Altered States & Perspective On Nature

Illustration by Ian Mackay

Matthew Hutson, who only recently came to my attention, has shared a story about a brief bit of inspired clarity in How I Started to See Trees as Smart that I find compelling. Not everyone can do what he has done to get this clarity, but isn’t that one of the great reasons to respect writers? If the subtitle triggers any bad memories you might have from your own experience with hallucinogens, try to get over it and read on. Reference to The Soul of an Octopus early on will calm any wobblies. The final paragraph, and especially the final sentence, are worth arriving at:

First, I took an acid trip. Then I asked scientists about the power of altered states.

A couple of decades ago, on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada, I was marching up a mountain solo under the influence of LSD. Halfway to the top, I took a break near a scrubby tree pushing up through the rocky soil. Gulping water and catching my breath, I admired both its beauty and its resilience. Its twisty, weathered branches had endured by wresting moisture and nutrients from seemingly unwelcoming terrain, solving a puzzle beyond my reckoning. Continue reading

Dendrochronology & Salvaged Wood

Salvaged wood first made an appearance in my life three decades ago while converting a barn into a house. Shaver Brothers made it possible to acquire “previously used” lumber to build ceiling beams, stairs and walls; install solid oak flooring and interior doors; a clawfoot tub; and otherwise complete a home with limited resources. Plus, we liked the idea of bringing new life to old things.

A cross-section of wood from a post-hurricane timber salvage operation in Nicaragua

My meager doctoral student stipend, supplemented by Amie’s salary from work producing home furnishings, meant that we needed to be creative in finding materials to build out a home. The pieces that Amie painted at work, akin to the one seen in the photo above (in our family room to this day, made by Amie and her co-workers at that time) was frequently salvaged wooden furniture.

And to this day salvaged timber like this piece of wood from Nicaragua (to the right), or the pillar at the entrance to our home (below left) provide highlights to our sense of home.

Decorative pillar from the one tree removed to build our home

So, by the time we met the artisans of Ceiba, we were longtime converts to the concept of salvage. And I am always on the lookout for more reasons to appreciate salvaged wood. My reading recommendation today is this article by Rivka Galchen titled Making New Climate Data from Old Timber, for reasons related to all that salvaged wood in our lives:

Illustration by Tyler Keeton Robbins

When an old building is demolished, its construction materials can reveal the secrets of the past.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Eastern Seaboard’s old-growth forests were cut down almost in their entirety. Today, trying to find a tree in this area that is more than two hundred years old is like looking for a button that you lost a few years back.But New York City—unlike the surrounding forests—is host to a great crowd of old wood. It’s just that it exists in the form of beams and joists within buildings. Continue reading

Still Life, Montenegro & Creative Explanation

Still life painted at The Faculty of Fine Arts in Cetinje, Montenegro

While working in Montenegro two decades ago I came across the painting in the photo above, which is in our dining room.

“Still Life With a Gilt Cup” painted in 1635 by Willem Claesz Heda, displayed in the grand central gallery of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In our travels over several decades I was on the lookout for a reasonably priced painting like the one to the right, featured in the article below. Soft, luscious, and full of items to wonder about, the style made classic by Dutch still life painters was my hoped for find. Instead, I found the one in Montenegro, which nods to traditional form but is stark.

Willem Kalf, “Still Life with a Chinese Bowl, Nautilus Cup and Other Objects,” 1662/Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

It seemed perfectly attuned to my personal experience of Montenegro at that moment. While not typical of the themes we cover in these pages, but continuing with our admiration for creative approaches to explanation, this piece by Jason Farago will make your Sunday if, like me, you have a thing for still life paintings and do not know exactly why. It is one of the longest explanatory multi-media articles we have ever linked to, but if you have the time it is as effective as any museum docent. Most importantly for me, it explains the tradition of lemons that wittingly or not, the Montenegran painter was adding to:

Willem Claesz Heda, “Still Life With a Broken Glass,” 1642/Rijksmuseum

A Messy Table, a Map of the World

It was a grand time, but the party’s over. Continue reading

Microfauna, Microbiota & Other Wonders Of Soil

When a plant root pushes into soil, it triggers an explosion of activity in billions of bacteria. Photograph: Liz McBurney/The Guardian

I used the word microflora in the title of a post I wrote 3+ years ago, and today I learned something that serves as a correction. I used that word to distinguish from the better known charisma of megafauna. But there is a better word I should have used in that title, so I am using it in the title of today’s post. The word microbiota has made a few fleeting appearances in our pages, buried in the text of scientific explanations. This editorial by George Monbiot got me to look up the word microflora and from now on I will avoid the misnomer:

The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing – and the key to our planet’s future

Don’t dismiss soil: its unknowable wonders could ensure the survival of our species

Beneath our feet is an ecosystem so astonishing that it tests the limits of our imagination. It’s as diverse as a rainforest or a coral reef. We depend on it for 99% of our food, yet we scarcely know it. Soil. Continue reading

First Drafts Of History

First reading of the day was this essay by a historian linked to once and referred to one time previously. And next up, the conscience of our generation compounds the idea, or rather pounds the idea home about who is writing the first draft of what will become our history, by defining reality as we see it today. I have listened to conversations with Daniel Yergin twice recently, and acknowledge being sucked into his expert definition of how to understand the fossil fuel world. I appreciate McKibben’s cold water on my face:

Who gets to define reality?

A search for the climate high ground

“Realism” is the high ground in politics—a high ground from which to rain down artillery fire on new ideas.

To wit, this week the New York Times profiled Canadian energy analyst Vaclav Smil, who—alongside others like Daniel Yergin—has long insisted that the transformation from fossil fuels to hydrocarbons must take a long time. Smil is a good writer and a smart historian; he’s documented the many-decades-long transitions from, say, wood to coal, and coal to oil as dominant energy sources. Continue reading

Sensory Loading, Overloading & Unloading

Sounds Wild and Broken by David George Haskell
In early August, 2007 we arrived in a leafy suburb on the north side of Atlanta. We had spent the previous year living on this island, where doors did not have locks and during the daytime the only man-made sounds tended to be those of fishing boats coming and going. At night on that island there were no noises other than nature’s, including small waves hitting the shores and in summertime the crickets. On the first night in Atlanta I opened the window to let in the night air, and the sound of the superhighway, a mile or so away, was distracting enough that I had to close the window to sleep. It’s not that I had not appreciated the quiet of the island, but I was surprised by how much I had adapted to it. The opening of this book review, for these reasons, resonates with my own experience:

Sounds Wild and Broken review – a moving paean to Earth’s fraying soundtrack

David George Haskell’s often wonderful book explores some of the lost frequencies of nature – heard clearly again during Covid’s initial human hush

Lockdown was, among other things, a sudden collective experiment in volume control. Sound waves from the regular rush-hour thrum of cities usually penetrate more than a kilometre below the Earth’s surface. Continue reading

Unexpectedly Amazing In Kerala

Shaji has a prized collection of more than 200 varieties of tubers. Photograph: Shaji NM

In our Kerala days we visited Wayanad many times, but I would remember if I had met Shaji. We would have sought his advice to expand on the agricultural initiatives at the properties we developed and managed.  Monika Mondal’s story ‘The tuber man of Kerala’ on a quest to champion India’s rare and indigenous crops brings back memories of unassuming neighbors doing unexpectedly amazing things:

Shaji NM has devoted his life to collecting and farming tubers such as yam, cassava and taro, and promoting them across the country

Shaji NM has spent the past two decades travelling across India to collect rare indigenous tubers. Photograph: Shaji NM

Known as “the tuber man of Kerala”, Shaji NM has travelled throughout India over the past two decades, sometimes inspecting bushes in tribal villages, at other times studying the ground of forests closer to home among the green hills of Wayanad in Kerala. His one purpose, and what earned him his title, is to collect rare indigenous varieties of tuber crops.

