Make America Joyful Again II

A young girl is helping her mother by hanging up clothes to dry. She then picks up her 3 string Kyrgyz guitar and starts practicing. Her mother is cooking dinner for the construction workers across the park. They smile when we walk over.

The mother offers us bread, as Kyrgyz do for visitors. Her daughter showed us the music she had copied out and was practicing.

Down the road, the wife of the falconer is cooking a traditional bread called boorsoks and sends her daughter to give us some when we are talking to her husband. They are still hot when we get them so I go visit the cook. Turns out she knows English and loves to talk. She joyfully tells me all about how she makes boorsoks over an open fire and her six children and how her husband won a prize at a falconry competition in Saudi Arabia.

All the while she’s talking and smiling, she is rolling out dough, cutting it up and plopping it in the oil bubbling over the fire. When we leave, she insists we take a bag of boorsoks. Another daughter and a son come around the corner as we leave and smile shyly at us.

This Kyrgyz town has a community center that includes a theatre and a museum. The museum honors a famous writer who was born there. We get a tour from two dedicated guides. The theater is the home to a community theater group.

Part of the group is just leaving a meeting and sitting on a wall. They are called the “Joyful Grandmothers” in Kyrgyz. When we start talking, they ask me to come sit with them. They laugh joyfully as I push my way down amongst them.

All those instances of joy appeared in a couple of hours in a small town called Sheker on the Kyrgyz side of the Kazakh border.

A few minutes later we found another joyful grandmother who loves to sew and embroider natural felt. She was bursting with enthusiasm and insisted we eat too much and take home lots of extras.

There are so many stories of joy in this isolated and not very wealthy country on the border of China. These are just a few from one day. I hope to go back again soon and collect some more. Until then, I’ll try to spread some of that Kyrgyz joy in America. We need it.

For the first Make America Joyful Again, see: https://meadowcreekvalley.wordpress.com/blog/make-america-joyful-again/

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Spirits in the swamps: methane and rice

Swamps are not nice places to be sometimes. Even when they are called wetlands. Rice paddies are really just small little swamps that only last a few months. So they don’t accumulate all the evil that swamps do, but they get close.

Probably one of the most evil things that swamps produce is a deadly odorless gas called methane. You might have methane in pipes going into your house. It’s called natural gas today because the industry has good public relations people. The producers of natural gas have to mix it with really smelly stuff so you notice and get out when there is a leak. Or you would die. Swamps and rice fields produce methane in abundance.

Those of us who live close to swamp areas, have lots of stories about methane–also called swamp gas. Occasionally it is ignited and appears to be a lantern or a face running through the woods (“will-o’-the-wisp”). European folkfore has numerous stories about strange, bright apparitions leading lonely travelers astray–all inspired by methane somehow ignited in the woods. Watch the following video to see how much methane swamps produce.

in modern times, methane has become even scarier since it is one of the greenhouse gases leading to climate change. Methane is way more potent the carbon dioxide. Over 20 years methane traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. In 100 years it degrades, but still traps 28 times as much. Methane emissions from swamps are the largest natural source of methane in the world, contributing roughly one third of all methane released from nature and by man combined.

Methane is produced by bacteria decomposing organic matter under water. When rice is flooded, man is creating a little swamp with perfect conditions for methane producton.

Rice doesn’t produce nearly as much methane as swamps (about 2 per cent of the methane released by human activity). So rice fields are a small, but definite contributor to our GHG problem. And its a problem which can be solved. We just have to figure out ways of growing rice with less flooding. Researchers are figuring out ways to do that and rice farmers are implementing them resulting in lower costs for water and lower methane production.

It seems like a great achievement. Except in some places, like California, all the natural lakes have been destroyed and there is no habitat for migrating waterfowl except flooded rice fields. So in the short run, we have to keep flooding California rice fields.

As soon as possible, however, we need to get farmland in California converted back to natural lakes. Natural lakes in a dry climate like California’s rice growing area do not accumulate the high levels of organic matter under water which leads to methane production. Reestablishing that system should be our goal, not flooding rice fields and watching the methane bubble up.

In Arkansas, with 50+ inches of rain a year, we have plenty of habitat for migrating waterfowl without flooding rice fields and are trying everything we can to reduce the period of flooding on rice fields.    

Wetlands and rice fields do produce methane. We can’t just sweep that fact under the rug because we need flooded rice fields for waterfowl migration. Instead, let’s recreate the lakes destroyed in the Pacific flyway. We don’t have to settle for methane production from rice fields.

The American attitude

“He’s Kyrgyz, but he thinks like an American.” Today, while travelling around Bishkek, the greenest city in the former Soviet Union, a Kyrgyz friend confided that about another Kyrgyz friend. I’ve heard that idea in many countries. It’s always said by a native of the other country speaking of a fellow citizen. People all across Eastern Europe and Africa contend there is a unique and positive American mentality that they really admire.

