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BOOK REVIEW: Introduction to Permaculture

Introduction to Permaculture, Bill Mollison

Introduction to Permaculture

Introduction to Permaculture

This is pretty much the classic textbook on permaculture.  Don’t believe me?  What if I told you Mr. Mollison INVENTED the word permaculture to describe the multi-tiered growing system he developed on his Australian land.  Yep, that’s the guy.  And although he can be credited with this amazing feat, he doesn’t waste time with jargon in his book.  Instead, he gets right down to the business of how to most effectively plan land for both environmental and personal maintenance.

To describe it in brief, permaculture involves the integration of native plants and animals in a system that eliminated the need for additional inputs such as fertilizers and outputs such as yard waste. To see things from a permaculture perspective, a goat is no longer just a furry animal that makes funny noises, but rather a recycling and fertilizing machine, that, when properly utlilized, can keep an orchard pest (and pesticide) free while providing milk, companionship, and dung for the garden.  So too with chickens, cows, horses, fish, even green mulches.  Everything in a system must be looked at in terms of its TOTAL needs and outputs, and a balanced system can be created that makes the best use of everything available.

Of course there is a lot of plant talk here.  After all, it makes perfect sense to use native flora wherever possible.  And though Mr. Mollison is located far from the US of A, there is lots of good information here for any aspiring permaculturist.  Especially interesting is the discussion of planting cycles which replace the traditional English planting system of crop rotation followed by fallow periods to recoup soil nutrients.  He shows that by properly mixing plants with different strengths (such as leguminous nitrogen fixers and natural pesticides), you can completely eliminate fallow fields while still improving yields.

There’s a nice discussion of water management too, with ideas for ways to increase the productivity of “transition zones”, those microclimates along the edges of land and water which are traditionally the most diverse of a given area.

Now, none of this information would be very useful if it weren’t also practical.  After all, you don’t want to hike five miles for water every day any more than a woman in Kenya does.  Nor do you want to be flooded out every time it rains.  To that end, there is a lot of discussion in the book about how to situate the various components of your permaculture system so that you have easy access to the things you need and living takes as little energy input as possible.  Bravo for that reality check!

Overall, the book covers familiar ground in many areas, though it’s important to note that in actuality, as it was written in the EARLY 90s, this was the pioneering work that others have since used as inspiration.   I would certainly recommend it to any gardeners, off-grid enthusiasts, botanists, or just plain nature lovers out there.  Everything is nicely illustrated and purely practical.  Even in reading, he keeps extra work down to a minimum.

RATING: 5 / 5 stars

LENGTH: about 200 pages of pretty easy reading

PRACTICALITY: lots of sage advice here for anyone at any stage of land development and also good theoretical discussion of the lifestyle.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Light Revolution

The Light Revolution

Health, Architecture, and the Sun

by Dr. Richard Hobday

In times past, we instinctively understood that our lives depended on the glowing warmth of the sun.  Without space heaters and microfleece, every winter was a stark reminder that the sun’s warmth can be all too fleeting on a winter’s day.  And in the spring, great rites and festivals celebrated the coming of longer, more fertile days.

Somehow, however, the sun’s importance in modern architecture has diminished over the course of the twentieth century, often even as firms attempt to “green” buildings by reducing airflow (and therefore, heat loss).  The Light Revolution is a beautifully researched book about the sun’s journey over time through our collective consciousness.  It is also a medical book, celebrating the healing power of sunshine, which has been known to cure a whole host of diseases and other maladies. Even as a solar enthusiast, I learned a lot about ways in which solar power and medicine has been utilized in the past, and also about why current architecture has strayed from its heliocentric past incarnations.  When you realize just how many things the sun can cure, and how many very respectable people have argued its merits over the years, it is almost hard to figure how the box factory/warehouse/office building came to be.

What I liked most about the book was its discussions of quality of light.  After all, sitting under a tree is hardly the same as sitting on a beach, though both can be considered daylight.  According to Dr. Hobday, our modern lighting systems are negatively affecting our health, and costing us billions of dollars in loss of health and productivity.  The quality of indoor light is most often below the luminant threshold necessary for internal vitamin D production.  As you’ll discover in the book, vitamin D is absolutely critical to our ability to prevent and heal infections and diseases.

