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Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution
12. Reconnecting with Mother Earth
To forget how to dig the Earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.
— Mahatma Gandhi
Most people in industrial society neither know, nor care, where our basic human needs come from— our food, shelter, and water— or where our waste goes. The infrastructure and belief systems in our society create the illusion that we’re separate from nature, even though we’re connected down to our atoms.
We are embodied beings, mammals in a biosphere. We breathe air, drink water, eat food.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I had no idea where food came from, and I never thought about it, not even while eating. But I now see that food connection is essential for reimagining humanity’s place in the web of life.
In 1900, 41% of people in the US were growing food; by 2000, the number was less than 2%.1 May this chapter inspire you to get your hands dirty.
Growing food (becoming)
Growing food is at once a revolutionary act and a skill that may come in handy if industrial civilization declines. It’s also one of the most satisfying changes I’ve made to my life. I was hooked after my first homegrown tomato.
I didn’t get to know plants until I was in my mid-thirties. My parents weren’t into gardening. When I left for college, I began a long urban journey living in tiny apartments in some of the world’s largest cities. I felt disconnected, cut of from the Earth. When we moved to California, I felt an immediate connection to the large and generous avocado tree that shades our house. The tree drew me in, gently. At first, I continued paying the mow and blow crew the previous owner had used. Every two weeks, they’d come with their noisy machines and fill up the green waste bin. But I prefer quiet to the sound of leaf blowers, so I stopped the yardeners. I put up a hammock under the avocado tree and gazed into its leaves.
Three of my neighbors were experienced gardeners. Jimmy and April, my neighbors across the street, were generous with their knowledge as I began to learn about plants. They were the first on our block to rip out their lawn and plant food in their front yard. Their garden still inspires me; I often take a moment to see how it’s doing before biking to work.
Ruben, my next door neighbor (and a dead ringer for Carlos Santana), had a green thumb and kept chickens. When he moved away, he gifted me two chickens and some potted plants. I became a chicken keeper overnight, and I had to figure out how to make the plants happy.
Now, many years later, I see that plants are beings. When I pick a leaf or a fruit from a plant, or even when I pull out a weed, I do so with awareness, respect, and gratitude. Every seed is precious, a tiny genetic blueprint of unimaginable complexity, evolved over billions of years, for a plant being that creates a miraculous gift: nourishing food that we can eat.
A few of my favorite plants
Gardening demands that you respect your land and your climate. What works for me in Altadena may not work for you. Talk to other gardeners, find out what works in your town, and plant what you like to eat.
First and foremost, the fruit trees. Coming to California from Manhattan, I was amazed to find fruit trees all over the place. When I moved in, there were nine fruit trees in my yard, but I promptly killed the plum and the peach. This motivated me to learn the basics of tree care, and to plant bare root trees ordered through the mail. I now have two dozen happy fruit trees on my tiny, 1/20 acre plot. My favorite is the avocado, but I also love the orange, fig, pomegranate, and nectarine, which makes gorgeous flowers. These trees produce the best fruit of their kind I’ve ever tasted. The lemon tree keeps its fruit for half a year or so, during which time we cook with lemons daily.
I love having great homegrown fruit in season, and then taking a break until the next season. When fruit comes back the next year, the satisfaction is intense. This seasonal cycle is part of the pleasure of homegrown food. Since I’m a lazy gardener, I also love perennial vegetables. We have several beautiful artichoke plants in the front yard. During a good year, each plant can grow to nearly the size of a VW Beetle, and produce 20 chokes. (They’re a delicacy simmered in olive oil, white wine, lemon juice, and garlic.) Arugula takes over my yard in spring and early summer, and I think of it as a perennial because it reseeds itself. I love its fresh spiciness, especially on sandwiches.
All homegrown food tastes better than what you can buy, and this is perhaps more true of potatoes than anything else I grow. A baked homegrown potato is food for the gods. My potatoes and tomatoes are both relatively vulnerable to pests, so healthy, complete soil is essential for strong plant immune systems. Crop rotation helps prevent problems from overwintering diseases. I also love growing chard, garlic, mustard, kale, cabbage, eggplant, sweet potatoes, peppers, rosemary, asparagus, blackberries, squashes, rhubarb. And sorghum is a grain crop that basically grows itself here, and is delicious cooked like rice.2
Over the years, I’ve had successes and failures; I don’t stress over the failures. And I continue gleaning wisdom from my fellow gardeners at the community garden.
The vibe: Easy does it
Gardening can stress you out if you let it. In terms of gardening skills, perhaps the most important is self-awareness. How do we relate to our garden? Is it a source of renewal or stress?
Labor-saving gardening practices
My first years of gardening involved much avoidable frustration. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.
- Irrigation: Drip irrigation is essential in hot, dry climates like Southern California. Irregular watering stresses plants and reduces yields. Vacations reliably killed my garden, no matter the good intentions of the garden sitter. Installing a drip system turned out to be easier than I expected; like most things in gardening, drip irrigation systems can start small and grow as needed.
- Perennials: My perennials keep growing, year after year, with little work on my part. In addition to trees and perennial vegetables,³ I like annuals that replant themselves. After moving to a new home, start perennials first as they take a few years to become established.
- Mulch: A thick layer of wood chips, shredded leaves, or straw, mulch sits on top of the soil like a shield. Mulch can cut water use nearly in half, and it reduces weeds and enriches soil. I like a four-inch layer around perennials. When I need mulch, I’ll ask arborists working in the neighborhood for their chips. This saves them an expensive trip to the dump; it also cuts down on landfill emissions (a win-win-win, a three-way gift).
- Sheet mulch: An easy way to prepare a grassy or weedy plot for gardening: loosen the soil with a garden fork, lay cardboard over the grass or weeds, and lay mulch on top of the cardboard. Keep moist.
