Archives for category: temporary nest

As we all watch closely what will happen in Glasgow this week, even though, at least in my direct circle, no earth shattering results are anticipated. All too good, we know something has to happen, all too well, we are used to this rhetoric for a while now and goals have never been met, why would something different happen this time. Are we all numb? Is there hope, can we change our individual behaviors to collectively set a different direction in motion?

Friesland. When I returned from Finland a couple of weeks ago,  a number of changes happened in the land. The potatoes were harvested and maybe already on their way to Africa. Certain birds have left, others have come, some are in transit, while others may stay the winter. Apparently, changing temperatures have made this area a final destination instead of a stopover to their winter residencies. Geese. In some places, this has already caused problems for local farmers, but people are adapting to these new immigrants, some sparks of inspiration. The lapwing is also here in numbers but maybe they are just more visible in the now harvested, barren fields. But harvest season is still in full swing, sugar beets, the other major crop in the Netherlands.  Signs everywhere warning for mud splattered roads are part of the picture. Sugar? 

Our dependency on oil and gas is one thing, Sugar is a whole different ball-game, in a way.

Sugar in natural form as part of fruits, vegetables, and dairy is part of our diet, providing energy, Then there is refined sugar, the other white gold. Widely consumed. It is not a requirement in our diet at all, in fact, the oppositie can be argued to be true.* Added sugar in our diets causes many health problems and a debate continuous whether sugar should be considered to be toxic, or even an addictive drug, like say, cocaine. So, SUGAR, WHY on earth do we produce this?

And… Why is it that sugar is still produced in such quantities, even though it is known to be a major health risk. And why are markets growing, making even more people sugar dependent.  It is the wrong direction for anything that is advocated in official policies, notably from the World Health Organization. To top it off, the history of sugar production is a dirty one, and why should we continue by making more people ‘addicts’ of this unnecessary consumable.

Sugar beets are one of two major sources of refined sugar in the world today. Sugarcane, the dominant source is cultivated in the warmer regions. It has a long history and not so pretty, and fueled by slavery. Sugarcane, originally was chewed for its sweet energy. To produce sugar from this raw source, however, is not soo easy. I can even say from experience, since my first job in Okinawa, Japan was to cut sugarcane. The history as a global commodity is closely related to the history of slavery, sugarcane cultivation in the Southern United States especially., and the market is ever growing.  Sugar consumption, according to industry records, goes up 0.7% on average per year, and fast growing markets like Africa and Asia even increase from about 1.5 to 3% per year. This is attributed to rising populations, higher incomes, and changing diets.

Worldwide, many populations consume sugars at levels that exceed the WHO’s sugar guideline, such as Brazil, Canada, South Africa, the UK and the USA. Sugar consumption is growing, especially in low- and middle- income countries. The global consumption of sugar amounted to 172.6 in 2018/2019, and is projected to increase to about 171.8 million metric tons by 2020/2021. With the increase in world trade, better agricultural technology, among other reasons, sugar is cheaper and more widely available than ever. Almost three quarters of global sugar consumption each year takes place in developing countries. This overconsumption of sugar is taking place in the context of a cheap and abundant supply of sugar on the world market.

Even in wealthy countries as the Netherlands, where ‘healthy aging’ is high on the political agenda, it is estimated by the diabetes funds, that each adult sugar intake exceeds daily recommendation by 30%, for children this number is 80%. Approximately 60% of adults and 90% of the children do not comply with WHO guidelines. 

Although not the biggest player in the world sugar market (that one is reserved for sugarcane), the role of Sugar beets is structurally rising. This is also a result of a recent policy change.  In 2017 the EU abolished its sugar quotum; no more restrictions to the amount of sugar that can be produced in the EU. This also means that valuable agricultural land is used for sugar beet cultivation, a crop that is delivers no health benefits for humans, and depletes the soil. The economy the likely benefactor, even though this may pertain to a tiny segment of the population. For most of us, sugar is instant gratification with ill after effects.

Hopefully, COP26 will address our energy production and consumption in intelligent ways, Net Zero is high on the agenda, it is time, to include our other energy sources in this discussion as well, ones that are bad for our soils and bad for our health, Sugar is a big one.

As I commute on the train I pass the sugar factory, from field to table, I am in the midst of it, -sugar-high – bio desert, abstaining as best I can. Lucky for me I never had a sweet tooth.

