Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Animals III: The Unwanted

In the sort of imaginary world where candy canes grow on trees and financial crises caused by too much debt can be solved by adding even more debt, the only animals a backyard gardener would ever have to deal with would either be small livestock who keep the refrigerator full, or helpful critters from the surrounding ecology who come fluttering or slithering in on cue to pollinate plants, turn plant matter into compost, and generally make themselves useful to the garden and the gardener. Alas, we don’t live in such a world, and if you have a backyard garden, you’ll be dealing with plenty of other animals whose goal in life is to eat the food you grow before you can get to it.

Call them the Unwanted. If that sounds like the title of a second-rate Western, that’s not wholly inappropriate, because most American gardeners seem to think of them in terms borrowed from Hollywood cowboy flicks: your garden is the inevitable happy but helpless Western town, the animals we’re discussing are the black-hatted bandits, and you’re the gunslinger with the tin star on your shirt who stands there in the middle of Main Street waiting for the baddies to show up, with both hands hovering over the grips of your six-sprayers.

Popular though the image is, it’s not a useful approach to managing a garden ecosystem. The idea that you ought to control unwanted animals by squirting poisons all over everything may not be the dumbest notion in circulation these days, but it’s arguably pretty close; a healthy garden, remember, is one with a diverse population of living things in balance, and the toxic compounds too many gardeners like to spray all over everything are just as deadly to bees and other helpful creatures as they are to the ones you think you need to get rid of. Most of them aren’t exactly healthy for you, either, and dumping poisons on your own food supply is not generally considered to be a bright move.

For that matter, it’s not even an effective way to get rid of the critters you don’t want. It’s important to understand why this is the case, because it points up a crucial difference between the unhelpfully mechanistic approach that governs so many activities in contemporary industrial society, on the one hand, and the ecological approach that ought to guide your work as a green wizard, on the other. Imagine, then, a big field full of a single crop, sprayed regularly with a chemical poison to keep some insect or other from dining on that crop. In ecological terms, what do you have?

What you have is a perfect environment for any insect that can learn to live with the chemical poison. That insect is looking at an abundant food supply, helpfully guarded by a chemical “predator” that will take out other insects who would otherwise compete for the same food supply. Offer evolution a chance like that, and it won’t be slow to take you up on the offer – which is why losses to insect pests for most crops in the US have risen to levels not far below those that were standard before chemical pesticides came on the market, even though most pesticides are being used at or above their maximum safe dosage per acre.

It doesn’t help any that nearly all chemical pesticides are single chemical compounds, each of which interferes with the biochemistry of its intended target in one and only one way. The fetish for chemical purity that runs through so much modern technology has many downsides, and this is one of them. Plants that have evolved chemical defenses against insect predators use as many as a couple of hundred substances that attack an insect’s biochemistry at many different points, an approach that makes it extremely difficult for ordinary random mutations in the insect population to work around them. Rely on a single compound with a single chemical pathway, though, and you make things easy for evolution; one mutation in the right place is all that’s needed, and sooner or later the luck of the draw will go in the insect’s favor.

The same bad habit, interestingly enough, lies behind the explosion of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in recent years. Any given antibiotic relies on a single effective substance with a single impact on the bacteria it’s supposed to combat; even the sort of antibiotic cocktail used so often nowadays has only two or three active ingredients. Compare that to St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), which is best known these days as an antidepressive but had a much bigger role in traditional Western herbal medicine as a medicine for wounds, and contains dozens of antibacterial compounds – hypericin, rottlerins, xanthones, procyanins, resins, oils, and more. It’s precisely this complexity that makes it impossible for microbes to evolve resistance to herbal treatments.

Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land used to take a wineskin, stuff it with St. John’s wort flowers, and fill the skin with olive oil; by the time they got to where the fighting was, the oil was blood red, and they used it to dress sword wounds to keep them from festering in the not exactly sterile conditions of a twelfth-century military camp. American laws being what they are, I would probably get in trouble for practicing medicine without a license if I encouraged you to consider herbal remedies such as St. John’s word for infection, or even recommended that you read such excellent books on the subject as Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Herbal Antibiotics, so of course I’ll do no such thing.

The same logic, though, can be applied with a good deal less risk of legal trouble to a backyard garden. Instead of trying to get rid of unwanted creatures in your garden by the simple-minded and easily circumvented approach of a single poison, you need to change the environment so that it no longer encourages the Unwanted to hang around. That isn’t as easy as squirting poison all over everything; it requires you to learn about the life cycle and environmental needs of each of the creatures you intend to discourage, and to figure out ways to deprive them of things they need, make your garden welcoming to things that eat them, irritate, annoy, and frustrate the living daylights out of them until they throw up their forelimbs in despair and go bother someone else.

