In case you missed it, this past Tuesday, December 5th, was World Soil Day! (I realize I commemorated it belatedly last year, too.) Maybe soil is a little like the heroine of “Sixteen Candles,” ignored on her birthday while chaos rages all around her. It’s easy to take soil for granted, even as it stands as this firmament beneath our feet. But don’t worry, soil, whether you’re caught in our fingernails or nitrogenating below a blanket of snow, plenty of folks are thinking about how awesome you are.
The amazing folks at the Land Institute in Salina, KS are doing some pretty nifty research on creating prairie agricultural ecosystems, including the development of perennial crops. These perennials plants help stash more soil organic matter conventional agriculture with annual plants. One of these perennial grains they’ve developed, Kernza, is now available fermented into beer!
We love you, soil. We might call you “dirt” sometimes, but we mean it fondly.
This weekend, I am returning to Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT for the ADVA (ADamah-TEva) Reunion. I am excited to reconnect with fellow alumni of these farming and environmental education programs. I fully expect to use the phrases “transformative,” “sitting with it,” and “liminal space” unironically. I hope to eat copious amounts of delicious fermented vegetables, hug the goats and tactfully admire the chickens (because chickens don’t really enjoy being hugged all that much.) I want to go for a walk in the woods,tell jokes about lichen, give nitrogen to a tree and pet the moss on the rocks.
And I’m bracing myself for the inevitable (but brief) sense of displacement and disappointment, because the Isabella Freedman to which I expect to return doesn’t really exist outside my imagination. The real Isabella Freedman is pretty great (and I’ll be able to immerse myself in all of the above activities in beloved holy community.) However, Nostalgic Isabella Freedman exists somewhere shared between my mind and the collective memory of fragile New England Utopias.
While Isabella Freedman is at its heart a Retreat Center for people from the city to come hang out in nature, the life of its farming participants and on-site staff evokes shades of the idealistic communes dotting the landscape of 19th century New England. There’s the Oneida Community (1848-1881), famous for complex marriage and their successful flatware business. Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women)’s father founded the short-lived Fruitlands in the 1840s. Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter), was a founding member of Brook Farm. Hawthorne based his novel, The Blithedale Romance, on his experiences at Brook Farm.
I first read The Blithedale Romance shortly after my experiences as a ADVAnik at Isabella Freedman. At that point, I missed the place so much I was toying with the idea of writing a series of fan fiction stories about a retreat center called “Isadora Feldman” where crunchy, privileged idealists pet goats, sustain unrequited romantic crushes and eat buckets of fermented vegetables. And maybe encounter supernatural and creepy folkloric circumstances while immersed in a cheerfully gothic New England community.
Anyway, reading the Blithedale Romance made me realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne had beaten me to the punch by about 160 years. I was astonished by Hawthorne’s eerily accurate description of the residents’ sartorial choices:
[W]e all of us seemed to have come to Blithedale with the one thrifty and laudable idea of wearing out our old clothes… in short, we were a living epitome of defunct fashions, and the very raggedest presentment of men who had seen better days. It was gentility in tatters… Little skill as we boasted in other points of husbandry, every mother’s son of us would have served admirably to stick up for a scarecrow.
How did he know that we dressed in a combination of thrift store finds, remnants from the retreat center lost-and-found bin, and communal garments bequeathed from cohort to cohort in the Beit Adamah coat closet? In the words of Kohelet, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Anyway, so I’m packing my wool socks and long underwear for my trip. My nostalgia is coming along too, with its layer of cracking yellowed varnish. Maybe something new and wonderful is waiting in those woods and fields. I’d also take old and comfortable, like well broken-in pair of boots. And occasionally fizzy, like a jar of lacto-fermented pickles. Because you can never have too many pickles.
Last night around sunset, we noticed a steady stream of gulls flying south against the pinkish-purple sky. Every time we thought the flock was done, for a few heartbeats of open sky, the procession started again with a new wave of gulls. “They’re going south for the winter,” Toby observed.
I didn’t get a picture through the window blinds, but today went searching for some potential identities for these Laridae migrants.
While both Ring-Billed Gulls and Bonaparte’s Gulls migrate through southeast Michigan, open water and abundant landfills may provide incentive for some populations to stay here through the winter.
So how do the gulls know where they’re going? Ring-billed gulls have a built-in sensitivity to magnetic fields that can help them navigate. Even 2 day old “chicks showed a preference for magnetic bearings that would take them in the appropriate direction for their fall migration. The gulls also rely on landmarks and high-altitude winds to provide directional cues.”
In my work as an environmental educator, we’ve been teaching our PreK students about animal survival strategies for the winter: Migrate, Hibernate and Stay Active. One adorable 4 year old, when asked about the word that describes birds flying south for the winter, shot up his hand.
I admit that I am a Twitter novice. I signed up for an account back in 2015 shortly after creating a WordPress blog, mostly out of idle curiosity, in an attempt to get the Twitter widget to work on my WP page. I mostly use Twitter for reading articles (Yay Science Twitter!), following authors I like, and retweeting funny pictures of cute animals and/or inanimate objects. I have tweeted links to my (very occasional) new PPJ posts, but per my WP stats page, am not sure this has actually had any effect on readership.
On Twitter, as on all other forms of social media/electronic interaction, I attempt to be pleasant and polite. I don’t want to be a troll! (Unless I can be one of Ursula Vernon’s bridge trolls). But somehow, my real-life social awkwardness also translates into the digital realm. I don’t leave many replies, so I was particularly surprised when upon leaving what I thought was a fairly innocuous (if inarticulate) message, resulted in being immediately blocked from the original poster’s feed.
