Can you eat light? Plants can.

We might dine on light if we had a great deal more surface area and were more transparent. And knew a bit more about chemistry.

Photosynthesis–sunlight = food

We can walk and talk and make tall buildings. Plants have other abilities and it is unproductive to indulge in plant vs. animal comparisons. Oranges and apples? Easy. It is more like comparing the most exotic rock that has landed here from outer space to an orange or apple.

In addition to eating light, plants can have sex miles apart, regenerate perfectly after losing as much of 90 percent of their bodies and have perhaps 20 different senses. link  Plants can sense gravity, moisture, light, pressure, and hardness, but can also sense volume, nitrogen, phosphorus, salt, various toxins, microbes, and chemical signals from neighboring plants. link Plants can smell and taste; they have been proven to respond to exposure to chemicals; they have a kind of ‘sight’ reacting to wavelengths of light and shadows; plants know “touch” and change behavior when encountering a solid object; and plants are affected by sound. Sound recognition in plants was touted by the much-maligned and somewhat debunked book, The Secret Life of Plants, published more than fifty years ago. link

But some of the claims made about plants in the 1970’s have been dusted off. Playing classical music for houseplants in now decidedly our of fashion but, the “hearing” of plants has been affirmed recently. Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, has discovered that plants marshal chemical defenses, not only when a caterpillar begins feeding on leaf, but when a recording of a caterpillar feeding on a leaf is played nearby. link

Stirring up chemical compounds is child’s play for plants. In researching whether plants communicate with each other, scientist Ted Farmer placed microelectrodes on plant leaves. He learned that plants use electrical signals to share information; under attack they alert their neighbors to the need for some chemical compound. link Unable to run, plants use a complex molecular vocabulary to “signal distress, deter or poison enemies, and recruit animals to perform various services for them.” link

All this chemistry. It reminds me of high school when my chemistry class wrecked my grade point average. It occurs to me plants are like the nerdiest nerds in high school; the one’s who think chemistry is cool. They don’t care about other ‘abilities”. No wonder any discussion of their communications gets on our nerves. No wonder scientists line up to disprove that plants can talk to each other–and if they do talk to each other, their words have little meaning.

But what if they are really the spoiled, rich kids. They have everything. They just don’t care what we think and they don’t care to talk to us. Perhaps they think we are beneath them.


The Skeptics – Sentience of Plants – Part 2

Of course the sentience of plants is controversial. When a new study about plant sentience is published, the response decrying the idea is vigorous. Most scientists claim the idea is an “outlier” or junk science. Yale scientist Clifford Slayman calls ‘plant intelligence’ a foolish distraction. Mainstream authors, and the most eloquent are often vegans, argue that plants don’t have organs which enable them to see, hear, taste or think. Another favorite point in support of plants being just a backdrop or food source for animals is that plants cannot move around to avoid pain and seek pleasure; therefore, cannot feel pain or pleasure. link

Of course, we expect scientists to figure out if plants feel pain or hear or see or taste or think. Actually, the most fearsome arguments about the abilities of plants occur among plant scientists. Michael Pollan, in a lively New Yorker article, set out both sides. First there was a hot quarrel, now just simmering, over the use of the term neuro by plant intelligence advocates. Apparently no neurons or synapses have been found in plants but electrical and chemical signaling has been observed. Animals have neurons; plants, electrical signaling. No mention of neuro, even as a metaphor is condoned–even though neurotransmitting chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate are in plants and animals. Semantics? Form over function? link 

Plant advocate and scientist Stephano Mancuso thinks so and substantively, he asks what is so special about neurons anyway. link The illustration on the right certainly looks comparable to an electrical network, an information highway. Mancuso accuses the science establishment of “fetishization” of neurons.