Rounding out the interest to readers is an interesting look at how political considerations often eclipse design considerations in the planning and construction of buildings.  He showcases some nice attempts at solar building design from the past, and shows how each achieves or falls short of its goals.  In the end, the lessons from the past serve to greatly underline the future potential of light therapy and its applications in health and architecture.

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QUICKIE: Solar Powered Christmas Lights

Looking for an easy way to integrate a little alternative energy into your holiday festivities?  There are a lot of exciting solar products coming out of Asia these days, as several eastern countries have gotten the jump on the US in terms of R&D and product development.  Which isn’t so good for the US’ current energy market, but it is good for solar energy enthusiasts!  Why don’t you try a string of solar powered Christmas lights in your front yard?  They turn themselves on automatically at dusk (if you want them too), similar to existing solar lawn lamps, they have solid light or blinking options, and they can easily be strung around fences, eaves, railings and wreaths to create a cheerful effect that’s also effortlessly green.

I have a set of white fairy style lights of this type, and they are great.  Not having a yard, I simply place the receiver in the window each morning and come sunset, I have a 60-LED solar powered flashlight for late night reading that lasts several hours! They throw a surprising amount of light for their tiny size.  If you’re interested in these or any other solar power accessories such as solar powered flashlights for emergency or off-grid use, head to ebay today and search for solar lights.  Finally, sunshine you can hold in your hand!

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BOOK REVIEW: Mycelium Running

Mycelium Running: Paul Stamets, Google Books Listing

Mycelium Running

This book is very inspiring!  I can’t even remember how it ended up on my library list, but since starting it, I haven’t put it down.  I also haven’t stopped talking about the wonders of mushrooms, much to my friends’ chagrin.  Yesterday even found me stooping in a neighbor’s yard, trying to figure out how to extract a cool-looking mushroom from their lawn without damaging the manicured turf!  Did you know that a cubic inch of earth can contain about 8 miles of mycelium, the fungal thread that matures into familiar mushrooms?  Or that some species of mushroom can survive on crude oil, breaking down the hydrocarbons into fertile soil in a matter of a months?  Other species of mushroom have shown promise in destroying neuro toxins, absorbing heavy metals, even killing the HIV virus.  Whoa, Shitake!

Seriously though, this book is excellently written with plenty of nice pictures for visual reference and a decidedly scientific style.  The author really knows his stuff, too, and he has the patents to prove it.  Everything is covered here from using mushrooms to repopulate logged forests to starting your own backyard mushroom garden or mycelial water filtration system.  The types of fungii and the environments in which they operate are also eloquently discussed.  There are charts galore showing which species can be used for different applications such as removing certain toxins or digesting certain wood species, even how to battle parasitic fungii with other species which are more environmentally benign.  Bottom line is that our oft mistreated fungal friends may hold the key to saving our planet more efficiently than we humans ever could.  Also, their unique medicinal properties, which though known in the Far East for centuries have only recently entered exploration by Western scientists, may be the key to the cancer and viral cures of the future because many fungii protect their hosts from infection and disease in a microscopic act of “you scratch my back…”.  Now that’s a pretty good reason to eat a heaping plate of fungii!  Five big shroomy stars.

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BOOK REVIEW: Power Down: Options for a Post Carbon World

It’s book review time again!  If you’re the type of person who wants to read about the miracle technology that will single-handedly save humanity from the energy crisis… this book is not for you.  No, Power Down is decidedly pessimistic about our near-future options for creating a sustainable energy economy without major human sacrifice along the way.  After all, as Heinberg argues, in past societal collapses, evidence shows that an average of about 90% of a given population dies off in the wake of the social unraveling.  Those that survive are deligated to a life of hardship.  Heinberg puts forth a good case for why we should be comparing ourselves with collapsed societies in the first place, and includes a brief discussion of several promising energy technologies that may impact, if not invert, the current energy market.

So all is not doom and gloom.  To be honest, I felt inspired after reading about the necessary sacrifices that we will have to make in order to usher in the new sustainable global energy economy.  In all the heavy thoughts lie opportunities for change, and Heinberg makes a decided point of keeping a silver lining even on the cloudiest day.  The book also includes inspiring stories about nations that have made the rough transition to energy autonomy with varying degrees of success.  I learned as much about foreign policy from this book as about alternative energy technologies.

