Monday, August 25, 2014

Semiotics of Soil

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A week ago I went to hear Dan Barber give a talk with Elizabeth Kolbert about his book, The Third Plate. Some of you may remember my brief mention of him in my notapoem, “Notes On A Poem About Compost.”

Toward the end of the event, Barber answered seven questions collected from the audience on index cards. Highlights include: MY QUESTION WAS THE SECOND CARD PICKED!

(Or another folk—or folks—had the same question. Totally possible. Not as awesome-feeling. That question, “how do you define “local”? deserves a post, err, dissertation all its own.)  

Another question got to the marrow of what would be the third plate of the Berkshires. To explain in one sentence or less what Barber takes a whole book to investigate, the “Third Plate,” explores the “local” equivalent of terroir that we could hope to see in 2050.
Barber’s answer, “Rotation Risotto,” made me hungry. He gave a waiter’s explanation of Rotation Risotto; “it’s nose to tail eating of the whole farm” The dish include the crops needed for crop rotation, or companion planting, on Blue Hill Farm.   

In the Epilogue of his book, Barber describes this dish as the second course of an entire menu of “whole farm cooking." He also mentions “single udder butter,” which I think I kinda want to eat all day, every day…… Christmas is coming. Please take me to Blue Hill Farm!

The trick to the flavor of the milk used for butter, the epilogue explains, is most certainly and obviously the cow’s diet. Grazing on plants that grow in nutrient-rich soil determines the flavor of the milk, and therefore butter, that is the kind of dreamy butter that I’m dreaming of now.

Barber’s epilogue explains how taste works for that butter, that 'the trick is to learn the language of the soil.’

All you need to know about language: language generally refers to the learning and use of communication systems, their rules, and what those rule can produce. Semiotics is the relating of signs with meanings. All languages rely on this.

The semiotics of soil are fairly clear. Take the dust bowl of the dirty 30’s. The application of European agricultural practices to land that was, well, in America, led to a dusty shit storm. We know Dorthea Lange’s powerful photographs about this:

The dirty 30’s forced us to relate the signs (dust storms) with meanings (we’re in deep, dusty trouble, we need to change our practices). The semiotics there are clear. There was a big breakdown in the communication system. We didn’t do language right in that situation.

Take a different example of a semiotic-soil-situation; the companion planting process known as the three sisters. The three sisters, corn (maize), beans, and squash, feed the soil and protect each other in specific ways.

Beans climb the corn. Beans feed the soil nitrogen, which the corn gobbles right up. Squash acts as a weed-blocker, like a mulch. The three crops together also fulfill a wide range of dietary needs. How awesome is that!

The semiotics in the example of the three sisters is pretty clear, too. The signs are that these crops help each other, and together provide a good nutritional assemblage. The meanings are even more lucid. This works, this is symbiotic and smart.  

Granted, thinking about “the language” of soil is an exercise in metaphor. But it is an important exercise. “Learning the language of soil” is what will teach us to agricultural practices that we need in order to feed the world’s population. And it will keep that beautiful single utter butter coming!*

*Dan Barber, if you’re reading this, do you ship your butter to Albany?....   

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Ceci n'est pas une puppy. (final pun. apologies to the semiotic godfather, Magritte.)

Blue Hill at Stone Barns:

semiotics for beginners:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Soil vs. Sadness

No matter which way you cut it, this week has been a monster with particularly goopey eyes. Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, the frustration in just hearing the words Ferguson, ISIS, or Gaza…. As one friend put it, “this [crap] makes you rethink a disbelief in cosmic convergence.”

I have two words that don’t pretend to solve any collective sadness, but two words that, nonetheless, are worth considering: Microbacterium vaccae.

I’ll save you the trouble of going to Wikipedia.
Mycobacterium vaccae is a nonpathogenic[1] species of the Mycobacteriaceae family of bacteria that lives naturally in soil. Its name originates from the Latin word, vacca (cow), since it was first cultured from cow dung in Austria.[2] Research areas being pursued with regard to killed Mycobacterium vaccae vaccine include immunotherapy for allergic asthma, cancer, depression, leprosy,[3] psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema and tuberculosis.[3]

This bacteria is the stuff that *may* up serotonin production.* Serotonin, as we all know and love, is the happy neurotransmitter. This isn't bull shit (har har). We need it.

