Fields Without Fences

oaks,mint,elderberry

I love my friend Minca. Now that we’re no longer college classmates, we cherish the rare opportunities to spend time with one another. A little over a year ago she happened to be in New Jersey and I insisted that she and I visit one of my favorite farms of all time, Fields Without Fences (FwF). The farm was started by Lindsay and Johann Rinkens in 2012 with the intention to develop an ecologically appropriate land management strategy for growing certified organic food and medicine. The farm’s story is much more involved, but that day I learned about a new development: 2014 would be the first year with paid apprentices. That’s all I needed to know. I was in.

My body, mind, and emotions were tested this summer in ways that I didn’t originally anticipate. My body is no worse for wear, but a summer of farm work, along with hiking, biking, and swimming around the Delaware river, has definitely tuned me up (thanks to stretching and chiropractors for mechanical help). There’s something I love about the feeling at the end of a productive day outdoors. My body loves to do what it evolved to: walk, bend, pick, pull, plant, scrape, shape, peel, pluck, dig, rake, make, and mark. This is the third full summer I’ve spent working on a farm and, though at times I’d like to deny it, it makes me really happy. Working in and with the elements undeniably agrees with my heart and bones. And farm work, strenuous and stressful as it may sometimes be, connects me with my ancestors—to my great grandparents who immigrated with family from Austria to farm in Minnesota and Nebraska five generations ago. Working on the farm is my heritage. And I’m glad I inherited their work ethic.
James&Katie in FieldLindsay and Johann have tremendous work ethics, and I appreciate how they turn tedious labor into strength-training exercises. Their attention to detail and proper technique made repetitive tasks multi-functional—weeding, seeding, transplanting and harvesting with good posture, sensitivity and body-awareness also increased our efficiency, making work as effortless as possible while building balanced body strength. That’s permaculture! I mean, it’s one thing to say all that, and another to actually do it. Especially on a farm where dozens of different species of herbs are sharing bed-space with fruiting ground-covers, berry bushes, fruit and nut tree saplings…not to mention the volunteers. Physically performing at a high level at a farm like theirs requires an equally high level of mental effort.

The mental edge I gained working for Lindsay and Johann is a reflection of the mental level at which they work, as well as the complexity of the polyculture systems that they’re establishing. As a farm that seeks to mimic the ecological architecture of regional native plant communities, they’re ahead of the curve. Being ahead of the curve also means not relying upon experts to tell you what to do, and relying heavily upon your own observations to make adjustments as the systems grow. As the season progressed Johann and Lindsay challenged us to start thinking and acting more like managers. They challengsoutheastfield_0728ed us to take responsibility for our learning curves and move beyond the introductory hand-holding. It wasn’t until they brought this up that I realized how much easier it was to just follow instructions and do what I was told. They challenged us to increase our productivity and make more of the “little” decisions for ourselves. Up to this point I had thought I was working hard. I thought I was slowly starting to get a feel for the systems dynamics. But midway through the season it was clear that I wasn’t challenging myself enough. That was a spicy pill to swallow; it’s always more fun to get a pat on the back than a kick in the ass. That’s when I learned what Field’s Without Fences is really about: The fields are our minds, and the fences are all the self-imposed limitations we put on what we believe is possible and what we think we’re capable of. The fences are all the excuses we make up to hide our true genius. We fence-in our creativity, and fence-out our power of will. I guess I thought I was just keeping the deer from eating my vegetables. But I had to face the reality of the situation. I needed to take the challenge personally and accept responsibility for my full capacities. That’s the mental edge that Lindsay and Johann put to work. I’m still working on it.

Now that the 2014 season has come and gone I can say, without a doubt, that living and working at FwF has permanently altered my outlook and ambitions. I like to rationalize my work as a farmer and analyze it’s impact on civilization and the biosphere. But I’ve come to learn that my propensity for abstraction is not as meaningful to me as what I actually do. As much as I love the mental stimulation of ecological and philosophical concepts, this season on the farm has strengthened my emotional bond with the ecosystems that I am a part of. Living and working at FwF helped me see the necessity of being in relationship with the ecosystems on and beyond the farm. And that requires commitment (gasp). My life is moved by thoughts and emotions, and my inner landscape is mostly comprised of feelings. Lately I’ve been asking myself, “How do I want my life to feel?” A big part of the feeling that I want in my life comes from being in relationship with the biosphere and it’s ecosystems. As a producer, I am reliant upon the web of relationships that make plants and animals healthy. So I must be in tune with the reality of life on the ground, which is work. Committing to working with the land in some way, shape, or form requires me to exercise will-power to do something….And stick with it! There’s no way out of it. Accepting that challenge makes me a field with fewer fences. I want my life to feel un-fenced . As I commit to farming, I commit to being un-fenced.

North field at the end of the summer, prepped for cover crop and tree plantings

SummaReview: The Lost Language of Plants

cover_LostLanguageOfPlantsThe Lost Language of Plants unveils a world (our world) that is both shocking and stimulating, spectacularly disturbing and deeply moving. In this world there are plants, yes, but the book is about much more than plants. As Buhner comments in a note to the reader, “…this book explores the complex, multidimensional, intricately interconnected, synergistic, living organism that we call Earth, and it is designed to be complex and multidimensional as well” (viii). The book itself intentionally transmits multiple layers of communication, reflective of the plants and living organisms that are featured throughout.

He describes how plants communicate using self-generated natural chemicals—affecting, directing, and responding to the environments and communities that they live in. Unfortunately, our global environment has become completely inundated with trace amounts of pharmaceutical chemicals, radioactive materials, and medical, infectious and pathological waste, all of which significantly disrupt the healthy function of ecosystems (including human ecologies). Beyond that, he urges us to see that the simplification of species in ecosystems worldwide dangerously reduces the regenerative capacity of Earth’s ecosystems, and has grave consequences for human health; human health is inextricably tied to the health of ecosystems worldwide.

Man sees the morning as the beginning of a new day; he takes germination as the start in the life of a plant, and withering as its end. But this is nothing more than a biased judgment on his part. Nature is one. There is no starting point or destination, only an unending flux, a continuous metamorphosis of all things.
–Masanobu Fukuoka (148)

The mountain of devastating and publicly available data and statistics about the environmental impacts of technological medicine highlights deeper issues of our modern predicament; these deeper issues have to do with the reductive and mechanistic paradigms, epistemologies, and concepts that we use to understand and interact with the world; this includes the “universe-as-machine” metaphor, which denies the possibility of intelligence, self-awareness, and sanctity in the non-human organisms of Earth.

Ironwood Archepelago

The Ironwood archepelago exemplifies the non-linear affects of the language of plants on ecosystem function.

By describing the systemic and multi-functional uses of plant chemistry throughout Earth’s ecosystems, Buhner makes the case that the chemical language of plants is much more than mere chemistry; it is an intentionally meaningful language that is crucial for maintaining the health of ecosystems. The “lost” language of plants, then, has more to do with the loss of meaning ascribed by humans to the world around us. In other words,  “this book delves into the meaning embedded within plant chemistry, the language of plants—a language human beings in the Western world lost knowledge of when we began to think so insistently with the analytical portions of our brains and quit thinking with other more holistic parts of ourselves” (ix). Thus, what is deeply needed is for us to recover the innate capacity to understand the world as a living system. This means interacting with the land as a sacred place, filled with sacred beings. It’s the foundation for healing the interior and exterior wounds created by the “universe-as-machine” mentality.

“Without deep connection to the land our healers remain anthropocentric—human centered—in their approaches, their theories of human health generated in isolation from the environment with which we evolved. They contain the same category error that all reductionist sciences contain. The solution is reconnection to the natural world and the living intelligence of land” (230).

Citations

SummaReview: Plant Intelligence and The Imaginal Realm

“…you must not extend awareness further than your culture wants it to go.(19)

Plant Intelligence BuhnerThis is Buhner’s fourth book in his series of books on plant intelligence, inter-species communication, non-linearity in nature, including the various non-linear and intuitive capacities in humans. This book dives deeply into the fascinating and emerging scientific fields of plant-neurophysiology, molecular microbiology, systems ecology/complexity theory, and gaia theory, including the effects of psychotropics in nature and in the human brain. But this heavy (very well-written) reading is not the central focus of the book. His synthesis of vast amounts of scientific information exposes a reality that runs contrary to scientific reductionism and materialist maps of the world. He exposes a new scientific understanding that the qualities of “self-awareness, intelligence, and the search for meaning—that have (erroneously) been ascribed as belonging only to human beings, are in fact general conditions of every living organism” (28). Of course, this understanding is not new, as many indigenous groups of humans have known this for a very long time.

The idea that humans are separate from and superior to everything else in the biosphere has taken a terminal blow from the new knowledge about bacteria….There’s no going back.(95)

Using concepts and language from neuroscience, such as “sensory gating channels,” he enlightens us to the reality that our perceptual capacities are flexible, fluid, and multi-dimensional; in other words, we can perceive multiple perspectives, and change our own perspective whenever it benefits us to do so. However, “gating parameters tend to set themselves as time progreses, and all organisms tend to habituate to cetain ranges of sensory intake and response to environmental perterbations.” This habituation can and does limit what and how we perceive, and how resilient and creative we are in the face of adversity. But nature has built in ways for organisms to remain fluid and adaptable; altered states, and the expansion of our perceptual capacity through drugs and other experiences, has been a fascination of humans and other organisms for a long time, and rightly so. Ingesting psychotropics (the psychoactive quality of psychedelic plants) break habituated patterns of gating by opening sensory gating channels more widely, which enables the organism to perceive a greater degree of novelty in ordinary or common experience; this opens the doors to new information and is an evolutionary advantage. Expanded gating also enables us to perceive deeper meanings in things that we are normally closed off to. As Buhner elaborates, “The more sensory data from the image that flows inside us, the more of the text that is embedded within it will flow into us. The more of the text we have access to, the more meaning we can distill out of it, the more rays of relation we can find and experience.”

Thus, the different kind of thinking this book seeks to inspire is one that enables us to access this deeper web of information and meaning that run throughout our lives and everywhere on Earth at all times. He explains that we don’t need psychotropics or advanced trainings to deepen and expand our sense of the world around us. We merely need to regain an embodied feeling sense that touches and perceives the world in a non-linear way.

Although the beauty is what we are most drawn to, in the darkness and terror are truths that all travelers in the metaphysical background of the world eventually encounter, must face, and come to terms with. They have teachings that are necessary.” (279)

This book takes the reader into tremendously deep waters, and challenges you to examine your preconceived ideas about the way the Earth functions. Buhner invites you to discover the “imaginal realm,” where real information flows at the level of subtle meanings; meanings that guide and direct all organisms through the environment; meanings that literally reveal the underlying unity between the environment and its actors, dissolving the illusion that the “environment” is merely a passive backdrop to the moving actors and organisms. The environment shapes organisms and communities just as organisms shape the environment; they are not truly separate, the boundaries are fluid.

Citations

The Art of Composting

Wooden Road In Forest
“Everything is a process, even the [farmer].”

– Michael Phillips

Maximizing the soil food web for your farm and garden ecosystems is not only possible, but inevitable. As topsoil continues to be depleted and lost at record rates worldwide, farmers are feeling the pressure to adopt new strategies for ensuring the long-term productivity of the land. The agricultural community at large is becoming more aware of the ways in which plants depend on healthy soil, and the soil food web is coming into the spotlight. Those who treat the soil as a living ecosystem are experiencing breakthrough success, as their farms demonstrate more resilience to droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events. Farmers and gardeners who treat their soils as a living ecosystem are tasting the results; more vibrant, nutritious, and abundant yields than ever before. And the ecosystem of beneficial insects and pollinators are coming back with authority. (citations)

An increasing number of farmers, gardeners and scientists alike are adopting this new paradigm of “living soil.” It’s not like adopting a child or even a family. When you adopt the living soil paradigm you adopt an entire community; in reality, this shift in understanding is an acknowledgment of an entirely new world. It is changing people’s entire relationship with the process of farming, gardening, and scientific study. The time has come to reform our notions of superiority in the web of life. Nature is not an inanimate resource bank awaiting our plunder. It is an ever-evolving dance of mutuality, collaboration, and adaptation. Time has come to see ourselves as part of this dance, not separate from it. Our roles as participants are many. The integrity and health of the niches that we occupy are largely the result of our attitudes and approaches to management.

Thus, the art of composting has as much to do with your approach as it does your execution. When you approach composting (and farming as a whole) with a sense of reverence and respect, your relationship with the process changes. If you can let go of the assumption that you’re the only intelligent life form on your farm, you can access an even greater ability —a greater sensitivity— to the process. The art of composting is the art of transformation, the art of succession and evolution. If you’re willing, you can begin to tune yourself to that process and become sensitive to the relationships between plants and the living soil. If you’re bold, you might even begin to treat your soil and plants as legitimate business partners and listen to their ideas about how the farm should be.

“Organic gardening is complex and simple, a blend of good science, fact, experience, intuition, experiments, play, speculation.” -Robert Kourik

Please remember that the science of compost, the science of the soil food web, is all metaphor. Cation exchange capacity, the nutrient cycle, carbon to nitrogen ratios – are all metaphors. The reality of the soil food web is something beyond our ability to express in words, which is why plants don’t grow in books. All the information up to this point in the paper, especially in Part 1, has been expressed in linear terms. Nature is not linear; nature is non-linear. The intelligence in the soil food web goes beyond our maps and diagrams, and cannot be explained by our facts and figures. The reality of life (and composting, farming) is not easily predictable. And this is the difference between living soil and dead soil, between an ever-depleted soil from which we extract life, and a regenerative soil that is teeming and overflowing with life. The paradigm of living soil acknowledges the vital interconnectedness between microbes and plants, air and water, sun and people. What we do to the web we do to ourselves, the earth is not a machine. And even the tiniest changes in one place can change everything in ways we wouldn’t expect. Living systems cannot be reduced to their component parts; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is already well-established. This is the glory of natural law; this is the genius of creative intelligence. We are meant to live in abundance, but we need to drop our arrogance and learn how to listen again.

“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
― Masanobu Fukuoka

I understand that if you’re committed enough to have sought out the information in this paper, you probably already consider yourself a natural farmer or gardener. Let this be an appeal not to reason but to intuition. As you take the information, the compost pile recipes, materials lists and instructions, and prepare to apply it to your current operations, do your best to carry yourself more as a midwife than a chef. Realize that with every compost pile you make you’re giving birth to an entire community of new life forms, and your farm will be a stronger community because of it. Like any good community organizer (which you are), you’ll need patience, compassion and understanding, as you already know. Engage in the process of growing more abundant and healthy plants so that you might become more healthy and abundant in spirit. Farm so that you might create more harmony on earth. Your job is not easy and you know it, and it never ends

Exerpt, taken from the full paper: The Art and Science of Compost: Maximizing the Soil Food Web For Your Farm and Garden Ecosystems

The “Soil Food Web” Paradigm

Healthy soil is built and maintained by a universe of soil organisms. These organisms make up the soil food web and are the key to unlocking fertility in the soil. The soil food web forms the basis of a healthy farm ecosystem. Without them, farmers and gardeners are required to do the extra work of fertilization, pest/weed and disease control. It doesn’t need to be this way. Healthy soil and healthy plants can happen without our endless toil. But this all hinges on a sound understanding of “soil food web science.” Over time, healthy communities of life underground have been devastated as a result of annual tilling, compacted soil, mismanagement of organic matter, and relentless applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides/fungicides. Various farming practices such as no-till, cover cropping, and chemical-free organic farming are all effective ways to support the soil food web. Gardeners and landscapers can utilize similar strategies to promote the vitalizing force of the critters below. However, nothing has been demonstrated to be more effective and important than compost for establishing the vital, regenerative and chemical-free growing power of the soil food web.

From: USDA's "Soil Biology Primer"

From: USDA’s “Soil Biology Primer”

“Viewing the soil as a regenerative living system is one big kick in the pants for anyone who has been taught that NPK fertilization is more relevant than soil biology.” 
-Michael Phillips

“Soil food web” science includes the following components: Sun, water, air, plants and their roots, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micro and macro-arthropods, earthworms etc, humus (decomposed organic matter) and the mineral components of soil – sand, silt, and clay, as well as humans and their management decisions. The web starts with and is governed by plants, who use the energy of the sun to make carbon chains (photosynthesis); much of these carbon compounds are used as root exudates to attract and develop beneficial microbial communities in and around their root system. Exudates are simple sugars, proteins, and carbohydrates released by plant roots to feed and stimulate populations of beneficial microorganism. They do not feed pathogens. (Lowenfels and Lewis 23-24). Understand that the energy going into roots is not only used to build root structure for stability and fertility; in general, about half of a plant’s energy that goes into its roots is released as exudates (Kourik 10). Why do they do this? Because the energy they give away comes back to them many times over.

The strange reality is that while humans garden plants, plants garden microorganisms. They do this because of the crucial role microbes play in the nutrient cycle. Whereas humans are fed by plants, plants are fed by microorganisms. Microbiologists have found that the number of microorganisms in the rhizosphere – a zone immediately around the roots, extending out about a couple of millimeters – is far greater than in the surrounding soil (Ingham, “Living Soil” 2011). What’s more, studies on foliar dynamics have revealed that living leaves produce exudates through their phyllosphere that attract microbes just as roots do through the rhizosphere (Lowenfels and Lewis 25). All this “life” competes for the exudates in the rhizosphere and phyllosphere. At first glance it would seem like the microbes are the ones being fed, but if you look a little deeper things get much more interesting.

“Soil organic matter is the storehouse for the energy and nutrients used by plants and other organisms. Bacteria, fungi, and other soil dwellers transform and release nutrients from organic matter.”
-Dr. Elaine Ingham

Soil life creates soil structure and produces soil nutrients. The activities of its members bind soil particles together into microaggregates as they create air and water pores. The chemical and biological activity in the thin layer of moisture around aggregates convert nutrients into soluble forms that roots can absorb via ion exchange. Unlike applications of fertilizer, soil nutrients in living soil releases slowly over time; they are available when plants need them. As compost, mulch and other organic matter is added to the soil, their nutrients become immobilized in dead bodies and subsequently mineralized (made available to plants) through digestion or decay. The proximity of microbial action in the rhizosphere is what makes mineralized nutrients far more bioavailable than soluble fertilizer forms.

“There must always be a perfect balance between the process of growth and decay. The consequences of this condition are a living soil, abundant crops of good quality, and livestock which possess the bloom of good health”
– Sir Albert Howard

An increasing number of farmers, gardeners and scientists alike are adopting this new paradigm of “living soil.” It’s not like adopting a child or even a family. When you adopt the living soil paradigm you adopt an entire community; in reality, this shift in understanding is an acknowledgment of an entirely new world. It is changing people’s entire relationship with the process of farming, gardening, and scientific study. The time has come to reform our notions of superiority in the web of life. Nature is not an inanimate resource bank awaiting our plunder. It is an ever-evolving dance of mutuality, collaboration, and adaptation. Time has come to see ourselves as part of this dance, not separate from it. Our roles as participants are many. The integrity and health of the niches that we occupy are largely the result of our attitudes and approaches to management.

Citations

The World Goes Green: Eco-Friendly Construction Finally Comes of Age

A nice article below by Sam Marquit – more about him and his work at http://fmarquitv.tumblr.com/

“Green building materials and technologies has never shown more promise in terms of saving the environment and in terms of creating jobs and wealth. Indeed, this industry is set to increase in value from $116 billion in 2013 to more than $254 billion in 2020. If you work in the construction business, you almost can’t afford not to go green.”

“A number of facilities are embracing going green, especially in New York City. Ink48 is a Manhattan hotel owned and operated by the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group Inc. It serves organic foods and beverages — including fair-trade teas and coffees — to guests. It hosts sustainability conferences for members of its Earthcare program. And each of its rooms is full of environmentally friendly features such as recycling bins, ceramic mugs to discourage wasteful paper cup usage, low-flow faucets and showers, and low-flush toilets. Energy-efficient lighting fixtures and eco-friendly cleaning products are employed throughout the property as well. Ink48 recycles extensively. What’s more, many private homes are beginning to follow the lead of establishments like Ink48. For instance, drip irrigation systems are growing in popularity; they’re especially useful in drought-ridden areas. These underground systems hydrate lawns and gardens with recycled water from showers and washing machines. They significantly reduce homeowners’ water bills in the process.”

“Many businesses are also beginning to take advantage of solar power. Hotels across the United States are installing enormous skylights and heating swimming pools with energy from the sun. Outdoor rooms are becoming increasingly prevalent in a wide variety of commercial enterprises and private residences as well. Not long ago, outdoor rooms were limited to decks, patios, and terraces. However, an outdoor room today might be a screened-in porch or an elaborate courtyard. Many of these rooms contain designer furniture, electronic entertainment devices, and even fireplaces. As such, they can be enjoyed at any hour of the day and at any time of the year.”

“Just about anywhere you go these days, there’s an eco friendly building or retrofitting project going on somewhere nearby. In cities of all sizes, businesses are installing sustainable systems, this is especially evident with the green hotels in New York City. In the process, they’re saving money. They’re also making a personal contribution to the health of the environment, and every such contribution helps. ”

Shoutout to the new Sustainable Living Center at Maharishi University of Management and the Abundance Ecovillage in Fairfield, Iowa – 2 examples of what’s possible if we want to take this green building movement close to home!