Overall, Power Down is a good read, and has been included on many prominent environmentalists’ must read bibliographies.  It is a tribute to the swiftness of developments in the energy industry that some passages in the book seem dated, though the book was published as late as 2004!  If you’re looking for a book that looks the problem squarely in the eye and suggests solutions, check out Power Down.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fresh! Seeds of the Past and Food for Tomorrow

Fresh! Seeds from the Past and Food for Tomorrow

It’s been a big week of reading, trying to stay ahead of the library due dates.  This was a great book, a bit different from any I’ve read before in the general gardening arena.  Brian Patterson takes a scientific look at human history’s tenuous relationship with the foods we eat and illustrates how cultivation of seeds created the culinary landscape we take for granted today.  Part science, part history, and very interesting, he goes beyond the superficial facts and examines cultivation on a chemical level. How did we learn that potatoes, though poisonous when green, can be eaten when cooked?  Or that by fermenting grape juice and adding it to flour, we can enjoy light, fluffy leavened bread, but only if that grape juice doesn’t turn to vinegar first?  When viewed through the lens of science, even the most mundane of foods take on a magical quality.

It’s not a super long book (160 pages) but it’s surprisingly full of facts to be so easy to read.  I especially enjoyed the sections on the global spread of foods from one culture to the next and the final section which contains his look toward to future of plants and humans.  For those considering gardening as a nutritional endeavor, I can’t recommend this enough. Though not expressly a gardening book, you’ll find plenty of solid tips on how to get the most from your plants in terms of flavor and nutrition.  And who doesn’t want either of those?  You’ll also get a clearer understanding of the miracles that led to the availability of foods in your favorite seed catalog, and it may inspire you to try a few new exotic varieties.

There’s also plenty here for those interested in botany or cultural anthropology. After all, seeing what detailed culinary data we can glean from Egyptian society based upon their meticulous burial practices, one can draw some interesting conclusions about how we might preserve our own history for future generations.  For the general reader, and especially for those interested in going off-grid, knowing more about locally grown foods and their health properties can only be helpful in today’s 1500 mile to plate global food culture. And it might make you befriend a local farmer or two for their floral insights.  Strawberries never tasted so sweet as when you know that the farmer used sustainable scientifically sound growing practices to deliver them to your kitchen.

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BOOK REVIEW: Skinny Bitch in the Kitch

Skinny Bitch in the Kitch (Rory Freedman and Kim Bardouin) – 2007 (excerpt)

The Bitches are Back!

For those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll remember how excited (and grossed out!) I was by the book Skinny Bitch, a treatise on eating vegan and treating yourself like the queen (or king) you really are. (read the review here) Soon after turning the last page of that book, I ordered the new companion book, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch from the library and sat back to wait, and wait, and wait, for it to come. Guess it’s just as popular as the original!

While I did enjoy the book, it lacked the hard-hitting feeling of the first book. Much of this is due to the different format. After all, this is a cookbook, so the focus is on recipes, not pep-talks. I guess they figure they’ve already hit you over the head, no need to do it again. I read through it in an afternoon, copied the recipes I liked, and sent it on its way. No grossed out dreams the next day, not even a squeamish look at the supermarket meat aisle. Perhaps after the first book, my expectations were too high… I actually MISSED this feeling of being punched in the stomach, and felt like I’d been let down. The book sort of assumes that you’ve already read Skinny Bitch, and for those that haven’t you’re relegated to three pages of summary and an order to get off your ass and purchase that book too.

That being said, the recipes look very good, and admirably, they stick to a relatively normal palette of ingredients that you probably already own (or should). And they look pretty tasty too. Most don’t travel to the culinary ends of the world, but are instead vegan revamps of classic recipes. The organization was funny and there are some cute little quotes peppered here and there for good measure.

Overall, I liked the book, but felt that I’d have liked it better with a little less expectation. I found myself photocopying chapters from the first book and handing them out to everyone I knew while breathlessly expounding on the vegan lifestyle. That won’t be happening with this one. As a producer in the movie business, I know well the daunting challenge these ladies faced in creating the sequel to such a popular book. Truly, living up to high expectation is never easy. If you’ve never read either, I recommend getting the two books together and trying out the recipes while you read Skinny Bitch and other food is totally turning your stomach. That way, the yummy vegan meals you prepare will taste that much better, and will have a greater chance of ending up in your regular cooking repertoire.

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