Maybe getting a little dirtier would be a good thing.

Maybe there’s a reason why mud baths are so expensive, and (supposedly) so awesome. I don’t know of what I speak. I’ve never had an expensive mud bath. Should start a kickstarter fund to go get a mud bath at a proper spa.  

Mycobacterium vaccae raises questions about a lot of things. About pica (dirt eating). About eating unwashed things from my garden. (Think tomatoes, not old socks.) I know I’m likely to eat a bit of dirt while I’m out there. Don’t judge me.

It also raises other questions. About what exactly happens when we get our hands dirty in the garden. About “kids these days” playing their “dang video games” instead of “going out and getting muddy.” About even how dang video games can send us out to go get muddy.

The dang video game that I love the best is SuperBetter. It’s a game brought to us by the genius, Jane McGonigal (author of Reality Is Broken).You can play alone, but it is better when you play with others. You do things in real life (“power-ups”) that will give you points in the game. My favorite ones send me outside to dig in the dirt. 

Check it out. Heck, send me a note and I’ll play with you.

We all need each other right now, and always. We need a relationship with soil, now and always.

I’m not disconnected from reality. Neither rubbing soil all over one’s self nor eating mud-pies are medically suggested cures for depression. Nor will they cause a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. Or Missouri. Furthermore, I cut and pasted that Science from Wikipedia—that isn’t gospel.

But if you want to dig deeper into the science behind mycobacterium vaccae, do it. Next time you feel like crap and feel the temptation to lose yourself in cat videos on the internet, try something else first. See what happens if you go in your back yard and dig for a while instead. Bring a friend. Tell them that you love them.

(My dirty dog.)

In case you don’t feel like reading anymore, here’s a video of Jane McGonigal explaining Super Better:

Super Better:


*This is “may” as in “maybe might.” For the sake of being sensible, know that I am not a medical doctor and am not offering medical advice.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Soil On The Strip

Instructions for my time in Pittsburgh:

"Gryphons tea - I sent you an invite to their FB page. Gryphon is a tea sommelier. I had no idea that was a thing before"

"... There's a local whiskey distillery called Wigle...." (That's all I absorbed. Wigle!)

"Make sure to got to the strip on a weekend morning for coffee at la prima and tacos on the street for lunch"

I carved out 2 hours yesterday morning to wander the area known as The Strip. In town for the Garden Writers Association, a pilgrimage for tea sounded appropriate.

 I boarded the local hotel shuttle. Without ceremony, it left me 21 blocks from my destination. TWENTY ONE. As in 2.21 miles. This wasn't going to work in my timetable. Here's mud in my eye.

This walk was beginning to look a lot like bullshit. Later that day, Sally Cunningham would describe the perception of Pittsburgh as that of a "dirty, dying, industrial" city. Spot on so far.

There had to be a mimosa back at the hotel with my name tag on it.I turn to the nearest building (in desperate need of a wall to bang my head against). I see this:

Grains of change have accepted the challenge of The Strip. Their projects, in one way or another, what Cristina da Silva points out as the four challenges to urban soil (compaction, alkalinity, low organic matter, contamination).

If they can take on The Strip, so can I. Challenge accepted.

 Half a mile in, 14 blocks to go. I happen upon The Pittsburgh Juice Company. Much needed green juice & breath catching (did I mention that my journey had begun an unforgiving incline?). The juice people & I talked about their hopes to compost their pulp. Here they are saying "something juicy."

There's more urban gardening in these here parts than I expected! I saw it as a sign. First, because billboards are signs. Secondly, that night we were going to a big, beautiful dinner at the zoo.

Holy wild carrots, batman! I'm a mile in, and feeling hopeful. If the zombie apocalypse comes, The Strip will be fine!

I look up. I'm not on the right street anymore. This is not good. My phone does some alchemy and it sends me left, and down a hill.

This is adorable.
Obviously put here to mock me, and The Strip.
This ain't gardening land.

My feet are ready to fall off.
I kinda want to cry.

Trekking on. Half a mile left.

A Little Shop Of Horrors-esq cabbage encroaching on the sidewalk. Or what was a cabbage until very recently...

 And then Eden.

