• Edible landscape likely to become a U.S. paradigm
     | March 16,2008

    When a bus or train ride takes only a little longer time than driving, my extra productivity on public transit more than makes up for the longer travel time. Earlier this month, however, my ongoing experiment in traveling without my private car dragged a potential two-day trip out over three days, pretty much wiping out productivity gains.

    I was slated to attend and give a talk at the Ecological Landscaping Association's annual conference in Springfield, Mass. Driving, I could have left home Thursday afternoon, participated in two keynote dinners and a full day of conference events, and arrived home not long after midnight Friday. Instead, I left my car at home and took the bus; the round trip lasted from late Thursday morning to early Saturday afternoon.

    As expected, the bus trip was productive. I made phone calls that required good note taking, read, napped some, and drafted the outline of this column and other writings. If I had driven, the travel time mostly would have been lost to radio listening and staring out the windshield. Still, I would have been home more than 12 hours earlier.

    Interestingly enough, the financial costs were almost the same for the two choices. Driving and leaving a day earlier, I would have saved the $109 cost of one night in the medium-fancy hotel the conference organizers put us up in. On the other hand, the bus tickets cost almost $100 less than the federal full-cost calculations for a round trip driving, at 50.5 cents per mile. All told, the bus plus extra night option cost only 5 percent more than driving. Besides, it gave me a chance to indulge in late-night cable TV, which we don't have at home. (The TV session did, admittedly, snuff out any remaining productivity dividends from the time on the bus.)

    The Ecological Landscaping Association is an organization of landscape professionals, individual gardeners and community groups whose work with the human landscape takes its cues from how natural systems work. When the ELA asked me to speak, I jumped at the chance. As University of Vermont professor John Todd put it in his keynote address at the conference, "This small but very yeasty community may be called upon in the not-too-distant future to provide the knowledge and the operating instructions for the rest of society, to make the transition from a petroleum era to an era in which the resources are scarce, and in some cases fought over, but where knowledge is rich and universal."

    My role at the conference was to describe the likely outlines of the "not-too-distant future" and explain to the members of the ELA why I think ecological landscaping skills will be valued, not just for the beauty they create, but also for the food they produce. It's a future in which being a localvore is more than a way to support the local economy, get to know your local farmers and enjoy good, fresh food. As oil becomes more scarce, eating from the local landscape may soon be the primary way for most of us to keep our bellies full.

    The CNN special "We Were Warned" dramatizes impending changes. It explores the consequences of a one-two punch to world oil production from a Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and a terrorist attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Together, these reduce oil availability by only 8 percent, yet gasoline and diesel ratchet up to $8 a gallon in a matter of weeks, and long-distance trucking virtually shuts down. The "We Were Warned" scenario compresses into a few months what is likely to happen over a decade or two as world oil production declines. And long-distance trucking is what brings us most of our food.

    Cuba experienced energy scarcity in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union's collapse cut off Cuba's subsidized oil imports. The average Cuban is said to have lost 20 pounds during the early years of this "special period," as they call it. To adapt, people trained as engineers and other professionals became farmers, and the urban landscape became a food-producing landscape. According to an urban garden coordinator Bill McKibben quotes in his book "Deep Economy," the urban gardens of Havana now produce 300,000 tons of food, nearly the city's entire vegetable supply.

    In our still energy-rich society, some people are already pioneering the transition to an edible landscape. The ELA conference began with a one-day seminar on creating edible landscapes, led by Massachusetts permaculturalists David Jacke and Jono Neiger. Jacke is co-author of the two-volume "Edible Forest Gardens," which describes how to make beautiful landscapes out of trees and bushes that produce food and nuts. Add a "forest floor" layer of edible perennials and annuals, and food production increases even more.

    Abundant food production requires healthy soils, and conference attendees had many approaches to keeping and building soil fertility. One of the vendors at the trade show produces seaweed-based fertilizers, which they have sold to golf courses for decades. Golf course turf managers are the gourmet chefs of lawn care products, keeping acres of grass friendly to the rolling of golf balls and the rambles of the golfers who chase them. Turf managers are ready to pay top dollar for fertilizers that work well, and the premium prices have financed the seaweed fertilizer company's research. According to the vendors, applying seaweed extract both improves plant health and increases the grass's efficiency in taking up nutrients from the soil. The vendors told me that they are now trying to reach a more agricultural market. In an energy-scarce world, golf courses are unlikely to remain a cash cow.

    One of the more intriguing approaches to building and maintaining soil fertility came from the ancient farmers of the Amazon. Those ancient farmers sent no representatives to the trade show, but Charles Mann, author of the best-selling "1491," described what archeologists have learned about their methods. Recent discoveries have added a significant footnote to the understanding of tropical soils that prevailed when I studied soils in college. Tropical soils, I learned then, are much older and more worn out than the soils of our climate. They don't hold nutrients well; almost all nutrients in a tropical rainforest are held within living and decaying plants. Consequently, slash-and-burn agriculture releases a lot of nutrients and produces good yields for one or a few years, but then the nutrients are leached from the soils, and yields drop.

    Mann showed pictures of tropical soils that were cultivated hundreds or thousands of years ago and are still full of nutrients and organic matter. Unlike typical yellow or red tropical soils, they are nearly as dark as recently manured garden soils in Vermont. Why are these soils different? They are full of finely ground charcoal powder. The charcoal helps hold nutrients and moisture, and it even promotes a different microbial community than that found in nearby, unimproved soils. Since charcoal is highly resistant to the microbes that rot organic matter, its beneficial effects persist for centuries or millennia.

    The members of the Ecological Landscaping Association are helping to spread both the latest research and ancient wisdom about how to make the human landscape thrive. I was glad to invest the fuel of a bus trip, and even the extra overnight, to learn from them.

    Correction: In my March 2 column, I wrote that the only locally produced clothing we had at home was a cap and scarf made out of the fur of our late Great Pyrenees dog. My wife pointed out that I had loaded up on warm Cabot socks at their annual factory sale in Northfield earlier this winter. I was probably wearing a pair while writing the column. My apologies to Cabot Hosiery Mills and all the workers there for the omission!

    Update: In a column last December, I wrote about how the attorney general and treasurer had put the brakes on the state's purchase of state-of-the art train sets – lighter cars with smaller engines – for the St. Albans to Brattleboro Amtrak route. The purchase would have allowed two trains a day on this popular route and saved operating costs. The Legislature had inserted apparently unprecedented language into the authorizing bill, making the sale contingent on the attorney general and treasurer being satisfied that the manufacturer could buy back the cars at 90 percent of cost after three years, if the state does not wish to keep the new trains. The attorney general and the treasurer were not completely confident that the manufacturer could do so, and the deal fell apart.

    Jim Masland, vice-chair of the House Transportation Committee, told me this week that the committee has found language to make the deal work, to the satisfaction of the attorney general and the treasurer. If you're interested in more frequent departures for Amtrak and lower operating costs, now is a good time to call your representative(s) and senators to let them know you support this purchase.

    Carl Etnier, director of Peak Oil Awareness, blogs at vtcommons.org/blog and hosts radio shows on WGDR, 91.1 FM Plainfield and WDEV 96.1 FM/550 AM, Waterbury. He can be reached at EnergyMattersVermont@yahoo.com.

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