Sometimes a few simple things will do the trick. One classic way to keep raccoons from eating your sweet corn before you get to it, for example, is to intercrop the corn with some vining plant that will twine all around the cornstalks. Raccoons hate unstable footing, and the tangled, sliding mess of vines you’ll get around your corn will often annoy them enough that they’ll settle for the contents of your neighbor’s garbage can instead. Combine that trick with other methods of making life annoying for raccoons – for example, raccoons detest baby powder, and this can be sprinkled liberally on corn ears and leaves to make them leave corn alone – and barriers of the sort raccoons can’t easily get past – for example, once the silks have turned brown and pollination is over, you can cover individual ears with old knee-high stockings held on with rubber bands, and – and the fellow in the bandit mask isn’t likely to bother your corn much.

Some insects, similarly, can be dealt with by the simple expedient of physically removing them. On a large farm this would be a herculean task, to be sure, but in a small intensive garden, it becomes workable. Japanese beetles, for example, can be handpicked off your vegetables; do it first thing in the morning, when they’re still groggy, and put a tarp on the ground under the vegetables to catch those that fall off. In effect, you become an additional predator of Japanese beetles, and put enough pressure on their population to keep it from getting out of control.

In much the same way, one very effective way to limit the number of slugs in your garden is to find the places they like to hide in the daytime and remove these, except for one nice convenient board left flat on the ground in the middle of the garden. Every day, go out and gather up all the slugs that have hidden under the board, and feed them to your chickens, who will be delighted by the treat. (Those gardeners who lack chickens can drop the slugs into a pail of salted water.) Do this regularly and you’ll keep the slug population of most gardens down to the point that damage to plants is minor at best.

Not all problems with the creatures who want to eat your vegetables, or for that matter your animals, can be solved that easily. Any gardener worth his or her salt has a couple of good books on pest control, and takes the time to learn as much as possible about the habits and weaknesses of insects, mammals and birds who have to be controlled if you’re going to get food out of your garden. A few good over-the-fence conversations with local gardeners can also clue you in to methods that have been evolved locally. A garden notebook, kept up to date with notes on what works and what doesn’t, is another valuable resource.

Perhaps the most important resource, though, is the awareness that in planting and tending a garden you’re working with an ecosystem, not running a machine. Machines require purity; ecosystems thrive on diversity, which is the opposite of purity. This means that you should have many different crops growing in your garden at any given time, and they should be intercropped rather than grown in nice neat blocks, so that an insect or a plant disease that gets started on one plant can’t simply hop to the next one. It means that you should be prepared to use a series of partial deterrents when something that likes to eat your vegetables gets out of balance with the system, rather than attempting a knockout blow that may just knock out something you need.

It also means that you need to accept that a certain number of your plants are going to get sampled by other living things, and concentrate on keeping that number within acceptable limits, rather than trying to drop it to zero. You may not want raccoons and slugs in your garden, but they play necessary roles in the wider ecosystem, and as a green wizard – rather than a poison-toting sprayslinger – your job is to learn to work with that wider system in ways that work for all concerned.


Two excellent books on keeping your vegetables safe from your rivals are Rhonda Massingham Hart’s Bugs, Slugs, and Other Thugs and Helen and John Philbrick’s The Bug Book. Most organic gardening books also contain useful hints on keeping the Unwanted at bay, while books on raising small livestock such as chickens and rabbits almost always discuss ways to keep predators from dining on your animals before you do.


Even archdruids need to take vacations now and then, and the pressures of my other writing projects have made something of the sort a good idea just now. As a result, I’ll be taking next week and the month of October off from The Archdruid Report; expect my next post – on another dimension of the Green Wizards project – the first week in November. Until then, enjoy the harvest season, and keep on with your studies!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Animals II: Chickens, Rabbits and Fish

When people think about animals in the context of rural homesteading or backyard gardening, odds are the earthworms and bumblebees discussed in last week’s post won’t be the first thing that comes to mind. The reason for this is simple: they simply aren’t tasty enough. I recall a book I read years ago with the winsome title Butterflies In My Stomach: The Role of Insects in Human Nutrition that made a strong case for dining on insects, but I confess to never having put its recommendations into practice; and as for earthworms, I’ll leave them to those with bolder palates than mine.

No, the animals most often contemplated in this context are those that provide food a bit more directly, and palatably, for our species. This isn’t an unreasonable habit of thinking. Though the earthworms, bumblebees, and other wild creatures that interact with a garden or a farm probably play a more important role overall in green wizardry, domesticated livestock of various kinds have a crucial place in the backyard food economy. Their task is to take biomass that human beings either can’t eat or don’t find very nourishing and turn it into more edible and more nourishing forms.

