storm watch

April 7, 2014

It rained here twice in the last three weeks. That’s good news, at least for the time being.

runoff

runoff

California is experiencing a serious drought. Our reservoirs are appallingly low. Our population is high. We are certainly overpopulated for the amount of water we have available, even at the best of times.

Here are side-by-side photos of Folsom Lake, a northern California reservoir that is near Sacramento. At least 500,000 people get their water from this reservoir. The picture all across California is not too different from this. California is in a “drought emergency.”

Folsom Lake, California Department of Water Resources.

Folsom Lake, California Department of Water Resources.

What is this – a drought emergency? Let’s start with damage to the California farming economy. We’re facing higher food prices, less food choice, and significant job losses. Since so much of California’s economy is tied into agriculture and California agriculture is tied into irrigation, this is a serious situation, indeed.

Farm fields will go unplanted. Some predict farmers will pull back and idle crops like cotton, wheat and corn. Maybe they will divert irrigation to orchards. If fruit and nut trees aren’t watered in California, they die. It can take up to seven years to replace their crops. California tomatoes, garlic, onions, lettuce, and melons will eventually increase in cost all across the nation. So will fruit. So will everything, eventually.

Seedling in the desert.

Seedling in the desert.

Ranchers will be hurt. Larger-scale California ranching is a fairly water-intensive operation. If grass/pasture doesn’t grow, ranchers rely on alfalfa, a thirsty crop.

Bless our sustainable ranchers.

Bless our sustainable ranchers.

Rural northern California is hurting already. Nearly twenty communities there face severe water shortages in the next two to three months. The state of California said last Friday that, for the first time since 1960 (that’s 54 years), it will not be releasing water from reservoirs to 29 water agencies serving something like 25 million people. That’s half the people in the state, at least.

What about the Southland? The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) is a water wholesaler for various cities and municipal water districts, serving 19 million people. Southern California has stockpiled water from diverse sources (snowpack from the Sierra Nevada and local mountains, Colorado River water, regular precipitation, and groundwater). Still, the district has asked users for voluntary 20% cuts.

Governor Brown has asked all Californians to voluntarily reduce water use by 20%. Mandatory residential or business cuts of 20% to 50% are in place for some communities, mostly in the north from what I’ve heard.

I want to talk about groundwater in southern California later. It’s not a pretty picture. None of this is, really.

Back to mega-drought. Governor Jerry Brown has very recently advised us that this upcoming year could bring a “mega-drought.”

We’re hearing that term “mega-drought” tossed around. It sounds like one of those D-grade films on the SyFy Channel that I sometimes can’t stop watching.

You know, though, it’s not hyperbole.

Folsom Lake, above, is at 17% of its total capacity. Two and a half years ago it was at 97% of its total capacity. Last year brought California 7.48 inches of rain. That’s the lowest amount in 119 years of record keeping. In fact, that’s less annual precipitation than my region of the southern Mojave is “supposed” to receive, as an average.

Marc Reisner once said that California had a “desert heart.”

Many have pointed out that much of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County are located in harm’s way.

Housing tracts have been placed on floodplains and in wildfire zones. Large industrial districts, entertainment complexes and vast tracts of housing, not to mention city centers, are constructed on and near filled-in wetlands and liquefaction zones (bad news in earthquakes: sands and silts give way, causing roads and buildings to collapse).

The potential for earthquake tragedy has not been fully fathomed. Mike Davis has quoted seismologist Kerry Sieh maintain (after the 1994 Northridge earthquake), “Until this last year I was never truly scared. Now, I am.”

FEMA photograph of Northridge earthquake taken January 17, 1994, by Robert A. Eplett.

FEMA photograph of Northridge earthquake taken January 17, 1994, by Robert A. Eplett.

Every year, now sometimes twice a year, Californians turn on their TVs to watch nearby wildfires eat up acres of land and often homes and businesses.

My desert's on fire.

My desert’s on fire.

And now we are hearing about some kind of frightening mega-drought. I have lived in southern California since 1974. The real consequences of building one of the world’s economies in a region with a “desert heart” and building it with a flourish are rarely considered.

The news of the day is full of talk about “not enough water,” “I will not be able to wash my car,” “how will I take a 10-minute shower,” and potential effects on local lawns. We really need to start talking seriously about what it means to be overpopulated in an environment that cannot carry all of us.

In the Middle Ages, California experienced two serious droughts, droughts that some of my students might refer to as “epic.” And epic they would be since they lasted 140 years and 220 years.

These days we talk about long-lasting droughts of a decade, or close to a decade. The medieval mega-droughts have been carefully measured and dated in northern California, in the eastern watershed of the Sierra Nevada and they encompass a time scale unlike any we’ve been experiencing or even speculating about . There is also research in paleoclimatology that shows while the water in the eastern Sierra was drying up, the salinity of San Francisco Bay was climbing precipitously, indicating a serious lack of fresh water flowing into the bay.

SF Bay

SF Bay

SF Bay and city.

SF Bay and city.

Here in the south, things were not much better. In Santa Barbara, Orange County, and coastal Los Angeles, the huge droughts of the Middle Ages had an effect as well. What is now coastal Los Angeles County with its Mediterranean sort of ecosystem was a semi-arid zone backing up to the Pacific Ocean.

