Sunday, July 28, 2013

Epigenetic Fermaculture

"The living communities within our bodies are our first responders, and their fast adaptive capacity depends a great deal on the diversity of their epigenetic choices."

Yesterday Sandor Katz joined us to combine his knowledge of gastroenteric culture with ours of the soil-food-web to produce a 5-hour seminar we were billing as Fermaculture.

Sandor had many interesting things to say, but one of the more interesting to us was about how bacteria from food — the juicy benefactors we get from fermented wonderfoods — actually perform probiotic functions in our bodies.

We know that in sheer numbers, microbes and their genes vastly outnumber our own genetic material in what we like to think of as “our” bodies, Realistically, we are far more than our flesh (or even our astral energetic bodies or our vibratory quantum self). As Michael Pollan reminds us, “It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes — including commensals (generally harmless freeloaders) and mutualists (favor traders) and, in only a tiny number of cases, pathogens. To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this 'second genome,' as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome.”

According to Sandor, when a foreign bacteria enters your body, it is not necessarily met with a friendly reception, a lot of buddy bacteria backslaps and a toast. More likely it is tracked, attacked, and generally made to feel most unwelcome. That’s because the available niches began being given away in utero, and your body assembled almost all its microbial ecosystem in the first 3 years of your childhood.

Catherine A. Lozupone, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, observing that rural people spend a lot more time outside and have much more contact with plants and with soil, says its no surprise that confers a greater diversity of gut bacteria. Also, being raised in extended families and being passed hand-to-hand as an infant may provide a wider range of “host” bacteria and a stronger, more responsive, immune system as an adult.

The American Gut project, which is DNA sequencing the communities of tens of thousands of people, is trying to uncover patterns of correlation between people’s lifestyle, diet, health status and the makeup of their microbial community. Pollan observes:

“Your microbial community seems to stabilize by age 3, by which time most of the various niches in the gut ecosystem are occupied. That doesn’t mean it can’t change after that; it can, but not as readily. A change of diet or a course of antibiotics, for example, may bring shifts in the relative population of the various resident species, helping some kinds of bacteria to thrive and others to languish. Can new species be introduced? Yes, but probably only when a niche is opened after a significant disturbance, like an antibiotic storm. Just like any other mature ecosystem, the one in our gut tends to resist invasion by newcomers.”

Sandor Katz
So how, then, can probiotic fermented foods, like yogurt or pickled bean paste, improve your health? Sandor offered an epigenetic explanation. Rather than being interested in new bacteria taking up residency alongside the established community in your gut, your host bacteria, via the magic of viral gene transfer, are more interested in the new genes that are constantly coming through on parade.

When you were just a zygote – remember that? — totipotent stem cells become the various pluripotent cell lines that allowed you to evolve into an embryo, which evolved fully differentiated cells in much the same way. From a single fertilized egg cell, you developed into a semi-organized collection of neurons, muscle cells, epithelium, endothelium, blood vessels, etc. Switching on an off like the lights on a Christmas tree, your coding activated some genes while inhibiting others. The code did not change, but the gene expression, or replicative (RNA) behavior, did.

An "epigenome" is similar to the word "genome", but referring to the overall epigenetic state of a cell. Where is the switch positioned at this moment?

In general, proteins fold into discrete units that perform distinct cellular functions, but some proteins are also capable of forming an infectious conformational state known as a prion. Prions are infectious forms of proteins.  They are epigenetic change agents. They catalytically convert other native state versions of the same protein to an infectious conformational state. In the context of our immune response, infectiousness is not always a bad thing. It just means that cells switch gene coding to make new versions of cells that may be needed to perform some function. Some food components epigenetically increase the levels of DNA repair enzymes such as MGMT and MLH1 and p53. Other foods components can reduce DNA damage, such as soy isoflavones and bilberry anthocyanins.

Fungal prions are considered epigenetic because the infectious phenotype caused by the prion can be inherited without modification of the genome. PSI+ and URE3, discovered in yeast in 1965 and 1971, are the two best studied of this type of prion. In PSI+ cells, the loss of the Sup35 protein (which is involved in termination of translation) causes ribosomes to have a higher rate of read-through of stop codons, an effect that results in suppression of nonsense mutations in other genes.  The ability of Sup35 to form prions may be a conserved trait. It could confer an adaptive advantage by giving cells the ability to switch into a PSI+ state and express dormant genetic features normally terminated by stop codon mutations.

Another possibility is more intriguing. Sup35 might be produced by prions selecting its code from the available pool of genetic carriers, including foreign bacteria that just happen to be passing through your body, and find themselves in the right place at the right time. Their genes are transcribed, re-encoded, and switched on by your native cells to express just what the body needs at that moment.

The federal Centers for Disease Control is investigating an outbreak in eight states, affecting nearly 300 people, of a stomach illness caused by Cyclospora, the one-celled parasite that causes diarrhea, stomach cramps and other symptoms normally associated with a viral stomach bug. Ten people have been hospitalized this month. Indigenous to the tropics, it is rare that cyclospora would be found so far north, but it is yet one more portent of what we can expect from climate change and global weirding. Niches of some species will expand while niches of others will shrink. We may get pandemics of many new or exotic bugs, and there may be little our bloated, sclerotic, top-down, corporate-captured, financial-house-of-cards-addicted Big Pharma medical system can do to respond in a timely fashion.

The living communities within our bodies are, and always have been, our first responders, and their fast adaptive capacity depends a great deal on the diversity of their epigenetic choices. What gene codes do they have to draw from?

The abilities of our bodies to respond to future threats may come in large measure from our own lifestyle choices, such as a probiotic diet and rural living, and from good plant nutrition, which comes, ultimately, from healthy soil and its diverse soil-food-web biology.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Turning the Herd

"Salvaging hope has to do with finding some wayward lead animals who are running oblique to the cliff’s edge and trying to persuade other members of the herd to follow them, in hopes that collectively it may actually slow momentum or even reverse direction of the herd, or at worst, save a few animals from being swept over."

We are sitting in a bay window of a stone cabin staring at the sunny, windswept west coast of Ireland, Rossbeigh Beach on the Iveragh Peninsula, overlooking Dingle Bay near Killorglin. We began this trip with an utterly absorbing International Communal Societies meeting in Scotland, moved on to a climate farming design charrette at a Permaculture center in Norway, then a repeat performance on a biodynamic farm in Sweden, and now the annual Feasta (Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) retreat week in the west of County Kerry where we are brewing cool coffee with our Biolite stove and charging this iPad.

