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.




Lungs of the Earth

Pollen, the sticky stuff of life for flowers, grasses, bees and butterflies offers us a window into the past of the Sahara Desert. Scientists have discovered pollen that is thousands of years old. It reveals that the Sahara was once a paradise full of trees. Why this land of tropical trees, lush vegetation and many, many lakes turned to desert is being studied. link Disagreement rages. For example, Gavin Schmidt of NASA believes that 8000 years ago the tilt of the Earth changed from 24.1 degrees to 23.5 degrees. Dr. David Wright believes humans were a factor and that grazing and agriculture destroyed the lush green world and led to desertification. link

Deserts are beautiful, they just don’t help us breathe. Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. And they do more than just provide the oxygen. Like any good set of lungs, trees filter pollutants and clean the air for us. A new study estimates that the Earth has three trillion trees. These trees are represented in the graphic to the left in the dark green bands. Another study estimates that 400 billion mature leafy trees exist and these big trees produce enough clean oxygen “… for the lifetime of ten people each season! There are 400 billion trees, 6.7 billion people on Earth — every person has 60 trees.” link

I am pretty happy having 60 trees making oxygen for me. I don’t think this is a question of a crisis so much as an issue of caretaking. I thought I had lost a chicken but she appeared several days ago with baby chicks. This is a creature not generally admired for intellect, but she understands caretaking. There are 5 or more hawks circling during each day; she keeps her babies near the crawlspace of the porch or near a deep opening beneath a rose bush. She covers them with her wings when the dogs or other chickens threaten. I have no idea where she takes them at night. It poured rain two nights ago, the sky was alight for hours with lightening with attendant thunder. The chicken was out the next morning taking care of her dry, healthy babies scratching for bugs.

How do we take care of our trees and forests? I have planted at least dozen trees and take great care of the 40 or so mature trees on my property. I never buy anything made with exotic wood; I have given up live Christmas trees.  I gripe here often about clear cutting forests. Will this save my 60 trees? Will that preserve my share of clean oxygen? I have no idea.

WIRED magazine recently ran an article entitled “All the Trees Will Die, and Then So Will You” that described, among other things, the terrible insect and disease damage presently ravaging trees. link We will soon be seeing the summer wildfires raging across thousands of acres of forests.

Caretaking of forests has separated successful countries from the unsuccessful. link Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed  describes the Japanese campaign to preserve their forests initiated 300 years ago. Most of this small island full of people remains forested. Diamond contrasts the success of Japan with Haiti and North Korea where deforestation has led to land erosion, poverty and famine. He also relates the well-worn tale of Easter Island, where the inhabitants lived prosperous lives; so prosperous that they were able to carve statues 13 feet high weighing 14 tons. They cut every tree. The deforestation of the island led to decline, led to a few suvivors living a feral existence in caves eating rats and mice and possibly engaging in cannibalism.

In the end maybe we should wonder who is taking care of who. I believe trees are sentient being and perhaps from their point of view we are their lungs and not the other way around. We are certainly providing carbon dioxide in record levels with our bodies, our cars, our industry. I like to imagine trees taking care of themselves. I imagine they will survive the recent human and insect plagues. They have been on Earth for 370 million years and have probably survived worse.


Pollinators–Part III: Butterflies

One of nature’s past success stories is the Monarch butterfly. You can see the joy of life they share with their sister butterflies, the Queens, in the beautiful chrysalises pictured above. Both butterflies disdain camouflage and develop in bright green cases with golden beading.

Monarchs summer in Canada, then fly 3000 miles to winter in Mexico. Amazingly these long-distance travelers only weigh about .02 ounces; they have no lungs and use little vents in their thorax and abdomen for oxygen.

Baby Monarch caterpillars and eggs photo by Diana Black
Monarch caterpillar photo by Diana Black

They stop off along the way to rest and lay eggs on the poisonous plant, milkweed. The caterpillar eats the milkweed and becomes poisonous as do the chrysalis and the butterfly. They are protected from all predators. But not from us.Their population has dropped about 97% in a few decades. Monarchs, named by Linnaeus in 1758, may soon be extinct. Their forests in Mexico are being clear cut and herbicides have destroyed almost all of the milkweed in this country. Activists all over the country are are working to save the Monarchs and urge us to at least plant milkweed in our gardens. link  It’s an easy plant to grow and the Monarch caterpillars are beautiful.

No one wants the Monarchs to disappear. They are the official butterfly of Texas, Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, and West Virginia. But we love our pesticides and herbicides more. I imagine we will kill them all before long so that we can continue to eat spotless food grown in weed-free ground and maintain perfect lawns.

