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The Trouble with Facebook Permaculture

Facebook Permaculture.

That’s my new term for the day. And it has really been bugging me.

The problem is that I’m guilty of it myself.

I need to say that at the onset. I don’t want to come across in a condescending way, because I do it.

I don’t think we really mean to, but it happens nonetheless.

We get excited about getting something done. We are proud of it. We want to tell people about it. So we do. We get on Facebook or Instagram or whatever social media, photo-sharing website/app we use, and we show the world the wonderful thing we have just accomplished.

We are happy when others “like” our post. We love the positive feedback.

Now, before I get too far, please don’t get me wrong… sharing our successes and accomplishments is important to do. In fact, we ought to do this.

I often think of the people in the mid-1960’s and 1970’s “back to the land” movement. They were one of the first groups of people who left the city to try and be self-sufficient. Most members of the previous generations knew how to be self-sufficient, because that was how they were raised. The earlier generations grew up with backyard gardens and chickens and a more self-reliant know-how and confidence. But by the 1960’s, at least in the United States, there was a gap in the transfer of this knowledge. The people who left the city and moved to the country didn’t have first-hand knowledge. They had to learn it or figure it out.

They may have had a few Foxfire books.

If they were lucky, and not too arrogant, they were befriended by a neighboring farmer or homesteader from a family that never left the homestead. They were fortunate if they had some early successes to build the confidence when tough times came… when a harvest was destroyed or an animal was lost.

Unfortunately, far too many of these “back to the landers” gave up. This whole “living off the land” thing was way too hard. It was all but impossible. So the “back to the landers” went back to the city. Defeated. Disillusioned. Depressed.

Today, we are incredibly fortunate to have the enormous wealth of knowledge found online. We can find how-to’s and problem-solving-solutions within minutes of when we need it. We can find success story after success story. We can find inspiration.

This next generation of “back to the landers”, of which I am one, are not giving up quite as quickly as before. I have no scientific data to support this claim. But I daily see success story after success story from people who are not giving up, not throwing in the towel, and not moving back to the city. It’s not that we are better in any way. I firmly believe that this generation of “back to the landers” are succeeding, in large part, due to the vast resources we have at our fingertips, which sadly the previous generation did not have. We run into roadblocks, and we can more easily find solutions and work-arounds. We are able to Google our way to success.

But this is only because we share those successes.

This is because we are getting on blogs and Facebook and Instagram and telling the world what we did and how we did it.

So for that I am immensely grateful.

But there is a down side to this story. And this is not only found in Permaculture or Homesteading or with the “back to the landers”. It is found throughout this entire generation of people who compare themselves to those they see on social media.

“Gosh,” they say, “Everyone is so successful with everything they do. What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I be so successful? I’ll never be able to ____  Maybe I should just stop trying. Maybe I should just quit.”

This is especially true in the Permaculture world.

We share photos of our huge harvests, of our beautiful pastures, of our new lambs or piglets or chicks.

But we don’t share struggles. We don’t share our failures. Some do. But most do not.

It is not malicious.

It’s just not fun. It’s not exciting. We are not proud of failing.

Our compost pile... that will be in the wrong place for over a year before we are finally done with it.

Our compost pile… that will be in the wrong place for over a year before we are finally done with it.

When all we do is share our success, we make it appear that failures are not common and are not part of the path toward success.

But I think it is important for us to be real.

So I’ll start…

  • We had a litter of piglets that were all stillborn.
  • We had another litter of four piglets, and only one survived.
  • We had a dump truck load of compost that is still sitting on the driveway. We used almost half of it, but we probably will have that pile sitting there for another 6 months… much to my wife’s chagrin.
  • We randomly had one of our ewes die. No idea why.
  • We had two of our pigs die. Not at the same time. But it happened, and we don’t know why.
  • We had a significant drought this Summer, and I lost close to half of the trees I planted a few months earlier.
  • I sliced my finger while breaking down chickens after processing, and I needed to give myself stitches.
  • We got our garden going too late this year, and we didn’t get a harvest from the broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels spouts. (You can see the photo at the top of the page… this was a quick harvest before the frost… all we got was cabbage, but none of the other crops had time to mature, because we got them going too late.)
  • We still have a section of perimeter fence down from a windblown tree, and I have yet to get it cleared and the fence repaired. And I’ve known about it for at least 6 months.
  • Our geese made multiple nests, laid eggs, and abandoned all of them.
  • We lost every single one of our 23 Guinea Fowl to an unknown night predator.

That’s all I can think of in about 30 seconds. But I am sure there is a whole lot more.

We have had a lot of bad and sad and frustrating things, but the good thing is that our successes have outweighed our failures and our delays. And that is really important.