To them, thinking and acting like an American is being free to think and say what you feel. Not inhibited by typical norms, free from traditional modes of thought.

Here in Bishkek is the American University of Central Asia. The Kyrgyz tell me that kids who go to that university develop a unique attitude they call an American mentality. They are more free in thought, word and deed. They aren’t so limited in the possibilities they will consider. The sky’s the limit for those with the American mentality. They aren’t bound by the dictates of blind tradition. This spills over into work and technology and resulted in the famed American ingenuity which propelled us to the moon and to the top of technology and science worldwide in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

This is what the Kyrgyz tell me. And I’ve heard heard the same sentiments in most of the 37 countries I’ve worked in.

If you don’t travel much outside America, you might not even realize you have a particular way of looking at the world that is not shared by many in other countries. Maybe, as far as you are concerned, the way you look at the world is the way everyone does.

What people outside America don’t realize is how much American freedom and innovation have been weakened from inside. Americans in America are no longer free to speak their minds on many topics. You must toe the politically correct line or be shouted down on social media. And its true on both the left and the right. Each side has a plethora of sacred cows which must be revered and punching bags which must be hit.

Innovation and pursuit of truth is castigated today in America if it conflicts with the party line.

My Kyrgyz friends don’t realize how far the America of today has moved from the America they admire so much. Americans don’t either. They are like the frog in the pot of water which is gradually being heated up. They don’t realize they are being cooked.

Sadly, Americans are cooking themselves. As far as many Americans today are concerned, the way they look at the world is the way everyone does, or maybe should. They believe: if you don’t look at the world the way we do, then you are just wrong.

That’s the root of the tribalism endemic in the US today. We don’t give credence to other ways of looking at the world. It’s my way or the highway. “I know the truth and don’t you dare question it” is the attitude of the hardline party activists who are being boiled alive in the peculiar atmosphere of America.

That mentality is present in all tribal peoples. Many American Indian tribes viewed other tribes as not really human. That’s taking the tribal mentality to the extreme. Some self-righteous Americans seem to be getting close to that these days.

The mistakes some American leaders made in the past are an outgrowth of this self-righteousness, coupled with greed. Vietnam, the banking crisis, the second Iraq war are all examples. Some activists and politicians are so inflamed by those mistakes that they suppress the qualities which make America admired around the world. Openness, freedom, pursuit of truth, and ingenuity can be misapplied and result in horrible harm. But retreating into tribes does not solve anything.

America, not too long ago, had progressed beyond the tribe. We knew there was much to learn and we felt free to explore and learn it. We could talk with those who disagreed with us. Now there are certain beliefs that just can’t be questioned.

The American mentality so admired by people in other countries is increasingly absent in Americans. The orthodoxy in American education means our children grow up knowing many topics are just off limits. Any attempt to discuss them is shouted down. They are the elephants in the room that everyone tries to ignore. We do not explore anything which contradicts the current politically correct positions of our tribe.

When will Americans wake up and realize they are losing what made America great? The American attitude so many admire is in danger of disappearing.

Easter traditions: whipping and splashing girls

Whipping girls and dunking them in water are beloved Easter traditions in Ukraine, Russia, Czechia, Slovakia and nearby countries. This week was Easter Monday in Orthodox areas. In Ukraine, Czechia and Slovakia boys and men were whipping girls and women with the willow branches. It makes them prettier, younger, and more fertile (which is why the whip is known as “pomlázka”, a kind of “rejuvenator”).

In addition to the whippings, girls also get picked up and thrown in the river. Or, perhaps just splashed with a cup or bucket of water if no river is readily accessible.

Girls and women thank the boys and men for the bruises by giving them candy, decorated eggs or at least a glass of vodka. Some Americans could find it politically incorrect for men to periodically beat women – or for women to thank men for those occasional bruises or unexpected dunking.

How Americans and other foreigners react to the tradition may be seen in the following almost authentic entertaining video.

How foreigners react to Easter whip – Stream.cz • Internetová televize, seriály online zdarma a videa

Girls who do not get whipped or splashed know that the boys don’t like them, so all girls want to get whipped and splashed. And reward the boys for doing it.

Guernsey or Jersey? Both are winners

Guernsey or Jersey? You really have to choose. This exciting debate is one you may not be aware of, but small farmers and homesteaders get passionate about.

