World Soil Day – Dec. 5th

harvesting sweet potatoes in field
Harvesting Sweet Potatoes in Mechanicsville, VA. Lance Cheung, U.S. Department of Agriculture (2013) CC BY 2.0, on Flickr

In case you missed it, this past Monday, December 5th, was World Soil Day! Yay!

In this Onion piece, Scientists Make Discovery About World’s Silt Deposits But Understand If You Aren’t Interested In That. Similarly, you might gaze glassy-eyed at my exclamatory proclamation about soils, and move on to celebrity gossip or waffle recipes.

However, here at the Protopian Pickle Jar, I’m offering some reasons for blog-reading, clothes-wearing, oxygen-breathing, food-eating humans to get excited about soils!

Everything We Eat and Everything We Wear!
In TEVA, we taught the kids a chant: “Sun, Soil, Water, Air! Everything we eat and everything we wear!” Then, we challenged them to come up with an item that did not derive its existence from any of those things. (It’s rhyming version of the adage I learned in my undergrad earth science classes, “If it’s not grown, it’s mined.”) No matter what they came up with (plastic dinosaurs, fuzzy socks, water bottles) we were able to trace back its origin to a natural resource.

Every piece of clothing I’m wearing (including dyes, zippers, elastics and snaps)from my cotton underwear to my wool socks to my poly-blend shirt ultimately began with the soil. (Synthetics made from petroleum-based chemicals are mined from oil, which develops from long-dead marine algae, a kind of deposit of ancient solar energy.) Every item of food I eat – fruit, veggies, grains, meat, dairy, mineral supplements- began with the soil.* (Even food that comes from marine ecosystems is still linked to and dependent upon terrestrial soils.)

Ecosystem Services
While I was busy playing with the internet, earth’s soil bacteria are running the planet’s biogeochemical cycles. These soil-dwelling microbes are quietly moving the Earth’s carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur (and other elements!) through the biosphere using a series of metabolic handoffs. The bacteria may just be trying to get some energy (we might say, “Eat!”) by moving a few electrons around. Collectively, these reactions produce the atmosphere we breathe, the greenhouse gases and feedbacks that drive our habitable global climate, and fix the soil nutrients required for plants to photosynthesize.

One example of how microbes affect our environment : During the Biosphere 2 experiment, scientists sealed inside the closed environment faced incredibly low oxygen levels (dropping from ambient 21% to 14%). Barely able to breathe, the scientists could not sustain the daily activity required to continue the project. Biosphere 2 designers did not account for high levels of microbial respiration of the organic material in the Bio2 soils that were pulling oxygen out of the enclosed environment.

The Final Frontier
Not only do we rely on these soil microorganisms for the air we breathe and the food we eat, we don’t know very much about them. From the UN FAO Soil Portal: “Soil biology plays a vital role in determining many soil characteristics, yet, being a relatively new science, much remains unknown about soil biology and about how the nature of soil is affected.” We’re still learning how human activities affect soil microbes, often in unintended ways.

For more information, check out the Soil Science Society of America’s blog Soil Matters, Get the Scoop!

Rotten Tomatoes

Tomato rotting on vine
End of Season by TimLewisNM (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

One the downsides of an abundant tomato crop is that the tomatoes ripen faster than humans can organize to pick them. This is especially true of a volunteer-run community garden project. Sunday morning, I agreed to come to help harvest ripe vegetables and to arrange logistics of delivery to food pantries. I hadn’t been to the Mitzvah Garden, a project growing food for local pantries, all summer. I discovered that after working all week at the Children’s garden, I couldn’t force myself to get up early on Sunday morning to … work in another garden. Only a special request from our usual organizer (who would be out of town) got me into my garden clothes for a 6th day of the week.

When I arrived Sunday morning, it was great to catch up with other volunteers whom I hadn’t seen all summer. However, it was finally time to get to work. Other headed for the bell peppers and the cucumbers. I grabbed a “slush bucket” and “good tomato bucket” and headed for the tomato forest. We were both blessed and cursed with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes. The tomato plants burgeoned with ripe fruit, but the humans weren’t fast enough to get them before overripe tomatoes became food for various invertebrates and microorganisms.

As the only tomato harvesting volunteer at first, I realized I need to move methodically down the rows, putting mushy tomatoes in the compost bucket, while keeping the solid citizens in a separate container. Then, I would transfer the good tomatoes to the flats I put strategically at the end of each row. Physically, it was pretty challenging, squatting or kneeling between the rows to reach low-hanging tomatoes.

