Archive for the ‘ecology & restoration’ Category

Living the New Economy

An industrial landscape has dominated the part of Songhees territory known to most people as Vic West for at least a century. In its heart, there’s an unassuming and drafty brick building called the Roundhouse. Now surrounded by high-rise condos, it’s slated for redesign as a marketplace to serve the swelling crowd of urban dwellers. Over seven days in December, where railway workers tinkered with the train cars of a century ago, a new economy was being midwifed into existence. “Living the New Economy” was an exuberant convergence of visionaries and idea jammers who are working together to create and articulate this new economy.

Living the New Economy

The old economy is crumbling: globally, this has been obvious since at least 2008. The old models just aren’t working anymore, and many have started to realize they probably weren’t worth saving in the first place.

What does the new economy look like? This city’s dilapidated heavy industrial base is being transformed into a burgeoning knowledge economy of tech firms and services. In Victoria, at least, the trend isn’t toward globalized chains and big box stores: it’s small-scale entrepreneurs producing high quality goods for a niche market. It’s local renewable energy projects like the Art Turbine that are not only functional, but are truly pieces of art. It’s an explosion in DIY culture, with creative startups like the Makehouse and the MakerSpace, where makers of all sorts will share tools, resources, and knowledge. Or Remove and Reuse, an online hub where upcyclers and artisans can share salvaged building materials and reduce the need for consuming new. It’s people realizing that together, we can achieve so much more:Raven Wireless, a proposed nationwide co-operative telecom company, hopes to provide an alternative to the “Big Three.”

The new economy tastes like dark and thick microbrews handcrafted locally. It smells like locally cured and smoked meats, crisp vegetables harvested within a hundred miles, and specialty baked goods prepared in Victoria’s proposed new food hub, a shared kitchen space for local food producers. I took part in a collaborative session to redesign the downtown core with hubs for enjoying these delights together, in community. The vision is to create a vital space where people “live out loud.” In the new economy, shopping isn’t a substitute for this kind of creativity. The new economy feels like community being built in a thousand different ways. The Fernwood Urban Village cohousing project and O.U.R. Ecovillage are reclaiming what it is to be in community, while creating options for community to invest in community. It’s individuals moving their money to credit unions, which in turn reinvest it locally: Vancity’s support of “social purpose real estate” is a great example. It’s people stepping up to lend to each other through the Victoria Community Micro-Lending Society. A new Community Investment Fund being launched in 2014 by the Community Social Planning Council (CSPC) will finally give people an option for local retirement savings investments.

This is the power of raising local forms of capital: putting our money where our homes are. CSPC’s Sarah Amyot says that redirecting even 2 percent of the investment money that flows out of this region every year would allow us to reinvest 7.5 million locally.

But why does this seem so revolutionary? In the past few decades, we’ve made it virtually impossible to invest locally. People who are interested in doing so (apparently a very high proportion of investors) are discouraged by their advisors, who say there’s no money in it. Not so, says Stephen Whipp, a specialist in socially responsible investment. By grabbing the reins of large capital and redirecting it into local projects, Whipp says we can generate good income and make good local projects happen at the same time.

Yes, the cost of living is high, and most of us don’t have much extra cash lying around for making big investments. But we need to understand the incredible privilege we have in this region – despite the struggles – and recognize that we have a responsibility to use this privilege to make changes in how we act in the world.

Critically, it’s acknowledging that many of the struggles we’re facing – and the privilege we have – are a result of living in a colonial system. Without a radical shift in the Indigenous-settler relationship, colonialism can simply be re-entrenched by such new forms of ownership and economy. So asking for and supporting Indigenous leadership amid these rapid changes is going to be essential. This recognition was embodied at a session called “Indigenomics,” where we learned from Indigenous women that have modeled leadership in redefining what economy is. As Carol-Ann Hilton of the Indigenous business group Transformation pointed out, a new economy questions the pathway by which we came here: who was left out? Who’s included in the new economy? And will it be a decolonized economy?

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Ana Maria Peredo, Director of UVic’s Centre for Cooperative and Community-Based Economy, pointed out that the new economy is the OLD economy – and the REAL economy. It needs to be reclaimed from its brief sojourn into global market capitalism. There are many kinds of economy – green, sharing, collaborative, gift, social – that can bring value to society.

Peredo shared a story of a visit she made to an Andean village in Peru. Arriving hungry, she went to try to purchase some food to eat. Although she could see plenty of people with food, nobody could sell to her: for them, money wasn’t worth using because nobody needed it to meet their daily needs. People would ask how it was that, in their poor country, everyone had a home – yet in our rich nation, so many are homeless.