We travelled by train from Dublin with Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth) after spending the night at the home of David Korowicz, to a quaint summer retreat cottage on the beach purchased by London barrister John Jopling in 1960 as a stone ruin and still being very gradually restored. It will house the dozen or so international participants of our conversation the coming week.

Arriving in late afternoon, we sat here in this window and curled up with a book we picked off the shelf, Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, a Feasta anthology edited by Brian Davey and published in 2012. Now completely entranced by Davey’s opening chapter, in this post we will try to describe what we liked about it.

The chapter is called What can be done if mainstream politics loses interest in climate change, which seems at first glance a dumb question, being a fait accompli, but it turns out to be a compendium of the world’s best thinking on how to turn sour lemons into mojitos.

The first thing Davey observes is that great changes seldom come from confrontation. Rather, they are approached obliquely, indirectly, because from the standpoint of the historical participant, what needs to happen is unclear. Actually, as to our present dilemma, Davey’s essay points clearly to what needs to happen and catalogs the challenges.

Policymakers and business leaders are a tight-knit class locked into a commitment to growth. Growth underpins our global economic system, if for no other reason than money is merely the issuance of debt obligations and when you add the requirement of (unlent) interest, as Margrit Kennedy observed 30 years ago, it sets up a Ponzi scheme that is utterly dependent on growth, and endlessly seeking new patsies. This system requires both the unscrupulous lender and the gullible victim, and the globalized education system is geared to produce both in large numbers.

Money, drug and energy addicts share a brain chemistry that gets reinforced by both Western diet and social networks of fellow addicts. Policy is largely formulated by officials dialoging with the predator class and their skilled lobbyists and public relations hires, creating a mainstream narrative drummed by media that drowns out all alternative narratives, even the ones being trumpeted by Mother Nature in the form of superstorms, net fossil energy decline and global weirding.

No-one likes to maintain stressful confrontational relationships over long times, so regulatory capture is followed by the capture of non-profit opposition groups, popular media, and large open public fora, such as we described in past narratives of Rio+20 and UN climate conferences. Davey says, given this context, the situation appears pretty hopeless. We are a herd species and our herd is galloping towards a cliff.

Salvaging hope has to do with finding some wayward lead animals who are running oblique to the cliff’s edge and trying to persuade other members of the herd to follow them, in hopes that collectively it may actually slow momentum or even reverse direction of the herd, or at worst, save a few animals from being swept over.

We might think of these as “seed” experiments — complimentary currencies, ecovillages, “cool” stoves, and non-violent methods of conflict transformation — as the fringe of society but they are actually the leading edge of our inevitable future, if we are to have one.

In Denmark we can point to Ross Jackson’s “breakaway” strategy — a reform of global governance led by democratically or economically advanced countries like Iceland and Bhutan. In Germany there is the “solidarity economy” that hopes to congeal cooperative networks of CSA’s, community energy companies, community gardens and similar grass roots enterprises into a political force. From Ireland and the UK we have the Transition movement that combines town-scale remodeling projects with personal reskilling to cope with energy descent and climate change. From Italy we have Slow Food evolving through slow money and slow living to slow everything, very useful to the herd-and-cliff metaphor. From France we get Decroissance, which personally we prefer over its English version (Degrowth), because the French sounds more like a flaky pastry than losing your job. Something similar is emerging in Bolivia and Ecuador with Buen Vivir.

From these seeds, with some sunlight, water and the luck of a green thumb, who knows? What we may see will not be a centralized, pre-conceived new system replacing the old like Bolshevism or the Campuchean Revolution, but a bottom-up, decentralized Sacred Unrest, to borrow Paul Hawken’s words.

As Davey says, though, “What is still not clear is how far governments are capable of contributing to the new future.” It is argued by Naomi Klein, among others, that nations are now functioning as brands, running sophisticated PR campaigns designed by their financial sectors for the purpose of gaining expanded markets, access to raw materials, and new populations of debt slaves. Alternative futures will have to compete with this for minds and hearts.

It is helpful that governments and their economic schemes are increasingly seen as corrupt and bankrupt. It is less helpful that they are erecting a neo-liberal security state to impose power and undercut their opposition by violent means. Nonetheless, truth will out. As Napolean said, “Never harass your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.” The herd is not slowing yet, but the outliers are gaining adherents.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Contemplating Megadeaths

"We have evolved very elegant internal retrieval mechanisms, much of that fabric spun during dreamtime. By comparison, our cultural memory is nearly as short and foggy as our memories of our dreams."

Happy Father’s Day Y’all!

This week we are going to the vault for a blast from the past.

We originally penned this piece for the Summer, 2003 issue of The Permaculture Activist, and looking back, 10 years later, it still seems pretty good, worth a second telling. Our writing may have improved somewhat since then, so we’ve made some minor edits to the original, and here it is…

Contemplating Megadeaths 


We live in a myopic time, a time measured in nanoseconds but with no sense of history. In 1898, a leaking coal bin blew up the boilers of the warship Maine, which was anchored in Havana harbor, an incident that became the pretext for the Spanish-American War. My father was born 9 years later. When I was a child we had Spanish-American War veterans in our Memorial Day parade. I followed behind with streamers on my bike, crepe paper in the spokes.

Today the Spanish-American War is mostly forgotten, occasionally mentioned by historians as a disembarkation port for the American Empire. The students in these history classes were most likely born after the Macintosh. They don't need to commit facts to memory, they can Google them as need arises. Our sense of our place in time is becoming less a saga, more about search terms.

This essay space has become a long-periodicity blog for me (blog: English n. from web-log, a term used by internet programmers for shared progress reports; any progress report published on a regular basis for general dissemination). I have used this space to describe the politics of climate change; population and settlement patterns; forest fungal networks; a cosmic billiard-ball theory of biogenesis. This one is about civilization-ending astro-geophysical events, but it follows a theme in all my blog entries, which is where we, collectively as homo sapiens, lie along an awareness curve.

Thirty years ago Alvin Toffler made waves with his Third Wave and Future Shock, predicting far-reaching cultural shifts to accompany accelerating technological change. While change may indeed be speeding up, it still takes a long time to derive something approaching understanding. 

Dinosaur Astronomers: "I'd say we have
10 years to turn it around...."

When, in 1807, microscopic analysis by two Yale professors of meteor fragments suggested that celestial bodies occasionally impacted the earth, Thomas Jefferson allegedly remarked that he "would find it easier to believe that two Yankee professors would lie, than that stones should fall from the sky." That was ten years before the discovery of the first dinosaur bones in Dorset, England, a 17-foot Ichthyosaurus that went extinct 95 million years ago. It would take 153 years to make the connection between the Connecticut meteorite and the fossil record, and another couple dozen years before it was widely accepted that indeed, astrophysical events may affect the course of history.

As recently as 1985, the editorial page of The New York Times, referring to the discovery of the 120-mile-wide Chicxulub crater under the tip of the Yucatan and the connection by Luis Alvarez and others to the extinction of the last of the big dinosaurs 65 million years ago, declared, "Astronomers should leave to astrologers the task of seeking the cause of earthly events in the stars." At that time, just 18 years ago, 96% of scientists thought there was no connection between comets or asteroids and mass extinction events. By 13 years ago it was generally accepted, and published in school textbooks, that Chicxulub was the smoke from a celestial pistol that extinguished 75 percent of life on Earth.

These days we look a little more closely at large, crater-like depressions in the Earth's surface. That closer look has led to the discovery of a few dozen 'supervolcanoes' that have, like comets and meteors, punctuated history with mass extinction exclamation points. The largest of these is in Yellowstone Park, marked by a caldera 70 kilometers long and 30 km wide. Eight km beneath Yellowstone sits a huge magma chamber (40 km x 20 km x 10 km), slowly gathering pressure. Vulcanologists do not know when Yellowstone will blow again, but it popped its cork 1.8 million years ago, 1.2 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago. You do the math.

Supervolcanoes are designated at a minimum VEI8 - they are an 8 or better on the Volcano Explosivity Index. Each point on the index represents an eruption 10 times more powerful than the previous one. Mount St. Helens is a VEI5. The Greek Island of Santorini is a VEI6. When Santorini popped off 3500 years ago, cinders the size of Volkswagons were thrown out at speeds approaching MACH 2, rising 21000 feet before beginning descent.  When Toba, at VEI8, erupted in Sumatra 74,000 years ago, the force was 1000 times more explosive than Mt. St. Helens, and it ejected more than 10,000 times more ash.

Yellowstone might be a VEI9. It has the largest caldera yet discovered.

Volcanic Winter

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, 
courtesy the National Gallery, Oslo / 

© 2004 The Munch Museum / 
The Munch-Ellingsen Group / 
Artists Rights Society, New York.

Lets consider what a sudden event like that means for humans and other living things.

A supervolcano erupts somewhere on Earth about every 100,000 years. When a normal-scale Indonesian volcano, Tambora, erupted in 1815, several years of global pneumonia followed, with the world's mean surface temperature about one degree Celsius below normal. Mt. Pinotubo in the Phillipines had a similar effect in 1991, but the half-degree change through the early 90s was masked by global warming. Ice-core records show that the eruption of Toba may have caused global cooling of from 3 to 5 degrees, and perhaps as much as 10 degrees during growing seasons in middle to high latitudes. 

A recent analysis of Edvard Munch's The Scream looked at the precise location where Munch and his friends were walking when he saw the blood-red sky depicted in the 1893 painting and discovered it was connected to the eruption of Krakatoa.

In "When The Sky Ran Red: The Story Behind The Scream," in the February 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, Donald W. Olson, a physics and astronomy professor at Texas State University, and his colleagues reveal how they journeyed to Oslo, Norway, to pinpoint the exact location where Munch stood when he "felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature," inspiring him to put his emotions on canvas.

They determined that Munch was walking along a road once called Ljabrochausséen, which is now a modern roadway called Mosseveien. It was along the railing of Ljabrochausséen that Munch became overwhelmed with emotion. Olson and his team located a rocky hillside overlook that precisely matches the artist's vista of Christiania (now Oslo) harbor and Hovedø island.

This woodcut of volcanic activity
at Krakatoa appeared in the London
illustrated paper, The Graphic,
on August 11, 1883. It was made by

an artist passing through the
Sumatran Straits months 
after the explosion.
Krakatoa exploded on August 27, 1883, sending dust and gases high into the atmosphere. Reports collected by the Royal Society in London show that unusually red twilight glows appeared in Norway from late November 1883 through the middle of February 1884. The spectacle was widely seen, as Christiania's daily newspaper reported on November 30, 1883.

"One of the high points of our research trip to Oslo came when we rounded a bend in the road and realized we were standing in the exact spot where Munch had been 120 years ago," Olson recalls. "It was very satisfying to stand in the exact spot where an artist had his experience," he added. "The real importance of finding the location, though, was to determine the direction of view in the painting. We could see that Munch was looking to the southwest — exactly where the Krakatoa twilights appeared in the winter of 1883-84."

At the winter 2003 meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science there was a vigorous debate about whether people should be warned in advance if a supervolcano is going to blow or a giant meteor is on a collision course with Earth. Professor Bill McGuire, of the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre at University College, London, described what we can expect: "It's just like a nuclear winter. The effects could last four or five years, with crops failing and the whole ecosystem breaking down."

In the dim light of day, a 5C average drop worldwide would translate into 15 degrees summer cooling in the temperate to high latitudes. The effects on agriculture, on the growth of trees, on life in the oceans would be catastrophic. It might be several years, perhaps decades, before surviving seeds would re-establish field and forest.

Genetic Markers

Scientists have been studying human DNA for traces of extinction events. By knowing the rate of mutation of mitochondrial DNA and by a complex analysis of the distribution of these mutations, Lynn Jorde and Henry Harpending have estimated the size and distribution of our gene lines in the past. They discovered that roughly 70-80,000 years ago, human population experienced  a 'bottleneck' - when its large and well distributed gene pool of millions of individuals passed through mass extinction of family lines, leaving perhaps as few as 5000 individuals, from whom we are all descended.

Like the passing of Tolkein's ages of Middle Earth, we have only inklings of life in the earlier ages - some 80,000-yr-old human remains in Brazil; the Terra Amata campsite in France, occupied 400,000 years ago; the million-year fossil record in Africa. But a few of our ancestors went through every cataclysm and came out alive, or we would not be here. The memory of how they did that is lost.

Or is it?

The Mythological Record

According to the creation stories of the African bushmen, people did not always live on the surface of the earth. At one time people and animals lived underneath the earth with Kaang, the big chief, who eventually got around to making a tree, and at its base or through roots, trunk and branches, humans and animals emerged from the underworld.

Among the tribes of Inner Mongolia there are traditions of tunnels and subterranean worlds of Antediluvian descent, somewhere in a recess of Afghanistan, or amid the peaks of the Hindu Kush. According to Theosophical tradition, the last remnants of a super-civilization that once flourished in what is now the Gobi fled into two underground cities known respectively as Shambhalla and Agharti.

Hopi/Tewa legends describe a race of "Lizard" people who, to escape an era of fire and darkness, built 3 great underground cities near the Pacific Coast, including one beneath present day Los Angeles. The Hopi say Spider Old Woman led them back to the surface of the earth, and that's when they became humans.

A Pueblo tale relates that the Third world was ended by a great flood and humans were rescued by ant people. The ant people were much larger than today (about four foot tall), although they did live in the ground. At the end of the Third world, the ant people stored away food, brought humans down into their tunnels and plugged all the holes to the surface. The calamity lasted longer than expected and rations ran low. The ant people, being honorable, kept the humans safe by giving them their own rations. Eventually the humans got back to the surface, emerging from a hole, which today is represented in the shape of Pueblo kivas. But the ant people, having not eaten for some time, had shrunk to their present size.

Some Navajo believe that they, and the ancient Anasazi, came from the underworld, and four worlds preceded this world. When the Third world was destroyed by supernatural forces, the Diné and Kiis'aanii were forced to move into the Fourth world. The Anasazi, descended from the Kiis'aanii, endured yet another catastrophic retreat underground, and brought corn with them from the Fourth world to reseed the Fifth world.

Lakota oral tradition tells us that human life on the surface of Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) began when Wasun Wiconiya Wakan provided an opening from which people emerged from their subterranean refuge to the surface of the world. They followed the trickster Inktomi ("spider") to learn about the opening to the surface. Some say this was at He Wakinyan Hohpi (Bear Butte), in the Black Hills near present day Sturgis, South Dakota.

In Iceland we find the legendary 'Hidden People,' something like elves or leprechauns, who turned their eyes to look after Lucifer as he fell from Heaven, and were punished by being sent into the earth and commanded to dwell there in the rocks and mountains. Similar stories are found in Norse, Swedish, German and related legends.

Seneca cosmology tells a story of the creator, known as “Good Mind” who grapples with Wind. In a terrible battle Wind tears great rocks from the mountainside and lashes the water below, but Good-Mind prevails.

"Once more Good-Mind called, 'My father, where art thou?' In awesome tones the voice replied, 'A son of mine shall endure the flame,' and immediately a flame sprang out of the mountainside and enveloped Good-Mind. It blinded him and tortured him with its cruel heat, but he threw aside its entwining arms and ran."

There is also a cataclysmic origin story in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It's the story of Adam and Eve. The Forgotten Books are the work of unknown Egyptians, part of a larger body of pre-biblical oral history known as the Pseudepigrapha. Parts of the Pseudepigrapha are found in the Talmud, the Old Testament and the Koran. Catholics may know of these as the biblical Apocrypha. They date to the origins of writing and likely go back in oral tradition much, much longer.

Odes of  Solomon, 3rd Century CE
One example is the recovered Odes of Solomon. Vatican scholars consider these heretical because of their image of the Father having breasts that are milked by the Holy Spirit to bring about the incarnation of Christ, and because they are at odds with the concept of knowledge providing the means of release from an imperfect world. The authors of the Odes clearly were having a good time on Earth. Can we hear a Hallelujah?

In the Forgotten Books, Adam and Eve leave the garden in a hail of sand and stones, which covers the ground in front of them. The sky is completely dark. They make it into a cave, where they stay for a week, and then venture out for water from a spring nearby. Adam notices how searing the heat of the sun has become, and so they retreat again to the cave, remaining for a long time, living off the flesh of animals that stray into the cave, and finally they get out again and gather some food.

One piece of the Pseudepigrapha that did not make it into the New Testament was the Gospel of Judas, dated to the first to third century CE. In it, Judas contradicts the other gospels and says that the true form of the Father is something akin to celestial light, and that Adamas was created in the imperishable form of the Father.

Adamas, according to Judas, enlisted Angels to create the form of his son, Adam, the first man. The mission of the Son of God, Christ, in taking the form of man, was to show that salvation lies in connecting to the God within man. Through embracing his internal God, the man can then return to the imperishable realm.

The Gospel of Judas says that Christ planned the course of events that led to his death and told Judas, “you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

These days we don't pay much attention to the old tales told by the history-keepers: folk fables, lyric poems, troubadour music, and children's bedtime stories. They are 'old wives' tales;' part superstition, part cultural fossils. And yet, there must be something very deep about these archetypes because we keep reiterating similar motifs in film, television, and works of fiction.

Neurobiologists are starting to say that, while our experiences occur in linear time, our memories are stored in the folds of our brains as a woven matrix, accessible from multiple directions, along different search routes. We don't have to review our entire lives in reverse in order to notice similar patterns between a seashell and a sunflower. We have evolved very elegant internal retrieval mechanisms, much of that fabric spun during dreamtime. By comparison, our cultural memory is nearly as short and foggy as our memories of our dreams.

I started off saying this has become a long-periodicity blog for me. The blog is the way the Internet Age has chosen to shelve and catalog its contemporaneous memories. It is far more decentralized than cunieform, parchment or papyrus catalogued by a caste of curators, testaments translated by monks laboring in candlelight, or multivolume memoirs of former heads of state.

So here we are, modern griots, rhyming the tales of our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers, because somewhere deep inside are precious truths that our children must not forget. And we are storing these precious bytes in moving electrons; in media that read only ones and zeroes!

We prosper between catastrophes, and in those times of peace and plenty we tend to forget the horrors of our past, even, eventually, our collective near-death experiences. In designing our future we need to also consider designing new forms for propagating cultural memory. Fables and rhyme have worked remarkably well in preserving information, but the ambiguity inherent in their formula for longevity has also left them open to wide-ranging interpretation, reducing their fidelity and credibility. The paintings in the Lascaux cave give a real glimpse into a 12,000 year-old worldview, but they are also very vulnerable to the ravages of time. 

Rather than having to repeat unpleasant experiences endlessly, we humans would do well to find ways to boost the transgenerational signal strength and reduce the noise distortion of our most important memories.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Unibomber in an Age of Limited Options

"We recognize that the rapid collapse of the USA Empire has been offered as a worthy goal by as disparate group of dissenters as Noam Chomsky, Grover Norquist and Guy McPherson, but rapid collapses are bloody and cruel, and so we continue to side with a soft landing approach, please, if that option is still being offered."