This hurt my feelings, which I realize is kind of ridiculous. Maybe the Twitter immune system read me as either “Troll” or “TwitterBot.” Or the original poster thought my comment was dumb or offensive (It wasn’t intended to be, but I concede that it might be!) While I feel a certain kinship with the poster after following their Twitter feed for a few months, it is definitely a one-sided relationship. They do not know me, aside from the handle @ProtopianPickle, which in retrospect, is the kind of nonsensical name associated with AI-generated accounts.
So Twitter users, I am sorry. I will try to do better next time! And leave more intelligible, and less awkward, replies.
Over the summer, I diligently more-or-less managed to water my garden and to document its growth on my camera phone. Even though I have worked with gardens and growing things for awhile, it is still really exciting to be able to see the changes over the course of the season. I also know that annual plants are supposed to produce seeds, wither and die at the end of their life cycle. But it’s still always a little sad to witness the green garden I nurtured turning brown and crumbly.
My contract with the community garden stipulated that I had to vacate my plot by October 15th. I finally got around to pulling out the dead plants two weeks later, and putting their considerable biomass into the dumpster at the park. In an act of minor rebellion, I left my sage (which was still abundant and green) and the still-blooming sweet alyssum (which had grown huge and floofy.)
Sweet alyssum (mid June)
Sweet alyssum (late October)
The days here in Michigan are turning colder and rainier, which gives me the opportunity to upload and organize all those summer garden photos. I was trying to use Flickr to arrange photos taken of the same of angle of the garden in chronological order, to show the planting, growth and decline of each section. I’m ambivalent about the results, but readers are welcome to check them out here.
I think it may be better to just showcase specific plants in their various life stages. Even the dried-out sunflowers make me pretty happy (I used to see goldfinches eating the seeds, but my camera skills are not strong enough to get a good picture of the birds).
It’s nearing the end of October, and I realize I haven’t posted in a while.
From abandoned draft post from August:
“It’s been a busy summer. During the week, I spent my daylight hours outside working at camp or admiring my garden. On the weekend, I attempt to recover from the week! I do a lot of laundry (camp gets clothes very dirty), hoard recyclables for projects, purchase more yogurt and granola bars, and hopefully, sleep.
Lots of things have fallen by the wayside: Email correspondence, house cleaning, reading library books… and blog posting.”
My summer job at a nature center summer camp has morphed into a fall job as an educator at the nature center’s school and public programs. My hours are more flexible and am starting to have time for many of the activities I put on the back burner over the summer.
Readers of my adventures with Beanstalk Children’s Garden in Kansas City, MO may remember my stint with the Portulaca Witness Protection Program. I was deeply invested in transplanting volunteer Portulaca grandiflora (moss rose) seedlings from the cracks between the garden path bricks into new homes at the base of our raised beds. The relocated plants turned out to be pretty successful at thriving at the new sites!
Here in Michigan, I’ve decided to put some of that portulaca cloning to work in my summer garden plot at the community garden. I started with a few portulaca seedlings that I purchased in flats at local nurseries. I planted these in the gaps between the bricks of my raised bed.
by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After the initial stress of being transplanted, the portulaca plants recovered and began producing new sprays of fleshy leaves. I broke off some of the smaller tufts of new growth to produce cuttings for propagation. From the cutting itself, I also removed the leaves from the stem portion that would be covered by the rooting medium.
New growth on portulaca by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Small tuft of new growth with stem. I removed some of the leaves along the stem to plant it in a rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Portulaca cuttings to be rooted! by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
In an old aluminum foil baking pan, I mixed vermiculite and coir (coconut fiber) with water to create a rooting medium. (Kind of looks like brownies!) I tucked the cuttings into this substrate, kept it moist and out of direct sunlight until they developed some roots.
Vermiculite, Coir & Water to create rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Bury cuttings stems in moist rooting medium. by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
Close up of cuttings by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0
After about 2 weeks, the cuttings’ roots had grown large enough for me to attempt transplantation back into the garden.
Portulaca are hardy plants with succulent leaves/stems that do well in sandy/well-drained soil, as well as tight places like cracks between bricks. In my experience, it’s easier to transplant a small portulaca seedling (volunteer or cutting with developed roots) into a gap than smoosh a whole plant (i.e. from nursery flat) into a larger space.
If the portulaca seedlings take to their new homes, the growing plants will spread out across the bricks, creating a beautiful “carpet” effect, as well as providing nectar to insects. I never keep track of the flower color of the parent from which I take the cuttings, so it will be a surprise to see what colors combinations emerge.
I haven’t had much luck making a cutting and immediately sticking it directly into the soil. The cuttings always seem to dry out too quickly and wither, unless they have a set of well-developed roots. Even with roots, the transplants must be watered frequently for the first few days.
Putting in the baby portulaca seedlings only managed to feed my vision of portulaca carpeting the outside of the brick raised-bed. So I made some more cuttings from the original parent plants. Still didn’t keep track of colors.
End of Season Update: November 9, 2017
A large proportion of my baby portulaca cuttings failed to root. However, the ones that did managed to bring a lot of color to the bricks of the raised beds. Towards of the end of the summer, I discovered many of the portulaca plants ripped out of the cracks by the roots, with the green parts nibbled away. My guess is that deer visiting the garden decided that these were tasty, or at least worth some nibble attention.