Archives for posts with tag: environment

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I lived in California for nearly thirty-five years. Californians revel in their relentlessly good weather. It is beautiful, nearly bug-free, and… a bit dull. I’m glad to be home. There’s a huge reward in it. It’s wildly green in a luscious, juicy kind of way. It’s a landscape that supports all kinds of life. Bugs are part of the bottom tier of the food chain.

Yes, it’s been brutally hot these past few weeks, and dry. But nothing we have here compares to the dry of a California summer–with no rain from April to October. Here, we usually get a good rain two or three times a week. But not the past few weeks. I suppose that the dry spell might’ve made the heat more endurable–you know…a dry heat.

Though the heat wave is supposed to continue until the end of the month, we got a break the past two nights–with thunderstorms and ample rain. It dropped the temperatures some, but brought the humidity up a lot. And rain always seems like an invitation for the bugs to make meals of us. I fend off the bugs with brimmed hats, long pants and long sleeves, regardless of the temperatures. My Michigan roots are northern. I watch the summer people slap and scratch, and chuckle. We’re part of the food chain, too.

Last year brought an unusually cool and wet season. We’re always left wondering, “Will this be the new normal?” And now, with the mercury in the high 80s and 90s, we’re asking that again. All bets are off.

We built our home without air-conditioning. In the summer, it’s in the shade for most of the day, by plan. If we close up during the day, and open for the cooler nights, we can keep the interior in the mid-seventies. In serious heat, we use a box fan to move more night air, and that works. We’ve been in the house for going on three years, and so far, nothing that climate throws at us has been a problem. We hope that continues, but who knows? This summer, the arctic has had hotter weather than here. It’s funny when the hot weather is coming from the north. Like I said, all bets are off.

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In like a lamb? There’s another polar vortex event in the forecast–one that should put a chill on the lower 48! Some friends are posting pictures of flowers, and reports that their bees are on the wing. Sigh. For now, we’ll have to content ourselves with pictures from seed catalogues. For us…for now…this is the path to Spring.

Five Stops

I have advantages. I work from home. Though we live rurally, it’s only twenty minutes from “town” –and only a mile from the little village that gives us our postal address. I am freed from any daily commute.

That’s not an accident. We have, for years now, been making concerted efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. We’re not just frugal; diminishing our fossil fuel usage may be essential to survival on the planet. Minimizing impact informs our daily choices.

We maximize any driving trip to town. Unless it’s an emergency (and I’m yet to have one) any town-run must include business at a minimum of five stops. That means we make lists and combine trips to reduce unneeded transport.

We try to keep carbon-footprint in mind with purchases–where possible, buy local. While we’re at it, we also pay the extra for organic. Though I’m mindful of our pennies, I can’t expect to save the planet if I subsidize its poisoning with pesticides; erosion with poor soil management; or support unfair wages and conditions at home, or abroad. This takes the Golden Rule at its word–treat others (and the planet) as you would like to be treated.

I’m not sure we can turn this juggernaut around in time to keep the planet habitable. I hope so. I have no children, but I still think we have a duty to the children of today, and tomorrow, not to kill the only world we know. We cannot shrug our shoulders and wonder “What’s a person to do?” The time for wondering has long since passed. It time to take individual action and responsibility. It adds up–if enough of us take the pledge.

And besides, even if the science is wrong, and we still change to reduce climate change, what could be the downside? If our air and water are cleaner for our efforts, where is the harm? If, to reduce the energy costs of transport, we support our local farmers and build sustainable communities, would that be bad? If, to save on wasted energy, we insulate our homes and change our ways to reduce unnecessary consumption, who could be hurt by this? If we pay our employees a living wage, and in so doing, build strong and sustainable local economies, won’t we all be stronger for it?

So, I plan and make the extra stops. We plant trees for a future we will never see but that we know, will be better for our efforts.

In-box Exhaustion

Oh, will it ever end? I make excuses–oh it’s the end-of-quarter reporting period, or the end-of-the-month, but that’s really not it. In fact, the constant alarm, the never-ending solicitation for funds has become the new normal.

Not that there aren’t very real and important issues. There are. I am alarmed by the rapid and dramatic changes in our climate. I am overwhelmed by the abdication of civility and procedure in government. I am heart-broken at our nation’s apparent devolution into bigotry and racism. I am undone by the damage done to our democratic institutions. Sigh.

But, my inbox is overflowing. I often get upwards of two hundred emails a day, most bearing a plea for help and an “opportunity to give.” There is just not enough of me. I have to pick my battles.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to walk my talk. I keep a low-carbon footprint. I minimize driving. We keep the house on the cool side, and eschew air-conditioning. We garden and seasonally grow much of what we consume. We recycle and, more importantly we exercise our buying power to match our values–minimal packaging and basic.

