Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Soul of Soil

I’m here at a co-op house that I usually stay in when I’m in the Boston area and I was looking for something to read.  A novel perhaps?  But I couldn’t find any novels I wanted to read on the co-ops bookshelves.  I was finally settling down with a book on “libertarian paternalism”, when I happened to spot The Soul of Soil on an out of the way shelf.

There it was.  Soil chemistry.  Soil biology.  Compost!  I love this stuff.

I’ve written about soil stuff before (see particularly The Story of Soil, 3/13/10, and Soil Science, 7/20/13) but it’s always good finding and reading more.  This book is especially good because it takes a systemic viewpoint.   It talks about organic agriculture, and regenerative agriculture, and even permaculture, but mostly the authors (Grace Gershuny & Joseph Smillie) claim the title ‘ecological agriculture’ for what they do.

The only thing that bothers me is that they sometimes seem to not understand some basic biology.  For example, the authors appear to need to describe everything as either an animal or a plant.  They actually describe fungi as plants that “do not contain chlorophyll”.  This is a system of classification that hasn’t been used in biology since the 1970s.  But their knowledge of chemistry and the various soil critter seems sound and they even point out that the most common variety of earthworm in North America came with the Europeans and “turned out to be better adapted to cultivated conditions than its native predecessor.”

As far as I’m concerned, I can’t read too much about the soil.  I think that taking care of the soil is key to taking care of ourselves, especially when it comes to growing food or any form of plant life.  The authors use the quote: “Feed the soil, not the plant,” and go on to say “soil organisms will provide a balanced diet to crops.”  I’m willing to forgive a lot to anyone who cares this much about the soil a little mistake or two.  (Plus, this is a really fun book to read--at least if you like soil.)

Quote of the Day: “...to understand soil is to be aware of how everything affects and is affected by it.  We are all part of the soil ecosystem.” - Grace Gershuny & Joseph Smillie

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Tale of Another Two Cities

I’m currently staying in Somerville, MA, my old stomping ground, instead of Staten Island, NY, where I currently live.  And I’m thinking about my life shuttling back and forth between two major cities on the east coast of the US.

I’ve talked a bit about my strange feelings about being a New Yorker now.  (See my post, The New New Yorker, 4/21/15.)  It’s a bit weird for me to go back and forth between the Boston area and New York City, but I still do it.  And each place is different.

Boston is what I call a colonial town with reminders everywhere about pre-revolutionary days.  NYC is skyscraper city.  I mean Boston has skyscrapers and New York has early Americana but history is much more predominant in Boston and gigantic new buildings are what dominate in New York.

Boston is The Hub, the ‘Athens of America’, filled with universities, and hospitals, and high technology.  NYC is the Big Apple, the largest city in the country, home of Wall Street and Madison Avenue, high finance and advertising and the fashion industry.  Personally, parts of New York really scare me--especially midtown Manhattan which seems to vibrate, where things are constantly flashing at you (especially, especially Times Square).  

Both cities are walkable and bikeable and have fairly good public transportation.  (Although the T in Boston shuts down at 1am.)  But Boston seems more human sized and New York can seem overwhelming.  There’s a lot to explore in both places and a lot to recommend both places and some pretty wonderful people in both places.

I like taking the Red Line across the Charles between Boston and Cambridge (or biking across the Mass Ave Bridge) and I like taking the Ferry at night and seeing Manhattan and Jersey City lit up--and, of course, the Statue of Liberty--and looking down the hill from Staten Island across the bay to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.  Both places feel a little like home right now.

Even though I’m living in NYC now, I grew up around Boston and lived much of my adult life here and I imagine (although I can’t know) that someday I’ll come back and start a community here.  Meanwhile, I’m enjoying what both places offer.  I might as well take advantage of the situation.  It’s just what I have to deal with now.

Quote of the Day:  “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jane Jacobs

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Yuletide Comes

I missed writing a post on Samhain again this year.  Oh well.  I seem to remember at the winter solstice anyway.

And finally it’s getting cold in NYC.  After a December full of 60 degree days, temperatures in the 30s make sense.  While no one actually expects snow before (or even during or right after) Christmas,  it’s beginning to seem like winter.

The Yule (or Jul as they say in Scandinavia--as Wikipedia points out) is a celebration of winter--or rather life flaunting a ostentatious tenacity in winter--and the transformation of darkness back into light.  And we need it right now.  It’s important to remember that the cold and darkness and snow and ice are all part of the cycle of the year that we in temperate climates like so much and that spring and summer will come again.  And again. And again.  And we simply need to wait and appreciate what we have.

You can see all my other posts on Yule, the solstice, and the darkness and light but looking at what I’ve written in previous Decembers.  I think I’ve written a post on this every year that I’ve had the blog.  And I hope to write about this again next year.  Because we need to keep on hoping, keep on struggling, keep on building, keep on working to make a difference.  Through the darkness and cold, and celebrating through all of it.  That’s social alchemy.

Quote of the Day:  "So the shortest day came, and the year died,   And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world,   Came people singing, dancing,   To drive the dark away…”  - Susan Cooper

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Viruses, Lichens, and Slime Molds

Life is weird.  Biologists have a basic understanding of what life is, but then there are all these exceptions  There are all these things that refuse to fit into categories.  

Like viruses.  Are viruses alive?  Depends on your definition of life.  One source refers to them as being "at the edge of life."  Another gets around the question by defining viruses as “A submicroscopic infectious agent that is unable to grow or reproduce outside a host cell.”  It further points out that a virus “is non-cellular but consisting of a core of DNA or RNA surrounded by a protein coat.”  Viruses kind of mess up the idea that there is a big divide between living things and nonliving things.  And viruses are at least closer to life than prions which still manage to cause disease in spite of not having any genetic material.

And then there’s lichens.  Lichens are not plants.  Above all, they are not mosses, although they sometimes look like them and even occasionally have names like reindeer moss that would make you think they are mosses.  They are not even one particular kind of living thing.  They are a ‘mutualistic symbiosis’, a composite of a fungi and either an alga or a cyanobacterium, and these two organisms are so intertwined that they act like a single organism.  Sometimes the organisms can not live on their own and other times they can but they look very different. One lichenologist described lichens as “...fungi that have discovered agriculture".  Lichens blur the boundary between the different ‘kingdoms’ of life: fungi, plants, and animals.

Finally there are slime molds.   The slime molds also don’t fit in a clear ‘kingdom’ model.  But what makes them really interesting is that they are a single celled creature that occasionally aggregates into a multicellular being and ends up looking something like a slug.  They’re found on every continent and seem to get everywhere.  They can find things in mazes and imitate highway systems.  Scientist love them.  (And I wrote about them in my post on Emergence on 6/10/15.)

Alive?  One thing or a conglomerate?  Uni- or multi-cellular? Life sometime just refuses to fit into easy categories.

Life is weird.  Life is wonderful.

Quote of the Day: “Everybody knows what a caterpillar is, and it doesn't look anything like a butterfly.” - Lynn Margulis