Life Webs


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Adventures with mushrooms

myceliumLiving in a wet climate as we do, we grow a lot of mushrooms, both indoors and out. There’s a nice crop coming along right now on the windowsill of the mud room. (Those will come out soon, I promise.) Our woods are full of mushrooms, of course. Mushrooms cover the stumps and logs of the trees we  chopped down near the house and all the branches that the storms knock down. They even pop up in the raised garden beds, which we made from Amish “mushroom dirt” (used-up substrate).

There are dozens of species, most of them beautiful and some of which I can almost identify. Identification is a tricky business, though (is this a turkey tail or a false turkey tail?), which is why – even though an acquaintance who is a locally famous mushroom forager and chef walked the property with us  and pointed out several edible varieties – I’ve never tried eating any of them.

Even without eating them, we’ve felt we were benefiting from their presence. Mushrooms are good – vital, in fact – for the land, because they recycle nutrients and make them available for new growth. They break down and detoxify all kinds of pollutants. Some types of mushrooms even transmit nutrients from one tree to another, delivering them where they’re most needed. Paul Stamets, in Mycelium Running, which is full of fascinating mushroom lore, calls them “Nature’s Internet.”

Hen of the Woods

Last fall, we bought some maitake mushrooms – aka “hen of the woods” – at a nearby farm stand. They were extremely delicious and extremely expensive. Apparently, they grow under oak trees.  I said to my partner, “We have hundreds of oak trees! Why are we paying twenty-five dollars a pound for maitakes?” I was suddenly seized with a desire to cultivate mushrooms.

Maitakes are best started in spring, but I was impatient and wanted to get a head start. I bought an indoor maitake kit by mail order, set it up in the mud room, and faithfully followed the directions about covering, uncovering, spraying and misting. If mushrooms can grow in the mud room by themselves, I thought, shouldn’t they grow even better with tender, loving care? The maitake emerged from the substrate and for a couple of weeks, they looked like they might turn into something edible. Then – well, I have pictures, but they’re too ugly to show here. I took the mess outside and buried it next to an oak tree stump.

I consulted with our neighbor Gary, who grows shiitakes and oyster mushrooms commercially in a barn. He brought us four maitake kits from his supplier, and I put them in the bathtub in the guest bathroom. Following Gary’s advice, I tried giving each one a different amount of moisture, ranging from fairly dry to fairly wet. This way, he said, I could find out exactly how damp an environment they really needed. I succeeded in growing only green mold. I was starting to see why maitakes are so expensive.

But spring is just around the corner, and with it, a more scientific attempt to get maitakes to grow in the woods – which, I’ve decided, is a more appropriate place for them than the bathtub. Drilling inoculated plugs into logs is the recommended approach to getting them started. Hopefully by next fall, I’ll have maitakes to eat, and beautiful photographs to post here.

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Saving the rainforest

Inga trees in Central America

Inga trees in Central America

The experiments of the Inga Foundation in Central America offer a realistic hope of sustainable agriculture in a rainforest environment.

Mike Hands, a Cambridge University-based ecologist (and farmer), has developed an alley cropping system based on the inga tree, a leguminous tree native to Central America, and is now working to get local farmers to use his system.

The problem: To feed their families, Central American farmers haven’t had much choice other than slash-and-burn agriculture. They clear rainforest trees, plant corn, quickly wear out the land and move on. Slash-and-burn can be sustainable, even positive, when there’s a lot of land and very few people – it mimics natural cycles of disturbance. With heavy population pressure, and especially with the thin rainforest soils, nutrients are quickly lost and the land can’t be restored before the farmer needs to plant there again. The result is ecological catastrophe. Huge carbon reserves are lost into the atmosphere as the rainforest is burned, and agricultural productivity declines – farmers say their yields are only 10 percent of what they used to be. Often invasive grasses take over the fields and prevent any productive use or restoration of the land. That sets up a downward spiral, as ever more rainforest trees must be cut down.

By planting their corn between rows of inga trees and using inga leaves and branches as mulch, the farmers can maintain permanent fertility in the same cornfield and prevent the growth of invasive grasses. The inga, which grows quickly and re-grows quickly after cutting, also provides edible fruit and wood for cooking. Rainforest trees can be replanted in ruined areas, and farmers may be able to plant other areas with fruit trees.

The foundation is supported by several funding organizations, but accepts donations from individuals as well.