In most of the Western world, the economy is framed by those in power as the overarching structure of existence. As Peredo pointed out, the “modernization theory” of development says there’s only one way to approach economic development – and that’s to submit to the global forces of the market. This ethnocentric model perpetuates a narrative about developing an “entrepreneurial spirit” among Indigenous people that assumes they have none.

Meghan Champion of Cowichan Tribes debunked such mainstream myths. In her culture, Indigenous people have always had a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. Trade and forms of currency have been a feature of life on this coast for thousands of years. The potlatch ceremony was, in her words, a form of investment through a system of debt obligation and relationship building. The way people earned prestige was not by accumulating wealth, but by giving it away. As Champion points out, it’s pretty hard to practice your culture if you don’t have an economy to sustain it. But one thing that makes this new economy distinct from the old one is that reputation is key: in the age of social networking, it’s a lot harder to hide when you rip someone off. It’s about building relationships.

It’s with this in mind that Champion created the Cowichan Tribes’ Tetla Dollar. Community currencies keep value circulating within the community, rather than flowing out. Lately, the’ve been springing up all over the region: SeedStock in Vancouver, Salt Spring Dollars, and the Comox Vally Community Way. The fully digital Vancouver Island Dollar is in the process of being launched.

“Living the New Economy” aimed to be a living example of an economy that encourages us to redefine value locally and build inclusive community. After each session, people could receive 100% of their money back with no questions asked; they could hold with the original ticket price, or they could add an extra donation if they felt the event had particular value. Or, they could exchange the full dollar amount for the same number of Vancouver Island Dollars.

As permaculture designer Ethan Roland told us, we need to reclaim the real meaning of the word “entrepreneurship,” which is simply “to take on a project.” In the Andean community-based economies, Peredo says, the community acts collectively as both entrepreneur and enterprise. In this regard, it’s about every single one of us considering ourselves entrepreneurs.

One part of this involves changing our unhealthy relationship with money. And I don’t just mean becoming less driven by it. I’m also talking about the revulsion to money that many “do-gooder” types have: the way that when the word “economics” is used, many of us plug our ears. I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with economics. I don’t really understand it, and I know it causes a lot of harm these days. I also know that some kind of economy is essential.

We’ve forgotten that money is simply a tool – a very useful one. At “Permanomics,” a session linking permaculture and economics, Roland showed how redefining “capital” can allow us to meet human needs while increasing the health of ecosystems. Roland identified eight forms of capital: living, material, social, experiential, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and – of course – financial. Understanding these many forms of capital can help us see how the system functions as a whole, and where the leverage points for creating society-level changes are. Roland says we need not abandon financial capital: we can use it to cultivate other forms of capital that it has been decimating of late. Financial capital can grow or decrease, as long as shared cultural capital and living capital (Earth’s life systems) are being regenerated.

Regeneration, as opposed to the much-abused word “sustainability,” was an overriding theme throughout the week. Through new kinds of enterprise, we can not simply sustain, but regenerate our communities and the natural world. It’s a tangible shift in what the economy looks like – social finance, green buildings, cooperatives, and cohousing projects.

But what’s going to truly make the difference is a shift in the interior dimensions that what we can’t always see: the stories, the culture, and the values. It’s the community.

Kat gratefully acknowledges a prize from SFU’s Certificate Program for Community Economic Development, which allowed her to attend the week of events.

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Closing the loop at O.U.R. Ecovillage

Closing the Loop at O.U.R. Ecovillage

Our fresh group of learners stared wide-eyed as the ecovillage gardeners heaped layer upon layer in the compost pile. Nutrient-dense stalks of comfrey and nettle, soggy spoiled hay, kitchen scraps, and six brimming buckets of liquid cow manure each waited their turn to join a steaming process of organic fertilizer production. Renegade chickweed and miner’s lettuce stretched out in all directions from cracks in the split wooden bins. The buzzing and chirping of pollinators signaled health in the community.

“Our community is about building a different kind of culture,” our tour guide, Patrick, explained. A bushy ponytail poked out from under his rainbow-streaked knit hat, bobbing with the smirking little girl who clung to his shoulders. “At O.U.R. Ecovillage, we’re intentional about the relationships we want to create, and being in community helps us learn how to live sustainably.”