So many of our elected representatives have gone to the dark side. They serve the interests if the ‘donor class’ instead of their constituents. (Then they run against the very institutions they occupy!) We live in a constant state of faux-alarm. It’s exhausting. Meanwhile, in the brouhaha, we lose precious time to bring ourselves back into a sustainable equilibrium. And the emails just keep coming.

I am old-fashioned. I still write actual letters to my representatives. Like any good old hippy, I protest, standing shoulder to shoulder with other aging environmentalists, taking solace in the cold that we can still muster a crowd when it counts. I could pull the plug on my news. I have friends who have done just that. But it seems that removing thinking people from the mix just leaves us with a runaway train.

My primary coping mechanism is to spend time in the woods. I gather firewood, I forage–sometimes I just walk about noting what wildlife is active and leaving its mark. Beyond that, I do what I can, and take comfort in the fact that I am older. Caring is a young person’s sport. It’s some relief to see some of them step up to save the planet that they will inherit. Perhaps it’s enough to be a good steward to the things under my control and to enjoy the simple beauties of season and nature as I go about my day.

We didn’t get much done Saturday. We’ve broken ground on the new barn, and we have digging to do. Still, the weather report called for heavy rains–it’s not a great idea to dig on slopes, in our sandy, fragile soils, when a deluge is expected. The air was heavy and the winds unsettling. As the day progressed, the prognosticators backed away from their initial forecasts. Maybe no thunder or lightning. Maybe just a little rain. Too bad, we very much need the rain.

In fact, I think we needed all of it–the rain for our parched fields and forests–and the wild and stormy part, for the release it offers. Everything, these days, feels pent up. Finally, during the night, we woke to rain, enough to slake the parch, but without fanfare. Normally, a soft steady rain would be enough to satisfy.

I once read an anthropological study that revealed that any society could be brought to its knees, through a fundamental challenge to its belief system. Indigenous cultures, defeated by superior technology, never rebounded after crushing defeats. The concept of “decimation” is important, in its original meaning–reduction by a factor of ten–because at that point a society becomes precarious. The same can be true with any fundamental change–loss of faith, environmental collapse, the battles in information technology–really, any breakdown of societal norms. I fear that when coping mechanisms become stretched, both the individual and societal glue begins to fail.

We have always had corruption. We have always suffered bullies and unfairness–be it in the school yard, the workplace or in governance. But we have been buoyed by our belief systems. Whether in a religious sense, or in the self-correction of societal rules, or in adherence to the Rule of Law, we have believed that something larger than ourselves would preserve fairness. Though there may be individual failures, justice itself is supposed to paint with a broad brush. When enough people lose faith in fundamental fairness, they lose the incentive to participate according to the rules. I fully recognize that our systemic protections have not been universally held. Folks at the bottom of the economic heap, minorities, oppressed people have long felt the sting of systemic unfairness and injustice. And there has always been privilege on the other end. But I have had faith that there was an inexorable path to improvement–an evolution of human spirit that would prevail, bringing fairness and prosperity to an ever-widening circle of humanity.

Now, I am not so certain. Sure, one has to expect the inevitable pendulum cycles. And our system is built with checks and balances…hopefully flexible enough to adjust to changing times. But, to be self-correcting, we need a core belief in fundamental principles, in the ideas that society is for the all, and not just for the few. By this I do not mean that we all have to adhere to one path; our strengths have always been in the interplay of our ideas. But we seem to have lost the decency of a belief in a level playing field. I do not see that ideal in our elected representatives. And I don’t see it playing out in popular culture. I am alarmed that bullying, mean-spirited selfishness and winning without regard to the rules seems to have infected our public square. Winner takes all never works in the long run.

There are supposed to be universal truths. Things on which one can rely. Now, not even the weather is assured. Isn’t anyone else alarmed? I saw a satellite photo yesterday that showed current wildfires–it was disconcerting. Fires driven by heat waves in Scandinavia? Fires over wide swaths of our Western lands? Heat domes and polar vortices play havoc with reliable patterns of weather and season. And yet, despite clear indications of human-induced change, people are unwilling to apply fact-based observations of cause and effect to the consequences of their actions. And why would they? If the rules are broken–if cheating becomes the norm–if a reality-based world has become victim to a selfish, slash-and-burn, tackle your way to the top mentality, what is the motivation for playing by the rules? Haven’t we been told that that’s for suckers? If you can’t rely on something as basic as climate, have we found ourselves in a relentless tug-of-war between our immediate interests and those of generations to come? If so, how will we explain to our grandchildren that we chose corruption, SUVs and single-use plastics over the habitability of the planet we leave to them?

Sunday’s gentle rain was good for the garden and the orchard trees. It’s been cool and cloudy since, with the promise of more rain in the air. But I’m not sure if that’s enough. I’m afraid we may really need the storm.