Guernsey and Jersey are two English islands of the coast of France. They also are the origins of two of the best milk cows for the family farm. Unlike the Holsteins of German origin, these two breeds don’t produce watery milk that almost looks blue. Instead their milk is almost golden due to the high concentration of beta carotene. Beta carotene is not digested by these cows so it passes into the milk and produces the wonderful golden color. Beta carotene is found in green vegetable matter like grass and gives protection against certain cancers and even aging, they say. You know it’s healthy to eat vegetables high in beta carotene, like carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach. But did you know you can get the same benefits from drinking Guernsey or Jersey milk? Drinking their milk is like having a serving of veggies.

And many folks who think they can’t digest milk, find Guernsey or Jersey milk suits them just fine. That’s because their milk proteins are the A2 protein which has been bred out of the most dairy cows in order to get high production of that watery substance passed off today as milk.

Whether Guernsey or Jersey milk tastes better is not an debate I want to enter. Both sides are just too passionate. Bringing up the topic is almost as bad as bringing up politics at Thanksgiving dinner. Some like Jerseys because they are smaller and produce more milk on less grass. Others like Guernseys because they have a little more A2. The rancor doesn’t last though. Unlike Democrats and Republicans, Jersey and Guernsey lovers have a whole lot in common. They love living on small farms and producing healthy food. No matter which of these English breeds you like the best, you know they are better than the German Holstein breed.

Jersey and Guernsey were also at the forefront of another English-German battle you may have heard of. The two islands were occupied by the Germans in the Second World War soon after they took over France. The English got early warning so the children were evacuated. The adults were left to cope with the German invaders.

The Germans confiscated nearly all the islands’ animals to feed their soldiers in France. About all they left the islanders was potatoes. They even invented potato peel pie which has no flour or sugar or fruit. Only potatoes.

A few animals did remain hidden. In defiance of curfew a few residents roasted a hog one night and consumed it along with some home brewed spirits. When confronted by German soldiers while heading home, they invented the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society since such literary society meetings were permitted by the Germans. Read about it in a book named after the Society or watch the movie based on it.

The Germans were defeated and left Guernsey and Jersey. But the modern Holstein milk cows still remain dominant worldwide. Modern people like the low fat Holstein milk, not realizing that wholesome natural fat is good for you. It’s only the artificial fats that hurt you.

After the war, back in the late 1940s, 50s and early 60s, there were still plenty of Jerseys and Guernseys supplying high quality milk to Americans. Efficient, industrial agriculture has made short shrift of them in the last 50 years. Modern attitudes have taken over. Relations between the sexes and races has changed for the better, but we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

In decrying the stifling attitudes of the past, we’ve abandoned a way of life which was much more resilient. We need to speak up for many of the attitudes of the 1950s. Everyone used to value working with your hands, being self-reliant, raising your own food. Some of us still do. My family still milks Jerseys on the family farm in Missouri. Three households raise their own eggs and meat on the farm where I grew up. I’m writing this in a small country in Eastern Europe where people still value the wholesome food produced on small farms.

Some in the US are waking up to the realization that some of the old ways were not so bad. We’d all be better off if we threw off the shackles of modernity and kept the old attitudes of the family farm. To be resilient, you have to innovate, but it must be conservative innovation. You must conserve the tried and true from the past. Conserving while innovating is tricky, but it’s the only way. Only the resilient survive.

Improving soils through biochar: the water bed method

The daffodils are blooming everywhere here in the Delta. Spring is coming, but the winter rains are hanging on, keeping us from doing much in the garden–except making biochar.

Biochar is the most revolutionary change in farming since organic methods. Biochar improves soil health by improving soil structure, increasing organic matter, reducing soil acidity, reducing the need for chemical and fertilizer inputs and increasing drought resistance. Most importantly to farmers, biochar increases productivity and crop yields. If you aren’t familiar with biochar, read this article and you’ll want to try it.

Comparison of traditional rainforest soils with biochar plot. Source: biocharinternational.org.

We especially like it down here in the Delta because our soils are much like those where biochar was first found. Five hundred years ago Spanish explorers, winding their way through the Amazon River Basin of South America, came upon an interesting phenomenon.  Due to high rainfall, most rainforest soils are leached of plant nutrients and organic matter.  However, periodically the explorers would find small patches of black, highly productive soils.  Upon further investigation they found that these patches were created by local Indian tribes using the partial burning of biomass.  They made these soils from biochar (charcoal).

There are fancy ways of making biochar using pyrolysis in closed containers, but we like quick, easy ways that don’t require any equipment except our trusty shovel, rake and pitchfork.

Water stands on our soils nearly all winter. We have to build them up in raised beds if we want to get any early crops in. Since we have plenty o’trees growing on our property, biochar is the perfect method for us.

We have developed a unique method which might also work for you if you have wet soils and trees you need to thin out. We call it the water bed method because it uses our plentiful winter water and beds.

