Extraction Mentality

Of all the joys of gardening, the fistfuls of blooms and the tomatoes glistening in the rain, among the most magical, though least Instagrammable, is composting. I love composting. I’m in awe of it. As I turn it, I often pull up big pitchforkfuls to look at more closely, to try to try to glimpse just some of the life teeming inside. Some of it is visible—the red wrigglers squirming, the sowbugs skittering—but so much of the important work is done by microbes and bacteria and fungi, microscopic life I imagine as galaxies held in the palm of my hand.

All of our scraps and peelings, the cores and pits and tough stems, are mixed with leaves I’ve whisked away from people’s curbs, and in the end we have something that nourishes the garden. Something that not only gets rid of trash, but creates life. It’s a beautiful closed-loop system. (Or it would be if I grew all my own food.) I feed it, it feeds me.

So much of modern agriculture is based on extraction, getting all that we can get from our soil, relying on cheap fixes, like nitrogen fertilizer, like pesticides and herbicides, to get more now, with little concern for the future. Outputs matter more than inputs. It’s, like so many things, a one-way street from the earth to us. It’s an extraction mentality.

I’ve just joined my local co-op, the only one left in Toronto, though from a financial point of view, it’s not a clear win. There’s a membership fee, and I contribute two hours’ of labour each month. I won’t do all my shopping there, as my spending would take a considerable leap, and I’m not quite ready for that yet. Which is all to say, financially, it might not be the right choice.

But that’s extraction mentality. And such a small part of the picture. By shopping there, I can support local farmers who treat the earth and their labour well, and in turn, benefit both. I can support local, ethical companies. I can use less packaging. I can contribute my skills and time to my community. I can learn from people who know more and share what I know.

I feel really good about my choice. And not just because they removed the Nestlé products from their shelves, or because they have a new climate change mural, or because they vermicompost their food scraps or offer package-free tofu made in Quebec or bulk rice from Flin-Flon, Manitoba. Somehow all those little reasons, like adjustments in a yoga class, combine into something greater, bring me closer into alignment with who I want to be. But beyond that, beyond how I benefit, it gives me a chance to help close the loop.

A co-op takes its profits back into its staff and community, and the loop becomes a spiral, progressing in a sustainable way. If it were a garden, it would have great soil. It’s a reminder we aren’t nourished just by what we take, but by what we contribute. This sounds obvious, I know, but it’s not how our society is organized in the rush for the bottom price, the bottom line, to get what’s ours. Extraction is everywhere. Our inability to close the carbon loop is now a very real threat to human existence in the long-term.

And maybe this is the zeal of the recent convert, but I’m ready to get my hands dirty. I’m ready to strengthen my local ecosystems one purchase, one conversation, one volunteer shift at a time. I’m ready to invest in what’s good, what’s working, what benefits more people. I’m ready to put in a little more and to wait and watch for what new galaxies reveal themselves.

Opportunity Abounds

Reading books and articles about the environment is not for the faint of heart. Most times it’s a terrible cocktail of panic, anger, shame, despair, and depression, the kind of toxic mixture that could topple a moose. I think it’s important, yes, but it comes at a psychological cost. So imagine how happy (and surprised) I was to discover that Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, left me feeling a bit optimistic.

Drawdown is the work of an international panel of scientists, policy makers, researchers, and other professionals to assess, practically and scientifically, solutions for drawing down carbon reversing climate change. Yes, not just delaying, but reversing. Each of the 100 solutions presented (and ranked) in the book is assessed by conservative implementation rates by 2050, and then assessed for amount of carbon drawdown (removing carbon from the atmosphere), cost to implement, and ongoing costs or savings. And guess what? For most of these strategies, we end up with savings. Millions or billions of dollars of savings.

As conservative provincial governments in Canada fight the national carbon tax, and go on and on about protecting oil jobs for the benefit of the economy, it’s incredibly important to realize that we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy. We’re not looking at an even playing field anyway: according to an International Monetary Fund estimate, in 2015 alone the fossil fuel industry received more that $5.3 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies. That’s a staggering $10 million dollars per minute. No wonder alternative energy seems expensive by comparison. But even setting that aside, right now in the U.S., more people are employed by the solar industry than by oil, gas, and coal combined. (And, spoiler: solar isn’t even Drawdown‘s top energy intervention. According to them, the future is wind, baby!) In fact, the book points out that we’re now at the point where “the expense of the problems in the world now outweighs the cost of the solutions.” Doing the right thing doesn’t have to cost more. In fact, it’s a bargain.