Community – one of those nebulous concepts open to infinite interpretations that my gut nevertheless roars for. The concept of being “in community” was a new one for me, and yet I would find it offered by many residents when prodded about what brought them to the village. I began to suspect this was why we were really there, although the premise of our stay was a permaculture design course. I was thrilled when Marc, my partner, signed on too. Two weeks of early summer camping at an ecovillage while learning about sustainability sounded way too tempting to pass up. As I would come to realize in the weeks and months to follow, it was a good thing we chose to encounter permaculture together. It shifted both of us onto new paths, leaving behind our identities as green environmentally-minded folks, and uncovering an entirely new layer of ecological consciousness.

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Permaculture is another slippery concept whose founders even proclaim not to know exactly what it is. Out of many definitions I have heard, one of the few that has really stuck with me is “learning how to take care of your own shit.” This can take on multiple meanings. It can mean learning how to build your own house using materials from the landscape in which you live. It can mean setting up systems to take care of your own energy and water needs, or growing your own food and medicine. It can mean learning how to “take care” of your natural and human community by taking care of yourself and taking responsibility for your actions. And it can mean taking care of your own shit. Literally.

I quickly learned this lesson in action at the Credit Union, the ecovillage’s composting toilet. With unlimited deposits per day, and only one withdrawal per year, the entire community profits from the value generated by the Credit Union. Our individual investments are returned in the form of a safe, rich fertilizer that helps to create the food we eat. It’s called closing the loop, and it’s a perpetual cycle that humans have been a part of since time immemorial. Coincidentally, it’s how all other animals participate in the ecosystem too. Somewhere along the line, we forgot about this fact. We started building sewage systems that conveniently flush our unmentionables away, so that we don’t have to worry about dealing with the shit we create.

“One of the main problems with how our dominant culture operates is the false notion that there is an ‘away,’” remarked Brandy, a radiant earth mother in long flowing purple and co-founder of the ecovillage. “We don’t want our half-eaten dinner so we throw it ‘away’ into a black bag whose contents are hidden. The garbage truck removes it from our sight. But the reality is that it doesn’t go away, it always ends up somewhere, in somebody’s backyard. And in the process, we turn a valuable resource into pollution.” She described how the conventional sewage system uses one valuable resource, energy, to turn two valuable resources, water and excrement, into a biohazard that pollutes our waterways and oceans. The added effect of removing organic nutrients from the cycle is that we need to find other inputs to replace them in our food-growing areas. Without compost, these inputs become fossil fuel-based fertilizers, which – you guessed it – create more pollution and energy use. Seems crazy, doesn’t it?

I pondered this as we gathered with the ecovillage residents for our first meal together. People of all shapes and sizes converged from different directions on the outdoor kitchen. Marc and I followed suit as the group “circled up”: before each meal, the community holds hands in a circle. One by one, all the people announce their names, and share one thing they are grateful for. Reflecting the spin cycle my brain was still on, I offered, ”My name is Kat, and I’m grateful for finally being able to close the loop.”

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After a shared cheer of “Ho!” with raised hands, we lined up for one of the delectable dinners that O.U.R. Ecovillage prides itself on. “Mostly organic, mostly vegetarian, and mostly from O.U.R. garden,” as the community describes them, the meals reflect the non-dogmatic, common sense approach at the heart of permaculture practice. Tonight, we were havinga special treat: heritage chicken raised and slaughtered onsite, slowly simmered with onions and garlic from the garden. Roasted carrots and purple potatoes still on hand from last autumn’s harvest, sprinkled with freshly picked rosemary and thyme. Homemade kimchi for digestive health. And for dessert, blackberry crumble. Even though I was swimming in locavore bliss, I was still envious watching the resident cow-share members enjoy their crumble with freshly whipped cream supplied by Bossy, the ecovillage’s stately dairy cow.

My plate glowed. The dominant colour was green – the biggest assortment of greens I had ever seen in my food. Bright greens, light greens, yellow-greens, and blue-greens, set off by a smattering of edible flowers in hues of red, orange, purple and pink. Picked only an hour earlier from the garden, the leaves gifted me with an equally big range of textures and flavours – nutty, bold, peppery, crunchy, crisp and sweet. The chickweed and miner’s lettuce I had noticed earlier in the garden – maligned weeds in most landscapes – played a tasty role. In permaculture, unexpected plants are not thrown away as useless matter, but recognized for a role they can play in ecosystems that we often don’t understand. In a system designed with intention, it is possible to have no waste.

Admiring my dinner, I was truly grateful not to be wasting these nutrients. When I was done with them, I vowed, I would put them back in the cycle, so that future eaters could enjoy them too.

Special thanks to O.U.R. ecovillage. Photos supplied from their website athttp://ourecovillage.org/about/photos/

Restoring the Land, Part II: West end

As you can probably tell, my posts are getting more and more sporadic. It’s a good sign: we’ve been too busy having fun. As I promised, here’s the next installment of “Adventures in Restoration.”

The 4X4 rattled and bounced through the savannah-like scrubland. I was grateful it had rained hard that morning, keeping down the fine red clay dust, but all traces of the drenching were long gone. We were on our way to the Mokio Preserve, a 1,718-acre section of land along five miles of shoreline. The area contains seasonal wetlands, native coastal strand and dune ecosystems, and several ancient cultural sites. With help from local volunteers and student programs, the group is slowly replacing the 95% of the invasive introduced plants with native species. Winding along the bumpy dirt road, the erosion from overgrazing is starkly visible in the red clay earth. We crossed under giant radio towers strung across with cables like spiderwebs, taut to the ground. This is the major signal station in a 5,000-mile vicinity and a source of income for the land trust.

Our first stop was a group of test plots surrounded by deer-proof fencing. Inside the gate, a large tract of hardpan–desolate, compacted clay devoid of life–was in the process of being replanted. It was hard to believe anything would grow on it. But the system they were testing out was ingenious: bales of dry pili grass were laid out in long lines along the contour of the slope. As the wind swept the clay dust over it, filling in the gaps and creating terraces, plants from the native nursery at the Hui were transplanted and mulched. The young starts only get irrigated for their first dry season, then they’re on their own in the arid landscape. It was incredibly inspiring to see the regenerative capacity of these plants when they’re given a real chance to grow. Plants that were planted just a season ago were healthy, robust, and beginning to spread their seed to other areas. For JoBo, who remembered gathering seeds and cuttings from the forest to grow these plants, and then caring for the tiny baby plants in the nursery, there was a deep sense of satisfaction.
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I love this little tree thing. it grows across the ground for a while and then perches itself straight up.

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This is a test plot showing that scattering seeds over bare ground actually works better than raking the ground first. Nature knows best!

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As we continued on, a dark cloud came over our plans. From the satellite imagery on Butch’s phone, we could see a storm system coming in: the red zones demarcated the heaviest rainfall, and it was headed straight toward us. Even with a 4X4, we could easily get stuck out there in the mud. We parked beside the road in the middle of what Butch identified as a wetland–although it looked like just another piece of dry scrubland to me–and waited. Sure enough, the storm blew in–moderate at first, then a downpour–and we watched the clay earth disappear into rivers of muddy red water all around us. Listening to the rain, I wondered why parking in a wetland during a heavy rain was a good idea, and how in the world we would get ourselves out.

After a time, the rain slowed, then disappeared at once. Emerging from the truck, we discovered beside us a big sinkhole nearly a metre wide. Water was draining from all directions into the basin we were parked in, pouring into the rough cut hole like a giant pitcher of water and recharging the ground deep below. It sounded like a bathtub draining loudly. Peering in, we could see a little gecko hanging out in the water. Everywhere around us, smaller sinkholes threatened to twist our ankles or to cave in under our feet to the miniature caves below. ImageImage

Hauling a bin of planting bags out of the truck, we trailed behind Butch, who was on a mission with his shovel. His keen eye led us directly to a small patch of delicate and unassuming grasses. Our boisterous chatter descended into reverent silence as we stood watching him carefully scoop up chunks of rush, cutting with precision and tenderly covering over the hole with humus, making it instantly disappear. The rush is called Makaloa – it’s not technically on the endangered list, but according to Butch this key wetland species is being threatened just the same–which points to the need to look at the ecosystem as a functioning whole, rather than simply trying to boost the numbers of a few single species on the official records.
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Hopping back in the truck, it was time to find out whether we would actually make it out of the wetland. The red clay caked onto the tires in layers, causing them to lose their grip in the slippery mud. But we managed to get rolling, and all of a sudden we were at the edge of a steep lookout point high above the north shore. Here at Ka’a, it was a stunning view across to the eastern cliffs. Watching the wind push the water around in spirals, we could see humpbacks blowing and surfacing below. Marc took some time to contemplate the view from a different perspective.
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We had one more stop to make, but looming red streaks on the satellite weather images–much bigger this time–made us change our minds. Soon, we were racing the storm, careening down the slippery dirt roads at 50 km/h with Butch flinging the steering wheel side to side, engine roaring. Muddy water blanketed the windows. Everytime I caught a glimpse outside, it looked like we were heading straight into the hard clay wall of earth beside the road where the bulldozer had cut out a path as deep as the truck itself. Butch told us it was the wettest he’s ever seen it, and casually mentioned he’d heard horror stories of people who’d gotten stuck. My heart was pounding as I gripped the Oh-Shit handle. The last section of the road was uphill, and if we didn’t get past it in time, we might not get past it at all. But first we had to do some real 4X4ing, pulling off the road and into the trees in some parts to avoid the lakes welling up in the road. Pulling back onto the road and turning a corner, we stopped dead in our tracks to watch this incredible sight:

Restoring the land, Part I: East end

This is the first of a few installments about the ecological restoration work happening on this island. The story will take us from one extreme end of the island to the other, bringing us right back to our home at the Hui, which plays an integral role in the restoration and is an  inspiring example of the positive change possible when a community of people shares a common vision.

Last week, in a whirlwind twenty-four hours, Marc and I traversed from the northeastern tip of the island to the far northwest. From one end to the other, Molokai feels like a completely different place. For an island that’s only 38 by 10 miles in size, there is unbelievable diversity of terrain, thoroughly rugged–and endangered–from tip to tip. The island was created by two volcanoes, one forming the eastern mountains, and one on the west. Molokai’s coastal cliffs, the highest in the world, were formed when the north side of the eastern volcano suffered a catastrophic collapse about 1.5 million years ago and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. The forested, mountainous eastern half receives about 300 inches of rain per year; the west, about 15-20. In the middle, where it slopes down close to sea level, the land gets perhaps five inches per year, and there are disturbing signs that it’s slowly drying up. The entire western half is dry scrubland, and there have been three years of significant drought. With climate change, the frequency of drought is only expected to increase.

Long ago, the land would have been more protected from the effects of drought. It was covered in a diversity of species and great stands of sandalwood trees. But the fragrant wood has all but vanished. A huge pit, the exact size of the cargo hold of a ship, remains visible in the middle of the island. Here, logs were hauled en masse until they filled the hole. They were then shipped in bulk to China for a few bumper decades in the early 1800s, until the forests quickly disappeared. Axis deer–introduced to the islands in the 1800s for King Kamehameha’s hunting pleasure–have decimated the island’s vegetation from tip to tip. From the sensitive coastline to the remote mountainsides, the thousands of deer are joined by hungry goats and feral pigs, mowing down any native plants that dare to pop up and creating serious erosion problems. The native species are further choked out by monoculture stands of invasive plants introduced over the centuries.

Signs of these threats to the landscape were clear last week when we went for a late afternoon swim at Halawa Bay on the east end. Overhead, helicopters routinely circled over the cliffs, shooting goats on sight. It’s sad, but necessary to protect the integrity of the landscape. Afterward, we visited our friend Cole at Pu’u O Hoku Ranch, the 14,000-acre biodynamic cattle ranch. Cole works with Marc on the Hui’s reforestation project but spends his days off working at the ranch. Knowing firsthand the nausea-inducing intensity of his workouts, I was doubtful when he suggested a “short half-hour run” through the steep grazing lands to the northeastern cliffs. But sheer excitement got the better of me as I trailed the guys down through the rocky landscape, which opened up to a 360 degree view looking back over distant Halawa Bay, with the waterfalls and helicopters still visible.

We stood at the edge of a straight vertical drop of several hundred feet into churning water below, where humpbacks spouted and surfaced. Running along the edge, we dipped down into a gulch where a small flock of nene, the endangered Hawaiian state bird, cautiously surveyed us, droning their strange melancholic sounds. In addition to the ranch’s restoration project, it has some pens where the nene can nest in safety. We stood overlooking Cape Halawa with Maui visible to the southeast, and the tiny prehistoric cinder cone islands Moku Ho’oniki and Kanaha Rock directly in front. A WWII bombing practice site, Moku Ho’okini is uninhabitable due to unexploded warheads and is now a bird sanctuary. Turning back around, we watched a wild blue and yellow sunset through the clouds as we sweated back up the hill, with evidence of grazing deer all around us.

Cole shot an axis deer nearby on the ranchlands just a few days ago. He seared it proudly in a skillet for dinner as we listened to his most recent plan to use his new hide-tanning knowledge–gleaned from Youtube videos–to start up a tanning operation on the island. We discussed the merits of different tanning techniques–from battery acid (oh god!) to eggs to good old-fashioned animal brains. Sitting down to dinner, I felt like I was participating in restoring the balance of the ecosystem with every tasty bite. It’s times like this when being a meat-eater comes in handy, as the one silver lining of this major threat to the landscape is an abundant food source (one that doesn’t even know it can jump, unlike the deer back home). On Molokai, wild pigs and deer are a critical component of the diet of a population that often can afford little else.

We opted for a late-night drive home along the rocky cliffs and hairpin twists of the one-lane highway, which hugged the rough water’s edge where Hawaiian men were gathered around giant trucks, fishing in the moonlight. I was up before dawn and had finished the day’s harvesting and watering before breakfast, eager for our next adventure. We were heading out to see more of the Molokai Land Trust reserve with Butch, the trust’s Executive Director and leader of their restoration project. After a torrential downpour early in the morning, we shifted gears away from our plans to harvest seeds in the soggy eastern mountains and headed northwest…

Crumbling remains of a 19th century church at Halawa:

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Halawa Bay

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Aerial shot of the middle of the island, from Marc’s plane ride

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Eastern mountains and valleys….

 

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On the drive to the east end… (this house is just down the road from Monsanto’s headquarters)

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the microbe universe

Well, everything in life has its ups and downs, even living in blissful Hawai’i. After a fantastic day yesterday, we woke up to find our pals Sabine and Sweetie Pie gone, with only a stinky Sweetie present left amongst the torn up green onions, which were promptly ripped out and composted. Then we hit a bigger bump in the road. Or, more accurately, millions of little bumps in the road. They’re called nematodes. There are estimated to be one million different species of these tiny microscopic worms. Many of them are beneficial in the garden, eating pests that spend time in the soil. But others eat living plant material–the roots of vegetables–and this is the kind we have.

It started a little while ago when we realized the chard was stunted and showing spots on the leaves. This is actually Cercospora leaf spot: when the fungus spore lands on a leaf, the plant kills its own tissue in a circle around the spore to cut off its food, killing the spore. Pretty cool (and you can still eat the leaves). But when a plant is getting visibly attacked by a pest, it’s a sign that the plant was already stressed or weak. Taking a closer look, we pulled up a few chard plants. Back home, healthy chard roots dig into the soil up to 6-8 feet deep. But we pulled them up with ease, revealing tiny, brownish roots–many with big red tumour-like galls on them. At first, we thought it was the season: too much rain could have encouraged root rot, and the shortened day length has been causing everything to grow a lot slower (you’d be amazed by how much the changing day length makes a difference here in winter, even though the change is way smaller than where I live further north).

After some internet research, Connie identified them as root knot nematodes, which we have since discovered are very common in Hawai’i. They aren’t a problem back home, and in fact, Connie has told me that she doesn’t remain on the cutting edge of pest control knowledge. Why? Because she doesn’t really get any pests to speak of anymore–evidence that a biologically diverse system focused on building a healthy soil food web through compost and other habitat for beneficial organisms keeps a natural balance. If harmful nematodes are getting out of hand in our garden, it’s because there aren’t enough other microbes to keep their numbers in check.

The nematodes were bad news because they’re very difficult to get rid of; mostly we can just keep their population down. We’ll do this by adding compost over time to balance out the organisms, planting marigolds (nematodes don’t like them), rotating and fallowing the beds, and planting veggies that are nematode-resistant to starve them of the foods they eat (the kales, broccoli, mustard greens, collards, cilantro, green onions and leeks are doing fine). In the meantime, though, we aren’t keeping up with the ravenous appetite here for salad greens. We thought the poor plants would bounce back from us pillaging them every day now that the days are getting longer, but because of the nematodes we waved our white flag and the cooks bought a crate of Romaine. We’re hosting a work camp here in one week, with around 35 people onsite for ten days. I’m grateful for the plants to have some recovery time.

So to cheer ourselves up, we played science lab today. I took soil samples from all the beds, disinfecting my tools between each one so as not to spread the little worms (we’ll have to do this every single time we use a tool in the garden now). At a friend’s place down the road, we examined the samples under a microscope. We didn’t see as much life moving around in the beds with compacted soil. We saw lots of tiny nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the bed where the clover cover crop is still growing among the plants. These awesome bacteria, which live on legumes, convert nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. We also brought some freshly brewed and very lively compost tea. The lactobacillus, a beneficial bacteria, looked like a sausage (or a string of sausages). Zippy little ciliates shot across the slide in a hurry. Long fungal strands were covered in ladder-like rungs. And the nematodes were easy to spot: little worms squiggling around, wrestling with a tiny piece of humus. But we couldn’t identify whether they were the good kind or the bad.

The coolest thing we looked at were some indigenous microbes. Before I arrived here, a bunch of “pristine” soil was gathered from up in the hills. We spread cooked rice in a planting flat, poured unsulphured molasses over it, and laid the soil on top. We’ve kept it covered and moist for the past few weeks as the indigenous microbes feed and multiply. When the rice has disappeared, we’ll make a compost tea from this highly active and locally appropriate microbe universe to help build soil fertility in the garden. In the meantime, our small sample from the mushroomy-smelling, mould-covered tray has showed us there’s plenty of beneficial life in there.

I can’t remember using a microscope since high school science class, and I have to say I never thought I’d get so excited over soil microbes and mouldy trays of rice. I think my biologist roommate will be proud 😉

Unfortunately I don’t have any shots of the microbes, but here’s some lovely sunflowers instead.

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These are some of the bucket-full of edible flowers we harvest every day for the cooks to garnish the food.. hibiscus, calendula, nasturtiums, and.. blue butterfly pea I believe..

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garden-fresh wisdom

I’ve been chased inside by the rain, which soaked me through to the bone while I was gathering fruit in the orchard. I’ve never seen rain come down this hard! It felt wonderful, but even here in warm Hawai’i, it’s wintertime and I can’t stay wet for too long without getting a chill. So I’ve decided to write a post about some of the many things I’ve learned in the garden so far. In just over a week, I feel like I’ve gained enough knowledge to start my own successful garden, although this is just the beginning!

The past few days we’ve been doing a lot of transplanting. Because there are lots of critters that love to eat veggie seeds and tiny sprouts, we start everything inside the shade house (like a greenhouse but with screen walls). Plants begin sprouting with seed leaves, which actually live inside the seed before it sprouts! Once the plants start forming their “true” leaves, we leave the plants outside for a day or two to harden off. During this time, the plant gets used to being out in much sunnier, windier, (and in the case of greenhouses, cooler) conditions, without being totally stressed by transplanting. We dig a hole and fill it up with the hose to allow water to sink deep into the surrounding ground before moving the plant in. Then we water it with seaweed: seaweed is a de-stresser for plants, it has a very balanced combination of nutrients that help keep the plant content in its new home. Then we mulch the plant with fresh compost for more slow-releasing nutrients and water retention. Voila!

Well, I should be a little more exact here–there’s never just one plant. We always seed a few kinds of plants together: lettuce with carrots and dill, beans with sunflowers, tomatoes with basil. There are various reasons why some plants help each other grow (and others generally don’t do well together) such as what kinds of nutrients they take and what nutrients or hormones they send into the soil, whether they need shade or give it away, and whether they attract pollinators or repel certain pests. Seeds of Change has a good companion planting guide.

Speaking of unwanted garden residents, how do you deal with pests in an organic garden? I’ve learned that pests are usually a sign that the plants are stressed out, or weak from nutrient deficiencies. Using chemical fertilizers will create these imbalances as I mentioned before, as they are always made up of a mix of substances (as soon as you boost one, the others will be sent out of proportion), thus creating a need for pesticide. To avoid this, applying compost will help keep the plants strong–or applying specific organic matter can gently correct an imbalance, like the eggshells we scattered around the broccoli to boost the calcium. We’ve been brewing and spraying compost tea on the leaves of affected plants to give them a boost in warding off critters like spider mites–and we pull off the affected leaves to keep them from spreading. We harvest whole baby lettuce plants rather than cutting the leaves so the sow bugs don’t sense the broken tissue from cutting individual leaves. We’ll be stringing lights around the trellises to ward off the rose beetles that come out at night. And we enclose growing tomatoes in mesh bags to keep the fruit flies from stinging them. In short, there’s all kinds of creative things that can be done without spraying harmful pesticides.

