Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
By Cam Mather
When I spoke at the Queen’s University Commerce and Engineering Environmental Conference last spring I sat in on a talk by another speaker, who represented the mining industry. I believe his approach was to suggest that no one likes mining, but if you have a cell phone in your pocket, you are part of the problem. Of course he is right. I sit here at my computer surrounded by “stuff” that came out of the earth. Plastics made from oil, copper wires everywhere, aluminum in my laptop case, dozens of unpronounceable metals and things that make up the guts of the computer, glass in my windows and the nails that were used in the construction of this building that started as iron ore mined from the ground. The list is endless.
Even the pine that my office is paneled in came from the earth, but at least it came from the top few inches of the earth. The soil that it grew in is still there and if it’s anything like the soil around my place, when I cut a tree down there is always a bunch more ready to take its place.
I find I am getting increasingly uninterested in “things” that come from deep in the ground or are mined. That’s just about every product you see advertised. Maybe uninterested is too refined a word. I think grossed out is better. I’m really sick of being bombarded by ads for “stuff” that have been sucked out of the ground. Electronics in an endless and ever changing barrage, consumer goods from handbags to shoes, chemical hair colors, right up to cars. Ah cars. The ultimate consumer product made from tons of things dragged from the ground. I own a car, but I am so sick of the ads, the endless ads, the tire spinning, best fuel economy in its class, twisty highway driving ads. And really, that car skidding sideways through the city streets with no cars? Come on. When was the last time you drove around a city without another car in sight?
I am evolving and have come to love things that come from the soil. They are increasingly the only things that interest me. The bounty of our garden this summer was a work of art. I wish I’d taken the camera to take a photograph of the table at the vegetable stall last weekend. It was beautiful. The red tomatoes, the green peppers, the orange carrots, and the eggplant. Oh the eggplant! It was unbelievable, and everyone said so. Some people call eggplants “aubergines” because that is their deep rich purple color and without having in one in your hand it’s tough to describe. But everyone seemed to agree that everything looked fantastic. Whether I’m sorting and storing potatoes, or digging carrots for the root cellar, I’m at that stage where I just want to spend time around things that come from the soil. These are what give me joy.
This was confirmed again recently when I got a load of hay. My fantastic neighbor Alyce found an ad on Kijiji for some 10-year-old hay in a barn that was being offered for free. The person who placed the ad had recently bought a farm and wanted the old hay cleaned out of his barn. I borrowed Alyce and Ken’s big trailer and arranged to pick up a load. The owner of the hay had just moved here from Richmond Hill, which is a suburb of Toronto, a rapidly growing, auto centric, shopping mall bedroom community. It was great to meet him because he had that “just moved from the city enthusiasm” for his farmhouse and barn and rural property that is hard to contain.
I got home and I looked at this amazing load of hay and I had a real buzz on. I’m sure a lot of it was the endorphins. First I had to load it, which meant going from sitting at a computer in the early afternoon to sweating like a fiend for 30 minutes. And then there’s the drive home, which is a bit like an escaped con being chased by the cops in terms of the level of stress that I feel. Sure I took quiet back roads and I had tied the square bales as well as possible, but they were old bales with a mind of their own when it comes to staying in place. I spent the whole drive looking in my rearview mirror expecting to see half the load on the road behind me. And really, you’re not much of a country person if you haven’t spilled a load of hay on the road.
So I got home totally pumped with this load of hay. Square bales are excellent for me to use as mulch on plants to keep weeds down and moisture in, because they are movable and I can get them to where I want them much more easily than the big honkin’ round bales.
This hay came from the soil, and it used the energy of the sun through photosynthesis to grow and absorb carbon from the air and store it in its woody mass. It took some nitrogen from the air and used it to grow and it stored some of that nitrogen. And now when I use it to kill grass to make the garden bigger or to mulch plants, it’s going to take all that solar energy it stored and all that biomass and decompose into my soil to help build it up. And that brings me great joy. My sandy soil needs the amendments. In an area of the garden that I expanded this year I was marveling at how much the rotting hay is improving it, and adding “humus” as my father-in-law always called it. As I was raking and tilling it yesterday I was really excited to see the results of so many years of scrounging old hay and using it on my soil. Those pieces of hay that are breaking down are going to soak up water when it rains and roots from my plants are going to find those pockets of moisture during next year’s drought.
Michelle was laughing at me last night as I bounced off the walls regaling her with details of my hay retrieving exploits and there was a lot of eye rolling at my enthusiasm. Yes I did get excited about my new (old) truck, but that was because it was functional and I paid $4,000 for it. And I could use the truck to haul rotten hay bales. My good mood buzz over the hay was on a whole other level compared to the truck buzz. Plus the hay was free, so it didn’t even cost me anything. So it was a double whammy, wonderful soil amending biomass that someone else saw as waste they were going to burn, and it was free to boot. Best day ever at Sunflower Farm!
Our back porch is a mass of vegetables right now. Boxes of tomatoes and sweet potatoes. Baskets of corn that I’m drying for seed for next year. The back corner of the kitchen is filled with 20 wire mesh baskets of garlic that is the seed stock that I’ll soon be planting for next year’s crop. It’s all a bit of a disaster and quite messy and it’s absolutely my favorite way to see our kitchen. This is a farmhouse. Since 1888 this kitchen has housed and prepared the bounty the soil that surrounds it produces. And I’m continuing that tradition. It is a lot of work but it brings me absolute and complete joy. I do not want a Louis Vuitton travel bag. I do not want a 450 horsepower sideways skidding XL7000. I do not want a new smart phone with “8 Mega pixel camera and GPS.” I just want to be able to keep nurturing my soil and marveling at the beautiful produce that I am able to grow in it.