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What to do with spicebush

A spicebush in winter

A spicebush in winter

[Written February 2 but for some reason not published till February 10. It’s been too cold and snowy for the last week to continue my census.]

Inspired by the first warm day of the year (a balmy 39 degrees!) and by the amazing book Tending the Wild by the ethnobotanist Kat Anderson, I began my plant census this morning.

After all, permaculture, and gardening in general, shouldn’t only be about planting. The flip side is learning to care for, manage and use the plants already in place – at least those that are usable. If you’re starting with a suburban lawn and a couple of foundation shrubs, that may be an insurmountable challenge. In our case, though, we have a very rich (though neglected) environment, and there should be plenty to work with.

Between the first European settlement in the late seventeenth century and our initial gardening efforts in 2010, I doubt that anyone deliberately planted anything on this land. As far as I know, the land was used only for logging, gravel mining and deer hunting. So every plant that we did not introduce – whether native, naturalized or invasive – is a “volunteer” whose seeds were carried here by wind, water, birds, pollinating insects or truck tires.

We haven’t ignored what we found growing here. Every spring, we’ve happily foraged on dandelions, wild cress, wood sorrel, fiddlehead ferns and daylily shoots, and every summer on wild grape leaves, black raspberries and blackberries (and this year, we ate autumn olives in the fall). We’ve tried a few other edible weeds and learned the difference between “edible” and “good to eat.” We’ve picked wildflowers for bouquets. We’ve flagged the sugar maples, though we haven’t tried tapping them yet, and we’ve made tea from red clover blossoms. We’ve even discovered the favorite foods of the chickens and rabbits.

But what we haven’t done is taken a census of what’s here and tried to understand how the plant communities work – and how they could be made to work better.

So this morning I began in the southwestern corner of the property, at the edge of the creek and the border of our neighbor’s hay field, and immediately realized that early February is not the ideal time to be taking a plant census. Without leaves, flowers or fruit, most plants are unidentifiable to an amateur, if not invisible altogether.

I did, however, establish that the southwest corner is full of spicebush plants.

The spicebush, native to the Eastern U.S.,  is an attractive shrub (attractive even in winter, because it has a graceful form) that grows in the understory of the woods. It can supposedly reach 20 feet, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen one taller than 8 feet. Even in shade, it has deep-green leaves and abundant yellowish-green flowers. In the fall, the female plants bear hard red berries that have an allspice-y scent.

Here’s what I’ve learned about spicebush:

– The berries can be crushed and used to flavor meats and baked goods. You can’t dry them, because they’ll go rancid, but you can freeze them for storage over the winter.

– The berries, leaves and twigs can be used for tea. I tried making some tea today from the twigs and buds; it smelled lovely but didn’t taste very good. The tea has medicinal qualities (like all natural remedies, it cures whatever ails you).

– Berries make good sachets for closets and clothing drawers.

– The plant reproduces clonally for the most part, putting up suckers in the spring that can be cut and transplanted.

– It is a favorite of butterfly larvae and birds; deer browse it too, but apparently not very much.

– It is not nitrogen-fixing.

– It isn’t noxious to other plants or to animals.

Still to be determined:

– Are the branches suitable for anything? Basket-weaving? Barbecuing?

– Does pruning help or hurt it?

– Most important, what other plants does it want to be near? It’s a mid-level plant; what’s appropriate for the upper layer and the lower layers?


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Adam and Eve Were Cold

adam&eveThough we aren’t religious, my partner and I sometimes feel our permaculture project is creating a Garden of Eden. We’re busily planting one or two of “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food,” and if they all grow, and we live long enough, we can spend our golden years moseying around the garden, picking fruits and nuts without too much in the way of labor. (In the Bible, God thoughtfully does all the tree-planting before installing Adam in the garden.)

Of course, right now, in mid-January, our new, young fruit and nut trees, and even our “pleasant to the sight” trees, like dogwoods, are just sad little sticks. One of the persimmons seems to have disappeared altogether. After a warm October and a late first frost, we’ve been having a brutal winter, thanks to the polar vortex that descended on much of the Northeast and Midwest – the result of global warming, we’re told. We’ve stayed warm, bundled up in layers of clothing and running the furnace at full blast. (I don’t even want to see what the next heating bill will look like.)

