So I had this weird dream the night before last, maybe not any weirder than my usual dreams, but this one in particular had some very strange imagery going on. I was at my parents’ house in their bathroom looking for a spare toothbrush (which happens, because I forget mine), and in walked my dad sporting his usual haircut (bald, shaven) with the addition of a single bean plant sprouting from the back of his head like an antenna. I tried to ignore it because I didn’t want to make him feel awkward, but finally I said, “Dad, you’ve got a bean plant sprouting from the back of your head.” He turned around. “Really? Where?” At that point Alvaro came in and also noticed the bean sprout, and together we managed to dislodge it, which was not gory as you might imagine. It just kind of came out.
That image has stayed with me and yesterday I tried drawing it, but my people drawing skills pretty much stopped at around the eighth grade. Then this evening I did what people do nowadays and started looking around for images to photoshop. I chose the following photo for my dad, because he’s heard from several people that he looks just like Patrick Stewart (“must be the hairline,” he says):
And then I started looking around for bean sprout photos, such as this one:
And then I came across this:
And with this I felt no need to go any further. FYI the article that went along with the photo explains:
People in Beijing have found new usage for bean sprouts, a healthy vegetable packed with plenty of vitamins and proteins. Dubbed #Sproutcore, people have started wearing bean sprouts in their hair. The trend is reportedly popular amongst people of all ages, ranging from young children, men, and, according to bloggers, grandmothers too.
This still left me with the question of: what does it all mean? Until just a few minutes ago I wasn’t sure, but then I got an email + photos from my dad showing the solar panels they just got installed on their roof (front and back). He’s been very keen on this initiative for several years and is excited that it’s finally happened. My dad is not a crunchy vegan earth father who spends his nights reading permaculture manuals. He’s retired military and Republican (economically, not socially, he’ll point out, and he’s very clear that he’s hell no not voting for Trump). But be careful of your stereotypes: he is also fuel efficient, adamant about buying eggs from the farm down the road because they leave their chickens to frolic in the fields, believes in climate change, and now solar panels. So maybe the bean sprout in the dream symbolizes the sprouting of green ideas? Or is that too easy an interpretation?
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a TEDx talk by Ben Falk (which I’ll put at the bottom of this post), and today I watched it while eating lunch. My lunch was nice — a big salad and some of the bread I made yesterday, but apart from the actual making of the bread, the rest of it was store-bought and I hadn’t grown any of the ingredients myself. There’s nothing in the garden that’s ready to pick yet, aside from herbs and the celery that lasted through the winter — way too much celery really, so I’ve been feeling a bit rabbity this week since Alvaro doesn’t like the stuff. I’ve duly noted this and won’t bother planting so much celery this year.
So while I was happy with my nice midday salad, I couldn’t help feeling a bit envious of Falk’s rural Vermont homestead. What a dream, to be able to grow almost all of your own food, grains included, as well as medicinal herbs and eggs from happy chickens. To be able to feed yourself almost entirely with what you’d coaxed into being with your own two hands.
But it also got me thinking again about something that has nagged me for years: we, the people who are into this sort of stuff, salivate over lush foodscapes like Falk’s backyard while at the same time living in apartment blocks, paved-over suburbs or cities, with a lucky few having a few square feet of balcony. The rest have to be contented with windowsill boxes… if that — I once lived in a studio apartment whose two windows looked out onto a fire escape, barbed wire fence, and the next building’s wall eight feet away. We didn’t get much sun so I tried to compensate by painting the place canary yellow.
More than half of the world’s population today lives in urban areas, and I’m sure many people living in apartments like mine would, like me, be very happy to get away from it all and live somewhere that doesn’t smell like car exhaust, and isn’t so cramped that the guys working on the scaffolding of the building across the way can see what TEDx video you’re watching while eating your supermarket lunch. But not everyone who wants to can get out — because of finances, family, work, available land to buy — and even if they did, where would they all go? Wikipedia has just told me that if we were to spread out the human population over the Earth’s land mass, excluding Antarctica, we would be more than 50 people per square mile — and that’s taking into account land mass including the top of Mont Blanc and the middle of the Mohave Desert.
Thus, it’s not going to happen, that we as a species can all heed the call to go back to the land. That isn’t to say that those who have the inclination and possibility to do it shouldn’t. If Alvaro and I are lucky enough to score a piece of land upon which to cultivate our paradise, we’ll certainly jump at the chance. For that, Falk’s talk is some lovely farm porn, something to dream about and work towards, but it remains that there need to be some alternatives presented that better take into account the fact that this dream is not realizable for everyone — nor is it for everyone.
I organized a walking tour for a group of art students yesterday that ambled through the streets of Geneva on mission to discover alternative systems of food production in this urban landscape. We saw large and small plots of fruits and vegetables, chicken runs and bee hives, beautiful and cared for pockets of land squeezed in among old buildings and new ones. It all looked so precarious, and yet at the same time gave a tiny taste of the way things could be — even with Geneva’s housing crisis — if there existed the political and cultural will to change. Problem is, there isn’t really. As is the case in other cities, there are very few urban gardening projects in Geneva that take the long view. There are a few exceptions, but most urban gardeners here have to be contented with a few square meters of clay-heavy soil in peripheral areas or parcels of land that the city lets them use temporarily while finalizing the permits for an upcoming construction project. (The latter is the case of my community garden — I’ll give an update on that here soon.) There is no grand urban planning scheme here, no thought to preserving green spaces aside from the city parks. Always there is the cry of “but we’re in a housing crisis” and “but all these immigrants need apartments.” These sound like excuses to me, because look around Geneva and you’ll see plenty of buildings that are either vacant or vacated of meaning, shops filled with fast fashion and electronics that will stop working after two years, offices whose sole purpose is to pass paper around or trade decimals of wheat. We don’t have a housing issue — we have a priorities issue.
I’m afraid I don’t have any sweeping plans that I can take to the Grand Conseil tomorrow, so this will be filed under Complaints with No Clear Alternative Offered. I will therefore leave you with Ben Falk’s video, and continue pondering the issue and try to figure out something that at least I personally can do about it.
I have what is a slightly irrational fear of wild plants, when it comes to eating them or using them medicinally. A bit of fear is healthy of course, because it means I’m not traipsing around town picking bits of plants here and there from the asphalt and the park to put in my salad, without knowing what they are. However, even when I’m with someone who knows beyond any doubt that this or that is nettle, or edible berries, I hesitate. I was on a hike once with my friend Noemi and we stumbled upon a big patch of wild strawberries: she cried Oh goody! and started having at them, while I stood back in horror, expecting her to suddenly clutch at her throat and gasp for air. My fear stems in part from a freelance project I had several years ago, editing a series of books on poisonous plants. I’ve read more anecdotes than one should about Victorian era children dropping dead after gorging themselves on belladonna. But after a moment Noemi turned around and held out a palmful of the tiny red berries, and, feeling like a bit of a wimp, I took them. They were very clearly strawberries, smelled like strawberries, tasted like strawberries (only better), but I nevertheless spent the following two hours feeling every single twinge in my body and thinking it was the beginning of the end.
That, my friends, is no way to live. I don’t want to live in fear, and I don’t want to miss out on all the fun that is to be had hunting for mushrooms, foraging for wild greens and pigging out on strawberries with your friend on a steep mountain trail.
Several years ago I thought about looking into learning plant identification. It seemed so intense and overwhelming. But (you must have known there was a but coming), I’m starting to get over it. This is another one of those moments where I am so happy to be doing the sorts of things I’m doing in life. One of the current Plantopic invitees is Belle Benfield, a visual artist who is also an herbalist, and yesterday we had a plant foraging workshop with a local forager named Maurice Hennart leading the way.
Got some bad news a few weeks ago, and since then I’ve been in a weird state in which I alternately fly into ranting rages, or else drop into silence and change the subject. Fluctuating between rage and hiding my sadness, it’s tiring. I haven’t told my own mother nor some of my friends who have an interest in these things because often when we go there in conversation I feel a pang of grief and don’t feel like talking about it. Because not talking about it means it doesn’t exist, right?
No, no one’s sick or dead, but a little patch of urban paradise will be, at some point in the near future. The back story, in brief, is that the plot of land where we have the garden, and Utopiana, is on loan to us from the city, and from the beginning there was the understanding that at some point in an undetermined future it would all be bulldozed to the ground and replaced by a nine-story apartment block and parking lot. That’s how the world spins in this urban planning paradigm — gardeners get the leftover land on loan until something bigger comes along.
I had to move it from its old spot on the bookcase because it was getting too big. We also had no more room for books. For reference, at the last tree house update two months ago our little tree was 62 cm, and it’s now 71 cm, plus its foliage is quite a lot wider and the trunk is turning into a real trunk. I think we’re going to need a bigger pot.
On Wednesday Mas and I met up at the garden to catch up, which is an odd thing for me to say because normally we see each other all the time, but by fault of various circumstances we somehow managed to go an entire month without seeing each other, nor even really having much in the way of contact aside from a couple of brief emails. At long last we were reunited then, and before we knew it we’d been talking for 10 hours straight. It was nearly 2 a.m. and we were both too exhausted to make our ways home, so we slept in the house of the art association that cohabitates in the same land plot as the garden (we have the house keys). The next day was Thursday, which would prove to be a highly productive day.
0827 – I woke up, showered, dressed and was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee by 0900.
0910 – Mas and I are sitting at the table on the garden terrace, drinking our coffee and enjoying the still of the morning. I’m working on my latest knitting project. The still was interrupted when the birds arrived to feast on the grape arbor hanging over our heads. “I’ve had enough of their gluttony,” I said. “I’m fine with them eating some of the grapes but last year they ate everything. Let’s pick everything that’s ripe and make wine.” Mas said, “Right,” and got her laptop to start looking up how to go about such business, because neither of us had ever done it before. I got a pair of scissors from the kitchen and stood on a rickety wooden chair cutting down bunches of grapes and loading them into a plastic bag hooked on my elbow. I picked a huge pile, something like six or seven kilos I’d say, and then returned to my seat to continue knitting while Mas read aloud to me instructions she was finding online for how to make wine.
What do you do when someone gives you a gift that goes against your ethics? My friend Joseph gave us as a wedding present this beautiful eucalyptus:
He explained that for our thirtieth anniversary he would give us a panda, and since the eucalyptus by that time would have flourished into a lush forest, the panda would have its habitat all ready to go. There are two issues with this. One: in a quick internet search to check on the care and use of eucalyptus plants, it seems that pandas do not in fact eat eucalyptus — they eat bamboo. Koalas (and other marsupials) eat eucalyptus. The other, more important issue with this gift is that neither Alvaro nor I are keen on the idea of keeping an exotic, endangered species as a pet. In fact, we are wholly against it. Domesticated cats and dogs are one thing — they are species bred as companion animals. But a wild creature used to living in the forest? And one that would grow to be larger than an adult human? Keeping an animal of that size would be logistically difficult, but the ethical considerations are what really worry us.