But it is also important for people to see that this life is not always simple or easy or carefree.

I’m not planning on quitting and moving back to the city. Not at all!

But I am trying to keep it real.

 

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Birding with My Daughter

I officially went birding for the first time with my 5 year-old daughter. I personally love birding (see my previous article on The Benefits of Birding for Permaculturists). I am not naive enough to think her interest isn’t, in part, because she wants to “be like her daddy”. But she has been expressing a growing interest in birds that seems to be more than just trying to mimic me, and I definitely want to foster this.  At night, she reads through an old copy of my Sibley Guide to Birds before bed, so I do believe this is a real interest for her.
The "Beginning Birder Set" I put together this Christmas.

The “Beginning Birder Set” I put together this Christmas.

For Christmas this year, one of her gifts from me was a “Beginning Birder Set” I put together. It included a couple of birding books for kids and a kids pair of binoculars. She has been asking to go birding with me since Christmas, but due to my work schedule we had to put it off. Yesterday, while I was at work, she took her new binoculars and her backpack, filled it with snacks, a water bottle, and her new birding books, and went birding on her own around the house! Well, I was not working today, and so were finally able to go out together this morning. We only lasted about an hour with temperatures in the mid 30’s F, but we had a great time… more importantly, SHE had a good time!
She correctly ID’d a couple birds entirely on her own, and she was the first to spot quite a few birds as well. I had a blast watching her! One of my favorite parts was her asking, “When can we go birding again?!”
White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow (source: http://hughvandervoort.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/White-Throated-Sparrow-53.jpg)

Here is a list of the birds we spotted. Not too bad for a first birding foray:
  • American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
  • Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
  • Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
  • Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla)
  • Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) – photo at the top of this page. (Source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/content/dam/news/2016/10/17/northern-flicker-bird/01-northern-flicker.jpg)
  • Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
  • Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
  • Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
  • White-Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
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Don’t Wash Your Hands!

Almost 1 year ago, Tasha Sturm, a microbiology lab technician at Cabrillo College, posted the photo above. It is a bacterial culture of her 8-year-old son’s handprint. She had her son place his hand on a large petri-dish after he was playing outside, and this is what grew! Amazing!

This image has made the rounds on the internet over the last year. The reason I am writing about it today is that it has unfortunately (and almost unanimously) prompted the opposite of the correct response from the people who see it. This is entirely due to lack of information and understanding.

The average person’s reaction is some combination of the following: “Ewww! Gross! I need to wash my hands! I need to wash my kids’ hands! I need some more anti-bacterial soap! I’ll never let my kid outside!”

Now, let’s deal with reality. There are bacteria everywhere. EVERYWHERE! In the dirt. In the air. On our food. In our water. On our skin. In our body! In fact, we need bacteria to survive. Our intestines are filled with bacteria, and hopefully most of it is good bacteria. But you know what? Some of those bacteria on or in us, are bad bacteria… bacteria that could kill us. But do you know why it doesn’t? Because of the good bacteria. The good bacteria entirely outnumber our bad bacteria; they overwhelm them and out-compete them. They give our immune system a fighting chance to beat the bad bacteria. If we didn’t have the good bacteria, we would be dead.

Close-up of some of the bacteria colonies.

Close-up of some of the bacteria colonies.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the photo above. Do you know what kind of bacteria are present in this handprint? These likely include Bacillus species, Serratia species, Micrococcus species, Staphylococcus species, and yeast species. All of these microorganisms are normally found in the soil and/or in the water and/or on the skin.

Tasha Sturm stated in an interview, “We have a large number of bacteria that live ‘with us’ that are beneficial. Some aide in digestion, make vitamin K, etc. People who are healthy come in contact with millions of bacteria every day without adverse effect. Coming in contact with bacteria actually strengthens our immune system.”

She added, “Unless your kids have a health condition that requires you to be more vigilant let them have fun and get dirty; it’s what they need to develop a healthy immune system.”

So, how do we strike a balance between good hygiene and developing a healthy immune system? If you touch or may touch something that is known to contain unhealthy bacteria, then wash your hands. If you touch or may touch something that could spread disease or cause infections, then wash your hands. This includes washing your hands after using the bathroom, after touching a dead animal, and before eating. And teach your children to do the same. But seriously, let’s be wise in this and don’t go overboard. Touching an animal that has been dead for a week is different than touching a dead animal you butchered yourself (yes, this is a Permaculture/Homesteading website!).

Also, please use antibacterial soap very sparingly. We don’t want to kill all bacteria in our environment or on our bodies. As a physician, I need to use antibacterial soap on a regular basis in the Emergency Room, but at home, I just use regular soap. Again, I recommend balance.

