There are a ton of nature books these days, written by would-be modern-day Thoreaus and Carsons, people who sell self-congratulatory identity affirmatThere are a ton of nature books these days, written by would-be modern-day Thoreaus and Carsons, people who sell self-congratulatory identity affirmations to environmentalists (sensu lato). Those books take two tacks: sentimental glorification of nature in lush prose, and an issue-specific jeremiad. I have read a ton of both, and I still love some of the best ones an awful lot (Barry Lopez, in the former camp). But after reading those formulas so much, and turning those values over in my head for several years, I am no longer really interested in the politics of nature--at least not the entry-level stuff. So it's rather a relief to find a book of natural history that isn't preoccupied with selling its readers on the value of its subject matter, and that doesn't feel the need to soapbox about environmental crises.
Winter World is just Heinrich doing science, observing the forest around his cabin, asking questions, then seeking out existing research and performing experiments to try and answer them. It's a rare book in that it is as much about modeling a lifestyle and a mode of engagement as it is about the didactic fulfillment of curiosity. The closest analogue I've read is Hannah Holmes' Suburban Safari, also a book of natural history anecdotes, questions, and research united only by its theme.
Heinrich's prose is simple and serviceable, never overblown and always careful. He doesn't feel the need to provide generalizable take-home answers to any of the questions that might inspire readers to seek out the book. All the answers are context specific and often are simply that "the answer is context-specific." How do kinglets make it through the winter? Well, a lot of them don't, but the ones that do achieve it by finding enough caterpillars, flocking with other birds for warmth and information, and never getting caught without decent shelter on the coldest nights. It's a good reminder that, when we ask our questions idly, we tend to oversimplify, satisfying ourselves with conclusions that don't reflect the majority of an organism's circumstances.
I am an arrogant boy and I have been learning about this stuff long enough that it took me off guard how many seemingly basic facts of natural history I had either been ignorant of or simply never considered. Birds nests were a minor revelation, a focus on something I'd known in an abstract sense for a while. Kinglets construct nests from moss and spidersilk! There is this whole little economy of discarded body parts, ships made from toenail clippings and houses built from beetle shells and such. Turtles bury themselves in mud and hold their breath all winter! Beavers freeze all their food in a pile under the frozen surface of their pond, just going back and forth from the larder to the dam all winter. They never see the sun, so their circadian rhythms get all screwed up, like college students on holiday vacation. Insects use dozens of means to survive the winter, overwintering as eggs larvae, pupae, or adults, and variously using dehydration, antifreeze and supercooling, controlled freezing, or shelter to avoid death by ice crystal. I'll be looking for overwintering insects in the forest this winter break....more
Life of a Leaf falls in a small subgenre of pop science books, pet projects of charmingly dorky professors emeritus, things they never had the time toLife of a Leaf falls in a small subgenre of pop science books, pet projects of charmingly dorky professors emeritus, things they never had the time to write during their proper research careers. Books like this are a treat because they curate the products of a lifetime of active thought, and because you can feel the authors relax and let loose all the pet hypotheses and ideas for experimentation that never found a place in a grant. Leaf was a special treat for me, since I've read so many pop natural history and ecology books that I despair to find something new and surprising. Physics is intimidating and not in vogue these days, so those books rarely scratch the surface of the biomechanical engineering of plants. As Vogel shows, obvious in retrospect, as plants are stationary and at the mercy of the elements, they must master every problem through engineering. Vogel explores how leaves stay cool in the sun andhow trees draw water up to their canopies (hint: it's not capillary action), why they don't get taller, and how they deploy in the spring. All of these factors and more create a complex matrix of selection factors that result in the huge array of possible leaf shapes and types evolution has produced.
I do wish I'd taken better notes with this one – so much of the material was new to me that I would have learned a lot had I internalized more of it. Would be worth going back to and reading a lot more slowly, I think...more
I stuck with this one a lot longer than I really should have. Assembly rules are occasionally billed as a competing or at least counterpart theory toI stuck with this one a lot longer than I really should have. Assembly rules are occasionally billed as a competing or at least counterpart theory to Hobbs' state/transition model. I found it odd that they got so little press in comparison throughout the restoration lit I'd been reading, so I was hoping this book would fill the gap.
Unfortunately, the whole field of study doesn't seem to have much to offer yet. The intro makes some comment about how the editors want assembly rules to be a just-right balance of generality, not so site- and ecotype-specific that they aren't generalizable, but not so general as to be entirely abstract and impossible to apply. The actual content of the book doesn't come close to this mythical Goldilocks zone, and instead seems cobbled together from old-school succession theory and common-sense ecological principles through a heavy emphasis on a single early succession weed field site in Germany. It's unclear if the whole thing is just a valuable framework or if it just isn't being investigated competently or perhaps if the competent work is taking place under other frameworks, but there's not much of value in this book. ...more
Forest Forensics is a pretty slim book, but it's extremely rich and well put-together. As I read more, I am ever more astonished when I learn a wholeForest Forensics is a pretty slim book, but it's extremely rich and well put-together. As I read more, I am ever more astonished when I learn a whole new way of looking at nature. Wessels is interested in tree life histories, in fire ecology, in restoration and historical ecology. But none of the books on those fields I've read ever approached the most simple, and in retrospect obvious, way of studying forests. As long-lived perennial ecosystems, forests wear their history on their sleeve, and there are many intuitive and simple pieces of evidence you can use to deduce, on the spot, the disturbance history of a forest fragment. That's extremely valuable, the sort of thing any aspiring ecologist should have to learn. I am looking forward to using Forest Forensics on local forest patches in the future. While the content is rich, there is not so much of it that the lessons would take long to internalize. Also, the pictures show what he's describing far better than any field guide I've ever seen. Really well done. ...more
The discovery of the Oak Savanna in Chicago ought to be a major story in the environmental movement and a fundamental myth of the restoration ecologyThe discovery of the Oak Savanna in Chicago ought to be a major story in the environmental movement and a fundamental myth of the restoration ecology community. But it took me nearly a year of research into restoration (inspired by an agricultural system modeled after oak savannas, mind you: Restoration Agriculture) to find this book and learn what oak savannas even are. The restoration materials I've found all focus on prairies as the true territory of eco-centric restoration (wetlands, forests, and mine projects are impure seconds due to their corruption by legal requirements, corporate firms, and non-native species). I was literally trying to figure out how to design a landscape to mimic savannas without asking the questions that would yield actual descriptions of savannas. The numbers I was seeing in The Vegetation of Wisconsin were unhelpful to non-sensical, and I couldn't find species in the prairie nursery catalogs that weren't clearly prairie or woodland species. Even books by Steves Packard (the star of this book) and Apfelbaum (another major savanna restoration figure) focused on prairies and neglected to mention the story of the oak savanna even in passing.