However, I hadn’t taken into account the sheer … gloppiness of the endeavor. As I reached for tomatoes on the plants, it wasn’t always clear which ones were good tomatoes and which ones were rotten. Putting my hand around rotten tomato often resulted in its explosion, coating my gloves and clothing with stinking, rotten tomato juice. I tried to keep the stinky slush off the good tomatoes (which occasional got splattered) by wiping them off on my pants. Soon, I was completely marinated in a coating of fermented, rotten tomato slime, sweat and dirt.

Eventually, other volunteers joined us to help harvest tomatoes (and then some of them snuck away to do other activities.) I let other people deal with the good tomatoes and focused on the slushy ones. I made 4 separate trips to the compost pile to re-empty my bucket of rotten tomato paste. I also hadn’t counted on the sheer volume of tomatoes I was dealing with: Even with perhaps a 3 to 1 ratio of mushy tomatoes to good tomatoes, we still ended up with 8 flats of tomatoes for delivery! Though there was a silver lining to our adventure, I was too miserable and smelly by the end of the harvest to appreciate the mitzvah.

As I walked in to the house, I stripped off my filthy shoes, hat and clothing. Then I made a beeline for the shower. Maybe scientists will some day discover that rotten tomatoes are actually an excellent skin tonic. However, now I think I know why bad comedians are pelted with them: Soaking someone in rotten tomato slime clearly indicates the depth of one’s displeasure with the object. That is all.

Muddy Garden Boots

Muddy rubber boots next to flower pot with pink, yellow and purple flowers
Muddy Garden Boots by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s been raining for days and days. Today was the first sunny day in what seems like ages. The ground is pretty saturated, but it does make it easier to pull up weeds. And it’s always fun to go squishing through the mud, even when it feels like the mud might win by sucking the boots off your feet.

Teva Pants

flowers growing out of planters made out of blue jeans
by Craig Sunter (2014) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Today’s Horoscope (read while eating breakfast):
Five Star Day! … If you are single, you could meet someone who knocks your socks off. A new beginning becomes possible.

Me: “I’ll wear my cleanest pair of Teva pants!”

I realized recently that Teva pants make up the bulk of my wardrobe. (For my UK Readers: Where ever I have “pants,” mentally replace with “trousers,” if you prefer. I realize “pants” can mean something different.) By “Teva Pants,” I refer specifically to pants that I have worn in the capacity as a farmer/gardener/outdoor Teva (“nature”) educator.

Most of these garments are made of quick-drying synthetic material that is opaque to UV rays and mostly impervious to bugs (especially when the cuffs are tucked into socks.) These are  good for most weather, with addition of warm layers when it’s cold. I also have 2 pairs of ancient L.L. Bean flannel-lined pants that have helped me survive a New England winter. Teva pants are comfortable, allowing me to run, jump, squat, crawl and other bodily contortions without limiting my range of movement. They protect me from sticks and rocks and thorns and sun.

Some of my Teva pants have been purchased new from fancy catalogs and sporting goods stores, others have been picked up at thrift shops. Most of them have multitudinous pockets, which are extremely useful when out on the farm or in the woods. It is also very important to check the pockets of your Teva pants before washing, because God only know what will turn up in there (interesting rocks, magnifying glasses, rubber chickens, used hankies, multi-tools, popsicle sticks, yarn, film canisters, sharpies, etc.) My Teva pants have been washed a lot. They bear the record of hard use. Mysterious stains and wear marks offer clues to the liberal splotches of mud, blood, goat poop, chicken poop, tree sap, strawberry jam, rust, dust, paint, grease and grime that have coated them at various times.

Teva pants are rarely flattering. Aside from being beat-up hard-working pants, shoving stuff in the pockets tends to ruin the nicest of silhouettes. If by chance my Teva pants were becoming, I would retire them as Teva pants and save them for trips into town.

As an educator, I managed to shower at least once a week and put on clean, non-Teva clothes. As this usually coincided with the occurrence of Shabbat on Friday nights, so it wasn’t unusual to hear “You look so nice! You took a shower and put on clean clothes!” as a completely sincere compliment offered to housemates. One of my colleagues termed these “Shab-servations,” since they weren’t really compliments intended to flatter, merely observations of the fact that people tended to clean up before Shabbat.

Even when I’m not working as an environmental educator, I still love to wear my Teva pants out in suburban Kansas City. My well-meaning family members have tried to discourage this practice. They may have a point.

Teva pants don’t belong at a fancy dinner or job interview. Teva Pants are probably not appropriate to wear on a date (unless its a hiking date.) Teva pants do not tell other people, “This is an important person.” Instead, Teva pants favor function over fashion. They may be frumptastic, but Teva pants don’t care. They have rocks to climb and chickens to feed, slugs to examine and kids to teach. In my ideal job, I would wear Teva pants every day.