 

 

 

 

Last week was the hottest week in recorded history. This is no Chinese hoax. We’ve known for decades. Still most are unwilling to make “lifestyle” choices needed to avoid climate catastrophe. What can I say?
A friend of mine said it all, when she received the invoice for mandatory flood insurance for her business. FEMA had changed it’s flood maps–acknowledging new realities. She was shocked.
“What did you think was going to happen?” I countered. “We’ve been talking about this for years. This is climate change in action.”
She looked as though I’d slapped her…”Not in my lifetime!”
Not quite climate denial, but a difference without a distinction.

“Victorian Cool”

A.V. Walters–

And I don’t mean steampunk.

I’ve never lived in a home with air conditioning. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, most of my adult life was in Northern California, where there was no real need for it. Still, even with my memory of hot and humid childhood summers, we opted not to provide for summer air when we built here.

You cannot solve your climate change problems using fossil fuels. It’s as simple as that. At best, you can kick the can down the road to make the present more bearable–knowing that in so doing, you’re stealing from the next generation. When you build a home from the ground up, you cannot point the finger at the former owners; you need to walk your talk on your carbon footprint.

When we sited the house, we selected the location, in part for summer shade. And we insulated. Recently, following a Memorial weekend heat wave, we bought screens for the windows. This is Michigan. You cannot open a window without screens, unless you’re willing to donate all your blood for the cause. It was always our plan to use natural air movement to survive the summers.

North Americans are complacent about getting ready for climate change, as though our problems could be resolved with adjustments to the thermostat. But this wasn’t always the case. Historically and architecturally, we have had cooling solutions that preceded air conditioning. Tall ceilings, double hung windows, roof overhangs (and/or curtains), along with the occasional fan, kept the Victorians cool. It can work for us, too.

I’m continually amazed by my midwestern neighbors, houses perched wherever view is best, with no shade protection from the summer sun. Their air conditioners kick in before 10:00 am. What were they thinking?

Within a couple of hours of installing the screens and opening the windows, the temperature in our house dropped by eight degrees. By the next morning, it was a little chilly–a perfect prelude for the expected heat the following day. It looks like the house will perform according to plan.

You don’t need to start from the ground up to take advantage of Victorian wisdom. Just open up the house in the cool of the evening and close it up again in the morning, before the heat of the day. Draw the drapes. Install an attic fan. Invest in some extra insulation. Turn down the air conditioning a couple of degrees. Consider window awnings…remember them? And always, always, plant trees. Together, we can make our environment more habitable, inside and out.

It can be done. The Victorians did it. How else could they have endured the summers in all that silly clothing? Can you imagine corsets in the heat?

Spring, Not for the Faint of Heart–

A.V. Walters–

We celebrated today. The trees are in. It’s a little late, but then, spring was late. My hands are rough and raw and I ache, but all 100 trees are happily in their new homes. Once the trees arrive, we drop nearly everything to get them in the ground. The hurry is twofold; to minimize the stress on the baby trees, and to get them in the ground before the bugs arrive. I’d post a picture, but 100 baby trees spread over many acres doesn’t present well.

We put 50 bass trees into the forest, this season. The ash are almost all dead now–victims of the Emerald Ash Borer–though many remain standing. The beech trees are dying, too–beech bark disease. Beech Bark Disease is the result of an introduced insect, beech scale, combined with one of two native fungal infections. It takes both the insect, and the fungus to kill the trees. In the past few years the disease has been making its way west, and it’s estimated that Michigan will lose over 90 per cent of its beech trees. Rick and I have forest panic. We are desperate to plant our way ahead of the devastation. Though the insect involved in beech bark disease was introduced into Nova Scotia almost a hundred years ago, its impact here is recent. And fast. We feel we have no choice but to keep planting. The bass trees are a favorite of the bees, so it was an easy choice.

This year, spring came so late that the sellers (catalog and the Soil Conservation District) all had to delay their tree deliveries. You cannot plant in the snow. We had two major snow storms in April, leaving us knee deep in the white stuff at mid-month. It was the first time I saw people angry about the snow. Our local police blotter told of a woman  who reported a man on her block who was yelling and cursing. When the police arrived, the guy was surprised, and embarrassed. He’d been shoveling, yet again, and he was just venting. A lot of people felt that way.

I had a trip planned–to go downstate with my mum. Rick and I planted as many trees as we could–about seventy of them, before I had to leave. Rick heeled in the rest until my return, and now those are planted, too. Though Spring is late, the bugs are on time–and the past two days of planting were challenging. Black flies don’t care that the trees must be planted…they just want a bite of you, swarms of them all want a bite of you.

Now that the trees are in, we can concentrate on getting the bees ready. We are moving our bee yard up the hill, into the pines. That way they’ll be far from incidental human contact and out of sight. It’ll be cooler in the summer. There’s always a light breeze up there, and they’ll be partially shaded. Hot bees are not happy bees. Rick has already put the new fence up, and tomorrow I’ll sort through all the bee stuff and ready the hives. By the weekend the bees will be installed in their new digs.