The second controversy is whether plants can ‘learn’. A presentation entitled “Animal-Like Learning in Mimosa Pudica,” by Australian scientist Monica Gagliano sent sparks flying. Her work was dismissed as inappropriate and weird by a prominent University of Columbia plant scientist. Gagliano’s critics insisted that learning requires a brain; therefore, only animals can learn. However, it turns out this learning distinction was another foray into semantics. Most scientists in Gagliano’s audience had accepted that plants have ‘behavior’ and ‘memory’. Pollan reports a discussion with scientist, Lincoln Taiz, an emeritus professor of plant physiology at U.C. Santa Cruz. Taiz agreed the word “habituation” is acceptable but not learning. Could I not imagine that I habituate driving a car or making tacos?

The third debate: communication. Two studies published in 1983 demonstrated that willow trees, poplars and sugar maples warned nearby trees of insect attacks, then the nearby trees whipped up a cocktail of bug-repelling chemicals. This research ground to a halt under vitriolic attacks, but has resurfaced with rigorous new testing that has made it clear that plants can send and receive airborne signals. link  Other studies have shown plants can communicate with insects as well, sending airborne messages that act as distress signals to predatory insects. Plants and the insects that eat them live in “clouds” of chemicals rich in information. link

Taiz insists that plant behaviors can be explained without animism; and, I agree that considering plants as demi-animals is mistake. Worrying over neurons and animal behavior might be insulting to plants. But what do we call behaviors of plants that look like “learning, memory, decision-making, and intelligence”? link 

What indeed. Plants are simply not like us. It is tempting to encourage thinking of plants as aliens, but since they have been around for 450 million years and we have existed, in our present form for about 10,000 years, the question might be: who is the alien?

Let’s Rattle Our Chains – Sentience of Plants Part 1

The human brain is a wonderful thing. Modern humans have been schooled to the idea that we are alone are conscious–sentient. As  conscious beings we can travel mentally through time and draw on the past to experience the present and plan for the future. In what is called ‘classical’ thought, humans alone are capable of this. Humans alone are capable of a wide and deep range of emotion such as empathy. Only humans appreciate esthetics and are capable of enjoying beauty. Only we are capable of ethical thinking. These are our chains.

But setting ourselves apart from the rest of the world conflicts with recent science. Giulio Tononi, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has explored the relationship of human consciousness to, of all things, quantum mechanics. He is researching why we ” steadfastly perceive the world in terms of classical, independent systems — rather than one big interconnected quantum mess.” link

Older cultures would not use the term quantum mess, but philosophy of panpsychism was well regarded until the 20th century. The mind (psyche) is everywhere (pan): Plato and Thales were proponents; Spinoza; mathematician Leibniz; Shopenhauer; the father of American psychology, William James; Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin all wrote compellingly about and were advocates of the principles of panpsychism.  link

But it almost seems creepy to imagine bacteria and viruses making ethical decisions and debating the esthetics of some new chemistry wonder they come up with. Plants? They are thinkers. They make plans based on past experience; they sift information and solve problems. For example, they use “complex trickery or provide snacks and advertisements (colors) to lure in pollinators, communicating either through direct deception or rewards. New research finds that some plants even distinguish between different pollinators and only germinate their pollen for the best.” link 

And their creations are drop dead beautiful.

In the book, Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso and journalist, Alessandra Viola write with certainty that plants are conscious or sentient. They do not have a single powerful brain, but a million tiny computing “structures that work together in a complex network.”

Most plants can survive removal of up to 90% of their mass.This “survival” plan has resulted in plants comprising more than 99 percent of the biomass of Earth. Animals, including whales, insects and humans make up less than one percent. link That is a lot of thinking. But all this thoughtfulness is not a new idea. The intelligence of plants has been accepted by Goethe, Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, Masanobu Fukuoka, Jagadis Bose, Nobel Prize-winner Barbara McClintock and Darwin.

Of course, the Plantswoman is on that list. Next week I will go into more detail, but this week I am confessing that it is challenging to imagine living in a world roiling with intelligent beings. It seems like a noisy place. I suppose I am pulling on my chains. I have been taught that the mental anguish of what is ethical, what is beautiful, what is real was limited to a small percentage of life, limited to humans.