Meanwhile, our chickens and rabbits are living happily out of doors or in unheated sheds. The chickens fluff up their feathers and go out to peck in the snow. The rabbits grow a little extra fur. I saw a deer ambling down the driveway the other day during a storm; he hadn’t even bothered shaking the snow off his back, though about a half-inch of it was piled on top of him.

Only Humans Need Heat

Why do only we need heat? Clearly, because we’re the only species that lives outside the ecological range it was adapted for. And why can we live outside our original niche? Because we have the technology to stay warm in the winter. Current thinking is that hominids, and probably homo sapiens in particular, evolved in equatorial East Africa, an area with mild climate. That’s why we have little body hair. Those who migrated out of the tropics did end up with less skin pigmentation (presumably to enhance synthesis of Vitamin D when less sunshine is available), but didn’t end up with significantly more hair (presumably because they could procure clothing, shelter and fuel).

All of which makes me wonder again about Adam and Eve. In the story, they eat from the tree of knowledge so they can be like gods – and it actually works; God says, “Behold, the man is become as one of us.” (The myth seems to date from polytheistic times, something I’d never noticed before.) But the experiment backfires. God throws them out of the garden before they can achieve immortality in addition to knowledge, and he condemns them to work for a living, among other things.

The first thing they notice after gaining knowledge and “becoming like gods” is that they are naked and need clothing, and they immediately sew clothes for themselves out of fig leaves. This is usually interpreted as the discovery of sexual modesty, and Adam and Eve’s transgressions are usually understood to have something to do with sex. But in the story, sex is a good thing. They had been told to be fruitful and multiply, and they had not been ashamed of their nakedness.

Here’s my thought: Adam and Eve were cold. They noticed they were naked because, with the knowledge they gained from the tree of knowledge, they ventured outside of the tropics for the first time. They had become like gods – they could go anywhere, do anything – but they now needed fig leaves to stay warm.

The last thing God does, before stationing angels and a flaming sword at the gate of Eden, is to give Adam and Eve a set of clothes that will keep them warm as they travel even farther from Eden. “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.”


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Disturbances

This is a puzzle – a question, not an answer.

In our quest to heal the land – or our little piece of it, at any rate – my partner and I have been reading about permaculture and taking steps toward putting it into practice. We’ve planted ten fruit and nut trees to date, along with some berry bushes, and lots more are due to arrive this spring. We’re working on developing the “guilds” – assortments of plants to fill the other ecological niches – around them.

Permaculture (please excuse this abbreviated description of a very complex subject) is a way to accelerate the ecosystem succession (bare ground –> annual grasses –> perennials –> shrubs –> savanna –> climax forest) and then hold it at the savanna stage, which is considered the most varied and productive. At the moment, we’re working on hurrying along the bare ground and annual-grass areas and haven’t really dealt with the two-thirds of the land that is forested.

The name “permaculture,” and in fact the whole idea of sustainability, suggest that a balanced, self-equilibrating system is desirable and achievable. (Remember the “balance of nature” we learned about in school?)

But consider these quotes:

“Any level of secondary succession is determined by both those levels which precede and those levels which follow, the total ecosystem being the recurrent and regenerative pattern of youth and maturity. A dynamic balance is achieved through the periodic reestablishment of secondary succession initiated by fire. … It is the unnaturally protected, statically maintained forest, brush,  or grassland climax environment that is nonhomeostatic.” (Henry T. Lewis, “Patterns of Indian Burning in California: Ecology and Ethnohistory”)

“One of the most important recent ecological insights is the critical role of periodic disturbance – fire, flooding, insects, windstorms, to name a few – in maintaining species and habitat diversity. Rather than an anomaly that occasionally disrupts climax communities, disturbance is now viewed as the key recurring factor that keeps a mosaic of habitats in different stages of vegetation development  …. [and] assures the presence of plants and animals that characterize each phase of the change from open land to mature forest.” (Glenn Douglas Dreyer, “Understanding and Managing Vegetation Change”)

“Many wetland ecosystems are not only resilient to periodic disturbances but dependent on them. For example, the floodplains of rivers in the western United States used to support stands of cottonwood trees, which are now declining. The cottonwoods rely on spring flooding for the germination of their seeds. However, once irrigation reservoirs were built to capture the snowmelt, the floods ceased and so did cottonwood generation.” (C. Colston Burrell, “The Natural Water Garden”)

These ideas aren’t new – the quotes above are from the 1970s and 1990s. This is just the first time I’ve grappled with them. If a “stable” system is in fact dangerously unstable, maybe we shouldn’t be striving for a stable, self-perpetuating system but rather for a dynamic system made up of many small parts, in which each part goes through cycles of several hundred years.

