. The goal is greener energy to meet the Paris agreement goals.

The Green Deal, an ambitious EU policy package with as aim to make Europe climate neutral in 2050. A commentary in Nature in Nov/Dec 2020 however provided a critical note. The EU relies heavily on agricultural imports, it allows Europeans to farm less intensively, yet by importing products that are produced less sustainably, in effect it exports its emissions. For now carbon accounting under the Paris agreement only covers emissions produced within a nation, not those embedded in goods consumed there but produced elsewhere. 

It is a strategy the western world has long engaged in; mining resources elsewhere and let local communities deal with the waste and associated environmental problems. Mining.

The price we pay for winning natural resources is high, even though it may seem there is enough to go around as new sources are continuously found, scarcity may not be our immediate problem. Problems are big but not always in sight. I am talking about Tailings.

Tailings are the materials left over from mining processes.

A tailings dam is typically an earth-fill embankment dam used to store byproducts of mining operations after separating the ore from the gangue. Tailings can be liquid, solid, or a slurry of fine particles, and are usually highly toxic and potentially radioactive. These embankments are some of the most colossal man-made structures on the planet, and the quest for economies of scale prompt mining companies to dig deeper and larger pits.

The waste material has the potential to damage the environment, by releasing toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury, also by acid drainage, or by damaging aquatic wildlife that rely on clean water. Yet, the biggest danger is dam failure; on average, worldwide there is one big accident each year involving a tailings dam, with devastating consequences for communities, wildlife and ecosystems.

Even though these structures are massive, it is still unclear how many of these exists worldwide. Recently, GRID-Arendal launched the world’s first public database of mine tailings aiming to prevent deadly disasters.

It is about time to make these wastelands visible as many of these are in rural lands, affecting communities long after mining companies have left. Such as the failing of the Church Rock Dam in 1979, in New Mexico, releasing 1100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco and through Navajo lands. A toxic flood with ongoing devastating consequences that still have not be adequately addressed 40 years later.

A symbol of societal indifference to the impacts of mining on Indigenous lands. There are many more.

Green Deal. It is time we assess the global impact of our energy/resource habits and dependencies. 

https://tailing.grida.no

https://www.vice.com/en/article/ne8w4x/church-rock-americas-forgotten-nuclear-disaster-is-still-poisoning-navajo-lands-40-years-later

Northern Europe is under a cold spell. For the last two weeks, night temperatures went far below zero Celsius while daytime hovered around 0, Snow has covered the ground for over a week now, the white world is comforting and reflecting, giving the ground a rest. 

One of the nice things about biodynamic farming is that during harvest the plants are picked but not removed, they continue to grow and give more. The kale and Brussel’s sprouts are bare and covered with snow at the moment, but as soon as the weather warms up they will provide again and only taste better after frost. 

Meanwhile, snow and icy temperatures grow something else, ice crystals cover the fences and tree branches. Nature is pretty awesome. 

Weekday’s I run quite early when it is still dark. I run on a bike path along the forest rim, where I can make out the dark outlines of the trees and branches to keep me on track. Last week, the reflected full moonlight gave everything a beautiful glow, the remnants of snow lighting up my path.

On the weekend, the forest awaits. Last week was beautiful when the first substantial layer of snow covered everything and I was the first human to track into the forest, but soon I get to places where deer and hare had gone before me. This weekend, after a week of freezing weather but very little new snow, most of the now trampled snow turned into ice. The ground is hard and uneven. It is better to run off the beaten track. 

Also I notice a lot of birds of prey these days, buzzards mainly, I wonder how their world looks from up there now that the ground is frozen. I see them also from my window, resting high up in the treetops and wonder why they choose these spots in this cold weather. I wonder if they have a group thing going on. But maybe this is a good spot, where food can still be found and they are letting the territorial boundaries loosen up a bit.

When I embarked on my current lifestyle, I had a vague idea of how working on small organic farms would enhance my life; I would be living outside, in beautiful places, I would have good food, importantly, I could contribute to the regeneration of our lands, and I by doing all this I would be inspired to embark on a different kind of research path, based on re-valuation of our beautiful planet. 

Over the years I have had many great experiences, some weird stuff, but generally inspiring and at times it confirmed my vague idea that a lifestyle like mine could be implemented as valuable strategy to face our current climate crises. People contributing part of their time to organic food production, and still have enough time for their other kind of work that makes them tick. Many things can be done remotely, in the land, as the last year has taught us. 

The main challenge for me over the years has been to keep afloat, to bridge times when farm work is slow, to be able to move from place to place, and even finding the next place. All this farm work over the years, of course, also gave me an informal training in the different farm sectors. That is why my current situation sounds pretty good on the surface, where it all seems to come together. I am employed in cheesemaking on a biodynamic farm, a community supported by all means. A basic income while contributing to the land, and spare time to engage in other inspiring activities.

But things are changing, as I have written before, the ‘business’ is growing, out of proportion, in my humble opinion, and my job is less than inspiring, even less than satisfactory. Over the last months my activities have changed from making cheese and other milk products to primarily bottling up and putting lids on. I am calling myself Dr. Deckel, after the German word for lid. As a compromise I requested to work less hours, as 40 hrs of this is pretty rough. It was denied. It makes me sad, as my vision of creating collaborations between farmers and part-time contributors in our common sustainability goals are maybe still just that, a vision. 

For now I am a bit disenchanted, and my brain is in need of some nourishment. I will have to do some thinking if there is a better strategy. 

endless Deckel….

It’s a bit drab. The weather, the lengthening but still dark days, the mood in the Kaserei. Personal drama and dynamics in this place have always baffled me, and I am trying to rise above it. 

For a while it was hard for me to run in the morning, as I start my job at 6 in the morning. But I know, it will lift me up and thus decide to put myself first. I mean, I run everyday at 5am; first thing I do in the morning is for myself. It is still dark, but the fresh air makes a world of difference.

In the afternoon, I always try to get a little forest walk in, the leaves are wet underfoot and dark brown to almost black in color, good soil I think. And then suddenly there it is, brightening my mood exponentially: Witch Butter!

Tremella mesenterica, also known by names such as yellow brain, golden jelly fungus, and witch butter. Its fruit is a beautiful bright orange in moist conditions. On top of it, it is edible. 

Life goes on at the biodynamic farm and I am still involved in the production of all things to do with milk.  After the chaotic time of summer 2020 after I started in June, I had hoped things would quiet down and ease into a more harmonic work environment. Alas, no such thing. 

