Archives for category: pests

Star Thistle.

A.V. Walters–

spotted knapweed 2

“Star Thistle”

See the lovely fields of purple flowers, rippling in the wind. Taste the delicate flavors, the floral back-notes in the honey from these “local” fields.

The real name for this heralded bloom is spotted knapweed, and it’s no local. Conservationists call it an invasive species, originally from Eastern Europe. Once it gets its roots into your soils, it never lets go. Nobody talks about eradication; they only talk about “management.” There was spotted knapweed on our property before I bought it, decades ago, so I shouldn’t complain. Only recently, though, have I learned about its evil and pernicious ways.

In a riff on Irish luck, Rick and I used to joke that it weren’t for spotted knapweed, we’d have no weeds at all. Little did we know we had that backwards. Sure, we have poor glacial soils, but the more potent force of our limited landscape is spotted knapweed. You see, not only is it a vigorous invasive, but it has the admirably devious survival mechanism of poisoning the soils around it so little else will grow. It is an expert in plant hegemony.

So that would explain our spindly vegetable garden! We have acres of knapweed.

Knapweed has a multifold program of engagement. First, it is a vigorous competitor. It sports a thick absorbent taproot that quickly captures and stores any available water (leaving its neighbors thirsty.) It is a rampant reproducer, colonizing both via ample seed production and from runners from its rhizome root system. If you try to remove it, and leave any part of the rhizome in the soil, it will sprout and flourish, like the cursed broom in Fantasia. Knapweed avoids predation by being the most bitter plant in the field. (Even goats avoid it; though I understand that sheep will eat it.) Back in California we used goats to clear poison oak from the hillsides, but even the goats are too picky to mess with the spotted knapweed. If that weren’t enough, knapweed generates its own phytotoxins, literally poisoning the soil around it. The mechanism of its catechin toxins aren’t well understood, but they prevent germination of competing seeds and poison the root zone. When a knapweed root comes in contact with the root tips of another plant, it sends a cascade of chemical messages to its victim, triggering apoptosis, or programmed cell death, from the roots, on up.

Presumably, back in Eastern Europe, spotted knapweed needed these strategies to survive. Plants from there have immunities that can withstand its chemical onslaught. Here, though, our native plants and crops have few defenses. It’s a problem from coast to coast—but especially so in the dry rangelands of the west.

But the bees love it. It’s one of the few flowering plants that continues to bloom and provide nectar in the dog-days of August. I have beekeeper friends who react with open hostility when folks discuss ways to eradicate knapweed. The honey produced from knapweed blooms is so delicious that “Star Thistle” is treated as a premium appellation product, like Locust Honey, or Tupelo.

I’m a beekeeper, but I’m also a gardener. Would a rose, by any other name, smell as sweet? A pest is a pest is a pest is a… (my apologies to Gertrude Stein.)

Star Thistle, my ass.

spotted knapweed 1

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A Matter of Scale—

A.V. Walters—

IMG_2311

Beautiful? Yes. But look closely at the bumps on the twigs.

Rick and I have returned to our Sundays “day off,” in which we spend Sunday afternoons cutting wood up in the woods. We are still clearing trails and cleaning up after the wild Storm of 2015. I’m sure that the trees down, from just that storm, will heat our Michigan winters for several years to come. This doesn’t even touch the backlog of deadfall accumulating from the dying ash and beech trees. We’ll have work, and heat, for the rest of our lives.

Last Sunday I noticed that the forest was sticky. All over, the understory plants are glazed with a tinge of sap—not unheard of in spring, but a little unusual, given how dry it has been. After a light snow year, April and May had precious little rain for us. The forest is crispy-dry. We didn’t get any of our usual spring morel mushrooms. Here, and up in the U.P., there have been fire warnings. (In May!) We watched the Canadian wildfire in Fort McMurray in horror.

This is not really unusual—when California has an El Nino season, Michigan’s weather is mild and dry. Finally, this week the dry spell broke and we’ve seen lovely storms to accompany the greening of our forests.