As I read this very readable, reasonable book, I was struck by an abundance of opportunity. Not just in the 100 solutions, but in the way the solutions often had incredible ancillary benefits. For example, if cattle farmers were to graze their cows on forested land (rather than razing trees for pasture), rotating grazing areas regularly, we’d maintain biodiversity, keep more carbon in the soil, have healthier cows, reduce deforestation of vital old forests, and the farmers make more money. Benefits of one intervention become exponential.

There are exponential opportunities in my own life too: deciding to cycle commute means I produce no carbon, I’m more fit, I save money, I’m more in touch with my city, I’m more punctual, and I’m happier. Or take my garden. I learned from Drawdown that “home gardens hold higher carbon sequestration potential compared to monocrop production systems, with sequestration rates comparable to those of mature forest stands” (emphasis mine). But I also reduce carbon produced with my partner and I eating hyper-local, package-free organic food. I get light exercise and healthy food. I support pollinators. I make my own compost, which prevents methane release, requires no fossil fuels, and maintains the soil. I give seeds and plants to other people, making more gardens. I save money most years. It has connected me to nature and my environment, and given me endless opportunities to learn and grow. Oh and there’s the small matter that it’s become what my partner accurately called my “life force.” It’s a daily source of joy and renewal.

I love thinking about changes that create little beneficial ecosystems. Drawdown reminded me that our planet’s story doesn’t have to be one of perpetual degradation. There are so many people around the globe coming up with smart, feasible solutions that make our world better.

Drawdown also brought me back to personal choice and the opportunities it presents. While big, systemic and technological change is absolutely necessary, #3 and #4 on their top 100 were wasting less food and eating less meat. Those are things all of us can do. And while my #zerowaste Instagram feed can sometimes be daunting, reminding me of my failures, the voice of reason eventually prevails. What if everyone cut their meat eating by 50%? What if everyone grew a garden or cycled to work or bought more things secondhand? What if everyone simply reused a jar once before recycling it? Again, exponential results. As the Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau reminds us, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” (I’ll keep quoting this forever, and I’m not sorry.) She reminds us that if just 10,000 people reduced their waste by 10% for a year, 1.6 million pounds of trash would be avoided.

The upside of our environment being in a shambles and our regular habits being so damaging is that there is so much room to improve. Low-hanging fruit abounds. So while I still need to write a letter to our provincial forestry minister about cancelling a tree-planting program, this week I also arranged a couple trades, picked up bulk coffee for a girls trip so people won’t be tempted by disposables, and I’m focusing on regularly eating my radish greens rather than composting them. Opportunity abounds, and with each good thing I do, benefits ripple out. There are benefits for my own tiny ecosystem (my life), and faraway ones I’ll never see or know. And at the end of the day, I’m also conserving another precious resource we need to survive: optimism.

#28goodthings: week 4

It’s the last week of the project and also the first day of spring. And yes, yesterday we woke up to snow-covered ground, but that’s early spring after all. My friend J’s ultimate summer pet peeve is the mix of sun and clouds, which she calls “the dreaded mix,” because at any moment you don’t know what kind of weather you’re in for. Is it time to swim? Do you need a sweater? And that’s spring, a dreaded mix season. And yet once the mix contains more lamb than lion, it’s probably my favourite. Because there’s nothing so fragile, so precious, so hard won as a beautiful spring day. That day when it’s unseasonably warm, and the sidewalks and parks and patios are filled with underdressed people smiling? That’s my favourite day of the year.

We can’t count on the weather, but here are a few things that can add some sunshine to the dreaded mix of our days:

  1. Take a hike. I don’t mean an actual hike (though you could!), just get out and walk for at least fifteen minutes. Dress for the weather. (The Norwegians say, “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.” I disagree but there’s a good point in there.)  The best place to go for a walk is in a nature, which studies have shown can improve mood. It can even effect you on a cellular level, raising levels of natural killer cells, which combat infection and disease—an effect that can last up to a month. But if you can’t walk in nature, don’t worry: the city is a great place to walk too, and I think there’s no better way to experience it than on foot. Try a new route or neighbourhood, and you’ll likely find even more benefits. And while you’re out there, maybe pick up three pieces of trash, since the receding ice has left our streets strewn with landfill flotsam. This won’t just make things look nice, but will keep that trash from going down storm drains and ending up in our lakes, which have more plastic pollution than the ocean.
  2. Make something beautiful. Take a little time to cultivate beauty in whatever way you find satisfying: your outfit, your makeup, a bookshelf, a vase of flowers from the greengrocer. Beauty is one of the great balms of this troubled world: let’s always make space for it.
  3. Send something in the mail. In a world where an email sometimes doesn’t seem instant enough, snail mail is a beautiful thing. Is there anything as finding an unexpected note in amongst the bills and trash flyers? This week, send something: an encouraging note, an old photo you found, your child’s art, or a little gift. It’ll feel great for your recipient, but I think you’ll find sending it feels pretty damn good too. Another option? Follow the lead of the Love Lettering Project and write a letter to the place you live and leave it for someone else to discover.
  4. Take some time for art. We’ve already experimenting with making art, but what about appreciating it? This week, you might head to the art gallery (the AGO is free on Wednesday nights), pop in a local gallery, or stop to appreciate some street art. It doesn’t have to be visual art either: take the time to listen, just listen, to an album, or even just a whole song. Give it your full attention.
  5. Get bored. We started carrying tiny computers in our pockets and we became afraid of boredom. But boredom is good for you. It can make you happier, more creative, and even more productive. If you’re skeptical, check out the five-episode Bored and Brilliant project on Note to Self podcast. Manoush Zomorodi is maybe my favourite podcast host, and this series really encouraged me to leave a little stimulus-free space in my life. (Manoush also turned the series into a book, which I haven’t read, but I imagine is great.) So next time you’re taking the subway or waiting at the doctor’s, don’t reach for a distraction. See where your thoughts take you.
  6. Donate to an organization doing good work. I know, I said nothing in this project had to cost anything. And that’s true, but if there was ever a worthy exception, it’s this. I overhauled my giving habits last year, and it’s brought me a lot of satisfaction. You could also donate rewards points or air miles or your time. But most people reading this will have a few dollars to spare. Think of the last thing you splurged on, like a cab or takeout or even a fancy coffee. Try to donate at least that much.
  7. Grow something. It’s been one of the great surprises of my adult life that there is so much satisfaction in growing things. And if you ask me, at the end of this long, cold, snowy winter, nothing is more exciting than new life pushing through. You may think you have a brown thumb, but you don’t. With the right plant and the right conditions (and maybe a reminder to water on your phone: I use one!), anyone can grow things. This prompt might mean buying a low-maintenance houseplant, or trying to separate or root something you already own. (Many plants propagate really well in water!) You could try growing some sprouts or microgreens indoors. By the end of this week, the soil might still be frozen outside, but it will thaw sooner than you think. Before the month is over, I’ll be planting peas and spinach and the tops of my garlic will be pushing through.

So we’ve come to the end, and I hope these prompts have brought a little spark to these seemingly endless late winter days. I hope they helped you look at your life and habits with fresh eyes now and again, and that you’ll be able to make time for these things more often. But also I hope they set in motion a domino effect that brought a little goodness to others. We read a lot about the spread of terrible things: hatred and radicalization are front of mind after last week’s Christchurch shootings. And I’m not insinuating that a little gardening or more walks can stop mass murder: let’s look at gun control, at hate speech, at social policy. But change happens from on high and also at a grassroots level. Small actions do matter. How we treat each other, how we treat ourselves matters. Engagement and positivity, respect and generosity, they spread too, and I hope these are seeds that germinate in others.

If you’re in Canada and you’ve read along, thank you! I’d love to make my metaphor literal and send you some peas to grow. So if that appeals, send me an email with your favourite prompt from the project and your mailing address, and I’ll send you some seeds from my own garden. You could grow them in a sunny patch of soil, even in a pot on a balcony or patio, so long as they have about six hours of sunlight a day and something to climb. Let those little peas be a reminder that even in the cold, dark days of early spring, with some care and attention, good things will always grow.

Monty and Me

One of winter’s great tricks is that it can make spring seem impossibly far away, if not impossible all together. When the wind blows -35, feels like the stab of icicles on any skin you’ve dared swath in only one layer, all those fragile spring petals seem like the stuff of science fiction.

Luckily, just as my patience with winter was as thin as black ice, the right hero strode into my life: Monty Don, long-time British gardening guru. Looking for some soothing nighttime viewing, I first slipped into Monty Don’s French Gardens, which sees the lanky, sixty-ish British presenter don a straw hat, fold himself into a tiny Citroen, and drive all over France, showcasing gardens on various themes, such as those that inspired art (think Monet’s garden) or the potager (the stylized French kitchen garden). Monty’s unabashed enthusiasm won me over almost immediately. In one episode, he recounts how he first went to France as a seventeen-year-old, and he still has the gusto of someone that age. If you liked watching the irrepressible Samin Nosrat in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (and who didn’t?), there’s the same by-proxy giddiness in watching Monty bite into a giant field tomato or savour a cherry just plucked from a tree. And of course the gardens are gorgeous: lush and sunny, impeccably maintained. Surely I’ve absorbed some vitamin D through the screen.