Hidden between buildings, and looking like it once had the bones of a parking-lot. A secret gem of a community garden. Big, beautiful tomatoes the size of things from Indiana Jones movies.

A quater mile left. Grapes creeping over a rusting chain link fence. How did these plants happen?
The soil here is hard as pavement, the color of old, store brand cocoa mix. How can they live in this?

Before I realize it, I'm at the bottom of the hill. I'm at Gryphon's stoop. I go in.

Jasmine pearls, jasmine flowers, jasmine salt, I buy it all! Gryphon, the quiet and kind tea sommelier, and all of his jars, were certainly worth walking toward.

 I boarded a cab back to my hotel. The Strip woke up in the two hours I had been walking. Farm stands boasted meaty melons, street tacos were finally on the street.If theres an allegory in my self-guided urban garden tour of The Strip, I don't care about it.

I have shoe bites (bad), jasmine flowers (good). That unexpected decapitated cabbage plant is going to stick with me. The Strip was, thankfully, unexpectedly dirty.

Gimme some sugar, Pittsburgh.


Monday, August 4, 2014

Notes On A Poem About Compost

Notes On A Poem About Compost

If I were to write a poem about my compost it would contain the following things:

Its beginning would be in the midst of things. In medias res, as Toni Morrison favors. Obviously because the process of compost matters more than its beginning or ending.

Lexicon: words warm with nitrogen, like sludgy, unctuous, thick. To show I really mean it, I’d dip into other languages. Composta, Kompost, SERCUS. Italian, German, LATIN.

I’d make up words, too. Soillusion, Soiliteration, Soilitude.

Major Theme: duality. My compost is me yet not me. A mirror of my living—it shows me the exact opposite of what I eat (edible/inedible). The what I don’t eat of what I eat.  


Minor Theme: tomato seeds that end up in my compost come from roasted balsamic tomato soup. If you have eaten more than one meal at my home, you have probably had this soup with grilled cheese sandwiches. You’d remember it for its texture. Roast the tomatoes, run them through a food mill. The captured seeds go, en masse into my compost. When I henceforth use my compost, tomatoes grow where said compost has been spread. Those poor seeds have gone through figurative hell and high water to germinate.

Spiders would represent the unknown. There are so many spiders in my compost bin! Scientifically, I know why. Metaphysically, I do not. They unnerve me. Deeply. The stuff of nightmares. Translucent whitey-green, baby petals of High Light hydrangeas, with long articulate eyelashes for legs. I’d pour a big bag of acid-rich fertilizer into my poem to turn them blue. I could deal with poem-spiders better if they were euphonic in Endless Summer blue.

Protagonists and villains, there would be both.  Good guys: brown leaves and grass clippings, the catalyst I sprinkle in the bin, dryer lint and shredded credit card receipts. Bad guys: dairy, meat-bones, and plastic.

Metonymy. It is literally so much more than what I could ever call it (see the next bullet point for further evidence of this). But not synecdoche. Definitely not synecdoche.

The poem would be full of the things that make up my compost. My mistakes (baking experiments gone bad), my negligence (leftovers). Apology flowers from unforgiven men, first date flowers impugned with chivalric alchemy.

Languorous, lazy similes: “dark as the coffee from my French press,” “rich as the avocado bits clinging to their peels,” “fragrant as the jasmine tea leaves (and arguably just as sweet, depending on one’s definition of sweet).” Maybe even borrow one from someone credible? “Teaming with bacteria; “the proletariat of soil”.” [Borrowed from Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Notes on the Future of Food (2014).]

Personification. His or her (probably “her”) moods change with the seasons. Dependable, yet needy. Mysterious. Transformative. The type who considers Malbec a summer libation, is free with her elegant laugh and scribbles poems on napkins. (note to reader: I definitely did not compose this essay on a napkin.)

Form and function. Here I’m stuck. A big pile of words that tossed together? Lines in geological layers? Dumped in the center of the page? White type, a black background? A haiku?


Bursting with clich├ęs and too many poetic devices. The kind of disgustingly overly precious writing.

Such a poem would pain me to write it; moreover, it would pain you to read it. That poem would be a big pile of garbage.

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Notes on the Future of Food. Should be required reading for all cooks, farmers, and eaters.

On changing the color of your hydrangeas: