Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

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 Photo by Ellison Photography

We share the planet with all life; for we are not here alone. And so our actions and behaviors affect the lives of the other living beings who share the Earth with us…who share your farm with you.  And what happens to them, affects us as well.

In my last blog, I wrote about what the Coyotes on your farm ask of you ~ understanding and allowing them to live stable lives. That understanding helps you to keep your farm animals safe.

But what we often do not think of regarding the stability of wild carnivores’ lives, is how our behaviors might affect their health. We live in a world where poisons have been accepted as the answer for anything in our environment that we wish to rid ourselves of.  There has been no regard for the larger picture of the community of life. Individuals who earn their living as “exterminators” or “pest control specialists” succeed by using dangerous poisons manufactured by large chemical companies. But they are not alone, for anyone can purchase poisons to kill rats and rodents in their environment.  

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring alerted our society of the dangerous effects of lethal poisons, not only to ourselves and our children but to all other life. Note that our great raptors like eagles were almost lost to us because of the deleterious effects of DDT. Why then are poisons still the answer to our relationship with other lives? Would it be that we do not observe firsthand the suffering it costs?


Photo by Tim Springer

Most people do not observe the devastating effects poisons have on the very carnivores, who are so capable of controlling rodent populations on our planet. Anticoagulant rat poisons (often called second generation) are used freely, and remain in the rodent’s body at high levels, as they slowly bleed to death. While they are still alive, carnivores like coyotes, cougars, bobcats, foxes and birds of prey like eagles and owls hunt for them….and consume them. And with every poisoned rodent a carnivore consumes, the carnivore is slowly poisoned as well.


 Photo by Dean Searle

Carnivores have powerful immune systems that help them live their wild lives, but with the ever increasing amount of poisons in their body, their immune system is suppressed. Diseases they would otherwise be able to overcome, take over their bodies and cause their death.

One such painful affliction we are observing more and more is mange, in which parasitic mites enter the skin and cause intense itching, leading to open wounds and infection. Along with this, the parasites attack their hair follicles and cause the carnivore to lose much or all of their fur. Mange is most often fatal either because of severe infection and/or the carnivore’s inability to hunt due to weakness and suffering, or they freeze to death in the winter. It is a slow, painful death.

Scientists have observed that when carnivores are so sick, they will tend to come closer to human habitation because they may find easier food…for they are too sick to hunt.

You want to have healthy Coyotes and other carnivores on your farm? Allow your carnivores to do rodent patrol!

Geri Vistein is a conservation biologist whose work focuses on carnivores and our human relationships with them. In addition to research and collaboration with fellow biologists in Maine, she educates communities about carnivores and how we can coexist with them. You can find her at Coyote Lives in Maine, and read all of Geri's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


If you want to do something directly helpful about climate change, if you want to improve your family’s diet and health, if you want to increase food security in the region where you live, and if you want to support your local economy and help to create a better way to exist with the earth and each other, now is the time to act.

CSA Signup Day is Friday, February 26. Community farms and farmers (CSAs) need you, and you need them.

If your local farmers are going to be empowered to grow fresh, clean food for your household, and to steward the land in your name according to the highest ecological standards, then you need to stand up, step forward and sign up now.

CSA share - Creative Commons

February 26 has been identified as an optimum date for households and communities to take a stand in support their local farms and farmers by investing in a share of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). If the farmers know now that you are with them, they can move into spring with confidence and with the necessary resources to do their work on your behalf.

With cooperation and financial support up front, community farms can more effectively strive toward urgently practical ideals: drawing people together in healthy free-will association with one another to heal themselves and the land, while bringing forth the bounty and the beauty of the land.

The need for many thousands more community farms is becoming baldly apparent to all but the willfully ignorant. Yet another top-rank study, this one published earlier this month in the journal Nature Climate Change and last month in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters, warns that delaying action on climate conditions will have a long-term profound impact.

"The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far,” the scientists concluded.

CSA farms are not the full answer to this great challenge, but for a host of reasons they are one critical and intelligent response to global climate and economic realities.

“CSAs are the most authentic connection between a farmer and eater,” according Simon Huntley, the creator of CSA Day and founder of Small Farm Central, a Pittsburgh-based technology company focused on providing web services to direct-market farms.

“For people who want to directly support local farms, CSAs are one of the best options.” according to Huntley. CSA has played a pivotal role in the farm-to-table movement.