Embracing Bacteria

Embracing bacteria is hard. They are so little. We can’t even see them. And as Stephen Harrod Buhner says in his wonderful book Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, “We Want Braaaaains.”  University of Chicago scientist James Shapiro writes that humans do not recognize bacteria as sentient. Shapiro thinks this is a mistake because bacteria are not only sentient, they have great intelligence, a shared language and a vibrant social capacity. cite

But…..but they are so little. And they give us things: pneumonia, meningitis, food poisoning. The end of infectious disease was promised with the introduction of antibiotics in 1946. It was commonly believed that “bacteria would just blindly die off leaving us a disease-free life.” Buhner Id. Millions of pounds of antibiotics are created each year and then are excreted or thrown away. These antibiotics are not biodegradable. The Earth’s soil and water is now “saturated with several billion pounds of nonbiodegradable, often biologically unique pharmaceuticals, designed to kill bacteria.” Buhner Id.

The bacterial response has been powerful.

Bacteria have rearranged their core geomes. They have learned to deactivate the portion of their cell the antibiotic is supposed to destroy, They have managed to devise a way to pump the antibiotic out of their cell as fast as it comes in. They have changed their cell walls to reject antibiotics. They have even started using antibiotics as food. They communicate all changes and new techniques, not only to all other bacteria in existence, but also code the changes and pass them along to their descendants.

Apparently neural networks don’t need a spongy gray thing to work well. The deeply held human-centric belief that consciousness and intelligence exist only in a braaaaain is not only wrong but has led us into a war we might not be able to win. Infection from antibiotic-resistant bacteria is the third leading cause of death in hospitals.

In spite of this spirited defense, bacteria is not primarily a disease organism dedicated to our destruction. Scientist Lynn Margulis says bacteria has better things to do than attack us; they are, in fact, a highly intelligent community of interactive subparts: “a global superorganism.” cite

A thinking community, like us. And to address our human-centricity, only 10% of bacteria are “bad” for humans, the other 90% are “good” or non-pathogenic. We host millions of them: the total weight of the bacteria in our body is about three pounds, the same as our brain. In fact, we could not live without them They help us digest food, protect us from foreign invaders on our skin, in our lungs and in our digestive organs. They fine tune our immune system. link

And perhaps, more importantly, they make chocolate. The pulp around cocoa beans is fermented by bacteria. Otherwise, cocoa bean would be inedible. And wheat is just another form of cellulose unless bacteria transforms it into protein. Unleavened wheat won’t support human life. Then there is cheese. Hundreds of forms of bacteria create hundreds of kinds of cheese. Yogurt, pickles, coffee, salami. This link is fun to read; it lists all of the bacteria we use in our food.

So there are bad dogs, mean or diseased, yet we love dogs, We embrace them. Perhaps we might look deeper, perhaps embrace the invisible (to us) world of microbes. Instead of imagining ourselves on a stage, and we are the actors; and all the rest is our backdrop.

Let’s Go Viral

As a child I was taught there was a pyramid. Microscopic organisms like bacteria and viruses were at the bottom, humans at the top. Scientists like Charles Darwin and Philosophers like Plato had long embraced the idea that humans were only a part of the natural world, that we had no special place as rulers of the planet. But textbooks and modern TV science shows often still portray us as the smartest, best-est organisms…ever.

foodweb 1958

Stephen Harrod Buhner in his beautiful book, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm rages against the ‘schooling’ that allows humans to see themselves as separate and superior. He urges us to seek the deeper meaning of human existence as a part of the natural world– ” sensuous, liquid, alive, luminous.” Buhner id. Thoreau is far from my favorite writer but he describes being as one with this natural world during a rainstorm and felt, “an unaccountable friendliness, all at once, like an atmosphere sustaining me.” Buhner believes that, if we can get our minds around our connection to every organism on the planet, we can leave our stressful, hostile, unhealthy view of the world behind. We can seek and feel friendliness. A luminous, integrated network of friends. This week’s new friends: viruses; next week, bacteria; and plants after that.