In the meantime, we are starting to get the garden ready. That’ll be another few weeks of work. It will be interrupted, though, because I found a great craigslist deal–on blackberries. We want to put in a long hedge of blackberries to shield us from the cornfield on our south side. Blackberries grow fast (sometimes too fast) and they’ll give us a good wind break. So, next Monday we’ll pick up 200 blackberry plants and get those in, before returning to the garden project. The bees will love them.

It’s Spring. What can I say? It’s not for the faint of heart.

It’s almost as though those guests, after a lovely visit, had their car break down in the driveway on their way out. Back in, they lumber–hauling in their baggage. And then the wait–after everything worth saying was already said in the visit-in-chief.

Winter has returned. Just when I was about to start cleaning up the garden. Just when I was about to start digging, and prepping, the holes for the hundred or so trees I’ve ordered. Spring has a short window when the big eyes of winter have been ordering from the nurseries. We went off for a visit “up north” for Easter and when we came back, winter followed us home. Now, with a fresh coat of eight inches of white on the landscape and a polar vortex at the door, I’m having to re-think my Spring schedule.

It’s not that I don’t like winter. I revel in it. It’s beautiful. I don’t mind the cold and I don’t even mind shoveling snow. But, everything has its time, and it’s time for Winter to move along.

Once again, it’s that unstable-climate-change-thing to blame. Erratic warm temperatures in the arctic have destabilized the jet stream again, sending frigid air down to invade our Spring. It’s supposed to hit Washington D.C. hard.

Good.

Maybe a dose of sub-zero in April is just the ticket to wake up all those politicos. How’s that for your cherry festival, eh?

It won’t disrupt our cherries, or most anything else. Our orchards hadn’t yet made strides into Spring. The ground is still frozen–and will be, now, for another couple of weeks. (Though, I’m sure the cherry farmers will find cause to whine.) It’s time to count our blessings. We’ll just throw another log on the fire and revise our plans. I just hope things thaw by mid-April, when my five score trees are scheduled to arrive.

Long Live the Queen…Part 2

(What Were We Thinking?)

A.V. Walters–

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And, finally home in their hives.

We know better. There is no shortcut to proper procedure.

This pulls together a number of wayward thoughts, please bear with me.

 

Some months ago, one of the leaders of our bee group reported that she had a “hot hive” and had been stung over forty times when she tried to work it. “Forty Times!” I thought, “I’d quit bees in a heartbeat.” Shortly after that, I was visiting Garth, a bee-buddy of mine and I was stung. No big deal, it’s a part of beekeeping. Knowing that I react to stings, Garth grabbed my arm and sprayed it with his homemade “aphid spray.” He’d discovered that it helped to lessen the impact of a bee sting. Surprisingly, it worked—though I still swelled up, the large local reaction was half of what I usually suffer. We debated what the active ingredient might be—was it the mint? (peppermint and spearmint) The dish soap? The garlic oil? Garth wasn’t willing to experiment. After all, when it works, why bother?

Many years ago, my then-husband came up a mysterious rash—related to his new fitness plan of regular swimming. We thought it might be the pool chemicals. He ended up seeing a dermatologist. The doctor was intrigued. He did an “ice cube test” and determined that the problem was a relatively rare condition called cold urticaria. My husband was allergic to the cold, and the rash was simply hives. “Not a problem, then… we surmised. The Doc was quick to correct, “Not if it’s just a few patches, but if you get those raised welts over large swaths, it puts you at risk for heart failure.”

Now, the prospect of heart failure steps things up a notch. The Doc advised to seek immediate medical attention if the rash spread to more than a quarter of a body’s surface. He suggested considering another form of exercise. My husband opted to continue swimming, and over time, the rash abated.

 

Back to our bee story… we were in a hurry to get our two queenless hives re-queened. I drove half-way across the state to collect our new royals, so the first thing the next morning, we were up for the task of installing them. A new queen isn’t just dumped into the waiting hive. She must be kept in a queen cage for several days, so her pheromones can work her magic on the hive. Otherwise, she risks rejection by the colony, and murder. Generally, one makes the effort to install the queen at or near the bottom level of the hive. This is especially true, late in the season, so that the brood and ball of bees will be below the honey storage. That way, during the winter the bees can travel up, through the column of warmth generated by the huddled bees, to their food supply. If they have to travel down, or sideways, they risk “cold starvation.” An entire colony can starve, within inches of their food stores, if it’s too cold to make that short trip.

There were several considerations. We knew the hives were hot. We knew that the installation should be as brief as possible. They’d been pretty well-behaved during the split, so we weren’t too concerned. Because we expected this to be quick, we just wore our bee jackets, instead of fully suiting up. That was our first mistake. To speed up the process, we also decided to lift up all the top boxes at once, so we could place the queen cage directly into the bottom deep box, supposedly minimizing disruption. That was our second mistake.