- Locale specificity: It takes years before fruit trees start producing, so only plant what works where you live. Talk to your gardening friends. (For example, see the Great Altadena Fruit Project in Chapter 15).
- Spacing: Trees and other plants need adequate space. A rookie mistake is planting too close.
- Tilling and double digging: Some swear by this, but I don’t bother. Too much work. And probably hurts soil communities.
- Saving seeds: I can save exact varieties, save money, and save in large quantities for giving away. Saving seeds is more important than you think— it’s a key to building resilient communities around the world. Consider starting a seed library.
When I first started, gardening felt like too much work. It seemed that critters and pests were out to get me, and that nothing would grow for me. Eventually I developed soil appreciation. I’ve also become less attached to getting a crop.
Plants come, and plants go. Sometimes they yield a good crop, sometimes they don’t. I’ve also developed patience for the hungry critters. This is their land as much as mine. They don’t mean anything personal by eating “my” avocados or digging in “my” garden beds. Like me, they’re just trying to make a living.
Squirrels enjoy taking one bite out of every avocado, but I don’t mind; I just cut the bite-scarred area away as I peel the ripe fruits. I’ve noticed that if I feel frustrated by critters, I suffer and they seem to do more damage. But when I feel compassionate toward them, I don’t suffer, and they seem to do less damage. It’s important to recognize and avoid unnecessary work, to work with nature instead of against it. This saves time, effort, and lower back pain.
The grandpa of permaculture, Masanobu Fukuoka, spent his life perfecting the natural farming of rice, citrus, vegetables, and winter grains. In his 1978 book The One-Straw Revolution, he described his principles of natural farming: no plowing, no chemicals.4 Fukuoka relied on timing (seeding the winter crop before harvesting the summer rice), green manure (clover), straw (he returned everything except the harvest to the field), and a sprinkling of poultry manure (to help decompose the straw and make up for the harvested grain). Fukuoka let the web of life do the heavy lifting, and his yields were routinely as high as those of any industrial farm in Japan, year after year.
So why doesn’t everyone farm like Fukuoka? First, natural farming requires a long-term outlook, as it can take a few years for natural systems to rebuild and stabilize. It’s difficult to make the switch on a for-profit farm. It also takes a deep, experiential understanding of the soil and the ecosystem— especially the weeds, insects, and insect predators. Fukuoka learned what worked on his unique patch of land by trial and error over many years. (He wrote, “I probably know more about what can go wrong growing agricultural crops than anyone else in Japan.”5)
In industrial farming as well as in many backyard gardens, we replace deep understanding with fossil-fueled technology. This seems more convenient: in this modern age, who has time to observe the web of life? But in not observing, we can destroy this delicate web, which locks farmers into an uphill battle using arsenals of heavy machinery, chemicals, and GMO seeds against natural forces.
Fukuoka saw no such battle; he saw a dance. But his dance required patience to learn. Finally, there’s no need to put in a whole garden immediately. Mine has grown gradually over the years. When I feel like working in the garden, I do; when I don’t, I don’t. I’ll take care of ugly or weedy patches when I feel like it. In spring I relish weeding a day or so after rainstorms, when the ground is soft and the weeds are young. When done in pleasant weather and with full attention, I know of few things as therapeutic and relaxing as weeding.
Could I feed my family by growing my own food?
It took me about five years to gain basic competence as an organic gardener. If necessary, would I be able to use the skills I’ve gained to feed my family? If I had about an acre here in Altadena, with its year-round growing season, and made growing and preserving food my highest priority, I probably could. This assumes access to a few things: a reliable water source; established fruit trees and other perennial food plants; and a diverse community of dedicated gardeners with whom I could trade knowledge, excess produce, and seeds.
My experience matches that of Fukuoka, who wrote, “If each person were given one quarter-acre, that is 11/4 acres to a family of five, that would be more than enough land to support the family for the whole year. If natural farming were practiced, a farmer would also have plenty of time for leisure and social activities within the village community. I think this is the most direct path toward making this country a happy, pleasant land.”6
It takes years to gain the skills and build the soil one needs to grow food, and to do so without strong community support would be impossible. Beginning to grow food because you’re facing starvation would work about as well as beginning to sew a parachute because you’ve fallen out of a plane.
I used to have unthinking faith in the global industrial food system. Now I believe we have a responsibility to teach our children how to grow food, both to help them live satisfying lives, and to boost community resilience. Gardening should be right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic in our schools: a basic literacy of food, plants, and soil.
Sustaining soil with compost (returning)
I’m learning to think of plants and soil as one system. When soil is good, plants grow well. When soil isn’t good, pests and diseases move in easily.7
When I started gardening, the soil in my yard was impoverished. But buying plastic bags full of amendments from the garden store and schlepping them to my house seemed crazy. When I first heard about humanure composting, it also seemed crazy— but also too sensible not to try. Composting my own waste reduces CO2 emissions, water usage, and water pollution. It’s an elegant step toward closing the loop on food and waste. It’s pure ecological alchemy, transmuting a major problem (polluted and biohazardous water) into a major blessing (fertile soil), naturally and without money.
Plants give to us freely: cool shade, beautiful forests, building material, fuel, clean air, clean water, food to eat. It’s no exaggeration to say we owe plants our lives. In return, we can give them a gift that’s a pleasure for us to give: our poop and our pee. The biosphere is a beautiful system, indeed.
Composting my own waste is a meditative practice. It’s the opposite of out of sight, out of mind. It reminds me that I’m an animal. It also feels subversive, which makes it fun.8 I’ve done it for years, and it has become a natural, easy part of my life.
At first, humanure felt like another project, an addition to my life. Now I understand that it’s a simplifcation. I’ve subtracted the flush toilet from my life. I’ve subtracted the need to buy bags of soil amendment. Once a week, typically on Sunday morning, I empty a bucket onto the compost pile. As I do so, I’m reminded of the alchemy taking place.