Carolyn Baker leads drumming at Age of Limits
When we first proposed speaking about the Unibomber at the Age of Limits Conference, Orren Whiddon, the event’s founder, asked, “Why?”
“I am puzzled with the Unibomber workshop [proposal], can you give me an idea of how it pertains? I am sure you are sick of talking about it, but a community workshop based on your experiences at The Farm would be good, could be combined with Patricia  [Allison] and myself. Your thoughts. Other ideas?”

We had become interested in Ted Kaczynski, the Unibomber, after listening to a reading of his famous manifesto on the C-realm Vault, and being struck by how relevant it was to the current malaise, the Occupy movement, and the age of chaotic collapse that comes after you ignore long-running and very serious warnings about ecological systems failure.

We told Whiddon that Ted Kaczynski was an extraordinary genius whose sense of human dignity was profoundly altered, at age 16, by being secretly made the subject of an MKULTRA mind control experiment while a child prodigy undergrad at Harvard. He was a casualty of the Cold War.

During the test, gifted students who volunteered for the program were taken into a room and connected to electrodes that monitored their physiological reactions, while facing bright lights and a one-way mirror. Then they were brutally confronted with their inner demons, that they had provided the interrogators during months of screening tests. LSD or other drugs may have played a role.

This horrific experience fostered an abiding animus, not just in Ted Kaczynski, but in all the subjects, towards the secretive security state. It is a textbook example of the blowback that became so synonymous with the Allen Dulles reign at CIA (indeed, with Allen Dulles’ whole life, since he was the low-level State Department clerk in Switzerland who, in 1916, stamped V.I. Lenin’s visa application to the United States, “Rejected.”)

Kaczynski’s commentary, the manifesto he called Industrial Society and Its Future, stands by itself as a benchmark in collapse-ology. The manifesto is a critique of leftism and US ad-age politics, but it is also a deep thought exercise on why people are sheep, the mechanics of manufactured consent, who is doing the manipulation and why, and why, ultimately, there is likely no way out of our present dilemma apart from human extinction. The manifesto does not discuss the letter bombings or Ted Kaczynski’s motivations for his 18-year campaign of terror, but if you consider the victims — a California computer store owner, a computer science professor at Yale, behavioral geneticists at UCal and MIT, the PR executive who managed the Exxon clean up of its public image after the Exxon Valdez, the president of a timber industry lobbying group — they are all connected to the narrative, which is a defense of wilderness and dignity against the oppressive industrial state and its portents of grey goo singularity. Kaczynski was a Luddite. He defined Luddism.

Here is the Unibomber many of us remember:

— an unkempt evil bomber. From 1978 to 1995, Kaczynski sent 16 bombs to targets including universities and airlines, killing three people and injuring 23. The media narrative is that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and that there is nothing more about him to interest us.


This is the Unibomber as a young Harvard undergraduate. Kaczynski was born and raised in Chicago. He was accepted to Harvard at 15. He got his PhD in math at U-Mich and became an assistant professor at Berkeley in 1967, at age 25.

His assigned readings as a Harvard freshman included Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa), Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture), Sigmund Freud (The Future of an Illusion), Thorstein Veblen, Norbert Wiener, Lewis Mumford, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent), and Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society).

Spengler: "This machine-technics will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten — our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins like old Memphis and Babylon"

Harvard of the 1950’s message was a despairing depiction of the sinister forces that lie beneath the surface of civilization — witness the prior ten years — with emphasis on the alienation of the individual and on the threat that science poses to human values (e.g., the Wehrmacht and the A-bomb). All these were in his assigned readings. And the frank rationale behind the curricula was, ironically enough, to socially engineer the elite of the next generation, not as nihilists, but as doubters, skeptics, people unwilling to accept political, philosophical or religious dogma at face value. It was a 180° shift from the Harvard of years earlier. But, double irony either way, it represented elite-dictated culture, and that was the veil that LSD and dissociative sensory deprivation pierced (thank you, Dr. Leary).
Mumford: “We can no longer live, with the illusions of success, in a world given over to devitalized mechanisms, desocialized organisms, and depersonalized societies: a world that had lost its sense of the ultimate dignity of the person.”

Later, Kaczynski’s students at Michigan all said he was an excellent instructor, but the opposite was reported at Berkeley. His goal by then was not to teach, but to save up to get a cabin in Montana. Berkeley in the 60s was still very button-down and serious, but with a strong cultural counter-current. The Free Speech Movement took place in Berkeley in 1964-65. It launched the political careers of Ed Meese, who conducted the mass arrests, and Ronald Reagan, who used the backlash to become governor of California, his first elected office. At the time Kaczynski left California he still had some hope of achieving society-transformative goals by peaceful means.

Kaczynski built the cabin himself, lived with very little money, and without electricity, telephone or running water. He studied tracking and edible plant identification and gained primitive skills. The ultimate catalyst that drove him to begin his bombings was when he went out for a walk to one of his favorite wild spots, only to find that it had been destroyed and replaced with a Forest Service road. He stopped studying nature and began studying bomb-making.

Kaczynski: “As I see it, I don't think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses.”

Ned Ludd may have been a fictional character but the Luddites were real. At one time, there were more British soldiers fighting the Luddites than fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. The protests from 1811 to 1817 were against new labor-saving milling machinery, but the real spark was the hardships suffered by the working class. The popular myth is that the Luddites tried to prevent the Industrial Revolution. In fact, they were more akin to the rioters we are seeing now in Greece and Spain.Kaczynski had to make a strategic decision. He could get his ideas published without killing everyone. If he were as strategic at book marketing as he was at serial killing, he would probably have had a best seller. But he decided instead he needed to have real skin in the game. He needed to walk his talk about revolution versus reform. So he started selecting targets.
Nietzsche: "Morality is the herd instinct of the individual."

The first bomb was sent in 1978 to a professor at Northwestern University. It injured a campus policeman. Kaczynski sent bombs to airline officials and in 1979 came close to blowing up a commercial jetliner en route from Chicago to Washington DC. This is the point the FBI became involved and called him UNABOM for University and Airline Bomber. The FBI profiler characterized him as a “neo-Luddite holding an academic degree in the hard sciences.” Victims included an Air Force Captain, a computer science professor at Yale, a computer store owner, professors at Berkeley, Vaderbilt, Univ of Utah, U-Mich, a geneticist at MIT, and the public relations executive whose firm handled the ExxonValdez oil spill. His final bomb (3 dead and 23 injured) killed a forest industry lobbyist in 1995.