* Now it has become known that early Harvard studies were paid by the sugar industry to blame fat for our health problems. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/13/493739074/50-years-ago-sugar-industry-quietly-paid-scientists-to-point-blame-at-fat?t=1635862732160 

In transit

Crossing the arctic circle. This time going south, returning from a short, but intense two-week field-trip in northern Finland. As part of a small group of artists and scientists we followed a geologic layer that exposes 540 million year old trace fossils to our modern eyes.  Traces of burrowing animals that lived on the Baltica, when Baltica was not Baltica and still located near the opposite pole. Contemplating the space-time depth is mind boggling. 

Finland, Kilpisjarvi September 2021

The landscape we traverse is overwhelmingly beautiful. It is also inhospitable, yet humans have lived in this region for thousands of years and the Sami continue to do so. It is confronting. Questions arise, about our relationship with these past life forms, with the current landscape and everything in between, discussions ensue. Life and death. Despite this overwhelmingness, the physically demanding trip inspires and excites us.

Friesland, October 2021

Back home and trying to makes sense of it all. I read an article in the Sunday paper about a plant infected with a certain parasite that then stays in a state of perpetual adolescence, in essence it never grows old. It seems like a dream for our modern society, eternal youth.

I speak on the phone to one of my Finland team members, we talk about how we miss the intensity of trip, the feeling of the body on alert, the senses sharpened. How we prefer to rather live short and intense than long and uneventful, if we had to choose. 

https://bioartsociety.fi/projects/arc-hive/posts/field-notes-2021-traces

Pasteurization, heat-treatment process that destroys pathogenic microorganisms in certain foods and beverages.

Pasture-ization, expansion of grazing areas, pasture lands, usually at the expense of forest land. (Pasture: from the Latin pastus, past participle of pascere, “to feed”)

Some birds that I don’t see when I walk through the fields, or even associate with meadow lands, somehow find my backyard. Right now a number of jays (Garrulus) are visiting, they can be loud, but I like them very much. Just like the woodpecker, who was hammering away on the dead tree early summer, and makes a come-back every now and then, to feed, I believe, under the bark, but also on the larger blooming plants, the great mullein. I wonder how the birds find these backyard oases in the sea of green pasture and cultivated fields. 

I read an article in the New York Times, “Searching for Bird Life in a Former ‘Ocean of Forest” . Far away from the Frisian fields, the theme is similar. The article reports about a project of a group of local  researchers in Colombia who collect birds and data to study how birds have responded to changes in land use and climate. They are able to do this because a little over a century ago a collector, Miller, from the American Museum of Natural History arrived in the eastern foothills of the the Andes to do the same thing. Miller collected more than 800 birds. Since that time the land has changed from ‘an ocean of forest’ to “mere islands in a sea of pasture”. The Colombian research group had a hard time finding a forested area large enough to sustain the kind of birdlife, Miller had been so easy to find.

Many bird families are missing, antbirds among them, a species that avoids exposure to sunlight…

Pasturization –high exposure to sunlight, a heat treatment process that can cause the disappearance of certain members of an ecosystem

I go to bed early. At around 1am I wake up, the winds are ferocious. My window is always open, secured by the screen window that holds the glass windows in place.  I enjoy the gentle flow of fresh air that reaches through my sleeping area. The trees that enclose my backyard are full blown in the open field as the yard is on the outer ring of the little village. A few big oaks, maple, beech and apple trees sway and swing. I love the sound, even though it keeps me awake for a while. I think about “TheSoundscape, our sonic environment and the tuning of the world” written by R.Murray Schafer in 1977. A book that, when I first read it, changed my being in this world. One idea  discussed in the book, is that each tree creates its own specific soundtrack, based on the organization and shape of its leaves; becoming aware of it makes that you never ignore the trees in your surrounding. 

Schafer put sound on ‘the map’ and I was sad to hear about his passing a few weeks ago. Sound as a source of knowledge, as a means of communication at all levels. 

Trees in the northern Frisian landscape beyond my backyard, a landscape that would be a delta if not for the dykes along the coast. Flatland, grassland, the trees are an anomaly. Villages and Isolated farmhouses cordoned by trees, to break the wind. Traversing the land on my bike I always wonder why there are so little trees along the roads to make it a little easier. When one of my neighbors tells me about the Dutch Elm disease that decimated the tree population, I begin to understand. It is so, it is not easy, and it lead to the formation of the tree watch, can organization to manage and prevent the die back of trees in the region. Since the 1990’s the Elm has been hit hard. Elm trees were then replaced by Ash trees, a managerial decision. Ash trees were thereafter hit by a fungus, going by the beautiful name of Chalara fraxinea, that since 2012 invaded the ash tree population in the region. Transported by wind, Chalara settles on all parts of the Ash, where it feeds freely. 