“People call me crazy, but it’s for the love of tubers that I do what I do,” says Shaji. “I have developed an emotional relationship with the tuber. When we did not have anything to eat, we had tubers.” Continue reading

Climate Policies To Cheer On

(Washington Post illustration; Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post; iStock)

I am heading to Ithaca tomorrow for family reasons, so the third item described in the story that follows is of particular interest. But every one of the items is worth reflecting on, in a news world without enough such stories. Our thanks to the Washington Post Staff who put this list together:

10 recent climate policies that could make a difference

Stories from the past six months that show what local and national policy change can look like

The most recent IPCC report makes it clear: There is no one silver bullet that can address global warming. Instead, nations, businesses, communities and individuals all have a role to play in helping to create a safer and more sustainable future. But without action from the world’s wealthiest countries, the nations and people who are least at fault for fueling climate change will be the ones who suffer the most, the scientists behind the report warn. Continue reading

Plant-based Diet Enhanced By The Sea

Seaweed ecologist Dr Sophie Steinhagen inspects the crop at the seafarm in the Koster archipelago in Sweden.

Three months into a beef-free diet, with no temptation to lapse, I am aware that other animal protein is so far a saving grace. When I switch entirely to alternative creatures such as crickets, and to plants including seaweed, I will know the transformation is complete.

Seaweed farming in Sweden could be a vital component of the shift away from eating meat for protein.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Guardian for Richard Orange’s reporting from Malmö on Sea-farmed supercrop: how seaweed could transform the way we live.

From high-protein food to plastics and fuel, Swedish scientists are attempting to tap the marine plant’s huge potential

Steinhagen inspects the tanks in her “seaweed kindergarten”.

You can just see the buoys of the seafarm,” Dr Sophie Steinhagen yells over the high whine of the boat as it approaches the small islands of Sweden’s Koster archipelago. The engine drops to a sputter, and Steinhagen heaves up a rope to reveal the harvest hanging beneath: strand after strand of sea lettuce, translucent and emerald green. Continue reading

Building Buildings With Wood

At a warehouse in Moelv, Norway, glulam—short for “glued laminated timber”—an engineered product in which pieces of lumber are bound together with water-resistant adhesives, is manufactured at industrial scale.

The re-emergence of building at large scale with wood has challenged my intuition in recent years. It is not only the carbon logic that needs explanation, but the structural engineering and fire-safety. In this article Rebecca Mead does the math, in elegant prose, and quite convincingly:

Transforming Trees Into Skyscrapers

In Scandinavia, ecologically minded architects are building towers with pillars of pine and spruce.

The timber for Mjøstårnet was harvested from the forests that blanket about a third of Norway’s landmass.

Brumunddal, a small municipality on the northeastern shore of Lake Mjøsa, in Norway, has for most of its history had little to recommend it to the passing visitor. There are no picturesque streets with cafés and boutiques, as there are in the ski resort of Lillehammer, some thirty miles to the north. Industrial buildings, mostly for the lumber industry, occupy the area closest to the lake, and the waterfront is cut off by a highway. Continue reading

Cold Brew Coffee, 2022

Cold brew coffee experimentation, April 2020

Two years ago, when the pandemic had shut down the airports in Costa Rica and we had no clue how long that would last, we wondered how the artisans and the farmers who supplied our recently opened Authentica shops would fare. We had to ask ourselves what we were going to do with the roughly 7,000 pounds of coffee beans we had contracted to buy from that year’s harvest. The most obvious move was to start roasting in the USA, so we could deliver to customers who had bought from us in Costa Rica and wanted to continue buying.

Cold brew coffee was a brief experiment at the time, but with sufficiently robust results to convince us that when travelers returned we would offer samples. The time has come.

