Dreaming of edible landscapes and vegetal cities

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.

Last season at the Pote-à-Jean?

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.

Continue reading…    

Some reading + a plant update


and I discovered this publishing house today (like I need any more books): Permanent Publications


When I was three years old we went to go visit my mom’s uncle Mark and aunt Mary on their farm in Kentucky. My only memory of the trip was coming upon a litter of newborn kittens in the barn, but I’m told that I also “helped” Mark plant pumpkins, and for the rest of the week-long visit kept pestering him as to when they would be ready to pick. I kind of feel like that still. (PS The punchline of the farm story is that come October we received a gigantic package in the mail — my dad had to go out to the mail truck to help the postman carry it inside. It was addressed to me, and we opened it up to find a hundred-pound pumpkin inside. There’s Uncle Mark for you.)

Luckily, with adulthood comes patience (sometimes). The germination corner of the dining room table has been steadily turning green, and some of its contents will be ready for planting in about a month.


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Eggplant (finally — I’d all but given up hope because the seeds were pretty old):

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And in the other room, my intrepid little avocado tree:

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Start o’ the garden 2014


Last Friday Mas and I spent from late morning till early evening waking up our garden parcel for planting. I felt like we did loads of work but when I stood back to look at it at the end of the day it still looked like a dormant, wintry patch of soil for the most part. That will change.

Before: (our parcel is L-shaped, the one covered with branches on the exterior there)

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The biggest chore was cutting back and pulling out much of the grass that had crept into the parcel. We grow food, not lawns. Pulling out all that grass along with its big, stubborn roots only confirmed my hatred of the species.


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Mas spent most of the day re-edging the outer border of the plot and began preparing the ground for planting flowers. We’re hoping that will keep the grass from creeping up again, in addition to attracting bees. And looking pretty.

In addition to direct sowing a variety of seeds, I planted ten or so baby potatoes that had sprouted in my kitchen. We’re going to make a potato tower but in the meantime I marked the spot with a rock circle. If our neighbors ask I’ll tell them it’s an energy vortex.

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The most fun part of the day for me was starting to build an herb spiral. I’d seen one before in the garden of a friend of Mas’s, and when the friend explained the system it made so much sense that I decided I needed to try it. I have a thing for architectural feats of gardening. We don’t have a lot of space to work with (the link there suggests 2 meters diameter) so it’s a bit edited down, but still in keeping with the principles.


There’s very clear, detailed explanations of all of this on the site I linked to above, but basically the structure of an herb spiral creates micro climates through the particular orientation of the spiral, rock walls, and varying elevation to effect soil hydration. Plants that call for more sun, more heat, and less water are planted toward the top of the spiral, while plants requiring more water and less sun are planted toward the bottom (oriented toward the north). All this means that you can grow more and diverse herbs in a smaller space than you normally could with straight planting on level ground.

Building the spiral:

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Partly done:

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I ran out of rocks (O Woe Is Ye, say people with rocky soil) so I’m going to need to track down some more. Also we only had three herbs in the garden (rosemary, oregano, thyme) so that’s all there is for now. Only the oregano did well last year, so I’m hoping the change of scenery for the other two will do some good. I’d like to add chives, cilantro, parsley, and mint, but I’m a little afraid of planting mint lest it take over the entire yard. To be seen.

This week I’m going to get some leeks, lettuce, and radish in the ground, in addition to the new herbs. Plus a whole load of onions — one of “my people” at the farmer’s market gave me a freebie couple of handfuls of onion seedlings.

So, this is the garden after all that hard work:

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You see what I mean? Five hours of intense work and this is what we have to visibly show for it. People in need of instant gratification, beware.

Killer tomatoes of my dreams

I’ve been having this problem lately with my work invading my dreams. This is common, but the way it’s invading my dreams is bizarre — not just dreaming about gardening, for example, but dreaming about thinking about the revolutionary implications of gardening.