Another easy plant to grow is the mistflower, Conoclinium greggii.  Butterflies love it, especially Monarchs and Queens. Dozens of Queen butterflies cover my mistflowers most of the summer.  All butterflies bring joy to the garden. I love the Painted Ladies, the Fritillaries, the Sulfurs, the Swallowtails. The list is too long for this post. But all are great at pollination, flying from flower to flower, full of grace, showing off their beauty. They are on the hunt for nectar; that the pollen clings to their body and legs is just one of the ways plants are served by everything around them.

Monarchs and Queens on mistflower

Pollinators–Part II: Bees

I love the photo above. The beekeeper from Two Hives Honey link came on Friday to install a new hive for me. Her gloves are tossed on the ground with her clipboard; she is dressed casually, not in ‘bee gear’. I painted the new hive blue; a pink and a white hive are in the background. Bees need to be able to distinguish their hive so it is recommended to stencil an identifying symbol onto each hive or to paint the hives different colors. I have a stack of yellow boxes painted and waiting in the garage for installation of a fourth hive this year. I like having bees, but it is a challenge.

I described the beginning of my bee journey last December when I learned that honey bees are European in origin and our native bees, most of whom live in the ground, perform the vast majority of bee pollination. link The next week I went on to describe the human penchant for excess and our exploitation of honey bees and that losing our bees means going hungry. link

But all theorizing on the value of bees to humans has been set aside for the present. I am ‘on the ground’ here. I have a few healing bees stings, lots of frames to clean, painting chores left to do and an inspection by the beekeeper coming up later in the week. My white hive, generously donated to me by a friend, was opened after the blue hive installation. I went out to check on some equipment and the sentries from that hive were on high alert; they chased me, got in my hair and stung me twice. They were still waiting later when the calf got stuck behind a log and that rescue led to a third sting. When I told Beekeeper Sarah I had been stung, she very matter of factly said ‘yes’, the bees in that hive were upset and had stung her several times. I want to be like Sarah, but find there is some wiring in my brain that triggers an emotional response to these bee encounters that far exceeds the short-lived initial pain from the bite or the mild itching the next day. Entomologist, Justin Schmidt has studied the disproportionate reaction of humans to insect bites. He has found insects in general inject far too little venom to do serious harm and that dog bites kill more Americans in a single year than stinging insects.

But pain matters more, says Schmidt than killing power; from the insect point of view, the infliction of pain ‘liberates’ stinging insects from predators and opens ecological niches. Honey bees can visit flowers without harm from birds, for example. Not all animals respect the sting. Schmidt points out that bears put up with bees stings for honey. “Capuchin monkeys will gobble down a wasp’s nest full of juicy larvae as if it were a ham sandwich, the stings seemingly no worse than a little hot mustard on the side. Harvester ant stings have evolved a whammy wicked enough to scare off birds, amphibians, and almost everyone else. But the horned lizard has called the ant’s bluff by becoming resistant: It licks the ants up with impunity.” link Nature is tough.

Beekeepers often get used to the toxins of stings, the effects of any sting reduced to a slight inconvenience. However, repeated bee stings can also cause a serious allergic reaction; and, of course, a single bee sting can cause a debilitating injury, even death— which demands absolute respect for this little insect. To be able to draw upon a serene and peaceful mind when working with bees is dazzling to me. The bees respond in kind, revealing serenity and peace to humans they approve of.

Keeping bees has been going on for thousands of years with beekeepers seeking zen for the benefits. As important as bees are to pollinate our crops, the honey they produce has been used to treat wounds and intestinal problems. Honey is an antimicrobial and can help infection; it can help boost immune systems and sooth skin disease. link

And, it tastes SO GOOD!

Pollinators- Part I: Hummingbirds

The hummingbirds flew in about a month ago. I had their sugar water ready and waiting. The tiny birds seek sugar-rich nectar from plants but they will supplement with my feeder to support their extraordinary metabolisms. “The average man burns about 3,500 calories a day. If the daily output of a hummingbird were calculated for a 170-pound man, he would need to burn about 155,000 calories.” link

Eating voraciously, they facilitate the grand romance of flowering plants or angiosperms. Angiosperms made a major breakthrough about 100 million years ago. The breakthrough using pollinators to fertilize eggs in one plant with sperm in another. link

About five years ago, scientists in Spain discovered pollen from what was believed to be an ancient Ginkgo tree locked in amber. Thrips were seen harvesting pollen grain.