In 1995, he offered that if his 50-page essay Industrial Society and Its Future (abbreviated to "Unabomber Manifesto" by the FBI) were printed verbatim by a major newspaper or journal he would end his bombing campaign. The pamphlet was published by The New York Times and  The Washington Post on September 19, 1995. He was captured when his brother recognized the writing style and called the FBI.

The premises of entire manifesto are neatly summarized in the first few lines:

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”

“The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.”

“There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.”

After this, Kaczynski goes into why exactly a revolution, rather than peaceful evolution, is required. He criticizes the modern left for essentially being “House Niggers,” working to prop up the tyranny while being made to feel powerless and inferior. He criticizes intellectuals and anti-intellectuals, evangelists and moralizers for propagating memes of low self-esteem, depressive tendencies and defeatism that are at the root of conformism to a violent and self-destructive system. He criticizes the right saying “The conservatives are fools: They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can't make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.”

“If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.”

At the core of the Manifesto is what Kaczynski calls the Power Process. He sees power as an instinctive need, and when we take away people’s ability to provide for themselves their own fundamental requirements and make them dependent on the society to provide those, people substitute surrogate activities, many, indeed most, of which are destructive of humanity, ecology, and society.

“[I]n many or most cases, people who are deeply involved in surrogate activities are never satisfied, never at rest. Thus the money-maker constantly strives for more and more wealth... The long-distance runner drives himself to run always farther and faster. Many people who pursue surrogate activities will say that they get far more fulfillment from these activities than they do from the ‘mundane’ business of satisfying their biological needs, but that is because in our society the effort needed to satisfy the biological needs has been reduced to triviality.

“We attribute the social and psychological problems of modern society to the fact that that society requires people to live under conditions radically different from those under which the human race evolved and to behave in ways that conflict with the patterns of behavior.

“Among the abnormal conditions present in modern industrial society are excessive density of population, isolation of man from nature, excessive rapidity of social change and the breakdown of natural small-scale communities such as the extended family, the village or the tribe.”
Orren Whiddon (in beret) at Age of Limits 2013

“Crowding, rapid change and the breakdown of communities have been widely recognized as sources of social problems” Kaczynski says, but people have gone through all of those things at various times and in various places and still retained their humanity and tribal cohesion. What industrial technological society does that is different is to supplant the power process with a machine that demands uniformity and conformity and to remove the inate feel for what is real -- what are the sources in nature for our food and water, for instance. This is the problem of artificial matrix reality, and it breeds ignorance of the dangers of gene splicing and nuclear power.

Kaczynski recognized decades before most people that rather than recognizing that humans currently live in "conditions that make them terribly unhappy," "the system" (i.e. industrial society) develops ways of controlling human responses to the overly stressful environment in which they find themselves; gives them the drugs to take away their unhappiness, television, videos, etc.

“If you think that big government interferes in your life too much NOW, just wait till the government starts regulating the genetic constitution of your children. Such regulation will inevitably follow the introduction of genetic engineering of human beings,” he wrote. An identical point has just been broached by Al Gore in his latest book, The Future, where he outlined China’s brain research and the prospect for genetically modified humans, like it or no. We are in a military race for superintellect, Gore realizes, and, so apparently does Barack Obama, whose $100 million Human Brain Project just went to the House Appropriations Committee.

Kaczynski is serving life without possibility of parole in the Florence Colorado Supermax. He is an active writer, and his current writings are stored at the Univ. of Michigan’s  Special Collections Library. They are embargoed until 2049. His Montana cabin, transplanted board for board, is on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. On May 24, 2012, Kaczynski submitted his current information to the Harvard University alumni association. He listed his eight life sentences as achievements, his current occupation as prisoner, and his current address as No. 04475-046, US Penitentiary—Max, P.O. Box 8500, Florence, CO 81226-8500.

Today many of Ted Kaczynski’s predictions have come to pass and he has not yet been shown wrong. We don’t yet have compulsory genetic engineering (unless you consider nuclear energy) but we have bacteria and plant GMO labs in many, if not most, high schools in the US, China and India and FabLabs or 3D printers can be accessed with a college student ID.

The weapons used by most of the random rampage killers in recent years, like Ted Kaczynski’s, have been based on gunpowder — a 7th century invention. So what happens when a disgruntled teenager gets his hands on a GM bacteria and the ability to insert that into a strand of recombinant DNA?

Was Ned Ludd right?

Like Brando’s Captain Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Ted Kaczynski’s no-holds-barred take-it-all-down philosophy was shared by Rumsfeld & Cheney, Eric Prince (Blackwater) and Cofer Black (hired from Black Industries to be Bush’s torture czar, now the Veep of Blackbird Technologies). Personally, we prefer the advice of Tolstoy: “The difference between revolutionary violence and state-condoned violence is the difference between dog shit and cat shit.”

In an earlier post here, we quoted Dr. M.L. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963): “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” Kaczynski went to great lengths to accomplish steps 1, 3 and 4. He repudiated step 2 as unethical and counterproductive.

We recognize that the rapid collapse of the US Empire has been offered as a worthy goal by as disparate group of dissenters as Noam Chomsky, Grover Norquist and Guy McPherson, but rapid collapses are bloody and cruel, and so we continue to implore for soft landings, please, if that option is still being offered.

Humans have apparently not reached peak capacity to conceive theories or philosophies that promote violence or murder in order to avert supposed injustices or catastrophes, to acquiesce in historical necessity, or to find the final solution to the world's problems — or to dehumanize our enemies. We become like Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, who declares, "I did not kill a human being, but a principle!" Guided by theories, philosophies, and ideologies, the worst mass killers of modern history transformed their victims into depersonalized abstractions, making them easier to kill. Stalin ordered the murder of millions of farmers toward "the elimination of the Kulaks as a class," So Kaczynski rationalized his murders as necessary to solve "the technology problem."

The conditions that produce violence, so well described by Kaczynski, continue to flourish. Despite their historically unprecedented affluence, many middle-class Americans, particularly the educated elite, are still gripped by despair. The education system and popular culture from Game of Thrones to World War Z continues to promote bleak visions of the future. Winter is coming. We, dear friends, feed this beast at our peril.

More is being posted on other sites about the Age of Limits conference and some of the controversies it stirred, but we’d venture to say that offering a deeper examination of Ted Kaczynski’s bombing campaign was likely one of the more controversial topics yet undertaken at that venue. The conference has intentions of being repeated again next Memorial Day weekend, and we’ve offered to host it down here in Tennessee some time in the future, as well. Stay tuned. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Requiem for 400

"The scope and speed of the climate changes, our lack of information about coupled systems, and our limited ability to influence human behavior all make it probable that more large surprises lie ahead."

We take no relish nor revel in saying we told you so. We will be long dead before the really worst of our best predictions will unfold. Our brief remaining lifetime will be punctuated by shocking glimpses of the shadows our future throws, tinged with remorse because though we tried, we were unable to reverse or mitigate any of this.

And now we can only look into the eyes of our grandchild and inwardly weep. There is no going home for prophets.

This past Thursday the two observatories that measure atmospheric carbon dioxide both reached the same milestone. On a 24-hour average, last Thursday was the first time atmospheric concentrations had exceeded four hundred parts per million by volume (400 ppmv). As we pointed out in 1990, “A doubling of atmospheric carbon by the middle of the next century (from 300 parts per million to 600 parts per million) will likely raise global temperatures between 2° and 9°F (1° to 5°C).”
The New York Times this morning compared Thursday’s event to canning pickles: “[I]f a person had filled a million quart jars with air, about [400] quart jars of carbon dioxide would have been mixed in.”

Back in the mid-1980s, when we were writing Climate in Crisis, we took a more circumspect outlook:

The enormity of the crisis we have so recently discovered offers no reassurances. The scope and speed of the climate changes, our lack of information about coupled systems, and our limited ability to influence human behavior all make it probable that more large surprises lie ahead.

When Venus spun away from the sun almost 5 billion years ago, it was essentially the same size and composition as Earth. Today Earth is a blue water world with an oxygen atmosphere and abundant life. Venus is a lifeless, bone-dry rock shrouded in dense clouds of sulfuric acid. The surface of Venus is hot enough to melt lead.

Without its thick clouds, Venus would be approximately the same temperature as Earth. However, because its carbon dioxide atmosphere traps infrared radiation 100 times more efficiently than our atmosphere, Venus is 750°F hotter. Could Venus have once been like Earth, a blue planet covered by oceans? Could Venus's atmosphere, eons ago, have begun a carbon dioxide exchange cycle that got away and changed that planet forever? Could a runaway greenhouse effect have consumed its oxygen, evaporated its oceans, and turned its surface into a hellish oven incapable of sustaining life in any form?

As we look around the worlds within our solar system, we see no other life-bearing planets. This is the only one. Many of the processes which brought us to our present circumstances are processes that are capable of being reversed or overcome by new processes. We are taking enormous risks by tampering with our spaceship.

And yet we neither fully understand nor appear to consider these risks serious enough to give us pause.

By and large, ignoring screaming environmentalists and only going by the paper of record, most people still do not consider the risk of a runaway climate serious enough to give them pause. After all, its only too many pickle jars.

Quoting again from the Times:

Climate-change contrarians, who have little scientific credibility but are politically influential in Washington, point out that carbon dioxide represents only a tiny fraction of the air — as of Thursday’s reading, exactly 0.04 percent. “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic,” a Republican congressman from California, Dana Rohrabacher, said in a Congressional hearing several years ago.

The Times then compared our situation to having a bad day in the bar.

“If you start turning the Titanic long before you hit the iceberg, you can go clear without even spilling a drink of a passenger on deck,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “If you wait until you’re really close, spilling a lot of drinks is the best you can hope for.”

And what, we might ask Professor Alley, might be the worst we can imagine?

We are descendants of creatures that lived in trees, swung from branch to branch, and addressed only those decisions immediately in front of us, like securing the next branch without missing our grasp, or ingesting enough fruit to quench our appetite. We sapien animals are linear thinkers, and solve problems in sequence, based on a narrow recognition of patterns, strongly influenced by our biological history. We do not see out-of-the-frame existentential threats, usually, or take them more seriously than children’s stories. We do not, as a broad population, recognize patterns that require understanding atmospheric chemistry or advanced mathematical modeling. We are more secure in attributing our personal hardships to the machinations of demons and gods; and our successes to our physical prowess and quick thinking.

And thus we drift, as Einstein said, “towards unparalleled catastrophes.” 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fomenting Ferment with Sandor Katz

"... Saturday morning the koji has powdery sporulation. The tempeh from Thursday found its way to supper last night and will be in lunch again today. The mauby needs a stir, then is ready to bottle. The kefir water gets raisins to help it grow...."

The Art of Fermentation
Sandor Katz lives a couple hours across Tennessee from us, so on a delightful April weekend we decided to spend four days attending his Wild Fermentation Intensive. Sandor is quite the celebrity these days — after profiles in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked, Sandor’s own encyclopedia, The Art of Fermentation, still in hardcover, has galloped through several printings for Chelsea Green. Readers of Resilience will find scores of references to Sandor over the past few years, as sustainability bloggers have come to recognize the importance of fermentation to sustainability.

Sandor remains humble and accessible, despite being whisked around the world to rub elbows with celebrity chefs and food editors, take part in red carpet gastronomic events in Japan, France and California, or opine in various fora like Bioneers, the Mother Earth News Fair and TED. Today he is in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles, then the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine in County Cork, Ireland, then back to Tennessee, then on to Vermont, Oregon, Florida, Wisconsin, and Seattle in June.

For several years he has been doing very intimate, down home workshops and for this purpose has outfitted a rustic kitchen stadium in the basement of a house across the road from Short Mountain Distillery (makers of quality Tennessee Moonshine since 2012). This kitchen has everything needed for a dozen people to rub elbows while chopping vegetables, stuffing pickle jars, or heating raw milk to 180°F. Sandor keeps the workshops small enough to allow hands-on experiential learning, and cheap enough for anyone to attend, providing camping and self-cooked meals from his refrigerators and freezers stocked with the produce of his farming neighbors.

Arriving on Thursday, we were immediately plunged into two cultures that Sandor wants to get into the incubator right away — tempeh and koji. As Sandor describes his personal journey into fermentation — having too much cabbage and not wanting to let it go to waste — he is boiling a pot of cracked, organic soybeans and millet (the splitting was done by the hand-crank mill at the end of the counter, and the beans came from the same source as The Farm’s organic tofu and soy milk) until the hulls separate and can be skimmed off. After half an hour of participant introductions, the beans and millet come off the stove and are drained. As he pours the hot mix into two large mixing bowls to cool, Sandor is telling us about the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley where he learned about a second ferment of kombucha juice with turnips.

The narrative — a practiced patter of pickling wisdom and microbial factoids — does not let up as he gently turns the beans with his fingers to cool. When the bean-millet mix is ready to inoculate — he inserts a meat thermometer to see if it is under 100° — he pours the starter from a small mixing bowl where the packaged powder (Rhizopus oligosporus) has been reviving in lukewarm water, as would a bread yeast, into the large mixing bowl and resumes fondling.

