2011 in review

January 3, 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 18 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


What I am doing for the next couple of years

December 29, 2011

I thought I’d write a quick post about what I am doing, starting at the end of February, for the next couple of years, because I haven’t really talked about it with a number of people I know. 

I’ll be volunteering with a government agency that shall remain nameless (to avoid having it come up in Google searches). It’s not hard to guess. It was started by JFK and involves a two-year period of service in a poor country. It’s quite clear what its goals are vis-a-vis facilitating American interests abroad and all that, no huge surprises there.

One might wonder why I am doing it, then, if I lack any illusions about it. It basically comes down to what I wrote in an earlier post on this blog, “I want to live in another country again, for a long time.” Not to travel, but to live — and not go broke doing it. I want to have my garden, in a wetter, warmer clime, and grow bananas, sweet potato, cassava, coconuts, cacao, coffee, mangos, taro, etc. I want to get really good with a machete. I want to get extremely good at Spanish. And, yes, I want to be getting to know farmers and understanding their world, and their challenges, in a completely different context than what I am familiar with. I want to make some new friends. 

Did I mention I am going to the Dominican Republic?

I could go on and on with various rationalizations for doing it (responding to imagined righteous indignation by imagined liberal anti-imperialists), but its really unnecessary. I’m lucky enough to be able to act on a purely egoistic basis. This was the only way to do what I want to do without going broke, and being covered medically, and suchlike. And I find it to be pretty harmless, honestly, a kind of relic of the cold war, boutique government organization that will probably be budget-cut to bits in the next several years.

Everyone I know is more than welcome to come visit us out there.

I think with this post I am closing this blog. I will start a new one for this next phase of my life. I’ll let you know when that happens.

An Edible Palm Tasting

March 15, 2011

My fellow edible plant nerd, Scott O. and I recently sampled a number of edible palm “coquitos” to see which ones were choicest, and which were merely stomachable. Our first word of warning is that all of the following nuts — Chilean wine palm, Licuri palm, Bolivian mountain coconut, and Quito palm — are not at all easy to crack. A hammer was necessary on the two latter; for the former two a heavy-duty pair of channel locks sufficed.

The choiceness of each coquito was directly related to its size, we discovered.  P. torallyi was excitingly large but disappointed the palette. It was dry to the point of sticking in your throat unpleasantly. The Quito palm was similar although a bit more palatable.

Clockwise from top-left: Jubaea chilensis, Syagrus coronata, Parajubea torallyi, Parajubea cocoides torallyi. This photo shows our vain attempt to boil and soak these coquitos overnight to hopefully soften the coconut-like flesh and possibly make them easier to crack. It didn’t work.

The Jubaea nut was still sizable and actually very tasty, just like a little coconut, although still requiring tough molars to masticate its hardness. Little Syagrus coronata, was very soft and yummy, but tiny in size compared to it’s resilient shell. We imagined eating a bowl of them with milk like cereal — that would be sublime! — but the amount of work to crack that many nuts would make it an expensive meal. It is the caviar of coquitos, I suppose.

The next day we went on a Palm Tour of the Bay Area. At Project Artaud in San Francisco, a theater surrounded by various palm species, we sampled a mystery palm that wasn’t horrible but gradually irritated one’s throat and mouth. We also found a Brahea edulis loaded with unfortunately unripe dates.

Spitting out the mystery palm fruit at Theater Artaud in SF

Over at the Oakland Palmetum we found the large P. cocoides specimens and bunches of coquitos on the ground around it. We were getting hungry, so good thing we brought the hammer!

Up Strawberry Canyon we went next to browse UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens. They’ve got a nice palm section and tropical house. Their palm labeled P. cocoides was actually more likely a mislabeled Parajubea sunkha. Silly botanists!

Photo op with a mislabeled Parajubea

All in all, another delicious food nerd odyssey!

Bye bye, farm

November 3, 2010

I spent the last six months apprenticing at 5th Crow Farm, a small organic farm near Pescadero. I am very grateful to the folks there for taking me on for a season of learning and hard work. During these last few days on the farm I have felt pangs of genuine pride. Farming is a tough, grueling, yet beautiful and rewarding vocation that one can full-on be proud to do! I can’t say I have ever felt that about my work before.

I have learned, of course, a lot. My body and “spirit” have been conditioned. I ate well, my cooking skills improved, I got up way earlier on a consistent basis than I ever would have done voluntarily and saw more sunrises and sunsets than I ever have before.

A few notes on the relationship between farming and social systems:

– One of the first things I noticed is that a lot of work is put into prepping produce for market — making it look nice, and throwing out the food that is unsellable. Labor goes into this, and food is recycled (I don’t want to say “wasted”) back into the soil without being consumed by people. I thought, if we just concentrated on getting healthy nutrition and calories to people, without the mediation of markets, we would certainly have more nutrition for less work. However, in the end, as long as the people eating the food are a distance away from where it is grown, even a short distance, there is going to be some prep work that needs to be done.

– I met a local Pescadero conventional farmer who left his peas in the field, unharvested, because the market price was too low to justify the labor of harvest at that particular moment. So, although conventional agriculture claims to “feed the world,” people go hungry while food is left in the fields, if the price isn’t right. Great job once again, capitalism!

– Farming is hard work! That is a truism, right?

It definitely is hard work. And has been since the beginning of civilization. An aspiring farmer such as myself has to squarely face this reality — and I have definitely come to terms with hard work over the last six months, and often came to enjoy it (hey, I saved on gym fees!)

There’s nothing “natural” about this, however. Just as humans could be as good to the planet as we are currently bad, growing food could be as easy and enjoyable as it is currently hard and undervalued.

As a societel consensus, since the beginning of civilization, we have decided farming should be hard. But the “low labor per unit yield” of swidden systems and the possibilities of collective play in having many hands and bodies involved in farm work belie the mirror-opposite which could be.

The Art of Not Being Governed

July 10, 2010

“Of course, the overall resistance of swiddening to state appropriation lies both in its hilly location and dispersal and in the very botanical diversity it represents. It is not uncommon for shifting cultivators to plant, tend, and encourage as many as sixty or more cultivars. Imagine the bewildering task facing even the most energetic tax collector attempting to catalogue, let alone assess and collect taxes, in such a setting. It is for this reason that J.G. Scott noted that hill peoples were ‘of no account whatever in the state’ and that ‘it would be a sheer waste of energy in the eyes of an official to attempt to number the houses or even the villages of these people.’ Add to this the fact that nearly all swidden cultivators also hunt, fish, and forage in nearby forests. By pursuing such a broad portfolio of subsistence strategies they spread their risks, they ensure themselves a diverse and nutritious diet, and they present a nearly intractable hieroglyphic to any state that might want to corral them.”

“After a demographic collapse following a famine, epidemic, or war — if one were lucky enough to have survived — swiddening might become the norm, right there on the padi plain. State resistant space was therefore not a place on the map but a position vis-a-vis power; it could be created by successful acts of defiance, by shifts in farming techniques, or by inanticipated acts of god.” (emphasis mine).

I’ve been reading The Art of Not Being Governed, An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott. It is full of fascinating food for thought. One of the most interesting topics it raises is the relationship between socio-political forms and agricultural strategies of certain peoples.

Scott makes the point that in Southeast Asia — and fairly generally worldwide — the food system that has historically been part and parcel of the state and state-making is sedentary agriculture, usually of a grain monocrop. This allows for legible, taxable, storable food surpluses and requires a dense peasant population close to the state core, which feeds the state’s need for manpower. It is the foundation for standing militaries, large building projects, vast solidified hierarchies, dense populations, etc.

The food-system strategies used by non-state, often egalitarian peoples are foraging, hunting and gathering, nomadic pastoralism, and shifting agriculture (a.k.a swidden).

Scott really starts to get somewhere interesting with his discussion of “escape agriculture” and “escape crops.”

The traits of escape crops being:
— crops that cannot be stored long post-harvest without spoiling
— crops that have low value per unit weight and volume
— root crops: easy to conceal and storable in-ground.
— crops that grow on marginal land
— crops that require less care
— diversity of crops: provide more health & nutrition and mature unevenly.

Escape agriculture usually provides a higher return per unit labor — it is consummately “lazy gardening,” and the reason so many marginal groups have been seen as lazy by state-makers.

By being the opposite of sedentary grain monoculture produced by peasant cultivators, escape agriculture becomes “a form of wealth inaccessible to the state” (and one might widen that inaccessibility to encompass capital as well. The “appropriation-resistance” of this form of agriculture often also means resistance to commodification. )

I have been pondering the question of what food system, then, would be part and parcel of a social form that was both egalitarian & state-resistant and sedentary. Not because mobility is undesirable, but because it is probably not possible for all of us to practice mobile agriculture considering the present world population and the degraded state of our ecosystems.

It would be good to know more about non-state societies that were sedentary, or at least not primarily mobile — it was suggested to me that Native Americans in the Northeast (pre-Columbus), and Hawaiians (“pre-warlord take-over-and-enslavement-of-the-peaceful first inhabitants”) may have fit this bill.

In this sense the “permanence” referred to in the word Permaculture has to signify permanence of place, in addition to sustainability or permanence over time. One of permaculture’s original definitions was “a perennial agriculture for sustainable human settlement.” Indeed, Bill Mollison, the co-founder of the permaculture concept, sources its genesis for him in the anger over the ecological devastation that made a mobile, dream-like life now impossible. (“As a child I lived in sort of a dream, and I didn’t really awaken until I was about 28 years old, I spent most of my early life working in the bush or the sea, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that I noticed that large parts of the system were disappearing. First fish stocks became extinct. Then I noticed the seaweed around the shorelines had gone. Large patches of forest began to die. I hadn’t realized until those things had gone that I’d become very fond of them…Fury is what drives me; not love of people, not love of the earth.”)

The escape agriculture described by Scott is mobile, indeed must be mobile to escape the state’s grasp. But for most of us, there is nowhere left to run. If we are to live in an egalitarian, free social form the whole world must be turned upside down. Out of this we must design a kind of permanent escape agriculture that incorporates state- and capital- prevention into its core strategies. Permaculture could, and I think, should, be seen as this set of strategies.

Permaculture is frustrating precisely because it does does not jive with the routines and patterns of capitalism. Organic farmers attempting to make a living by growing food for the market are rightly annoyed with its prescriptions which mostly do not fit the geometry of commodity food production. It is a food system more appropriately aligned explicitly with a social form that is yet to be created. In its ideal form it shares many traits with the “escape agriculture” outlined by Scott: extreme crop diversity; patterning that is illegible to state/capital; appropriation-resistant, non-commodifiable crops; crops that require less care, that have a high productivity per unit labor. It starts to resemble permanent foraging within an artificial, recombinant ecology.

We should start thinking and talking more about what it means to have a system of cultivation that is state-resistant, commodity-resistant, that is suited for free and egalitarian social relations — because one thing I have learned from Scott’s book is that the one is inextricably tied up with the other.

Peasants of the world, self-abolish!

Mien gardens, Oakland

It’s the season!

March 19, 2010

Springtime is here. It’s a sweet and fleeting time here in California —  green growth tumescing all around us, succulent weeds growing tall. Really a great time to lie listlessly on a meadow or, alternatively, to tear one up and make it into a garden. My front yard is now ready to be fecund.

Another great thing about spring is that you get to see your grafts popping out.

Lapin cherry

"Red Ace" plum is popping out of this cleft grafted wild plum rootstock

whip grafts on wild plum rootstock

Inca plum on wild plum rootstock

In case you are curious, these vigorous wild plums grow like weeds all over the Bay Area. They can be found in ruderal interstices as well as seemingly very natural environments surrounded by oaks and bays (I imagine birds drop their seed all over). They work very well as a rootstock for all kind of selected plum cultivars, as well as apricot (I believe).

Grafting isn’t that hard — you just mash two pieces of wood together and wrap them in parafilm tape. The wound heals and sap flows from the stock to the scion. People are already starting to graft onto ‘fruitless’ ornamental street trees (like ornamental plums or pears). In the future we’ll probably just cut these trees down and topwork them with an abundant variety we know and like. It’s a lot quicker than planting a new tree because of the massive, already existing root system. So yeah, learn to graft, it’s a fun and free way to get food.

Drink a beer, plant a plant

February 25, 2010

Back on Saturday, Feb. 13th I hosted a garden party entitled “Garden the Apocalypse!” It was a resounding success! Beer was drunk and plants were planted.

Busting out a row of bare-root fruit trees

Digging a gigantic hole to tip the bamboo into

What, exactly, did we plant?

Along the south fence, a row of fruit-trees:

Nectarine, “Panamint” (cheapo from Grocery Outlet)

Fig, “Brown Turkey” (propagated by me about a year ago from a cutting I took from the Purple House)

Apple, “Pink Pearl” (chip budded on Bud 9 rootstock in last semester’s Advanced Propagation class at Merritt College)

Cherry, “Lapin” (from Grocery Outlet)

Peach, “Tropic Prince” (from the Berkeley Scion Exchange)

Apricot, “Nugget” grafted by Timbo onto “Patterson” (from Grocery Outlet)

Peach, “Florida King” (from Grocery Outlet)

Apple, “Golden Delicious” (also chip budded on Bud 9)

Pear, “Seckel” (grafted from rootstock and scionwood from the Berkeley and San Jose scion exchanges).

And then along the north fence, we planted two 15-gallon bamboos, Bambusa Oldhamii and Thamnocalamus tessellatus (a southern African bamboo used by Zulu warriors to make spears and shields). We also stuck a Capulin Cherry over here and then hooked up a laundry greywater system to water it, the bamboo, the wild plums I’d grafted earlier, and the existing walnut tree.

In front, we planted along the fence:

A tree tomato (from the Merritt College plant sale)

A banana of the variety “Ice Cream” (also from Merritt)

Two Pepino Dulce plants (which I propagated about a year ago from a plant at Merritt)

Jerusalem artichoke tubers.

Later I added some edible Canna, chayote, a Pineapple Sage, a Mexican Sage, and some lemongrass. In back I’ve since added edible Canna, wild strawberry and of course some nitrogen fixers: perennial clover (Trifolium repens), Tree Lupin, California Wax Myrtle,  Fava beans, and vetch.

In a year or two this place is going to be a jungle!

Chanterelles! Chanterelles! Orange Gold!

January 19, 2010

Food Nerd Odyssey

November 12, 2009

Persimmon and pomegranate tasting


Hauling pomegranates away by the bushel

Bombloads of grapes

Olive tree or banyan tree?

Understand your bread

Big chestnut burrs

$50 worth of chestnuts?

Baby chestnut trees

The cornucopia

I’m bitter like an uncured olive

November 10, 2009


During a field trip to Duarte Nursery I found some amazing Central Valley Olive trees lining the parking lot. Laden with large fruit never before seen by my coastal Californian eyes. I picked the plump round miracles off the trees like a madman.

When I got home I googled olive curing, found a large jar, put enough salt in it to float an egg, shoved the olives in, and put them in a cupboard. Now I just need to wait! A loooong time.

Speaking of bitter tree crops you have to process, I gathered a few pocketfuls of acorns over at Windrose Farm, ground them in a blender and leached them in the toilet tank.

I boiled them in water for 15 minutes and then put the water and acorn mixture in the freezer.

After a couple of days I took it out and made :

For this I have on hand cold boiled potatoes. Make
sure the potatoes are cold, if they are warm they’ll
Sauté 3 Tbs. chopped onion with two chopped cold
potatoes in 2 Tbs. vegetable oil. Add 1/4 cup leached,
cooked, cooled and strained acorns*, and 3-4 beaten
eggs (or egg whites). Mix together then top with
shredded cheese and cover. When cheese is melted
it’s done.
From Acorns and Eat ‘Em by Suellen Ocean.
Cooking the recipe
This was the best breakfast I’ve had in a long time, even from a restaurant! If I were to start a wild foods greasy spoon, this would definitely be a featured menu item! I think I am going to gather acorns for many years to come just so I can make this dish.