How to compost humanure
In composting humanure, microbes do all the real work. Humanure requires no fossil fuels and less than 5% of the water used by fush toilets.9 I follow the system Joseph Jenkins describes in his Humanure Handbook.10 The toilet is a bucket under a standard toilet seat mounted on a plywood box.11 You can build one in a mater of minutes.
“Flushing” is accomplished with a few handfuls of leaves (shredded is best), horse manure (dried is best), or any relatively fine mulch (generally referred to as brown material). Jenkins uses sawdust from local sawmills, which is easy for him to source in western Pennsylvania. So long as you use adequate brown material to cover newly deposited poop, there’s no odor.
In addition to the bucket, the system requires two compost piles, one for buildup and one for mellowing, which I wall in with scavenged wood pallets. I fill the buildup pile with buckets of fresh material. To do this, I move aside some topping brown material with a dedicated pitchfork, dump the bucket, and then replace the topping material. Then I rinse out the bucket with a hose and dump the water on the pile. If there’s odor, I add more brown material.
After a year, I use the dedicated pitchfork to move the buildup pile into a second pile, the mellowing pile. There the compost mellows for a second year.
After two years, humanure has transformed into nutrient-rich compost. I add it to the garden and the orchard, laying it down on top of garden beds, under the drip lines of trees, and to any plant that seems to want some extra nourishment. The received wisdom is to restrict the use of humanure to fruit trees, and to never use it near vegetables. While this rule is certainly necessary for raw sewage, it’s overkill for properly composted humanure.
To be safe, humanure must be properly composted. In practice, this means it must reach a temperature hot enough to kill pathogens.
It’s worth noting that cholera pandemics were a fact of life, even in the US and Europe, until quite recently. A disease that spreads when sewage contaminates the drinking water supply, cholera claimed tens of millions of lives in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, more than 100,000 people per year die from cholera; and global warming is expected to give the cholera bacteria a boost.12 Cholera isn’t the only disease you can catch from sewage: feces from infected individuals can transmit other bacteria, parasitic worms and protozoa, and viruses.
However, proper humanure composting eliminates these dangers. Fecal pathogens are killed by heat over time, and humanure piles heat up due to heat-producing thermophilic microbes— good bacteria. The hotter the pile becomes, the less time it takes for pathogens to die: “complete pathogen destruction should be guaranteed” if all parts of a compost pile are maintained at temperatures of 144°F (62°C) for one hour, 122°F (50°C) for one day, 115°F (46°C) for one week, or 109°F (43°C) for one month.13 This is the golden rule of humanure.
During the buildup phase, my pile holds steady at 110°F to 120°F no matter where I stick the compost thermometer. More importantly, the temperature in newly added five-gallon deposits climbs to 135°F to 140°F after two days, and stays up there a week or more.14 After three days at this temperature, essentially all patho- gens in my newly added material will be dead. All additional time is insurance.15
Turning the material by pitching it from the buildup pile to the mellowing pile provides a second round of purifying heat. I once noted that two days after doing this turning, the temperature in the newly mellowing pile climbed to 155°F. It stayed above 152°F for over a week, and above 145°F for another four days.16 This turning also mixes surface material into the hot interior, helping to ensure that all parts of the pile get hot.
When my first pile was a few months old, I examined it with my nose. Our sense of smell is a direct connection to the microbial world, after all; an unpleasant smell often indicates something that can make us sick. The pile was about four feet by three feet by two feet high. It had been about five days since I’d dumped a bucket. There were no flies, and it smelled earthy.
With the pitchfork, I excavated down to the clay soil. The core of the pile, at several months old and well below the level of recently added deposits, looked and smelled like regular compost: dark black leaf bits, a rich earthy smell, and bugs scurrying around. There were no visible turd remnants, and no offensive smells— even with my nose a few inches away. I reached in and grabbed a handful of material from the bottom of the pile. It looked, felt, and smelled like dirt. Poop was transmuting into compost.
I can’t overstress two key advantages of humanure: (1) it’s simple and cheap, requiring only a bucket, a thermometer, a tiny bit of knowledge, and a square yard of land per several families; (2) it transmutes disease-causing poop into valuable, healthy soil. As far as technologies for global development go, few would benefit the world’s poor more than humanure.
Globally, one in three people—2.4 billion people—don’t have access to a decent place to poop. A billion of these people poop where they can—behind bushes, out the street. The rest poop first in buckets and then dump the buckets wherever, or else use “un- improved” latrines (a hole in the ground, or an outhouse on stilts with a hole in the floor).17 A billion additional people have access only to “improved” pit latrines, which are themselves a major groundwater contamination risk which will worsen with increased flooding from climate change.18 This picture is both inhumane and deadly, with contaminated drinking water directly causing an estimated 300,000 deaths per year and contributing to widespread disease and malnutrition, especially among young children.19 In India, over half of the groundwater and 80% of the surface water is contaminated by sewage, and 40% of women who drop out of school in India say it’s because there are no toilets in the schools.20 Humanure composting provides a hygienic alternative. And because educated women have fewer children, humanure composting could even eventually help with overpopulation.
Humanure is safer than conventional waste treatment
The situation in the US, while better in some ways, is still far from perfect. In the US, 20% of households use septic tanks,21 which collect household and human wastes. After a short settling time with minimal anaerobic decomposition, this untreated effluent, still with a huge pathogen load, is simply introduced into the soil (or “leach field”). Like pit latrines, these systems often silently cause groundwater contamination.22
The other 80% of waste in the US is piped to sewage treatment plants, which fail occasionally, and have difficulty coping with storm water. In Los Angeles, for example, our beaches are routinely closed after rains due to the dumping of large volumes of untreated sewage.