Phage virus attacking bacteria

Viruses are hard to love as friends but they do very heavy work, storing and transforming DNA/RNA and making other chemistry magic. They are believed to make evolution possible. Like humans, viruses are “deeply interwoven” into Earth’s great story. Like humans they aggressively interface with the exterior world. Like us they have an outer covering to help this interface: we have skin; viruses have an outer “protein envelope” studded with information receptors. Buhner id. According to scientist Frank Ryan, viruses detect the chemical composition of cell surfaces, to find just the right cell. This is accomplished Ryan says, by using “three-dimensional surface chemistry.” This tiny organism, invisible to us without an excellent microscope, receives incoming information, determines any negative impact and decides what to do next. Decides whether to kill or feast or indulge in a joyride.

Viruses create a “species’ swarm, a self-organized whole that acts as an extensive intelligent organism”. Buhner id. They are predators and according to Ryan, not only intelligent, but extremely intelligent. “In a sense every sufferer evolves his or her own strain of virus, and within each sufferer the strain is not a single viral genome but a swarm of thousands of related genomes, all furiously mutating, metamorphosing…(the viruses) can speed up or slow down at will or overwhelm the failing immune system with novelty from week to week, day to day.”  Coded for long term survival, viruses don’t often kill their host. The are a great success; one of the two dominant life forms on the earth (microbes are the other). There are a lot of them.

10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 viruses are in the ocean at any given moment. That mass would be 75 million blue whales. Many viruses, of course, live on land; and, the ones we are most interested in, live and replicate inside of human cells.They are old friends and, in addition to their evolutionary work, some viruses are bad friends and cause colds, flu, polio and much more. They make us sick but are amazing adversaries; recent science has only enhanced respect for viral intelligence. “The Mimivirus is found to be able to to repair it’s own DNA, correct errors in reproduction, create mRNA and translate these into proteins. It has genes never before described in a virus.”

Herpes virus

The beautiful Herpes virus can “match wits” with complex human cells.To get into the cell, the herpes virus uses five receptors and uses the lipid molecules on its surface to bind with the human cells. Then after fusion with the cell membrane, the tiny organism  hijacks a transport system to get to the nucleus where it tricks the nuclear protection devices.  link

If one accepts Buhner’s premise that the Earth, Gaia, is one living mass– sensuous, light-filled, conscious–one might wonder how she feels about her darker parts. Human life is rich with achievement, but with a faulty braking mechanism. For example, humans have managed to end the life of the mighty, 400- mile long Cauvery River in India. After massive deforestation of hillsides and Bauxite mining that collapsed groundwater levels, humans now flee, their lives at risk from starvation. What is a living, breathing, sensuous, light-filled network to think? Viruses and humans. Is the destruction, illness and death they cause necessary? Perhaps constructive on some level we do not understand. At least viruses are smart enough to pull back and leave their host alive–most of the time.





Vegan Love

I love vegans and vegetarians. In a world where moral consequences are seldom considered and rarely discussed, vegans are seekers: willing to grasp the nettle. They refuse food that has been produced by inflicting suffering and death on animals. But no writing is as poignant as that of a vegan or vegetarian who has run up against the reality that the plants they eat have to eat too.

Apple seed in growth; its genetics are so varied it might become a black or green or spotted apple.

Lierre Keith in The Vegetarian Myth writes that she decided to grow a garden. Producing her own food left her ideas about what was moral and what was not in tatters. First she found plants like to eat dead animals, animal parts and animal waste. She rejected commercial synthetic fertilizer since it was based on oil, made with animals (and plants) now dead for millions of years. She was shocked when she read the label of a highly recommended organic garden fertilizer. It contained among other things, blood meal and bone meal. She considered using manure, and describes her agony at stepping into the exploitation of animals reviled by her and her vegan friends. She reflects upon the certainties of her younger self,  “…would the horror at what I would become–eater of meat, murderer–leave no room for blaze marks on the long, heavy path to grace?” Eating is a circle, humans are a part of the circle and plants are perfectly willing to eat human excrement, our blood and our bones. “It is a reciprocal relationship between animals and plants, the prey eventually becomes the predator.” Keith put manure on her flagging garden and it burst into life: tomatoes vining everywhere, peppers, squash, eggplant, enough for her and her friends and neighbors.

She fell in love. There is nothing like a love affair to cause one to reexamine one’s thoughts on right and wrong. She took the apple she says from the serpent. But thoughtfully and in light of the scholarship of Stephen Harrod Buhner who tells us that plants defend themselves, protect each other, communicate, call out to other plants and sacrifice themselves. link

Keith embraced the fact– for the first time –that seeds were alive and killing plants and animals was perhaps morally the same. Then the slugs came. Destroying her beloved plants. She agonized over killing them. She turned to ducks and rationalized that she was not doing the killing. “Neither was Eichman, whispered the Vegan Voice of Truth.” she writes, “…All Eichman did was arrange the transportation.”

Perhaps this reveals how far modern Americans are from the realities of nature. Although that Gaina monks were reported in the late 1800’s to strain water to remove insects to avoid harming them. link 

Thinking about morality is not to be disdained. The most devoted meat-eater cannot deny the shocking treatment of animals in modern factory farms.

soil fungi
soil bacteria

And plants, Keith acknowledges, “are produced by modern agriculture that takes land and clears from it every living thing, including bacteria.” Then commercial farmers plant a handful of species like corn, wheat, soybeans, rice. And this is the nettle or the serpent’s apple, we should all think about. “Land in its native state is rich with a multitude of plants, working in concert with microfauna, bacteria, fungi, yeasts.” Plants take sunlight and transform it into forests, prairies and wetlands with miles of root systems.

The great American prairies and their rich and useful bacteria and fungi are disappearing; and, the 100 million prairie Bison, now, post agriculture, number only about 15,000. Up to a million wolves now number only about 10,000. Building dams and irrigation from rivers on American riceland destroys entire ecosystems. Keith writes, “The list of birds is a roll call of the damned and it stretches from here to hell. Any bird dependent on a river will l find its name written there.” Rice, even brown rice beloved of vegans, “is the result of dead fish and dead birds from a dying river.” It takes 250 to 650 gallons of water to grow a pound of rice according to author William R. Catton link Yet the price of rice at my grocery store is very reasonable. Very reasonable.

Humans, vegans, monks, all of us want to do the right thing. We need to figure out what that is.

Dog Days

Summer temperatures start to bite in July and August. Energy drains away. I have always believed “dog days” referred to the entertaining way dogs flop down and lie as still as possible to make it through the heat. I was surprised to learn recently that dog days has a quite different meaning.

Sirius, pictured above, is the Dog Star, part of the constellation Canis Major. In July and August, Sirius and our Sun rise in conjunction with each other. The Dog Star is enveloped by the rising sun and has been considered the Sun’s heart, or our Spiritual Sun by more sky-oriented cultures.

The Dog Star is not large to the naked eye, but its power is obvious, sparkling with red and blue light. It is really two stars: Sirius A and Sirius B. Who was in the room when these pathetic names were assigned? It conjures up the most boring, colorless stereotype of scientists with no flair or imagination. The grand and beautiful Sirius A is more than 25 times bigger than our sun, twice as hot and 20 times brighter. The dense white dwarf, Sirius B revolves around it. It is about the size of the Earth but its mass is equal to our Sun. The two stars and their interactions emit billions of volts of electricity — unimaginable amounts of magnetic energy, some of which lands on our doorstep.  I have written many times about the interconnectedness of life on this planet. I am now told the cosmos, including every electron, may be interconnected. Imagine stars exchanging particles and gases up and down a magnetic highway that circles the sky. link