So what’s up with sticky? Yesterday, a friend, brow furrowed with concern, pointed out the scale on the maple tree next to our house. Yuck. His trees have it, too. Scale is an insect infestation. Maples always have some measure of scale, but the outer branches of our tree were lined with the limpet-like outer shells of these tiny sap-sucking vultures. It appears that we are having a major infestation of scale. The scale is responsible for the sugar-coated forest.

We live in Michigan. Bugs, in all shapes and forms, are a way of life here. Still, bugs of any kind, in great numbers, are unnerving. After our friend left, I stood in the soft rain, running my hands down every branch I could reach, squishing all those thousands of little scale bugs. Rick just shook his head.

“What are you going to do, molest every tree in the forest?”

Well, no. But the two maples next to my house—those I can help. It’s worrisome. Is this, yet another forest calamity in our future? Naturally this called for a research trip to the internet.

The likely problem is the dry spring. Maple trees under stress produce a thinner, more sugary sap. It’s a stress reaction, to ensure the energy needed leafing out in spring. The scale bugs, in turn, thrive on the sweeter mixture, ironically putting the trees under more stress. So, as long as the dry cycle is not repeated too much over the years, the scale is a cyclical problem that will solve itself.

There are measures I can take. I could have “power washed” the trees, before the leaves came out. I could use poisons (not likely!), sprays or root saturation with systemics. I could use a dormant spray in the very early spring—a perfectly acceptable organic measure—like we’ll be using on the orchard trees when they’re bigger. But, Rick is right. I cannot treat the entire forest. I need to relax here, and wait patiently for the ladybugs. Scale is a favorite of ladybugs and birds.

In the meantime, the rains will wash the forest clean of “sticky.” And, at the same time, they will feed the trees, making them stronger and better equipped to deal with the pests. I’ll step back and let the problem solve itself. Sometimes there is a danger of looking too closely.

 

 

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

IMG_2078

I read all the science on it, and I find it frustrating that there is no consensus about just what is up with the bees. I’ve been a bee fancier for decades. My grandfather was a beekeeper and my interest was piqued as a little kid. However, my urban life didn’t favor beekeeping. When I finally moved to the country, in Two Rock, I was more than ready to keep bees. Then, I learned that my landlord was wildly allergic to bee stings. I liked the landlord—so, no bees.

Even going back two decades, the bees were in trouble. The culprits then were tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites are still a problem for the bees but, in an otherwise healthy hive, a manageable problem. Now we have what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, with bee losses ranging from 25 to 50%, per year. They just fly away and abandon the hive, en masse. Science has yet to find the reason that the bees lose their sense of direction and wander off to die. In fact, it’s likely there are several reasons. We really are at a point where bees are at risk—and with them a substantial percentage of our food supply. One-third of what we eat requires bee involvement.

When North Americans think of our bees, they are generally European honeybees. They have been domesticated for thousands of years—and we brought them with us to America. They are not “natural” to our North American biome, but they are a vital component of our agriculture. There are plenty of native pollinators, but they’re not a big part of the way America produces food. And, that’s a very big part of the problem.

It seems to be lost on Big Ag that bees are insects, just like many of the other agricultural “pests.” Our industrial agricultural model—based on monoculture, is hostile to most insects and weeds. The dominant approach is to saturate the crops, and the fields, with poisons. There is an enormous “collateral damage” quotient in the dominant approach. Our foods are coated in pesticide residues, our soil and groundwater are being contaminated, our agricultural workers suffer from chronic exposure syndromes and we poison the bees, our pollinators. Some newer pesticides, neonicitinoids, appear to be particularly damaging to bee populations. Unfortunately, while the bees are dying, the “debate” continues whether the neonicitinoids are legitimate suspects. The makers of these toxins, Bayer and Syngenta, claim that proper use will not result in bee losses—taking a page from the tobacco companies’ old playbook on what does or doesn’t cause lung cancer. Denial can hold truth at bay for decades. After all, there are a great many factors at work.

Included in the mix are issues of proper beekeeping. The emphasis for professional beekeepers tends to fall into one of two camps—the pollinators and the honey producers—though the pollinators produce honey, and the honey folks’ bees are obviously out there pollinating, too. Both camps are guilty of not taking great care of their bees. Here, the big issues seem to be food and travel.