Tasha Sturm concluded by saying, “As microbiologists, our job, especially in education, is to make the invisible world visible so it’s easier to understand. I think the image of the handprint was a graphic way to show others what’s out there and the beauty of microbiology. I think this image did just that.”

I agree!

 

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Making an Herbal Tea with Local Ingredients

All people have a specific set of taste preferences. This is a combination of genetic predispositions, culture, food and taste exposures, and likely many other factors. My oldest daughter (currently age 4) has a set of taste preferences closest to mine; we will pretty much eat anything. This will range from “common” American food to those foods that are more “acquired tastes” such as sushi to olives to sauerkraut to organ meat. She is the only one of my four children that will drink tea with me. Most mornings she will ask if we can have a “cuppa”.

I thought it would be fun to teach her how to make an herbal tea from ingredients we collected from our farm.

We went for a walk through our pastures, and we collected Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) flower buds, Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) flowers, Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) flower petals, petals from another species of wild rose with deep pink, double flowers but less fragrance than the Pasture Rose, and new leaves from Blackberry (Rubus species) plants.

BK_Herbal_Tea_02

All the ingredients mixed together.

All the green parts from the Red Clover and Honeysuckle flowers were removed. We saved all the petals from the Roses. Then we dropped it all into a glass bowl. Everything smelled wonderful and very fragrant.

We poured almost-boiling water over the whole mix and let it steep for somewhere between 12-15 minutes. I’ll be honest, this smelled rather vegetal, and not so good.

We then strained the tea into mugs. I tasted it, and it had a mild, pleasant flavor. We added some local honey and a little bit of cream, and this made a huge difference. The sweetness of the honey really highlighted to floral essence of this tea. My daughter and I both finished our mugs and decided we need to do this again soon!

 

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    Why I will not teach a PDC Course… well, not for a long time.

Why I will not teach a PDC Course… well, not for a long time.

I am a huge proponent of Permaculture. That will not change. But it doesn’t mean that I am a blind follower. I try to balance my absolute wonder with the natural world and the power of regenerative agriculture with my skeptical personality. Permaculture has its detractors and critics (it had them from the start, and it has had them all along), and while I feel that some of the critiques are justified, I do think it is up to us within Permaculture to honestly assess the criticism and to develop solutions (Holmgren’s Permaculture Principle Four: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback).

My latest thoughts have been on the topic of teaching Permaculture which is routinely done through the PDC Course. This foundational course has received its share of praise and attacks.

The Permaculture Design Certificate Course (also known as the PDC Course) is a 72-hour educational experience based upon Permaculture’s co-founder Bill Mollison’s 14-chapter textbook, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual. Bill Mollison initially set up this training program as a way to teach Permaculture around the world. There was no “official” governing body. One only had to take a course, based on the original material, and the graduate was issued a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). With a PDC in hand, a person could use the word “Permaculture” to promote themselves or their business for design services or implementation… or teaching. Yes, teaching. If a person has a PDC, they are able to, according to Bill Mollison’s original model, start teaching PDC Courses immediately. I believe Bill Mollison did this intentionally to prevent Permaculture from becoming institutionalized. It has kept Permaculture a true grass-roots effort.

However, this freedom from institutionalization, as with most anti-establishment ideas, has some issues. Here are a few of the problems I see with this model:

1. It allows people with no practical experience to give advice to others with no experience. Wrong information or techniques are promoted and propagated. This allows certain dogmas to be perpetuated without anyone ever asking if the information is correct. (For one example, see my article on Dynamic Accumulators.)

2. It allows teachers to include additional information and/or requirements to the PDC. This can be out of good intentions (usually) or malicious ones (rare, but very damaging). Those with good intentions will think they are helping, but in reality, they are adding unneeded information that strays from the brilliance of the original 72-hour course. Some will add course material in an attempt to influence the students toward a particular mindset, worldview, or social/political ideology. This is disgusting and manipulative at best.

3. It allows teachers to treat the PDC Course as a means to an end, i.e. they see dollar signs with every potential student. Individuals with dynamic people skills and an entrepreneurial spirit will capitalize on this. These are the network marketing type individuals… every person is a “mark”, and they will try to teach until the “well runs dry”. These individuals will either run out of work, put themselves out of work, or continually move to new locations for new targets. The reality is that it takes a lot of time and money to put on a quality PDC Course. If you are “doing it right”, teaching these courses are exhausting and not exactly lucrative. This is why bad teachers put on really poor PDC Courses; they want to make money without the work or attention to detail needed for a quality course.

