Sunday, 17 September 2017

A bridge to the technosphere

For half the Irish year I ride my bicycle along the canal in the morning to the village where I pick up the bus to my job in the city, and ride back again in the evenings. The morning ride gives me a chance to see the landscape when the sun is still drying the leaves of dew and shooing away the clouds of mist from the bog, when the fish are beginning to stir in the clear waters below and the herons are shaking off sleep on their perches.

Similar patterns stretch across the land, the water and the sky. The dendritic patters of the tree branches of the trees that line the road resemble the tributaries of the streams that flow below them, with tiny streams feeding larger ones and then joining others, feeding the fields of wildflowers. They resemble the veins of my hands, more visible now than they used to be as I grow older. They resemble the mycelium I see in our compost, which I tried to disturb as little as possible today when I spread it across our new garden bed.

As Albert Bates put it in the permaculture course, we see the same patterns across all scales – the shape raindrops take on leaves of grass are governed by the same laws that draw matter into stars and stars into galaxies. The tessellating pattern of water as it twists and curls around rocks in the stream, resemble the mist curling and twisting as it floats away, purged by the light of the dawn, or the patterns of clouds as they ripple over the Irish landscape.

The morning ride shows me the patterns of the farmers who live near me, before they are outside at work. I see that Liam mended the fence where the calf broke through, that last night’s wind blew some trees over the phone lines, and that Liam won’t be reachable by phone this week. I see that Mick’s family have laid flowers on the cross they placed along the canal, on the spot where his car went off the road last year, drowning him. His girls are only teenagers, and I suspect most people still leave his old space empty in church, his seat empty at the pub.

The ride home, likewise, gives me a chance to see my neighbours as they are busy on their plots of land. I usually see my neighbour Seamus, in his eighties and still planting his own field, and Martin, proudly showing his young cows and antique cars. I see other neighbours who never took to the car culture, and still ride bicycles or even horse-carts into the village and back.

You see, once I step on the bus to the city, the world changes. I spend three hours on a bus and nine more in an office, staring at screens, sitting in seats and dealing with the carrots and sticks of human hierarchies. I live, as most of us do out of necessity, in what Dmitri Orlov calls the Technosphere, the world of user names and passwords, computer screens and electronic noises, online profiles and digital icons.

I try to ignore the flash and flicker of advertising on the walls of cafes, office lobbies, buses, trains, cars, bicycle racks, bus stop shelters and toilets. I wear earbuds to muffle the piped-in soundtrack of advertisements, talk radio, and pop songs broadcasted into buses, restaurants, and offices. Out of necessity, I deal with the conceptual hierarchy that humans have created -- software programs, paycheque numbers and manager titles -- and pretend they represent reality.

I understand the need to visit the Technosphere, and it has its uses -- look at you, reading this on a blog. In living my life and raising a daughter, though, I always try to keep one foot in that artificial world and one foot in the real one, the one that has been here for uncounted lifetimes before us and will continue long after the Technosphere has passed into legend.  

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Use plants to clean up toxic waste

Thanks, everyone, for being patient while posting is slow this summer. I have a lot going on...

In the last couple of centuries, humans have done a strange thing: We’ve dug the biggest pits, the deepest holes, and the longest tunnels the world has ever seen, all to find the most insidious and subtle poisons known to our mammalian bodies, remove them from deep inside rocks where they had lain sequestered for eons, and concentrate them in the places where most of us live. We’re starting to think this maybe wasn’t a good idea.

Take lead, which last-century humans put into containers, car parts, pipes, paints and many other products – and even in petroleum, spreading lead-tainted exhaust across the world. Lead causes brain damage and erratic behavior if absorbed into the human body, and its rise and fall correlates with the U.S. crime rate in the 20th century – the more lead was around children, the more crime appeared a generation later. It’s been banned from paints and auto fuel, of course, but it lingers on old buildings and in soil.

Or take mercury: Burning coal releases it into air and water, and thence into animals like fish – a 2009 study by the U.S. Geological Survey tested 300 streams across the United States and found that every fish tested contained mercury, a quarter at unsafe levels.