The ancients believed the Dog Star had a powerful effect on human life, guarding gateways of hell and/or death; signifying rebirth. I could go on for pages. The Dog Star or Wolf Star was revered by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Sumerians, Babylonians, Mayans, Chinese, Japanese, aboriginal tribes of North America (Seri, Tohono O’odham, Blackfoot, Cherokee, Antares, Skidi, and Alaskan Inuit of the Bering Strait). My favorite belief of the ancients was that the Dog Star ignites the concept of freedom in human consciousness.  For instance, our Sun is in conjunction with Sirius in July; July 4th is our Independence Day. Bastille Day is July 14th. Canada celebrates its independence from England on July 1st. Like I said. I could go on and on.  link

My dogs and I went out on a clear night this past week and dutifully located Orion’s belt and followed it to what we thought might be Sirius. My Pyr looked at the sky, completely happy; he loves any mention of the word dog–dog star, dog food, dog brush–he loves his dogness. I suspect him of thinking he is a superior being. My big dog really is a superior being and he followed my gaze at the many stars out that night. I am on solid ground making strawberry jam, painting porch furniture, trying to get rid of fire blight on my pear trees but sorting out one star from a myriad of others is hard for me.

I finally located the Dog Star early Sunday morning, and like many challenges, once I saw it; it was obvious. It was tearing up the sky with red and blue and white flashes. I hoped it was showering us with an appreciation of freedom and independence. link






Look up. Raise your eyes. So easy to say, but it’s also easy to worry over the weeds in the garden or the state of the grout behind the sink. But we have several months ahead that are typically dry so the skies will be clear on many nights.

We seek to brighten our lives, to look for meaning and inspiration. We find it in books, music, art and on our computer screens, but I am going to seek those things in the sky this summer. My yoga teacher urges us to connect with our higher selves. The night sky would seem to be a logical place to start. I understand Jupiter, Saturn and Venus are ‘easy to see’ right now. Jupiter is high in the sky as the Sun sets and is visible until after midnight. Saturn is up all night. Venus is bright in the east at dawn. link

I don’t think understanding the night sky is easy. My friend, Stargazer, offers the following advice to those of us with a little extra time in our evenings:
“Begin about an hour after the sun sets. The darker the better, and keep in mind that your eyes adjust to darkness fairly slowly — you’ll see much more as the night goes on.

Start by facing north (or lying down on a cot), and locating the Big Dipper. (This is an “asterism,” or commonly recognized pattern of stars, usually part of a constellation, In this case, Ursa Major — the Big Bear — is the constellation.) The Dipper is exceptionally valuable for locating other bright stars and the constellations they are a part of.

First, follow the “line” formed by the two end stars of the Dipper’s cup (that is, the farthest from the end of the handle), from the bottom of the cup to the top. Extending this line takes you to a not-especially-bright star, Polaris, or the North Star. Two important things about Polaris: it is the hub of our view of the night sky (all the other stars appear to revolve around it, because it aligns with Earth’s axis), and it is the end star of the handle of the Little Dipper, or Ursa Major — the Little Bear.

Returning to the Big Dipper, follow the curve, or arc, of the handle, and extend that arc to a bright yellow star. This is Arcturus (hence the commonly used astronomical phrase “arc to Arcturus.”) Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes (Boo-OH-tess), or the Herdsman. Arcturus is at the tip of a sharp triangle, which extends to a larger, blunter pentagon. Some have suggested it resembles a kind of pointy ice cream cone.

Once you have found Arcturus, look for another bright star, not too far away. This is Spica (SPIKE-uh), the most important star in one of the largest constellations, Virgo, the reclining woman. Spica is located on her lower hip as she reclines along the path of the ecliptic — the line in the sky occupied by the Sun, the moon and the planets. (Spica is quite close to brilliant Jupiter tonight, June 14, but won’t be next week.)

Finally, again using the Big Dipper, extend a line perpendicular to the base of the Dipper’s cup downward (as if the cup had a leak) and you will find another bright star called Regulus, the signature star of the constellation Leo (the Lion, of course). The lion’s head looks like a kind of pointy backward question mark, an asterism known as the Sickle.

