Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Day at Organic Grower's School

Last Saturday [March 8-9, 2014] I joined several Earthaveners at the Organic Growing School in Asheville, NC. I feel like a broken record starting another blog post this way, but… awesome experience. 

The ride there
I caught a ride from two other Earthaven members who drove Patricia and me. I learned that these members live in an ‘Earthship’. Earthships were originally designed to be completely self-contained desert dwellings that recycled 100% of their water, human waste, and anything else. Theirs is adapted for the temperate climate they live in so they don’t recycle all their water since it’s so plentiful. They don’t quite grow all their own food yet, but it was interesting hearing about their life path, how they decided on Earthaven and their Earthship, and what plans they have for it.

The schedule
Here’s the doc describing all the sessions offered at the School. I wanted to take all the courses, but I settled on 4: Using kudzu, Understanding Bird Languages, Foraging, and Using Nuts.

Course 1 - Using Kudzu
This was taught by Justin Holt, who has worked for a few years with Earthaven member Zev Friedman. A few highlights from the course:
  • Kudzu grows like crazy. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen pictures: 

Kudzu smothers everything. How great would it be if we could use this to feed ourselves and our animals and make ropes and medicines?

  • Kudzu is good for making ropes. We started the class building ropes out of kudzu - my first natural cordage!
  • We moved into food and medicinal applications. Justin showed pictures of gathering massive kudzu roots, some several decades old and weighing over 100 pounds. Justin discussed all the processing that turns kudzu roots into food, which seemed a little involved - it’s not a pull-the-root-and-eat process. Leaves can be used like spinach. 
  • Justin described the process of experimenting with kudzu with Zev, a good reminder that earth skills are ever evolving just like everything else as we learn more about the natural world.
  • I got some kudzu tea to end the class: kudzu root, honey, and chocolate peppermint to be precise. Yummy.

Course 2 - Understanding Bird Language
These guys had a fun time designing their session. I went to understand bird language, but the instructors had to set the context first (paraphrased):

“You have to understand something about song birds. They look pretty and sound lovely, but they live in constant fear of their lives.”

The instructors showed a picture of a song bird, then another of a hawk swooping in for the kill. 

“Let’s put this in perspective. These songbirds’ wingspans can be up to 5.5” wide - let’s say 6” to make the math easy. And hawks’ wingspans can be 36” wide! That’s a monster 6 times as big as them swooping out of the sky to eat them or their children.”

The instructors held out their arms wide at this point and stood side by side so their outstretched hands were just barely touching at the fingers.

“Our armspans are about 6’ wide, and together we’re about 12’. Imagine walking across the square after class, having to constantly fear that monster 36’ wide could swoop out of the sky from any direction and kill you or your friend. Our culture would be very different! And that’s the culture these birds live in! So all bird songs have to be understand in that context.”

A dragon swooping in for a kill. 

Cool way to start the class!

One other fun fact before jumping into the song types: there are songbirds all over the world that greet the dawn by singing. As dawn moves across the planet, birds all around the world sing to greet it. Birds have been around for ~140 million years, so planet Earth has experienced a continual chorus of joyous bird songs for 140,000,000 years. Mind-blowing.

The teachers broke birds’ songs into 5 very rough categories, including adolescent begging (chicks needing food), companion calls, territorial aggression, songs, and ALARM.

Hearing the calls and learning how I can use them as a human was pretty awesome. Since I can’t reproduce those on this blog, I’ll share some cool nuggets:

  • Birds engage in territorial ‘arguing’, but they never get violent - any injury would make them easy prey. A major distinction between ‘territorial aggression’ and ‘ALARM’ sounds is that other species of bird and even other birds of the same species will not react when 2 birds argue about territory - but they do react to alarms.
  • ‘Alarm’ calls have gradients of severity too. Pretty much all birds and many rodents in an area will respond to alarm chirps. Many birds will sing alarm calls when they see the threat, giving the flock (and other listeners!) a rough idea where the threat is. Other prey-type animals will use this to escape, and humans can use this to hunt - songbirds’ predators may be our prey. The instructor talked about finding a weasel in the bush one time after hearing birds’ alarms indicate a threat there.