You could go on with a list of such heavy metals – cadmium, zinc, copper – right down the periodic table. Most of all, we have pulled out coal and oil and used it not just to fuel up the car and turn on the lights, but to generate hundreds of thousands of petrochemicals with unpronounceable names as long as sentences and often-unpleasant effects.

I say “we,” of course, but this isn’t a guilt trip; most of this was before your time, and you didn’t vote for it anyway. You and I use small amounts of heavy metals and fossil fuels in our own lives – driving, flying, heating, buying plastic products, just looking at this on a computer – but it’s very difficult to avoid doing so and still living in the modern world.

The consequence of so many people doing so many of these things, though, is that any urban area – and many rural ones – will have splotches on the map with large quantities of toxic materials in the ground. If you live where a gasoline station used to be, or a factory, a garbage dump, or any number of other things, you might have things in your soil you don’t want in your stroganof.

If you think you just won’t live in places, or just move away from them, congratulations: You’re thinking the same thing as everyone else. That presents a problem, as everyone who can live somewhere else will do so, and everyone who can’t live somewhere else will live on contaminated sites. Realistically, this means the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable people have to live with everyone else’s toxic waste – which is often the case already.

Other methods, like removing tonnes of contaminated soil, involve years of work and vast sums of money we don’t have anymore. If you could remove all the affected soil, moreover, where would you put it, aside from somewhere else that would then be contaminated?

What we need is a device that can suck toxins out of the soil and either turn them into something harmless, or concentrate them in something removable. No one has much money lying around to invent such a device, though, much less to manufacture millions of them and send them to sites around the world for free. Thus, these hypothetical devices would be even better if they already appeared around the world, or were lightweight and easily transportable.

It would be best, in fact, if these machines cost nothing to create, and once created could make more of themselves, at an exponential rate. While we’re at it, it would also be nice if the devices also prevented soil erosion, fed bees and other pollinators, and provided shade, beauty, a home for wildlife, and possibly firewood.

Thankfully, we have these machines now. Certain plants, it turns out, have a particular gift for sucking up specific chemicals, either as a quirk of their biology or as a way to make themselves poisonous and avoid being eaten. When these plants are sown on contaminated ground, they absorb the contaminants into their tissues, gradually reducing the amount in the soil until it is safe for humans.

Called phyto-remediation, this process has become one of the newest and most promising fields of biology. Similar methods use mushrooms in what is called myco-remediation, or use bacteria and have unfortunate names like bio-sparging, bio-slurping and bio-venting, but we’ll restrict ourselves here to plants.

The basic method is straightforward: Find out what toxins lurk in your patch of ground, and come up with a regimen of plants appropriate for the climate that hyper-accumulate those particular toxins. “Toxins,” of course, covers a lot of ground, and the vagueness of the word allows it to be used in all kinds of unproductive ways – for example, every fake New Age cure that claims to rid your body of unspecified “toxins.” So to get more specific, let’s separate toxins into two of the most common categories: metals and petrochemicals.

Petrochemicals generally have familiar atoms like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, the same things that make up chocolate sundaes, flower gardens, testosterone, newspaper, and most of the world around us. Those same elements in different combinations, however, make common but un-tasty compounds like gasoline, or lethal poisons like Agent Orange – it’s all in how many atoms are put together in what arrangement.

If a plant can absorb, let’s say, the cancer-causing benzo-pyrene – C20H12, found in coal tar – with some oxygen (O) and then separate it into C12H22O11 and H2O, the petroleum-based poison would become sugar water. I’m not saying this is the actual chemical process, by the way – just an example of how chemical combinations can make something deadly or delicious.

When the toxins are metals, of course, they cannot be broken down into other elements any more than lead could be changed to gold. Some plants can absorb the metal and metabolise it into some kind of molecule, however, making it less easy to be absorbed by the human body and thus safer to be around. Sometimes the metals can even help us; some biologists have even proposed using certain edible plants to accumulate zinc from contaminated soils and feeding the plants to people with a zinc deficiency.

After the plants are harvested with the metals concentrated in their tissues, they can be burned, and the metal stays in the ash – a small amount of space and weight to dispose of, compared to the tonnes of contaminated earth. The ash might even be able to be mined for the metals, for complete recycling.

