Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A few photos of the garden at the moment

Monday, December 18, 2006

Mycoremediation - a bit more info

Fungi use long networks of filamentous threads to absorb their food called mycelia, as a network of threads they lack the ability to digest food internally so they produce a huge range of compounds which it uses to break down living and dead material. These compounds and the resilient nature of fungi mean that they are ideally suited for use in bioremediation cleaning up chemicals and other damage that humans have wrought on the environment. Naturally fungi break up wood and other plant material into simple molecules easily used by other organisms thus building up the soil layer and speeding the recycling of nutrients through the ecosystem.

A particularly stunning example of the possible uses for mushrooms is illustrated by the use of oyster mushrooms to break up oil. As part of a competitive trial 5 piles of soil were soil were soaked in oil and then different remediation techniques were used including bacterial, chemical and fungal to attempt to get rid of the oil. Four weeks later when the covers were pulled off the fungal trial it was covered in large healthy oyster mushrooms. The mushrooms had broken the carbon chains in the oil and had gassed off the carbon as carbon dioxide ridding the soil of 95% of the oil in it. The mushrooms were also safe to eat. As the mushrooms rotted away after 8 weeks flies were attracted - these ate the remanants and spread the mushrooms spores. The flys presence attracted insects which brought in birds which then brought in seeds creating an oasis of life.

Similar processes to those above allow fungi to destroy other carbon based chemicals including pesticides such as roundup and ddt. As fungi have evolved to break down materials in their surroundings and can produce a raft of useful compounds for this purpose they are uniquely placed to help heal our scarred landscapes. I havnt found much reference to using fungi in books but paul stamets website and books are probably a good place to start

Myco filtration is the purposeful straining of water through fungal mats to rid the water of pollutants or harmful bacteria. Paul stamets a key researcher in fungi has proven that mushroom beds can be used effectively to filter and rid water of E. coli. Another fungi has been proven to completely inhibit the parasite that causes malaria.

The intelligence of fungi should not be underestimated as a team of japanese researchers who put a slime mould into a maze found out
A group of Japanese researchers recently demonstrated the existence of what they
called "cellular intelligence." They put a slime mold into a maze and gave
it two food sources. The slime mold split itself and chose the shortest distance
possible, navigating throughout the maze as directly as possible to
both food sources.

This is perhaps not as suprising as it may seem as fungal mats have a similar layout to the brain or perhaps the internet and fungi are hundreds of millions of years old. Life without fungi would be impossible underestimating their potential in a post carbon (pun intended) world would be a mistake.

Much info gained from

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Fungi (A very brief introduction)

Fungi are phenomenal creatures being the largest biological entities on the planet with some individuals covering an estimated 20,000 acres and with an estimated 8 miles of mycelia in a cumic inch of soil. Mycelia are the long filaments that fungi put to absorb and digest nutrients. Symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationships abound between fungi and plants with the plant providing sugars and carbohydrates to the fungi and the fungi collecting water and mineral nutrients and giving these to plants. Fungi are also able to protect plants against pathogens and diseases and are able to transport nutrients and sugars from one plant to another. This ability to support other species of life directly and to breakdown and recycle organic material mean that fungi play a vital role in pretty much all terrestial ecosystems. Over 90% of all plant species could not survive without fungi and their presence would probably have been nessacary for the arrival of plants on earth. One reason why plants transported great distances may struggle to survive may be a lack of a symbiotic fungus or community of fungi which are present in the plants native place.

Their are an estimated 1 - 2 million species of fungi with every spadeful of healthy soil home to thousands of different types. Agricultural soils can be almost bare of any type of biological life with regular cultivation and a wide range of pesticides and fungicides killing of all the components of a healthy soil. At the extreme end of this is the use of soil fumigants such as methyl bromide (used in strawberry cultivation amongst other things) which leave the soil sterile, this lack of any life leaves domesticated plants wide open to attack and struggling without their required symbiotic fungi.

Fungi have traditionally played a major role in indigenous cultures with many viewing them as sacred entities, used as food, medicine and religous use. The connection between man and fungi is highlighted by the neolithic man frozen in a glacier 5000 years ago he had on him birch bark fungus used for its antibiotic properties a hat made out of a fungi and a container made out of a fungi used to transport ebers of fire. Fungi are also widely throughout history for alcohol and more recently bread.

What we know of as mushrooms are the reproductive bodies of often fast fungal networks. The mushrooms appear during wet conditions when their spores contained on the underside of the mushroom are able to spread and find ideal conditions to grow. Fungi appear uniquely adapted to cope with natural and unatural disturbances quickly moving into and utilising nutrients after slips fires etc. They then provide a base for other organisms to move in and to colonize the area - more about their unique abilitys in a later post.

Fungi growing on stumps

Mushroom growing on a mulched path

Mushroom growing in a mulched onion bed

Further information on Hopi Corn

How the Hopi grow corn in an arid landscape.
The area the hopi grow their corn in has an average of 20.5 - 29.5cm of precipitation a year (auckland has 125cm a year). This rainfall comes in 2 short bursts of snow in winter and what falls as downpours during thunder storms in late summer. This pattern of precipitation arrives at unfortunate times as winter is too cold to grow anything and in summer the rain is too intense to percolate into the soil.

To get around the harsh climate the Hopi plant corn in arroyos which are a sandy loamdeposited by flash floods covered by a layer of sand. Below this topsoil is an impermeable layer of shale which water cannot move through. Winter snowmelt flows down these arroyos and is trapped by the shale. During spring the sand forms a crust which prevents the winter snowmelt from evaporating.

The Hopi plant the corn during late spring 18 - 25cm deep holes which gives the seeds enough moisture to germinate and develop until the intense summer rains begin. To best use the summer rains a system of dams and ditches are built protecting the corn from flash floods and spreading the floods into a sheet allowing slowing it and allowing it to enter the soil. This management provides enough moisture for the corn to mature and deposits new soil every year. The newly deposited soil also produces a hard crust protecting the moisture from the summer rains from evaporation.

The local Hopi corn variety is a short variety so it does not blow over in high winds and it has a deep tap root to access moisture deep in the soil.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Growing Corn

Over summer I and a friend have been lucky enough to have been given a field to grow corn squash and beans on over summer, this association known as the three sisters is a traditional polyculture of symbiotic species. I will post from time to time as to how the plot is progressing and with information on how we use the harvests initial ideas include weaving the corn husks and making corn flour and beer. We are growing three heritage varieties of corn and various squash and pumpkin.




Final Planting

Hopi corn.

The nutritional value of blue corn with blue corn having 30% more protein than regular corn. Hopi corn also grows taller than sweet crorn with heights of ten feet high not uncommon in ideal circumstances. The cobs of hopi corn are known to grow to up to a foot long.

The young hopi corn are highly supposed to be really good to eat lightly steamed boiled or grilled. The ground cornmeal has a sweet distinctive taste and is highly distinctive.

The hopi blue corn we are growning is an open pollinated variety that has been a staple of indigenou americans for thousands of years. In hopi culture corn is dried on the rooftops of houses and then ground by women in large groups as part of a social bonding process. The dried corn are dried using a mano (smaller stone tool) and matate (large stone on which the grain is placed) with the mano rolled over the grain. These day a grinder is used for grinding most corn with corn still ground by hand for ceremonial occasions.

The hopi society is made up of villages divided into clans with a chief who is a spiritual leader. Families live together in large single rooms and houses are handed down from mother to daughter with men moving out to live with their mother or sister after a divorce. Each clan is responsible for different ceremonys.

Hopi are dryland farmers and traditionally corn, squash and beans formed the basis of the diet. Each clan has several tracts in several locations in case some failed due to a lack of rain. In pre european times rain dances were used to ensure the success of crops but hopi farmers are finding that the rains no longer come as they once did. Farmers often spend long periods of time singing to their plants to ensure they grow well. up to 24 varieties of corn are grown by hopi mainly differentiated by coulour.

Hopi corn is typically planted by groups of men who plant a hosts field in corn in a day and are then fed by the host and his wife. Some fields are planted by individual men. Corn is sorted by colour during harvest and stored near the household.

The hopi peoples were visited on 1540 by some of francisco coronados men, missions were established in 1629 but were destroyed during a revolt in 1680 after this the pueblos in the foothills were abandoned and villages were built on the mesa for defence. During the 18th and 19th century navajo raids were common and the hopi were eventually "pacified" by the US army in the late 19th century

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Food production in the west
The bad News

Our current food producing systems are built on a constant supply of cheap oil, oil is used to make our fertilisers pesticides and herbicides, power our machines on the farm and to transport our food around New Zealand and around the world. The fertilisers are particularly dependant on oil and without these fertilisers most of the current food producing regions will be left useless. This use of oil to grow food means that we are putting tens or hundreds of times more energy into growing our food than we are getting out of it. Without oil we would have to use human or animal labour so we would have to get out as much or more energy from our food than we put in.

The huge amount of cheap energy that fossil fuels have unlocked have allowed humans to be taken out of the equation when it comes to food production. Evidence of this is shown by the dissapearance of the small farm and the proportion of the labour force directly involved in food production which is now only a small percentage of the population.

Internationally the main threats to agriculture as we know it are
Depletion of underground aquifers which provide water for irrigation such as in canterbry.
Peak oil or other disruptions to our oil supply which would significantly limit our ability to produce food.
Ongoing climate change which would change rainfall patterns and frost patterns.
Erosion and salinisation.
Centralised food production and distribution systems which are highly fragile and unable to deal with disruption.

Any persistant disruption in a major cereal producing region such as Australia, America or the rice producing regions of Asia would significantly raise food prices internationally. Combine several of these disruptions and you would have a situation where much of the world would be unable to get food at a reasonable price.

The truly terrifying fact behind these disruptions is that no matter what happens we will be unable to produce food as we currently do soon because virtually all our food producing land is being eroded or is suffering from salination. Our entire food production system will not last beyond the end of cheap fuels and even if these last indefinetly the land we grow on land will be so degraded food production will be impossible on the levels needed to sustain our population.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Some ramblings

These are very rough pictures of the future and focus on food because thats what im most familiar with.