So imagine my delight when I discovered Netflix had more Monty for me, including a show I came to love much more than Monty en France: Big Dreams, Small Spaces. This is a sort of garden makeover show, with host/expert Monty acting as a guide, but with the two families in each show tasked with creating and executing a vision, all on their own budget. Monty arrives three or four times over the year the families work on their project, ready to grab a shovel or beat back overgrown brush (he’s shockingly strong despite his wiry frame), but he’s not a designer descending with a SWAT team of handypeople (as in every American makeover program I’ve watched), he’s more of a garden therapist, asking gentle questions and pointing out potential trouble spots. He’s charmingly diplomatic in this role, trying to help people see their own missteps, “I couldn’t help but notice . . .” he might say before pointing out that someone has put their greenhouse in a shady corner.

One thing I’ve long loved about British television is that the people on it don’t seem like Hollywood prefab beauties, and that’s even truer of reality TV. These are instead regular people, wearing regular clothing, and often no makeup at all. They come in all ages and sizes (though in season one, only with white skin), their teeth have never seen a whitestrip. I find it quite arresting, sadly, which really drives home how many artificially beautiful people we look at every day and how that distorts our reality.

And part of the reason I love the show so much is that the gardens feel real too. These are not the showpiece gardens of France: they reflect a wide range of budgets (some as low as about 100 pounds) and personalities, aesthetics and time commitments. If you’ve ever fallen into a sort of HGTV coma for hours, the homes start to blur into a sort of bland parade of sameness: it’s like walking the IKEA showrooms, where the rooms may look different, but they feel almost eerily the same. On Big Dreams, that doesn’t happen: this isn’t one designer just tweaking his or her style for another location and client. These are real people, working under real conditions, with real constraints. Some of the gardens I don’t care for at all, and that’s a sign that they’ve bucked the bland inoffensiveness of so many TV makeovers that suggests a staged house, depersonalized and ready for anyone to move in.

Episodes of Big Dreams also end with a reversal of the usual script: instead of someone having their shiny new life presented to them in a dramatic reveal, the hardworking homeowners must present their handiwork to the host. Since they work most of the year unsupervised, people are invariably nervous for Monty’s final visit. They so much want to please the host, and I get it, I’d be nervous too when I saw those frizzy curls bobbing down the street, his too-big linen suit flapping behind him. But what all those people miss is that Monty really just wants them to be pleased with the results. He wants them to fall in love with gardening. And because what they do is creative and challenging and deeply personal, they often do. Take my favourite, Gary, a long-haul trucker who had an ambitious plan, including a large pond he had to dig himself. He wanted a paradise to come home to spending his workweek on the road. And in the end, this pale, buzz-cutted fellow with a Guns N Roses roadie vibe is moved to tears, because he made his dream come true, and because he’s going to keep making it.

As much as I can get sucked into a makeover show, I’m wary of their capitalist fairytale narratives that suggest our flawed, human lives can be made perfect, at least with a shiny new LG fridge, some mid-century modern chairs, and a distressed leather couch. In any reveal, I always find myself fixating on the improbable bowl of lemons, likely never to be filled again, and thinking about how long the expensive houseplants will be kept alive. Because before and after is of course an artificial concept: there’s only one endpoint, and until then life is just a series of afters.

A garden by its very nature resists the ideal of arrival: growing and changing is what they do. The gardens on this show are often very young, the slips of pear trees years from an actual pear, the hedgerows offering no privacy, the courgettes months from harvesting (and from taking over the garden). As the show concludes we get a sense not of an end, but of a beginning.

In February, every gardener has their own big dreams: this is the time of fantasy-football gardening, building a roster of plants that we imagine will all thrive, that will look just like the photos in the seed catalogues that are gardeners’ SAD lamps. The reality will be different, of course, but what Big Dreams so charmingly illustrates is that it doesn’t really matter—it’ll all come out well enough in the end. Gardens are just like our lives, a constant work-in-progress, and missteps and course corrections will happen. But with care and attention, gardens can be shockingly forgiving. It doesn’t hurt that with a show like this, we all get to have Monty on our side, to ask the right questions and provide tips, yes, but most importantly to remind us to look for joy and satisfaction right in our own backyard.