 One example comes from Brazil, where abandoned gold mines are leaking mercury and other heavy metals into the soil and water. Mercury is one of the most toxic of heavy metals, and once in the soil it is soaked up by grass, which is eaten by cows, which are eaten by … you get the idea. Farmers are now growing maize and canola plants in the area, though, which soak up heavy metals quite nicely – gold as well as mercury. One scientist overseeing the project estimated farmers could get a kilogram of gold per hectare from doing this, which would help pay for the clean-up.

Mustard greens were used to remove 45 percent of the excess lead from a yard in Boston to ensure the safety of children who play there. Pumpkin vines were used to clean up an old Magic Marker factory site in Trenton, New Jersey, while Alpine pennycress helped clean up abandoned mines in Britain. Hydroponically grown sunflowers were used to absorb radioactive metals near the Chernobyl nuclear site in the Ukraine as well as a uranium plant in Ohio.

Blue Sheep fescue helps clean up lead, as do water ferns and members of the cabbage family. Smooth water hyssop takes up copper and mercury, while water hyacinths suck up mercury, lead, cadmium, zinc, cesium, strontium-90, uranium and various pesticides. Sunflowers slurp a wide range of compounds – not just the uranium and strontium-90 from radioactive sites, but also cesium, methyl bromide and many more. Bladder campion accumulates zinc and copper, while Indian mustard greens concentrate selenium, sulphur, lead, chromium, cadmium, nickel, zinc, and copper.

Perhaps the most magnificent hyperaccumulator, though, is the simple willow tree, Salix viminalis; it slurps up copper, zinc, cadmium, selenium, silver, chromium, uranium, petrochemicals and many others. Also, once its biomass has concentrated the heavy metals, it can be harvested and used for many practical things.

Of course, phytoremediation operates under certain limitations; the plants have to be able to grow in that climate, and should not be an invasive species that will take over the landscape, as kudzu did in the American South. The plants can only remove toxins as deep as their roots, so the technique might not solve groundwater contamination.

Most importantly, plants move at a different speed than we do, and even after the plants are harvested they are not likely to have eliminated the toxin. Reducing a toxin to safe levels takes time, and phytoremediation doesn’t remove a problem overnight.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this new field, though, is its scale, that the work to clean up toxic-waste sites could be done with no massive government project or corporate funding, with no bulldozers or construction equipment, without advanced and delicate technology beyond that to measure the toxin levels. The principles could be taught to every schoolchild or practiced by every land-owner, so that if anyone detects a certain toxin on their property, they will know what to plant to gradually remove it.

The seeds and plants could be sold by any gardening or farm-supply store, so that some of our society’s most grandiose mistakes can be fixed by ordinary people, using natural means, using home-made experiments, hard work and patience, to restore our land to what it once was.

Thanks to Dr. David Leung of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, for his assistance in checking this article.Originally published in Grit magazine.


Survey of U.S. streams: “Mercury Found in Every Fish Tested, Scientists Say,” New York Times, August 19, 2009.
Effects of lead on crime: “America's Real Criminal Element: Lead,” Mother Jones magazine, January 2013
Effects of lead on crime: “How Lead Exposure Relates to Temporal Changes in IQ, Violent Crime, and Unwed Pregnancy,” Rick Nevin, Environmental Research, Volume 83, Issue 1, May 2000, Pages 1-22.
Effects of lead on crime: “Hazards of heavy metal contamination,” British Medical Bulletin, Volume 68, Issue 1, p. 167-182
Phytoremedation: Recent Advances Toward Improved Phytoremediation of Heavy Metal Pollution, Bentham Books, 2013.
Gold Mines and Mercury: Phytoremediation of Mercury-Contaminated Mine Wastes, Fabio Netto Moreno, Massey University 2004.
Playground in Boston: “New Jersey company cultivates pollution-eating plants Mustard greens, alfalfa help to clean up ravages of industry,” Baltimore Sun, March 30, 1997.
Playground in Boston: Blaylock, M.J., S. Dushenkov, D. Page, G. Montes, D. Vasudev, and Y. Kapulnik. "Phytoremediation of a Pb-contaminated brownfield site in New Jersey." (1996), pp. 497-498. In Emerging Technologies in Hazardous Waste Management VIII, 1996 Extended Abstracts for the Special Symposium, Birmingham, Alabama, Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Division, American Chemical Society, September 9-11, 1996.
"Blue Sheep Fescue: Phytoremediation: A Green Technology to Remove Environmental Pollutants," p. 71-86, American Journal of Climate Change 2013.
“Metal armour protects plants from disease,” Planet Earth Online, 10 September 2010.
“Improving Plants for Zinc Acquisition,” Prachy Dixit and Susan Eapen, Bioremediation Technology: Recent Advances, M. H. Fulekar, Springer, 2010.
Bio-remediation and Bio-fortification: Two Sides of One Coin, by X. Yin and L. Yuan, Springer 2012.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Permaculture course in Cloughjordan

