Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Addition By Substraction

It's a terribly un-American notion to presume that life can be enriched by removing things from it.  Yet nearly four years into my own energy descent I can report back, to those who still buy into the idea that whoever dies with the most toys wins, that my assertion is unequivocally true.  Life can be richer with fewer things.  Life IS richer with less.  Heretical as it may sound.

Five years ago I started with Andrew Weil, started subtracting things from my diet, certain ingredients like MSG and trans-fats, and started trying to eat more organically.  In just a few months time I lost 30 lbs and dumped both my acid reflux and sleep apnea on the curb where they belonged.  Good start to this whole addition by subtraction idea, no?  Ever seen what they make you wear to bed when you have sleep apnea?  That CPAP machine made me feel like a Star Wars version of Mr. Snuffleupagus.  And talk about sexy!  It was a lonely month or two in our bed for sure.  Subtracting that from my life was definitely a plus.  And have you ever tried to do biological field work with acid reflux?  Every grass and herb way down there on the ground that had to be collected and identified, every soil profile that required digging even lower and describing, was murder on my throat.  It was not a boon to my career.  Actually it was downright unpleasant.  But with such handicaps alleviated from my life via such simple changes, it was a no-brainer to press the pattern.  What else was I missing out on?

Well, by then I was starting to notice that I was thinking more clearly, more critically.  Surely some of it had to do with the 30 lbs I had subtracted from my waist line, and the improved sleep I had added without the apnea, but that wasn't all of it, so I started studying the ins and outs of what made organic food different.  And what I found was that the primary difference in organic (in real organic at least) and conventional was not the missing pesticides, but that the foundation of the organic philosophy was to repair broken mineral cycles, to increase mineral density in the food, by bringing the soil it was grown in back to life.  A human is a rare animal that requires an extremely mineral rich diet, about 90 of them, which (go figure) is almost the full periodic table, minus the obvious undesirables like radioactive uranium.  Which is one of the reasons why 7 billion of us are so much harder on the biosphere than say, 7 billion horses would be.  Where conventional crop production had really taken a wrong turn was in its failure to perpetuate stable mineral cycles.  When you grow food with the idea that the only minerals plants really need are nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, that's eventually all you're going to get.  And when the human diet becomes deficient in the other 87 minerals necessary for optimum health, all sorts of problems start cropping up.

Like obesity, acid reflux, and sleep apnea.

The average human metabolism "knows" what it needs, but if the food being utilized to acquire those necessities is minerally-impaired, as industrial food has increasingly become over the past 60 years or so, then the body automatically requests more of it in an attempt to gain access to a sufficient dose of the minerals it needs to function.  And that's how obesity begins, because eating 2-3 times the amount of food we should be eating in order to acquire the minerals we need carries a lot of empty calories along with it.  And of course this trio of ailments aren't the only ones.  It's no coincidence that industrial world rates of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, ADD, autism, you name it, have increased proportionally with the decline in dietary mineral density.  This is not an area that you want to try to gain by subtracting, unless you mean by subtracting the entire system that produces food in this way.  One can't simply stop using pesticides and keep tilling and fertilizing the bare soil and expect to rebuild proper mineral cycles.  As we covered in a very popular post a few weeks ago, cultivation actually causes the pest problems that we want to avoid.  It also supercharges the microbial economy in your soil, and, in those abnormal hyper-aerobic conditions, consumes whatever organic matter is in the soil before turning on your plants as the only available carbon source left.  Cultivation causes long-term fertility damage, pest problems, and broken mineral cycles.  In order to move to an intact mineral-dense food production system, we must stop disturbing the soil to the greatest possible extent.

Subtract cultivation, add minerals to your diet, and break disease cycles, both in your garden and in your body.  This is a real game changer, but it obviously requires a lot more participation in the process of food production.  The only way we could have ever gotten to a point where only 2% of our population is required to produce the food we all need was to use an anomalous amount of energy to destroy the mineral cycle, abuse our valuable topsoil, and basically force food to grow "against its will" with spectrally-impoverished fertilizers.

Just as an example, I read a recent study that compared two carrots, one grown in a small, mineral-dense, organic system, and the other in a large petro-powered monoculture.  The parameter of comparison in this study was the Brix number, which is, broken down to its simplest explanation, the amount of high-quality sugar contained within the carrot (or for whatever else it is being used as a yardstick).  The carrot grown in the small ecological system had a Brix reading of 13.8 (insert jaw drop here), and the one from the monoculture registered a big fat goose egg.  Zero.  No sugar at all.  Which, aside from the distinct lack of flavor that would accompany a carrot like that, points to a lack of desire on the carrot's part to live.  A carrot that was growing in conditions suitable for reproduction would contain sugar/energy for seed building.  This carrot didn't "see" any reason to go on (I know, only potatoes have eyes;).  But why would it?  It lived its whole life in a system that was at the end of its rope, and the so-called "carrot" growing in that system could sense that it was game over.  Why bother?

Sad.  Just like a society raised on zero-Brix carrots would be.

So realizing that "organic" couldn't really be done in large commercial systems that relied on mechanization and monocultural efficiencies, we started taking back our food production for ourselves.  And our food production systems really took a giant leap forward when we discovered permaculture (as did every other aspect of our lives).  For the past three seasons we've applied permaculture ethics and principles to the design of large family gardens and livestock systems, mostly with remarkable success.  But our successes in the first couple of years made my head swell, and I thought this time I could introduce more animals to our system right up front.

Enter our four American buff geese.  The waddling lords and ladies of destruction.  Who had dwindled to three by last weekend.  But still three American buff geese that were awfully hard on our young permaculture system.  I had always heard from the more experienced permies that poultry can only be introduced to the system when it was mature enough to handle their physical presence.  I thought perhaps I could sidestep that requirement by keeping them sequestered from the rest of the site until it was ready, and we could get our breeding stock established in the meantime.  But then, chickens, geese, and ducks are rather unlikely to wander cheerfully around on a lawn when there are so many luscious things to eat just across a fence that most of them can squeeze right through with a little effort.  They devoured my expensive kiwi vines, they worked my red raspberries over, they decimated my little banana tree, and relieved the young Lapins cherry of most of its bark below about 24".  Oh, and they irreparably handicapped about half of my corn too.

Here we must stop and analyze the situation to determine what the lowest energy route to success would be.  The industrial system that always prescribes adding something to the system to control the problems it creates for itself would want to fence off the expensive plants, or install a hot wire to keep the geese in their place.  Both of these options require a net importation of energy into the system for its benefit, the addition of expense and complexity to force the system to comply with the will of its manager.  But all of this time and expense could be avoided by subtracting the geese from the system...which is exactly what we did on Sunday.  Let me tell you, geese are a PAIN to pluck.  There must be about a million little downy feathers to tease out after you get the big ones.  Now we have three fat young geese in the freezer, three less (very hungry) mouths to feed, and our valuable nursery stock is on the mend.

It's hard to admit that you were wrong.  That you made a decision that didn't work out right.  But where permacultural thought begins to diverge from dualistic, reductionist patterns is in its contemplation of subtraction in order to gain.  One of the first things we should analyze when confronted with a problem is what we can remove from the system to make it function more optimally.  Where are our leverage points?  What creates the biggest bang for the proverbial buck?  If we can accomplish our goals by removing elements from the system, instead of adding complexity, I've discovered that money and effort are always saved, resilient systems synergies tend to emerge, and anxiety levels usually drop.  Oh, and illness subsides too.  In a world of aspirin for your pain this is radical stuff.  Corporate economies aren't supported by folks who prefer to address the cause of their headache instead of medicating its symptoms.  No one's going to promote or fund a system that guides you to the belief that less is more.

When less becomes more all the extraneous bits and bobs of our high-energy culture stop making sense.  And the people who profit from diabetes, and heart disease, and cancer, and ADD, and acid reflux, and sleep apnea, start to suffer, because you are committing a radical act of self-reliance, taking full responsibility for your own health and welfare, and showing the profit mongers to the door.  By the way, these are the same profit mongers who have the money necessary to bend public opinion toward a culture of reliance on their products.  The same profit mongers who steadily repeat the mantra that you aren't smart enough to take care of yourself.  The very same profit mongers who believe in complexity, and that every problem has a viable solution for sale.  Cancer is a disease of excess, of unbridled growth; it behaves much like the industrial economy does, and, like the industrial economy, it will attempt to consume its host, one way or another.  Unfortunately the industrial economy's host is planet Earth.  The same Earth that is suffering its own versions of diabetes, heart disease, and acid reflux.  And it is counting on a return to health by way of subtraction for its recovery.

Will we subtract the system elements that are consuming the host?  Or will the host fight its cancer by subtracting us?  I know which one I prefer.


  1. Hey Tripp you might enjoy reading "The farmer and the obstetrician" by Michel O Dent it is a book that discusses the industrialization of farming and the industrialization of childbirth which occured in parallel. His latest book childbirth in the age of platics comes to some of the same conclusions as you less is actually what we need. I enjoy reading your blog keep standing your ground, your on the right path.

  2. Great post! I've been a fan of Dr. Weil for a long time. All I can say is, I'm 62 and take NO prescriptions. At one point, a Doc said "Hmmm. Blood pressure is a little high, let me prescribe you..." I told him I wanted to see what I could do to lower it on my own, as a medicine I would have to take all my life ... the cost might mean the difference between tuna and cat food, later.

    I upped the amount of garlic I eat and got more exercise. Blood pressure came down. I probably have pretty good genes, but did manage to sidestep the rampant diabetes that afflicts almost every member of my mother's family. I eat as much organic as I can afford. I try and eat healthy and be mindful of what I'm eating, but I'm not a fanatic about it. I do follow Michael Palin's advice. Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

    As to getting rid of "stuff," in general, I'm going through a great downsizing, right now. Hopefully, in a bout 6 months I'll be moving somewhere where I can have a garden and more control over my utilities, etc.. At times, it is a painful process, to let go of the "stuff."

    It helps me to think of our pioneer ancestors. You have a Conestoga Wagon, and you're moving from Iowa to Washington. You have a set amount of space to take along all you need to get you there and set up housekeeping at the other end. Or, I think of my grandmother coming to this country with only a bundle of bedding with a few cooking utensils strapped to the outside. I have her cast iron skillet. It's going with me.

  3. Ya'all might enjoy this. It's an essay from Wendell Berry from 1988. It's called "The Work of Local Culture." It starts off as a little story about building soil and ends with building community.


  4. Excellent read. As an organic vegetable grower, I find your descriptions of 'organic' refreshing. There is so much more to it than the absence of pesticides. As I seem more and more 'no spray' signs, I get irked as there is so much more to it! Although quitting pesticides is a good start - that we treat our soils as living things and try to keep them strong, like our immune systems, so that they can fight off disease is our greatest chance of growing enough food for the planet. thanks for the read.