It sounds all too familiar, forest management and reforestation through planting of fast growing species, often those that take over native species, and/or deplete resources. Short-term thinking. What we need is diversity, not just to keep keep parasitic behavior in check. Somehow it remains a difficult concept, especially in policy. 

The wind has died down, I doze off, arboreal whispers linger on…important messages transpire. 

https://www.bomengids.nl/2015/soortenUK.html

https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalara_fraxinea

On Wednesday I watched the premiere of the film Glory Days (Hoogtij Dagen) by Dutch film maker Ben van Lieshout at Eye filmmuseum in Amsterdam. It is a film about the Soviet times of the Kola Peninsula, situated at the extreme northwest of Russia, bordering Norway and Finland on its western end, its territory almost completely within the Arctic Circle.

The region has a long occupation history, but the focus in the film is on the glory days of the industrial development of the Soviet Union and its subsequent decline. The vibe of optimism can still be felt in the stories of people interviewed by van Lieshout, when the industrial complex took off  at the beginning of the 20th century, as a result of the discovery of premium industrial resources, such as apatite, nickel, nuclear power, aided by strategic position of Murmansk as the ice free coast. As a consequence of this exploitation however, the peninsula suffered major ecological damage and since the end of the Soviet Union, that particular industry is no longer supported like it was before. The economy went into decline, leaving a generation that is hoping their children will move elsewhere. Not all of them do. The film shows mainly the aftermath of a disillusioned older generation, and despite efforts of rebuilding the industrial economy in different ways, ecologically damaging production still continues. Besides the resource industry, another source of new income is spurred by the rise of “dark tourism,’ referring to tourism that involves travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy. As one hotel sign in the film proudly advertises ‘view on the smelters’.

The film shows a young man, who is content in the job he was offered as the director of an elementary school. A scene of playing children on a playground amidst the apartment blocks and a shot of children’s drawings shows that not all is desperate. And while the film focuses on people who moved here in the early 20th century, attracted by new opportunities, the drawings shown in the scene all depict Sami lifestyle and a Sami flag. Kildin Sami have lived in this region for the longest time. 

Absence of mention of Sami in the film is poignant, but not unexpected, as Indigenous peoples everywhere have been neglected, their rights been violated customarily. People have lived in the Kola Peninsula for a long time, especially the northern part, at least since a the 7th millennium, but by the 1st millennium only the Sami people remained. This changed beginning in the 12th century when Pomor traders became aware of the richness of natural resources, such as fish, and gradually the region became an appropriated part of Novgorodian lands. The Sami were forced to pay tribute to the Novgorodian republic as well as their Scandinavian neighbors, when a border between Novgorodian and Scandinavian countries became necessary,  and was formalized in a number af treaties, When the Novgorodians started to establish permanent settlements on the peninsula during the 16th century, the Sami were forced into serfdom, but traditional ways were shared within the community.

It was not until the Soviet period (1971-1991) that radical change occurred; rapid population increase, industrialization, militarization and urbanization.  At first, because of a focus on peasant-centered society  the state implemented laws that encouraged the development and protection of Sami language and culture, but this changed  during the Stalinist era. At that time the Sami people were subject to forced collectivization, (communal and collective farming), and relocation. The largest concentration of Sami people today live in villages around Lovozero, in the Murmansk region. The foundation of the Arctic Council was an important step in the acknowledgement of indigenous rights across the Arctic region, but challenges remain. 

Other than the earlier settlements and repressive government, the Soviet developments eventually led to ecological disasters, with new towns that were named after the mined resources, Nikel, Apatite in addition to natural gas winning and military, nuclear, development that had sparked economic optimisms in Cold War times.

It was not just the economic and the arms race, but also science was subject of fierce competition during the Cold War. One in particular, was won by the Russians. The story of the Kola Super Deep Borehole SG-3 features prominently in the film by van Lieshout. The scientific drilling project attempted to drill as deep as possible into the Earth’s crust. The project, largely forgotten, started in 1970, reaching its deepest point – 12,262 m-  in 1989 (about one third into the Baltic Shield).  Some interesting findings resulted from the research, such as  the discovery of large quantities of hydrogen gas and microscopic plankton fossils at 6 km deep. The project was abandoned in 2008 due to unprofitability. Up until this day, it is the deepest manmade hole in terms of depth below surface.