If you had to pick one feeling that defines our modern world, what would it be? Most people I know are feeling angrier than they used to, with politics in many countries growing more polarised and less civil. Most people seem more fearful than they used to be, despite the fact that they are much safer than most of their ancestors. Yet the emotion that seems most widespread today, that seems to come attached to modern life, is helplessness.

You see, almost everyone I know thinks our modern world is in serious trouble. They know that pollution is increasing, that the climate is slowly changing, that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Yet most people I know have no idea what to do about these problems, other than occasionally voting for someone who seems like the least awful candidate. Many people I know try to do small things -- recycling, giving to charity -- but they feel like droplets in an ocean. They feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems we face, and would love to do their part to improve our situation, but have no idea where to start.

Earlier this month, I gathered at the village of Cloughjordan, County Tipperary to learn how to do just that. There the organisation Cultivate held an intensive course in permaculture, drawing more than two dozen people from eight countries. Permaculture, strictly speaking, is a system of designing gardens, buildings and landscapes to re-use as much energy as possible and waste as little as possible. The courses, though, encompassed far more than gardens or architecture; they talked about how to local economies; to rebuild communities; to bury carbon to reverse climate change; to make food at home using everything from the garden; to skilfully transform waste into soil; and designing landscapes to work with Nature rather than against it. In short, it was a course in How Ordinary People Can Save the World.

Cloughjordan made a perfect venue for such an event, as it contains a community of houses designed and built to be sustainable. Many use cob walls, straw-bale walls, steel roofs and other building methods that make the most of natural materials, generate little waste, re-use as much energy as possible, and will last far longer than most of today’s houses. Many of the buildings use solar panels or passive solar design to catch the sun, or have green roofs covered with moss or grass, giving their homes greenery and insulation.

On the surrounding lands the members planted 17,000 apple trees of hundreds of varieties, allowing people to walk around their neighbourhood and harvest an abundance of food. Nearby fields produce food for the village, beehives pollinate the area and provide honey, and vegetables are grown in nearby fields. The “eco-village” has its own bakery, whose owner delivers bread daily to subscribers, and its members have formed other enterprises as well.

All these enterprises make the village far more ecological, less wasteful, and more resilient in the face of crisis, than most of our communities today. It’s still a work in progress, as is the permaculture philosophy -- but as Davie Phillip of Cultivate put it, permaculture is an evolving, open-source toolkit, a body of knowledge that people around the world are constantly adding to.

One word most often used to describe such places is “sustainable,” but as guest speaker Albert Bates put it, sustainability is a low goal, as it implies just treading water. The goal of the organisation is not to sustain the world at its present levels of consumption and waste, but to reverse the trends of the last century or two, to return to a world that runs on low levels of energy while giving up the benefits of modern life. 

Most of our human civilisation right now is based on huge constant inputs of new energy, which we get from fossil fuels. Burning them is disrupting our normal weather patterns - all to make products that we often don’t need, that don’t usually make us happy, and that are quickly thrown away. The Cultivate course brought together some of the world’s best minds to propose a new way forward for our civilisation. 