Some issues are related to personal dynamics, but these are intertwined with the changes that are happening in the farm as a whole, and especially in the process of making milk products. Changes that I question. The motives behind it are unclear to me, the way they are implemented less than optimal, if you ask me. Then again, it may be hard to be objective when you are part of the process. 

The core of biodynamic farming is about soil and that is why I support it, why I am putting my time and effort in being part of this process. And even though I am convinced all the boxes to be a Demeter certified farm remain ticked, I have the feeling more and more corners are cut to make this farm bigger, more members, demanding more. Call me sentimental but I feel I am just part of a production unit, instead on a soil oriented farm. Soil the source of life on land. Our fundamental base layer. Disappearing fast, because we don’t take care.

As an archaeologist I have been involved in soil a lot. The history of humanity as layered archives in Earth’s outer layer. Smart as we are, we have developed physical, chemical, and biological methods to understand how this palimpsest of signs can be spun into a history of humanity and our home planet. 

As an archaeologist and anthropologist I have been fortunate to work with people from diverse cultural backgrounds and learn different ways of interpreting this information, different from my own western oriented scientific background. This has expanded my view and also allowed me to question what I thought were certainties. 

Science to me is like soil. I believe in it. Science as a method to test and refine our fundamental beliefs. Justified true belief, but at its core it is our belief system that generates hypotheses to be tested. So in my learning process something interesting has happened. Novel scientific insights and directions, such as chaos theory, ideas about the bacterial foundation of life, have turned our ideas of superiority of man on its head. Creation stories, which are focused on the soil, and in which human beings are molded from clay of the Earth, appear to me more relevant than the western creation myth for understanding life.  Adam is made from dust, Eve on the other hand is created by taking a rib of Adam. Adam doesn’t suffer long as ribs regenerate quickly. So although dust of the Earth plays a role, our ultimate destination in the story is in heaven, the moon, Mars as intermediate stations maybe. Modern science stems from a western belief system in which Eve is a sidekick of Adam, but It doesn’t have to be that way, the scientific method is neutral and can function in many different worldview and paradigms. 

Sometime in my career I made the paradigm shift. I really enjoy all things science, but my focus and direction is toward soil as fundamental to our being. It is why I chose to also contribute actively to maintaining our world’s soils and hope more of us will start to value the soil’s worth for continuing and adding layers to the story of humanity. 

It has been a volatile week;  the world has been witness of a shocking political situation threatening a powerful democracy.  the news, alongside ongoing pandemic updates while last minute efforts of current US leadership to approve mining and drilling operations in protected natural regions that will be disastrous for our future. It is important to raise our voices to counter exploitative behavior and violence. 

But it was another article in the New York Times that caught my eye this week and left me unsettled and speechless; the murder of a female farmer who raised goats and made cheese in the Mocheni valley, a small valley in the Trento region in Italy.  She was killed by a farmhand over a wage dispute. 

When I first started this blog a number of years ago, I helped out on an (Italian) family farm in the Mocheni Valley. It is there that I first learned to milk goats by hand and turn it into delicious cheese and yoghurt. Mocheni goats are a special breed, the pride of the valley, and I attended the Mocheni goat festival where goat keepers compete for most beautiful goats. The valley is special, one side is Italian, the other German speaking, and a special Mocheni dialect. 

2014

Agitu Idea Gudeta fled Ethiopia and build her business in her adopted homeland Italy, bringing with her a passion for animal husbandry. In 2010 she started out to raise a herd of Mocheni goats, close to the place where I first learned to milk goats and was encouraged by the determination of female farmers. As I said the news left me speechless. 

To speak up, but also to carefully listen to what is going on around us. Fight for what you believe in, but also be aware of our vulnerability, especially as women. 

https://sense-iblebaglady.net/2014/06/01/88/

https://sense-iblebaglady.net/2014/05/26/52/

Science fiction comics; an interesting medium to explore ‘weird’ ideas, like being invaded by body snatchers who change our personalities and cause the spread of  lies and misinformation (see previous post – Symbiote). Our gut microbiome sounds similar to these Klyntar species, and like most human beings, I have little idea how this community that I host is composed, therefore I try to feed them well to keep all of its members happy and loyal to my cause of survival. 

Imagining my Gut Flora

Finding out about these unrelated species we are hosting has given us a new perspective on life. So has our newly developed technology that enables us to communicate across other boundaries. The internet, the world wide web has given us the opportunity to share ourselves through memes, our beings suddenly become bigger, communal, intertwined. In a twisted world, one can even question who is connecting to whom when our personalities can be altered by our gut communities, our Klyntars. Are we just vehicles for something entirely different. Bystanders to the spread of misinformation, manipulation and lies. 

The way this information spreads is facilitated at large by BIG Tech, and serious efforts are underway to address the power of these tech giants at national and international levels. The EU has been sounding alarm for years and now the US follows, but to prove that they harm consumers is difficult, especially since we all like(d) the free services they provide. We were/are happy, or ignorant to sign over our right to privacy. But it is not only the giants themselves that are the problem, more so who they are willing to facilitate, free speech and all that. And that is a tough question, who determines what is true and false in this complex world of different ideas meming around.* 

An Agenda for Disinformation Research has been set up and the first sentences read* : “In the 21st century Information environment, adverbial actors use disinformation to manipulate public opinion. The distribution of false, misleading, or inaccurate information with the intent to deceive is an existential threat to the United States – distortion of information erodes trust in social-political institutions  that the fundamental fabric of democracy: legitimate news sources, scientists, experts and even fellow citizens.” The leading scientists who have written this agenda come up with a six step strategy as a recommendation for policymakers to remedy this situation. 

I agree, the speed and scale at which this spread occurs can be frightening. The phenomenon however is not new and part of the human condition, spreading lies about people and situations that are uncomfortable for your own condition happens throughout our history. Take the invention of the printing press, it not only brought us the beauty of reading for all, but also the possibility of spreading propaganda, a tool for reimagining identity, such as discussed by Benjamin Schmidt, in Innocence Abroad, about how the Dutch used the printing press to create a national  identity.  The title referring to how printing could  also be successfully used -as I interpret his work- to wipe their colonial identity clean. ***

But that aside, to come back to our gut community and their ability to change our personality. How some malevolent hosts now cause the “Klyntars” to spread misinformation and lies like wildfire, facilitated by tech giants. Like I said, I try to keep my microbial- Klyntar  community healthy and happy, but in this day and age that is not so easy either. Not just the fault of Big Tech, more of Big Pharma and Big Ag. It is therefore a bit puzzling to me that we go after Big Tech with such a vengeance while we leave Big Pharma and Big Ag in power, to do as they please, and control and ruin our worlds, our GUTS. 