There is global paleoclimate evidence that the great Medieval droughts of the California region were part of a global pattern of climate anomalies.

Those droughts of the middle ages were natural occurrences, global interactions of ocean and atmosphere and polar ice, that flipped a climate switch and created a worldwide series of changes, including massive and prolonged drought in many parts of the world.

To keep things interesting, climate studies show that the normal temperature and precipitation amounts recorded in California over the last 150 years or so are at odds with any real, long-term conditions. California Gold, our mild and beautifully Mediterranean climate, has been documented over about 150 years of West Coast modernity. What we’ve documented is an anomaly. We live in a climate anomaly. We have been recording one of the wettest, yet, mildest periods of California history.

Marc Reisner was correct, in a deeply perceptive, maybe almost prophetic, way.

First, we are living with false norms as far temperature and precipitation go. Second, the reports of the UNIPCC indicate that California will suffer decreased rainfall, seasonal shifts, increased fire dangers, and potential for alternating severe drought and floods. Increased anthropogenic climate change is not going to ameliorate the potential for disaster here in the Golden State.

The upshot is that climate change along with our current drought could increase many risks of living in California.

What would happen if we were to be plunged into a drought like either of the very severe Medieval droughts? What would happen to our cities, our farmland, all of our infrastructure? Throw in a major earthquake, something the geologists have been predicting for several decades, particularly on the southern portion of the San Andreas Fault, and then what?

Dust Bowl. California. Now.

Dust Bowl. California. Now.

Good grief, I’m not an apocalyptic person. If a woman like I am, one searching out the calm ponds in life, can acknowledge this is happening, in fact can KNOW this is happening, friends, it’s time to take a long look at the disaster-prone region we have chosen to inhabit. There are no extra scraps on the table in Sacramento, sadly, to mitigate this.

Any chance we might look to Boulder, Colorado with its slow-growth ordinances intended to limit residential growth? Could we develop an interest in zoning regulations that take ecological factors into consideration in new ways? I honestly don’t see this happening. People want to build and live in the chaparral, profound fire danger be damned. Before I lived in this desert, I resided in a mountain village here in southern California that had the San Andreas fault running directly through it. In addition, the forest land surrounding the village was/is filled with pine trees riddled with bark beetles, producing a huge fire hazard each dry season. Now, it’s all dry season. We were blithe about the fire danger. We somehow considered the bedrock of our mountain a protector against shaking on the fault line. Human nature? I don’t know. At least when I grew up in Tornado Country, we all had basements and storm cellars. There was some sort of tentative respect for the elements.

So, southern California.

Are we going to stop building in ecosystems where the native plants are adapted to fire in order to germinate? Those ecosystems would be our beautiful hillsides, everywhere up and down the Golden State. Are we even going to insist upon more stability and soundness in our built environment, for everyone?

Finally, are we going to insist that our children and young people be provided with an education that not only (possibly) includes but clearly forefronts regional environmental education so that they can make intelligent and socioecologically sound, reasonable, and just decisions as the years unroll?

If we decide that’s a good idea, where will we get the money to do it? Even an old unschooler like me, even I cannot continue to run a learning center like this on a shoestring forever. Or can I?

Maybe this is exactly what learning toward a safe and sustainable way of life will look like – a series of learning centers running up and down the state, each one connected to the next in a patchwork.

Rural, exurban, suburban, urban. Maybe we will have to begin to implement environmental solutions on producing farms, in backyards, on hardscrabble country farms, in small-scale household gardens, in city yards, on donated city land.

farm-based learning.

farm-based learning.

Weeding the orchard. It's almost her birthday here!

Weeding the orchard. It’s almost her birthday here!

Books to look at:
Davis, Mike. (1998). Ecology of fear: Los Angeles and the imagination of disaster. New York: Vintage Books.
Reisner, Marc. (1986). Cadillac Desert: The American West and its disappearing water. New York: Penguin.

pedagogy…

April 7, 2014

Last night someone whose opinion I trust indicated to me that using the term “pedagogy” was really not going to fly for me. I think he was laughing at me for using that word to explain something to him.

Heck, I decided the same thing years ago. I don’t really believe in something called pedagogy. I think there is something called teaching and something called learning. We teach sometimes and we learn sometimes.

All of those years homeschooling/unschooling a houseful of kids and working with co-ops pretty much eliminated for me the whole idea of pedagogy as a viable process. Maybe it’s a convenience word for educators to use when talking to one another.

erin

In a supportive environment, people learn if they are engaged with their work, if it makes sense to them, if they feel it is relevant to their lives, and if they feel they can actually do it. Right?

aaron and the drill_sm

Illich talked about the “educational church,” a dogmatic, transmissive mode of teaching and learning that so many of us sought to eliminate in our home environments.

We wanted to revise the architecture of pedagogy itself: creating a learning environment in homes, in learning centers that do not necessarily resemble modern Western schools. We wanted to develop a variety of enriching environments around any given community. I know I did. And I wanted to be within the natural world.

desertgrl

In sustainability education, I suspect most facilitators want to foreground direct experience of the natural world. Nature becomes teacher in theory and practice.

I have liked thinking about teaching and learning as an ecology for a long time, when my kids were all at home, before my grad school adventure. That’s one reason I liked calling the workshops at RSF “learning ecologies.”

outdoors 1_29_11

With a working agroecosystem at the center, I like to think we’re building a regenerative, enriching community environment.