Once you’ve found all these things, you are well on your way. Now turn south. This puts the Dipper above and behind you, with Polaris of course remaining fixed in the center of the north sky. But you can still use the Dipper’s handle to “arc to Arcturus.” Find this bright yellow star, at the tip of the “ice cream cone” that is the constellation Bootes.

Then look to its left, or east, and (after passing thru the rather dim constellation Hercules) you’ll come to a notably bright star, Vega, in the constellation Lyra (LYE-ruh, the Lyre or Harp).

Continue to look left you’ll see another bright star, Deneb (DEN-ebb), at the tail of the long-necked constellation Cyngus, the Swan. This is of interest because Cygnus flies along the magnificent clouds of the Milky Way. I hope it’s dark enough for you to see it, our own galaxy stretched across the sky.

Yet another bright star in that region of the sky, Altair, (part of the constellation Aquila) combines with Vega and Deneb to form a notable asterism, the Summer Triangle.

Saturn will be a bright, un-twinkling white dot somewhere overhead, and Jupiter will an even brighter dot, to the west. Jupiter, in particular, is very easy to locate; it is brilliant.”

Brilliant. Seeking brilliance. What a good use of time.

The Plantswoman will be on vacation from posting until July 19th.

Summer Solstice: Study, Worship, Party

Our Earth doesn’t sit straight; it tilts. And as we travel on our planet around the Sun–at 18 1/2 miles per second–the tilt provides our seasons. Here in our Northern Hemisphere the longest, if not the warmest, day of the year will occur next Tuesday in my time zone. The Southern Hemisphere will be deep in its winter, experiencing its shortest day next week.

In our culture this longest day of the year gets a passing mention, but in the past, the Summer Solstice has been widely revered. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac “the seasonal movement of the Sun’s path (as seen from Earth) momentarily comes to a stop before reversing direction.” link This seems pretty fanciful to me but in Latin, sol means sun and sistere means to stand still; apparently this is not a new idea. Next Tuesday at 11:24pm I intend to be outside and see if I can sense this momentous shift. (The Almanac publishes the exact time of the solstice for all time zones.)

The shift from longer days to shorter days was studied and celebrated by Druids who built Stonehenge about 5000 years ago. The sun rises directly above the Heel Stone on the day of the Summer Solstice. link Among other things, the Druids wanted to measure time. An accurate calendar is a wonderful thing, apparently well worth moving 25 ton stones by hand for miles across the English countryside. I have written previously of the challenges of making a calendar; ours is so inaccurate that we have to add a day every four years to keep it aligned with celestial rotations. link

The timing of the Summer Solstice was carefully recorded in ancient Egypt. They, too, struggled with the calendar year and added extra days periodically. The rising of the star Sirius, the Nile flood and the Summer Solstice roughly coincide and 4000 years ago, these serious people wanted to honor these events that made their lives comfortable, but they also wanted to create a reliable calendar.  Some theorists believe the pyramids were placed so that solstice sun rose between the great structures. link In any case, the Summer Solstice seems to unite  spiritual excellence and technical excellence.

And also, perhaps, the excellence of stonework, including the moving of gigantic stones by humans. Older even than the pyramids or Stonehenge is a monument in the Nubian desert that was built perhaps 6500 years ago. Scientists believe Nabta was built by nomadic cattle-herders. Imagine cattle-herders laying 10 slabs of rock, nine feet high. Nine burial sites were created for cows each under 40 or 50 rocks that each weigh 200 to 300 pounds. The technocrats of the time included a  “calendar circle” of stones which corresponded to the zenith sun during the summer solstice. link

On the other hand, the Summer Solstice has always been a time for the celebration of plenty of light and plenty of food. It is a time of joy and security. I have room only for a few examples: in ancient Gaul, they feasted and celebrated a mare goddess; in Germany, Russia and much of central Asia, bonfires were used to honor the day; Native Americans held ritual dances and painted themselves to colors of the sky; ancient Greek feasts often celebrated the god of agriculture, Cronus, and the Summer Solstice marked a 30 day countdown to the Olympic games. link