In an email exchange with me, Huntley observed: “The second annual CSA Day is off to a great start with 419 farms participating in our directory as of today. It has really taken on a life of it's own and it becomes a moment where farms can ask their members to sign up at this time of year. Getting some capital in the bank to pay for seeds, greenhouse heat, labor, and all of the rest of the expenses of running a diversified small farm at this time of year is essential so farmers can focus on farming rather than worrying about finances.”

On CSA Signup Day many farmers offer discounts and promotions to people who want to support the farm by investing in a share. Then each week through the growing season the shareholders receive a box filled with the food produced at their community farm

CSA Signup Day this year (February 26) is about more than amplifying the numbers and the beneficial impacts of CSA, it’s also a day generally dedicated to the celebration of community-supported agriculture and the basic good it has brought for so many farms, so many families, and so many communities.

Anyone can participate in CSA Sign Up Day by signing up for a CSA on February 26th. For those looking for a CSA farm in their area to join, here are three online directories:

CSA Signup Day

US Department of Agriculture

Local Harvest

Photo of a CSA share courtesy of Flickr/Suzie's Farm, Creative Commons 2.0.

Journalist Steven McFadden is the author of 15 nonfiction books dealing with the land and our lives upon it. His most recent book is, Awakening Community Intelligence: CSA Farms as 21st Century Cornerstones. Links to all of his blog posts for MOTHER EARTH NEWS can be found here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Many people have goals of living more simply, closer to nature, or on their own land and homestead. Though a laudable goal, a complete life change is often unrealistic. A better goal is to find other ways to live and work somewhere spectacular, even just  temporarily.

In the past four years I have had lots of experience seeking out job opportunities in amazing places and I want you to know it’s not hard! There are amazing opportunities everywhere; you only need to know where to look. Below are three stellar options for living and working off the beaten path that have been tested and approved by me. I may be 22, but these opportunities have absolutely no age limit. So read on, get inspired, and go do something amazing!

Work in a National Park

So many people live for the week or two in the summer when they can get away from their jobs and take a vacation in one of America’s majestic national parks. Why not flip that equation by living and working in one instead?

In 2012, I joined the Grand Teton Lodge Company and spent the summer working in a small campground in Grand Teton National Park. Days off were spent hiking and backpacking through the mountains and occasional trips to Yellowstone. To say it was an incredible experience is an understatement. I made lifelong friends and got to know a mountain range intimately. Overall, working in the Tetons was one of the most rewarding summers I have ever had.

flower mountain

What to Expect:

National Park hospitality is typically run by concessionaires that hire a wide range of people for both seasonal and full time positions. Vail works with the Grand Teton Lodge Company, and companies like Xanterra work in Yellowstone and Death Valley. You will want to look for jobs through them, not the National Park Service.

Park concessionaires hire people from around the world, making park living a truly international experience. I shared my dorm room with roommates from Jamaica and Moldova.

Most jobs deal directly with hospitality. Expect to do housekeeping, fill reservations, bus at a restaurant, or work in a campground. I worked in a campground and had friends that did everything from run a grocery store to be nighttime security guards.

Food and lodging is usually provided through dorms and an employee dining room, although some parks have an employee campground with hookups for RVs.

Unless you have previous experience in related fields, expect to make minimum wage or just above with a small portion of your salary deducted for food and lodging.

Most national parks are busiest in the summer months, meaning that a lot of hospitality positions are seasonal. However, many employees migrate from park to park, spending the winter months working at ski resorts or hot climate parks like Death Valley. Oftentimes concessionaires like Vail are located in several parks and are happy to move their employees around seasonally.


WWOOF on an Organic Farm

WWOOFing, the acronym for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is an international work exchange opportunity that connects willing volunteers with host farms. Usually no money is exchanged, but hosts are required to make arrangements for food and lodging for their volunteers. Because you are typically living and working alongside a family, wwoofing is an inexpensive and intimate way to travel. When I graduated from college four months earlier than I was expecting, I took a chance and flew to the Big Island of Hawaii to work at a 10 acre botanical sanctuary and vegetable garden. I can’t imagine experiencing Hawaii any other way.


What to Expect:

Over 100 countries are involved with wwoofing and each country has their own wwoof website. (Hawaii has one separate from the rest of the US) Most of these websites will only give you a preview of available farms unless you pay for an annual membership, typically around $25. It’s well worth the money to gain the access to information about so many host farms.