But what about weeds? Well, I must say I like Connie’s philosophy a lot: “weeds” (what I might call opportunistic species) actually play a role in the garden, by filling in where there are deficiencies. Other sources back up this perspective. Gardens can benefit from the nutrient release from weeds when you leave them where you pull them. If you don’t want to leave them in the garden, it’s safe to put them in a hot compost as it will kill the seeds. But perhaps most of all, it’s about weed prevention: mulching, sheet mulching, and cover cropping. Cover crops can aerate the soil and provide organic matter and nutrients to plants, even boosting yields. The garden beds here that were cover cropped are currently the best beds in the garden, and they’re the only ones with worms, which provide even more aeration and nutrients from their castings.

One thing I’ve learned from Connie that fascinated the science geek in me is the effect of the plant container on water drainage. Contrary to what I would have thought, tall containers actually drain faster than short ones (or tall containers with rocks or styrofoam in the bottom). This happens because of the effect of gravity on water: the higher the volume of water, the heavier it is, and the greater the pull downward. If you’ve ever noticed why your little pots get algae on top, this is why.

Well, this post has been a little info-heavy, so here’s some garden photos to lighten things up 🙂

This is an incredible preying mantis that walked the tightrope (irrigation pipe) from one lettuce tower to the other. He moved so slowly, checking us out and cocking his head at our strange cameras.Image

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This is one of the entrances to the Hui garden, where the magic happens…

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This is a photo of me through the screen in the shade house taken by one of the photography workshop guests!

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a beach tale

The past two days have been full of adventure and connection with the wild beauty of Molokai. I’ve been to the beach three times in 24 hours! Photos coming soon. One of the wonderful perks of being an intern at the Hui is that we get invited along on photography forays with the retreat guests. On Wednesday, we piled into the rental cars and headed to Kepuhi Beach on the western edge of the island. For hours, we snapped photos of the crashing waves, unique lava rock formations, and a delicate sunset. I did yoga in the soft sand. Yesterday we returned to the area for another sunset, this time to Papohaku Beach. The 3-mile stretch is one of the largest beaches in the state. But unlike many of Hawai’i’s beaches, there was hardly a soul to be seen.

There’s a reason why the throngs of tourists were absent. I’ve heard Molokai called by many people “the real Hawai’i.” With a population of only 7,000 and the highest proportion of Indigenous Hawaiians, Molokai has a history of strong resistance to the kind of commercial tourism development that other parts of Hawai’i have succumbed to. The views of the locals about land management and other political issues are starkly visible on colourful painted signs by the roads. Back in 2008, the island’s major employer was partway through building a huge luxury golf resort on the west end when local resistance became so organized that it retaliated by closing all of its operations, including restaurants, hotels, and the island’s only movie theatre. Now, Molokai has Hawai’i’s highest unemployment rate. Although some of the properties we passed on the way to the beach had been converted into condos and sold, many of the buildings are boarded up. Mauna Loa, a name perhaps familiar to those who have never been to Hawai’i, is actually a ghost town. Walking to the beach, we crossed the remnants of a golf fairway being reclaimed by the red clay earth.

It’s not very often you hear a story of small-town success in the face of distant, faceless business interests. But the people have been here at least 1,700 years. I reckon their sense of time has a much wider scope than the fiscal quarter of the investing world, whose language of money just doesn’t translate their connection to the land.

Efforts to restore and protect the native ecosystems of the island have not been without their controversies, either. Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of waking up at 5am to share a spectacular sunrise with the photographers at the Mo’omomi Preserve, on the north side. We passed a sign that read “Mo’omomi to be gated illegally.” We had to go through two locked gates, but as I learned, anyone can access a key most of the year, except when the seabirds are nesting. The problem was that local residents would drive their 4X4’s on the sensitive dunes and leave trash and beer cans behind. And this is not just any beach, either. Twenty-five years ago, the Nature Conservancy acquired the lands from private ranchers. Molokai is overrun with invasive, non-native species, and the western half of the island is highly degraded due to grazing and poor land management practices. Mo’omomi is now the most intact coastal beach strand and sand dune area and one of the last remaining strongholds for native coastal plants and animals in the Hawaiian islands. This breathtaking beach is surrounded on both sides by sharp lava rock and native grasses. The landscape looks more like Scottish highlands than what most people would envision when they think of Hawai’i. It’s being stewarded by Molokai Land Trust, which is also running the major native plant restoration project right here at the Hui (more on that later…)

We drove back along the bumpy dirt road, the staff standing in the box of the Tundra pickup, singing songs from the ‘80s. Grabbing the frame, we ducked quickly as the thorny branches of kiawe (an invasive tree) narrowly missed our heads. Turning at Coffees of Hawai’i, we climbed up the hill for another mile before turning into the Hui to begin another sunny day in the garden.

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