Even when all goes as planned, the process results in tonnes of toxic sludge. At the treatment plant, microbes are given only about two weeks to work at a temperature of approximately 95°F— not enough time and temperature to kill pathogens. The resulting “biosolids” are then sold to farmers and citizens. My dad used to put it on his lawn, and it smelled just like poop, which tells you something; also, the vast majority of biosolids are “Class B,” mean- ing known to contain large pathogen loads.
Sewage treatment plants’ input streams also include detergents, industrial waste, persistent pharmaceuticals, and heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, along with other toxins. Persistent pharmaceuticals and heavy metals build up in soils, and some crops readily absorb them.23 Remediation necessitates removing the poisoned earth and trucking it “away.” Personally, I’d not apply biosolids to my land.
We pay a high price for the convenience of flush toilets.
In our culture, poop is taboo,24 and for good reason: it can carry disease. But properly composted poop is no longer poop. It doesn’t look or smell like poop. It wouldn’t make you sick even if it did get into your food or water.
The power of taboo, however, lies in its emotional intensity. Evidence alone won’t convince someone to relinquish a taboo. But time and familiarity will. Now that I’ve been composting humanure for several years, I can say that it quickly becomes not a big deal. Sharon tolerated this quirk of mine for the first three years. And then one day, she started using the leaf toilet, too.
One man’s waste
Time races on. The planet warms, the corporatocracy consolidates, wars rage. And here I am, writing about poop in detail. How can I justify this use of my time?
I’m a mammal. I’m one man, tending my garden, coming back down to Earth. It takes time for good things to grow. I’m doing everything I can do within my particular situation, as fast as I can do it. And I’m old enough to know that patience is more effective than panic.
I’m suggesting that humanure composting is actually deeply relevant to our looming predicament. Apart from the ecological problems flush toilets cause, they’re a powerful symbol of our mindless disconnection from nature. We go about our business pretending that we aren’t animals, that technology has allowed us to transcend natural limitations. But no matter what we invent, we will always be nature.
Composting my own poop reminds me of what sustains me, and of my place in nature. It reminds me where I come from, and where I’m going.
Composting without poop
You might not feel ready for humanure composting. Fear not: just keep a basic compost pile, without poop. Maybe someday you’ll try humanure. I also keep a worm bin, which is easy. It makes me happy to see the worms.
There are piles of information out there on both basic composting and worm composting. But I personally find humanure composting to be a much deeper practice.
Practical tips for humanure composting
If you decide to try humanure composting, here are some things I’ve learned which may help:
- Pick a shady spot for the pile.
- Use a compost thermometer.
- Keep a separate pitchfork for your pile. Don’t use it for anything else.
- Kitchen and yard scraps can go into the pile. Contrary to composting dogma, I compost anything: meat, dairy, dead animals, pet poop. To keep animals away, enclose your pile in 1⁄2-inch hardware cloth (1⁄4-inch if you want it mouse-proof).
- You can compost toilet paper, tissues, and paper napkins. Shredded paper and cardboard can be composted if added a little at a time.
- You can compost sticks, but break them up into small pieces first.
- Watch out for the plastic stickers on fruits and vegetables. It’s truly uncanny how plastic never breaks down. Compost piles really demonstrate this.
- If your pile isn’t heating up, you do need to find out why and correct the problem. Some possibilities: too much carbon, not enough nitrogen; not enough moisture; not enough oxygen. It is also possible your pile isn’t big enough yet— heat seems to require a critical mass. Experiment and you will find the problem. After making a correction, it might take a day or two before the temperature changes.
We keep hens and they delight us. My older son, Braird, is especially fond of them. After so many years of keeping chickens, I still love gathering their eggs from the nest box.
Each hen lays a unique egg. We get brown, blue, red, and white eggs. Some are large and squat, some are long and skinny. Hens perform the alchemy of transforming kitchen scraps, garden weeds, and bugs into eggs. And they’re delicious: organic “free range” store-bought eggs taste pale in comparison.
Most backyard chicken keepers feed their flocks on commercial grain feed, supplemented with ground oyster shells for calcium. Our chickens also eat kitchen scraps and forage for bugs from our yard.25
The problem of feeding a backyard flock in the suburbs was one of the things that led me to freeganism. Once, after shopping for groceries, I furtively checked the store’s dumpster for something for the chickens. To my surprise, I saw an entire box of perfect egg- plants. No good for the chickens, but great for a huge batch of baba ghanoush, which I shared with friends and neighbors. Thrown-out food—dairy, lettuce, a small amount of bread, and even occasion- ally meat—now makes up perhaps one-quarter of our hens’ feed.
I also feed my hens grass and weeds in the spring. I’ve begun seeing the hens’ favorite weeds, the lush grasses and dandelions, as a secondary crop. (Being happy to see “weeds” makes gardening that much more pleasant.) What the chickens don’t eat becomes part of their bedding, all of which eventually finds its way onto my compost pile.
Like any being, plant, animal, or otherwise, chickens need a complete diet to thrive. Healthy chickens are active, their eggs have good strong shells, and their feathers are glossy and beautiful (unless they happen to be molting, in which case they’re comically ugly).
Birth and death
Keeping chickens has changed how I think about life and death. Just like people, chickens are in flow, arising and soon passing away. However, chickens make this flow more apparent because it’s more rapid, and because there’s much less emotional attachment. But otherwise, we humans are cycled by nature exactly as the chickens are, arising, staying for some time, and then becoming something else.
As I said, our first two chickens were gifts from neighbor Ruben when he moved; Braird named them Ice Cream and Pie. Pie was a beautiful, protective Rhode Island red rooster. Roosters don’t just crow at dawn; they crow whenever they damn well please. While I enjoyed the lively crow, the poor fellow who moved into Ruben’s house was near to losing his mind. So of course I rehomed Pie.