Seems like a shame, because it's actually a fascinating case study of the role restoration can play in human relationships with nature. Depending on how post-modern you want to get, Packard either discovered or created an ecological assemblage that was defined off the maps in earlier schemas. The community was made so rare by habitat destruction, and more importantly was so often degraded beyond simple recognition that it was just shy of extinction until Packard and his team brought a name to it. Packard's practical work on his degraded sites created a new hypothesis for the scientific community and offered what are at least substantial pilot studies on the question of oak savanna communities (the Curtis-inspired academic establishment believed savannas were simply the intersection of forest and prairie, with plants from each depending on the degree of forest cover). It's a substantial contribution to scientific knowledge from practical restoration.
Miracle under the Oaks is nothing more than a serviceable telling of the discovery of the oak savannas. It gives a bio of Packard and a history of the Volunteer Stewardship Network and The Nature Conservancy groups he worked with on the project. The big value of the book was just learning about the story itself: the basic details of what happened, how it was conceptualized at the time, how the restoration and scientific communities responded. It set me on the right track in researching actual oak savanna ecology as a model for perennial agriculture systems, which is a priceless boon for my future studies.
The thing I can't help but wonder now is what exactly it was that Mark Shepard was looking at when he designed New Forest Farm. After all, that was around the same time Packard was causing a big stir. He could easily have overlooked the whole new paradigm, or it could have been a key influence. He doesn't cite a single relevant source in the book, so it's impossible to know. And of course, the science has hopefully come a long way since then, and following that thread is my task for now. ...more
After getting frustrated with how little permaculturists paid attention to real restoration science, I turned to the native gardening movement for ideAfter getting frustrated with how little permaculturists paid attention to real restoration science, I turned to the native gardening movement for ideas on how to mix human uses and habitat value. That was definitely a good idea. As an entomologist, Tallamy focuses on insects here. He discusses many of the lessons of Plant-Animal Interactions (a direction that class should have pursued), using them to explain why native plants are more ecologically beneficial even though bees may seem to prefer imported mint flowers, or rabbits prefer carrots to goldenrod. Tallamy gives some really important on how to implement this knowledge: what numbers and kinds of beetles and butterflies to expect from each native plant species, how to maintain year round nutritional surfeit for seed, insect, and berry eating birds, what they need for cover.
Ultimately I just didn't feel like reading the same stuff I was getting in Noah's Garden and many other resources one more time. But as the restoration goes on, I may come back to this book for some more ideas on insects in the forest. The chapter on insect phyla is worlds more in depth than even most restoration books go, though it's inevitably a bit encyclopedic....more
William Woys Weaver is a sweet, intelligent man and a great historian. In the book's brief introduction, a wonderful picture is painted of Weaver's waWilliam Woys Weaver is a sweet, intelligent man and a great historian. In the book's brief introduction, a wonderful picture is painted of Weaver's warm, loving, family-centric Quaker community and the healthy relationships he has with the Amish and Mennonite homesteaders near him. It also gives a brief but informative overview of the history of seed breeding and propagation and the US, starting from the importation of Dutch and French vegetable varieties to the beginning of commercial vegetable production and breeding for the market. In the process, he reveals some pretty stunning facts - less than a hundred vegetable varieties from before 1800 still exist, due to lack of preservation and the huge amount of breeding that's been done since, largely replacing the older varieties with spiffier ones.
I enjoyed Weaver's emphasis on old varieties, even among heirlooms. This emphasized some of the most obscure and endangered varieties, unearthed some of the most enlightening histories, and adds a sense of complex historicity to the often dichotomous organic food movement (GMO bad, heirloom good). Since I came to the book looking for these histories, I enjoyed that aspect the most. Of course, I would have loved it if Weaver had provided even more of this. A lot of the stories I got a taste of in Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health were not mentioned here - for instance, Robinson discusses the development of modern sweet corn varieties using mutation induced by nuclear radiation, but Weaver goes back to Indian corn varieties before even the pre-hybrid sweet corns. There's a lot of interesting material in there, and I'm not sure where else to go to find it at this point.
From a practical point of view, I didn't note many vegetable varieties per se, but I do appreciate the inclusion of obscure greens and crops that were used to fill important niches in pre-industrial rural economies, but are now overtaken by flown/trucked in out of season veggies. Some of these may come in handy if/when I move into serious food production of my own....more
I think about agricultural ecology and human nutrition and health pretty much all the time these days, and I rarely think about genetically engineeredI think about agricultural ecology and human nutrition and health pretty much all the time these days, and I rarely think about genetically engineered crops. On one hand, the problems, it's not even on the radar. Simply doing agriculture is about the worst aspect of agriculture - destroying habitat for most native organisms and perpetuating that destruction every year by killing colonizing perennials and maintaining disturbance levels that exclude anybody adapted to a stable perennial ecosystem. Soil erosion, fertilizer runoff, depletion of aquifers for irrigation, and toxic pesticide use are the other big problems exported from farm fields.
And the yield sucks, too - low dietary diversity, highly vulnerable to flooding, drought, and pests, and nutrient poor foods. Whether the crops are GE varieties owned by Monsanto or just hybrid varieties owned by Monsanto is immaterial. In some situations important variables could be altered one way or another by a engineered gene - Bt corn probably did reduce insecticide use, and herbicide resistant crops probably increased herbicide use but decreased tillage. A mixed bag, not really solving the core problems with the system, but not making it appreciably worse.
On the other hand, GE seemed to offer no solutions. Crops were designed for an awful system using the shortsighted logic of the chemical arms race logic. The techniques were rarely aimed at perennial crops, and more rarely at nuts. The traits that can be expressed through genetic modification are limited and don't include complex things like increased drought resistance or adaptation to low-input, biodiverse organic systems. And how practical is it to expect the relatively few qualified labs to develop locally adapted strains of every crop for every climatic and soil zone?
A lot of that changed when I learned about the American Chestnut. The chestnut was once the staple crop of the whole eastern north American forest, feeding squirrels, passenger pigeons, native Americans, settlers, and many other species. They were essentially wiped out by an invasive fungus from China. Enough germplasm survives in a few remaining trees to supply a three-pronged effort to create blight-resistant trees. Among these is William Powell's GE program at SUNY Syracuse. The goal of all three methods is to produce a tree that is American in every respect but vulnerability to blight. Powell's current tack is to insert wheat genes that code for an enzyme that defuses the fungus' acid attack. And his method has thus far yielded better results than the other two programs. If the American Chestnut could be revived, it would be the perfect centerpiece of a forest-based restoration agriculture program. Despite the fact that its GMO status would prevent it from being certified organic, it would be by far the most environmentally beneficial food production system in use in the country.