Convivial Conservation

Click on this image to go to the page where the illustrative video about convivial conservation is embedded

New to me, but not new, is this pairing of words that have a magical ring to them when said together:

Convivial Conservation

Convivial (literally: ‘living with’) conservation offers a new and integrated approach to understanding and practicing environmental conservation. It is a Whole Earth vision that responds to the major ecological, social and political-economic challenges facing people and biodiversity in the 21st century

Click on the image above to watch a short video introducing the concept, and click to the right to read more about the book. Click here to read more about ongoing research on this topic. Anyone following our posts on this platform for the last decade+ will have seen a different pair of words frequently used–sometimes related to biodiversity and other times related to culture. Now that I have let this other word pairing have some space in my day, I expect to see the words more frequently in these pages.

Sometimes, You Just Have To Say…

Photo by Seth Inman taken in Kenya’s Samburu Game Reserve

… Show me a photo. When atrocities dominate the news, and threaten to overwhelm, I lean on old photographs taken by family members that offer a meditative opportunity. Recently I have found myself leaning on those that transport me to some natural phenomenon I have not myself witnessed. Recently, three years after his last work on the African continent, Seth was on a work assignment in Kenya and took the photo above. That has been my meditative escape mechanism recently, but today the Guardian’s occasional series offers some others, thanks to Joanna Ruck:

A monkey leaps in a pond during a hot summer day in Allahabad, India. Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty

For more pictures in the series, click either image.

Main image: A kingfisher bags a meal in Lincolnshire, UK. Photograph: Charlotte Graham/Rex/Shutterstock

Carbon, Sequestration & Hope

(Brandon Thibodeaux / The New York Times / Redux)

When I read about a promising new technology related to carbon sequestration, I am ambivalent based on the experience of many past false hopes. Carbon is a very large problem. Finding new methods of sequestration is a very challenging puzzle.

I track such developments every week by reading the newsletter that Bill McKibben posts on Substack. Most weeks I post something here from that, and do my best to balance the terrifying and enraging with the more hopeful news he occasionally shares there.

The only other newsletter I read regularly is Robinson Meyer’s newsletter for the Atlantic, called The Weekly Planet. Here is one of his worth reading for a bit of encouragement (when you click the hyperlink it will go to the current newsletter, which until April 20 is this one; after April 20 scroll to find this edition):

The Biggest Investment Ever in Sucking Carbon Out of the Sky

The world’s biggest tech companies are getting serious about carbon removal, the still-nascent technology wherein humanity can pull heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Yesterday, an alliance of prominent Silicon Valley companies—including Google, Meta, Shopify, and the payment company Stripe—announced that it is purchasing $925 million in carbon removal over the next eight years. In a world awash in overhyped corporate climate commitments, this is actually a big deal. Continue reading

A New Knife Worthy Of Our Attention

Knives are the oldest type of manufactured tool, and they’re still evolving. Karsten Moran for The New York Times

I last posted on the topic of knives earlier this year, partly because the onetime blacksmith apprentice in me felt compelled to salute the skillset, but mainly because the mission behind the knife-making in that case was worth promoting.

Otherwise, culinary utensils do not get much attention in our pages. Ceiba being the celebrated exception to that general rule–wooden culinary utensils, but no knives. Derrick Bryson Taylor offers us a good reason to revisit this neglect:

Knives are humanity’s oldest tool, dating back millions of years. A group of scientists in Maryland have produced a version made of hardened wood, which they say is sharper than steel.