Edit December 22, 2016: It’s not just me! Writer Stephanie Land on her beloved, beaten-up Carhartts.

Get Dirty

Too tired to write anything of my own, but this post by Storyshucker encapsulates how I feel about hanging out in the woods and in the garden.


I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that…

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19th century woman kissing soldier in red coat
Movie poster for “Far From the Madding Crowd” Fox Searchlight Pictures (2015) Source:

As is our quasi-religious tradition, my mom frequently sends me emailed articles from the New York Times. This morning, in an email about old-school oscillating exercise machines, there was an attached NYTimes ad (see image above) for the new film based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd

It may be the lack of sleep and over-caffeination hangover of this crazy moving week, but my heart gave a leap when I saw the ad. Could this movie poster be an omen?

Aside from being notable as the only Thomas Hardy novel with a happy ending (literature people, can you confirm?), Far from the Madding Crowd is about a beautiful lady farmer named Bathsheba who has adventures as various suitors seek her hand in marriage. They are also seeking her very nice farm. (Farmer! Bathsheba! Suitors!) There are charming depictions of sheep and haystacks (which are slightly less charming when they’re running over cliffs or being on fire.)

As an occasional farmer (sort of) named Bathsheba, I, too, would like to entertain suitors for my hand! (Suitors for dates over coffee would also be okay.) To be fair though, two out of the three suitors in the novel were terrible. The guy Bathsheba ends up with – solid, reliable Gabriel Oak- may not be flashy, but he’s definitely the best boyfriend material. He’s also handy with a pitchfork and a trocar.

At Isabella Freedman, my housemates and I had a running joke about my proper acquisition of suitors. Suitors, not hookups. Developing an OkCupid profile was a whole-house project, created around the kitchen table. (One of the proposed user-names, “Batsheva-in-search-of-Man,” was deemed hilarious for its reference to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “God in Search of Man,” but I decided not to use it lest people take it too literally.)

I first read Far from the Madding Crowd as a freshling in college. Though not for a literature course. I read it because one of the other students in my astronomy lab recommended I read it when she learned my name. “Oh, there’s a book with a heroine named Bathsheba!” I found a paperback copy in a used bookstore near campus and it was my bedtime book for the rest of the semester. I still haven’t seen the classic Julie Christie film version (1967), but I’m seriously thinking about taking myself to the local art theater to see this new release in a few weeks. Maybe I can be a fangirl and camp outside for a midnight showing, and bring along one of my nephew’s stuffed lamb toys.

Tangents for this post:
“Far from the madding crowd” is a line taken from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard”
Online dating for farmers:

Frozen in Place (an unlikely story about chickens)

It was really, really cold this morning for Kansas City. Temperatures were at 10 deg F at 10:45 am this morning, with a windchill of -9 deg F (-12/-22 deg C), and it was even colder earlier at 7am. Several local school districts cancelled classes today because they didn’t want their students to risk frostbite and/or hypothermia waiting for school buses. I decided not to attend a 9am presentation of 1 Million Cups at the Kauffman Foundation (which I was planning on mostly for the social value of getting out of the house) and live streamed it instead on my computer while sitting in my pajamas.

It was an interesting presentation, I learned about a couple of nifty organizations and their business models, and by streaming it, completely defeated the purpose of networking with other actual humans. While congratulating myself on efficiency and tech-savvy for learning to use the application, I cringed at my laziness and cowardice in the face of cold temperatures. This was not the way of my outdoor educator/farmer self!

Flashback, last winter (Jan 2014): Northwest CT, like much of the U.S., was in the frigid grip of the Polar Vortex. I was living in Beit Adamah, residential housing at Isabella Freedman, as a winter work-trade volunteer. When we got lots of snow, I figured “Well, we are in the Berkshires” and when temperatures dropped for many days into the single digits (F), I thought, “Well, CT is a lot further north than Kansas – it’s probably always like this!”

I grew adept at layering clothing. To start with, regular bra and underwear, microfiber tanktop, then wool socks, long underwear tops & bottoms; then flannel-lined pants, flannel shirt and hoodie or polar fleece or wool sweater. (Did I mention there was a lot of flannel?) For outside, add 2nd pair of socks, parka with hood, hat, scarf, two pairs gloves, insulated snowpants and calf-high insulated snowboots. Every time we prepared to leave a building, it was like getting ready for an Antarctic expedition. The amount of clothing/outerwear we shed upon entering hallways/and entranceways appeared disproportionately large compared to the number of people who had just shucked them off.