This is at least partly cultural. Like Ruben, the neighbors on the other two sides of my house are Hispanic. They told me the rooster reminded them of their childhood; they liked it. But the new neighbor, while a kind person, asked me, angrily, “What sort of person has a rooster?!” Clearly, how we react to our neighbor’s rooster depends on what we view as normal.
Hens continue laying fertile eggs for two or three weeks after the rooster leaves, so I borrowed an incubator and tried hatching a few. I chose eggs from our barred rock hen, Trophy. Barred rock hens and Rhode Island red roosters make sex-linked babies called black star: females hatch out entirely black, whereas males have a white mark on their heads. Given the business reality of hatcheries, where only females are valued, white is a death mark.
The eggs sat quietly in the incubator for 21 days. To develop, eggs must be kept at a steady 100°F. Fertilized eggs can’t develop embryos if refrigerated. (That so many people believe that they can is a striking example of how disconnected we’ve become from our food.)
One morning, I found one of the eggs broken in half, next to a tiny bedraggled chick. She was black with no white spot, a girl. The other eggs didn’t hatch—I’d probably waited too long to collect them after Pie left—so we bought her a brown puffball companion at the feed store. Braird named them Chocolate Chick and Butter- scotch.
Babies need to be raised for three or four months until they’re big enough to be introduced to the flock—a process requiring the establishment of a new pecking order. During this time, the two chicks lived in our kitchen, a chirping presence, and then in our garage. In December, integration of the chicks into the flock went smoothly. Then one night in January, the temperature dipped below freezing, a rare cold snap for Altadena.
There was a strange purity in finding Chocolate lying on her side on the floor of the coop the next morning, dead. Something cold and deep. I was shocked into the moment. It was a complete surprise, but then an instant later, it wasn’t a surprise. For several more instants, the universe was me and her. The other hens rushed out for their breakfast around me as I remained crouched, completely still. I thought, how strange, how random, how natural.
The previous evening, I’d placed her on the floor of the coop. Afraid of the adults, she hadn’t jumped to the roost and snuggled up like Butterscotch had. Instead, she went to sleep on the floor, and never woke up. Had there been a moment when she tipped suddenly over onto her side? Did any of the other hens notice? Braird, Zane, and I buried her deep within the compost pile.
As a society, we are radically disconnected from our food sources. We buy bloodless, commodified chicken legs in shrink-wrapped plastic, and we don’t think about where the meat comes from. We don’t want to know. Disconnecting from our empathy allows us to voluntarily—even eagerly—participate in a system that brutalizes other beings. (I believe that a similar disconnection allows us to wage war.)
When keeping a small backyard flock, you know that your hens are healthy and happy. But in factory farms, hundreds of thou- sands of birds are packed together under one roof. Hens live short and brutal lives in terrible conditions. Like other livestock within our industrial food production system, they are seen not as beings, but as raw material from which to extract wealth. Hens are killed after about a year of laying, when their egg output slows, and ground up for pet food. Such systems of wealth extraction are not aligned with the biosphere. Apart from being cruel, these systems are vulnerable to collapse.
Birds and other livestock are more susceptible to disease when they are crowded and stressed, so producers prop them up with antibiotics. Close quarters, poor health, and antibiotics make factory farms perfect breeding grounds for new strains of viruses and multi-resistant bacteria. And these new bacteria and viruses occasionally cross over to humans.26; In 2015, a surprise outbreak of avian flu in the US killed 50 million commercial hens, turkeys, and ducks. A mountain of birds. The poultry industry is nervous for the next pandemic,27 as are epidemiologists and public health experts—for far more ominous reasons.28
My own backyard flock has experienced collateral damage from the factory farming system in the form of Marek’s disease. Marek’s is a virus that manifests as tumors in the avian nervous system, causing paralysis of the legs and wings; there’s no cure. Until recently, chicks were routinely vaccinated against Marek’s, but the vaccine turned out to be “leaky”: vaccinated birds, while remaining asymptomatic themselves, actively shed the virus. This may be weakening the gene pool and strengthening the virus.
I’m not against vaccines—those who are would do well to look at a few photographs of children with smallpox, and learn who Benjamin Jesty was, in order to better inform themselves on the matter—but this particular leaky vaccine has turned out to be a curse for my flock. The breeders in my area are no longer vaccinating, but my fully grown hens are shedding the virus. While I’ve been forced to euthanize several pullets due to the disease (I won’t be able to add new unvaccinated chicks until the vaccinated hens die off), my friends who hatch their own chicks and don’t vaccinate have had no problems. If you start a flock, do so with unvaccinated birds.
Practical tips for chicken keeping
Chicken keeping is relatively easy and rewarding. Here are a few tips:
- It’s crucial to predator-proof the chickens’ living quarters; humans aren’t the only animals that enjoy a chicken dinner. To a raccoon, chicken wire might as well be thread.
- I built a run completely enclosed in galvanized hardware cloth dug down about a foot into the ground. This way I don’t have to open a coop at dawn and close it at dusk. (Date nights and sleeping in are both good things.)
- I use deep bedding— about six inches of straw and garden waste— inside the run. Deep bedding eliminates poop smells, which can otherwise be a problem during rainy spells. About once a year, I cycle this bedding into the compost pile.
- I have a grain-feed and water setup that allows the hens to go four days without any human intervention, which is nice when we go on backpacking trips. A neighbor checks food and water and gathers eggs while we’re out for longer stretches.
- Any food you give your chickens must be unobtainable to rats after dusk. I put the feed in a galvanized metal chicken feeder with a cover that opens only when a hen steps on a treadle. It’s easier to prevent rats than to evict them once they’ve moved in, especially if you aren’t willing to kill them.
- At some point, you may need to euthanize a chicken. I recommend using vinegar, baking soda, a five-gallon bucket, and compassion.
The manzanitas are flowing. The scent of their nectar is divine as I lie underneath, feeling the sun’s warmth and listening to the intense, comforting buzz of bees overhead. It’s early February in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and I’ve been meditating in silence for seven days. My mind is so clear that it stays in each consecutive moment for long swaths of time. I feel perfectly at home in my body, on this Earth.
Going home, I drive Maeby through California’s Central Valley. The almond bloom has just started, and I pass clusters of beehives by the side of the freeway. Beekeepers truck these hives across the country and even fly them in from Australia so that the almond industry can maximize profits.
I’m a backwards beekeeper: my bees come from local feral swarms, and I don’t use any pesticides, antibiotics, or other treatments. Feral honeybees are a bit feistier than domesticated breeds, but they’re not bad.
My first close encounter with a hive was in the cramped space beneath a trailer at the Santa Monica Fire Department’s training grounds. I was performing a cutout: rehoming a feral hive that would otherwise be exterminated. Tens of thousands of airborne bees were buzzing angrily around me. The air smelled like bananas.
This scent was the bees’ alarm pheromone, the signal to defend. My instinct is to not be here. I observed the urge to run, took a breath. My new bee suit seemed to be working.
This swarm was to become my first hive. I was working with two experienced beekeepers. Susan would cut a piece of comb from the bottom of the trailer with a knife and hand it to me, cov- ered on both sides with bees and dripping with honey. I could feel bees vibrating eerily like tiny energized springs under my fingers as I gently held the comb in my gloved hands. I passed each piece up to Paul, who was standing outside and using rubber bands to fasten the combs into wooden frames which he placed side by side into two wooden boxes, stacked one on top of the other. This was major surgery for the hive, but better than extermination.
The hive at night
Two days later, I went back after dark to bring home those boxes. My first hive! I parked far from the bees. I put on my suit and walked over with a flashlight, paint stirrer, duct tape, and ratchet straps. After dark, all the foraging bees return and the hive is all home—the proper time to seal it up for a move. With shaky hands, I wedged the paint stirrer into the hive box opening and started securing it with duct tape. But I bumbled it up, the tape twisting and sticking to my clumsy gloves. Angry bees started pouring out like a liquid. Adrenaline surged through my body.
My heart pounding, I ran back to the car to regroup. I was un- nerved by the hive, in the black night of this strange place with cars rushing by on the freeway just beyond the fence. But I had to accomplish my mission.
After a minute, I willed myself to walk back. Hundreds of bees were crawling around the entrance. I told myself “finish securing the exit, the suit will keep you safe,” and I did. I told myself “put two ratchet straps around the hive boxes to hold them together,” and I did. I told myself “carry the hive to the car,” and I did. I drove home carefully, still in my bee suit, with angry bees buzzing around inside the car.
An easier way to get a new hive is to collect a swarm. A swarm is a group of a few thousand bees, one of whom is a queen, searching for a new home. I recently collected a swarm in Altadena, from a friend’s garden. I went at dusk so that the scout bees would be in for the night but I could still see. The bees were hanging from an artichoke leaf. I clipped away a few surrounding leaves and placed a cardboard box29 under the swarm. Then I slowly clipped the leaf, gently lowered the swarm into the box, and taped it up.
In the heady days of spring, the nectar’s flowing and new workers are hatching. If all is right with the hive, it may decide to swarm. The workers raise a new queen by feeding a regular larva a high- protein diet. And then, at some point, the old queen departs with several thousand of her daughters. They’ll hang from a nearby branch for up to a few days while seasoned foragers scout for a new home.
The swarm’s house hunt is one of nature’s amazing stories.30 While most of the bees in the swarm go into a powered-down mode to conserve energy, a few hundred scouts fly off in all directions. They travel miles seeking out potential hive sites: a hollow tree, an empty hive box, the rotting eaves of a house. When a scout finds a prospect, she’ll fly inside and size up the interior, preferring a dark, watertight cavity with a small opening and a volume of around half a cubic meter. If she likes what she sees, she flies back to the swarm and excitedly communicates her discovery by doing a waggle dance on the backs of the quiescent bees. The dance tells the other scouts which direction and how far to fly, so they can see for themselves. If the scout repeats her dance many times, it means she really likes the place; more scouts feel her dance, so more scouts go to check it out. If they also like it, they’ll come back and dance as well. Each scout bee gets to vote for the site by choosing whether to dance for it, and for how long.
Initially, there are many scouts dancing for different hive sites. But over time a consensus emerges. Once the decision is unanimous, they wake up the swarm by buzzing their wing muscles and everyone flies to the new site. The swarm’s survival depends on the quality of their choice, and they rarely make a poor one. Their decision is egoless: a true beemocracy.
Back in my backyard, in the cool dark before dawn, I trans- ferred my captured swarm into a small hive box with only five frames. I untaped the cardboard box and gave it a sharp rap on the ground to knock the bees down (they hang from the top). Imme- diately the sleeping bees erupted into a yowl of alarmed buzzing. In one motion, I opened the box and poured the bees into their new home. I was enveloped by the scent of bananas, but in the next moment I had the cover on.
The next day, I saw workers bringing pollen into the hive, brightly colored in gorgeous shades of red, orange, yellow, and blue. Bees use pollen to feed their young, so this means the queen is starting to lay and the hive plans to stay. The hive turned out to be strong and productive.31
Diversity and resilience
Unlike conventional beekeepers, I’m contributing diversity to the bee gene pool, and diversity means strength. So-called package queens, shipped through the mail, are bred by only a few people in the US. Most of the 2.5 million commercial hives in the US—some 100 billion bees or so—are descendants of a handful of queens.32
This poor genetic diversity and lack of local adaptation makes it easier for diseases and parasites to overcome hives. So conventional beekeepers employ an arsenal of chemicals, antibiotics, and fungicides to prop up their hives. Genetic strength declines further. It’s a steady downward spiral.