The ‘survival of the fittest’ explanation for evolution really ignores how much cooperation plays a role in survival. A few cool examples: 

  • Birds and humans have developed symbiotic relationships. For example, the Honeyguide bird will alert humans to beehives. The humans then consume the honey and leave some for the bird. If the humans take all the honey, that bird won’t work with those humans anymore and will find other tribes to work with.
  • Birds cooperate not just within flocks or species, but across species too. For example, different species will have different range of vision, for example some will see into the ultraviolet but not the infrared, and another species will see infrared but not ultraviolet. The same differences occur with hearing ranges. Apparently flocks of birds of different species will move together so they can observe reality across the largest possible range of light and sound, leveraging all their collective vision and hearing abilities. How cool is that?

Lunch time
I met some interesting people over lunch, including a founder of Earthaven and a midwife named Louise.

The midwife’s life story was especially interesting. She’d gone into nursing, specializing in hospice care. She said, “Death is the great equalizer. Everyone, rich and poor alike, want two things when they’re on death’s door: They want to have had a meaningful life, and they want close relationships.” The wealth did not make the wealthy any happier if they didn’t have meaning and relationships. She also said she burned out eventually, but not before learning a life’s lesson: “I regularly met couples who had worked and scrimped their whole lives so they’d have money to live on in retirement. In many cases, they worked for decades at jobs they really didn’t like. Finally they retired at 65, and maybe a year later one spouse would get cancer and die within 6 months.”

Louise said she took the hint, and even in her 20s started dialing down the number of hours per week she worked. Her coworkers chided her about not being able to save for retirement, but she wanted to have the time to live happily now and enjoy her kids as they grew up. Now she midwifes for income, keeps bees, gardens much of her own food, and lives adjacent to the Celo intentional Quaker community in North Carolina. She and I share the same vision for reducing material consumption so we can dramatically reduce the income we need to live happily - it was so great hearing how she accomplished it!

Course 3 - Foraging
The instructor for this was Matt Hansen, and this dude lives what he teaches. He came dressed in hand-made clothes made of plant and dried animal skins. His satchel was hand-woven with an animal skin cover. While we were out walking, he introduced himself as someone who lives an actual hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the wilderness. I really look forward to dipping my toes in that soon.

We walked across the well-manicured campus of UNC-Asheville, and even here he saw food everywhere. Bamboo was for eating, knife-making, and a container in which to boil water to cook. The roots of the grass we walked on were edible. He explained how to get sap out of a maple tree and get sugar out of that sap. 

Lots of insects are protein sources, but avoid bright caterpillars and bugs with exoskeletons. Ants, ant larvae, and crickets are great though. One cruel but hilarious trick: you can get ants to give you their babies (larvae) to eat. Put twigs at the bottom of a bucket and then cover them in leaves. Then take an ant colony and drop it in the bucket. The ants will adjust by taking their larvae and moving them to the bottom of the bucket. Remove the leaves and everything above them by pulling up the twigs and you’ve got a nice concentrated source of protein - ant larvae!

He pointed out junipers for flavoring gin, hickories for making axe handles and bows, pines for making tea containing vitamin C (keeps away scurvy), elderberries for making fire by friction, tulip poplars for making canoes  - the list goes on. Many plants had multiple uses and many uses were fulfilled by multiple plants.

Course 4 - Working with nuts
I won’t get into detail here. The course covered how to harvest and process nuts for eating. We covered hazelnuts, acorns, walnuts, butternuts, and pecans. These can be major sources of carbs and fats in the wild, so I’m looking forward to learning to use nuts this fall.

Other Thoughts
A few things really stood out from these sessions and the gathering overall:

1) All the presenters were personally living and experimenting with change they wanted to see society undergo. The ’nuts guy’ wants to help society move to getting its calories from perennials, the forager wants people to live in much closer connection to the natural world, etc. Their teaching was one component of helping society make these changes. 

2) The information was strongly grounded in personal experience unless explicitly noted otherwise. Contrast this with academic papers which cite others’ work without experiential verification. Some presenters did cite others, but all the presented information was personally verified and lived.

3) Building on (2), all the information was ‘human-scale’ - info that could be verified by individuals without a college degree’s worth of training and massive capital investment. Much of the info did take years to learn and integrate, but any one point could be quickly verified.

4) Everyone looked really healthy. I rarely saw people pecking on cell phones. Even the relatively-old moved and spoke like they were young. This mirrors my experience at Earthaven, where I regularly guess people are a decade younger than they really are.


I definitely recommend the Organic Grower’s School. You can avoid the fee by being a volunteer-writer who sits in on 2 sessions and writes about them. These 2 sessions are picked for you, but you still get to choose the other 2 sessions.