Together, the top, inner cover and two medium boxes of honey, were a little heavier than we expected. As a result, our entry into the hive was not as measured and smooth as usual. And, perhaps because we were opening directly into the bees’ home (and not just the honey storage) we may have alarmed them…

Nothing in our beekeeping experience could have prepared us for what happened next.

Instantly, the usual background hive hum raised to a fever pitch and bees poured out in a tsunami of bee defense. No warning. No raised abdomens or threatening thunks. It was a full-scale attack. They got me first, covering me with stinging bees. The bee jacket mostly worked—only a few stingers got past its tight weave. But one layer of denim is no defense against determined bees and my jeans were covered with the angry, stinging mob. Even as the words, “We’re in trouble,” left my lips, I heard Rick’s cursing reaction as the bees found his ankles. Somehow, he still managed to shove that queen cage into the maw, before we jammed that hive shut. And then I abandoned him.

From the hips down, every part of me was on fire. When a bee stings, it gives up its life in defense of the hive. It also releases an alarm pheromone that tells other bees, “Sting here!” They did. I was a cloud of alarmed bees. Nothing I could do dissuaded them. I ran. They followed. I tried rolling in the dirt; still, they came. I grabbed the garden hose and sprayed down my legs and the bee cloud around me. It didn’t slow them down at all. (Though the cool water was a bit of relief.) And then I ran again, to get as far away from the hive as I could. Peripherally, I was aware that Rick was in a similar dance. I don’t remember screaming, but he says I was. I distinctly remember his cursing.

Finally free of advancing bees, I started scraping away the bees that were sticking to my jeans and socks. I saw Rick flicking them away with his leather gloves and followed his lead. As soon as we were clear of bees, we ran for the apartment and peeled out of our clothing at the door. Even then, there were some bees stuck to our jeans and bee jackets.

Once inside, near naked, Rick said, “Now what?” There was no time to debate. I’d always thought that Garth’s “active ingredient” was the garlic. It was a gamble, but it was all we had. “Garlic!” I yelled, and Rick started peeling cloves as I ran for the anti-histamines. I pulled out my epi-pen and laid it on the table, just in case.

Rick’s ankles were beginning to balloon. For some reason, that was his most targeted zone. Everything below my hips was mine. The rising welts were beginning to merge—I counted 47 stings on the front of my left thigh, before giving up on the count. It was more important to rub in the garlic. I figure I was stung over a hundred times. Many of those stings were “minor,” such that they did not go deep or leave a stinger—in that, our jeans saved us.

Garlic. We grated it, cloves and cloves of it. And then rubbed it into our tortured skin. It stung a little—but in the wake of what we’d been through, we hardly noticed. I was well aware that one, or both of us, would likely end up in the ER. In the back of my mind, I was remembering the admonition—if over twenty-five percent of a body welts up, it’s time to seek medical attention! For nearly an hour we grated and spread the garlic. The kitchen smelled like an Italian restaurant. If we had to go to the hospital, there was going to be some explaining to do.

Finally, it began to work. The welts began to dissipate.

Then, Rick did the unthinkable. He suited up again to retrieve the second queen (left out in the bee yard) to insert her into the other queenless hive. Granted, he just put her in the top—but at that moment, nothing could have convinced me to go anywhere near the bees. He was the hero of the day.

Not that we weren’t still uncomfortable. The stings continued to itch. For me it took two days for the welts to completely disappear—but normally, on me, a sting can remain inflamed for up to a week. This was a phenomenal recovery.

And the bees recovered, too. Both hives have accepted their new queens and they are merrily back to work, in their orderly bee way. Would I quit beekeeping? Not on your life. We’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, though… Garlic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Multi-Part Saga of Succession: Part 1

A.V. Walters

Any population lacking authentic leadership is in trouble. Without authentic leadership, any group can fall for the antics of power hungry posers, whose influences, over time, can only disintegrate group cohesion and direction. You know the type, charismatic thugs capable of whipping up an excitable crowd. Don’t say, “It can’t happen here.” It has.

And such was the case with our largest bee hive. It’s been a productive year, ample rain has fueled a pollen and nectar bonanza. We’ve been doing regular hive splits, trying to avoid last year’s swarming losses. Those bees have been keeping us on our toes. But in early August, we ran out of woodenware, the boxes, bottoms and tops that make up a Langstroth hive. By then, we’d split all the hives, but one and we didn’t have time to build anew. Summer’s like that. We still had plenty of honey supers–so we just kept adding “up,” giving them space to grow, and to store all the honey they were producing. We needed the honey, because all those split hives were going to need resources, heading into winter.

Finally, we were able to catch our collective breath and assemble and paint new hive parts, to split the big hive. But we were too late. When we inspected, we could not find the queen–she and her entourage had already swarmed. There were still gazillions of bees, enough for at least two full hives, but there were signs of trouble.

A queen bee reigns by virtue of her hormonal influences. Not only are the bees connected and loyal because of pheromones, but all those female worker bees’ reproductive urges are suppressed by the queen’s control. When a hive goes “queenless,” either because of swarming, accident or mutiny (yes, mutiny), the bees will endeavor to create a new queen with one of the recent eggs or larvae. This takes a couple of weeks, and in the interim, you’re at risk of a “laying worker.” Without the constant hormonal suppression of the queen, a worker bee can begin laying eggs–and exert a similar hormonal control on the hive. The worker is unmated, so she can only lay drone eggs and she does not have the full complement of pheromones. A rogue hive like this can be mean and unpredictable.

Our inspection revealed problems, there were eggs–but no fresh larvae. The laying pattern was erratic–sometimes two eggs per cell and eggs laid on the sides of the cells, instead of the bottom. These are clear indications of a rogue, laying worker bee. The laying worker bee can interfere with normal royal succession. She may kill the larval queen–or kill her on hatch. After all, who wants to give up newfound power? To save the hive, we needed to re-queen it, and quickly.

Since the hive was still huge, even having swarmed, we opted to get two queens and to split the hive into two before we re-queened. As it was so late in the season, we wanted  already mated queens. We needed them to get in, and get to work, quickly. We wanted to find Michigan, winter-hardy queens, to maximize the chances of surviving the winter. We tried to see this as an opportunity to increase our genetic diversity, instead of just the loss of a truly productive queen.

Online, I found just what we needed–and I zoomed off to pick up our new royals. Though  we weren’t happy about having lost the swarm, we were confident that we could make the best of the situation.

What? Did you think I was carrying on about something other than bees?

 

 

 

Star Thistle.

A.V. Walters–

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“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

They’re Here!

A.V. Walters–

I don’t celebrate Earth Day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice idea. But it annoys me no end when folks known for driving down the driveway to the mailbox “celebrate” Earth Day by buying “green” products they don’t need.

Perhaps it’s a meaningful reminder to people inclined to forget that the planet sits on the edge of the abyss.

Instead, we do our damnest, everyday, to live lightly on the planet. We’re not perfect. Our Spring tribute to the Earth usually involves planting trees. Many, many trees.

This year we backed off. It wasn’t that last year’s 203 tree extravaganza nearly killed us. That was last year. Annual memory lapse is normal. This year, though, we switched to pricey nursery trees. That puts a damper on how many we can plant.

When you pay the big bucks for pedigreed trees, you want to be sure you give them the very best opportunity to survive. We dig deep holes. No matter that the little bare-root sprig is less than a foot tall, our paltry soils must be amended deeply. We sprung for high end organic compost this year—horse manure may be fine for conservation trees, but only the best for these babies. That adds another $6.00 per tree. And, of course we’ll have to cage them, to protect them from the deer, the bunnies, and any other herbivore threats; add rabbit proof welded wire fencing, and a full day to manufacture their cages. We’ll have to extend water down to this newly planted area. There’s plenty of rain this time of year, but by August, I don’t want to have to carry water in buckets.

Needless to say, once the trees arrive, we drop all other activities. Some holes have to be dug by hand. Most though can be done with the backhoe. (You see, we are very serious about these trees.) I figure it’ll take about a week. Then, sore and weary, we’ll return to our regular overloaded lives knowing that we’ve done what we can to make the planet more green.

See you in about a week.

A.V. Walters

They’re hounding me to renew the registration of my hives. In theory, it’s a good idea. If beekeepers register their bees–how many hives and their location–farmers will know to alert them when they plan to spray. That way, I can close up the hives when they are most at risk. They’re emailing me to tell me that if I don’t renew, my listing will be dropped. So, why do I resist?

First, registration hasn’t done anything for me. Doesn’t that sound selfish? In fact, I reached out to my neighboring farmer on my own–we formed an understanding, and now he gives me 24 hour notice of any chemical spraying or application. My idiot neighbors to the west apparently are uninformed about the registry–and they spray, willy-nilly, without notice. Their property looks like the lunar landscape–nothing grows there, not even the things that they plant. The crop registry didn’t help me with my notification success, nor with the failure.

I suppose my resistance is rooted in principle. I don’t want to participate, or be complicit, with the powers that are killing the bees. Late last year the registry unveiled a “new look,” complete with corporate sponsorship. The primary sponsor? Bayer. Wow.

For those who don’t know, Bayer is the primary player in the neonicitinoids game. Neonicitinoids (or “neonics”) are a class of insecticides that science shows are a primary killer of our honeybees. Of course, the industry denies it, in the time-honored tradition of corporate denial (think DDT, Big Tobacco, Big Oil and Climate Change, or, soon at a theater near you, Fukushima!) The usual game plan is to float a disinformation campaign and to deny as long as possible, only to quietly acquiesce to the underlying science AFTER using influence to secure liability protection.) I don’t want my participation in such a program to provide “cover” to corporate malfeasance.