For example the other night I dreamt that I was on some sort of guided tour of an organic grocery shop. The person leading the tour was a cross between Mark Ruffalo and a guy who’s a member of the garden I’m in (and he’s also a circus performer – nothing to do with anything, I just find that to be an interesting personal fact of his). We were around the cash register area and there, where normally you might have chewing gum, were several blond wood shelves filled with potted plants — tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Except the plants were the size of bonzai trees and they were bearing full-sized, very unnatural looking vegetables. Big, fat, shiny, waxy looking eggplant sprouting every which way from spindly little trees that themselves looked half dead. Mark Ruffalo/circus guy was explaining what permaculture is and saying how food security is a cornerstone of community sufficiency and started going into a big speech about all that, and I, well, I flipped my shit. I started shouting at him that this was all a sham: First of all, it’s February. We should not have tomatoes, eggplant and peppers in February. Second of all, what in the hell kinds of plants are these?? Beefsteak tomatoes don’t grow on bonzai trees! You’re toying with our desires for a more autonomous life in order to sell your unnatural plants! This isn’t autonomy, damn it! (This is madness!) And so on..

I woke up thrashing around in bed and maybe shouting, too, I don’t really remember.

Alvaro and I tend to dream about produce a lot. He talks in his sleep so I’m privy to his part of it. One night, months ago, I got home late and tried to crawl into bed as quietly as possible, but wound up waking him up anyway and he shot up in bed in a terror. Conversation ensued:


K: … Qué…??


K: Um…. sí….

A: ….. Y ….. entonces…? …… (fade to snore)

Anyway, thing is, I found my tomato bonzai dream really disturbing because it wasn’t just any old dream where the physical props of your everyday life are present and maybe you start screaming at someone for no particular reason. In this dream I felt unbridled rage, but it was logical, justified, real world rage, given the situation.

And then, to add an even weirder layer to it all, today I saw this photo posted on the Facebook page of a homesteading thing I follow:


So I guess maybe that sort of thing exists? Or not. God this is all so confusing.

More links + call for submissions

To read: Work and Idleness in the Age of the Great Recession – a special issue of Periscope


Essays on Frugal Abundance: Degrowth: Misinterpretations and Controversies, part 1 of 4 (Serge Latouche, via the Simplicity Collective)


Urban Backyard Food Production as a Strategy for Food Security in Melbourne, Australia (Permaculture Research Institute)

Also, veering quite a bit off topic but it’s via a friend and the context of the journal is interesting: a call for submissions to Project Freerange


Heraclitus, the old pre-Socratic philosopher, said that you cannot step into the same river twice.

Sensuous and fluid yet powerful, raging and unforgiving – from Styx to bottled water, from great lake to babbling brook, from poetic vessel to trade route, water exists in a myriad of states and is characterized by its many forms and expressions, its imaginative potential and raw impact upon life on earth. Its changeable nature and ability to hold contradictions (it is both life-sustainer, provider of food and abundance yet bearer of disease and destruction) has leant water to art, metaphor, songs, philosophy, literature, science and a myriad of other disciplines. Revered in religious and cultural practice, yet continually degraded by industry and human activities, water has a symbiotic relationship with cities, politics and of course, pirates.

Freerange thought it was time to pay tribute to the most abundant substance on earth, the universal solvent. Water shapes landscape; it creates and reflects history. It defines where civilisations have established themselves and has forced them to move (whether through diversions, dams or rising sea levels). It has appealed to pilgrims, explorers, scientists, philosophers, weather forecasters, town planners and swimmers. And now with rising sea levels, pollution, increasing reports of natural disasters, water criminals, water degradation and privatisation, water is set to be the definitive resource of time to come.

So we are calling for submissions on the big issue for our next issue: Freerange Vol. 9: The Wet Issue.  We want to hear your thoughts, experiences and artistic expressions on water: from holy water to mythical flood, from ice cap to desert, from Moby Dick to naiads, from Atlantis to Venice, from resource to privatisation.

Some things to think about: Poseidon, armadas, treasures, foreshore and seabed, watery graves, climate change refugees, erosion, purification, Old Man and the Sea, astrology, battles on it and battles for it, tropical storms and big snows, river highways, irrigation, tears, Shackleton…..

Please send your abstract of 100-200 words toemma@projectfreerange.com by April 1 .

Catching up on some reading & whatnot

I’m working my way through all the articles big and small (plus some videos) that I let linger during crazy week last week…

Also this weekend I discovered the work of the New Zealand-based artist Xin Cheng. Sounds like my kind of stuff. I shall follow up. After coffee #3.

Economies of sharing in rural Ireland + I guess nothing changes with me

An excerpt from the book I’m rereading right now, O Come Ye Back to Ireland, my favorite book when I was a kid, recently discovered anew after twenty years of gathering dust on my parents’ bookshelves. I guess I haven’t changed at all because I still love it.

Comhair is an Irish word for which there is really no English equivalent. Literally, it means help, but in the context of the West [of Ireland] it has come to mean something much more than that. The comhair, as it was called long ago, was the word for the powerful sense of community in a place, whereby men and women “gave” each other days, sharing labors on the farm and on the bog. In a time of great poverty it was this kind of teamwork that enabled each farm in a townland to get turf cut, to get the potatoes in, and to tram or bring in the hay. The men might be at O’Shea’s today, they would be at Breen’s tomorrow. Comhair. It is the mechanism of community.

Since we arrived in Kiltumper we had already witnessed many examples of it in the kindness and help of our neighbors. From television aerials to chimneys, to turf, to spuds; we had help with them all. And if the modern days of tractors and machinery have made each farmer a little more self-reliant, there is still a strong sense of comhair between them.

The day we were finally to dig the front garden into ridges for the winter, Mary and Joe came down the road with shovel and fork in hand. We were delighted to have them. Mary is a fury in the garden, pulling weeds wherever she sees them, and demonstrating in a moment just why she has the prettiest flower garden in Tumper. And Joe, beside her, is a skilled man with the fork. So easy and peaceful, he makes a mockery of our sweating and bustling efforts, as he seems to make the ridges mound up before him in an ancient, timeless rhythm. We have never seen the like of him before. He spits into his bare hands every few minutes to keep the wooden handle from slipping from his grasp and smokes his cigarettes every half hour, resting huge cracked and thick hands on top of the spade. He bends one knee, resting his foot on top of the blade, and looks across Hayes’ Hill. He rarely says a word.

We were delighted when he reappeared two days later to give us another helping hand. Joe explained that if the garden was laid to rest in these ridges over the winter, where more of the surface was actually exposed, two things would happen. First, the frost would kill any roots exposed to the air, which in our case was a lot. And second, the process of freezing and thawing repeatedly over the winter would help to break down the heavy soil into fine tilth, facilitating spring sowing.

As Joe and Chris and I began that afternoon on the eastern half of the garden, my mind was full of gratitude and thoughts of the comhair. Here was a man, I thought, giving his time without personal motive and sharing his knowledge and skills with us. What a staggering contrast this was to the days of Manhattan. I sunk my fork into the earth while Joe lit a cigarette and watched on. And then the afternoon was pierced with the jangling of the telephone. It was Michael Donnellan. He has promised to bring a neighbor, Sadie, into Kilrush for her eye test that afternoon, but his car had just broken down. Could I take her instead? By rights I couldn’t. Joe was here to work with us, and in any other world I shouldn’t have left. But this was not anywhere else, and even as I said yes, giving over the afternoon to taking an elderly countrywoman the twelve miles to Kilrush, I realized that this was yet another measure of our coming into the community. We were part of the comhair.

Things to ponder. This book tells about experiences from the mid 1980s so no doubt the situation in this part of Ireland is extremely different today, but I wonder if this idea of the comhair still exists. To investigate. (Edit: it appears that the book’s authors still live there and blog now and then, so maybe I’ll just drop them a line and ask.)

Also, am I wrong in thinking that this is kind of weird reading for a nine year old? I don’t remember exactly how old I was when my grandmother gave this book to me, but I know I was around late elementary school to early middle school age. It would make sense because that was at the height of my obsession with Sarah, Plain and Tall, Little House on the Prairie, and all things Boxcar Children. It’s really an odd sensation to rediscover when you’re older the obsessions you had as a child and realize that you still have pretty much all the same interests. And also to realize the subtle ways the books you read influenced your way of thinking.

For example, Sarah, Plain and Tall is the reason why I was incapable of baking bread for so long. There’s a scene in it describing one of the daughters making bread dough, and says something about the way the dough looked and felt like an infant. That image stuck in my head all the way through to my twenties, when I started attempting bread and would each time add enough flour to make dough the consistency of a baby. Not that I’ve ever poked a baby in the belly to test its consistency. I mean more like its weight — I was making bread dough that weighed as much as a newborn, which translates into baked bread coming out like cinderblocks. I realized my error through enough reading plus listening to a really helpful NPR interview segment with the owner of Amy’s Bread in New York, but it wasn’t until I was poking around in my parents’ basement on a trip back home and found and reread Sarah, Plain and Tall that I realized, son of a bitch, it was you!!! You, Patricia MacLachan, were behind all my bread failures! Damn you, historical fiction writer! (Her description of the bread dough was likely accurate — after all the flour they would have been using in the story would make for a heavier dough, and prairie bread at that time was denser, not the sort of all-purpose flour baguettes I was failing at in the early 2000s.)

Back to my reading couch. I have to say it’s also such a pleasure to read something like this, a break from heaviness and doom and gloom. I know, crop failures, rained-out summers, and peasant life — but next to what I’m normally reading…. At least in this book there’s talk of fairies and giants.


(photo: http://kiltumper.blogspot.com)

What does it mean to sustain humanity?

I read an essay on a blog this afternoon that led to me losing about two hours of my life pondering how I felt about it. I don’t want to post the link here unless someone really, really wants me to, because I don’t want to subject anyone else to what I consider to be an unconstructive rant, nor to the very muddy rabbit hole of the comments section.

In sum, it was a manifesto of sorts against … I’m not sure what, exactly, and that’s what bothers me. It started off with an attack on the concept of sustainability, but at first the author didn’t define what he meant by that word. Later on in the essay, I understood that his definition of “sustainable” was sustaining any human societal structure on this planet other than that of hunter-gatherers. And that made me very, very sad. I am so tired of reading such misanthropic, self-hating, browbeating, not to mention delusional diatribes coming from people in radical movements. Yes, it would have been awesome for the planet and all lifeforms on it had the human population not exploded exponentially, but it did, and we need to figure out how to manage this mess holistically. In the end, blowing up parliament and imposing a post-scarcity lifestyle on people is only going to lead us back to the hierarchical structures that got us into our current mess. If it all comes crashing down tomorrow, people will adopt a simpler life because they will have no choice, not because they’ve changed their relationship with the planet, with their neighbors, and with themselves. That — a change in relationships — is what needs to happen. Some may say we don’t have time for such nice ideas, that these are urgent times (I agree), but I really don’t believe it’s impossible to change people’s hearts. I just think that individuals who believe in a just and balanced world haven’t yet figured out how to enact large-scale change that takes hold and sustains.

Obviously it would be inconceivable to try and go back to the old formulas, which relate to periods when the planet was far less densely populated and when social relations were much stronger than they are today. But it will be a question of literally reconstructing the modalities of ‘group-being,’ not only through ‘communicational’ interventions but through existential mutations driven by the motor of subjectivity. Instead of clinging to general recommendations we would be implementing effective practices of experimentation, as much on a micro-social level as on a larger scale.

Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies.

Garden Report 2013, Part II: October & November

I wasn’t expecting much of a bounty at the end of the season here, due to all the weird weather we’ve been having, but things turned out fairly well despite it.

We’ve got plenty of squash still, but the biggest success were the collard greens. I had my doubts that they would take because they are not possible to find in Switzerland — believe me, I’ve been searching for seven years — and I figured that the only reason Swiss people didn’t have them was because they didn’t grow here for some reason. Well, apparently that assumption was wrong and I’m just way ahead of West-central European garden trends. I love collard greens, second only to sweet potatoes, and so the first harvest of them was a big day.

We also were able to harvest black radishes, beets, and spinach. The cauliflower got to a nice, hearty size but unfortunately the slugs took a liking to it. It might take a bit of work to block the image of those legions of slugs marching over my cauliflower before I eat it. And I won’t be telling dinner guests.

To sum up: I learned a lot this year about gardening in a small space, and learned the most from the mistakes we made. The biggest mistake was starting so late, but we couldn’t really avoid that because we only got the go-ahead to break ground in late May, so that seriously cut into this year’s growing season. It was also a learning experience figuring out the environment, which was new to us — how much sun hit our plot, and where, how much shade the apple tree would throw in full bloom, etc.

And so that’s about it for 2013. Lots of lessons learned and new garden friends made. I already can’t wait to start germinating in February.

(2013 Garden Report Part I)