After registering, you will be able to see the full profile for every host farm in that country. Pay close attention to this information because every farm has different requirements. Minimum length of stay, amount of hours of work required and the type of food and lodging provided are all variant, although most farms require between 15-30 hours of work per week.

If you won’t have a car with you, pay special attention to how accessible towns and/or tourist destinations are to the farm. It would be a bummer of a vacation if the farm you worked at was far away from everything else you wanted to see and do. Try to find out if the hosts provide any transportation for their wwoofers.

Once you have decided on some potential farms, send them a “cover letter” email with your interest and availability. Remember that most farms receive dozens of these emails a week, so make yours stand out! Personalize each one to the farm you are applying for and be sure to list any relevant work experience.

Popular locations fill up fast, so if you are looking to wwoof in a place like Hawaii be sure to send out emails several months before you go.

Most host farms are really great, but while in Hawaii I heard some horror stories from fellow wwoofers. Avoid these places by doing your research ahead of time! Read reviews, have a phone call with potential hosts before committing, and always have a Plan B in mind in case things aren’t going to work out.

And finally, go in with the right mindset! Wwoofing is a working vacation, so plan on being busy and getting sweaty. Keep your expectations realistic, be gracious to your host, and enjoy your chance to live a little closer to nature.


Give Service with AmeriCorps

Ian and I owe our current job and homes to working with AmeriCorps. Often considered to be a domestic version of the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps ‘engages more than 75,000 Americans in intensive service each year at nonprofits, schools, public agencies, and community and faith based groups throughout the country.’ Because Americorps provides government money to help staff nonprofit organizations, it provided the opportunity for my husband and me to move to our historic Appalachian homestead. AmeriCorps has provided us with jobs in a region where it would have been difficult for us to find ones otherwise, so we are forever grateful for this wonderful program. If you have an idea about the sort of work you want to do but aren’t sure who would hire you to do it, check out AmeriCorps!

What to Expect:

There is a wide variety of AmeriCorps positions available. Anything from working in an urban school to doing trail maintenance in a National Forest is possible. Ian and I are living in the mountains; working for a rural community organization and helping in the local schools, but we have friends also serving with Americorps that are aiding at the Cincinnati Zoo, helping to repair storm-damaged homes out West, and starting farmer’s markets in low income communities. The sky’s the limit!

The time commitment also varies. Some positions are year long and average 40 hours a week, while others may be part time and for only a few months. Typically there is a required number of hours needed to officially complete a position and volunteer are responsible for keeping careful track of their hours.

The benefit of AmeriCorps includes a biweekly salary, student loan forbearance and the cancellation of any interest accrued on your student loans during your time of service. If you complete the required number of hours for your position you are awarded an education grant that can be put towards outstanding student loans or towards farther education.

Some, but not all, AmeriCorps opportunities provide housing. Ian and I are able to live in the Knob house because maintaining it is considered part of our AmeriCorps duties.

Applications are accepted year round but popular positions fill up fast, so browse the AmeriCorps job opportunities page regularly for new open positions. 

I hope this post encourages you to think creatively about ways you can change your own life to live in a place you've dreamed of visiting. Taking any of these jobs or volunteer opportunities will be an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with two nuns and help to run a sustainable homestead mountain-ridge retreat and ecology center that resides on a 500-acre land trust. You can find her at her personal blog Living Echo and Instagram. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Biosludge Marker 

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in late October 2014. My husband and I were enjoying a soft shell crab sandwich at the Blue Crab Festival in West Point, Va., just a few miles from our home.  Local arts and crafts were on the display, the Main Street was filled with people, cotton candy carts, draft beer stands, merry-go-round, the usual.

A lady with the Sierra Club baseball hat and a handful of flyers came over and asked if we know about the problem with biosolids.

“Biosolids?” we both asked in unison. “What’s that?”

“It’s a municipal sewage sludge and industrial waste that is applied to the farmland as a fertilizer.  A company called Synagro applied for a permit to spread industrial waste on 17,000 acres in our area over the next 10 years. This practice is mostly unmonitored and the permit is very likely to be granted,” she answered, frowning.

“WHAT?!” we screamed, in unison again, and looked at each other in horror. This woman is crazy! This just can’t be!

Take the Red Pill

Do you remember the first Matrix movie, the scene where Neo is given a choice of blue or red pill? On that October day, together with a bite of a soft shell crab and a gulp of draft beer, we swallowed the red pill of biosolids. There is no going back. We had to face the reality and it is scary.