Now of course this is not the way modern industrial agriculture generally does things. I’ve commented before that if an evil genius set out to design the worst possible way of producing food, his most diabolical contrivances would have a hard time competing with the way we grow food in America today. The animals we raise for human food in this country come out of millions of years of evolution that has fitted them to eat foods that human beings don’t, and turn them into foodstuffs like those that human beings evolved to eat. Do we feed them their proper foods by putting cows out to pasture, say, or letting chickens scratch for insects and vegetable scraps? Of course not.

Instead, we feed them on grains that could just as well be food for human beings, laced with chemicals and drugs, and “enriched” as often as not with the ground-up bodies of other animals that have been discarded as unfit for human consumption. We do this, mind you, in vast energy-wasting warehouse facilities so overcrowded and poorly managed that the manure, which would otherwise be a valuable resource for improving soil fertility, becomes a massive problem – and of course nobody would think of dealing with that problem by any means as sensible as industrial-scale composting. Meanwhile the meat, milk, eggs, and other products of this system are a sickly parody of the equivalents that can be gotten from healthy animals fed their natural foods in sanitary and humane conditions.

Plenty of people who object to the appalling conditions and ecological cost of factory farming have responded by swearing off animal foods altogether. This is certainly a choice, but it’s far from the only option, and some of the arguments that have been marshalled in defense of it simply won’t hold water. Those of my readers who find that a vegetarian or vegan diet suits them should certainly feel free to continue their herbivorous ways, but not everyone finds such diets appropriate to their needs, and those who find a place for animal products on their dinner tables are part of a long hominid tradition; our australopithecine ancestors ate meat, as indeed chimpanzees do today, and it may be worth noting that no surviving or recorded preindustrial culture anywhere on Earth has had a traditional diet that does entirely without animal products.

It’s important to remember, also, that there’s a middle ground between eating the products of industrial factory farming, on the one hand, and abandoning animal foods altogether. One way to pursue that middle ground is to buy animal products from local organic ranchers and growers whose operations are open to visits by consumers. Another, though, involves a glance back toward the household economies of an earlier time, when a henhouse in the back garden was as much a part of most urban households as a stove in the kitchen and a roof overhead.

Like food plant growing, in fact, animal raising can be done in one of two ways, extensive or intensive. The extensive approach, in preindustrial societies, is called pastoralism, and was the foundation of one of the two great human ecologies to evolve out of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around the end of the last ice age. Where the early agriculturalists set themselves to domesticate plants they once gathered from the wild, the early pastoralists set themselves to domesticate animals they once hunted. Both new human ecologies had their growing pains and their catastrophic failures, but both worked out most of the bugs, and will be as viable after industrialism as they were before it. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion, for example, that the Great Plains four or five centuries from now will be inhabited by pastoral nomads whose raids against the agrarian towns of the Mississippi-Ohio basin will impose the same ragged heartbeat on the history of the future as their equivalents on the central Asian plains did for so many centuries in the past.

The cattle herds and nomad raiders of 25th-century Nebraska are a bit too far off for present purposes, though, and the closest modern equivalents are out of reach for anyone who doesn’t have enough acreage for the cattle and horses that will define those nomads’ lives. This is where the intensive approach comes in. Just as backyard gardens can produce a significant harvest of vegetables when worked intensively, a backyard henhouse or rabbit hutch can produce a steady supply of animal foods when handled in the same efficient and intensive way. This does not mean putting the animals in some small-scale equivalent of a factory farming operation; rather, it calls for a comfortable shelter and space adequate to the needs of the number of animals you have, along with ample food and clean water, provided by your efforts rather than the less generous habits of nature.

Hens and rabbits are not the only animals that can be raised this way, but for people who don’t have enough real estate to set aside a good-sized piece of pasture, they are among the best. Both can be kept comfortable and healthy in a relatively small space, thrive on an inexpensive diet, and produce abundantly and reliably if treated well. Hens are particularly good for those with tender feelings toward animals; you don’t have to kill them to be nourished by them, since half a dozen hens will keep a couple of humans amply supplied with eggs for most of the year. Rabbits don’t have that advantage, and neither do chickens raised for meat; most people I know who raise either one respond to the hard necessity of slaughtering by doing their level best to see to it that their animals have only one bad day in their lives.

To be healthy and productive, hens and rabbits need comfortable, well-ventilated, rainproof and clean housing, well enough insulated to keep off summer heat and winter cold. They need food, and in any sort of intensive setting they won’t be able to forage for themselves; you’ll need to keep the feeder stocked, whether it’s with food you grow yourself or with something from a local grower or a feed store. They need water, and they need to have their manure hauled away, though admittedly they repay this last bit of regular effort by providing some of the world’s best raw material for compost. (Animals concentrate nutrients, and a regular dose of chicken or rabbit manure mixed into your kitchen and garden waste in the compost bin will speed the composting process and boost your soil’s fertility dramatically.) Animals also need various kinds of incidental care at every stage of their life cycle from birth to stew pot.

