October 08, 2010

Notes from the Ground, Benjamin R. Cohen

I didn't have time to actually read this, so this is not really a review, let alone a fair review. TIME: the early American republic, extending into the 1840s. PLACE: mostly Virginia, synechdochal for that republic. PLAYERS: the systematic farmers, and their silent interrogatory, the soil. THE ACTION: to use science to make farming a stouter support for the young nation.

Which, obviously, it did, although we also already know that it identified some problems and left them for later.

Consider the Georgic as an alternative to the Pastoral ideal. The Georgic, like the man with the stercorary himself, dreams of earning a comfortable life by hard, moral, sensible labor. (Is there a name for the urban idyll?) Still useful, still contested.

I did not finish this because I am having a field season of my own, so I was pleased to skim past this, in a discussion of the first complete map of Virginia:

Fatigue, privation, and roadless miseries are classic problems of field scientists. But to establish a viable survey system one had to acquire information from the field and incorporate it into a presentable report at the home base, a process that gave no attention to the work of the assistants, or their travails...

Find in a Library: Notes from the Ground

So wrote clew.

June 28, 2010

The Story of the Soil, Cyril G. Hopkins

I'm interested in several of the sub-themes of this book, but the story as a whole was almost unreadably dull. I will summarize, in case someone else can be saved the trouble of reading the whole thing.

Overt story: young man armed with the new soil science checks out olf tired farmland while looking for a cheap farm to put back into good heart. Meets farmers' daughter, courts her, carries her off to be a farmwife.

By line count, most of the book must be the hero reciting tables of soil nutrient content and plant nutrient use... table after table after table of values measured east of the Mississippi. He is mostly speaking to a family of Southern farmers (Virginia?), who are suffering genteel poverty not just because of the waw, but because their land has 'worn out', as it does. The hero explains the need for additional nitrogen, and the inadequacy of merely recycling animal manures, and the use of clover; and winds up worrying about the long-term national need to maintain stocks of phosphorus. All of this startles me as evidence that we've known for yonks, since much much earlier than any of our conservation laws, that we were running agriculture on a literally unsustainable basis; and even why; but it's always the next generation's problem.

The other half of the plot is the rapprochement of the North and the South, mostly by admiring Southern women and vilifying or pitying blacks. I think the race descriptions are trying to be as generous to blacks as they can without losing a white Southern audience, but they're pretty awful all the same.

Project Gutenberg: The Story of the Soil

So wrote clew.

March 19, 2009

Farmers of Forty Centuries, F. H. King, D.Sc.

I'd like to find a contemporaneous review of this book. King toured China, Korea and Japan with an expert eye on their intensive, sustainable agriculture and what seems to me to be a radically approving tone for his day. There were still anti-Chinese settlement laws and riots up and down the West Coast, after all, and Jack London was mocking foreign farmers specifically for their prudence and industry. Current reviews of this (it's still in print) are all in the trail of Wendell Berry, who approved; I looked it up because of a half-crankish reference in a composting journal.

King, for someone clearly approving, comes across as a transparent, inquisitive author, who must have had a busy translator to extract all the techniques and price-lists and explanations that make it into the book. Mostly, this is a travelogue with 'pods' (in Elise Hancock's words) of dense agro-tech exposition hanging off; and many photographs of a startlingly pre-industrial world.

The frame of King's curiosity, though, is his claim--as a Wisconsin professor of agriculture--that the U.S. could not possibly sustain its wasting methods of agriculture, its intentional losses of topsoil and nutrients, and that the Far East had a long history of supporting high populations, and probably knew something we needed. From the Preface (by a Dr L. H. Bailey):

We in North America are wont to think that we may instruct all the world in agriculture, because our agricultural wealth is great and our exports to less favoured peoples have been heavy; but this wealth is great because our soil is fertile and new, and in large acreage for every person. We have really only begun to farm well.

Following, many details of how the fields are leveled, green and muck manures preserved and spread, crops and fallow rotated, irrigation accomplished, markets made. King points out early that the areas around the China Sea are of naturally high productivity, being warm and well-watered (by rain, as well as rivers that bring them silt); but the astounding effort put into farming every square foot, into dredging that silt out of an enormous delta--by human labor--to raise and, indeed, create the land, is no less amazing. King was always happy to notice what clever tricks cycled nutrients, but modern lazy I, I notice that the cleverness usually relies on human effort and a good bit of desperation. There were also devastating famines in China, over those forty centuries. I don't know if they were less common there than in, say, Europe; and this seems crucial to enthusiasm for the book... If we are to consider if this is a good plan for humanity (and many permaculture enthusiasts do), then I want to know how many population crashes that 'sustainability' requires. King quotes an interlocutor saying that in poor years the girl children are sold or given away, which King refuses to believe.

It would be nice to think that we could have a less dense population, and still recycle as intensively, leaving a margin for ourselves and natural systems. It seems unlikely to me. Not just the physical labor, but the constant attention, seem to me to be so extreme that we would not keep them up without a constant fear of personal failure and starvation:

But above any other factor, and perhaps greater than all of them combined in contributing to the high maintenance-efficiency attained in these countries, must be placed the standard of living to which the industrial classes have been compelled to adjust themselves, combined with the most rigorous economy which they practise along every line of effort and of living.

The permaculture doomers assume that we'll have that fear soon enough, and will want to know how to survive; fair enough. Or possibly we will teach our robots to do it for us. Wall-E would have been a much, much better movie had Wall-E found a copy of this book.

Interesting details: comparing the smallest unit of currency, the cash, about 1/1750 of a US dollar at the time, to the smallest unit, used "On the Pacific coast [of the U.S.], where less thought is given to little economies than perhaps anywhere else[...] the nickel". Foot-propelled paddlewheel passenger boats cost less per passenger mile than the US railway tariff. King suggests diverting the lower Mississippi over the "200 miles of country" behind its levees, in order to preserve and increase fertile farmland. "Everywhere we went in China, the labouring people appeared happy and contented, and showed clearly that they were well nourished. The industrial classes are thoroughly organized, having had their guilds or labor unions for centuries." The compost practices were detailed and labor-intensive; Chinese villagers built clamps of mud over aging compost; the Japanese National Department of Agriculture published plans for a handsome stercorary. (It's evident that Japan had more timber than China.) There's a reference to 'parking' but the word means 'making a park of' land, planting trees.

Find in a Library: Farmers of Forty Centuries

So wrote clew.

September 07, 2008

Bitter Melon, Jeff Gillenkirk, James Motlow, intro. by Sucheng Chan

Locke is a rural Chinatown, maybe the only one surviving in the U.S. I don't think it's much architecturally; three blocks of frame houses built for floods, an enormous vegetable garden, and some levees. Bitter Melon is about the history seen in the surviving Chinese residents, and combines some old photographs with current ones and with transcripts of their reminiscences.

The town is unusual because U.S. discrimination against Chinese residents was so vicious for so long, forbidding them basic legal and economic rights and also the right to naturalize at all. Chinese communities were violently driven out of locales all over the West through the late 1800s (and probably later, but that's what I have a map of). For that matter, the Chinese were forbidden to naturalize or to own land as aliens throughout the West until 1952.

But, back to rural Locke; if driven out of most towns, and also the agricultural muscle of early California, where did the Chinese go? Most of them seem to have lived in field houses of large farms, or have been sharecroppers; Locke was unusual because it was a town run by the inhabitants and for regional Chinese workers, but it was on Locke land and the inhabitants didn't own it (until 2004!!). Which makes me think about various utopian and dystopian schemes, I must say; the river street was mostly run by and for the houses of gambling and prostitution, and then there were two blocks of houses, and then the community gardens, which are clearly managed to the inch so must have been surveyed and willed on.

The second most interesting thing, after the political wrongs done to the Chinese, is the view the survivors have of the rest of the country. Now, this is a delicate and nuanced thing; it's not as simple as the legal history, it's the impressions more or less tactfully conveyed by people with wildly different temperaments and histories. It's a good book to read on a hot afternoon when you miss your grandparents and can put up with some meandering in their memory. There's an interestingly contradictory line of comments about American blacks; that they were worse treated than the Chinese were, but some of the Chinese still dislike them, though certainly not all, and that whole civil rights noise was very un-Chinese... but admirable. The line on Mexican-Americans is a lot more straightforward, that despite more protective laws they are now what the Chinese were ninety years ago. And, although Locke was overwhelmingly in support of the Kuomintang, one resident remarks that the Chinese were treated horribly in the States until the U.S. was intimidated by Mao; you get the impression that someone who mightn't naturally approve of Mao had evidence that his ruthlessness was required, in this troubled world.

Third, I wanted more about the gardens; more than half the town by area, after all. These are vegetable gardens run by people who survived sharecropping, on the Delta soils of Yolo County which were rich to start with, and with a gardening tradition that wastes nothing. It's mildly famous that the Delta islands are losing topsoil at a measurable rate every year, as it blows away, decays away, and is stripped for turf. I would very much like to know if the Locke garden is shallower than it ever was. In the one photograph, it looks as convex and fluffy as the best feather bed.

Find in a Library: Bitter Melon

So wrote clew.

May 29, 2006

Hedge Laying and Fencing, Edward Hart

A short and seemingly practical guide, with lists of appropriate (to Britain) plants for hedgerows and plenty of pictures of hedges actually being relaid. Even so, half the book is on fencing and gates.

A later and longer book is available online; Hedging, Alan Brooks & Elizabeth Agate. Midland hedges - hedgerow planning - hedge restoration - competitions! I knew there were drystone walling competitions, but this seems like an even-less-glamourous extreme and practical sport.

Find in a Library: Hedge Laying and Fencing

Find in a Library: Hedging

So wrote clew.

January 06, 2005

The Garden Book

Phaidon organized these five hundred gardens by their designers; Aalto to Zug, each is represented by one garden, each garden represented by one small vivid photograph and about three paragraphs of text. It isn't, therefore, much use if you're looking for something relevant to any particular garden; but all the photos are good of their kind, so it's very calming to flip through. Since the five hundred most glorious gardens tend to have been built with lots of space, and lots of money, and often lots of time, it wasn't going to be a utilitarian book anyway.

There are more photos than I would like of a single built object rather than a plant or landscape layout. Sometimes this is reasonable; the Chinese teahouse at Sanssouci is a joy.

I was enthralled by the tiny description of the Quinta de Regaleira, built by someone amazingly rich even by the standards of the Gilded Age and very fond of symbolism and mystery; it's described as "the garden of an obsessive", or "allegorical", and seems to be composed largely of turrets and grottos, or dry wells, connected by half-hidden ways. Clearly a mastermind of ambiguous morality should live there.

These stunnerous gardens don't last forever; war and development took some, many of them require constant upkeep, others were plowed under by inheritors of money but not taste, many are ruins thousands of years old (and still striking), some of them had natural lifespans limited by the lives of trees. I am made the more happy by the Cang Lang Ting:

The Cang Lang Ting is one of the oldest gardens in Suzhou and has been so miraculously preserved that it still resembles the drawing its creator, the scholar and poet Su Zimei, made when he designed the garden in 1044. Carved on to a black stone, which still stands at the entrance to the garden, the plan shows a bird's-eye view[...]

It was moved or rebuilt in the 17th century, but everyone says it kept the spirit of the Song builders.

A significant number of the gardens are 'out of place' in some way, as when Catherine the Great hired a Scottish architect to build a Chinese village and a pyramid mausoleum (for her dogs!) .East and West exchanged styles, also North and South, and maybe the transplants required more genius to flourish; or maybe they stayed famous because they were so obviously made things. The pyramids are a recurring theme, too, said to represent reason and enlightenment but often associated with secrets.

ISBN: 0741843555

May 03, 2004

Grow Your Own Chinese Vegetables, Geri Harrington

Evidently the mainstream US didn't know about snow peas in 1978. This from a Northeast gardening book, so maybe they'd made it into common diet on the West Coast already; but good gracious, what persistence of ignorance over gusto.