4. It allows individuals to teach a PDC Course with no formal education or teaching experience. This is a sticky topic within Permaculture. There are those who feel the requirements to teach Permaculture should not be changed; if you have a PDC, then you can teach. The students will decide. Good teachers will rise to the top. Bad teachers will be out of a job. It is now even easier to separate the wheat from the chaff in our modern era of social networking and instant online feedback. However, there are others that feel there should be a governing body for Permaculture. (Ultimately, this debate drives to the real question of “Who is in charge of Permaculture?” I wrote an article about that very question, and you can read it here.) There are other organizations who have decided to fight these problems by creating institutions that provide credentials for those who wish to teach Permaculture. While I still don’t know what I think about this approach, I entirely understand their reasoning. I think they have good intentions, and it looks like they are off to a pretty good start.

Here is the text from one organization that has established teaching credentialing, the Permaculture Institute USA in Santa Fe, New Mexico:

At a minimum, any certificate course shall meet the following criteria:

– The lead instructor is an established Permaculture teacher with a Diploma in Education (beginning in 2015) or equal credentials . Lead instructor is present throughout the entire course and course certificate bears his/her signature.

– The course provides a minimum of 72 hours of direct contact with instructor(s), in addition to group design time, homework assignments, self-study time, hands-on projects, visits to demonstration sites and other learning activities. Courses shorter than 12 contact-days are generally not offering sufficient time for learning and should be evaluated by potential students for their validity.

– Course material is inclusive of, but not limited to, all subjects listed in the PDC Outline.

– Course includes at least one design project exercise or multiple design vignettes.

Currently, there is no unified oversight for the multitude of permaculture courses offered globally. We encourage prospective learners, if in doubt, to request course syllabus from the lead instructor and compare it against criteria listed above or contact us with further questions.

 I bolded and italicized the last sentence because it is so important! If every potential student did this, then I think the need for teacher credentialing would be nil.

 

Our farm

Our farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner, where I will be implementing my design and efforts.

With all this said, I know that I want to be part of the solutions, not the problems within Permaculture. I want to be clear that I have no issues with any particular teacher, nor do I have any issues with those who want to be teachers. That is just not for me at this point. I am not trying to be pious about this, but I know I will not teach a PDC Course for a long time. I have studied Permaculture for well over a decade. I have written many articles about Permaculture. If you read through my articles, you will see that I have worked hard to only share verifiable information. I am a physician and have a background in Biology and have participated in bench work research as well as literature search research. I am pretty good (not perfect!) at sorting through information, identifying the facts, and condensing it into a readable article. But I don’t feel I have enough on-the-ground experience to formally teach Permaculture yet. After moving every 2-4 years for the past 18 years, we have only just settled down on our own farmstead five month ago. How can I speak on the long-term application of Permaculture when I have yet to do it myself?

What I will do is continue to share my experiences. I will share my successes, and I will share my failures. I will be as transparent as possible. I will continually strive to keep Permaculture pertinent, relevant, reliable, and reputable. For that is what I feel Permaculture is. And I believe that is how we will positively move Permaculture forward.

 

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Photo References:

  • https://d3q6qq2zt8nhwv.cloudfront.net/351/large-icon.png
  • Our farm photos belong to us. Please ask if you would like to use them.

 

Throw Your Hat Over the Fence

I don’t really believe in good luck charms, but I’ve had a talisman for almost 30 years. It has been my secret weapon for accomplishments. I rarely shared about it in the past, because I never wanted its magic to wear off.

The secret is a story. And this has been the most influential story of my life. Up until today, I never knew it was inspirational to so many others as well.

When I was in the fifth grade, probably about age 10, I read a short story titled “Throw Your Hat Over the Fence.” It was about a boy who had to get to some particular place, but he was running late. He realized if he could climb a fence and cut through a field, he would have a significant shortcut, and he would make it on time. But the fence was tall, and he wasn’t sure he could do it. The boy takes off his hat, his favorite hat, and tosses it over the fence. Now he has to find a way over the fence. He committed himself to the task, and there was no backing out now.

Even at age 10, this story reverberated in my mind. I am so thankful I read it early in life. It never occurred to me that this story was taken from another source, but I didn’t really read footnotes or references back then. I was discussing this story with my wife the other day and decided to see if I could find it. I found a lot more than I was expecting.

The original story was penned by the Irish writer, Frank O’Conner, in his memoir, An Only Child. The author shares:

…how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall—and then they had no choice but to follow them. 

Apparently, this story made an impact on many others as well, including U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The following is a quote from when he was dedicating the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio on 21 November 1963. He was speaking about the United States’ commitment to space exploration despite the dangers and many unknown factors. He concluded his speech by saying:

This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome . . . we will climb this wall . . . and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.

It is a simple story with a profound meaning. I have held this story close to my heart, and I have used its wisdom many times.

Now there are times to take a step back and evaluate. There are times to wait until everything lines up before we proceed. However, all too often, this leads to never accomplishing anything. We are afflicted with analysis paralysis, and we never get anything done.

Then there are times that the commitment creates the solution.

I did this when I moved from Florida to Kentucky chasing after a girl. I had no job and only had one month’s rent. That girl is now my wife.

I did this when I turned down a paid job to instead start my own graphic design business. I was only 22 years old. I had never worked for myself before that day. That business was my sole income for five years.

I did this when I decided to go back to school to become a physician. I graduated from the Mayo Clinic and have practiced medicine on four continents.

I did this when we decided to live a more intentional, agrarian life. I grew up in the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We now own a farm and have cattle grazing the pastures.

I also think it is important to point out that I’ve not had success after success. I have had many events that others may call failures. I just choose not to look at them as such. They have each been learning experiences that have given me more knowledge and confidence to try bigger or more bold endeavors.

So if you have something that you know you should do, something you feel you should attempt, and you feel it down to your marrow, down to your soul, but you have not done it yet because you are waiting, waiting for things to fall in place, waiting for the stars to align before you move forward, then I challenge you to commit to it. I challenge you to take a step that makes it impossible for you not to try. I challenge you to throw your hat over the fence.

 

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Photo References (with a little editing by me):

  • http://schoolofmavericks.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/kids-climbing-a-fence.jpg

Bruce Lee would be a Permaculturist

Bruce Lee was a genius. Unfortunately, many people only know him from his martial arts movies, which can be a bit cheesy by modern standards, and most people have never even seen his movies and only know him by his reputation as a martial arts actor. In reality, he was probably one of the most influential martial artists of all time. Personally, while I am not a martial artist by any means, although I have dabbled with karate and taekwondo a bit, I have always been a fan of Bruce Lee for his creation of Jeet Kune Do.

Jeet Kune Do, sometimes known as “the way of the intercepting fist”, is a martial art and philosophy that Bruce Lee created in 1967, just  years before his death. In very basic summary, Lee was frustrated with how martial arts, and fighting forms in general, had become more about form than function. Starting a fight is never the goal, but if a fight comes to you, winning is what matters. Knowing fancy moves that can be applied in very few settings are impractical. Bruce Lee looked across the world and through history to see what fighting techniques actually worked and really made sense. He borrowed the best from multiple Asian martial arts, boxing, and even fencing. He unchained himself from tradition, and he stepped out on a new path that made practical sense.

To me, this is exactly what Permaculture does. We study as widely as we can, and we incorporate the practical. Ingrained techniques and methods need to be questioned. We need to take what works and discard the rest.

This first quote is from Bruce Lee sharing his thoughts on Jeet Kune Do in 1971. If we substitute “Jeet Kune Do” with “Permaculture”, I think you will see why I feel Bruce Lee would be a proponent of Permaculture.

I have not invented a “new style,” composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see “ourselves”. . . Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don’t, and that is that.

There is no mystery about my style. My movements are simple, direct and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every movement in Jeet Kune Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune Do is simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy. The closer to the true way of Kung Fu, the less wastage of expression there is. Finally, a Jeet Kune Do man who says Jeet Kune Do is exclusively Jeet Kune Do is simply not with it. He is still hung up on his self-closing resistance, in this case anchored down to reactionary pattern, and naturally is still bound by another modified pattern and can move within its limits. He has not digested the simple fact that truth exists outside all molds; pattern and awareness is never exclusive. Again let me remind you Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back.
– Bruce Lee (September 1971)

Here are some additional quotes from Bruce Lee. His philosophy aligns perfectly with Permaculture.

If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.

If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.

Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.

A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.

The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.

Ever since I was a child I have had this instinctive urge for expansion and growth. To me, the function and duty of a quality human being is the sincere and honest development of one’s potential.

To hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.

Take things as they are. Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick.

Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system.

Obey the principles without being bound by them.

All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.

Real living is living for others.

It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://geeknation.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Bruce_Lee_Pic_1.jpg

 

TCP Update (1 August 2014): Transitions

I don’t often give personal updates, but the frequency of my articles have dropped quite a bit as of late. I thought I would give just a brief update on what is going on with TCP.

To say that this is a busy time in our lives would be an understatement.

My family and I have been back in the United States for just over 8 weeks. We spent 4 years living abroad, 2 years in the Middle East (Turkey) and 2 years on an island in the North Atlantic (Terceira Island, Azores). I was working as a U.S. Air Force Family Medicine physician. After 11 years with the military in a Reserves and Active Duty role, my commitment was complete. I have no regrets, but I am glad to be done with the military for a number of reasons, the largest of which is that I am now free to pursue my personal, family, and Permaculture goals with no extraneous limitations.

This year is a year of transition for us. Just moving back to our home country is quite a big transition. My two oldest children don’t remember anything about life in the U.S., and my youngest two have never even lived in the U.S. before. All of them are having to deal with adjusting to a new culture, yet again. It is fascinating to see all the things my wife and I just “know” about our culture that we learned as children, but that our children don’t understand because they haven’t grown up in America. This is stressful for both them and us. My wife and I are also dealing with our own reverse culture shock, which I have written about a bit in a previous article. We are so glad to be back in the USA, but we are also still adjusting to our home culture again. I have had to forgo some of my typical writing time each day to be present with my family during this time of transition, and this has been healthy for all of us.

I have also stepped out of Family Medicine and into Emergency Medicine. There are a number of reasons for this transition. While I have loved practicing military Family Medicine, civilian Family Medicine is quite a bit different. I really cherished the relationships with my patients and their families, and I think this is the biggest aspect of Family Medicine I will miss. I like the faster pace and mostly higher acuity of care in Emergency Medicine. I really like working a shift where I do not have to take my work home with me and I don’t have to take call. And while I am very excited about transitioning to a new job and a new schedule, this process has taken up a lot of my time.

We decided to rent a house for this year of transition as well. While I am tired of living a transient life, this was a good decision for many reasons. Our household goods just arrived from the Azores… this only took four months! We have been digging out of boxes for the last few days. This is what I call a “good stressful” time. We are glad to be able to start to make this rental house a home, but the amount of work and exhaustion it takes to unpack a truck full of boxes is rather stressful. Again, this has also been taking up a lot of my time.

I am almost giddy with the fact that we are planning on purchasing land within this year. We are actually waiting to get final word from the bank on our pre-approval. There are a number of small, but surmountable, glitches with trying to get a mortgage after not living in the U.S. for 4 years.This process has actually been taking up quite a bit of my time as well, but it is slowly moving forward. We’ve gone out to look at land a few times, but we are waiting to look in earnest until the loan pre-approval is complete.

Education is another thing I am focusing on during this year of transition. My schedule affords me the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling if I desire. I am planning on using this year to get some real practical, hands-on education before we purchase our land. I have spent the last decade reading about Permaculture and sustainable/regenerative agriculture. I have been able to implement these ideas on small, transient scales. However, we are on the brink of finally settling down with a sizable plot of land. I want to spend some time with others who have vastly more practical experience than I have. I’ll actually write another article here soon outlining the course I will be attending. Maybe I’ll see some of you there!

So there it is. There are multiple more transitions occurring right now, but these are the main ones that are taking me away from writing as much as I typically do, and this is why I wanted to share them with you. But I am hopeful that these transitions are taking us a step closer to our goals of living a fulfilled life. That makes this path worth walking.

 

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Photo References:

  • Pastoral Landscape by Alvan Fisher, 1854    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastoral#mediaviewer/File:Pastoral_Landscape_by_Alvan_Fisher,_1854.jpg

 

 

 

Wild Mushroom Identification (and a project for kids!)

I want to take a few minutes to explain why identifying your local mushrooms is important. Even if you have no desire to ever eat a wild mushroom, which I think is a travesty, there is still a few good reasons to go beyond simple avoidance.

And for all you sticklers out there, I know a “mushroom” is really called a “fruiting body”, but for sake of simplicity for the average reader, I will stick with the layman’s vernacular. 

These mushrooms popped up all over my neighborhood... but what were they?

These mushrooms popped up all over my neighborhood… but what were they?

Before I get into the reasons, let me give you some background:
We’ve been in our new neighborhood for a few weeks now, and last week it rained quite a bit. Within a few days, there were mushrooms popping up in many of our neighbors lawns. Now I never really dismiss mushrooms. I am kind of addicted to them. I like to try and identify mushrooms, and I absolutely love to find edible mushrooms. However, I am not a highly skilled mycologist. Yes, when comparing myself to the average man-on-the-street, I am smarter than your average bear pertaining to the topic of mycology. But I am not a Paul Stamets or David Arora (these are two famous and noted mycologists… two of my favorite mycologists, in fact… and I know it makes me a geek when I actually have “favorite” mycologists!).

Well, the ones I saw were large, mostly white, and gilled. While a number of mushrooms can make a person sick, very few mushrooms in North America are actually deadly; however, there are a few mushrooms fitting this description that are, indeed, deadly. This includes the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and the Destroying Angels (species including Amanita ocreata, A. verna, A. virosa, A. bisporigera). If a person is a beginning mushroom hunter, you should avoid eating any mushrooms that comes close to this description. If you are a mid-level, amateur mycologist (like me), then it is fun to identify them, but I would probably never eat this type of mushroom, just in case I am wrong. A seasoned mushroom hunter or a professional mycologist may feel comfortable eating a mushroom of this type, but even some of these people avoid eating them. There is not room for error with these mushrooms. This nice thing is that these mushrooms are easily avoided. And there are so many other edible mushrooms that are easily identified, that we are not missing out on much by avoiding mushrooms that may look like deadly species.

Well, I saw a few of these mushrooms, and I quickly realized they were not going to be easily identified without a little bit of work. I had a few guesses for species, but I wasn’t sure. But we had just moved here, and we had a lot of other things going on, and frankly, I just didn’t have the time to try and identify these mushrooms. But then I saw more of them, and then some more, and then even my wife was telling me about them popping up in the neighbors’ lawns. I started to reevaluate  the need to identify these mushrooms, and I came up with a few reasons why it could actually be more than just a personally interesting project.

First – I really just like to know the biology that is surrounding me. It was kind of bothering me to have this many mushrooms popping up around me when I didn’t know what they were.

Second – In a worst-case scenario, one of my children, one of my neighbors’ children, or even my dog, could end up taking a bite of one of these mushrooms. It would be very helpful to know how concerned I needed to be about these mushrooms surrounding me, my family, and my community.

Third – I will be working in a local ER in a few weeks. It is not uncommon for parents or babysitters to show up with a child who ate some mushrooms from the front yard. They often come in with the remnants of the mushroom cap. Since this is my local area, it would be good to have this information on hand to make a faster clinical decision.

Fourth – I had a great kids science project right in front of me. Every time we walked past these mushrooms, my two boys (age 5 and 6 years old) would ask if these were poisonous mushrooms or not. I kept telling them that since we didn’t know what they were, we have to assume they are poisonous for now.

A partial Fairy Ring.

A partial Fairy Ring.

Once I decided to try and identify these mushrooms, I had to gather some information. I grabbed my boys, and we went for some collections of data and specimens. We found this partial ring of mushrooms growing a few houses away. This ringed pattern is sometimes a full circle, and it is called a Fairy or Elf Ring/Circle. After reading The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit with my kids at bedtime, by boys loved that name!

I took photos of mushrooms at various ages of development, from just popping through the soil to very mature. (see the photos that follow)

Young unidentified mushrooms.

Young unidentified mushrooms.

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

Prime Unidentified Mushroom

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

Another photo of the same specimen from above, showing the gills and the firmly attached ring (annulus).

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

A mature specimen of our unidentified mushroom. 

We returned to the house with a number of photos and a few specimens. After really examining these mushrooms, I had already narrowed down the list in my head, but I was still not certain. I took about 10 minutes, and gave my boys a little science lesson on the parts and life cycle of mushrooms. They really got into it, and they can still name all the parts to a mushroom (fruiting body) – they were looking over my shoulder as I wrote this and pointed them out to me!

All my books are still being shipped from the Azores, including all my mushroom and mycology books, so I used the MycoKeys Online Morphing Mushroom Identifier. This is a really useful tool, and is pretty simple to use.

With the information I had gathered so far, I had narrowed down the choices to two likely species. The first was the highly edible Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera) or the False Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites) which is not deadly, but definitely poisonous causing severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. The False Parasol is responsible for the most mushroom poisonings in the United States each year. But how do we tell them apart?

The answer is a Spore Print. This is a very simple project, and my kids were fascinated by it. The spores produced by a mushroom will drop from the gills under the cap. Each individual spore is way too small to be seen by the naked eye, but if there are enough of them in one spot, we can determine the color of the spores. The fallen spores will leave a pattern that is unique to that species and individual specimen, just like a fingerprint. A mature cap (I used the one pictured above), with the stalk (stem) removed, is placed on a piece of paper. Putting the cap on a half sheet of black and a half sheet of white paper will ensure the spores can be seen if the spores are all white or black. The cap is left for at least a few hours, but it is best to leave it overnight. I had a very mature mushroom, and my kids were impatient, so after about three hours we checked on our print.

A beautiful spore sprint!

A beautiful spore sprint!
I put half of the cap back on top to show both the cap and spore print in one photograph.

The spore print was a nice, pale green, and this clinched our identification. Our mushroom was the False Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites). My kids now know that these mushrooms are poisonous. I am relieved they are not deadly. I have a bit more confidence in my mushroom identification skills. My kids had a fun time without even realizing they were learning… which is how education should be! And I got to know some of my mycological neighbors.

But, if I am honest, I was a bit bummed they weren’t edible!

 

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Photo References: All photos are mine. If you would like to use them, please let me know!

 
 

 

Saying Goodbye to the Azores

My family and I have spent the last 2 years living in the Azores, an oceanic (maritime) temperate climate. The Azores are a group of 9 Portuguese, volcanic islands about 850 miles (1925 km) off the coast of Portugal. That puts it pretty much 2/3 of the distance from New York to Lisbon… rather isolated in the North Atlantic Ocean. We lived on Terceira Island, the third largest island of the archipelago.
Population: Dairy cattle = 100,000… Humans = 50,000… seriously!

Azores

A view of Terceira Island, Azores.
Our home for 2 years.

Azores

My photo from the plane.

I love this photo for a few reasons. First it shows Porto Martins, the village where we live. Second, it shows Mount Pico on Pico Island in the way back behind the clouds. Third, it shows a couple prominent landmarks, Mount Brazil and Split Rock. Fourth, it shows the amazing cloud cover of the island. These islands are very remote in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. The islands are covered in green – pastures and forests. This greenery, along with the mountains popping up in the middle of the flat ocean, creates the perfect conditions for this island cloud formation. On other islands in the world, where people have cleared most of the trees from the island, this cloud cover stops forming and the island slowly becomes a desert. This shows that the Azores are still managing their natural resources pretty well.

Azores

A closer view of Porto Martins, Terceira Island, Azores

Split Rock, Terceira Island, Azores

A closer view of Split Rock, Terceira Island, Azores.
I can’t find the exact date of the split, but it was in fairly recent history.

Patchwork Fields, Terceira Island, Azores

Patchwork Fields, Terceira Island, Azores

I have previously written about the Azorean style of rotational grazing. While not as prominent on some of the other islands, our island of Terceira is covered in permanent pastures divided by mostly dry-stacked volcanic rock walls.

Cow Jam, Terceira Island, Azores

Cow Jam, Terceira Island, Azores

The dairy cattle are rotated through the pastures every day or every few days. Many farmers own or rent fields that are not next to each other, so the cattle have to walk the roads from one pasture to the next. It is fairly common for me to get stuck in a cow jam (never a traffic jam!) on the way to work.

A walk through the pastures

My wife, kids, and father taking a walk through the pastures… beautiful!
Terceira Island, Azores

Me at the botanic gardens.

Me at the botanic gardens. Old Gingko biloba trees.
São Miguel Island, Azores 

One overlook on São Miguel Island, Azores.

One overlook on São Miguel Island, Azores.
The green pastures are used in rotational grazing of cattle.

My boys taking photos of a waterfall. Me at the botanic gardens. Terceira Island, Azores

My boys taking photos of a waterfall.
Terceira Island, Azores

The hilly pastures of the Azores. São Miguel Island, Azores

The hilly pastures of the Azores.
São Miguel Island, Azores

Lagoa das Sete Cidades São Miguel Island, Azores

Lagoa das Sete Cidades
São Miguel Island, Azores

The twin lakes and small village of Sete Cidades are located in the crater left from the volcanic eruption. Wikipedia recounts the legend of how these lakes were formed. I think it is amazing that a village is located inside a volcanic caldera!

Tea Plantation São Miguel Island, Azores

Tea Plantation
São Miguel Island, Azores

The Azores are the only location in Europe where tea is commercially grown. I was driving on São Miguel Island and saw this unique landscape. I almost passed it by until I realized what it was. My wife would say I screeched to a halt in the middle of the road… what can I say? I was excited. This is the only tea plantation I have ever seen. Due to its remote location in the Atlantic Ocean, there are no pests or diseases that bother the tea plants (Camellia sinensis). The Gorreana Estate has been in continuous tea production since 1883, and it still uses much of its original equipment… all run by hydro power generated from natural springs.

My wife at  São Miguel Island, Azores

My beautiful wife at Lagoa do Fogo (Lake of Fire)
São Miguel Island, Azores

Yet another breathtaking pasture/overlook. São Miguel Island, Azores

Yet another breathtaking pasture/overlook.
São Miguel Island, Azores 

My oldest daughter bringing milk to a calf. Terceira Island, Azores

My oldest daughter bringing milk to a calf.
Terceira Island, Azores

My second son milking a traditional Azorean dual purpose dairy and beef breed of cattle. Terceira Island, Azores

My second son milking a traditional Azorean dual purpose dairy and beef breed of cattle.
Read more about it by clicking on the photo.
Terceira Island, Azores

My kids and me with some baby mice I found in the garden. Terceira Island, Azores

My kids and me with some baby mice I found in the garden.
Read more about it by clicking on the photo.
Terceira Island, Azores

My family says goodbye to the Azores... this is one block from our home. Terceira Island, Azores

My family says goodbye to the Azores… this is one block from our home!
Porto Martins, Terceira Island, Azores

So thankful to be able to provide these memories to my children. Terceira Island, Azores

So thankful to be able to provide these memories to my children.
Terceira Island, Azores

 

 

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Photo References: All photos are mine (except the very first island photo and the photo of Split Rock). If you would like to use them, please let me know!