We start by double digging the soil in dry weather (digging in wet weather just leaves huge clods). We dig down about a foot. We pile all the topsoil in one bed leaving a ditch beside the bed. The ditch fills with water in the wet winter.

As we are cutting firewood in the winter, we haul the branches over next to the new ditch. Then, on a nice still, cold day, we light the brush pile on fire. We enjoy the warmth of the bonfire, but don’t let it get too fierce. We don’t want all the wood to burn up, we just want to turn it into charcoal. When one section of the brush pile has burned down to charcoal, we push it into the water filled ditch. The pleasant sizzle of hot charcoal hitting water means the wood has quit burning and we have just contributed a little biochar to our next bed.

When the winter rains lessen in Spring, we cover the now biochar filled ditch with soil from the side of the plot where we burned the branches. Since it was burned, it has no grass or weeds to deal with. Nice clean soil for our next bed is what we are putting on top of the biochar filled ditch. And we are creating a new ditch for our next biochar prodution phase.

It’s a simple easy method for us. And fun. We have an excuse for nice bonfires in the winter when everything is cold and wet. And we know we’re doing something productive with all that wood waste. It will be soil in the Spring. A resilient soil which can be planted early.

If you create biochar, you’ll be creating the most resilient soil system. As shown in the rainforest plots in the Amazon Basin, biochar appears to sequester carbon for hundreds if not thousands of years.  It is resistant to the microbial breakdown that is common with crop residues and other types of soil organic matter.  Crop residues break down in a couple of years and humus oxidizes in less than 25 years.  So, biochar is not subject to the “leakage” that is a concern for carbon sequestered with no till farming and the carbon capture and sequestration of fossil fuel carbon emissions 

You’ll be countering global warming. Biochar has been shown to reduce the soil emissions of nitrous oxide (as a greenhouse gas, it is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide) and improve the uptake of methane (21 times more potent than carbon dioxide).

Biochar has a unique ability to reduce atmospheric carbon levels. 
Biochar production takes plant based carbon that originated from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and sequesters it in the soil. 

Plus its a great way to spend a clear winter day when you want to be outside and you want to be warm. Start a fire and make biochar!

How a weedkiller drives farmers out of business

Down here in the Delta, we know that Spring has arrived when the spray planes come out. That’s proof its warm enough to get ready for the growing season. For the last couple of years, however, the spray planes have been spreading something which is killing agriculture.

The only growing sector of American agriculture is being destroyed by a weedkiller which makes big profits for European chemical makers. The chemical is called dicamba. When you spray it on a field, it floats to neighboring fields. When conditions are right, it can even lift up after being sprayed and move to other fields.

Small farms selling organic food direct to consumers are the most vibrant part of American agriculture. They are growing because consumers want fresh local food not contaminated with pesticides. Many farmers have created thriving businesses providing such products with roadside stands, farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA). With just a few acres and a lot of hard work, new businesses are being created to meet the growing demand for fresh, healthy food.

Down here in the Delta, those farmers are being run out. Drifting dicamba from big farmers spraying non-food crops like soybeans and cotton destroys the small farmers next door.

Small farmers growing healthy food have been hit by pesticide drift before. Glyphosate and Facet both drift under the right conditions. But dicamba is a whole new ball game.

Dicamba’s effects aren’t limited just to small organic farmers. Dicamba is sold as a package with dicamba resistant seeds. Farmers buying both can spray over the top of their soybeans or cotton and kill weeds while their crops survives. The volatility of dicamba means it drifts to neighboring soybean and cotton fields. If they are not dicamba resistant, they are dead.

So even row crop farmers who don’t want to buy the expensive dicamba resistant seeds are forced to. The chemical companies now have a product which big farmers are forced to buy even if they don’t want to. The high cost is contributing to driving some of these farmers out of business, too.

The most ridiculous fact is that dicamba will become useless in a few years. Weeds are remarkably adaptable species. They develop resistance to herbicides. The only reason dicamba has a market is because pigweed became resistant to glyphosate. And glyphosate only had a market because weeds became resistant to other weedkillers.

Many row crop farmers are locked into this pesticide treadmill and paying the high prices chemical companies demand. Dicamba’s drift to neighboring fields is forcing all farmers to get on the pesticide treadmill if just one neighbor does.

The only bright part of this picture is how city people have risen up against dicamba. Dicamba drifts so far that it even kills plants in the city. At a hearing about dicamba in Little Rock yesterday, more than half the attendees were city residents whose ornamental plants and personal gardens had been destroyed by dicamba.

If enough of us get fed up, maybe things will change. Until then just one farmer using dicamba can cause every farmer in a region to use the chemical or go out of business.

One organization uniting farmers and city folk to fight dicamba is Freedom to Farm Foundation. Contact them through Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/freedomtofarm/