Ginko with thrips harvesting pollen

Ginkgo trees are either male or female and the marvelous delivery by thrips of the pollen cones of the male trees to the ovaries of the female trees began a journey of –well, sexual interchange between plants by pollinators. link As the years went on this reproductive strategy was wildly successful. There are more flowering plants on earth than anything other than insects.

But plants have to attract pollinators and they do so in different ways for bees, bats, butterflies and, of course, hummingbirds.

Perhaps 7000 species of plants now depend on about 361 species of hummingbirds for pollination. Plants that depend upon hummingbirds for pollination have ‘pro-bird’ and ‘anti-bee’ traits. For example, hummingbirds do not need scent while insects do. Their vision is excellent, so hummingbird flowers are most often unscented but bright in color.

Hummingbird flowers are deep, the hummingbird’s tongue and bill are perfectly adapted. The bill is sharp and can slash a flower open if necessary for nectar. The little bird’s tongue extends beyond the bill, the front part split with curled outer edges that work like a straw.  link

There are dozens of amazing hummingbird facts: they can fly 60 miles and hour; their hearts beat as high as 1,260 beats per minute; a wing modification permits them to fly forward, backward, up and down (no other bird can do this). link

If you don’t want the trouble of a feeder, good plants to attract these amazing creatures include: trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma), lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora), wild bergamont (Monarda fisulosa), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and any of the salvias. link

I am not sure it would not have been easier for plants to devise some ambulatory system to reproduce, like animals. It seems so complicated to produce a specific flower for a specific pollinator. Perhaps this ancient system is superior. It would be odd to see trees and bushes wandering around, going to sports bars, using online dating services.


Whose side are we on?

I saw my Great Pyrenees jump three feet in the air earlier in the week, he grabbed a branch of a peach tree with his jaws and pulled it down to unbalance a squirrel. The Karakachan, barking madly, was defending the squirrel’s escape through a second peach tree. I walked out with my broom to help. Describing the scene to my son later, it took a few minutes to sort out that I went out in support of the dogs–not the squirrel. I am the Plantswoman after all. These two dear trees have battled their way through a big patch of underground Calcareous soil, negotiated a bad late freeze, resisted the fearsome plum curculio that burrows into peaches and they have somehow avoided the ubiquitous peach curl.

I would share a few peaches with the wretched squirrels, but they will take a bite from every peach on the tree looking for a ripe one. So in a primitive kind of air support, I was shoving my broom into the upper branches of the trees. The squirrel made the most amazing leap for the fence, covering maybe 10 feet. The Pyr had the very end of his tail for a fraction of a second, then the highly motivated squirrel jumped more than 10 feet to land in the 60-foot Live Oak and won the day. The dogs and I stared in admiration.

Not surprisingly, I was on the side of the microbes, bees and butterflies while I was waiting in line at Home Depot later that day. Ahead of me was an intelligent, thoughtful-looking man paying for a huge stack of bags and several large plastic bottles. The bag labels promised to grow grass and eliminate ‘weeds’; I could not read the bottle labels. I have the deepest respect for anyone who wants\s to grow anything in our rocky soil and hot summers. I entertained myself by imagining that the man had carefully researched the weed killer to make sure that the microbes and earthworms in his yard would be safe and that he had made sure the bottles contained nothing that would harm bees and butterflies. I am an optimist.

But not a purist. I shot a little Round-up on two 6-inch sticker bushes in the back pasture only this morning. I use this weed killer very sparingly. Round-up isn’t even a poison; it prevents amino acid uptake in plants and every plant it touches dies by the application of modern chemistry. This isn’t to say Round-up is a good thing. Not only did Round-up come out of research that produced Agent Orange, millions of gallons are poured onto farmland every year. Nevertheless, when a prairie plant is pulled up, it leaves a hundred little roots that turn quickly into a hundred plants- often with stickers. I have studied modest Round-up use and believe, used sparingly, it may stay in the soil for about four months. Even experts at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center believe it is safe for pollinators and probably safe for microbes and earthworms. I guess the point is a gardener should research what any chemical does and have a good reason to use it (my poor lambs suffer from stickers in their little faces) and use it as rarely as possible. I like using a broad approach.

Such an approach is sometimes termed ‘holism’. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle, summarized holism as “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”  Holism Gardeners would love to believe that they can eliminate problems if they create a healthy whole. The philosophical roots of holism raise the question of ‘healthy’ for who? I imagine the principle could be argued from the side of aphids or stink bugs or fungus since they have a point of view too. But the concept– from the human perspective– is very tempting. Even the very conservative Texas A&M University devotes two acres to a holistic garden. A&M Holistic Garden It seems wise for humans to devote themselves to overall health: of themselves and their favored plants, animals, insects and microbes. It seems a good goal to be be on the side of the long view and not a quick fix in a brightly colored bag.