Well, that day seems now a lifetime ago. The lady was not crazy — we were uninformed. The “Sierra Club lady” turned out to be Tyla Matteson, the Chair of Marine Issues at the Virginia Chapter of Sierra Club.

Tyla has been a tireless opponent of land sludge applications. She attends City Hall meetings in central Virginia counties, and General Assembly sessions where new bills are introduced attempting to put on hold the agricultural use of sludge. Together with local residents, Tyla organizes meetings to inform the public of the dangers of this practice. And the public outcry and opposition are growing.

The History of Sludge

But let’s start from the beginning:

It all started in 1972 with the passing of Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. It is the only pollution law that explicitly requires consideration of land-based alternative disposal.

1972 was also the year that Congress passed the Clean Water Act, with major revisions in 1977, 1981 and 1987. Last revisions, in 1987, resulted in amendments directing the EPA to research and promulgate the land applications of sewage sludge. A year later in 1988, Congress passed the Ocean Dumping Ban Act, thus eliminating all but land disposal method of sludge.

The Act went into effect in 1992, also the year when the PR firm of Powell Tate was hired by the industry to devise a plan for gaining public acceptance of sewage sludge land disposal. And so the names “biosolids,” “industrial residuals,” “natural fertilizer,” and “organic nutrients” were invented.

EPA quietly removed the sewage sludge from the list of HAZMAT and in 1993, sewage sludge federal regulations were published in the Federal Register as the “Part 503 rule,” promulgated under the authority on the Clean Water Act, Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 503.

In 1986, Synagro Technologies Inc. was founded, a company currently operating in 34 states, specializing in agricultural disposal of sewage sludge and industrial waste. Or, to be politically correct, “biosolids and industrial residuals management.”

The company is ridden with lawsuits and bankruptcies. The most prominent case, the bribery scandal involving a Detroit councilwoman, prompted Synagro’s last wave of restructuring and buy-outs.

Regulatory Failure

The Part 503 rule is a set of federal guidelines for the oversight and monitoring of agricultural use of sludge. The science behind those rules is grossly outdated, based on 1970 understanding of environmental sciences, biology, toxicology and pathology.

The futility of these EPA guidelines to protect public health lays not only in the fact that the regulations include a very narrow scope of pollutants required to be monitored (just nine heavy metals and only two species of bacteria), but  they also don’t reflect  recent scientific findings. They regulate an infinitely small fraction of environmental pollutants, while ignoring a vast majority of dangerous components of sludge.

Sludge’s Threat to Public Health

What back then was considered safe, is now classified as carcinogen. In 1993, the phrase “endocrine disruptors” was not even invented yet! Endless lists of chemicals were then deemed safe: flame retardants, flocculent polymers, surfactants, pharmaceuticals, synthetic hormones, pesticides, and plasticizers.

Those pollutants are not broken down by the wastewater treatment processes. They are concentrated a million fold and then applied to agricultural land. They are sold to the public as “natural fertilizer.”

Applied to soil in public parks, school playgrounds, farms and forests, they create a risk of human exposure to an increasingly complex combination of dangerous chemical and biological agents. Over 500 synthetic organic chemicals are now reported in sludge. None are regulated.

It has been reported that surfactants are present in biosolids in high levels and degradation products are highly toxic. Pharmaceuticals are designed to work at very low concentrations.

As the level of complexity of pollutants rises, the synergistic effect of that complex mixture will have increasingly greater effects on human and animal health.

How to Go Forward?

Soil continues to receive high levels of municipal and industrial sludge and this practice continues to go virtually unmonitored. It’s happening in the agricultural areas where “Class B” biosolids are spread, and in the towns and cities all across the country where Class A biosolids  are used as a “natural fertilizer.”

It’s a major environmental disaster in the making and our society will pay a heavy price for those practices. Each and every one of us is at risk, and the exposure to the environmental pollutants in sludge will have a detrimental effect on the overall health of society and each of us individually.

There is a great need for a new approach to the dilemma and what to do with the inevitable byproduct of our consumer lifestyle – the sludge. Instead of “disposing” it, we will need to find new ways of repurposing it and employ new, emerging technologies to address the growing danger of biosolids land application.