 * https://www.santafe.edu/news-center/news/drowning-disinformation 

 ** https://cra.org/ccc/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/11/An-agenda-for-disinformation-research.pdf 

*** https://history.washington.edu/research/books/innocence-abroad-dutch-imagination-and-new-world-1570-1670

https://www.technologyreview.com/2019/06/04/103008/breaking-up-big-tech-will-be-really-hard-to-do/

Happy New Year

Symbiosis, we now begin to realize, is more common in the living world than we ever imagined, fundamental even. Symbiosis, defined as the living together of two or more more dissimilar organisms, in more or less intimate association, in either of three kind of relationships.  One is where both species benefit from the relationship (mutualistic), two, where one benefits and the other does not benefit nor is harmed (commensalistic), or  three where one benefits and the other is harmed (parasitic). Each organism engaged in either form in such relationship is termed a symbiont.

And no, the title is not a typo. 

Humans are symbionts. We could not survive if not for the microbial gut community we host. We are co-dependent, we need to nurture and nourish our microbiome to stay healthy. We, whatever we are, are the protagonist in the play. And that is when it becomes interesting. We, with our assured selves, often ignore the importance of this mutualistic relationship, what can go wrong anyway, we are hosting, they should be happy to have a home. We think.

As we can read in the wikipedia entry, “the Klyntar are a fictional species of extraterrestrial symbiotes”…most well known in association with Spider-Man. It further reads “ The symbiotes form a symbiotic bond with their hosts, through which a single entity is created, They also are able to slightly alter their hosts’ personalities, and/or memories by influencing their darkest desires and wants, along with amplifying their physical and emotional traits and personally granting them super-human abilities”.

Although they originated in a dark past, their malevolent leader Knull was defeated on Earth by Thor, and subsequently the symbiotes began to explore notions of honor and nobility as they bonded to benevolent hosts and desired to spread and maintain peace throughout the Cosmos. “However, these altruistic goals were imperfect, as the Klyntar symbiotes could be corrupted by hosts with harmful chemical imbalances or problematic personality attributes, turning them into destructive parasites who would spread lies and disinformation about their own kind in order to make other people fear and hate the Klyntar species as a whole.” *

A symbiote of sorts, maybe they are among us, maybe they form at very different space-time scales unable to detect by our sensors and senses.

When fiction meets facts; it sounds eerily real, a hypothesis of sorts to explore the role of our microbiome. The gut-brain axis is something we have come across, the complex bidirectional crosstalk between gut and brain, it not only assures the proper maintenance of our gastrointestinal homeostasis, but is likely to have “multiple effects on affect, motivation, and higher cognitive functions.

 And is extraterrestrial life a possibility? Research in astrobiology* * certainly entertains this possibility as it seeks to understand the origin of life, the steps that led inanimate materials, such as rocks and water to come together and build living organisms, and why should it only have happened on our planet? And “is it possible, likely even, that life exists elsewhere based on elements other than carbon and a system different than DNA? Could such life even exist here on Earth, but is as yet undetected?

Whatever the reality of the symbiotes may be, the description of their ability to influence lies, misinformation, the fear of and desire to destruct microbial ‘enemies’ sounds awfully like our current reality. Benevolent hosts is what we need. 

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbiote_(comics)

** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/pdf/AnnGastroenterol-28-203.pdf 

*** https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/about/ 

Despite the turbulence we’ve experienced during the year that is ending, it is comforting that our Earth keeps spinning and moving as always. Happy solstice. 

“A herder is a worker who lives a pastoralist life gathering and caring for a herd of domesticated livestocks…herders move with livestock wandering around open wild pastures in a nomadic/semi-nomadic fashion.” It sounds simple enough, people have lived this kind of lifestyle for a long time, but these days it is rare and considered romantic. Since my first dip into herding I’ve leaned that it is not so simple and the more I learn, the more it becomes a philosophy.  It is guidance with a purpose, I want something from those animals, milk or meat, the animals are raised in some form of dependency. In my case, I have been semi-nomadic, moving between lower and higher elevations on the mountain. 

Following the animals, the animals follow me. The goats select their food, I observe them. Sometimes they are indecisive, I guide them. Our relationship grows over time, as I get to know them better, as a herd, as individuals. It is an interesting exchange of affection and knowledge between species and specimens. It is this interdependency that I really enjoy, of taking the lead, and being led, oscillating, and I imagine, this symbiotic exchange happening all around me, continuously. Yes it is something we associate with other species,  but why not our own?

To be continued….

But as a prelude, please read my essay at: POLAR-IZATION (artez.nl)

A short, much needed, farm-life break to visit friends and family, also gave me a chance to visit the exhibition Trembling Landscapes, Between Reality and Fiction, at Eye film museum in Amsterdam. Under this title, the exhibition shows the work of “Eleven Artists from the Middle East” who work with film and video to engage in relationship with the land, as a source of identity, history, tradition, territory and imagination. Very different stories, depending on the history of the artists themselves, where they come from,  but also the approach they have taken. A region known for violent conflict, it is refreshing to watch these works, while stemming from these conflicts present a more complex, humanistic side of the story. 

The Middle East, a colonial term, land between the Near and far East, if taking the perspective of the, Eurocentric West. Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, fertile lands between the Euphrates and the Tigris, the cradle of civilization. The Levant, Al-Mashriq, there where the sun rises. Older names that color the region in a different light. It is also what these artists do. 

Eye Film Museum:

https://www.eyefilm.nl/tentoonstelling/trembling-landscapes ; open until January 3, 2021

photo of current exhibition: work by Jananne Al-Ani  – Shadow Sites –
photo of current exhibition: work by Ali  Cherri – Trembling Landscapes
photo of current exhibition: work by Larissa Sansour – Nation Estate

It is getting cold, the first frost is here. Still enjoying the vegetables that my farm mates are harvesting. Soon Brussels sprouts will come from the fields, a bit of frost only makes them taste better. 

Besides some of my cheesemaking duties, this weekend I also participate in an online conference of the biosemiotic society, an interdisciplinary field of research that for long has helped me frame my thoughts. Especially for exploring why and how humans relate to the land in such different ways. I am inspired by indigenous ways of thinking, and their and other land based knowledge systems. Languages of the land, grounded in experience of the sensory world; not just humans, but all organisms communicate in incredible ways. All of us, sensing and experiencing, making meaning of the world in different but overlapping ways. Awareness of these communications and of  physical phenomena in our ecosystem is how we can connect. What has always struck me as strange though, is that as an academic I have to study experience as if I am just a thinking vat instead of a sensing organism making meaning of my surrounding. 

It is because humans are thought to be unique, because we are not just signaling and responding, we have language, the only species known to use symbols and capable of abstract thought . But does that mean we don’t have connect to the physical world, to our supporting ecosystems? Reasoning superior, Sensing subordinate, has for long been the ideal of the modern world. 

Through learning about the richness of land-based knowledge and the ideas behind biosemiotics I now am convinced that the sensory connection to the physical (natural) environment is the foundation of knowledge. Embodied knowledge, not just the mind is important. 

The biosemiotic conference is where I would like to share these ideas and my experiences, now online of course, communicated electronically. But then… the more papers I hear, the more uncomfortable I become. I am familiar with the terms and concepts, but everything is sooo…. abstract. It is like being trapped in Plato’s cave.The allegory of the cave, in which a group of people are chained in a cave, in front of a blank wall. Their reality exists of shadows on the wall,  casted objects moving along a fire in front of the cave. Some prisoners don’t want to escape, it is the only reality they know.  I feel I have entered such a -symbolic- world. People discussing models of experience. As if real-world examples are only selected to support theoretical models, instead of being intended to help us understand our physical surroundings.  I want to escape.  Have I strayed so far from my academic background, or is academia more and more turning on to itself to avert real life’s complexities?

My current lifestyle is a bit unusual, I know, driven by aha moments and flashes of dissatisfaction, an unbeaten path which I have no idea whether it will lead me to something meaningful or if I willI hit a proverbial wall to bang my head. It is my dilemma. To be immersed, to be in between. To find a balance. Maybe best to give an example of my current situation.

When I started out on my current farm, I was milking goats, by hand, and took them out for their daily foraging trips along the forest rim. Eating lots of acorns when the days were getting shorter, changing the taste and consistency of the milk they were giving. It was a pleasure to be involved in the cheesemaking process, knowing that the goats enjoyed their outings as much as I did, noticing that besides acorns, goats are very selective in their dietary choices along the way. They know what they like, what is good for them and their kids.

My herding life has not been long enough to notice recurring patterns, of herd movement, of herd relationships, but the closeness the land, the animal, the cheese and me, can be felt immediately.  I don’t have specific words for seasonal variants of milk, supporting different bacteria that turn milk into distinct flavors. The cows spent their summer on the pasture of mixed herbs, come winter they stay in the barn, but mostly still enjoying dried grasses that my farm mates have culled from the fields during summer.

Winter milk. The farm is growing, the milk of the cows is no longer enough to support the member base, and milk is sourced from elsewhere, organic, of course. My colleagues and I have to process this milk as fast as we can, usually on the weekend. Although the milk looks the same, something is changing for me: I have never seen the cows. Understanding the quality of their milk is no longer related to my interaction with the animals, but comes to us as laboratory results, fat and protein content, and absence or presence of pathogens. A reduction of the complexity of the relationship between the animal, the land, and us. to a chemical analysis. Slowly it seems the firm ground under foot is dissolving, is it temporary I ask myself? Or are we getting used to changing expressions of our relationship to the food we are producing, protein and fat, and packets of bacterial mixes representing different flavor profiles. My memory of complex ecological relationship reduced to bio analytics and chemical expressions.  I long for the acorn-infused milk, milked in my small bucket. The goats that make me smile, intelligent creatures, to whom I can relate in meaningful ways. 

The industry is well aware. About twenty years ago, a EU project was already conducted to isolate starter bacteria of natural fermentation of the cheese made by Southern European farmers, who are known for their unique taste of their cheeses. The major objective of this project, was to “isolate and preserve strains of lactic acid bacteria from these natural fermentations for possible use as industrial cultures.” Since that time, I have met some farmers in Italy, who were no longer able to make and sell cheese to local markets, because of rules and regulations that require cheesemakers to invest in equipment in order to comply with EU hygiene and production standards. First approached for handing over their knowledge, then robbed of their way of life, it is a form of aggression that happens over and over in human history.. 

It is a mystery to me. How we pay tribute and regurgitate the work of scholars who have gone before us, lauded in scientific conferences and papers, to safeguard this scientific knowledge, but we have no qualms squandering knowledge of time-honored traditions that should be kept alive, not only in support of cultural traditions, but also for the benefit to us all, to give meaning to our relationships.

To be fair, I did learn a new word this weekend: semiocide, a concept that is maybe best described as the destruction of meaning (for instance as in disappearing languages, meaning making systems). It saved my belief in the integrity of the biosemiotic community and the possibility to take collective action. 

I love food. One of the perks of my current lifestyle is that I am close to the source. Morning harvest on your lunch plate, morning milk becomes tomorrow’s yoghurt. During lunch we all eat together, in the big kitchen the food is prepared by several dedicated cooks. On the weekend I cook my own meals, and that is a pleasure with all this fresh produce.

 I first came to this farm to milk and herd goats, and eventually ended up in cheesemaking. Unfortunately, the goats are no longer here, only the cows. Although cows are sweet animals, I don’t feel particularly close to them. Goats on the other hand are smart, mischievous, resilient and have a perpetual smile on their faces. They are best when they roam free. I also prefer goat cheese over cow’s cheese. Maybe it is their character that gets into their milk. A little bit wild. 


But I ended up making cheese of cow’s milk, raw milk however, not too tame. The farm is more serious business now, gone are the days of making small batches of goat cheese, milked in the field in the morning in our little buckets. This of course, also has to do with the ever stricter rules in food production, food that people have produced for thousands of years in less sanitary circumstances without much problems, now have to follow strict hazard prevention rules. Slowly industrialization creeps in.  The milk gets cleaner, the microbial community less diverse.
For me, making cheese is like cooking, in big vats! There are only a few variables, temperature, time, type and amount of starter culture and rennet, but you can vary to get very different tasting things. In the old days, the culture to sour the milk came from the milk itself, its lactic acid bacteria, in fact this is what good milk does, it turns sour and thickens. The rennet is another part of your animals, an enzyme that lives in the young animal’s stomach, it helps to separate the whey from the curd.
what goes into to milk is important

Raw milk, still contains this potency, but the rules sanitary operations have impoverished our raw materials and we become more and more dependent on bacterial mixes that have been cultivated in a petridish. Isolation of these ‘flavor profiles’ have helped standardization, but also generated blandness. Our milk still has variability, summer milk very different from winter milk, but probably not as bacterially rich as it once was. Cooking becomes more and more like science experiments. 

I love science, like I like food. But maybe I should nuance that. The science that drives the food industry is rather mechanistic, I would rather approach it ecologically. The cheese is a body of bacteria. Leib as it is called in German. It ripens over time, it becomes better before it finally is bitter old bod. I would love to learn to make cheese the ecological way, complex, for sure, but luckily bacteria don’t have the bad rep they once had and their role in great tasting cheese now gets recognized

Ecological cooking, sounds good to me. Food for thought.

Junge Leiben

Difficult times, times of uncertainty, fatigue, and lethargy. We crave something to hold on to, a firm foundation that can carry us through this predicament. Soil I would say. 

Soil, like the skin of our planet, or maybe a better to think about it as the gut, without which we could not exist, no plants could grow,. The basic natural resource, typically it is composed of 45%minerals, 25%water, 25%air and 5%organic matter. Nearly all food, fuel, and fibers used by humans are produced on soil.  Nevertheless, we treat soil like there is no tomorrow, over exploited in many parts of the world, we fail to recognize that once we depleted the soils, it will take more than a human life time to build it up again. 

Soil, an essential element in our lives, but unlike air and water, there is for instance no EU legislation (yet) directed toward protection of soil.

We need to start

About a third of the world’s land is degraded. The biggest factor in this process of degradation is the expansion of industrial farming. The use of heavy machinery and agrochemicals have increased yields, in other words, resulted in more produce per hectare, but at the expense of long-term sustainability. 

We need to worry

Soils are a non-renewable resource, meaning its loss and degradation is not renewable within a human life span

We need to take action

December 5, is world soil day, with this year’s theme,  Keep soil alive, protect soil biodiversity. One day a year is really not enough to think about it, it should be on our minds every day.

Eat organic when you can

https://www.unccd.int/actions/global-land-outlook-glo

Direct marketing is a great thing. The produce and products grown and made at the community supported biodynamic farm where I work go directly to our customers. The beauty of this system is that production can be narrowly tailored to need, thereby minimizing waste. The focus of this and similar farms is on healthy soils, which is the foundation of keeping ourselves and our planet healthy as well. 

One would think, and hope, that such enterprises are well-supported through agricultural policy programs at the EU level. Not so. Most of the funds of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is and continues to be awarded to big landowners. Even though the goals of CAP are expressed to be “biodiversity and strong rural communities”, the fact that there is no example of support for CSA initiatives through CAP speaks otherwise.This absence is attributed in general to a lack of political will to support their own goals. The fact that CSA initiatives are successful anyway, is testimony to the sustainability of this economic strategy. 

The farm, where I turn milk into cheese, is a great example. Recently the farm turned 25, and since its early days it has experienced enormous growth, not always smooth, but many foundational principles are still in place: Primarily, to maintain a closed-loop system, in which all nutrients and organic matter are recycled back to the soil.

Community Supported in Agriculture generally means that operation is financially driven by members (non-farmers) who in return receive a proportional share of the crop. This farm is supported by the community in other ways as well. Most of the land that is cultivated is not owned by the farm, but on loan, so to speak. Many small landowners, who for different reasons, no longer work their land, can benefit from having their land become rich organic soil, a win-win situation and community building strategy. 

But is the farm victim of its own success? The number of members has increased rapidly over the past year, and although it may be relatively easy to plant more vegetables on added fields, expanding yields in other areas is not so easy. Growing the cow herd not only needs more fields, but also bigger barns for milking and winter housing. Hence the stress I mentioned last week, a cheese shortage.  Complicating our situation is that we are edging toward winter, milk yield is decreasing naturally, while member numbers are still increasing, way over 500, primarily hailing from the urban and sub-urban Hamburg region. We hear voices of complaint, of members being dissatisfied with the amount and types of products they receive. But these voices are channeled through employees who work in farm’s Hamburg stores, through which the produce and product are distributed. The direct connection with its member base is separated through another layer. It raises an important question, at least in my curious mind. 

Can a direct marketing, closed-loop system grow TOO BIG, thereby overshooting its objectives? In other words is there a – context specific –  optimal size range to balance all components in the system, the number of animals, the soil, but also direct communication with its member base?

And if this is so, is there room for a number of CSA’s to service a specific region. Possibly so Could we make that happen, is the next question. Distributing healthy food, while tending our soils. 

For the time being the tactic here may shift toward delivering more vegetables to make up for ‘lost’ milk. Not so bad actually. Colorful abundance, kale, cabbage, carrots, pumpkin, leek, radicchio. In fact, a plant-rich diet is the way to go forward, in order to meet our carbon emission targets for keeping global warming in check.

Still, it would be better, milk or not,  if the EU and beyond, would recognize the urgency to support CSA to grow the soils in which we can thrive.  Moreover, I believe direct marketing of CSA is a wonderful tool to educate and engage the member base about what is going on in the land. It is time to take LAND-BASED knowledge seriously.

https://elcn.eu/news/community-supported-agriculture-csa-misses-out-subsidies-eus-common-agricultural-policy-cap

My plan was to write about milk, about the increasing  number of people seeking better, organic produce and products and the problem we are now facing: we cannot deliver, vegetables yes, but not that much cheese. 

A structural problem → stress.

Then I went for my weekend morning run and changed my mind. Pleasure meets my eyes when I enter the little “Wald” Leaves are turning, from green to yellow, red, and brown, leaves are falling, covering the forest floor with a carpet of mixed colors, like pixelated images, but then better → organic. It is incredible how soothing it is for the eyes, like a warm bath, but then fresher → invigorating, like music for the eyes. 

Of course, we can explain the process scientifically, which is no less poetic. Leaves turning color, or leaf senescence, the process of deterioration with age, is considered an ‘altruistic death’ , one that recycles important nutrients for the plant to continue to grow, perpetual life. Chlorophyll degrades, and lets the carotenoids shine, in all their golden brilliance. 

Immersed in this sparkling world I halt, it is raining a bit, but the leaf cover still provides enough cover, some drops can be heard. Therapy for the eyes and ears, I inhale deeply. It is addictive, restoring the senses →natural(ly) The smell of the forest floor, I’ve known it since my youth, its familiar, comforting, but not always the same, sometimes herby, sometimes mushroomy. I wonder why we never gave those experiences specific names. When I think about it, I don’t have a word to describe the current visual spectacle. Senescence, despite its somewhat negative connotation as aging process, does have a nice ring to it. The world senescencesinging all around me.

Tomorrow I deal with the whiteness of milk again, next week I will write about production stress,  but for now, golden colors take the stage, what more do you need? Well, I am glad there are enough colorful fresh vegetables to feed the stomach as well as the eyes.

It is an emotional moment when two people promise each other to love each other and one of them is your son. I see them, I hear them. 

We cannot touch or smell…separated in space and the digital interface….nonetheless a special moment, thankful for being a part in his, their lives. Two people becoming something bigger than their separate selves. Being citizens of different countries adds another, but fortunately not an insurmountable, layer.

Children and parents… we take time to raise our children and it is wonderful to see how they become sensible adults.

While consumed by these thoughts and sentiments it is all the more painful to read the story about 545 migrant children who were separated from their parents as part of U.S. border policies. Their parents were deported back to their homecountrsies and cannot be located.  

Not surprisingly, this policy, so-called ‘zero tolerance’ that started in 2017 has raised alarm around the world, in part because it  violates international human rights law. The right to family life and family unity is laid out in numerous provisions in international human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law. These laws were generally adopted by the United Nations in 1948 in response to the atrocities that occurred during the Second World War. 

The practice of separating children from their parents is not an incidental practice unfortunately. In recent history, for about 100 years, from late 19th into 20th century, it was formal U.S. government policy to forcibly remove indigenous children from their homes to attend Indian boarding schools. A practice that was not limited to the United States but enforced in numerous places around the world. It continued far beyond (late 20th century) the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It raises a very uneasy question: what is the definition of being human? Who can claim those rights, the right to share your life with the people you care for and care for you?

Our current health crisis makes us blatantly aware how important it is, not only to see and hear each other, but also to touch and smell, to be together.

At the end of the previous century I got married. In Las Vegas. No, it is not a joke, we loved each other and just moved to the States; we decided to roll the dice. We bought an old car and if the car could make the trip, our love would be sealed. It did. Except our son, none of our family or friends were there to celebrate with us physically, but…it was an exciting time and everyone we invited across the world could follow the ceremony on webcam from the Little White Chapel. 1999. Although we broke up our marriage along the way, online, we are still friends. Now our son is getting married, times have changed. We have come a long way in our digital development, we are used to connect through screens. Yet the current corona crisis makes it blatantly clear how much we need physical contact. We won’t be able to attend our son’s wedding, but at least we can follow the ceremony online.

We have learned and gotten used to communicating using digital tools via digital devices, interfaces dividing our physical beings. Yet when our physical beings are geographically separated we can simulate physical closeness via our digital devices. Worlds apart, worlds reshuffled. I started using online teaching tools in the first years of the 21st century and the ability to create and analyze large amounts of data was pretty cool, but soon something started to trouble me, online communication was not so easy and what about all this data, did it become digital diarrhea? What about digital sustainability?  We thought the digital would provide a representation of the physical world, only better., augmented. It is not. Our online worlds, ruled by digital tools and devices are differently coded than our physical worlds. 

Don’t get me wrong; it is wonderful to be able to connect to different worlds, taking different perspectives never before possible. I am glad I can attend the wedding digitally, although I would have preferred to be there in physical person. 

Then again, the digital world is not a copy, it is not a replacement, experiences in the physical world are radically different than one’s that can be had in digital/virtual environments. The digital pollution is real, impacting our health. So enjoy the digital, but beware, embrace the physical, just not as much at the moment.

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(18)30221-3/fulltext

https://www.nature.com/articles/srep14914

The day went by without me even knowing, apparently September 29 was declared by the UN as the first ever observance of the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. How did I miss this, while my current daily work is all about food. 

A learning experience. Due to some personnel changes,  for a hopefully short time, I am the informal leader of the dairy production team at the farm where I work. As I told you in earlier postings, this is a biodynamic farm, community supported, which means we engage in direct marketing. This is great, and the way to go for the future if you ask me. 

An interesting experience indeed. I am mostly involved in the ‘white line’, yoghurt and fresh cheeses, which means the ‘road’ from source, the milk from the cows in the barn next to the dairy to consumer is very direct and the challenge each week is to produce enough to supply all the stores and coops with the variety of products they desire, but not too much that products remain too long in our cooling room and pass their ‘sell by date’. Food waste is what we want to avoid. Fortunately, most of the time, everything is eaten, by customers and by our farm community. 

The farm is doing well. The number of members has rapidly risen over the last few years. A good thing, customers are becoming more aware in general of the importance of organic food. The area farmed has also increased, a sign of the times. Many farms in the region can no longer manage, they still want their fields to be worked, to have organically worked fields is even advantageous, from an environmental standpoint obviously, but also from a financial standpoint in farm subsidies received. The farm therefor has an opportunity to expand its reach. Good, but also challenging.

Customers have changed. Or maybe it is only natural that the larger the customer base, the harder it is to have direct contact with everyone personally. Customers have changed nonetheless, and our work is much more supply and demand than it was before. The stores and the coops send in their order each week and we try to honor that. Yet it is also the case that all our products are intricately linked and this is not always communicated: We take the cream off before we make hard cheese, the cream is used to make butter. From the butter making process comes butter milk, as a ‘waste’ product. We make quark, from the quark making process we take off the cream, this is the sour cream. If we don’t make quark because of low demand, we take the cream from the cheesemaking process, it is also sour, but that means we make less butter. Making cheese also results in another waste product, the whey, it is mostly eaten by the pigs on the farm, but even they have a limit. The best product for me is yoghurt, hands down, no waste products, and relatively quick turn-around. At home, I make yoghurt cheese from left-over yoghurt, it keeps a long time and I mix it will all things, sweet or savory. 

The hard cheeses on the other hand, even though they can be stored for a long time, also need a lot of work, wash and turn, twice weekly. In short, more people eating organic products is a good thing, the challenge is to create awareness about production, shelf life and how to minimize waste and overconsumption.

Meeting the challenge of producing ‘just enough’ is not easy!

And this is as much as a problem as is the problem of people going hungry, or having access only to unhealthy food. It is the paradox of our current world, we can produce enough healthy food to feed the world, yet too much in one place, too little in another is our current conundrum. 