Like most of us, bees are healthiest if they have a diverse diet and a low stress lifestyle. Left to their own devices, bees will collect the nectar and pollen from of a variety of plants and will produce more than enough honey to feed the hive through the winter. The pollination industry interferes with the natural order by trucking the bees from place to place to pollinate specific crops. There is no diet diversity, the bees are exposed to high levels of insecticides on the crops they pollinate, and living on the road is hard on the bees’ navigation skills.

The honey industry is no better. In the quest for high honey production, the beekeepers strip the hives of honey and then winter-feed the bees with high fructose corn syrup or sugar—the bee version of junk food. (Not that the pollinators don’t use sugar diets, they do, too!) In both cases, bees are weakened, and then at risk for the various bee hazards, including the tracheal and varroa mites and pesticide exposure. There’s so much finger-pointing going on in the bee tragedy that the bees will be all gone before any coherent science can catch up. Indeed, I heard one beekeeper justify his poor practices on the grounds that everyone else does it, and the bees will soon be dead, anyway! (I wonder if he has the same attitude when it comes to raising his kids.)

Every single day I am solicited online for donations to “save the bees.” Most of these are seeking funds to fight the use of neonicitinoids which really are a big problem, but only a part of the problem. The challenges of beekeeping are a microcosm of the challenges we have in agriculture, anyway. It’s a problem of scale—diversity equals strength—monoculture equals weakness. The solution isn’t to pour on chemicals; the solution is to grow our crops and our bees in ways mindful of, and taking full advantage of, the rhythms and ways of nature. Organics. It can be done.

So this week, Rick and I have started to make our contribution to save the bees. A month ago, I took a beekeeping class. And we’ve invested in hives and beekeeping gear. Ours will be pampered bees. They will live in one place. They will have a natural and diverse diet—and in the winter, they’ll eat their honey, like bees should. We’ll enjoy smaller yields in the spring—after the bees have had the chance to overwinter. Small scale, “bees first”, management is the solution. We’ll do our bit to save the bees, while the bees earn their keep by pollinating our gardens and giving up a bit of honey. Win-win. And now, if we could just get these hives assembled….

 

Let's see, Tab A....goes into....

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Slash and Burn

A.V. Walters

We learned about it in grade school. It’s a “primitive” agricultural practice of cutting down the forest, burning the “slash,” any unused timber products, and then planting crops in the resulting ash-fertilized clearing. Typically, in areas with poor soils (mostly areas outside the soils-rich Pleistocene glaciation) agricultural use would be for a limited duration, until the soil was nitrogen depleted. Then the farmers move on and the cycle begins again. It was, we were taught, a short-sighted and damaging form of farming. Looking in the mirror, I think that that was Western agriculture’s pot calling the kettle black.

In most of North America, we are blessed with deep and rich topsoils, compliments of the ice age and biodiversity. Our European forebears were more lucky than skilled when it came to farming. Indeed, many of them practiced exactly the slash and burn techniques that my grade-school teacher bemoaned. How else, in a world of hand tools and oxen, was a pioneer family to clear an old growth forest for farming? Over time, excessive cultivation of dry or marginal soils, and the failure to rotate crops, brought us to an ugly truth—the dustbowl. Even without dustbowl conditions, 1970’s estimates showed that using American, post-war agricultural practices were causing the loss of up to six inches of topsoil, per year!

Some early colonialists brought with them time tested farming methods that fed and protected the soils, as you can still see in Amish and Mennonite farms throughout the Midwest. They considered themselves the stewards of the land. Studies have shown that the natural methods used by these farmers retain the topsoil and keep it loaded with organic material and beneficial bacteria. From these traditions, today’s organic farmers learned the mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Organic farming methods have been proven to fight soil erosion, build the soil’s ability to retain moisture (even in dry conditions) and foster a micro-biome that supports healthy crops.