More than 60 years ago in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Julia Child, one of America’s most emulated chefs, described the necessity of decent, reliable kitchen equipment. Continue reading

The Rights Of Man Versus The Rights Of Nature

For most of history, people saw themselves as dependent on their surroundings, and rivers and mountains had the last word. Illustration by Marion Fayolle

Florida is on my mind today. Yesterday I listened to some excellent reporting on this podcast episode and was surprised to learn that some consider the political climate in the state environmentally-friendly. Surprising because the entire reporting emphasized what sounded like anti-regulatory business-friendly fervor. And after reading this article by one of my favorite writers, I think the state will be on my mind for the indefinite future (late in the article she writes “Start taking Stone seriously and it’s hard to stop;” so far she is correct):

A Lake in Florida Suing to Protect Itself

Lake Mary Jane, in central Florida, could be harmed by development. A first-of-its-kind lawsuit asks whether nature should have legal rights.

Lake Mary Jane is shallow—twelve feet deep at most—but she’s well connected. She makes her home in central Florida, in an area that was once given over to wetlands. To the north, she is linked to a marsh, and to the west a canal ties her to Lake Hart. To the south, through more canals, Mary Jane feeds into a chain of lakes that run into Lake Kissimmee, which feeds into Lake Okeechobee. Were Lake Okeechobee not encircled by dikes, the water that flows through Mary Jane would keep pouring south until it glided across the Everglades and out to sea. Continue reading

When Diplomats Must Be Undiplomatic

Yesterday I posted about one of the easier topics among the many options I have to post about every day. Today, a topic increasingly frequent in my posts, but definitely not an easy one. So I look to one person to summarize our week-to-week progress or lack of it. As always, I recommend signing up for his newsletter:

The World’s Top Diplomat Has Had It Up to Here

The Secretary General of the UN models how to think about climate change

I can remember when some of us organized what may have been the planet’s first truly huge climate march, with 400,000 people descending on New York in 2014. Then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon came to walk with us for a few blocks, and it was considered remarkable: the world’s top diplomat had previously been too diplomatic to join in protests challenging the policies of his member nations. Continue reading

Coffee, Birds & Bees

Seedlings from coffee picked in early 2021

On a couple of acres of mountain land in Escazu, on property that once was part of a larger coffee farm, we have been preparing to plant a thousand or so coffee saplings, which will eventually become trees among trees. Above are the thriving seedlings from 2021 germination, and below the early stage of germination from this year’s pickings.

Germination of coffee picked in early 2022

Coffee culture has been a long time in the making, so the slow pace of the Organikos arc has not intimidated me. And yet, if I could speed it up, I would because of the variety of beneficiaries.

Today an article by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes on the website EcoWatch brings to my attention a team of researchers who I will pay more attention to. Some are here in Costa Rica, at CATIE; the others at University of Vermont. Their work makes me appreciate the value of getting on with this:

Birds and Bees Make Better Coffee, Study Finds

Birds and bees work together as pollinators. DansPhotoArt on flickr / Moment / Getty Images

For many people, one rich, pleasant smell signals the start of a new day more than any other: coffee. Different techniques have been used to get the best cup of the caffeine-rich liquid, from a French press to the pour-over method.

A unique new study has found that the secret to better coffee is really in control of the birds and the bees. Continue reading

Watching Whales, Hopefully Forever

An orca pod feeding. Iceland, one of the few countries that still hunts whales commercially plans to end the practice from 2024. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

Of all the dozens of times in our pages where whales are the central topic, there was once when Icelandic whaling was featured. And that story was about ending the practice of hunting these majestic animals. Today’s story–‘Meet us, don’t eat us’: Iceland turns from whale eaters to whale watchers–is the first time I have heard that travelers are the primary market for whale meat there. Strange, but true:

Reykjavik harbour. The small red boat on the right is an Elding whale-watching vessel. The blue one with a tall mast is a whaling boat. Photograph: Abby Young-Powell

The country’s plan to end commercial whaling is driven by falling demand but also a 15-year-long campaign aimed at their biggest consumers of whale meat – tourists

Onboard a small whale-watching boat making its way across the choppy waters of Faxaflói Bay, off the south-west coast of Iceland, a guide urges tourists not to eat whale meat. Continue reading