But if you have ever been involved in growing food, where people work hard for little pay, FOOD WASTE HURTS.

I believe in the system of direct marketing, to supply people with healthy food choices as well as to minimize food waste. Efforts to develop local food systems, support small and local growers, even though it may not always seem the optimum economic choice, I believe is the way to empower communities, to mitigate climate challenges and minimize over exploitation. It is not just a production or distribution problem. 

Inform yourself on all things food, too much too little, just enough, we can do this, together.

https://viacampesina.org/en/

https://terramadresalonedelgusto.com/en/

https://www.un.org/en/observances/end-food-waste-day

Volatile times, we are all affected to more or lesser degree, be it the virus, social inequality, environmental disaster, isolation, the list goes on. Retaining a sense of balance is always important but especially now. 

Hearing sounds is essential for keeping your balance, not just any sound, continuous background noise is most helpful, people use sounds like white noise to help unconsciously create a mental image of the environment to keep ourselves grounded. My favorite white noise is green noise.

Losing my thoughts under the trees, getting in sync with the leaves, I remember what R. Murray Schafer wrote in his book The Soundscape, the tuning of the world, originally published in 1977. Each tree, because of the shape and configuration of its leaves creates a unique sound, suddenly the canopy above me is a giant instrument, a green symphony. Listen, find some trees to ground yourself

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200312142303.htm

Listening to remastered Prince, relevant as ever. 

Signs of the times…

Marked by the equinox last week we  transitioned into autumn at my location. Amazing how the leaves suddenly start to turn color., temperatures drop, drizzly rain falls.  The cows are still grazing outside, but the quality of the grass is no longer sufficient and their diet is supplemented with silage. For us cheesemakers (my current manifestation) this means we can no longer make a type of mountain cheese. No no, no real mountains here, but this type of cheese is made when cows spend their days outside, meadowing. When making this cheese, different bacteria are responsible for acidification (lactose turns to lactic acid), they get active at higher temperatures, making the curd drier, the cheese can ripen longer and get a stronger taste. Bergkase season is over…that is, we will take care of them the whole winter long in the cellar, the living rinds, who like the dark and cooler places.

Taking in the fresh air, the forest floor still covered in last year’s leaves, soon a new layer will be added, the moist smell of mushrooms sprouting up. I pick up a black acorn, mmm, looks different. Turns out this is not an exotic species, but a sign of stress, dry times earlier this year probably caused the immature seeds to die mid-growth. Drought, another sign of our times.

Dung beetles are having a field day, but hey, there is enough room for them to roam around. So I am surprised when I look down to see these two get in each other’s way, butting heads, a power struggle for what? Maybe I am missing something, mmm sign of the times? 

“The image of lost civilizations is compelling; cities buried by drifting sands or tangled jungle, ruin and desolation where once there were people and abundance.” No this is not a recent news headline, but the opening sentence of Joseph Tainter’s book on the collapse of complex societies, published in 1988 and one of my favorite books in my early archaeology days. Tainter continues: “How could flourishing civilizations have existed in what are now such devastated circumstances? Did people degrade the environment, did the climate change, or did civil conflict lead to collapse…the implication is clear: civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.”

Interestingly, his book is an important one of only a handful I know on the topic. Maybe the reason for this is that we try to ignore this reality and assume, like Tainter states, that we prefer to “believe that modern civilization, with its scientific and technological capacity, its energy sources, and its knowledge of economics and history, should be able to survive whatever crisis ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable. We prefer to study the development of societies to ever more complexities, Societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. For instance the Romans ‘solved’ the problem of declining agricultural production in the face of its rising population by conquering neighbors and appropriate their energy surplus. Such practices of imperialism and colonialism are still the order of the day, a mainstay of human history.

Reading the news these days makes you wonder how long it will take before balance of power will shift, when will current societies implode. For long, the western world could divert attention away from climate change effects, from social inequalities, but this year seems different, global pandemic, and rampant wildfires hit close to everybody’s home. People ordered to stay home, people forced to move. 

While resourced depleted, a common characteristic behavior of societies in decline is what is known as conspicuous consumption, making a show of wealth, of what is left, to display confidence of economic and political power. 

Waking up on Sunday morning and opening the paper then, two articles that immediately catch my eye.

The first is an article in a series on climate crisis migration, and this time focused on migration from within the US, raising the question, where will people go?

mu last flight during COID times, from New York to Amsterdam…

Apparently people go nowhere, The second article is maybe even more shocking. As we are all made aware that our flying behavior is a major cause of or our rising temperatures, some people miss the flying very much that  airlines have successfully begun to offer flights that return to the same place as it departs from. 

I hardly dare to ask: the Collapse of Complex societies, are we experiencing it in action?

My window is not very big. In fact there are two side by side, each 70 by 120 cm in size, opening up two ways, from the middle I can open them up by pulling inside, or I can slant them from the top. I am on the first floor, or second floor if you are American. My writing table is in front of the window, perfect for viewing the world outside from where I sit.  The roof from the ground floor extends out from my window and is covered in succulent vegetation. It gives the idea of a garden of about 5 meters beyond which I see trees and some open green. Right in front is a weeping birch tree. The top of the tree must have been cut when the tree was young, making the tree look a bit truncated with some top branches going sideways. The top trunk now forms a little platform where birds can perch. Mostly ordinary pigeons.

Pigeons. As a young adult living in Amsterdam, pigeons on Dam square were both characteristic and annoying  My current window provides another perspective. Maybe it says more about the absence of excitement at my current location, but I find the pigeons quite entertaining. When they take off from the platform, they flap hard and loud, ascending at about 30 degree angle, when they reach a certain speed, still in my view, they dive down, same angle to the height they started off from, then the flapping/dive cycle is repeated. It makes me smile, my view of pigeons forever changed. It goes to show, it is good to change your window on the world every now and then. 

It reminds me when I first realized exactly how important this is. I was the same young adult, studying what was then called, Pre-Columbian archaeology, fascinated by the incredible cultures, art and architecture of the Americas, intrigued by a book on Andean astronomy, called “At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky, by Gary Urton. It was incredible to read but difficult to understand, especially since it was Southern Hemisphere, different constellations. More importantly, the current night sky in light-polluted northern Europe is not very spectacular, what did I know.* I read about the Milky Way and other constellations, and thought this was metaphoric or myth material, not kidding. Only a little while later, setting up my tent on the rim of the Grand Canyon, in anticipation of descending the next day, darkness falls, there it is: the Milky Way in full glory. [expletives here]

window dreaming

Not to downplay my small window, it is great to appreciate the small stuff, the pigeons, the details, to question possible connections. But WOW, is it good to get the Big Picture, if only every now and then. 