Those seem like ambitious goals for people with modest means, but the people who gathered there are like seeds -- we left the course armed with the knowledge and training to improve our small corner of the world, connected to a global network of others doing the same. Movements like this are the cure for feeling helpless.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing more about the course, but first, a request for help. After the course had ended the village suffered a fire, and their barn burned down. No one was hurt, but they are asking for help in rebuilding. Anyone wanting to help this worthy cause can make a donation at:

Photo: Sunset over the Cloughjordan orchards

Friday, 11 August 2017

Conversations with locals

Not the specific pub, which I'm keeping anonymous, but one very like it.
I’m taking advantage of the summer months, and riding my bicycle to the village and back to take the bus to work. My job is an hour and a half away by bus, but I can use that time to read and get writing or studying done, and this time of year I hardly ever need a car. The problem in the winter is not the cold, but the darkness; for months it will be dark when I leave for work and dark when I come home, and there are no streetlights out here -- just total darkness and a very bumpy road.

I was riding home the other night when I stopped and talked with my neighbour Seamus, who is 86 and still grows most of his own food in the nearby field. He asked about our potatoes, and I told him they had fallen victim to bindweed.

“Bindweed …” he said, his face serious. “That’s tough to get rid of; the roots go deep through the soil, and they climb and choke everything, sure they do.”

Any idea how to get rid of it? I asked.

“You have to cover the ground for at least a year,” he said, “but three years would be best.”

That’s not great news for our potato aspirations, I told him.

“There is one way,” he said, pulling his chin as though summoning old knowledge. “A way we used to do it around here. You get mare’s tails -- the weed, that grows all along the banks of the canal here. You know mare’s tails?”

Sure, back home we called them horsetails, I said. They’re an old plant -- they used to grow tall as trees, a few hundred million years ago.

“They’re also quite poisonous,” he said. That made sense to me, as many plants that had survived so long had developed a cocktail of toxins to dissuade browsing animals; the fern is almost as old as the horsetail, and ferns like bracken are powerfully toxic.

“You boil some water, and put in the horsetails to make a tea -- don’t drink it, now -- and you spray that on your bindweed, sure you do. And that kills most things -- but don’t spray it on anything you plan to eat later.”

Good tip -- I’ll try that, I said. I later found that remedy was used by permaculturists as an all-natural pesticide. Almost every time I see some of my older neighbours, I have conversations like this. They can be about gardening or local history, animals or machines, but I always learn something.


I spent last night in a village in the west of Ireland, and went to the local pub, where conversation flowed easily between the regulars; sometimes it was difficult to decipher the language, not just because of the accents, but because they spoke in the shorthand of long-time neighbours. All the same, I heard several different accents; most people had grown up in the village, but others had moved in long ago from England or North America, or other parts of Ireland with different accents. Talk drifted between hurling -- Ireland’s most beloved sport, unique to this country -- and fireworks, varieties of potatoes and duck eggs, the post and the weather.  

Eventually, some of the regulars asked for “45,” and the publican brought out a deck of cards. As a group of locals gathered around the bar counter, he shuffled and dealt them each a hand. As they played -- “forty-five” is the name of the game -- I got a sense of the rules; it was a quick, lively game, with patrons slapping down their cards quickly in succession, one after the other.

You don’t see many people playing cards anymore, I said.

“You will in this pub,” one told me. “You go to other places, and everyone’s just looking down at their phone. Cards is time with your mates.”


I keep in touch with family back in Missouri, including my dad -- who not only takes care of my mom (a stroke victim) and my nephew (severely handicapped), but just about everyone else in the neighbourhood.

After the temperature hit 45 C in St. Louis recently, the power went out for 50,000 people -- something that’s happening more and more these days. Ordinarily my dad would rely on his generator, but it chose that moment to blow.

As soon as word went out among the neighbourhood that my dad was having trouble, as he put it, “it began to rain neighbors.” He had helped them time and time again, and now they came by with generators, a battery-powered fan, extension cords, coffee, vegetables and gasoline. He compared it to the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

When people talk about society breaking down -- shortages, outages, government and civil crises, fossil fuels running low and weather going to extremes -- most people assume it will bring out the worst in people. Where I come from, people have seen some of that already, and it often brings out the best in us.