Like our own bodies, a hive is a complex community com- prised of an unknown number of symbiotic bacteria, fungi, and other life-forms. We know that bees depend on beneficial microbes to protect them from pathogenic microbes, and also to digest pollen, their protein source. What happens to the balance of microbes in a hive when a well-meaning beekeeper dumps in a cocktail of fungicides and antibiotics? We don’t know yet, because we don’t understand the complexity of hive biology. But we do know what happens to the pathogens: they develop resistance to antibiotics and fungicides.
To ignorantly meddle in this way with a robust and complex natural system is emblematic of our contemporary industrial mindset. In my experience, and in the experience of many other successful feral beekeepers, these interventions are unnecessary.
Natural systems find stability and resilience in diversity. This is true on every scale, from the inside of your intestine, to a meadow, to the entire biosphere. Farmers who plant in vast monocultures also attempt to create stability artificially by applying chemicals and using genetically modified seeds.
For crops that require bee pollination, monocropping also means that bees must be trucked or flown in. Bees can’t coexist with monocultures: there’s food for a few days while the crop’s blooming, but for the rest of the year, there’s nothing. In the middle of a field of almond trees in full bloom in California’s Central Valley, you might not find a single bee if it weren’t for commercial hives from far away.
So commercial operations wake up bees when there’s still snow on the ground, feed them corn syrup and antibiotics, load them on semis and airplanes, and move them thousands of miles to pollinate almond trees laden with a cocktail of insecticides. Why make life so hard?
If I had an orchard
Unlike most other environmental problems, disappearing bees hit people at a gut level. Flowers with no bees seem uncannily sterile. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is a concern for commercial beekeepers and the industrial crops they pollinate. The cause of CCD could be stress from crop pesticides, beekeeping chemicals, corn syrup feed, poor genetic diversity, varroa mites (which may be encouraged by the use of artificial wax honeycomb), trucking bees around the country to commingle, pollen with 1/3 less protein due to rising CO2,33 or—since everything is connected—all of the above. These industrial practices weaken the bees’ immune systems and upset the balance of hive microbes. Remnants of CCD colonies exhibit a large load of pathogens, demonstrating a weak- ened immune system.34
If I had an orchard, I’d plant different types of trees to maximize the blooming season, grow them organically, and intermingle the cropland with wild and weedy spaces. I’d keep beehives in place year-round. I might not earn as much, but I’d have happy, healthy bees. And this would make me happier than having a slightly larger number in some banker’s database.
Not the honey
My greatest joy in beekeeping is not the honey. It’s simply observing the bees. I used to keep two Langstroth hives under my kitchen window. I loved watching the bees’ flight paths from the window in the morning sun, and the smell of nectar wafting into the kitchen.35
They are fascinating little animals, and only become more so. I watch them interacting with each other and going about their business in the hive, cleaning, building comb, or feeding brood. I watch the queen laying, surrounded by her retinue. Outside the hive, I see their tongues as they drink water. I watch them bringing back pollen, and I watch them foraging in flowers. If a bee lands on the back of my hand as I’m drinking my morning coffee, great— I can get a closer look.
I used to think beekeeping was for everyone, but I no longer think this. The Backwards Beekeepers group in Los Angeles used to pro- mote their work enthusiastically and welcome all comers. This led some folks to get bees who probably shouldn’t have. These people liked the idea of having bees, but they were unable to get over their fear. As a result, they neglected their hives, which grew larger—and scarier. Experienced beekeepers had to intervene.
To “have” bees instead of to “keep” them—to allow a hive to grow without supervision, until it becomes crowded and grumpy—is dangerously irresponsible in an urban setting. Chained dogs and caged chickens can’t escape from angry bees.
When a hive has a full top box (or “super”) of honey and we’re not heading into a dearth (a season without flowers; here, the hot months of summer), I’ll take frames of capped honey, give them a sharp shake, brush the remaining bees off, and cut out the comb into a bucket. At home, I crush the comb, pour it through a paint strainer, and bottle it up. Honey from one’s own hives is a joy. I process the leftover wax for candles. I give honey away.
A great gift
When I first started beekeeping, I had fear. But then I learned to observe my fear. The moment I’m able to look at my fear objectively, as an outside observer, I become calm and happy. In this way, bees give me a great gift: the opportunity to work on over- coming my fear of death.
I’ve learned to love these creatures who so improbably exist in this universe. Small creatures that spin sweet gold out of flowers in hollow trees—and protect it against all odds with tiny stingers? So many forces are arrayed against these beings. And yet, through it all, they persist, tirelessly pollinating flowers, bringing new life as they go.
Like the bees, we humans are also balanced at all times on the knife’s edge of life and death. Like the bees, we persist. What honey do we make? We humans are impressive in our ability to tell stories and to make music. But the real honey we’re capable of making is even better: compassionate love for all beings. Our job, in the brief instant we’re granted on this lovely Earth, is to spin hatred, anger, and fear into pure love. When we love, we’re being true to our nature, as when bees make honey.
- Carolyn Dimitri et al. The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy. USDA Economic Information Bulletin Number 3, June 2005. [online]. ilovefarmers.org/downloads/The20th CenturyTransformationof U.S.AgricultureandFarmPolicy.pdf.
- It’s one thing to grow fruits and veggies in a tiny yard, but grains had me perplexed. I failed at growing Sonora wheat, an heirloom well- suited to Southern California’s hot and dry conditions. Meantime, a sorghum volunteer, whose seed must have been pooped out by a bird, began to grow. I had no idea what it was, but it grew up on its own.
I have a policy of not pulling out plants until I know what they are, and it paid off this time: eventually it dawned on me that I’d found an ideal grain crop. Or rather, it had found me.