Dressing warmly for outside activity became especially important during my task of caring for the chickens.

Winter chickens by Stephanie via
Winter chickens by Stephanie via

During normal winter temperatures (30s-40s deg F), the task was messy, but not particularly difficult. After all, you have greater mobility when you can wear fewer layers of clothing. However, always keep in mind that your outer layer will be covered in chicken poop.

  • In the morning, I let the chickens out of the coop where they lived overnight, made sure they had food and fresh water, cleaned the poop off the nesting boxes/roosts and collected eggs. Our procedure was to cover the liquid poop in the bedding with additional carbon- this case, it was sawdust from a cabinet maker- to create a deep bedding system in the coop.
  • At dusk, I made sure all the chickens had “put themselves to bed” – climbing back into the coop to roost for the night- which they usually did automatically as soon as it got dark, checked for evening eggs, and locked the coop up against predators.

About Chicken Food: Chickens are an integral part of the compost system at Isabella Freedman (which I’ll explain in another post). When the retreat center is open, the chickens mostly eat food scraps from the dining hall (which they delicately pick out of the compost pile) supplemented with some grain-based chicken feed.

During the Polar Vortex event,  my entire chicken-care procedure became more complicated.  First, when the compost pile freezes solid in extreme cold, it prevents chicken foraging, and we had to increase the amount of grain we fed them. I had to scatter the chicken feed in an egalitarian fashion: Long spread-out lines with enough “edge” area to allow many chickens to eat at the same time with a little space between. Otherwise, the chickens lower in the social pecking order (which is literal with chickens) would never get a crack at eating the grain.

Second, the chicken poop in the coop freezes solid.  On the pro side, this meant that less chicken poop would stick to my outermost layer of clothing (a plus for my friends and colleagues!)  On the con side, it meant I had to remove really, really solid ice-chunks of poop from the chicken nesting boxes.

I removed the trays from the bottom of the nesting boxes and banged them against the roosts, causing loud clanging noises and frightening the chickens.  Sometimes this percussion was enough to dislodge the poop, sometimes not.  I admit to occasionally cheating by layering sawdust on top of frozen poop, hoping it would capture the nitrogen-rich poop when the poopsicle eventually thawed.   I also would knock my metal shovel blade against the frozen poop stuck to the wooden roosts , which proved effective at poop removal, but gouged up the roosts.

Third, the condensation collecting in the sawdust storage containers also had a tendency to freeze in the super-cold weather, creating sawdust “bricks” that needed to be smushed apart under the ministrations of my shovel.

Fourth, the “frost-free” pump closest to the chicken coop froze early in the season, rendering it inoperable.  Luckily, there was a 2nd frost-free pump that was actually frost-free, but it was located a much longer distance up a hill, the incline of which is very noticeable under the weight of a full bucket of water  while walking through 6 inches of snow.  I had to remember  to chip out the slushy ice-cake out of the chickens’  water dish  before I put them to bed, otherwise it would be impossible to remove the next morning and replace with fresh water.

Finally, eggs left in the coop for longer than a few hours during the extreme cold would freeze and crack.  This did not affect the edibility of the egg – if you collected it before it defrosted.  Otherwise, poop, feathers, and sawdust would stick to the thawing egg oozing from the cracked shell, rendering the eggs unappetizing for human consumption.  (The chickens would still peck at them,  so I used to to try to discreetly smash them out of sight of the coop to discourage egg-eating behavior.)

Despite these challenges, taking care of the chickens was one of my favorite tasks ever! ( I think another post will be required to explore why.)

Also, the discomfort of being cold helped me recognize the pleasure of getting warm.  Among my other duties was to periodically clean, refill and re-boot the wood-pellet stove that heated the downstairs of Beit Adamah (our house). This involved schlepping the 40 lb bag of wood pellets from the basement up to main living area, and hefting the opened bag with enough skill to refill the main pellet hopper of the stove, without getting pellets all over the place. I became very proud of my core muscle strength honed during this process. The stove, coupled with the adjustable thermostat that triggered the automatic electrical “re-light,” kept the downstairs remarkably cozy.

There were few things that were more satisfying than taking off my chicken-y snowboots and coat, picking the feathers out of my hat and relaxing in the warmth of that pellet stove.  Back in Kansas, I recently wore my snowboots for the first snowfall of this winter.  It was great to wear them again, old insulated friends. While taking them off, I noticed a faint residue of brownish dried stuff in the outer crevices – a possible poo-souvenir of some very memorable experiences.

Tangents for this post:

On the spelling of “canceled v. cancelled.”
Live Science on Crazy Things That Happen When It’s Really Cold.
Dressing for Antarctica.