Native American tribes seem to have managed this quite well, using fire as the agent of disturbance. But again (see previous post), their success was based on very low population density and a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Trying to apply these ideas to today’s densely populated, settled world is more than a little mind-boggling.


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Changes in the Land

changesinthelandThe brilliant book Changes in the Land, written thirty years ago by the historian William Cronon and said to have launched the field of environmental history (though Cronon modestly demurs), set me thinking about  what we mean by sustainability. Specifically, were Indian practices sustainable?

Cronon describes the land management practices of the New England Indians as of the time the English colonists began to arrive in the early 1600s, as well as the colonists’ practices, and the changes during the colonial period as the Indians dealt with the colonists and the colonists dealt with reality.

The outcome was horrifying. The Indians were largely exterminated, and the once-bountiful region was stripped and depleted of its resources. By the early 1800s, agriculture had moved west and New England was shifting to an industrial economy. Where the Indians had lived off the land for thousands of years, the English made it unproductive in a mere two hundred years. People still lived (and live) there, of course, but only as a part of a complex, global economy that is based on depleting resources in other, once-bountiful regions.

The colonists did not intend these results. The first settlers wanted to improve their own lives a little and not have to work quite so hard as they did in England. Early explorers’ (overstated) reports described the land as fantastically rich. Colonists imagined they could sustain themselves easily and make extra money trading with the Indians for furs and other commodities they could ship back to Europe.

Instead, they killed most of the Indians with germs they didn’t know they carried. (There was no germ theory of disease. Pasteur was not born until the nineteenth century.) They devastated the land because they tragically misunderstood how the Indians had managed it and what effects their own practices would have. In fact, they believed their industrious habits would improve land the Indians had neglected out of sheer laziness. This belief, as Cronon points out, sustained their ideology of conquest.

How the Indians Lived

Saying that the Indians lived off the land is somewhat misleading – it suggests that, as the English believed, the Indians simply feasted at the banquet that nature served up. But New England was not a wilderness. Even the tribes in what is now Maine, who did not practice annual agriculture, managed the land by burning the forest understory in their hunting grounds. (They also managed themselves by moving around in an annual cycle to the places that offered the greatest abundance in each season – something the English, with their fixed habits and household-level property boundaries, could not do.)

Tribes in southern New England, in addition to hunting and gathering, grew the famous Three Sisters – maize, beans, and squash. Contrary to the legend, they did not plant fish to fertilize their crops. They also had no draft animals, which typically fertilized fields in European agriculture. So even with legumes adding nitrogen to the soil, fields were exhausted in eight to ten years. Indian women would simply clear new fields and allow the forest to regrow in the old ones.

Indians throughout the entire area burned vast numbers of trees for warmth, in both winter and summer. Even the colonists were amazed by this – one of them wrote that the Indians used fire the way they used bedclothes. In fact, the Indians assumed that the English had crossed the ocean because they had run out of trees for fuel in their own land (which, as Cronon points out, was not far from the truth).

Sustainable or Not?

In several important senses, Indian practices were sustainable: The tribes had apparently occupied the same land for many years before the English colonists arrived. By late winter, they would be hungry, but outright starvation was rare. They apparently had no historical memories of things having once been better (as they did after the English began despoiling the landscape). Though Indian land management altered the ecology – for example, trees that regrew from their roots after girdling or burning, such as chestnut and oak, were favored, and some areas became deforested altogether – the levels of biomass and biodiversity, the two standards of ecological health, were both high.

Yet Indian practices – though they depended only on living resources, not on fossil resources – were far from energy neutral. If you keep open fires burning year-round, day and night, you take far more energy out of the environment than you can put back in. Exhausting fields every decade works only when you have plenty of land. So what made these practices sustainable is that the Indians kept their population density low (by what mechanism, Cronon is not sure) and didn’t even think of accumulating material goods, which their nomadic habits would have made impractical.

Today, with 7 billion people on the planet and little room to move, sustainability has to meet a higher standard. Humans make up such a large proportion of the ecosystem – and we take so much more than we give – that we can’t simply depend on the land’s ability to heal itself after we move on. We can look to indigenous practices for inspiration, but only for inspiration. We have to be way smarter than anyone had to be in the past.