Plants recognize the Summer Solstice as well. Plants are not foolish enough to rely on the unreliability of air temperature. The survival of plants is based on differentiating a warm spring day from the reality that winter might not be at an end. Evolution produced plants that use day length to trigger setting seed or the storage of food– the scientific name is Photoperiodism. link

The thread of day length joins us all, plants, ancient and modern humans. It is a turning point that is experienced by the entirety of our world. Perhaps there is a full stop when the days stop getting longer and start getting shorter. Winter is coming.

Front Porch Gardening

Ruth Stout

To have a garden that is less work. Great idea. The most famous ‘no work’ gardener, and a controversial one, is Ruth Stout. cite  Another garden writer, Steve Solomon, disagrees with her and offers his own controversial advice. cite

Gardening is always controversial, its the natural state of it. Gardeners are imagined by non-gardeners to be serene, benevolent souls; in fact, the desperate fight with insects, the vagaries of maintaining good soil, the ever-losing battle with the weather create a productive but opinionated person.

Ask 10 gardeners a question: get 15 answers. So all beloved garden writers are surrounded by disagreement. Ruth Stout, born in 1884 is said to have been a women’s rights activist and smashed saloons with Carry Nation in Prohibition-era Kansas.  She was an advocate of working au natural  in her Connecticut garden that produced prodigiously. She was active in her garden until her death at age 96.

Stout in her garden (with clothes on)

Stout is most famous for what she called ‘her method’ of gardening–basically laying down 8 inches of hay throughout the garden. Her ploughman failed to show up one year and she began a process of no-till planting with the hay application and describes her success eloquently, if somewhat stridently, in her books. Her books are fun; for example How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. In a magazine interview she said she did not “plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don’t go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.” Fun, right? link

Solomon in his garden

Many gardeners find the heavy mulch attracts slugs and other insects along with mice. Steve Soloman agrees. He gardened in the Pacific Northwest and was a fan of mulching with a layer of very fine soil. I wrote about Chinese gardeners using this technique earlier this year. link My soil is far too heavy to create the powdery texture that succeeds as a mulch. Gardeners in the South complain that this kind of mulch does not stand up to 100 degree days.

Solomon’s bare soil was hoed constantly and very lightly tilled. His garden produced very large quantities of food for his family. Part of the reason for his success was that he used only the highest quality seed. Solomon, who founded the Territorial Seed Company, set the standard for quality seeds in this country. In his books, he is adamant that manure, mulching and composting are not enough to create a garden with food that contains good nutrition at harvest. He writes that poor soil, stripped in his climate of nutrients by heavy rains, creates poor food for animals, the manure and compost are then poor and the food produced poor in nutrients. To avoid this outcome he liberally used a good organic fertilizer, lime, cottonseed meal, kelp, and rock phosphate or bone meal.

Some of Solomon’s most difficult advice to gardeners is that some ground in the garden should be fallow once every three years. One year of planting, the next year in cover crops and the third year entirely at rest. I thought this would be hard, but have found it easy to just avoid planting certain areas every year or so. I lay down a really thick layer of hay on my fallow ground, since my prairie grasses are very enthusiastic and their roots go down 10 feet or so. There is no way I could just till them up–and I don’t till anyway. In this rainy year the grasses stay ahead of me on the fallow ground and the non-fallow ground. It seems I am laying down more hay every time I go out. I follow Stout’s mulching method for most of the year. It doesn’t create any additional insect problems for me and keeps the ground cool through the summer. Mulching with hay is not no work for me; but it works well for my plants. In the spring, I leave the soil bare for a while to let the sun warm it. I don’t really mind hoeing during that time.

If you are going to garden well, you need about 15 minutes every single day. Then you can sip a cool drink and ‘front porch garden’ the rest of the day. Some years, it is easier to go out daily. If those 15 minutes stack up then, it’s ‘work’. No way around it.