Virginia Public Hearings

Video: Sewage Sludge on Our Farms

Video: Dr. Mercola Discusses Biosolids

Dr. Lewis Asks the Important Question: ‘Who Regulates the EPA?’”, (Aug. 27, 2015). The Oconee Enterprise on Focus for Health

Grens, Kerry. “Snyder, Sludge Fighter.” (Nov. 1, 2006). The Scientist.

Photo by Thomas Miller

Lidia Epp is active with a local group of residents concerned about the agricultural application of biosolids, a dangerous practice that devastates farmland. She corroborates with local activists, politicians and scientists to bring public awareness to this issue and advocates for changes in state and federal regulations of biosolids land use.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


"What they greatly thought, they nobly dared.”  - Homer, The Odyssey

Twenty years have come and gone, and thus I am moved to acknowledge and commemorate a great adventure for our earth and our era, and the telling of the true tale of that adventure as Odyssey of the 8th Fire.

The 8th Fire online saga tells the nonfiction story of a great, long prayer walk 20 years ago (1995-1996) from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The story and the teachings arise from the deepest roots of our land and it’s most ancient traditions of peace and environmental balance. But the unfolding of the saga takes place in the present and the future under the skysign of the Whirling Rainbow.

Sunbow Whirling Rainbow & my Sandpainting

In the tale, circles upon circles, spiritual elders make a great and generous giveaway of the teachings they carry for the people and for the earth we share.

As well as the true tale of our travels on foot across the continent, Odyssey of the 8th Fire is also the essential story of our meetings with dozens of traditional, learned elders of North America. They gifted us with messages to deliver.

Over the course of the long walk from sea to sea, I came to know Grandfather William Commanda of the Kitigan Zibi Algonquin Reserve in Maniwaki, Canada. A venerable keeper of specific earth traditions and understandings, Grandfather guided our multicultural walk of about 50 people of all nations and faiths. He told us of dying trees and poisoned waters. He spoke of strange sicknesses arising and deranged people rampant with weapons and chaos. He told us how his forbears had foreseen this, and how we human beings had a responsibility, and the capacity, to set thing back into balance on the land. That’s why the walk happened: to meet that responsibility and to let others know about it.

Grandfather William Commanda, Earth Keeper

Using his native language, Grandfather noted that we are living in an era when the Oshkibimadizeeg (a new people) are arising. They are human beings who are emerging from the clouds of illusion. They are remembering who they are and why they are here. They take care of the earth as they would care for their mother. They are walking and working in beauty.

Walking pilgrimage is a perennial spiritual tradition with historical roots that reach around the globe. In ancient times people set out on pilgrimage to do penance, to enhance their own spiritual growth, or to direct their prayers and sacrifices in support of someone, or some situation at home.

In our times, arising out of global necessity, pilgrimage has taken on a different character. Pilgrims often journey now to direct their thoughts, energy and spirits in support of the earth. Such was the character of the 225-day walking pilgrimage for the Earth at the core of Odyssey of the 8th Fire.

In the telling of the tale, Odyssey of the 8th Fire sets out many of the essential wisdom traditions that have arisen and endured through over 20 millennia of life and civilization in the Americas.

I’m grateful that it was possible for me, with the invaluable help of my wife Elizabeth Wolf and hundreds of others, to spin out the words for this ambitious spiritual saga along the Beauty Way, and to make of it an online giveaway for the people and for the earth we share.

Journalist Steven McFadden is the author of 15 nonfiction books dealing with the land and our lives upon it. His most recent book is Awakening Community Intelligence: CSA Farms as 21st Century Cornerstones. Read all of Steven's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Black squirrel staying well-fed

This past week a friend asked me about a meme I re-posted on Facebook. The image included was a lovely painting of an earthly maiden wakening beneath the surface of the ground. The words proclaimed there were only a few days left until Imbolc—a Celtic celebration of the very first stirrings of springtime. My friend wanted to know more.

I gave her a short-versioned response. She was able to Google for more and found varied and plentiful information. What the Wheel of the Year (a sort of calendar for earth-loving folk) gives to me are sweet reminders of what I love about each part of the year.

Imbolc, at the beginning of February, marks the halfway point between winter and spring. In places with distinct seasons, this is the time we start shifting toward full-on growth—the first bulbs start to emerge, mammal bodies prepare for imminent birthing, and robins reappear.