Interactions that occur between human beings, their built environment, and nature on a small farm can help avoid splitting ecologies into “the human” and “the natural.” I think this is healthy for the humans and for the other-than-human world. We’re all in the matrix. We all are the matrix.

CIMG1990_2

In “pedagogy” we become overly theoretical and our mind-body connection is ignored. We become all mind, no body. I think we learn better when we acknowledge the body as much as the mind in learning and when we become earth-based, even seasonally oriented with an organic punctuation. The mind-body connectivity is experienced.

Well. that's over.

Well. That’s over.

I am not convinced that it is possible to address education in terms of theory. I prefer to think we are generating recursive learning ecologies. Our work is process, it never actually ends and continually builds upon what came before.

If pressed to define the learning ecologies at Rainshadow Farm in academic terms, they might be called holistic community-based learning workshops that are collaborative, engaged, eco-justice learning situations, all deeply place-based. Okay? Not pedagogy.

CIMG1415

In addition, these workshops are dynamic and seasonal. They emerge from the very context of the farm and the specific participants/learners present.

snowbuddha2013_closeup

The ever-present hope is that they will become transformative to all concerned.

kath with desiree greenhouse_2

I was pretty much expected to go against my own grain and use the term pedagogy in my graduate school years. That’s okay because it was what it was.

What do we do at RSF? Community farm pedagogy. What do we really do? We learn together and we teach one another.

We can grow barley!

We can grow barley!

ripple effect

April 7, 2014

So, this is how we are embedded in our place.

ripple effect

Speaking personally, my current place is the southern Mojave Desert where it stretches from the eastern face of the San Gabriel Mountains eastward to Lucerne Valley. The geo-region, the southern Mojave Desert, part of the North American desert biome.

Part of Mojave River Watershed.

Part of Mojave River Watershed.

I felt last week in Sedona as if I’d moved from one yard to another, so many facets of the natural world were connected in spite of that great barrier the Colorado River and the many mountain ranges in between. Nature is relentless and very persistent. Always on the move.

Manzanita in the San Gabriels.

Manzanita in the San Gabriels.

Manzanita in Sedona.

Manzanita in Sedona.

RSF manzanita

RSF manzanita

Ripples of belonging move from the most personal, inner places, and externally (if you forgive the dichotomy) from the area surrounding our home, outward.

Discovery. Sisters.

Discovery. Sisters.

In holistic farm pedagogy, nature is viewed as mentor; nature has intrinsic value, rather than being humanity’s own endless resource pool or humanity’s sewer.

Here at RSF, I hope to understand ourselves as human persons within an environment that includes other nonhuman persons. Such interdependency between the human organism and its environment may involve a paradigm shift for those who are envisioning a more sustainable future. In some settings, particularly urbanized zones, even growing our own food is a potentially revolutionary act. Gardening and growing food is not only inherently pedagogical, it is potentially transformative on many levels.

Beechey ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

Beechey ground squirrel by Erin Ward.

Young exurban gardener.

Young exurban gardener.

backyards are the beginning…

April 7, 2014

Backyards are the beginning of a bioregion for a child.

kira1

My backyard (and my front yard too, for that matter) in a rust belt city held all the wonders that helped make me the person I am today. Nature helped me survive to full adulthood and it began in a backyard.

For me the backyard was more mysterious and more deeply natural than the front. The centerpiece was a centuries-old apple tree. It was one of the wonders of that neighborhood. I didn’t realize it at the time. I was often more interested in the cherry tree two houses down where our neighbor, an older woman let the neighborhood kids sit and eat fresh sweet cherries while we socialized. Or the extremely overgrown yard in one of the houses behind ours. There were things that bloomed there, brushy plants and several trees. Neighborhood children who lived next door said a witch lived there. We were afraid to explore that yard. I expected that if the householder was a witch, she’d be ready to go on Halloween, but I never saw here even then.

Over the long haul, though, the apple tree was my friend. It was inconceivably large with cartloads of fresh apples and thick branches to climb on. It reached up past the balcony jutting from my parents’ bedroom. If I went out to sit on the balcony, I was in the midst of the tree top. When my parents had to get those branches pruned back I always was a little sad.

The backyard is where I had my first garden. It was where every spring, masses of purple woodland violets popped up in the grass. They made me happy. To this day, I make sure I have at least a few bunches growing somewhere, even in this desert. Even if they’ve had to be in a pot, I’ve kept them. At my old farm, they gladly grew wild in the edges of areas where I had to drip irrigate fruits and vegetables. Here, at RSF, the ground squirrels like to eat their rhizomes. I will figure out a way for the violets, the squirrels and myself to coexist. Hopefully without my ever-present poultry wire cages!

The back yard had a fort for my friends and I. It was an old lean-to sort of shed that was covered with some kind of wild grape. Maybe Concord, gone wild.

There were animals and birds. City animals and birds but they were as magical to me as any.

When I try to bring up my first memory on earth (I’m one of those weird people who remembers elements of my own birth, so we’ll exclude that for now), I see the interplay of light and shadow with green, green of all shades. Once when I asked my mother about that, she told me that it may have been when she used to put me outside, under the trees in the backyard, in my baby carriage. I’m old enough that I traveled about in a baby carriage, not a stroller. And I’m also of an age and time that I never experienced a wrap or a baby sling, like my children did.