We’ve sent a soil sample, from our property, in for analysis. We know we have some soil building to do, but it’s been lying fallow at least thirty years for a running start. We start with the premise that we’ll build the soil as we go. We’ll start first thing, next season. Ours is not a conventional approach

The GMO corn planted on our current, landlord’s property, is suffering. Its leaves are curling in; its growth stunted. I’m hardly heartbroken about it. We do not have a drought here. These sandy soils are “well draining,” which could be a pun if you wanted to irrigate. We haven’t had rain for just over a week—which shouldn’t make too big a difference in healthy soil. That corn doesn’t have healthy soil. Years of successive corn crops, over-tilling and outright chemical abuse have stripped the cornfield to its geologic base—sand dune. This soil cannot hold moisture. There is some stubble tilled in, but in the absence of “the living soil”—the bacterial component, the stubble cannot breakdown and feed the soil. (Though it may hold a little moisture.)

So, who is practicing slash and burn, now?

 

 

Spam, Spam, the Menu Plan

A.V. Walters

 

Hey bloggers, we all get spam, right? Do you read yours? Sometimes, it’s tough to tell whether it is spam. After all, you’d feel bad thwarting some poor commenter–for bad grammar or other minor sin. (Though I’d love to have a chat with all those folks who want to convince me that I could make oodles, if only I’d stoop to online marketing.) We want to be inclusive. We just don’t want spam.

A few days ago, I received the spam shown below. Hell, somebody made a mistake. They sent out their whole playbook–complete with optional fact inserts. (You know, so you can personalize your spam.) I laughed so hard, I almost peed my panties. Of course, I’d seen most of these–just not the whole list. I goes to show you that the spam forces out there are organized. They speak the language of ambivalence (and flattery.) To keep our blogs clean of the senseless blather of marketing hitchhikers, we must be vigilant!

Because I never want to be guilty of failure to attribute someone else’s work, I will disclose that this compendium of spam comes courtesy of

http://topfunnyweddingcaketoppers.com/
topfunnyweddingcaketoppers.comx
cheribracker@hotmail.com
192.230.42.130

 

And here it is, in excruciating detail….

{
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{It’s|It is} pretty worth enough for me. {In my opinion|Personally|In my view}, if
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will|I am going to|I’m going to|I may} {come back|return|revisit} {once again|yet again} {since I|since i have} {bookmarked|book marked|book-marked|saved as a favorite} it.

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{utilizing|working with|using}? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 {completely different|different} {internet browsers|web browsers|browsers} and I must say this blog loads a lot {quicker|faster} then most.
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a amusement account it. Look advanced to {far|more} added agreeable from you!
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look great though! Hope you get the {problem|issue} {solved|resolved|fixed} soon. {Kudos|Cheers|Many thanks|Thanks}|
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It’s very {easy|simple|trouble-free|straightforward|effortless} to find out any {topic|matter} on {net|web} as compared to
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page}.|
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Either way, great {site|website|blog} and I look forward to seeing it {develop|improve|expand|grow} over time.|
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{a long time|a while|some time} now and finally got the {bravery|courage} to go ahead and give you a shout out from {New Caney|Kingwood|Huffman|Porter|Houston|Dallas|Austin|Lubbock|Humble|Atascocita}
{Tx|Texas}! Just wanted to {tell you|mention|say} keep
up the {fantastic|excellent|great|good} {job|work}!|
Greetings from {Idaho|Carolina|Ohio|Colorado|Florida|Los angeles|California}!
I’m {bored to tears|bored to death|bored} at work so I decided to {check out|browse} your {site|website|blog} on my iphone during
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phone|phone} .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G ..

{Anyhow|Anyways}, {awesome|amazing|very good|superb|good|wonderful|fantastic|excellent|great} {site|blog}!|
Its {like you|such as you} {read|learn} my {mind|thoughts}!

You {seem|appear} {to understand|to know|to grasp} {so much|a lot} {approximately|about} this, {like you|such as you} wrote the {book|e-book|guide|ebook|e book} in it or something.
{I think|I feel|I believe} {that you|that you simply|that you
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is|that is} {great|wonderful|fantastic|magnificent|excellent}
blog. {A great|An excellent|A fantastic} read. {I’ll|I will} {definitely|certainly} be
back.|
I visited {multiple|many|several|various} {websites|sites|web sites|web pages|blogs} {but|except|however} the audio {quality|feature} for audio songs {current|present|existing} at this
{website|web site|site|web page} is {really|actually|in fact|truly|genuinely} {marvelous|wonderful|excellent|fabulous|superb}.|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hi|Hello}, i read your blog {occasionally|from time to time} and i own a similar
one and i was just {wondering|curious} if you get a lot of spam {comments|responses|feedback|remarks}?
If so how do you {prevent|reduce|stop|protect against} it, any plugin or anything you can {advise|suggest|recommend}?
I get so much lately it’s driving me {mad|insane|crazy} so any {assistance|help|support} is very much appreciated.|
Greetings! {Very helpful|Very useful} advice {within this|in this particular} {article|post}!
{It is the|It’s the} little changes {that make|which will
make|that produce|that will make} {the biggest|the largest|the greatest|the most important|the
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Bugged–

A.V. Walters

My California friends can’t believe that I moved to a place that has snow in the winter and bugs in the summer. I usually put it right back at them—both of those features are a direct result of one thing—we have water.

In California you don’t even need screens on your windows. Sure you’ll get a couple of insects—but because of the long, dry summers there never was a big problem with mosquitoes in the summer (early spring, sometimes, but it never lasted.) In Two Rock, living right next door to a dairy, we had flies and spiders. (There, I was glad for the screens, though, in all honesty, sometimes the dairy smelled so bad you didn’t dare open the windows.) When Californians recoil about insects, they mean one thing—bugs that bite.

We have them here. I know all the jokes—In Michigan, the mosquito is the state bird… Okay, so there are insects; it’s a given. We measure them in seasons. Just now, we’re (hopefully) coming to the end of blackfly season—which is usually June, but running late this year because of the overlong winter. Blackflies are an annoyance in Leelanau. Back in Keweenaw, they are a force of nature. (I always suspected it was why June brides wore veils.) Back home, one’s wardrobe for June activities includes a “bug baffler,” screened headgear that looks like beekeeper’s clothing.

July is the main mosquito month, though Rick and I have already earned our fair share of bites. We insist on being outdoors, even into the evening, and that’ll do it. Mostly we wear hats and we keep moving. In August and September we have an assortment of biting flies—horseflies, deerflies and stableflies. Again, a hat and proper clothing for the outdoors is your best defense. They (the biting flies) aren’t really looking for you (though you’ll do in a pinch.) The worst of it is that they annoy as they buzz in circles around you. As kids, we’d pick ferns to wear on our heads, like some kind of pixie tribe. It kept the biting flies on a farther perimeter and gave us some small measure of control.

Having adequate rainfall means we have bugs. Having bugs means we have birds, so don’t wish your bugs away so quickly. We have amazing birds. The air here is, more often than not, filled with birdsong. We live outside the town of Cedar. That’s a polite way to say “swamp.” It’s located in a low-lying area and, like any wetland, rich in biodiversity. Bugs.

We try to get some kind of exercise, every day. Right now we get it primarily through working on the property. We’re doing site prep—and in the summer heat and humidity, it can be grueling. If that wasn’t enough, we often go for a walk around the block at the end of the day. “Around the block” is a three-mile loop. The bottom third of that loop runs adjacent the swamp. It’s probably crazy to go walking there at the buggiest time of the day—but it’s cool, and, if you keep moving, you can escape without being bitten. We went for one of our walks the other night, right at dusk. It’s a great way to unwind— to talk about the day’s events and connect with your surroundings. We were just getting to the swamp section when I first saw them. At first, I thought it was a bit of trash, maybe a scrap of Mylar, catching the fading light. When I saw it again, I realized—fireflies! Even though I grew up in the Great Lakes region, I’d never seen them before. Once you look, suddenly they are everywhere–a profusion of flashes, shining at you in an orchestrated mid-summer display of sparkles. Some, in mid-flight, look like three-dimensional punctuation, illuminated ellipses. Rick was amazed—both at the tremendous surprise of nature, and that we were seeing it, together, both for the first time.

You won’t see them from a passing car. You have to be out with them, at the right time of day and, at risk from the rest of the insect kingdom. But, it’s well worth it. It leaves you breathless, awestruck and feeling almost childlike. This will do for our July fireworks display.

 

 

 

 

Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.