What this means, ultimately, is that if you choose to raise small hens or rabbits, you or someone you trust will have to be there for them every day of the week, every week of the year. Other animals have other needs, but for all practical purposes, all of them require daily care. The precise requirements are too complex to cover in detail here; they can be learned from the many books available on the subject of each animal, and if at all possible supplemented by useful advice from someone who has actually raised the animals in question.

What are some of the other options for small-scale animal raising? Pigeons have been raised for many centuries on a backyard scale; if you have a little more room, ducks, geese, turkeys, and guinea fowl can all be raised successfully. On the larger scale, too, goats and small pigs are good options; the Vietnamese potbellied pigs that were briefly fashionable as pets in America, for example, have gone on to become a staple of small-scale pork raising. There are more exotic options that can be found with a little searching. Perhaps the most intriguing of the alternatives, though, are fish.

Microscale aquaculture was a central focus of the New Alchemy Institute, one of the most innovative and inspiring of the appropriate technology groups back in the heyday of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Tilapia, one of the more popular farmed fish these days, was one of the Alchemists’ discoveries; their Arks, or integrated ecoshelters, included tanks for tilapia that provided water and fertilizer in the form of fish feces to greenhouse crops, as well as a steady harvest of fish. I’ve never worked with small-scale aquaculture and so have no practical knowledge to offer here, but the concept seems to have worked well in practice, and green wizards who are unfazed by the technical challenges could do worse than look through the papers of the Institute, which are available via several sites online, and start experimenting.

Whether finned, feathered, or furred, animals are a much greater challenge than vegetables. More biologically complex than plants, they are equally more fragile, and require a great deal more care; the same concentration of nutrients up the food chain that make them so delectable to human beings also make them equally prized by other predators, and the sort of hearty nip that most plants can shrug off without incident will put most animals at risk of infection or bleeding to death. Even among green wizards, they aren’t a suitable project for everyone, but those who decide that raising small livestock is a challenge they want to take up can contribute mightily to the larders of their households and, on a broader scale, to the resilience of their families and communities in a world where factory farming will be no more than an unhappy memory.


The standard Seventies-era book on backyard livestock, found on the shelves of every back-to-the-land homesteader of the naked hippie era, was Jerome D. Belanger’s The Homesteader’s Guide to Raising Small Livestock, which covers goats, chickens, sheep, geese, rabbits, hogs, turkeys, guinea fowl, ducks, and pigeons, in no particular order. An overview rather than a detailed guide, it needs to be supplemented with specific books on whatever animal you decide to raise, but it provides a good first glance over the options and some very good pointers as well.

The books I relied on back in the day when I tended chickens and rabbits were Leonard S. Mercia’s Raising Poultry the Modern Way, Bob Bennett’s Raising Rabbits the Modern Way, and Ann Kanable’s Raising Rabbits. They remain good solid texts, though there are plenty of newer books on the market, and the backyard animals I didn’t raise also have a literature of your own. Your best bet is to find someone who currently raises the animal you have in mind and ask for suggestions; in most cases you’ll find yourself with a new friend, and plenty of good advice.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Animals I: Birds, Bats, and Bumblebees

I should probably send Rob Hopkins a thank you note. I’m not at all sure he meant to draw attention to the Green Wizards project just as the forum at went live, but that’s the way it turned out, and the results have gone past my most improbable hopes. Measures of forum activity I’d hoped to pass in six months have been shouldered aside in six days, and the forum staff are scrambling to deal with a far more lively online community than any of us expected this soon.

To all those who have participated in the Green Wizards forum so far, I certainly owe a hearty thanks, and to judge from comments fielded there and elsewhere, the best way to express it is to plunge onward into the next phase of green wizardry and start handing out more practical information. That’s the agenda for this week, certainly, and the subject under discussion ought to be dear to the hearts of prospective green wizards. By the time you’ve finished with this week’s work, you may not be able to call spirits from the vasty deep as Glendower claimed to do, but you’ll be able to call helpful critters from the surrounding ecosystems to help maintain the balance of your garden – and yes, to forestall Hotspur’s gibe, they will indeed come when you do call them, if you do it in the right way.

Let’s start with basic concepts. A garden is an ecosystem managed in such a way that human beings get to eat a significant fraction of the net primary production of the plants that grow there. Net primary production? That’s the amount of energy each year that the plants in a given ecosystem take in from the Sun and store in the form of sugars and other compounds that can be eaten by some other living thing. Everything other than plants in any ecosystem gets its fuel from the net primary production of that ecosystem, or of another ecosystem that feeds energy into it.