Bayer sponsoring a Bee Registry is like General Mills giving out free wildflower seeds to help the bees. (Oops, that’s a real thing, too!) Is it cynical greenwashing or brilliant PR? I can’t tell, and I don’t want anything to do with it. Am I tilting at windmillls? Should I cowtow and collaborate? I cannot tell anymore.

 

Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sundays and Making Wood…
A.V. Walters–

indian pipes1
We’re busy building. I suppose, given how late it is in the season, we could/should just power on through and build every day. But there are other priorities in the mix. Once built, we’ll need to heat our new home. Our plan is to heat as much as possible using wood from the property. One cannot wait until the snow is thigh-high to go out for firewood. “Making wood” is what the old Finns call it, back home. Mostly, we’re cutting deadfall. There’s plenty of it these days, because those damned (but beautiful) Emerald Ash Borers keep killing the ash trees. At least the wood will still make good fires, and keep us warm in the winter.
Anyway, we decided to take one day a week to cut firewood. Sundays. It’s a lovely change of pace, and brings us deep into the forest. It’s still backbreaking labor, especially on our steep hills but there’s always something new to see. Today it was Indian Pipes.

Indian Pipes are a rare form of plant. Also called “ghost plant,” they are a luminescent white—turning to a soft pink. They have no chlorophyll, and so cannot make their own food. Instead, they tap into certain kinds of fungus, which themselves have tapped into certain trees. The fungus-tree relationship is mutually beneficial, but the Indian Pipes are parasitic—they do not give back to either the fungus or the tree. They actually flower, like a regular plant—and are food for bees, both in nectar and pollen. Because they have no “plant” color, many think that the Indian Pipes are fungal. Without chlorophyll, they don’t need sunlight and can grow even in the densest of forests. No bigger than the spread of your hand, they’re easy to miss on the forest floor. They are often found in areas with beech trees or pines. We have both.

We’ve seen several patches of them this summer. When I was a kid we used to find them in the northwoods of Keweenaw County. We picked one once, from deep in the forest, to bring to a naturalist friend for identification. She chastised my parents, because the ghost plants are so rare. That got my attention—an adult wagging her finger at other grown-ups—my parents! No picking! I took the admonishment to heart and, to this day, I treat Indian Pipes with respect. indian pipes2

The Indian Pipes were our big score of the day. Of course, the firewood, too. All of it came from trees that had already fallen. Unfortunately, when the ash trees fall, they take prisoners—crashing to the forest floor, dragging their neighbors down with them. Today we gathered mostly ironwood (hophornbeam), beech and a little maple. We’re clearing trails for future access, so the day’s haul was moderate. Next Sunday, we’ll be at it again and who knows what we’ll find.

Ripples…

ripples

Cuyahoga Ripples–

A.V. Walters

I was the number-four kid. As is often the case in big families, the younger ones are eager to catch up to the big kids—We wanna do it, too, whatever it is. We walk earlier. We often talk earlier (when we can get a word in, edgewise.) Even as a munchkin, I wanted to read. My older siblings were reading. So, I asked my dad to teach me.

Never one for dumbing down, my dad agreed, but on his terms. I learned to read from the local newspaper, The Windsor Star. By the time I was four, I had a pretty good handle on the reading part, though sometimes the topic was above my head. As a result, my dad spent even more time explaining what the news was, rather than teaching me how to read about it. From then on, I would spread out the newspaper on the floor, everyday, and pore over it. I always saved the comics for last—like dessert. To this day, I’m a news junkie.

I think the hook was set in April, the spring I was ten-years old. That was when the Cuyahoga River caught fire. I was mesmerized by the photo images of something that wasn’t supposed to happen—a river, catching fire and burning, caused by pollution! I became an instant environmentalist. It informs most of my decisions, from where and how I live, to what brand of soap I buy. So, there it is, again, a crystalline defining moment, followed by ripples—only this time, by ripples in a river of fire.

river fire

 

Country Fresh

A.V. Walters

Even while I lived in the city, I hung onto my rural roots. I gardened and produced most of my summer fare from a postage stamp-sized back yard. I canned jams from the plum tree, and I hung my laundry out in the sun, to dry. So, it should come as no surprise that, when I moved to the farm, not only would I want to continue these patterns, but there’d be some room for expansion. But when I explained my plans to Elmer, he seemed a bit alarmed. Not at the gardening, that made perfect sense. And, like a lot of country folk, he fully supports canning. The problem arose when I asked Elmer to put up a clothesline, of all things!

He squirmed at the notion, “Why the heck would you want to do something like that?” I was ready with my environmentally friendly, power-of-the-sun, low-carbon-footprint, Pollyanna diatribe.