Of course, the Milky Way is a metaphor, it refers to the galaxy that contains our solar system, the name derives from how the spiral band of stars appears to our view from Earth, it is certainly not the only name for this phenomenon.** The real milky way is where I am now, from cows to Kaserei, where I make cheese and yoghurt and gaze out from my little window to the world. 

The milk way, from the milking tank, into the milk tank.


**Milky Way elsewhere:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_names_for_the_Milky_Way


*Germany had its own spectacular culture, and ancient map of the stars, its antiquity still a matter of debate: 
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/13/science/nebra-sky-disk.html?surface=home-discovery-vi-prg&fellback=false&req_id=675307139&algo=identity&imp_id=921497973&action=click&module=Science%20%20Technology&pgtype=Homepage

I am near a stopover landing site, of geese that is, Anser anser. The geese fly back and forth, landing in a field nearby, for the time being, fueling up. Or, who knows, since ‘climate change’ has also changed migration patterns. Warm winter weathers are a lot closer to their summer breeding grounds these days.

First I hear the quack and honk, then I watch them fly over in V formation. I wonder, will they stay here or still make their trek further south, to Spain. Climate change has changed something else. Here in northern Europe, agricultural landscapes have expanded, providing the geese with easy accessible food. The geese thrive; socio-ecological conflicts ensue. 

Even though none of this is their fault, they pay the price. Man hunts geese. Men like birds, but not when they get on their turf, they should stay in areas we have set aside as designated ‘natural landscapes.’

I look out from my window, resting from long days of turning milk into milk products.  Staring into the green canopy cover bordering agricultural lands is relaxing after long days of white fluid. The fields are mainly to feed the cows, the geese join the dish. From my little window on the world, it is possible to get an idea of the complexity of it all. I am eating less and less of it. 

My window view is pretty green, watching clouds bobbing over the tree canopy to  keep us all moisturized. Evening clouds, the low angle of the sun in the northern hemisphere can turn this view into dramatic scenes in this otherwise peaceful rural village, where cows moo and deer bleat and bellow. The tree canopy already turned black, the sun’s energy reflecting from the atmospheric scenery into dark blues and blazing reds. 

greyclouds

redclouds

Trees, majestic beings, pumping moisture around our globe continuously, almost quietly, forming clouds that can be transported by circulating winds. All the while their trunks record what happened during their lifetime, collectively forming the prototype BIG data that we have learned to read and interpret to a certain extent through the science of dendrochronology and dendroclimatology. The number of rings can give us an idea how old they are, the thickness of the rings providing us some information on how fast they were growing, the temperature/moisture relationships at the time of growth. Archival beings, even though they stand up straight, non-violent, they get into trouble sometimes. Forest Fires. Wildfires have happened throughout their lifetime, it can form scars on their trunks and become part of their archive. Trees have adapted to minimize trouble. Some trees, like the cork oak, are protected by their fire retardant bark. Heat and low moisture conditions can makes sparks fly and ignite a local fire, but after a burn, new life can rise from the ashes.

sicily

Ever since plants started to grow on the Earth’s land surfaces, fires have been part of the game, it happens in the thin boundary layer where the Earth interacts with its atmosphere,  influencing Earth’s ecosystems since at least 420 million years ago, when our atmosphere reached oxygen levels high enough for spontaneous combustion to take place, ignited by  lightning and other sources. 

Wild fires burn commonly through the understory, leaving mature trees scarred, but living. The burn scars, combined with tree ring data, present a record of wildfire behavior. 

scar

“Natural forests are not a continuous expanse of old trees. Forest fires create a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas, shaping the species composition and the age distribution of the forest. Fires open up the tree canopy, letting light in, releasing nutrients to the understory, and aiding regrowth. Charcoal changes soil structure, and charred tree trunks become habitats of great importance for the biological diversity of the forest—both above and below ground. Many rare species, especially fungi and insects, depend on the variation forest fires create”, according to scientists from the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy research. 

Fast forward, wildfires are raging around the globe today like never before, hotspots like Australia, California, Brazil, Indonesia and Portugal,  leading to record loss of tree cover. Not only that, their function to absorb heat trapping gasses when they are alive, turns around to emit those gases, contributing to more heat, spiraling in troublesome direction.

What is new, the atmosphere has changed over time and there were probably times with more vegetation and more oxygen for sure. It is hard to know, since we have only started to keep instrumental records since a little over a hundred years, when we also started with fire management, preventing wildfires to keep our population safe from fire hazards and concentrate our trees in tree stands, like reservations. This has however lead to a strange situation. Many of today’s forest reserves have never been as unnatural as they are today, which, it turns out, is burning our forests in novel, ‘truly unusual’ ways, burning into the canopies.  How do we know…?

Fire anthropologist (yes anthropologists are a varied bunch) Roos and his colleague Swetnam constructed a model to analyze 1500 years of climate and fire patterns. Droughts and rising temperatures have been part of that record and mega fires like our present ones, could have possible happened, yet they didn’t. They suggest that over the last century, live stock grazing and firefighting, which in combination have created more dense forests that are more vulnerable than ever to extreme droughts. 

 I enjoy my green view, fully aware that I am in ‘cow land’ where grazing lands, are interspersed with forest stands, well managed, tree reservations. The last few years summer droughts have caused problems already, and summer temperatures are rising to heights that we have never measured before since we started measuring in the early 20th century. Like many things in our modern lives, trees are managed and manipulated. Trees know better, reservations are not a good idea.

https://phys.org/news/2017-03-fire-scarred-trees-years-natural-cultural.html

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120516120304.htm 

https://www.globalforestwatch.org

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. 

map

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.

pot

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.

cup

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. 

Brandon:  http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/dutch-capitalism-and-slavery 

https://foodispower.org/our-food-choices/coffee/

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/26/us/border-wall-cactuses-arizona.html?searchResultPosition=1 

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?

EV.001

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. 

EV.002

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. 

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2014.1195 

https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2018/06/motivation 

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.

AUg11colorwave copy

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.

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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. 

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/06/climate/climate-change-inequality-heat.html 

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.

rainJapan

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/  

bellpepper.001

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…

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