You’re not going to get anything close to a majority of the net primary production of your garden onto your dinner table, by the way, and it’s a mistake to try; if you do, you’ll starve other living things that depend on a share of net primary production to keep their own dinner tables stocked, and you need these other living things in order to have a healthy and productive garden. (Ignoring this latter point is one of the critical errors of today’s industrial agriculture.) Your goal instead is to make sure that as much of the net primary production diverted from your table as possible goes to living things that earn their keep by doing something for your benefit.

Here’s an example. A certain amount of each year’s net primary production from your garden goes to feed earthworms. Any gardener with the brains the gods gave geese won’t grudge them their share, because earthworms break down organic matter into forms plants can use, and they improve the texture and drainage of soil as they do it. Charles Darwin – yes, that Charles Darwin – wrote a brilliant and too often neglected book on the role of earthworms in the creation of topsoil; what he found, to drastically simplify a classic piece of ecological research, is that earthworms are topsoil-making machines, and the more you’ve got, the better your soil and the higher your crop yields will tend to be.

Now the logical conclusion to all this, at least according to the logic of modern industrial society, is that gardeners ought to run out and buy earthworms by the carload. As it happens, this is rarely a good idea. There are bound to be some earthworms in your soil, and since earthworms are hermaphroditic and fertile most of the time, there’s generally no shortage of baby earthworms starting out on their slimy and subterranean lives. The question, if you’ve got a worm shortage, is why so few of them grow up to become the big pink nightcrawlers that haunt fishermen’s dreams.

This is where another of the fundamental principles of ecology comes into play. Liebig’s law, named after the 19th century German agricultural botanist Justus von Liebig, has the interesting distinction of being at one and the same time one of the most consistently valid principles of ecology and one of the most consistently rejected concepts in modern economics. The short form of the law is that for any organism, whatever necessary resource is in shortest supply puts an upper bound on the carrying capacity of the environment for that organism.

To understand how this works, imagine a plant growing in your garden. That plant has a variety of needs – water, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, an assortment of trace elements, and so on. If the soil is short of any one of them, it doesn’t matter if all the others are abundant; the nutrient in short supply will determine how well that plant can grow in that garden. Readers familiar with the rhetoric of today’s economists will recall the claim that if humanity runs out of one resource, we can always replace it with another; this claim amounts to insisting that Liebig’s law doesn’t apply to human beings – though it’s a rare economist who knows enough about nature to recognize that.

There are good reasons to think that the economists who make this claim are dead wrong, but that’s a topic for another time. The point that needs making here is that all the living things in your garden are subject to Liebig’s law, and if you want more of some particular organism in your garden, the way to get it is to find out what the resource in shortest supply is, and provide it. With earthworms, most often, it’s the sheer amount of organic matter in the soil that’s the limiting factor, and the more organic matter you put into the soil – by hoeing in compost, using mulches, planting green manures, or what have you – the more infant earthworms will mature to massive pink nightcrawlerhood and get to work improving your garden soil.

The same rule governs all the other useful critters you might want to attract to your garden. Bats are an example too rarely considered by organic gardeners. Why so many people fear and dislike bats is beyond me; any animal that can eat its body weight in mosquitoes in a single night, after all, should be a welcome guest wherever it goes. Still, the benefits bats bring to the garden outweigh the simple pleasure of not being eaten alive by the insect world’s answer to Count Dracula. Many of the grubs that cause serious damage to food crops – the corn borer, the apple maggot, and more – are the larva of night-flying moths, and night-flying moths are prime bat food.

The limiting resource for bats, nearly always, is daytime shelter during the non-hibernating months, and so one very easy way to bring bats to your garden is to build or buy a bat house and set it in an appropriate place. Both the house and its placement require a certain degree of care – bats, like nearly all other animals, are particular about their homes – but their preferences are well known and the resources given at the end of this post will provide you with the information you need.

Get a proper bat house in place, and in most cases you can count on a crew of bats finding it and taking up residence in a fairly short time, and thereafter any problems you may be having with moth larvae will become a good deal less severe. You’ll also be doing a good turn for the bats themselves; recently, a fungal disease called white nose syndrome has caused high death rates in many North American bats, and ensuring plenty of housing and habitat for the survivors will help bat populations survive the epidemic and recover quickly once it begins to pass off.

Birds are the day shift to bats’ night shift, and some varieties of birds are well worth attracting to your garden as well. Swallows, swifts, and martins – a closely related group of birds with tapering, pointed wings and a prodigious appetite for insects – are a classic example. Until the advent of chemical agriculture, farmers across North America went out of their way to encourage barn swallows to set up housekeeping in and around their farms, because swallows do exactly what their name suggests to a great many daytime insects that make life difficult for crops. Like bats and most species of birds, swallows and their relatives are particular about their homes; here, though, this is a double advantage, because homes well suited to swallows are uninviting to starlings and other birds that damage crops.

Another set of living things your garden needs is pollinators. The collapse of honeybee populations over much of the industrial world has been all over the news over the last few years, and for good reason. Without pollination by insects, many food crops don’t produce or reproduce, and honeybees have long been the primary pollinators of most commercially grown fruits and vegetables, with hives being trucked from farm to farm over hundreds of miles in season.

Exactly what is causing Colony Collapse Disorder is uncertain as yet, though some evidence points to a class of recently introduced pesticides – neonicotinoids such as imidacloprid – which are highly toxic to bees and can build up in a hive’s honey supply to lethal levels. Until the issue gets sorted out, making sure that your garden has backup pollinators in place is crucial. Domesticated honeybees are one option, but beekeeping is not a project for everyone; another, far less demanding option is to increase the population of local species of wild bees.

Spend some time outdoors watching flowering plants and you’ll quickly discover just how diverse a range of insects can play the pollination game. Many of them are bees of one kind or another, for there are thousands of kinds of bees, each with its own lifestyle and preferences. Very few of them have the complex social structure and hive life of the honeybee, and even fewer of them have a sting painful to human beings. Most are solitary, harmless, and short-lived, hatching in the spring and mating almost immediately, after which the males die and the females spend the rest of their lives laying eggs in burrows of one kind or another; each egg will hatch out the next spring as a bee of the next generation.

The orchard mason bee is one variety of solitary bee that has become a popular pollinator in some areas, especially where fruit trees are grown. The limiting factor for orchard mason bees is nesting sites for the females to lay their eggs, and this can be provided with a simple wooden block drilled with a lot of 5/16" holes. Nesting blocks for several other species with similar life patterns can also be made or bought; again, the resource section at the end of the post gives details.

Another common wild bee with a somewhat more complex life pattern is the familiar bumblebee, large and furry, that can be found visiting flowers through the summer months in most of North America. There are many species of bumblebees; all of them dwell in small underground hives which they build in abandoned burrows, and they have queens who live for several years and workers who live only one. The limiting factor in their case is not homes, but homes safe from predators such as field mice, who like to dig down into hives and eat the larvae.

The way to make Liebig’s law work in bumblebees’ favor is to take a small wooden box full of cotton wool, and with a short piece of old garden hose extending from a hole in the side maybe six inches. Bury the box in the ground in a secure, fairly dry place, so that the end of the hose just pokes out of the ground. Once a newly hatched queen finds it – which rarely takes more than a single spring – you’ll have a bumblebee hive full of pollinators who will do their duty for your garden and the wild plants around it as well.

All pollinators need something in flower to feed on for the entire period they are active, which for orchard mason bees extends from March to the end of May in most areas, and for bumblebees, depending on the species, can run from sometime in the late spring well into autumn. The absence of flowering plants can be a limiting factor for all kinds of bees, and if the area around your garden is short on flowers at some point in the season, a flowering shrub or two to fill in the gaps is a good investment. We have a buddleia in our front yard that serves as lunch counter for a dizzying array of daytime insects, including nearly a dozen species of wild bees; your local ecosystem will have appropriate shrubs that will fill the same role.

The same principle can be applied in many other ways. Just as you can encourage a species by figuring out what resource it needs is in shortest supply and providing that resource, in other words, you can limit an unwelcome species by figuring out its resource needs, and doing your best to make sure that one of those needs is as scarce as possible. As you work with your garden, and learn more about the complex ecosystem that an organic garden develops around it, pay attention to places where a little careful tinkering with variables can increase the population of something you want, and decrease the population of something you don’t want. It’s not so clumsy or random as a pesticide, as Obi-Wan might have put it: an elegant method of the more ecologically sane age toward which, willy-nilly, the pressures of the present are forcing us.


Net primary production and Liebig’s law are covered in most college textbooks of ecology, and if you’ve got one of those, it may be worth your while to read back through the sections discussing these two concepts.

For earthworms, Charles Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms remains the classic study, and readers who can handle the leisurely pace and extensive vocabulary of an earlier age of scientific writing shouldn’t miss it.

For bats, Merlin Tuttle’s America’s Neighborhood Bats is a good introduction, and Bat Conservation Interrnational provides extensive resources for bat house construction and other details of living around bats. For useful birds such as swallows, swifts, and martins, your local chapter of the Audubon Society can get you information about the species that are local to your area and their nesting requirements.

For bees, two books by Brian L. Griffin, The Orchard Mason Bee and Humblebee Bumblebee, are good primers with plenty of detailed information; they are written from a Pacific Northwest perspective, however, and some of their advice may need adjustment in different climates.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Green Wizardry: A Response to Rob Hopkins

Since the Green Wizards project got under way two months ago, I’ve wondered off and on whether it would field any sort of response from the Transition movement. Thus it was not exactly a huge surprise to read Rob Hopkins’ blog post on the subject yesterday. I admit that the tone of his response took me aback, and so did the number of misrepresentations that found their way into it; I have no objection to criticism – quite the contrary, an idea that can’t stand up to honest criticism isn’t worth having in the first place – but it might have been helpful if Hopkins had taken the time to be sure the ideas he was criticizing were ones I’ve actually proposed.