Now he demonstrates for us the method, first developed by the late Keith Steinkraus at Cornell University, of taking a zip-lock pint sandwich bag, laying it over a grilling screen, and perforating it with a grid of holes at one-inch intervals. We all take turns making perforations, filling each bag with about a pound of inoculated beans, flattening the contents and setting them into the incubator. The incubator is not a laboratory instrument, but befitting this Tennessee basement across from a moonshine still, is an old broken refrigerator with a lightbulb on a thermostat to keep it at 85-95°F.

When he is traveling, he sometimes takes a standard Dollar General plastic tub, a metal oven pan and a tubular aquarium heater. Filling the metal pan with an inch or two of water, he submerses the heater, set to 85-95°F, lays pan of water with heater in the tub, puts a rack on top, and is ready to incubate cultures.

Kefir feeding on raisins
Tempeh started, Sandor moves on to his pot of boiling barley, which will provide the substrate for koji. He tells us that the latest craze sweeping Tokyo is koji and salt, which is not that great tasting and not traditional, but people are snacking on it as if it were cheese doodles. When the barley is cool, he spreads it into cheesecloth-lined wooden trays and inoculates it with miso starter (Aspergillus orizae), in much the same fashion as the tempeh. Into the incubator it goes.

Now its time to make supper and Sandor has mixed chick peas, lentils and rice into a reddish paste that has been sitting quietly at room temperature to form sambar, something akin to chili. He steams up a pot of rice and breaks out some fermented daikon radish pickles and mixed vegetable krauts.

Over supper Sandor tells us the four main reasons people learned to ferment were (1) alcohol; (2) preserving food outside season; (3) detoxifying otherwise inedible food; and (4) saving energy. Ferments were the original fast foods.

Day Two begins, after eggs and sourdough pancakes, with sour tonic beverages. Mabí, also known as mauby, comes from a bark of a tree (Colubrina elliptica) found in the Caribbean, which naturally Sandor has a 5-pound sack of (from an importer in Connecticut). He says the name is a contraction of the creole “ma biere” (my beer). He has original mauby starter culture was smuggled home from St. Croix but he says kefir can also work as a starter. The process starts with brewing the bark into tea, then aerating back and forth between cups, and bottling it with some sugar. He suggests bottling it in plastic so you can tell if it is getting pressurized and relieve the pressure before it explodes. By Sunday the bottled mauby is a sweet fizzy soda.

Caleb bottles kombucha
We went on to start water kefir (with a slice of papaya for sugar), drain whey from curds of clabbered raw milk, and start a ginger bug. Sandor’s friend Caleb dropped in to show us how to make a carbonated kombucha tea, and we proceeded to make a variety of sour tonics and bottle them up for later sampling. Caleb likes grape juice, lemon juice, lime juice and various fruit teas. Kombucha is a SCOBY (Symbiotic Community of Bacteria and Yeast) that comes from Tibet, but is sensitive to flavors (although it seems to do well in apple juice) so a second fermentation of the liquid is needed to produce a flavored beverage.

The ginger bug is just a thumb of grated ginger, 3 Tbsp sugar (can be cane syrup, maple syrup, agave, etc.), and water in a mason jar with a cloth cover. In 2 days it’s ready for second fermentation. We age it in plastic bottles with turmeric and grapefruit juice.

Sandor ladles idly

After a tour of the distillery and samplings of Short Mountain Shine and Apple Pie, we are back to make some idly, using fermented black lentils (de-husked) and rice. The fermentation process breaks down the starches to be more readily metabolized. The batter is poured into idly dishes that are stacked into trees and suspended into a pot of boiling water to steam or be baked in the oven. Dosa is a fried preparation of the same batter. Our lunch is idly dressed with sambar, and more pickles and chutney.

Afternoon finds us working with vegetables making kraut and kim chi. We each bottle up a mason jar of carrot and cabbage kraut to take home. The tempeh is already turning white.

Moving miso to ferment for 2 years
Saturday morning the koji has powdery sporulation. The tempeh from Thursday found its way to supper last night and will be in lunch again today. The mauby needs a stir, then is ready to bottle. The kefir water gets raisins to help it grow. Soybeans have been boiled the previous evening, cooled and injected with natto starter. After a cool night they will go into the incubator for the rest of the day.

The kim chi is undisturbed in a large, covered pot but later today we will can it. We are heating raw milk for yogurt, doul and kefir. The buttermilk sat out for 24 hours and is clabbering. We all take a taste. Yum. The viscosity in the kefir is called “kefiring” and is not a cause for concern. Sandor is oft heard to note from a USDA source that in two centuries of records, there has never been a reported case of food poisoning from fermented foods.

Sandor refers us to the late Lynn Margulis’s essay “Sex, Death and Kefir”  as he puts the milk on the stove and stirs. He is denaturing it at 180° so that the bacteria of the yogurt can reweave the strings of protein. He has two strains of yogurt starter, one the Lactobacillus Bulgaricus that forms the basis for all Western yogurt cultures, and the other a rarer Lebanese strain. We mark our mason jars “B” and “L.”

Sandor tells us about skyr, an Icelandic yogurt that has nothing to do with yogurt, greek yogurt, and vily, a rare milk culture that forms a colloidal solid. We make 10 quarts of yogurt, 5 each of “B” and “L.” Sandor then starts a sorghum porridge that will get a 48-hour fermentation into a tasty cake. Our Saturday supper includes the last of the tempeh, bacon-fried in coconut oil with Italian spices, and a Japanese natto dish: egg yolk, uncooked stringy natto, white rice and Dijon mustard, strong on the horseradish. We contribute a six-pack of Oatmeal Stout homebrewed by Jon Hatcher at the Ecovillage Training Center, and Sandor uncorks some bubbly mead.

Sandor Katz
After three days, Sunday is a bit of a blur and we’ve stopped taking notes but we seem to recall something about alcoholic beverages and putting up crocks of miso. Persons braver than might be expected dive into a deep, ancient kraut barrel in Sandor’s root cellar and rebottle years-old ferments until his jar library is emptied. We tour Sandor’s home on Short Mountain, an 1820s log cabin being remodeled, and the adjacent ecovillage. We gather wild ramps, nettles, poke salat, and reishi. We ate, we hugged, we exchanged addresses and we parted.

We will next see Sandor July 27, when he comes to The Farm for our workshop on Fermaculture,  mixing the basics of food preservation with an introduction to permaculture design.




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