Each backyard meshed into the next. Every one of them had a different character. Some had shrubbery to crawl into where we could play for hours. Some had a woodland feel. Some had interesting outbuildings to explore. One had a huge horse chestnut tree, even more imposing than my backyard apple tree. The trees gave me a sense of humility and the sure knowledge that I wasn’t the first to step on this land.

It wasn’t a far walk to the wooded ravines, with creeks at the bottom and mysteries to explore. It wasn’t far to the river. This was a river city and we lived nearby the water. All of this was my wilderness and it formed me. Hikes along the muddy riverbed. Borrowing a little rowboat to cross the river to a mysterious island.

As children we moved easily from the backyards through the neighborhoods and into the general ecosystem of the region. This was true whether I was living in Ohio or at my aunt’s in Connecticut.

When I lived in Houston and Bowling Green, I lived the same way. The campus became my yard and I moved out from there to learn the ecosystem. Brays Bayou. Corn fields upon corn fields and on to the oak woodlands.

This has been true for my own kids. The older kids flowed from backyards perched on a mountainside up through the fire roads and across our part of the east face of the San Gabriels. this was true for the middle kids as they explored a landscape very much like the one we inhabit now, on our first farm.

And the younger kids have experienced both city ecosystems and those here at RSF. It always seems to begin with the backyard.

Katie with Chickens by Sam

Katie with Chickens by Sam

At work.

At work.

At work in chicken coop, farm day.

At work in chicken coop, farm day.

ripple effect for developing a sense of belonging

April 7, 2014

ripple effect

More to follow….

On Fukuoka

April 7, 2014

“I do not particularly like the word ‘work.’ Human beings are the only animals who have to work, and I think that is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Other animals make their livings by living, but people work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive. The bigger the job, the greater the challenge, the more wonderful they think it is. It would be good to give up that way of thinking and live an easy, comfortable life with plenty of free time. I think that the way animals live in the tropics, stepping outside in the morning and evening to see if there is something to eat, and taking a long nap in the afternoon, must be a wonderful life. For human beings, a life of such simplicity would be possible if one worked to produce directly his daily necessities. In such a life, work is not work as people generally think of it, but simply doing what needs to be done.”
~ Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution 

 

Masanobu Fukuoka has probably been my deepest agricultural influence, followed by Wes Jackson. So many others have influenced me: Wendell Berry, J. Russell Smith,  Rhonda Janke from K-State, Pramod Parajuli from Nepal and Prescott, AZ.. I also have to acknowledge many others: local friends and acquaintances who farm and garden in the high desert and around the world.

But it was One Straw Revolution that truly set me on the path I’m on today. I think as I approach my winter season of unemployment, I must sit down and read through the book one more time.

I had forgotten the quotation above until I saw it on a FaceBook friend’s page. This very idea has been playing across my mind for a long time, especially over the last few months. I find my heart and soul heading in this direction no matter how my mind tries to pull me back to “sensible thinking.” I have actually been living “doing what needs to be done,” for the last two and a half years. But I’ve been doing it under duress. Now is the time to change course and understand how to do it with joy.

I have a set of sensible projects already listed out for my winter time of scarcity and unemployment.  My kids have some plans too, all of them freeing and joyful. There are so many strong reasons these kids are in my life. I can only hope I give back to them half as much as they extend to me.

I will probably carry on with my sensible projects. One is a promise to a mentor. One is a promise to my farmstead.  Given the nature of high desert farming it is subject to change and modification (long story short, I want bees and more trees).

As for doing what needs to be done, I’m going to be all in. I am all in.  This could transform a season of worry and a yearly cycle of fear into more beauty and more joy.

Snow Buddha

Snow Buddha

earth art

April 7, 2014

I’ve been thinking about earth art in the desert. At RSF we “collaborated” with the soil to produce paintings on canvas.

Soil Art, framed, 2013

Soil Art, framed, 2013

I would like to see more art installations at Rainshadow Farm. Earth art or earthworks are perfect for a high desert landscape.

Mini-installations have been created around the cactus food garden, using plant arrangements, rock, pebbles, logs, branches, fallen Joshua tree branches and leaves, recycled concrete, glass and metal pieces, bricks, bones, pottery, and metal containers.

Lone mesquite by the cactus garden

Lone mesquite by the cactus garden

Nascent communi-trees at RSF.

Nascent communi-trees at RSF.

Parideaza Farm has “written the book” for contemporary farm art. She calls it “articulture” and I wish that she would soon publish so that everyone can see what is possible in the intersection between agriculture and art.

The landscape of the farm produces the media for this earth art. To some extent, the design is ephemeral, subject to the actions of nature. New elements are added each year, sometimes each season. This artwork is land-specific and farm-specific.
One of my first loves was visual art. Eco-art was a part of my creative outlook from a young age. When I was a teen I often ride my bike to the local library and picked up books explaining how to make paints from natural materials.
I remember experiments with flour, clays, linseed oil, turpentine, milk, egg yolk, crushed minerals/earth pigments. I painted onto plywood boards, Masonite panels, and canvas. I also crushed flowers, fruits, berries, and seeds for paints. I painted watercolors with these and with strong teas and herbal infusions. I knew that people used black walnut husks to make a type of paint, although that was something I never tried.

I have friends who have made their own paper from earth materials.

Really, the possibilities are endless.

Getting down to the practicalities for RSF, it’s vital to remember that some forms of outdoors earth art will be more permanent than other forms.

It is dry during much of the year. When it’s not dry, we may be flooded. The simmer can bring very high temperatures. This summer, we had days with 30 degrees difference between the highest daytime temperature and the coolest temperature that night. The sun can be intense; winter days and nights at any time of year can be cold. We have wind. Storms with winds of 60 mph are not unusual. Winter nights with strong winds can be bitterly cold. The winds can be strong enough to blow farm structures away, as local farmers and gardeners know too well and have often experienced. This would be true for earth art. The relentless sun can cause changes in materials used in art. Paints can fade; glass can change color. Glass may contain elements that intensify or darken in color when left outside. Animal visitors may capture, eat, or toy with the earthworks, depending what is used in their construction. This doesn’t bother me as I see earthworks in the farm yard as ephemeral art.
Our soil close to the house has a great deal of clay. It floods when there are rains and in some places it sinks, other places it may crack. All of this might be considered when creating an installation. Out past the orchard, the soil is much sandier. I can think of two issues with this soil. First it can be blown by the wind and affect the art. It can “sand” the surface of a work of art.

The work below would probably not work at RSF. However, fabric elements and inclusion of trees might be incorporated into the landscape.

Poetry Tree 2012

Poetry Tree 2012

Art and Poetry Tree, Long Island, 2013

Art and Poetry Tree, Long Island, 2013

The Poetry Tree: installation by Lidia Chiarelli (Immagine & Poesia) as a homage to the Italian poet Guido Gozzano. Agliè (Torino)- June 2012

Spiral Jetty

Spiral Jetty

The installation above likely wouldn’t work here because I’m not willing to bring in earth-moving equipment to create piles of earth, displacing the local ecosystem. Robert Irving Smithson (1938-1973) created it in 1970 at the Great Salt Lake in Utah from piles of rock, earth, and salt. At times the spiral jetty has been submerged, as the water level in the lake has fluctuated.

The Nazca lines (400-650AD) are ancient earthworks. Lines were created by removing dark red surface pebbles on the desert soil, uncovering lighter earth underneath. There are dozens of these earthworks, in the shapes of animals, trees and flowers.

Nazca Monkey

Nazca Monkey

These are macro-earthworks, visible from foothills nearby their location.

The concept of drawing on the earth with the earth could be questionable from a modern ecological standpoint. Parts of the Mojave Desert is covered with cryptobiotic soils that holds the soil in place. This soil formation is fragile; if disturbed, it can take anywhere from several years to a hundred years to regenerate, depending on how fast any given soil component grows. Cryptobiotic soils are fascinating by themselves. They are a work of nature composed of living algae, cyanobacteria, fungi, lichens, and mosses. They contribute to the health of the desert ecosystem by stabilizing soils, maintaining soil moisture, and functioning as nitrogen fixers. I suppose if you wanted to create a Nazca-style set of earthworks in the Mojave Desert, you would only need to scrape away enough of this fragile soil to reveal the earth below it and you might have a work of earth art that would last a very long time. That is, a long time unless one of our flash floods came along and washed the whole thing away.

Blue gray Lichens in Apple Valley

Blue gray Lichens in Apple Valley

This may be a moot point at RSF as this area has been built upon, walked upon, and developed in other ways for over a hundred years. I’m not inclined to want (or be able to afford, for that matter) to bulldoze most of the back acre of land to inscribe a raven figure, as interesting a project as that might be. The largest Nazca figures are 660 feet across, which, if we were determined to replicate this type of earth art here, would require a big chunk of the land behind the orchard. It’s not going to happen.

Still, even without creating monolithic earthworks, the possibilities at RSF are endless.

We’ve already found the soil near the house can be turned into a reasonable adobe. We can sculpt. We have already experimented with our small earth oven. It works. We can use the soil to help build adobe benches or even a larger desert earth oven.

RSF quick built adobe oven

RSF quick built adobe oven

Ephemeral outdoor, environmental art. Natural materials, found objects (lovely since the desert is everyone’s dumping ground), installations of all kinds. Art for Rainshadow Farm. Art for us all.

Weeds and more (much more, in fact, really long)

April 7, 2014

Erodium cicutarium, usually known as red-stemmed filaree or common stork’s-bill, is native to the Mediterranean region and was introduced to California in the eighteenth century. There is archaeological evidence for the presence of red-stemmed filaree in adobe bricks from the Spanish mission at Jolon in San Luis Obispo County. In the Central Valley of California, pollen from filaree has been identified in layers of mud dating to the 1700s.

There is evidence, in fact, that filaree invaded Alta California from Baja California before the arrival of Spanish livestock in 1769 (Mensing, 2006).

Why do I care?

Here, look.

This is filaree.

This is filaree.

What you’re looking at is a herbaceous annual (in some warmer regions it is considered a biennial). I am going to be calling it a perennial here at RSF. I’ll explain.

Filaree is called an invasive weed in the deserts and arid grasslands of the United States. Calflora.org (my serious go-to for native plants) has it listed as invasive, not native in red with caps. That’s some strong indicator of what California botanists think of “invasive weeds.”

Plant migrations are interesting. When a plant has no immediate and appealing food value (even simple culinary value, as in spices) we tend to think of the plants as weeds or even as a nuisance.

I’m guilty.

While J3 and B were out shooting some hoops I was using a Magic shovel to uproot filaree in my front yard. I’ve already cleared most of it from the orchard. I don’t own a tractor. (Honestly, I’d like to own a small one, permaculture values aside. Go ahead, call me a hypocrite. And then try eking some food out of this high desert.)

And, yes, there really is a Magic shovel. They are great in archaeology for getting nice square sides on units. They are also very nice for backfilling. Sorry, I can’t find a link. That’s just sad.

So I’m yanking by hand and shoveling like a maniac. All the while I’m saying, “Any plant that can grow in the midwinter and freaking bloom when the nights are freezing is going to take over the world.”

Every one of my kids, when they were little, would gather handfuls of these little pink to purple flowers and lovingly bring them to me. I have a small collection of colorful little handblown Fenton glass vases from my mother that I used to put these precious flower offerings into. One child so sweetly told me “look how tiny and they’re so beautiful…” Yes, they were, seen through the eyes of a child in which everything is scared. And then I’d feel guilty as I went out to the orchard and tore the plants out by the handful.

Some Fenton glass vases.

Some Fenton glass vases.

Picture a couple dozen or so of these in a vase.

Filaree in flower.

Filaree in flower.

Are they weeds (plants where people don’t want them) or are they food?

Naturalized annuals such as red-stem filaree (Erodium cicutarium), curly dock (Rumex hymenosepalus), wild oat (Avena spp.), various brome grasses(Bromus spp.), and wild mustards (Brassica spp.) became successfully established in California deserts and grasslands with the spread of Spanish livestock in Alta California, maybe before that time (Crosby, 1986; Mensing, 2006). Many early Euro-American explorers, settlers, and ethnobotanists have mentioned these species. Quite often they are mentioned because Native Americans had found uses for these plants and told the newcomers.

Rumex, Curly Dock, Canaigre, Wild Rhubarb

Rumex, Curly Dock, Canaigre, Wild Rhubarb

Brome grasses - a fire hazard - around fallen Joshua Tree.

Brome grasses – a fire hazard – around fallen Joshua Tree.

Wild Mustard Flower

Wild Mustard Flower

Filaree, in particular, was consumed by people. It’s edible, especially when picked young and tastes a bit like parsley. So, right now, I could go out and harvest any number of these and toss them into my salad.

Reportedly, all stems and leaves can be consumed raw or cooked. Animals enjoy eating it. My chickens like it. Medicinally it is a diuretic, astringent, and anti-inflammatory herb. I personally would not want to eat the older, hairy stems of this plant. To me, hair on plants (at least if it doesn’t wash away, like from a garden zucchini) means trouble. On the other hand I can see putting some of the young leaves into my salads or stews and soups.

About botanical terms.

There are technical botanical problems with the term “invasive species” and sociocultural problems with the frequently still used term “invasive alien species.” Take note.

Tamarisk is often described as an introduced species.

As far as terminology, I do prefer the term migrating or migrant species because that’s what plants do. That’s what they’ve always done; they migrate.

The tamarisk or salt cedar, Tamarix , is a particularly difficult case in the United States Southwest and California where it clogs up watercourses and adds to soil salinity.

Thicket of tamarisk and willows at a spring, March.

Thicket of tamarisk and willows at a spring, March.

Here in the southwestern Mojave, we’re watching the Mojave River ecosystem become congested with tamarisk and we call it nonnative/invasive. Problems with it? It eliminates habitat needed by many regional birds and other animals; it out-competes the local cottonwoods, essentially threatening the cottonwood woodlands that have been here for centuries/millennia; it sucks up groundwater like crazy eliminating former marshy areas where indigenous people have harvested rushes for their basketry; it concentrates salt in its leaves and leaves the soil around it salt-laden and not a happy place for many regional plants.

So.

Tamarisk was brought to this desert 100-150 years ago as a windbreak for many homesteads. It’s fast growing and all things not considered, it made decent windbreaks. It just didn’t want to stay put.

Next to the Mojave River bed, many tamarisk, few cottonwoods.

Next to the Mojave River bed, many tamarisk, few cottonwoods.

I could plant it here as a windbreak. It would be very happy. I’d have my quick and easy windbreak. All along Highway 18 and 395 older homesteads have tamarisk windbreaks. It is thriving along the Mojave River. But I just cannot bring myself to do it.

In other riparian zones in the North American West there have been tamarisk eradication efforts. People are talking about it now, out here, but nothing much is happening yet.

I suppose that’s the bad of migrating plants. New plants can mess with established ecosystems.

I think we may need to embrace some of these migrant plants. It’s what people have always done. In my battle with filaree, I’m really beginning to understand how new plants get a foothold, how they continue to adapt until they are well-established, and how they overpower our feeble human efforts. Feeble because we can destroy the land and the soil by poisoning the “weeds.” We can spend all of our time uprooting them, to the neglect of our other food plants. Why not investigate what good they may contribute?

For instance, I’ve been seeing multiple articles on the internet touting the medicinal value of the ubiquitous weed of my childhood, plantain. I cannot even tell you the number of these little and tenacious weeds I was enlisted to pull from my mother’s flower beds in northwestern Ohio. As a child I thought they were nasty. Apparently, as an ethnobotanist, I need to reconsider. They are good for us. Had I only known.

Now for more good.

There’s the thought that the ubiquitous Mojave Desert creosote bush traveled north at the end of the Pleistocene. It’s considered native. What does it take to become native? 10-12 thousand years? A couple hundred? 20 years?

Creosote bush has amazing medicinal properties; it also contains some toxic alkaloids. No one I know who is interested native plant communities in the Mojave Desert would want to send it back, necessarily. It has established itself. Did it wreak havoc on the ecosystem that existed in this semi-arid desert as it migrated northward?

We look at the newest riparian invader, tamarisk, and acknowledge that it is currently decreasing native biodiversity. Did creosote, so much a part of our desert experience, do the same thing, initially?

And now on to another happy migrant plant.

California Fan Palms (Washingtonia filifera) is a feature of southern and Baja California oases, springs, and seeps and vast stretches of southern California urban and suburban landscapes. This major food, fiber, and construction resource for indigenous people was pretty likely introduced to southern California from points south. There are ethnohistorical accounts and there is archaeological evidence that fan palms were once moved ever-further north by enterprising indigenous horticulturists.

These palms were a major resource. They are pretty hearty, nice to look at, and now they are a total symbol for southern CA. In parts of southern California, indigenous people still enjoy eating their fruit. Are they native to the southern Mojave Desert? Probably not, but we now consider them to be. They are a piece of the whole fabric now.

California Fan Palms at Oasis of Mara, 29 Palms, CA.

California Fan Palms at Oasis of Mara, 29 Palms, CA.

So what to do?

Back to the filaree.

Each little filaree plant can produce between 2,000-10,000 seeds. See their pointy little seeds capsules? They are ejected from the plant at maturity, then dispersed by driving themselves into the ground, burrowing into animal fur or even bird feathers, or being carried away by water. The seeds can survive in harsh environments and remain viable in the soil for many years.

Check out the barbed seeds pods.

Check out the barbed seeds pods.

Brassica spp., our wild mustards, pop up in abundance in my orchard every year and filaree — everywhere, every year, all year. That’s why I call them perennial. They simply do not die back.

Mediterranean and many Asian plant species from semi-arid regions are generally pre-adapted to much of California’s climate which aids their dispersal throughout the state. These are some very hearty plants because they are obviously ready for the high desert.

Now with global climate change having an impact on California, including the desert regions, I’m seeing some changes in the filaree, at least. Most of the regional plant books I have say filaree begins its season in the high desert as early as February. And most of them say it flowers from then to about May.

In warmer regions of California, the plant may flower through most of the year.

Here, at RSF I’ve noticed that it doesn’t die back anymore until (1) the hottest of summer weeks; (2) the very first hard freezes in the fall/winter. If then. Then immediately, after a die-back, especially after some rainy days, it will begin to grow and flower rapidly. Right now we haven’t had rain for a while, the nights are still reaching freezing often, and we’re awash in filaree.

Even if I began using it regularly as a salad and pot herb, even if I let the chickens out to eat as much as they liked, even then it would be taking over the place.

I still can get into the “yank out the invader” mindset. I did this afternoon. I also thought about getting goats again and hoping they’d enjoy it. I then thought about getting some geese again because I know they’d eat it. But. I’m not really ready for the responsibility of caring for those animals yet. Not yet.

Filaree and wild mustard and other prolific plants don’t know they are “out of place” (permaculturalist David Holmgren calls weeds “plants out of place”). I’ve been researching a few of the more prolific migrant plants that grow here at RSF. Using an agroecological framework, two of these plants may be able to become a useful part of the farm ecosystem. Filaree and wild mustard. Wild mustard concerns me because I really don’t want a part of my land to look like this:

It's taking over the world.

It’s taking over the world.

It could and it might.

Wild mustards are being eradicated in farmers’ fields in California because they are so opportunistic they will take over entire fields of crops. Bear in mind those fields tend to be much larger than the whole of RSF. And I’m not growing here for commercial purposes, not now anyway. RSF is for learning and for experimenting, so I can usually afford to make some mistakes that my friends who are commercial farmers can’t.

Some things I’ve learned about these plants:

RSF filaree harbors ladybugs, a definite plus for any high desert farmers.

Goats like and thrive on the wild mustards.

In the parts of the world the mustard plants come from they have been used as food and medicinals.

Filaree can be (and is) used in the same ways.

Both have flowers that attract bees. The almost year-round flowering of the filaree is a plus for beekeeping in the desert.

I wonder what I might be missing in my knowledge of filaree that the ladybugs know.

And I know that early this spring I will be taking wild mustard that grows in my orchard and tossing it into my salads and maybe into a stir fry like spinach. Rich in vitamins A and C, calcium and iron, right? And free. And right out the back door.

Wild Mustard Leaves

Wild Mustard Leaves

David Holmgren questions what he calls “the nativist orthodoxy” about migrating plant species.

Given my experiences gardening/farming in the Mojave Desert, I think we desert farmers would do well to heed his words.