When I sat down to start this week’s post this morning, I considered going through his comments one by one and correcting the misrepresentations, but what would be the point? Those who are minded to take his statements at face value will doubtless do so anyway; those who are interested in checking the facts can find my views detailed at quite some length in the series of posts beginning June 30 of this year. Instead, I think it’s more useful just now to talk about the things Hopkins’ critique got right. Rob Hopkins is a smart guy, and even though he’s garbled a fair number of the details, his post raises useful points regarding some of the core issues I’ve tried to bring up in the Green Wizards posts.

The first of those is that one of the motivations behind the Green Wizards project is a recognition of the limitations of the Transition Towns project. I’ve discussed my concerns about that movement on several occasions on this blog, and don’t see any need to repeat those comments just now. The crucial point, though, is one that Hopkins himself cheerfully admits: that neither he nor anyone else in the movement can be sure that it will accomplish what it’s trying to accomplish.

That’s a bold statement, and one that’s worthy of respect. Still, it has implications I’m not sure Hopkins has followed as far as they deserve. If the difficult future ahead of us can’t be known well enough to tell in advance what strategies will best deal with it, in particular, it seems to me that it’s a serious mistake to put all our eggs in one basket, whether it’s the one labeled "Transition" or any other.

This is the underlying strategy that guides the Green Wizards project. I’ve argued here that the best approach to an unpredictable future is dissensus: that is, the deliberate avoidance of consensus and the encouragement of divergent approaches to the problems we face. The Green Wizards project is one such divergent approach. It tries to address a broad range of possible futures with a flexible set of tools, but there are no guarantees; it’s entirely possible that the project will fail, or that the future will turn out to be so different from my expectations that it could never have succeeded at all.

That last comment could be said just as accurately of the Transition approach, and of course that’s exactly the point. Neither project offers an answer to all the challenges the future might dump on us, and neither one is guaranteed to work. This is why I’ve tried to craft the Green Wizards project to fill in some of the gaps the Transition Town movement fails to address. Does that make the two projects mutually exclusive? Not at all; it could as easily be argued that they’re complementary – though it also needs to be remembered that the two projects taken together don’t cover all the possibilities, either. Other projects will be needed to do that, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get them.

This leads to the second point that Rob Hopkins got absolutely right, which is that the Green Wizard project isn’t a solution to every problem the future has in store for us. I’m not at all sure where Hopkins got the idea that the project is predicated on an imminent fast collapse, which is very nearly the opposite of my views – the most popular of my peak oil books so far isn’t titled The Short Descent, you know – but he’s quite right to say that I consider peak oil, and more generally the impact of fossil fuel and resource depletion on an economy and society that depends on limitless growth, to be the core driving force of the next century or so of social crisis and disintegration. (The main impacts of anthropogenic climate change, according to most climatologists, will come further down the line.) That’s what the Green Wizard project is intended to address, and criticizing it for not trying to do what it’s not intended to do is a bit like criticizing a hammer because it’s not a very good saw.

The Seventies-era appropriate technology that’s at the core of the project, for that matter, is only one of many options that could be used within the strategy I’m proposing. I chose that option partly because it’s something I happen to know well, having worked with it for thirty years now; partly because it evolved to deal with the consequences of energy shortages in a time of economic turmoil, and that promises to be a fair description of the decades just ahead of us; and partly because I’ve discovered that a great deal of what was learned back in the days of the appropriate tech movement never got handed down to the people in today’s peak oil scene.

I’ve also found that a great many people who are worried about peak oil take to the old appropriate tech material like a duck to water, once they learn about it, and are refreshingly likely to do something practical with it. One of the challenges most of us who speak publicly about peak oil face all the time is the honest question, "Yes, but what can I do about it?" Hopkins has offered his answer to that question, and it’s an answer that’s clearly satisfactory to many people, but it’s not suited to everybody.

The birth of the Green Wizard project itself came about as a result of that last fact. The project started with a post here that tentatively suggested the archetype of the wizard, and the toolkit of the old appropriate tech movement, as the starting points for an option worth exploring as we move deeper into the Age of Limits. That post fielded more comments and email than any other Archdruid Report post has ever gotten, and a very large number of the responses amounted to "This is what I’ve been looking for." Many of the people who responded in that way have gone on to begin saving energy, planting gardens, and doing other admirably practical steps. Should I have closed that door in their faces, and insisted that they had to embrace the Transition agenda or do nothing at all? I trust not.