If everything works together; if the soil full of healthy microbes and rich nutrients; if the air is clean and the rain plentiful, but not too plentiful; if pollinators are healthy and abundant—then a plant or tree is full of vigor and able to resist diseases. It can be filled with the joy of living and can, for example, produce peaches. That wind up as Brandied Peaches on the Plantswoman’s kitchen counter.

We Are The Corn People

Traveling by train last weekend, I saw field after field of corn, about waist high, growing without a single weed in sight. I am a little grumpy about all this corn since I planted eight hills of it and have two plants up–both about ankle high. I put in a hybrid, bought at the grocery store, that I imagine has been bred to require lots of commercial fertilizer. Modern corn varieties absolutely love petroleum-based commercial fertilizers. Production skyrocketed after WWII. In 1947 the huge munitions plant at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, stopped making explosives and finding themselves with lots of leftover ammonium nitrate, started making chemical fertilizer. The world quickly followed.

Increase in Production 1860-2010

Michael Pollan tears into the modern use of corn in a lively series of articles written almost ten years ago. Pollan says the descendants of the Mayans who have described themselves as The Corn People are mistaken.

We are The Corn People.

Pollan writes “…the great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket rests on a remarkably narrow biological foundation: corn. It’s not merely the feed that the steers and the chickens and the pigs and the turkeys ate; it’s not just the source of the flour and the oil and the leavenings, the glycerides and coloring in the processed foods; it’s not just sweetening the soft drinks or lending a shine to the magazine cover over by the checkout. The supermarket itself–the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built–is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.”

Tom Dawson at the University of California-Berkeley tests hair strands which reveal the amount of corn in the carbon of any given person. In a piece for CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta had his hair tested and he revealed that 69 percent of the carbon in his body came from corn.

Dawson says we are like walking “corn chips.” The, mostly invisible corn in our diets comes from more than eighty million-acres of corn; Pollan describes is as a ‘second great lawn.’  And Pollan complains that “… it’s too bad we can’t simply drink petroleum directly, because there’s a lot less energy in a bushel of corn (measured in calories) than there is in the half-gallon of oil required to produce it.” Ethanol comes to mind but that is another story.

The production of corn comes with costs to our finances, our environment and to our health. Corn is highly subsidized by my tax dollars. It costs more to produce than is sells for and I help make up the difference although profits from corn are in the billions. Much of the acidity in our rain, the algae clogging our waterways and the agricultural contaminants that result in dead zones on land and in water come from our millions of acres of corn. Our health suffers as well, the epidemic of obesity and diabetes may be related to the use of ultra refined corn products.

Then there are the factory farms. Herbivores evolved to eat grass; corn gives them stomach pain which requires antibiotics to keep the poor souls living until slaughter. Not that I am advocating any form of vegetarianism; that requires plowing up river banks, cutting down forests, transforming prairies — at the cost of destroying biodiversity (wild plants, animals and insects). Biodiversity has declined by more than a quarter in the last 35 years; perhaps over 50% since 1970. In part this destruction is to provide the seeds, nuts, oils and soy for a non-animal diet. Poor corn; it’s not the only problem.

Excess is the problem. Corn was just another grass plant, called teocintle by Meso-Americans 10,000 years ago.They grew what they considered a gift of the gods in every color: yellow, red, purple, brown and orange; they grew ears a few inches long and ears several feet long. Corn loves change. It loves being bred and re-bred and it may love genetic modification. Like the Mayans we love to play with corn’s genetic elasticity; we genetically modify it to survive herbicides and corn can live where everything else dies. Glyphosate (Round-up) kills everything it touches; except genetically modified corn. Gallons of the herbicide are poured on farmland each year to make life nice for this spoiled baby of a plant. Author Betty Fussell calls corn a genetic monster.

It is fanciful to think my corn can sense my ambivalence; it may not like being called a monster. It is more likely I don’t care for it as well as the large and healthy tomato, potato and onion plants, baby it like I do my broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. I did not even go to the trouble of ordering corn seed that liked my practice of feeding with manure and compost.

As a child I was teased for loving corn so much. It is sad that this wonderful food, one of the best parts of American summertime barbecues, doesn’t like me and I’m not too happy about it either most of the time– well, of course, buttered with a lot of salt, hot off the grill, that’s a different thing altogether.