Removed from our regular gaze, it is time to pay more attention again to what is happening within the Arctic Circle. ‘Glory days’ may not be over yet. Sources of our energy dependency are abundant, as are sources of our ecological downfall. 

https://arctic-council.org/en/

Russian oil and gas – https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/SNAME/3383113f-3070-4ddd-acd4-504418eb35a9/UploadedImages/Files/2019/Russian_Arctic_OG_Developments_SNAME_Arctic__Oct_2019_-02.pdf

From the field

I wake up around 4 in the morning, I know because the church bells toll, the cows know, they are restlessly moo-ing in the barn on the other side of the church. changing weather, lighting …thunder, coming our way, more changes to come. Beyond our imagination? Is the question. I know cows are smarter than we usually think, and wonder if they would move away if given the chance. The new IPCC report crosses my mind, climate change will spare none of us is the general gist. Nothing to be optimistic about, downfall imminent. For, the last half decade, economic profit has been prioritized in any decision making. Who says humans are the smart ones.

 I think about  the fields around the small village,, some of the potato plants strangely orange- brown, prematurely dying leaves, but also efforts to incorporate places for meadow birds further afield, awareness is growing, finally.  And the fields spark a memory, my first dissertation research topic that never made it … 

From the ‘archives’

It seems research was more straightforward back in the days, but maybe that is a twisted form of nostalgia. Study a topic and making sure you read all the dominant contributors in the field, the pro and contra of the angle you wish to pursue. Now there is so much information available and the connections endless, but has helped us to finally acknowledge that our role in the changing climate is undeniable. Denial has been a long-term strategy, one that the biggest polluters have used ever since the first clear signs of our (self)-destructive behavior became apparent in the 1970’s. 

It is not that civilizations have never declined, they all do, this time however it is at global scale. In fact, my initially proposed research focused on a cause of decline around 1450 AD of the site of Casas Grandes/Paquime in the Chihuahuan desert in present day, Northern Mexico. I wished to test an idea, of then recently published  scientific research on how a certain size of field of mono-culture crop, would cause local atmospheric circulation (read: rainfall patterns) to change, a tipping point of size. If true, this would not only contribute to archaeological research, but would have implications for modern day agriculture. The proposal was denied, vague reasons, and I went on to do something else controversial. The eerie thing was that the research I based my idea on, disappeared from the records. 

At first I thought it was a fluke, until I began to read about similar cases. First in the book Cradle to Cradle, and I began to suspect that whenever science and especially certain scientist made headway into real change, a different way of thinking about our future, they were stopped in their tracks. Corporate funding krept into science, research embedded in the neoliberal program. It is not a happy thought. I have no idea how this plays out globally, I am not optimistic, but not desperate either. 

I recently returned to a research institute. As an archaeologist I am trained to create stories of other (past) worlds based on limited clues. I will offer my skills not in the archaeology department this time, but in art and design. Speculative design will be my focus, imagining other worlds, not just for our shared future, but parallel ones that have always been here, but ignored mostly. It will be even possible to imagine worlds where fields were never large scale mono-crop. where other cultural accomplishments not simply crushed and ignored, but nurtured into different ideas and hypotheses, different, pluralistic sciences. I gladly accept this assignment. Reverse Pluricide! 

La via Campesina – Artists for Food Sovereignty 

As a fan of running, hiking, camping and organic farming, I’ve always been conscious of the materials I use and carry, the cups, plates, pots and pans. Carry water bottles, first the plastic Nalgene and increasingly, stainless steel, to keep things cool, but also warm, as a preferred material for the thermos. When not hiking lightweight, just staying longer term in different places, I always like yo bring my own ceramic cup, one of my favorites is made from clay from my homeland. It is easy to carry and immediately provides me with a sense of belonging in a new place when I drink coffee from my cup. The cup has a stamp of place of origin. 

But with our consumerism on a rollercoaster, lately I more and more question the provenance of raw materials, even, or maybe, especially, the presumed sustainable ones. Resources that may not be exhausted anytime soon, like sand, soil, but are non-renewable nonetheless. Clay, the source for ceramics, stainless steel, the only chromite mine in Europe for instance is located in Finland (Kemi Mine). No problems yet, but still gets me thinking about which materials to use. How nice would it be to have information about the production life of each object, such as with my organic vegetables. Each week, my vegetable bag comes with information of the farm(s) they were grown. 

The cup and tiles from Makkum, the Netherlands, the thermos from my time at the National Park Service but no idea where the material comes from, the mat is Japanese, actually a small, comfortable, seat.

Biking around in my neighborhood, the material to use would be the Frisian clay, sea or river clay, and traditional  ceramic and porcelain is still made in the region. But there is something else, something more ephemeral, the flax, and the rustling reed along the fields, material that can be used to make basketry, a local craftsman demonstrates his skill of making duck baskets. Although very nice, I am reminded of the most beautiful baskets from the archaeological record I know, woven more than 1000 years ago. It is hard to stamp with a mark like in clay, but then basketry can be woven into such beautiful designs to mark their maker(s). Maybe it is time we become more intimate with our surrounding green, and learn some skills. 

Look at these beautiful baskets, incredible skills

https://www.nps.gov/meve/learn/education/artifactgallery_basket.htm

at the local basketmaker (Blija) and local green (below). 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kemi_mine

https://fries-aardewerk.princessehof.nl/index.php?keuze=stichting

Damn climate urgency, it is vacation time, and after year-long lockdowns, vaccinated EU citizens are crossing borders again, plane, trains, and automobiles.

The Green Deal is here and EU countries will have to get serious to meet the goals set forth for cutting emissions, and come up with sustainable solutions.

Just one simple question: How are they actually going to measure who emits what where and when? Taking your car, tent, and family from Germany into Italy, will that count as German emission or Italian emission, is it the car or the atmosphere, the producer, the consumer? Mmmm. It turns out it is not so easy to measure and a lot of ‘creative accounting’ will be part of the process I guess.

Another wrench in the process is that natural emission is not a constant. All in all there currently is no reliable accurate way to measure total global emissions or how much carbon dioxide is coming from individual nations.

Burning coal, oil and gas is CO2 coming from plants long dead, and that is a little different than CO2 emitted by biological processes of today. The difference is the radioactive isotope Carbon-14. I am quite familiar with it, as it is widely used in archaeology to date organic materials, a method developed in the late 1940”s by Willard Libby. The idea behind it is that radiocarbon is constantly created in the Earth’s atmosphere by the interaction of cosmic rays with atmospheric nitrogen. The resulting 14C combines with atmospheric oxygen to from radioactive carbon dioxide, which gets taken up by plants via photosynthesis and then eaten by animals. When the plant or animal dies it stops exchanging carbon with its environment and then the amount of 14C begins to decrease. The half-life (half of a given sample is decayed) is about 5730 years. (other elements have different half-life rates of radioactive isotopes). 

Fossil fuels are OLD. They contain no radioactive carbon. As a result, beginning int the late 19th century, there was a noticeable drop in the proportion of 14C as the carbon dioxide generated  from burning fossil fuels began to accumulate in the atmosphere. Experiments are now underway to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in parcels of air that came from fossil fuel or from current biological processes. We have a long way to go, archaeology of air has become somewhat of an obsession. 

We taught we had tamed this planet. This planet is old, but still in its prime, maybe half-life.

I’m in awe of the beauty of this planet, and confident that when we leave this world we will morph into something else incredible. In the meantime, I keep the sensory channels open. 

https://e360.yale.edu/features/paris-conundrum-how-to-know-how-much-carbon-is-being-emitted

Wind and water morphing rock, a slow process, glacial scale, not something we can wait for in our life time. Sand, long time in the making, nonetheless seems to be abundant. It comes in many forms and colors, depending on the local rock source, but all share a common ingredient, silicon dioxide. It is a non-renewable resource on human time-scale, like other resources we are rapidly consuming. Sand that is used for satisfying our construction hunger, however, is running low. Unlike other scarce resources, sand mining is not well regulated and the total amount we currently extract from riverbeds and coastlines can only be approximated by the amount of concrete used in building activity. A simple rule, of course, would be that sand extraction should not exceed the rate of resupply from upstream, but current use is far beyond that, impacting river flows and ecosystems wherever sand is mined. 

The speed of our current lifestyles feels more like panic than a well thought out strategy or ‘roadmap for the future’. Slow, apparently is not the way to go, even though slow movements, such as slow food are still on the menu. The just presented EU Green Deal policy is focused on reduction of CO2 emissions, economic growth and innovation, all at the same time. Reduction of (over) consumption is nowhere mentioned. The spiral sand trap however is real. Sand is not only used for building construction, but also for reinforcing our coastlines, a challenge that will only get more urgent with depleted coastlines and rising sea levels.

Everything changes, motion is a given, but we can modify the rate and direction.

The way of the rock, contemplating sand. Fluvial and aeolian force, fundamental stuff. The planet keeps spinning,

taking time. 

https://e360.yale.edu/features/the-hidden-environmental-toll-of-mining-the-worlds-sand

It is 1774, and no this is not about Boston, but about Franeker. On May 8, a special configuration of the planets could be observedI in early morning sky in Friesland. Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter were closely lined up, and Eelco Alta, a local pastor predicted that the mutual forces of these planets would throw our home planet out of orbit and would then be burned up by the sun. It caused fear and unrest among the population. It also spurred Eise Eisinga, a wool comber in his daily profession, to start building a planetarium in his living room in Franeker in order to ease the panic. it took him seven years and is the oldest working planetarium in the world. Earth remained in its orbit.

Anxiety about our fate is also a current phenomena, but apparently not unprecedented. That is, anxiety is not new, but the cause of our current anxiety however is unique. Rapid changes is our atmosphere, water and other resources are such that in the foreseeable future, they may no longer support life as we know it. While the previous millennium has been affected by a fair share of regional climatic swings – the Little Ice Age for instance was a period of regional cooling and caused crop failure and famine in different parts of the world, just not all at the same time – our current predicament is a global phenomena.

Over the past 150 years, leading up to the new, current millennium we have burned through the Earth’s energy sources at unprecedented rates as if there is no tomorrow. In the name of sustainability, we use more technological capacity to tap into other sources, that supposedly burn ‘cleaner,’ in order to maintain our achieved standards of living.  Our soils, our oceans, nothing is not a potential ecosystem service, a term that is defined as that “Ecosystems provide services to humankind. Those may involve the provision of a product (e.g. drinking water), a regulatory authority (e.g, pollination of crops), a cultural service (e.g, providing opportunities for recreation), or a service that supports the services mentioned earlier (e.g the cycle of nutrients in an ecosystem).” It is strange way of thinking, as “this world was made for you and me.” * Sounds pretty arrogant. Even if considered from a capitalist system way of thinking, when a service is provided you should receive something of equal value in return. We failed to do just that.

Unlike the previous millennium, our current climatic challenges are caused largely by our own behavior. The good news is, if we are the cause, we can also provide the solution, that is, if we are willing to change our behavior. Western science has given us incredible insights, but by virtue of being embedded within a capitalist system, it has also guided our paths toward (over) exploitation of resources, of people. Other knowledge systems, non-western science, ancient wisdom has long been neglected, eradicated even, Maya astronomy, to name just one.

What if, I always wonder, these knowledge traditions would not have been so violently disrupted, destroyed by Colonial powers…

Unlike Eise Eisinga, who could built a planetarium to show that the alignment of the planets would not cause our planet to be burned up, we have little in the way of scientific evidence to ease our current concerns and fears. We need to change our values, attitudes and behavior. That is not easy but you can start by reading:

https://www.commonnotions.org/the-red-deal

https://rajpatel.org/category/books/

* https://www.wur.nl/en/Dossiers/file/Ecosystem-services.htm

The potato plants are blooming, but a lot of fertilizing action is going on, dunging the fields, a penetrating smell. When I have my bathroom window open, even my towel smells like, well… shit.  Last Saturday I made a relaxing tour through the countryside, near the Wadden, the delta lands of moist and clay. Cycling on the small farm roads, along fields and ditches, I am happy to see that wild flowers are allowed to grow, lining the road. Up close, the smell suddenly turns sweet, the aromatic molecules are spread through our atmosphere by gentle breeze and fierce winds, subtly contributing to livable air. Removing flowering “weeds” from our surrounding was and is a big mistake. These molecules may turn out to be more important than we think in our survival as a species (Roman Kaiser, Scent of Vanishing Flora).

My goal that Saturday morning is to see some of the flax fields. Flax grows extremely well in the Netherlands, thanks to its wet soils. Unfortunately, due to the rise of synthetic and cotton fabrics, linnen, made of flax, has lost its importance in daily lives and economy. But the need for sustainable practices has spurred on some people to start growing flax again. The Flaxroute in my neighborhood is one such initiative. The fields are small, but a beautiful sight of little blue flowers dancing in the wind awaits me. The individual flowers only open for a day, the total blooming period is a couple of weeks.

A local basket maker explains the old process for me. When the flax fully bloomed it will be cut and the top flower heads threshed to win the flaxseed. The fibers are encased in the woody outer layer and to remove it, the shafts used to be submerged in the ditches to ‘rot away’. This was tricky as too short would not totally remove it, while too long would also rot the fibers. 

When grown in ideal geographical location (like northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands) the cultivation of flax produces no waste. It is a beautiful material, the remaining roots fertilize the soil.

The flowering potato plants have their own charm, but I hope that flax cultivation will expand, as a way toward more sustainable practices in this region. The blue wave is an incredible sight. 

https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/linen-the-original-sustainable-material

I never thought of evolution as action sport until this week. 

Living close to the sea, land and air are moist, the fields are green, most of the time, an oasis, especially for snails. Snails love to eat greens, slowly they make their way around the fields, around the gardens and they don’t stop at the door, leaving slimy trails of  dotted lines wherever they move. Interesting creatures, using their mucus to attach themselves to any surface whatever the direction of gravity it seems, although I have never seen them on the ceiling. 

Like all creatures they have a certain role within their ecosystem, they consume decaying vegetation as well as vegetation in bloom, but are also dinner for animals higher up in the foodweb. They don’t score high on the ‘likability’ index, most people consider them a nuisance to put it mildly and all means are used to eliminate their presence in the precious gardens. Snailbate, also known as molluscicide can be used,  containing something like metaldehyde, not only fatal to the average garden slug, but may also do serious, even fatal damage to your cats and dogs, like a nuclear bomb for the (small world) ecosystem. Snails, maybe not so adorable as a polar bear, but loosing them from our worlds could be disastrous. Like insects and birds, they are disappearing as we speak. 

But who knows, maybe the snails are retaliating, changing their behavior from slow moving mucus trailers to fast spinning slime shooters. This week I was witness to some interesting behavior, snails emulating spiders. Climbing up, they let themselves down via a mucus thread, rappelling freestyle. One I watched coming down from a flower, the other from a window frame, more than a meter high, wondering how they sensed height and especially how they knew their thread would be strong enough to hold until touch down. 

Snails and slugs, known primarily as slow movers, but seem to be fast learners and adapters and can maybe even outsmart the human killing spree. For now I watch in amazement, suspending snails!

I am not the only one who has seen it

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/slug-hanging-slime-spider-australia-b1806341.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FARMERS! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gascon, Friesland

One of the things I have enjoyed living in the rural regions is the bell towers as a sonic cultural network across the land. At the same time, I question the reason for the continuation of this marking of time, the purpose of these regular intervals, in which the people have long been spurred into activity, or collective behavior. Is it comfort? Do we still need these daily reminders of the passage of time? Does it give a sense of community, of belonging? Are we just unskilled in interpreting the movement of our cosmic bodies? Most of us have personal devices anyway to let them know how time passes. 

Living in Italy is the hilly region of the Apennines foothills for a while, I grew accustomed to the bell towers, most of them located on ridges and hilltops, extending the acoustic reach. Depending on where I was in the land, I could hear one or more bells. The closest village, where I would also do my shopping, and work in the fields, had ( and hopefully still has) a special pattern. It could only ring six times, the reason I don’t know. This would mean that ten ‘o clock in the morning would ring four times. It would also ring every fifteen minutes, providing extra codes to the ten o’clock signal, giving it an extra ring at 10:15, two extra rings at 10:30 and three extra rings at 10:45. It was a lot of ringing, requiring a bit of attention as well to decode the exact time. During the day, this was fine, marking exactly how much longer to go in the field before lunchtime, but for a short time I resided in a house near the old plaza and ringing is not limited to daytime business. I’m sure in time, you can get used to the bells and get a good night sleep. On Saturday, Sunday’s and Catholic feast days, the bell towers guided many to the church services. In Italy, it still resonates with (part of) the community.

Fast forward to the Terp villages in NorthEast Friesland, my current location. I am confronted again with the bell towers, distinct features in the landscape, as each village is build around the church, protestant this time. The bells ring until 12, and ring once on the half hour. My first few nights were a bit sleepless, but over time, I’ve grown accustomed and only hear the bells occasionally during the night. Now that I have my bedroom window open on the other side of the house as well, I can also hear the bells in the morning from the neighboring village and I am beginning to appreciate the sounds. The bells I hear are not synchronous, but maybe that is just part of the distance travelled. Sometimes the distant bells go a bit faster, other times slower, sometimes it resonates so beautifully.  Walking through the fields, I can gauge the distance by the sound of the bells between the villages, somewhere they meet, sometimes you find yourself in a sound ‘vacuum.’ This is probably an area where nobody lived in the past.  It is not just distance, but wind, moisture and temperature play in this game as well. I am not sure if the bells still perform their old function of guiding the community to meet in church, but as a cultural network it lives on and resonates beautifully. 

https://www.bells.org/tower-bells

After years of spotty or no connection, my internet connection has been continuous for about a year or so, which makes it possible to stream movies and series after work. Although I try to be modest, every now and then I cannot resist to binge a bit on crime series, and I am always surprised that I often feel sympathy for the bad guy(s). Maybe that is just a testimony to the skills of the makers, or, is it that the line between good and bad is a fine one, or even non-discrete?

Last week’s news presented a real-life case. A ransomware attack crippled a vital fuel pipeline in the US, named the Colonial pipeline. It caused gas prices to go up and a wave of anxious drivers and hoarding behavior. It was a wake-up call how vulnerable our systems actually are. The attack was attributed to a group called Dark Side, operating from eastern Europe, the obvious villain in the story.

With a bit of shame I must admit that I am not sure who is the villain here, and even though Dark Side operates under questionable motives (making money is their game), I did feel a bit of sympathy for the attackers. 

It must be because I have been reading up on the gas exploitation in the northern Netherlands, the profitable fossil fuel market as a whole, that is not going to let us go anytime soon and is causing us, and the world around us so much trouble and devastatingly so in the (near) future. Does this industry, the policy makers who keep supporting them, deserve my sympathy? I don’t think so. 

So what about Dark Side. It seems they are professionals and even have some principles; they attack businesses who possess the financial means to pay the ransom, their goal is to make money, not to create societal problems, and it is forbidden to attack service organization such as healthcare, education, public sector and non-profits. It is secretly not what we would like, for companies that have exploited our lands, our people for so long to finally pay up. 

Not yet, not yet, but I wonder when comes the time, when I, and many of us, change our minds, when the end justifies the means for radical change. 

https://krebsonsecurity.com/2021/05/a-closer-look-at-the-darkside-ransomware-gang/

Wondering about the peculiar aspect of human behavior that seems to cherish our self-destruction, but only as a distant future, a fate that can be averted,  a future that can be shifted to be always on the horizon. Therefore our short-term gains always seem to win over our long term interests, even though we are able to imagine these long-term scenario’s, an ability that is thought to set our species apart from the rest of the living world. It leaves me a bit hopeless about our ability to “transition to a sustainable future” as the slogan goes.  I need something positive right now, gear myself up, to make believe that there is something I can do to change this strange direction in this world, where ‘intention’ seems to be enough to satisfy us, even though our actions communicate a completely different, destructive, message.

I need to find some solace in my surrounding like I always do, after all, I am in a rural place, in a beautiful old house, where the woodpecker wakes me up in the morning. He, maybe I just do the same as we all do, look at the beauty that surrounds us to temporarily forget the looming doom. Looking for intimacy.

My little village is organized radially from the central church location, my house is on the outer ring. Stepping out from my lot I enter the open field, straight horizontal horizons in all directions, interspersed with bell towers and wind mills, of other, similar villages in the region, and the view of the sea dike to the north.

The open land, the agricultural fields, the sweeping cloud formations. Whenever I step out for my much needed walks, I quickly follow my path, it doesn’t really matter which direction I go, the view stays remarkably similar, it is only a matter of wind direction, no nooks, hide-outs, enclosures to envelop me in their comfort. It feels good, yet I don’t feel the urge to halt and take it all in, it is extensive, not intimate (yet). 

I remember other places, whenever I run or hike there are moments when I want to stop, and take in the intimacy of a place, the moment.  Suddenly connected and feeling the relationship with a particular environment in an overwhelming way. These feelings are often sudden and can be quite dramatic, such as a place in Japan, a dense forest enclosure with hanging moss, I stopped and at that moment I realized that this felt like a place I would like to die. The saturated feeling of being completely accepted and integrated in the living community.

Not so in the Frisian fields, where the wind tries to sweep me off my feet. But then there is something else, wait until it gets dark.

Whereas much of the western world is bathing in light pollution, the coastal Frisian zone is dark. So dark, that on cloudless nights is it possible to see the Milky Way on the nearby islands. The scale is different, but intimate nonetheless. I remember sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, where I experienced the Milky Way in its full glory for the first time. I am now looking forward to dark nights and connecting to the world on this path.  Intimacy is not restricted by scale. 

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