Harrington gives gardening advice, simple recipes, and amusing factods for a couple score Chinese vegetables (some could equally be counted as Japanese or Middle Eastern or African, but she seems to have fallen in love in a Chinese cooking class). Many of the vegetables are now easy to find in any Seattle grocery, and the gardening advice is slightly wrong for our climate, but it's a good minor document for that shift in American eating which I think of as Escape from the Iceberg Lettuce.

I was actually looking for Asian collard greens. I didn't find one here, but that faithful and ancient Brassica could have travelled that far.

ISBN: 0882663690

April 18, 2004

Growing Clean Water, B. C. Wolverton, Ph.D., John D. Wolverton

The elder Wolverton was a NASA scientist and is an environmental engineer. Indeed, this book is published by his engineering company and is a tacit advertisement for their work, case-study by case-study. They don't mention any of the competing designs, let alone the homebuilt oddities. For homebrew or humor, try The Humanure Handbook. If you're wondering how your small town can improve its municipal water-treatment system, though, the dead-earnest prose won't be a drawback; it sounds like an educational filmstrip. (I think that's a professional requirement for aerospace engineers. The book dedication implies that he was thought dangerously exuberant at NASA.)

One photograph of sewage treatment lagoons looks much like the next to me, but I did enjoy the discussion of which plants do good phytoremediation in theory, and which survive in practice. Native ones survive. So does water hyacinth. Water hyacinth is famously invasive, and this book doesn't discuss how to cultivate it in your treatment lagoons without guaranteeing its perpetual presence in all your other waterways. Maybe it's already ineradicable, and we might as well plant it somewhere useful.

The discussion of how many contaminants are becoming common in water is sadly familiar. Phytoremediation of heavy-metal and radioisotope contamination can't be the whole answer (you have to harvest the contaminated plants), but it's cheering to think that biological wastes can be more effectively managed than they are. There's a plan in this book for treatment of both water and air coming off a CAFO, which is one extreme need; and a optimistic comment that even a dense city, say, Sydney, could stop dumping sewage onto its beaches by building a skyscraper treatment plant. First sludge digestion would happen in the basement. The methane produced by that would be used to pump the result up to planters at the top of the building, and the water would switchback through increasingly clean swamps in each story, emerging as limpid as a Wordsworth stream. Alarming thing to go up in one's neighborhood, I admit, but not logically more alarming than pouring it untreated onto the rivers and beaches.

Unstylish as it is, I find this much more convincing than the cherryblossom posturing of Cradle to Cradle.

ISBN: 0-9709791-0-X

September 15, 2003

The Natural History of a Garden, Colin Spedding, Geoffrey Spedding

On being, or becoming, a naturalist; looking at exactly what's in one's backyard, and then working out to the principles that even a slug or a twist of goosegrass demonstrates. The author leaves trashcan lids on his lawn to encourage little animals to nest - voles, snakes - so it's more about seeing as much of an ecology in one place as possible, than about gardening in the usual command-and-control sense.

The author is English; there's a section on American gardens, but the specific drawings and histories are English. Much of it is devoted to using a real outdoors to teach children to begin to be naturalists.

Algebra was once the "binding and the cancelling out"; naturalism starting from a wealth of data, like this, is too; seeing what all the ants have in common, and also how the species differ.

ISBN: 0-88192-578-0

June 03, 2003

Propagation Basics, Steven Bradley

It's nice in a beginner's how-to book to have the author address novices but assume that they're naturally going to become wild enthusiasts. This book has good practical advice - cloches out of junk, when to use an old cheap saw instead of ruining a good one - and background biology both; and of course they're closely linked, if you're going to get into the subject: you'll need the practice to experiment on the biology.

I will, anyhow.

Crogglers: scooping and scoring tunicate bulbs; leaf cutting begonias. (Online info from the extension services again: thanks, government.)

Note to self: fuschia and pelargoniums by softwood cuttings in the spring; camellia by semi-ripe cuttings taken autumn or winter &
rooted on the windowsill; Ribes by hardwood cuttings in autumn.

ISBN: 0-8069-8851-7