“… it is incumbent on those with a more balanced and holistic (ecological) perspective to articulate the positive aspects of plant naturalizations. The greatest good than might flow from this articulation is the protection and study of advanced examples of novel ecosystems.”

I have so many questions and no answers about this ecosystem in transition. But I love throwing myself into the mix.

What else is there to do?

Crosby, Alfred W. (1986). Ecological imperialism: The biological expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mensing, Scott. (2006). The History of Oak Woodlands in California, Part II: The Native American and Historic Period. The California Geographer. Volume 46.

Suggested reading:

Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West by Michael Moore

Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West

Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West

This one is short, to the point, and really great:

Los Remedios: Traditional Herbal Remedies of the Southwest

There’s always The Big Book; this got me through my master’s thesis and my dissertation and I have consulted it so many times in technical writing:

Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel E. Moerman

Windbreak trees

April 7, 2014

We need more of a windbreak.  We need trees planted across the line of the prevailing southwestern winds.  It’s the high desert so the winds, in fact, can come from the four directions on four different days.  The desert growth (Joshua, juniper, and creosote bush) tempers the wind when it come from the east and somewhat from the north.

Harvest moon at Rainshadow Farm.

Harvest moon at Rainshadow Farm.

On the old farm we had windbreak on three sides of the house and the orchard area on the north. That wasn’t my smartest desert farming move, but the trees all flourished in spite of me. The orchard here has a greater variety of trees, though, not just apples and pears. And the winds here are very much consistently stronger.  I don’t know if the stronger and more persistent winds here are a result of climate change in the high desert or our location relative to the Cajon Pass. Most likely, both.

In severe weather like high desert winters (or summers or springs or fall), trees and shrubs as windbreaks can protect food plants (in and outside of plastic covers) in hot and cold weather, can cut utility bills, help control erosion, and provide wildlife habitat.  Additionally, windbreaks add to the beauty of farm land  and contribute to biodiversity.

Here are some of my thoughts about windbreaks in the southern Mojave Desert:

  • Dryland pines
  • Jujubes  (maybe not dense enough by themselves)
  • California junipers (I’ve ordered some from
  • Arizona cypresses  ( also native to southern California, I hear)
  • Persimmons (have been used in parts of China as windbreaks)
  • Leyland cypress
Leyland cypress with creosote bush in the snow.

Leyland cypress with creosote bush in the snow.

At the old farm, I used Leyland cypress and they were excellent. They also are a much better habitat for local birds than we tend to think. I had a barn owl (rodent control) living in one for a few years, right before we moved.

I’m currently experimenting with all of the above and they all are doing very well in this ecoregion. The ground squirrels like eating the leaves off the persimmon a little too much, so maybe that’s not the best choice for right now.

I really like the idea of a two-layered windbreak. Whatever I choose for windbreak trees, I’d like to place a second layer of large shrubs inside the perimeter of taller trees.  For the second layer I like the idea of manzanita, Lycium spp., chokecherries, and/or mesquite.  Really, any shrubby fruit tree would be great for the inside layer. Biointensive and tasty.

This summer when I met one of my neighbors down the road for the first time, after about five minutes of conversation, he asked me “Are you one of those tree-hugger eco-freak types?”  Eco-freak, yep. Tree-hugger, absolutely.

Variety of native shrubs and plants ready to go.

Variety of native shrubs and plants ready to go.

Mesquite near the orchard.

Mesquite near the orchard.

Community?

April 7, 2014

I’ve been thinking about community and what it means to me lately. I have been called a community educator. I’d maybe prefer being called someone who has established a community learning center on her farm.  Does the farm day group constitute a small community?  Maybe. Some of the participants tell me it does. That is encouraging.

I’m not alone in wondering. Many of us in the United States are not sure what a sense of community is. When I was young, back in Ohio, I had some sense of community. The South End. The Church. Neighbors and friends.  Vague for sure.  Inherent in the search for “community” are parochialism, racism, and misogyny, all masquerading as regionalism and as community.

Many people have been scarred by joining totalist spiritual communities and many have experienced brutal politics tearing down their efforts to build community. Personal politics among communities of practice, including within the intentional community movement, have soured some people on the possibility of creation of any strong, supportive, and encouraging sense of community; even the sadness that emanates from deeply dysfunctional family groups leads many people to despair of ever finding any life-affirming sense of community.

Centuries of hyper-individualism have caused many Americans to mistrust or to not know how to touch any true sense of community. Those who may have lifestyles conducive to more interdependence (e.g., farmers, ranchers) sometimes end up settling for a shallow kind of community. There has been a bleak side to the American agrarian ideal which has been not only racist and ethnocentric, but exploitative of minorities, women and children.

Some are able to forge a sense of community that is deeper, more meaningful, and resilient. Indigenous and traditional communities around the world may be beset by similar problems, although, in general, their lifeways may be the world’s best models for people living sustainably with the land and in community.

Maybe people could begin a movement toward community by examining what their local cultural commons are, how to access them, and how to encourage their maintenance. We could begin by investigating racist, sexist, ageist, classist, ethnocentric, or other exclusionary or prejudicial elements that exist in our cultural commons.  For me, that would begin with the farm day events.

More to follow…

An Earth Day gathering

An Earth Day gathering

Quick-built Adobe Oven
Quick-built adobe oven by farm day community group.

Frame-building together
Frame-building together


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