My own imagination runs wild. I love the idea of there being so much unseen activity just beyond our reach. Seeds and bulbs beneath the soil snake to the surface, an adventurous nuzzle upward to test the air temperatures. Sap inside trees begins to return to the tips of branches, fueling flower and leaf buds. It’s easy for me to imagine fairies and earth maidens nurturing this life behind the scenes that we humings normally see. Just envisioning such changes makes me smile with anticipation.

In my physically real world, my gardening room starts bustling with plans for the coming year outdoors. I print my seed-starter sheets so that I can track germination and potting on dates. I gather other supplies, ready my seed trays and soil, and separate my seed packets in order of planting times. These activities serve to direct my excitement and energize me while helping to slowly move me away from the arting I’ve been doing during the late fall and winter.

One of my favorite things about celebrating by the Wheel is sharing the art that inspires me (like in the meme mentioned above). I also love how my own art reflects whatever part of year we are experiencing. I recently laughed after figuring out clues in a few pieces just completed. It’s fun to find the awakening reflected in my creations.

One piece nudged me for a month or so. I started working on a couple of its elements, then was able to carve out the time to put it all together and finish up. Turns out, in reflection, that the timing was perfect. My Bear Medicine Gourd was completed just as real bears are coming to the end of their hibernation period for the year.

Bear Medicine Gourd

Next came two goddess gournaments—Flora and Fauna. The first had her face appear a few weeks ago, then she whispered a need to me for flowers and leaves in her curled hair. Once she was completed, her sister demanded to follow. Fauna has seven animals peaking out from her much straighter hair, as if from nestled burrows. These sisters hinted at the emerging soon to follow outdoors.

When creating each of these pieces I was simply following an inner voice. I don’t pretend to know where this whisper comes from, I can only say that it is strongest and loudest when I actively listen. It often takes me onto different pathways and directions than I expect when I start working on a piece. Only in retrospect did I realize that these three pieces lined up perfectly with the shifting of the Wheel.

I am nearly always humored and enlivened when I find such alignment—and it happens all the time. In fact, at this point in my lifing I should expect the free-flow aligning since I so closely follow natural cycles, the weather, and energy flow. Still, I can’t help but enjoy the clicking into place of these puzzled pieces of surprise.

Though we recently enjoyed a few days in the mid- to upper fifties, I skipped doing even a few outdoor chores of preparation because I know my indoor arting hours are becoming more limited as the Wheel continues to turn. I’ll soon have my seedlings to contend with and more outdoor chores will become insistent. I have soil to turn, more rabbit and cat proof fences to erect, and I need to prep some of my beds for different crops than they previously held. Then there are those three pesky stumps in my reclaimed garden section that need to come out continuing to tap their little roots at me.

I am so grateful to be able to blend my time between the tangible arting of indoors with a more physical art of gardening. I continue to convert our garden from the plain expanse of lawn to a sculptured pathway that wanders by vignettes of interest. The best compliment my dear friend Henry paid me last year was that my garden was definitely looking Blythe (in other words, it was certainly reflecting my personality). That was high praise indeed. Here’s to each of us creating sacred space that shows who we are and what we love.

What are your favorite times of the year? Are there ways that you reflect the season changes in your personality? Are there particular activities that you repeat year after year? Does your garden reflect your tastes and that of those you love? Do you replicate the things you see elsewhere that speak to you? What can you do to more fully share who you are through your gardening?

Flora and Fauna Gournaments

Blythe Pelham is an artist that aims to enable others to find their grounding through energy work. She is in the midst of writing a cookbook and will occasionally share bits in her blogging here. She writes, gardens and cooks in Ohio. Find her online at Humings and Being Blythe, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Indian pipe

Parasite - the very word is enough to send shivers down the spine. It conjures images of blood-sucking leaches or worse, the chest burster scene from the movie Alien. We have a deep evolutionary disdain for organisms that make a living by living in or off of something else. However, I think it is due time to drop our preconceived notions of these organisms. Far from being antagonistic or detrimental, more and more we are discovering that parasites play important roles in the ecology of our planet. They can serve as indicators of ecosystem health and even promote biodiversity, something we are all scrambling to understand and preserve.

It is estimated that nearly 50% (give or take) of the lifeforms on this planet are parasites. The animal kingdom is full of them and, indeed, those are the ones we are most familiar with. However, there are plenty of parasitic plants out there as well, roughly 4,000 species actually. Some of these are subtly parasitic whereas others are so specialized that one would hardly recognize them as a plant without a bit of scrutiny. Parasitic plants are quite diverse, hailing from many different families. There is no way to generalize them all but I would like to give you an introduction to this group. At the end of this, I hope you walk away not only with a new sense of wonder for the botanical world, but also a greater appreciation for parasites as a whole.