“Well, we have a lot of wind, you know. It whips up the dust, and all. So, you’d want to be sure to bring it in before the afternoon winds start up.” He didn’t sound convincing, and it seemed like a strange response—a little wind would be exactly the ticket. In what better environment could there be to dry laundry? (I’d failed to note the almost-complete absence of clotheslines, in the area.)

Elmer never did help out with getting that line up, and given his reaction, I didn’t press it. After a while, I bought the materials and installed it myself. And, he was right about the wind and the dust. If you left the laundry out, late in the day, you’d have to wash it, again. But our mornings were still, and my line was set up to take advantage of the morning sun.

One morning I pulled a fresh towel from the line and headed into town for a swim. (There’s nothing like a vigorous work-out in chlorinated water to clear your head.) As I walked back into the changing room, I caught the unmistakable stench of cow manure. I laughed to myself and thought, somewhere there’s a farmer in here, for sure.

I’ll have to admit, here, that when you’re exposed to something a lot, you become, well, desensitized and… I live next door to a dairy. So, when I grabbed my towel, I almost choked. That farmer was me! And that certainly explained why they don’t hang their laundry out. Oh my! And that was the end of my energy saving foray with country laundry.

Someday, I’ll live somewhere with a different background aroma—and I’ll go back to the clothesline. (Rick said he thinks he knows the perfect location.)

Old Business (something old, something new, something rotten, something phew!)

We’re headed out of town for a couple of weeks, and so it was time to take care of some things that had gone a little ‘long’ anyway. There’s something especially satisfying about getting rid of old garbage before the New Year. In this case, I mean that literally. Garbage.

There’s a funny thing on the farm; we have no trash service. It’s assumed that if you select a rural lifestyle, you’ll adopt a more hands-on approach to the nitty-gritty details of life, as do most rural residents. From time to time the tenants whine about it, but Elmer sticks to his guns. If he provided trash pick-up, there’d be no incentive for tenants to reduce their trash stream by composting and recycling. Elmer knows of what he speaks. He spends a lot on dump fees. Despite the fact that he’s a farmer, Elmer doesn’t separate or recycle, at all. He doesn’t even compost. As a widower, he buys more processed foods than most, and all that packaging ends up in the trash. Besides that, there’s a Re-Use store at the dump, where folks donate things that are still good. Often on hauling day, Elmer will come home with as much as he took!

I gloat over my low dump charges. If you go through and get your vehicle weighed in and out, the rate is ridiculously low. Today we paid $5.00 for sixty pounds of trash. That’s especially low when you consider that this is our first dump run in about eight months. We recycled at least four times that much—but hey, recycling is free. It’s been funny over the years to watch the strategies of the tenants in disposing of their household waste. One woman sneaks to a department store dumpster on a regular basis. Another used to bring her garbage to a friend in town—and stuff it into her curbside bin (or that of the friend’s neighbors.) Still another used to bring her trash into work, until she got caught! I note that guys never discuss their trash strategies. They just cross their arms and nod.

I’m another odd case. I don’t have much household trash. I compost the organic stuff, burn some of the paper and cartons to start the fire in the morning, and recycle everything that I can. The county dump is located conveniently only a few minutes away, so I don’t know why everyone avoids it so. Even with all my waste reduction efforts, some stuff just has to go into the trash. The clear plastic bags that my dried fruits come in, and some blister-packs (which I avoid buying whenever possible)—these things must be hauled off to the dump. It takes me six to eight weeks to collect a full bag of these things. They’re clean, don’t smell and don’t attract pests—so I don’t mind them building up. It used to be that I’d go about 3 months before I’d make a trip to our local land-fill—but that was before Rick. You see, Rick has a truck.

Nobody wants to stuff a passenger car to the gills with garbage, but a truck gives a whole new horizon of hauling avoidance. By the time we need to load up the truck for the trash, the recycling is at the point of ridiculous. Today we filled the entire truck bed with paper, cardboard, bottles, plastics and a little scrap metal. (We don’t eat much in the way of canned goods—other than what we can, ourselves.) The bottles… Well, that gets a little embarrassing—it must look like we’re drunks—but it’s really just an accumulation over a fair amount of time. Today I unloaded four big plastic bins of assorted, glass containers. I was glad the dump was deserted, (it being Christmas Eve Day and all) so I didn’t feel like I’d need to explain—“No, really, this is over 8 months worth!” Once I was unloading my glass containers and some wise guy commented, “That must have been some party… How do you get invited?” I suppose it was a pick up line (you’d be surprised how many guys will try to hit on you at the dump) but even then, it was a little embarrassing.

After all is said and done, it feels good to have all the trash gone. We can go into 2013 with a lighter step and an empty basement. And it clears up one New Year’s resolution, before the new year even starts.