This leads in turn to the third point that Rob Hopkins got unquestionably right, which is that the Green Wizard project is not aimed at building resilient communities. That’s the core of the Transition Towns strategy, if I understand Hopkins’ writings correctly, and the Transition Towns program is certainly one way to go about trying to do that – though it’s not the only way, and not necessarily the best way in every case. What I’m not sure Hopkins has grasped is his strategy isn’t the only game in town.

To begin with, as I’ve just mentioned, there are plenty of people who are interested in doing something about the challenges of the future, but for whom the Transition program is not a viable option. There are people, quite a few of them, who live in communities full of rock-ribbed conservatives who believe that global warming is a hoax manufactured by the Democratic Party and that we’d have all the oil we need if the government allowed unrestricted drilling, and as many who live in communities full of liberals who believe just as firmly that their SUV lifestyles can run just as well on wind farms or algal biodiesel as on fossil fuels. There are people who, for one reason or another, are not suited to the work of community organizing, and others who have been there, done that, and would sooner gnaw a rat’s pancreas than sit through another round of long meetings in order to produce another round of elaborate plans that everyone involved knows will never be anything more than ink on paper. Insisting that such people ought to follow the Transition program anyway is not going to have any useful result.

Yet there’s another issue I don’t think Hopkins has addressed, and it comes right back to his cheerful admission that there’s no guarantee the Transition program can do what it’s supposed to do. The Transition program assumes that the best way to deal with the impending crises of the future is to organize for resilience on a community level, and it also assumes that the best way to do this is to produce a discreetly managed consensus within individual communities, turn that consensus into a plan, and then act on the plan. Neither of those assumptions is a certainty, and there are reasons – some of which I’ve discussed in this blog – why strategies based on them may be doomed to fail.

This point deserves making in the clearest possible terms. It’s pure speculation, however appealing the speculation might be, that communities are the best option, or even a workable option, for building the sort of resilience Hopkins has in mind. Even if he’s right, it may no longer be possible to build communities that are resilient in any meaningful sense, in the face of the troubles bearing down on us at this point. Even if it is still possible to do so, the methods the Transition movement proposes may not be a viable way of doing it. Based on his public writings, I believe Hopkins would agree with these statements. That being the case, though, we’re back to the point I made earlier: in the face of an unpredictable future, it’s wise to explore more than one possible response.

The Green Wizards project is an attempt to create one of these alternative responses. As I’ve already suggested, it’s partly inspired by an attempt to fill in some of the gaps left open by the Transition program, and so it should come as no surprise that it differs from the Transition program in a great many respects. It doesn’t claim to be a solution to every problem the future might throw our way, and so it’s pretty much guaranteed that there will be things the Transition program covers that the Green Wizard project does not, and vice versa. It doesn’t focus on the creation of resilient communities, but instead of criticizing it for that reason, Hopkins could as well have said that Transition already has that covered, and alternative projects could use their time more wisely by tackling other issues Transition is not well positioned to address – which, again, is what the Green Wizard project is trying to do.

That this wasn’t his response troubles me. That’s not because I think Hopkins ought to accept all the presuppositions behind the Green Wizards project – if he did that, presumably he’d have launched some project like it, instead of the one he did in fact launch – or because I think the Green Wizards project shouldn’t be criticized. As I mentioned toward the beginning of this essay, any idea worth having is worth critiquing, and the skill of learning even from harsh criticism is essential to projects of the kind Hopkins and I are pursuing, each in his own way. Equally, when criticism misses or misunderstands its target, it can be useful to point out where this has happened, and try to clarify the issues under debate. Still, there’s a line of some importance between such responses and the kind of defensive stance that treats any critique as an assault to be repelled, and any alternative project as a potential rival to be quashed.

I don’t think that Hopkins and the Transition movement have crossed that line yet, and I trust they will recognize the risks and stay well back from it. Still, it worries me that recent responses on the part of Hopkins and other people in the Transition movement to criticism have begun to display traces of the defensiveness and the spirit of rivalry to be found beyond that line. I’m thinking particularly of the responses fielded by Alex Steffens’ critique of the Transition movement on his Worldchanging blog. I’m by no means a fan of Steffens, but he raised points that deserve more attention, and a more substantive and less dismissive response, than I feel they received.

Ultimately, though, the way people in the Transition movement choose to respond to its critics is their choice, not mine. Meanwhile, the Green Wizard project is moving ahead. I’m pleased to announce that after many requests from participants in the project, an online forum for aspiring green wizards is live at; a tip of the wizard’s hat to Teresa Hardy and Cathy McGuire for the hard work that made this happen.

I’m by no means sure what the next steps forward will be. This project is barely two months old, and has already expanded and developed in ways that I never anticipated; for the foreseeable future, at least, improvisation is the order of the day. Still, aspiring green wizards and more casual readers alike can expect another exploration of the practical options ahead of us in next week’s Archdruid Report post.