So now I had a reason to think the techniques of GE had a role to play in restoration agriculture, and in the beautiful synchronicity of ideas and learning, my friend Alex put this book in front of me when I was most interested and open to it. I was excited to think about other ways in which GE could aid my goals, making it the ally of organic farming instead of its opposite.
Unfortunately, the book doesn't even try to go in that direction. It's actually kind of unclear what the goal of the book is. Its most salient aim seems to be using facts, stories, and the symbolically cheerful relationship between Raoul and Pamela to educate hidebound ideological readers who kneejerk-oppose GMOs in food (I once saw someone blame GMOs for the rise in gluten intolerance, despite the fact that there are no commercial GE varieties of wheat). They explain how GMOs work, how they are more precise but in most cases not qualitatively different than traditional breeding (moving genes from one variety of rice, chicken, tomato to another), and how the scientific evidence has shown no negative health impacts. Further, how there isn't really any logical speculative negative impact.
If the hopeful audience is rigidly anti-GMO organic consumers, then it's unclear why Raoul must spend so much time detailing why organic practices are important. As far as I could tell, it's because they need to show they're still on our side. Some of the facts in here might make you think they're Monsanto propaganda employees or something - "RoundUp is less toxic than table salt" - if that's the case, why doesn't Raoul use it? Or, conversely, why does he use table salt? The other reason for this section is to show that the problems organic agriculture addresses have little to do with GMOs.
I am sympathetic to their agenda - I find uninformed reactionaries of any stripe annoying, and even more so when they make me look bad - but since the book wasn't really meant for me, it was kind of disappointing. I did get some interesting perspective shifts out of it, including a better sense of just exactly how safe GE crops have been proven to be, how much difference it makes who is setting agendas for the technology's uses (ie, private v. public sector), how GE can accomplish the goals of traditional breeding with much greater precision, efficiency, and speed, and how much the patent debate also applies to organic and open-pollinated seed (I actually had no idea these were patent-protected at all, naively). All of these things were valuable.
I did wish that some other things had been explored, though, living up to what I imagined the book to be before I read it.
1. What potential is there to actually integrate GE crops into organic agriculture, solving its unique problems? What would that synthesis actually look like? Give some creative examples, other than just "resistance to this one disease."
2. If there are practical problems in this effort, discuss them. Is it, for instance, impractical to expect GE labs to help develop or even modify locally adapted genotypes of many crop plants in many production areas?
3. Discuss what would have to take place for that to happen, since at the moment GMOs are banned in organic production and consumers are becoming much more resistant to the concept.
4. What about animals? A GMO chicken appears in an anecdote at the end of the book, but otherwise they aren't mentioned at all.
5. What of modifying pest and disease organisms, like the Florida mosquito proposal?
5. Damn Monsanto et al. more. There was some light mention of how GMOs are made to look bad by evil corporations, but a lot of this was put into other peoples' mouths and tempered.
The Compleat Squash is certainly a beautiful book, with richly colored photographs of carefully lit and arranged fruits. Beyond that, it serves as litThe Compleat Squash is certainly a beautiful book, with richly colored photographs of carefully lit and arranged fruits. Beyond that, it serves as little more than a very, very basic overview of the cultivated varieties of squashes and Goldman's assessment of them. This was useful to me in picking out storage squashes to grow for our CSA next year, but beyond that the book had little information of value. I had hoped, for instance, that Goldman might discuss some environmental history - the wild ancestors of squashes, how and where they were domesticated and by whom and for what purposes; how the varieties fit into the cuisines it was a part of, how it was an essential subsistence post for Native Americans. Oh well. ...more
William Cronon's essay "The Trouble with Wilderness" lays out a critique of the wilderness myth deeply ingrained in the American mind. The gist of theWilliam Cronon's essay "The Trouble with Wilderness" lays out a critique of the wilderness myth deeply ingrained in the American mind. The gist of the essay is that since humans are part and parcel of nature, it is not historically or ecologically sound to imagine "proper" ecosystems as without human presence or influence. At the end of the piece, Cronon urges us to "make a home in nature," "to honor the Other within and the Other next door as much as we do the exotic Other that lives far away."
In Derrick Jensen's essay, Against Forgetting he exhorts us: "But here is what I want you to do: I want you to go outside. I want you to listen to the (disappearing) frogs, to watch the (disappearing) fireflies. Even if you’re in a city—especially if you’re in a city—I want you to picture the land as it was before the land was built over. I want you to research who lived there. I want you to feel how it was then, feel how it wants to be. I want you to begin keeping a calendar of who you see and when: the first day each year you see buttercups, the first day frogs start singing, the last day you see robins in the fall, the first day for grasshoppers. In short, I want you to pay attention."
Though Holmes never acknowledges it explicitly, Surbuban Safari is an answer to Cronon's and Jensen's calls. She embarks on a year-long search to embrace and engage with the wildness of her own backyard. The engagement is thorough. It is sometimes surprising the lengths Holmes went to in completing this book. She names every animal that frequents her yard, learns the language of her local crows, and trains a chipmunk to sit in her hand and stuff its cheeks with sunflower seeds while she showers it with caresses and kisses. She also reads a huge breadth of primary literature and invites a slew of scientists, including a name as big as Amory Lovins, to her house to look for interesting things. (There's absolutely no reason Lovins should have come in service of this project, and she basically admits that both he and she knew as much, and that she just did it because she wanted to meet him.)
The book is sweet and full of genuine care and interest. What's unique about that is that it really seems place-based. While there is a decent amount of hand-wringing about Holmes' own "footprint," her interest in the natural history of her yard doesn't feel ideological. It's like she really means it, instead of just carrying out a mandate to be interested and engaged because it's the "thing to do." That keeps the narrative focused on her actual observations of actual things, real questions that arose in her observations and which she answered, not padded with pretty fluff about the concept of what she is doing.
There were a few times when Holmes strayed from her basic premise. Some of these, like the bits on local history (featuring a Captain's trained dalmation, Spot) and deep environmental/geologic history, were appropriate parts of her quest and fit well in the book. Others, like her trips to visit lawns in California and Arizona, seemed extraneous and over the top. How did she get the money to do all of that, anyway? The idea occurs to me that she was given a larger than necessary budget and just spent the extra money on these trips (and bringing Amory Lovins) and had to incorporate them into the book somehow.
Holmes struck a great balance of science, conversations with scientists, and personal, intimate observations (she's often embarrassed to tell certain scientists about pet ideas and strange relationships she's developed, and we become confidants of these secrets). It isn't a masterwork of natural history, cultural and philosophical observations, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or Sand County Almanac, but it is charming and edifying in a more modest way. Overall, it is an admirable project (indeed, one we should all undertake), admirably achieved, with a sweet narrative personality.
Some things I learned: - Crows live in family groups of four, with a mature mating pair and two children. All contribute to raising further babies, which teaches parenting skills to the adolescents. - There is a breed of dogs, known as Carolina dogs, that were presumably brought here (deep time speaking) and bred by native Americans but were living in wild packs up to the 1970s in the woods. - Squirrels are very distinguishing about acorns. In good years, they will eat white oak acorns immediately, since they sprout in the fall and thus don't store, but store red oak acorns. In even better years, they will only eat the tender top bits and eschew the tannin-rich parts of the nutmeat. In bad years, they will remove the embryo from white oak acorns to prevent them from sprouting, so they can be stored for the winter. - West Nile virus primarily affects birds, and is carried by fiendish European House Sparrows, who are largely immune to it - There is a complex relationship between oak mast, rodent populations, tick populations, and thus incidents of Lyme's disease. - Most interesting of all was the revelation that overwintering insects (those who don't migrate and who survive longer than one year or overwinter as a larvae or adult, not an egg - including wasps and bees) are highly sensitive to deep winter temperatures. Mid-January is the last time you'd think about insects showing activity of any kind. I had sort of assumed that they just hid out someplace and put life on pause, falling out of the stream of life til Spring. Barring chance discovery by woodpeckers and other insectivores, this is mostly true. But the antifreeze techniques insects employ have limits (calibrated to their environment, of course - some arctic beetles can survive something like -40), and a particularly cold winter can have a greater impact on insect populations the next year than any more obvious ecological issue, like pesticide exposure, predator populations, food and nest resource availability, etc....more
Freinkel provided just what I was looking for: a short, readable overview of the history of the American Chestnut in American culture, its decline dueFreinkel provided just what I was looking for: a short, readable overview of the history of the American Chestnut in American culture, its decline due to the ascomycete fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, and all of the attempts to restore it using breeding and genetic modification. She went into personal detail about the main figure in the story, including William Murrill, who identified and studied the pathogen at the NY Botanical Garden; Phillip Rutter, the super badass curmudgeon who lives off the grid on his farm in the woods, is obsessed with evolutionary ecology and history, and co-founded the American Chestnut Foundation; and William Powell, the guy working to put blight resistance genes into chestnuts directly.
I am interested in chestnuts as a flagship, staple perennial polyculture food crop. As far as I can tell (I haven't seen anyone speculate so flagrantly) they were at one point the largest producer of food in the Eastern US. They fed the enormous flocks of passenger pigeons, native Americans and settlers, squirrels, and practically any other professional or amateur seed predators around. Chinese and European chestnuts have been domesticated for ages and easily substitute into a perennial polyculture farm like Mark Shepard's. But I hear the American tree is better - while its nuts are smaller, the trees produce them in greater abundance, and they are tastier. When the restoration program succeeds (and I have no doubt at this point that it's just a matter of time), the tree will be essentially wild. That's what I want: a wild ecosystem that makes tons of food. I am having a hard time envisioning non-native trees in my ideal restoration agriculture.
There are three main paths of research in the modern era include that of the ACF, back-cross breeding to obtain the immunity genes from Chinese chestnuts and then eliminate undesirable genes; that of ACF NY, genetic modification; and that of the ACCF, cross-breeding survivors to stack immunity among 100% American trees. By 2013, some of the genetically modified trees have been planted at the NYBG and elsewhere.
Mark suggested in his talk that, following standard disease ecology, if people had just left American Chestnuts alone when the blight struck, a few would have survived, sufficient to repopulate. In the beginning of the book, it seemed like Freinkel was implying this wasn't the case, that the trees were doomed by an accidentally super-thorough disease. Pennsylvania was the only state to employ a systematic removal plan, and they couldn't convince any other states to spend money on it. But later in the book, people she talks to say pretty certainly that cutting was a major factor in preventing the tree from weathering the blight. While most states didn't enact a formal program to destroy the diseased or threatened trees, the logging industry had been waging that war for decades anyway. Many resistant trees were surely killed simply because they were worth good money. Once they were doomed to die anyway, even people who valued their nuts saw no reason not to cash in on the lumber. It's a good example of the synergy between human forms of ecological destruction - in this case, logging and invasive species.
While Freinkel provided most of what I hoped she would, there were plenty of things I would love to have her talk more about. Perhaps some of this is specious, since the tree may have disappeared before these things were studied. But anyway: more about the ecology of the tree, how creatures interacted with the burs and nuts, where the tree grows and how it relates to other plants, and most especially how it evolved! Tim Flannery implied in The Eternal Frontier: an Ecological History of North America and Its People that the nut-squirrel ecosystem in North America was in some way unique, but he didn't get into how or how that happened. I would also have loved more on the cultural relationship between native American cuisines and economies and the chestnut. Besides all that, Freinkel did a good job, though.
How astonishing and emotional is it that chestnut trees killed by the blight a century ago have been putting up shoots every year since then, only to have them killed by the blight whenever they get big enough? So much trying, so much frustration. Poor trees.
I was lucky enough to see one of Powell's GM chestnuts at the NYBG the same week I read this book. They planted like a dozen last year, and all but one seems to have died, either completely or back to the roots....more
Eating on the Wild Side at first glance seems like a really cool Evolutionary History. Robinson traces the path from wild progenitors through variousEating on the Wild Side at first glance seems like a really cool Evolutionary History. Robinson traces the path from wild progenitors through various stages of domestication to modern fruits and vegetables. She describes how humans, through unintentional natural selection and intentional breeding programs involving hybridization, radiogenic mutation, and genetic modification, have shifted the edible parts of these crops from small, bitter, and phytonutrient dense to large, sweet, and nutritionally impoverished. It thus adds a genetic and biochemical dimension to dietary and health changes from hunter/gatherer or paleolithic diets to agricultural and modern industrial ones.
That's interesting, for one thing, because it shows that the health impacts of the modern diet might not be exclusively due to how much of various dietary components we eat, but also reflective of changes in the plants themselves. It's actually a great example of Russell's expanded concept of biotech, and I'd otherwise certainly never think of heirloom vegetables in the same way as genetically modified crops, but Robinson makes it clear that in both cases plants were changed to suit the demands of a commercial food system. Early-modern plant breeders were most definitely entrepreneurs.
So that's kind of the potential I saw in the book. That potential is made good on, a little bit, in each chapter, as Robinson discusses wild progenitors, where they are from, how they spread, and how they became the plant we know today, and what nutritional changes occurred along the way. These stories are all cursory, however, as the meat of the book consists of an obnoxious series of "variety X has 50 times more antioxidants than variety Y" statements, along with the mealy-mouthed "studies have shown that radishes may be linked with decreased risk of malady x, y, and z." Ugh.
I understand that there are reasons for this. The whole point of the book is to tell readers which varieties of vegetables have higher concentrations of phytonutrients, according to the latest research, and to summarize other medicinal findings of relevance. But it's not as though the book is set up to present that information efficiently as a reference. The tables provided are cursory and provide no actual data, while the text is definitely written to be read as a narrative. It's unclear what she's going for, but she failed.
This stylistic flaw is caused by a deeper problem in food and health thinking. Robinson premises the book on the "discovery" that phytonutrients are "good for us," blanket statement, end of story. She doesn't mention the debate about whether antioxidants, so defined, are really as good for our health as they are made out to be. The USDA went as far as taking down their database on plant antioxidant contents because they felt it was "routinely misused by food and dietary supplement manufacturing companies to promote their products and by consumers to guide their food and dietary supplement choices." So the antioxidant thing is one of many health food fad fixations. I'm not suggesting Robinson is wrong to follow the substantial literature in support of phytonutrient health benefits (specifically when consumed in whole foods, not supplements), the fact that she completely ignored the debate on the issue reflects her desire to jump in and whole-heartedly embrace her pet concept. This also leads her to take a simplistic "more is better" attitude throughout the book.
That attitude only goes so far, however, because she bizarrely considers nearly every wild food off the table for modern human consumption. She begins each chapter extolling the extraordinary nutritional content of wild foods like dandelions, chokeberries, and the wild progenitors of various fruits and vegetables, but always dismisses them as unpalatable, even when there are many ways we can prepare foods to overcome that. She suggests we eat a cup of blueberries a day, for instance, but the antioxidant content of that volume of fruit could be obtained for free from a chokeberry bush at much lower cost and volume - something that could help budget conscious consumers.
As a hopeful future farmer, this information is interesting to me. I want to plant a lot of native and wild food plants, and Robinson gives the clear justification for doing so (though she also both exemplifies and decries the cultural hill I'd be working up to sell, eg, chokeberries).
Robinson's "more is better" simplisticness also causes her to overlook the huge complexity in phytochemicals. She alludes to their intended purpose occasionally, saying they're meant to defend the plant from the environment, and therefore parts more exposed to the sun's UV rays (apples high on the tree), or to the soil environment (root veggie skins) contain much higher concentrations. But many phytochemicals are meant to deter herbivory, and it is therefore somewhat counterintuitive that they would be good for our health. Of course, the answer is simple - some compounds, like anthocyanins, are plant sunblock. Others, like alkaloids, saponins, tannins, cucurbitacins, etc, are simply there to be bitter or toxic, and we generally don't eat plants with too much of those chemicals. I'm not sure what the story behind compounds like allicin, the medicinal component of garlic, or the herbal oils in mint family plants, or glucosinalates (which Robinson assures us are "good for us" just like other phytonutrients), so it would have been nice if she'd bothered to explain. It would also just much more accurately reflect the complexity of the issue - both on the plant ecology/evolution end and the human nutrition end. Both are phenomenally complex, and Robinson does them little justice.
Most of the practical information in the book concerned storage and preparation practices (the rest was about varieties; aside from peaches and nectaries, strong colors, esp. purples, mean more nutrients). A lot of this is pretty obvious: eat the skins; boiling food saps nutrients into the water, so steam instead; fresh food is more nutritious (though I didn't realize how precipitous these declines could be - asparagus loses 40% of its sweetness in a day) so eat food soon after harvest. Others are less intuitive - flash-thawing frozen berries in the microwave is better than letting them thaw gradually, since as they thaw, polyphenol oxidase consumes their phytonutrients. By destroying those same enzymes and by converting phytochemicals into more bioavailable forms, cooking berries (and carrots) also increases their nutrient value.
Perhaps the most useful tidbit concerns garlic. It is exceedingly healthy, medicinal and nutritious, containing compounds that fight infection better than peniccilin. Allicin, one of the best of these, is only formed when cell walls are broken and the precursor molecule is exposed to the enzyme that converts it. The enzyme is heat sensitive, however, so little allicin is created if you crushed the garlic and cook it immediately. Robinson recommends a 10 minute reacting period to allow allicin to form, or to just eat it raw in a hummus or pesto.
These tips, and the book in general, verge on an obsession with obtaining and retaining maximum phytochemicals. If you're consuming fruits and vegetables (which you should be), you should be aware that there is a diversity, not all varieties are equal, and that these differences can have strong effects on your health. But don't get hung up over the 20% of antioxidants you lose when you freeze broccoli, or whatever.
P.S. I think Robinson also makes a misleading mistake about glycemic indices. Most fruit sugar comes in the form of fructose. Fructose is, of course, not glucose, and it is not converted into glucose like most starches, so it doesn't spike your blood sugar. Instead, it goes to your liver to be dismantled and converted to glycogen or fat. However, while it does not immediately spike your blood sugar, fructose is still correlated with the same issues caused by that spiking: metabolic syndrome and obesity. This issue is never raised; Robinson simply gives the reader "permission" to indulge sweeter fruits as though there is no difference at all.
P.P.S. I have to take back my biting postscript - it seems that the fiber in fresh fruit slows the adsorption of sugars and therefore minimizes the spike in blood sugar they cause. So Robinson's cavalier disregard of the ill consequences of fructose is justified. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07......more
"an evolutionary history approach walks right into the house of biology to reach a deeper understanding. One of the questions it encourages us to ask"an evolutionary history approach walks right into the house of biology to reach a deeper understanding. One of the questions it encourages us to ask is why species have the traits that they do. It reminds us that species are not givens; they have histories."
The premise of environmental history is that the full story of human history cannot be understood without extensive reference to the interactions between humans and the natural world. Russell's project is to emphasize, within that field, the specifically genetic, evolutionary impacts made in those interactions. It's a very straightforward, uncontroversial suggestion. Insofar as he's right and not enough environmental historians take this aspect of change into account (The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution is a great exception - you should probably read it if you're interested in a book like Russell's), then his work is a suggestive palliative. But insofar as the idea itself is obvious and makes reference to things that have been studied extensively before - antibiotic resistance in pathogens, pesticide resistance in weeds and insects, and domestication - most of the book seems bland and superfluous.
I did find his argument about organisms as technology quite compelling. He points out that there's no clear reason to separate tools and processes we use for a purpose based on whether they are alive or not. There are plenty of crossover cases in the middle that make this clear - genetically modified organisms, vat grown vitamins, living houses, bamboo-frame bicycles, and biological weapons are all alive but clearly technology. From there, it's not much of a leap to factory farms, where animals are little more than chemical converters of feed to meat. But if it's the intentional conversion of feed to meat that matters, then any chicken raised by humans is "technology" in the same way. And this argument can extend out into some very ecologically complex farming systems. I find that interesting.
He recapitulated some arguments made by others that I found interesting enough to record here:
Russell hypothesizes that human hunters triggered B. priscus to have smaller horns and travel in herds (which is not advantageous in terms of food and land/individual). wikipedia's narrative goes like this: B. priscus migrated to North America around 500 or 250 ka, diverged almost immediately into two species, with the second, B. latifrons, having much larger horns and travelling in even smaller groups. This makes sense in Russell's logic, since the bison lost adaptations to human hunting when they moved to a continent where there were no humans (whereas B. priscus shouldn't have changed due to human hunting pressure - they were already used to it in Eurasia). B. antiquus emerged from B. latifrons around 250 ka, and B. antiquus led to B. bison by way of B. occidentalis by around 5-10 ka. So the spread of Clovis hunters is associated with bison getting smaller.
There are several selective pressures at work on the amount of melanin in skin. Folate breaks down under too much UV, and of course it also causes melanoma. However, UV is required for synthesis of vitamin D. While most humans were dark skinned and obtained vitamin D through extensive sun exposure in Africa, once they migrated out of Africa, they gradually turned to dietary sources of vitamin D (as dark skinned Inuits still did until the malnutrition outbreak caused by the introduction of European diets). However, once humans in northern latitudes shifted to grains and dairy, dietary vitamin D intake was insufficient, which shifted selection pressure towards lighter skin, despite its disadvantages in other arenas. Since vitamin D deficiency (rickets) affects children, it has a much more immediate effect on reproductive success than melanoma, a disease of later life. Russell argues that the shift to lighter skin was aided by the genetic bottleneck of out-of-Africa humans. Russell's argument is supported by this new research claiming that blue eyes (a reduction in melanin production) came from a single mutation around 6-10 kya, approximately the time of agriculture's introduction to the area.
The Industrial Revolution was most famously driven by the mechanization of cotton production in England. However, this process was possible because of long-strand cotton from the Americas - shorter cotton from India didn't produce fibers strong enough to endure the rigors of machine handling. Most historians simply ignore this fact and treat cotton as a commodity, or at best take it for granted that long strand cotton arose in the Americas, simply as a happenstance. Russell wants us to flesh out this story and see its resonance in deep time. Long strand cotton was actively selected for (not to say intentionally bred for) by groups of Amerindians in Peru and elsewhere. The plant was able to evolve the traits desired by Amerindians and later the textile industry only because of the genetic flexibility provided by tetraploidy. That is, the "D" genome of cotton found in the Americas was joined by an overseas migrator bearing the Old World "A" genome. Instead of replacing each other, the two combined, leaving each individual with 4 copies of each chromosome - two in each genome, which differed from each other. These extra copies provide back-ups that prevent mutations from being fatal and thus allow a greater range of traits to be expressed. So Russell argues that this means the Industrial Revolution is a product of active biotechnological groundwork done by Amerindians and of a happenstance migration across the Pacific 1-2 mya....more
While some exceptions have made their way into popular purview - chiefly the understanding that industrial humans are destructive - ecology is still lWhile some exceptions have made their way into popular purview - chiefly the understanding that industrial humans are destructive - ecology is still largely seen the way it was presented by William Paley: a web of interactions in which inefficiencies and waste are pared away by the exigencies of natural selection and where every piece has its function, even if it's not yet clear to us. This is evident in Optimal Foraging Theory and Optimal Defense Theory, which are essentially tautological: whatever organisms do must be the optimal choice to make, because of Evolution.
The Ghosts of Evolution is Barlow's attempt to explode that vision out into a historically complex picture of the world. The premise, of course, is that there are plant traits (mostly fruit, but a few thorns and growth habits are thrown in for good measure) that evolved in response to a specific sort of mutualism that no longer exists.
The book is initially kind of weak. Barlow's premised the whole thing on a "groundbreaking" paper Dan Janzen and Paul Martin wrote in 1982. She's enamored of the idea, she finds it romantic and exciting. Much of the book is structured around quotes from email exchanges she had with the two authors. For a book about such an old topic, it seems remarkably rich in speculation and low in primary research. She constantly presents these anecdotal "experiments" she's done, with the caveat that they're "not real science" so we shouldn't invest any Truth in them, but with the clear feeling that she really wants the suggestions they made to be true, just because she would find it Cool.
While the premise wears rather thin in the first few chapters - it's really sufficient to assert that honey locust, persimmon, pawpaw, avocado, and the Kentucky coffee tree are anachronisms and why without being so repetitive about it - the book picks up when Barlow broadens her scope.
There's a wonderfully intensive discussion of comparative digestive anatomy. She concludes, reasonably, that most of the anachronism fruit eaters were hindgut digesters - foregut digesters aren't made for fruit. She points out that the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction left a continent devoid of hindgut herbivores larger than a beaver - though she uncharacteristically fails to speculate on why this is. Most of the large animals that moved in from Eurasia were foregut digesters. I like discussions of digestive anatomy because they are inextricably linked with forage chemistry, which turns faunal assemblages into keys to and engineers of a chemical landscape.
The beautiful thing about the book is the way it expands our perceptions of the relationships among organisms. Anachronistic fruits are the living evidence of megafauna, and the present distribution of the plants that produce them is evidence of their absence. Barlow's knowledge of the specific histories of animals, plants, and their interactions as continents moved throughout North America's history seems rich and full, which is unusual. I find the whole thing complex and hard to wrap my head around - camels and horses arose in North America, while Bison arose in Eurasia, but they migrated across the Bering Straits at various different times up to the Pleistocene. I really want to learn this deep history with more familiarity, because I tthink the historical, evolutionary, dynamic perspective is the only way to understand the logic of a land community.
Overall, Barlow made an interesting picture and changed my view of ecology and evolutionary history (particularly just noting that evolution can leave anachronistic features as big as avocados for 13,000 years is remarkable). It's not the most eloquent or subtle book, but it works....more
Almost all sources on indigenous communities' foodways treats them like livestock feed, trying to analyze how they can possibly get enough protein, whAlmost all sources on indigenous communities' foodways treats them like livestock feed, trying to analyze how they can possibly get enough protein, whether lack of protein drives their cultural quirks (as in Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Cultures), and why the Inuit eat such gross stuff. Sophie Coe offers a refreshing palliative to that attitude, focusing on the cuisine in which Native Americans combined the vast array of food plants she describes briefly in the first section. Unfortunately, she asserts there is not enough evidence to do this justice for any culture but the three major civilizations - Aztec, Inca, and Maya. And she seems to be right, because I felt that the evidence on even the Inca and Maya was a bit thin too.
But no matter, because just the one solid description got the point across. Coe shows us a wide and complex food gathering and dividing and preparing culture, one that seems to touch and exploit every facet of the somewhat unique ecosystem at Lake Texcoco. She describes how they fill most of our culinary niches with different plants - marzipan made from squash seeds, tortillas and tamales of maize, honey from stingless bees and sugar from agave leaves, axolotl or giant waterbug tacos for the poor, dried algae blocks eaten like cheese, hairless dogs raised on vegetarian diets for meat, and turkey and other forest fowl raised from wild eggs. Spices with flavors totally unknown to us were used to spice chocolate drinks of many sorts, none of which resemble anything we know. Orchards of dozens of tropical fruits that didn't make their way into the modern economy yielded year-round bounties. And everything was consumed with chile broth or whole chiles.
It is at once tantalizingly familiar - reading about tortillas and early salsas made me so nostalgic for Mexican food that I finally made some decent tortillas - and totally bizarre. As it should be. It's actually a great lesson for me now in why it is I can't just reproduce Winnebago subsistence ecosystems - the products they yield are appropriate to a Winnebago cuisine and a Winnebago audience, but they are fundamentally incompatible with my customers' tastes. At least unless I can create a marketing campaign that makes that food seem exotic and compelling. . .
The overall impression is the strongest thing I got from the book - it's hard to communicate so much variation in a digestible form, so that's probably inevitable. The impression was largely a romanticization of the complexity of Aztec integration with their environment, taking so many different sorts of foods from so many different ecozones. But that just made me wish the book had focused more on food production and gathering techniques - I want to know how the Aztecs managed this complex array of ecosystems to produce all this food. But alas, this information either lies in some other book or doesn't exist at all. And woe to he who'd like to know about pre-contact food habits among Wisconsin societies. :(...more
Rambunctious Garden represents a kind of postmodern coming-of-age for the restoration ecology movement. Most readers interpret the book as a straightfRambunctious Garden represents a kind of postmodern coming-of-age for the restoration ecology movement. Most readers interpret the book as a straightforward critique of the movement and its ideas, and the often condescending tone Marris takes lends itself to that reading. Viewed through that lens, most of the book seems to be looking down on someone, but it's never clear on whom and from where. It's each of the critiques that Morris explores was developed by a member of the conservation community. They are environmental historians, ecologists, wildlife gardeners, and conservation policy makers from governments and NGOs. It would be easy to assume that the lay public is the target of Marris's scorn. But of course, it's hard to imagine a book and simply dedicated to castigating readers over their ignorance of environmental philosophy ever reaching the presses.
The book is better understood as a summary of recent philosophical developments within the movement itself. Marris begins by deconstructing ideas foundational to Western ideas about nature—the human-nature dichotomy, the pristine/wilderness myth, the obsession with the grandiose and romantic landscape at the expense of urban and suburban nature. Critiquing these ideas is nothing new—Bill Cronon's pioneering essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” came out in 1995—so Marris is basically just bringing everyone up to speed here.
Her biggest dead horse is the baseline concept. When planning restoration projects, historical baselines are usually chosen, and for good reason. Historic ecosystems are the best shorthand we have for a system that 1) works in a place 2) achieves ecosystem services 3) includes places for endangered native species 4) conserves biodiversity 5) provides spiritual and aesthetic values. In short, it achieves every item on the list of goals Marris compiles at the end of the book, without risking the introduction of new species or the loss of old ones. While there are plenty of issues with the baseline concept, I don't think Marris was entirely fair to those who use it. Having recently read the Historical Ecology Handbook, I know that the process of identifying a baseline reveals a complex pastiche that offers prescriptions that are ambiguous at best and conflicting at worst. All that said, I do of course agree that reinstating a historical Eden with humans in harmony with nature is absurd and counterproductive—I just think that Marris overlooks the utility of the concept in her zeal.
The rest of the book explores interesting case studies in which people are deviating from the classic conservation/restoration formula and getting promising results, from the Pleistocene restoration park in the Netherlands to urban rewilding efforts that acknowledge the potential for restoration to coexist with industrial uses. I was disappointed that, though she referenced Nature's Matrix, she didn't explore the potential for novel ecosystems to be food producing ones (which, fyi, is my graduate research interest, possibly with the authors of that awesome book). Permaculturists have a lot of possibly interesting things to say about the design of novel ecosystems for the Anthropocene. Interestingly, they may be excluded simply because they are not part of the academic conservation/restoration community—reinforcing the point that Marris is not critiquing the movement from the outside, but just describing trends within the community.
Her conclusion is simply a list of the possible goals of restoration and conservation and a brief summary of the issues with each. The take home message is simply that we can't allow ourselves to become rigidly bound by any of single framework, instead adopting a pragmatic approach that analyzes the opportunities and costs and benefits of each situation on its own merits. So while I didn't learn anything new (the bibliography reads like a list of the relevant books I read last year, even including Richard Hobbs' restoration theory anthology--this is the problem with reading too much pop science), Rambunctious Garden is valuable as a self-reflection of the state of restoration thinking. It elegantly sums up most of the revelations and insights I've had on the subject and points in the direction I would like to be heading. In that sense, it would be very valuable as a resource for people curious about what I'd like to be doing and how I think about it. It would just be nice if her tone didn't convey the sense that she's smashing conventional wisdom and exposing fuddy-duddies. We're all on the same team here.
Mark Shepard's presentation at 2013's MOSES organic farming conference was among the most influential, rousing, and revelatory moments of the past fewMark Shepard's presentation at 2013's MOSES organic farming conference was among the most influential, rousing, and revelatory moments of the past few years of my life. He said nothing I didn't already know, but he put all the pieces together in a way that seemed new and showed me that the oft-discussed but rarely practiced ideal of a perennial polyculture could feed people really, really well, and restore ecosystem functions, and be a phenomenally successful restoration ecology project. A farm could heal the land and create nutritious diets in a totally ethical way at the same time, with little compromise.
It was everything I had ever wanted, and it was finally a real option on the table. I am presently about to graduate, I have no debt, and I benefit from an unusually strong support network. I have the opportunity to make Mark's dream my reality. It was also clear that every goal I planned to attend graduate school to accomplish would be simple to do on the farm: fulfilling curiosity by reading academic papers and books, but also by looking and watching and taking pictures: learning to understand ecology by doing it, trying to put the complex system back together and tune it up.
Mark's book, in consequence, was a rather large disappointment. I'd imagined that the presentation was sort of a teaser for the book, but having read it, it's clear Mark is a much better speaker than a writer, and more importantly that his book is nothing like the practical how-to manual he made it out to be. It's essentially an extended explanation of the system and an advertisement for it, with only the most cursory advice for an aspiring practitioner (though of course there were plenty of interesting ideas I took away - I'll get to that in a bit).
Restoration Agriculture is sorely in need of an editor, or a flock of them (in leader-follower mob grazing rotation, perhaps!). It is rife with typos, embarrassing things like "it's" instead of "its" or "compliment" instead of "complement." The prose is invariably clumsy and unpleasant to read. You can see Mark typing it out in Word or something - it doesn't feel polished from that point at all.
Worst of all, he just butchers native bee taxonomy. He implies that all N. American natives are Megachilids, while all Eurasian natives are Apids - ignoring the other families entirely. He goes on to speculate that there is "something about North America" that discourages sociality in bees - dismissing the achievements of all bumblebees and a few Halictids who have been doing just fine at social living here for millions of years.
Mark's treatment of scholarship is upsetting. He constantly throws out claims (most of which I'm sure are true and backed by at least a fair amount of research, since most of it is stuff I'm familiar with from more responsible sources) with clauses like "scientists claim" or "there is reason to believe." He essentially doesn't cite anyone but Paul Martin, and that case feels more like a recommendation than a citation. This betrays not only a lack of respect for the scientists whose work he is taking advantage of, but also a relatively ideological and thin understanding of the material in general.
This is symptomatic of Mark's conflicted relationship with science and research overall. His claims are based in a complex and rich body of work. At many points throughout the book he bemoans the lack of research and development on restoration agriculture systems. This is right - part of the reason perennial polyculture systems are perceived as financially unfeasible is because none of the efficiency-increasing equipment for them has been designed yet. But often he seems to scorn "science" and "scientific theories" and in his presentation he actively encouraged the audience to go plant trees instead of going into research.
This hits close to home for me, of course, because right now I'm essentially trying to decide between going into doing restoration agriculture or being paid to research it (and of course practicing it on the side). Mark makes two things clear that definitely support the latter option: farmers, even those with low input costs, diverse crops, and high-value products, don't make enough money to support themselves, so there's no shame or failure in seeking off-farm work to support yourself; and research is desperately needed, and is still so rare that any new entries would be extremely helpful in guiding new practitioners. Yet in his presentation and speaking to him in person, he constantly heckled (it seemed like) me to not wait, to plant the trees now! Very stressful, confusing, annoying.
While it's clear that literally anything is better than an industrial cornfield (even parking lots are accompanied by drainage ponds, and have lower pesticide loads) and Mark's system is substantially better than any other agricultural system I know of, I'm interested in doing him one better. He has a cavalier disregard for invasives, going so far as encouraging people to plant the Siberian Peashrub because of its vigor. His system probably reproduces many of the ecosystem services we might expect from such a plot. But it doesn't go as far as it could in actually monetizing restoration of modified native ecosystems. The system is advocated for its benefits to the farmer and to society, and the "restoration" aspect is only vaguely referred to with some handwaving about bird species and tree frogs. Mark seems to be implying that if you put together something that resembles an ecosystem, the self-repairing aspects of ecology will take care of the rest.
Thus Restoration Agriculture lacks the flavor of deep ecology, bioregionalism, of love of place, that, for instance, Richard Manning communicates so beautifully in Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie. There's a little too much of the engineer. Members of each canopy layer are interchangeable parts, altering the hydrology is a water harvesting strategy, not a return to free meandering rivers and the “story the land calls forth.” In some ways it's still an organic machine. This isn't just a sentimentalist complaint tied to a misled vision of wilderness – it's pragmatic: it influences the choices you make and the results you get.
On the flip side, this pragmatic lens is a clear advantage. Mark is far more interested in monetizing good practices and achieving financial sustainability than in remaking the pre-Columbian Exchange oak savannah. This is a really, really important line of thinking because it unlocks a wonderfully appealing transition path. With restoration ag, we can restore cornfields to functioning ecosystems resilient to climate change, produce enough food to not only feed urban populations, but feed them in a way that solves serious nutritional issues, and at the same time engage in a restoration agriculture project that pays for itself in cold, hard dollars. Mark makes a number of suggestions that make this track seem feasible, but most of them boil down to putting in every niche an organism that yields marketable products. Large animals in the system are completely replaced with livestock; trees are chosen for their growth rate, timber quality, and edible bits; trees are laid out in patterns that facilitate mechanical harvesting and soil management. Even most of the ecosystem services are meant to reduce work and investment by bootstrapping themselves into perpetuity.
I've been ragging on the book quite a bit, so I want to emphasize the quiet enormity of Mark's idea. He doesn't express it very well (hopefully I can write a better book a few years down the road ;) but it really is totally revolutionary.
Mark does what sustainable agriculture practitioners have been saying they want to do for ages but have never thought they could really get away with. He uses ecological means to manage weeds, pests, diseases, and fertility. He makes food production compatible with wildlife – theoretically all of it. Mainstream organic farmers, on the advice of the Xerces Society, install hedgerows and insectary plantings and windbreaks that provide marginal habitat for insects on the borders of fields. The fields themselves are still essentially “sacrifice zones.” Mark builds the solutions into the system. It's organic farming that finally makes sense, that finally fulfills its promises.
It's the same in nutrition. Organic farmers play up the lack of poison and the nutritional density of fresh vegetables. They're marketing a product that is easy for them to produce, and they're right about those claims, but they aren't actually putting themselves in a position to solve global nutrition issues. Mark instead looks at what people eat and want to eat, and asks how he can supply that in a restoration agriculture system. Unlike most organic growers, he is attempting to create a nutritionally complete diet. Of course, this is the only way the movement can ever fulfill its goals. We can only end the devastating reign of industrial agriculture by replacing it completely.
So Mark's brilliant, incomparable, and endlessly worthwhile contribution is simply the explication and proof of concept of a great idea – perennial polyculture food ecosystems – but there were a few other great ideas in the book as well. His concept of on-farm plant breeding is empowering and exciting, and likely a necessity in dealing with the vicissitudes of catastrophic climate change. It takes the long view of diverse outcomes in succession, acknowledging that if we are going to shape artificial but permanent food-producing ecosystems, we will need to shape the genetics of each component as well, mimicking the locally specific and therefore regionally diverse gene pools found in nature.
While he wasn't particularly good at focusing on deep ecology and his particular place, he did make great strides in integrating environmental history into his design. He brings it back to pre-Clovis North America, to the Pleistocene megafauna, and uses that lens to translate functioning ecosystem traits (like what I saw in Tanzania) into lessons for the farm. I think a lot of the problems organic farmers have when implementing solutions stem from the fact that few people have a grasp of what truly rich and healthy ecosystems are actually like. This insight made me appreciate my lessons in Tanzania much more. It really puts the lie to the zero-sum thinking that encourages specialization and simplification of agroecosystems, showing that many different plant and animal species can coexist productively together. It is the norm in natural ecosystems. ...more