The world of parasitic plants can roughly be broken down into two major categories - stem parasites and root parasites. As you can probably guess, this has to do with where their parasitism occurs. Stem parasites include some of the mistletoes (order Santalales) or dodder (Cuscuta spp.), which tap into their hosts tissues through their stems. The root parasites do all of their parasitizing under the soil. Their roots tap into the roots of the plants growing around them. All this is done using specialized structures called "houstoria."


There is another group of parasitic plants that do something entirely different. These are called the mycoheterotrophs. Plants like Indian pipe(Monotropa uniflora) and the coral root orchids (Corallorhiza spp.) fall under this category. These are not only some of my favorite types of plants, but they are also some of the strangest. Most of these plants have given up on the photosyntehtic lifestyle altogether. Instead, they cheat mycorrhizal fungi into forming a one-way partnership with their roots. The fungi gain nutrients from the photosynthetic plants they partner with and the mycoheterotrophs steal some of it. In a sense, these plants are indirect parasites on other plant species. 

We go a bit further with categorizing parasitic plants. In doing so, we have to take a closer look at how dependent the parasites are on their host. The least parasitic of the bunch are the facultative parasites. These plants can grow with or without a host, though they usually perform much better with. The yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) of Europe and Asia falls under this category. On the other end of the spectrum are the obligate parasites or those that require a host. These come in two different lifestyles. Hemiparasitic plants are only partially dependent on a host plant. They derive some water or nutrients while still photosynthesizing on there own. This group includes plants like the Indian paintbrushes (Castilleja spp.), many species of mistletoe, and the witchweeds (Striga spp.).

Even stranger are the holoparasitic plants. Plants in this category have gotten rid of photosynthesis altogether. Instead, they gain all of their nutrient and water needs from their hosts. Some members of this group would hardly be recognized as plants at first glance. One of the oddest holoparasites, Hydnora africana, looks like something out of the Super Mario franchise. Because of they don't need sun, many of these species spend most of their lives underground or in the deep shade of other plant species. They only become obvious when it is time to flower.

Rafflesia arnoldii

Some of these holoparasites have even gone as far as to give up most of their "body." Instead, they exist inside their host's vascular tissues as a network of threads resembling fungal hyphae. We only become aware of their existence when their flowers burst forth from their host. Oddly enough, the species that produces the largest single flower in the world lives in this way. Native to Sumatra, the corpse flower (Rafflesia arnoldii) parasitizes vines. When the timing is right, a large bulbous growth begins to grow from the vine. This growth gradually swells like some sort of tumor until it unfurls to reveal a flower 3 feet in diameter and weighing up to 24 pounds!

Throughout all of this you may be asking yourself "what are the costs to the host?" Certainly this is worth asking. In some cases, the hosts don't suffer terribly, in others, the host is slowly drained over time. However, this is a matter of perspective. Sure, individual plants are harmed but what are the effects on the ecosystem as a whole? Taking a holistic perspective on parasitic plants paints quite a picture indeed!

More and more we are realizing the profound effects parasitic plants have on the ecosystems in which they exist. They are often keystone species as well as ecosystem engineers. Because their numbers rely on the density of their hosts, they can have a stabilizing effect, not allowing certain species to become too prevalent. This in turn opens up space for other species. Parasitic plants also alter the way water and nutrients move through the environment, creating a patchwork of habitat for other species to colonize. Time and again research is showing that parasitic plants actually increase biodiversity where they are native. What's more, many of them offer food and habitat for other organisms such as birds and mammals.

Despite their importance parasitic plants are largely ignored or, even worse, flat out maligned. Sure, they can become crop pests, however, that has more to do with the unnatural ways we grow our food rather than the parasites themselves. We can't pick favorites when it comes to conservation. Provided they are native, parasites have their place in the ecology of ecosystems around the world. It is time for a fresh perspective on parasitic plants.

Rafflesia arnoldii image by Henrik Ishihara

Matt Candeias is a plant fanatic. His current research is focused on how plants respond to changes in their environment, which takes him to the southern Appalachian Mountains where ample topography and seemingly endless plant diversity offer a window into how and why plants grow where they do. He operates a daily blog and a weekly podcast, In Defense of Plants.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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