- A good guide: Eric Toensmeier. Perennial Vegetables from Artichokes to Zuiki Taro: A Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles. Chelsea Green, 2007.
- Masanobu Fukuoka. The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. Rodale Press, 1978.
- Ibid., p. 52.
- Ibid., p. 109.
Atlantic, October 6. 2014. [online]. theatlantic.com/health/archive /2014/10/the-amish-farmer-replacing-pesticides-with-nutrition /380825//.
- Humanure composting might break a municipal code where you live. Proceed at your own risk.
- In one week, I use 3 or 4 gallons of water rinsing buckets. Back in my flush toilet days, I’d use over 100 gallons in a week (30 or so flushes at around 4 gallons per flush). What’s more, those rinse water gallons aren’t wasted: they support microbes working day and night to build soil.
- Joseph C. Jenkins, The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, 3rd ed. Jenkins Publishing, 2005. Jenkins, in turn, is indebted to an obscure World Bank treatise which lays out the basics of human manure composting with key data on hygiene: Richard G.Feachem et al. Transportation, Water and Telecommunications Department. Appropriate technology for water supply and sanitation: Health aspects of excreta and sullage management: A state-of-the-art re- view. World Bank, 1981. [online]. documents.worldbank.org/curated /en/929641467989573003/Appropriate-technology-for-water-supply -and-sanitation-health-aspects-of-excreta-and-sullage-management-a -state-of-the-art-review.
- Many restaurants throw out five-gallon buckets; you can easily get as many as you want without using money. The box can be made from scrap or salvaged wood.
- World Health Organization. “Cholera Fact Sheet” Updated October 2016. [online]. who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs107/en/.
- Feachem, “Appropriate Technology,” p. 105.
- During this experiment, nightly lows in Altadena were around 50°F
and daily highs were around 70°F.
- Humanure composting temperatures should be high enough to
kill most weed seeds. In a study of six weed seeds, even the hardiest experienced 100% mortality after only three hours at 140°F (60°C): Ruth M. Dahlquist et al. “Time and Temperature Requirements for Weed Seed Thermal Death.” Weed Science 55(6) (2007). [online]. doi:10.1614/WS-04-178.1.
- After two weeks, it was 130°F. After a month, it was around 110°F.
I poured some water near the thermometer, and it went back to 130°F.
- World Health Organization. “Sanitation Fact Sheet” Reviewed No- vember 2016. [online]. who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs392/en/.
- Jay P. Graham and Matthew L. Polizzotto. “Pit latrines and their impacts on groundwater quality: A systematic review.” Environmental Health Perspectives 121(5) (2013). [online]. doi:10.1289/ehp.1206028. This risk, although serious, remains poorly quantified.
- World Health Organization. “Sanitation Fact Sheet.”
- Nayantara Narayanan. “Horrifying fact: Almost all India’s water is
contaminated by sewage.”Scroll.in, July 1, 2015. [online]. scroll.in /article/737981/horrifying-fact-almost-all-indias-water-is-contami nated-by-sewage/.
- US EPA. “Septic Systems Overview.” [online]. epa.gov/septic/septic -systems-overview.
- Marylynn V. Yates. “Septic Tank Density and Ground-Water Con- tamination.” Groundwater 23(5) (1985). doi:10.1111/j.1745-6584.1985 .tb01506.x.
- Chenxi Wu et al. “Uptake of Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products by Soybean Plants from Soils Applied with Biosolids and Irrigated with Contaminated Water.” Environmental Science &Technology 44 (2010). [online]. doi:10.1021/es1011115. Pharmaceuticals in this context are still poorly understood, part of a broad class of “emerging contaminants to the environment.” (Quote from USGS. “Land Application of Municipal Biosolids.” [online]. toxics.usgs.gov /regional/emc/municipal_biosolids.html.)
- Not all cultures have shared our taboo about poop. F. H. King (in
Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan. 1911, repr., Dover, 2004) recounted that in ancient China night soil collectors would actually pay for the privilege of emptying privies, I assume from folks without gardens. Until recently, Mandarin Chinese usage did not include profane words for poop, as Western languages do. This uncomposted night soil wasn’t hygienic, but it did allow the ancient Chinese to develop a sustainable agricul- ture—something industrial civilization has so far failed to do.
- My chickens love the larvae of the figeater beatle. My late favorite hen, Black Star, could jump and grab flying adults out of the air when they flew too low.
- See David Quammen. Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Norton, 2012.
- Maryn McKenna. “The looming threat of avian flu.” New York Times Magazine, April 13, 2016. [online]. nytimes.com/2016/04/17 /magazine/the-looming-threat-of-avian-flu.html.
- Mary J. Gilchrist et al. “The potential role of concentrated animal feeding operations in infectious disease epidemics and antibiotic resistance.” Environmental Health Perspectives 115(2) (2007). [online]. doi:10.1289/ehp.8837.
- An 18-inch box with a wire screen taped over a hole for ventilation.
- Thomas D. Seeley. Honeybee Democracy. Princeton, 2010.
- About half of my swarm captures stay; the other half will fly off after
a day or two, probably to find a home more to their liking. I’ll arrive to find an empty box. I’ve recently started to use a piece of queen excluder over the entrance to keep the queen inside for the first few days, but I haven’t done this enough to say for sure if it helps.
- Michael Bush. “Genetic Diversity in Bees.” The Practical Beekeeper website, 2008. [online]. bushfarms.com/beesgeneticdiversity.htm.
- See Chapter 5.
- Dennis van Engelsdorp et al. “Colony Collapse Disorder: A Descriptive Study.” PLoS ONE 4(8) (2009). [online]. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006481.
- I used to keep two hives on my roof as well. If you decide to go the
roof route, make sure the hives have shade, and realize that a mature hive full of honey could weigh 200 pounds and present an interesting challenge to move.