Eight years of dirty knees

I didn’t really know I wanted a garden until I had one. When I moved into my current apartment eight years ago, I lucked into one already started by Vito, the Italian septuagenarian next door. It wasn’t the main selling feature of the apartment though—that was having friends who lived downstairs and inhabiting the very same house where we gathered for dance parties and barbecues and TV benders and, most importantly, endless conversations as we knit together and pulled apart our lives again and again like so many misshapen scarves.

My friend S had planted some vegetables in the backyard the previous summer, with some coaching over the fence from Vito if she made a misstep (“The seeds, they are too close! You not put two babies in same cradle.”) We decided to go bigger the following year, and I spent the winter reading up on companion planting and frost-free dates and fertilization options. We went to our first Seedy Saturday, our pockets and purses rustling with seed envelopes and our faces flushed with excitement. We attended workshops and learned the importance of soaking seeds and compost balancing and labelling your plants. Our enthusiasm far outstripped our experience, but most of what we planted thrived. It wasn’t always pretty, or optimal, but in our yard, and in our lives, we were learning on the fly.

We carefully plotted a layout each spring, but new things always crept in: asparagus from farm volunteering, strawberry plants from a friend who moved away, a giant rosemary bush for wedding cocktail garnishes. At some point the tree in the backyard that we’d so long overlooked rained down dark purple berries, and once we learned when to eat them we looked forward to this strange new fruit. My friend still climbed on a chair to pick them even when she could rest her mason jar on her pregnant belly. We learned you couldn’t plan for everything—and that sometimes that was even good.

That garden, more than anywhere else, was probably where my friendship with S became a true perennial, becoming bigger and stronger, a thing you could depend on. It was easy to talk about anything when kneeling among the rows, pulling weeds—our relationships, our friends, our futures, the things that scared or excited us. We got to know each other, we got to know ourselves, and we got to know this patch of soil.

S moved out, then she moved back in, then she moved out again—this time to another country—and so now I tend this patch of earth alone. Which is a little bit lonely, but soil has a way of absorbing sorrow like rain. And as much as a garden is a symbol of change, plants shooting up and dying off over the course of just a few months, it is never a slate wiped clean. Traces always remain: perennials emerging and expanding, seeds from last year’s plants taking root, compost from the trimmings of past years fuelling this year’s growth. No doubt there are even microbes in this soil that came from the skin of my friend.

As a renter there’s always a feeling that you’re building your home on a fault line, and there are no guarantees how long you’ll get to stay. So each year I gamble on whether adding a new perennial is worth the cost, whether I’ll be able to collect a reasonable harvest over the years to come. But each year I cave and put in a couple. Because planting is joy in the present and in the future. Because like me the garden should be given the chance to grow in new and surprising ways. But mostly because a relationship can be so much longer and more fruitful that you could have ever guessed, and you may deny yourself unthinkable abundance if you’re not willing to dig in.

You’ll have a tree

Last weekend was Earth Day, and I spent most of the weekend hosting and volunteering at clothing swaps, but on the day itself I carved out a little time to plant a tree.

I’d applied for the tree through the City of Toronto’s amazing Tree for Me program, and just a few weeks later, I had a free serviceberry shrub. (Naturally I gravitated toward a tree that would produce fruit, which means my yard can now produce mulberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and, down the road, serviceberries. This kind of amazes me.)

This winter I read Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, which is both scientist’s memoir and tender, precise investigation of the biological systems of trees. The trade paper edition markets the book as a love story, and indeed the charmingly oddball author does find a mate, but I find this a little irritating, because the real romance was with science and the natural world. You need only read the chapters that explain, in careful, often poetic detail how a tree processes water, or survives the winter, to feel the author’s passion.  “Love is the quality of attention we pay to things,” wrote the poet J.D. McClatchy, and here Jahren is not only composing love letters, but teaching us the language to write our own.

Of course in our resource-hungry times, the book must end with Jahren raising an alarm. She points out that “every year since 1990 we have made eight billion new stumps,” and notes that at if we continue at this rate, in six hundred years there will be no trees left. “Every single year,” she writes, “at least one tree is cut down in your name. Here’s my personal request to you: If you own any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you are renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there. Throw in a bit about how exceptional he is for caring enough about the environment to have it put there.” Tellingly, this cri de coeur ends not with environmental responsibility, but with a personal, reciprocal benefit: “You’ll have a tree and it will have you.”

My tree doesn’t look like much now, like a bundle of bare twigs a couple feet high, but there is, of course, a long time horizon involved. I may not see this shrub become a small tree, I may never gather enough berries for a jar of jam. Such is the uncertainty of renting, of life. But, for at least a little while, we will have each other.