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Trapping Water

Hugelculture swales, or DIY terracing on a muddy slope

Hugelkultur swales, or DIY terracing on a muddy slope

Our property is a long, narrow, wooded strip that slopes gently from a ridge to a creek. At least, that’s what its mirror image on the west side of the creek looks like. On our side, two large, flat, cleared areas interrupt the descent. One is the site of the old gravel mine, near the creek, and the other, closer to the ridge, is the house site. The state Department of Environmental Conservation “restored” the gravel mine some years ago, and now it’s a brushy meadow. Later, in 2009, we built a house near the top of the hill. The east side and part of the south side of the house are built into the hill and buried in mud. This is good for keeping the house cool in the summer. But there’s still a bare, steep, muddy slope above the house and another, steeper muddy slope above the meadow.

Neither of these slopes is an urgent problem. We’ve seeded them both with rye and clover to slow the erosion, and weeds are spreading there as well. The slope above the house drains into a ditch behind the house, which meets up with some other drainage ditches and empties into a pond below the house. (At least we call it a pond; it was dug about a year ago but has yet to fill up for more than a few hours at a time. Except after a heavy rain, it’s a deep crater with a puddle at the bottom.) The lower slope has no drainage, but whatever washes down it goes into the meadow, which may benefit from some extra dirt. Parts of the meadow are still quite gravelly.

But the Hudson Valley is rainy and is particularly prone to what are called “large rain events.” Sometimes, as much as six or seven inches of rain falls in as little as an hour or two, according to our official rain gauge, a ruler in a five-gallon bucket. So, drainage ditch or no drainage ditch, nutrients wash out of the soil, make their way down into the creek and eventually flow into the ocean, where they produce “dead zones.” Considering that the muddy slopes are mostly clay already, we don’t want to lose any more nutrients. Here, as in the rest of the world, topsoil is vanishing at an alarming rate and must be made up with chemical fertilizer derived from petroleum – in no way a sustainable solution.

Hazelnuts in the Mud

Ultimately, we need trees on these bare slopes – trees that will hold the water with their roots. Right above the house, in particular, we need fruit and nut trees that won’t grow large enough to damage the house if the wind blows them down. (North-facing slopes, which we have, are actually good for flowering trees, though not for much else.)

I’m thinking a row or two of hazelnuts would be just right above the house. They are small enough not to fall on us and will produce a delicious, edible crop conveniently close by. Hazelnuts were once an important part of this ecosystem – and they still grow wild in our county, according to the USDA plant database – but I have never seen any around here. (Which doesn’t mean they aren’t here, even on this property. Completing the census of what’s growing here is one of my projects for this coming year.)

But how can we plant hazelnuts on a muddy hill? What will keep them from washing away, and what nutrients will feed them?

In many cultures, slopes are terraced for planting – which is, frankly, a lot of work. Similar approaches promoted by permaculturists involve digging swales, or ditches, along the contour lines, or plowing into the subsoil at a slight angle from the contour lines using what’s called a “keyline plow.” Those methods also require a lot of work as well as heavy earth-moving equipment.

DIY Terracing

What I’m trying – based on Jerome Osentowski‘s ideas, as reported in the wonderful permaculture book Gaia’s Garden – is a do-it-yourself terracing/swaling method. Instead of digging holes in the mud, I’m building up berms along the contour lines with rows of rotting logs. The logs should act like sponges, catching and slowing the water as it runs down the slope and giving it more time to sink into the earth. (If this works, that pond will never fill up.)

In addition, as the logs rot, they return organic matter to the soil, providing nutrients for the hazelnut trees or whatever we eventually plant there. Rotting logs actually make a great base for raised garden beds (this method is called hugelkultur, which you can pronounce in either the German or the English way); following the hugelkultur method, I can pile leaves, compost or rabbit manure on top of the berms before planting trees on them.

Fortunately, we still have plenty of wood from the trees that we cut down to build the house. (The house is concrete; we didn’t use the wood for building.) Some we gave away to people with wood-burning stoves, but the rest has been sitting in piles behind the toolshed for several years, not doing anything particularly helpful. On nice days, when I have a spare hour, I carry logs from the pile and build them into berms. It’s cheaper and more fun than going to the gym. And maybe, in a few years, it will turn the muddy slope into a lush garden.