In the short to mid term future the price of oil will skyrocket due to varying factors, terrorism, peak oil, growing demand etc. This will greatly increase the cost of transporting and producing food, touching every aspect of society and thrusting us into a long term energy decline.

In the mid term future most of the worlds current grain baskets such as the US will become grain importers due to climactic disruption, salinisation, topsoil loss, increased pest and disease problems etc.

Western civilisation in the mid to longer term will begin to seriously decay due to an inability to maintain our current high level of organisation (both social and physical). This will result in fragmented distribution systems and nation states which are unable to combat guerrilla warfare and quasi civillian resistance groups.

These three predictions are by no means defeinitve but i believe that we will see all of them occur in my lifetime

The Scenario

During 2010 the price of oil doubles then doubles again due to peak oil and an American invasion of Iran, this coincides with continuing drought in Australia and the american wheat belt. Over the next decade the world begins to undergo a financial and energy crash which is tied to major food shortages. New Zealand while well placed to survive both of these undergoes a major shift in lifestyle as food and transport become hard to come by.

Idealised Response

As middle New Zealand starts to experience rationing and shortages of food a decentralised food production network springs up with anarchists/activists involved in skill sharing with the large numbers of newly unemployed and actively planting perrenial fruiting species on vacant land throughout the citys. This at home food production naturally occurs as people get hungry and are naturally interested in growing their own food. Community gardens form a hub for seed and fruit trees and become hubs for education and resources.

Sanitation, electricity, food and water networks begin to fail as the state becomes unable to maintain them. The state, short of resources and finances is unable to invest in the rail network and to invest in low energy transport networks. Degrading infrastructure and suburbs that cannot produce food electricity or deal with sanitation are gradually emptied. Those that stay in the city unable to rely oncentralized infrastructure begin to develop ad hoc solutions. Things such as composting toilets become the norm as synthetic fertilisers are non existant and food production becomes highly important. Various water collection and storage technologys become essential especially with rainfall coming at unpredictable times.

With limited amounts of machinery and degraded soil in many places agroforestry systems such as food forests become widespread and eventually become the backbone of our food production networks. They also prove resilent to climate change as they are structured and work like real forests holding onto moisture and building up fertility. Climate change does hit pretty badly in places in New Zealand and dairying is sharply reduced - some land is abandoned but much is redistibuted to those leaving the city desperate for land.

Local government and citizen groups provide a quasi state solution with assemblages of people with common goals providing many services such as policing/justice, energy and water etc which are currently provided by the government. People come to realise that sustainability is key and new spiritualitys and belief systems arise which are not based on exploitative relations with the land and others.

Overall resources are used to facillitate a transfer to a low energy use society - this is driven from a local level by those who will be most affected by a energy collapse. Local communitys take control of food and infrastructure networks. Their is a slow migration from the city to the countryside and small farms once again become the mainstay of New Zealand agriculture. Local communitys develop and become self supporting as they are forced to.

Activists and left wing politico's see the energy descent coming and start working on projects that will be useful during and after the crash. Community gardens and guerrilla gardening are begun well before the energy descent. Rather than pressuring the government to sort things out activists support communitys during their struggles against those that would attempt to take resources or power during the collapse.

Dimmer picture - another vision of the future

As people begin to experience record high levels of unemployment and food shortages the country experiences a swing towards the right, rampant nationalism and racism are openly expressed by both the public and politicians. A highly right wing government is initially elected and rapidly cuts back on personal freedoms in the name of security, racism becomes ingrained in public policy. After failing to halt the slide into poverty New Zealand the government is overthrown in a peoples coup. The peoples unity government quickly falls apart without the loyalty of the military or the capital to maintain degraded distirbution networks.

New Zealand enters into a strategic pact with Australia and America and every attempt is made to continue our current consumption levels both of oil and other material goods. As part of our agreements with the states our army is placed on the front line in arab and african nations with significant oil reserves. Our coal supply is almost sole exported to members of this alliance. The kyoto protocol and all other such agreements are scrapped in favour of coal power generation, nuclear is also widely adopted.

While some people do start growing some of their own food it only produces a tiny amount of peoples daily requirements. When things get desperate this food is stolen by hungry neighbors and mobs of hungry unemployed start raiding those with resources. This isnt helped by attempts to prevent rioting by nationalising all resources.

By attempting to sustain growth we use up all those resources we could have used for a transition to a sustainable culture. Spiralling descent is added to by tropical diseases which start to sweep through a malnourished population. Eventually Auckland is sacked by rioting youth, abandoned and weeds are left to grow through the pavement as office towers collapse. Activists believing this is the long awaited moment attempt to take power and when successful inherit a crumbling nation, attempting to sort things out they start to use force widely. This backfires on the activists who are themselves shot in another coup

The country fragments into several warring factions with hundreds of thousands of boat people fleeing Australia and Asia forming raiding partys which move through the country looting and taking land.

In Summary

Both the scenarios are just things to get people thinking, in reality neither and both of the above will happen. Their will be some really inspired change and some oppurtunistic looting. Which scenario occurs is largely up to the populace.