Gene Logsdon: Planting Rather Than Mining…


From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer

In contemplative moments I like to think about all the manufactured products that could come from the soil surface rather than from deep underground. Today I was listening to a report on NPR about flutes made of bamboo. Bamboo is a marvelous example of how plants can replace metal and plastic. Asians even make bicycles out of bamboo and use it as scaffolding in construction work.

Bamboo is very invasive and I won’t try growing it after I saw what a weed it has become around Chadds Ford, Pa. where I used to visit often. But invasiveness is an interesting subject for contemplation too. If we decided to make bicycles and structural lumber out of bamboo, it would suddenly become a major resource rather than an invasive plant, would it not?

We could easily go back to baseball bats made of ash like the major leagues still use. The metal ones that have replaced wood in softball and amateur baseball drive the ball farther and break less, but the good ones are more expensive too. One reason the major leagues stick with wood is because metal bats can rocket the ball at lethal speeds back at the pitcher. Also they can render most of the major league ball parks obsolete because with a metal bat even I could knock the ball over the fence. In some ways the case for wood vs. metal in ball bats limns the whole debate about planting vs. mining. It all comes down to money.

Henry Ford made car bodies out of plasticized soybeans. Wood-paneled station wagons were once almost common. Good artificial limbs can be made out of willow. Osage orange has more tensile strength than steel. I have catalpa fence posts that were used for forty years (20 years each by my grandfather and uncle) and are still going strong for me. A friend of mine makes flutes out of various American native woods. We can all think of many such examples.

Ironically, manufacturing literally means making by hand. Right next to our house are four cords of stove wood (see photo), enough to keep us warm for three winter months, all from one dead ash tree. I “manufactured” those cords myself at extremely low cost since I consider the labor healthful and relaxing exercise. It sounds naïve but I am convinced (argue with me) that if one tree can supply most of the heat for a home in an Ohio winter, there is, with proper planning, enough space in the world to supply a tree for every household every winter on an ongoing basis. But I am still not out of the woods. There is the metal chainsaw and the maul I needed to “manufacture” the wood heat.

The only example I know about where we are trying to supply one of our major needs by planting rather than mining is growing corn for ethanol. That is something of a disaster because all our arable farmland can’t produce but a fraction of the gas to keep all our cars running. On the other hand, I think I could easily make enough moonshine from my corn patch to supply my evening drink and my chainsaw all winter. I could distill the ethanol on the stove that is keeping the house warm. On yet another hand, a friend of mine years ago put a wood-burning methane generator on his pickup truck and just to make a point, drove all the way from Pennsylvania to New England and back on dead tree limbs he scavenged along the way.
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One Comment

Sounds good, except that harvesting biological material and removing it and all its resulting wastes from the land is mining. Two mineral macro-nutrients, phosphorus and potassium, and a variety of micro-nutrients are required for plant growth. Soils don’t contain an infinite supply. Any products harvested from the soil and carried away will carry away phosphorus and potassium, which are then dumped in sewage and landfills and lost. As a result, heavily industrially farmed and forested soils are deficient in one or both minerals. If soils are going to continue to produce, these minerals must be added with each crop. They are mined from relatively few sites and transported, thanks to fossil fuels, all over the world. We don’t worry about peak oil any more, because there is plenty left to fry us – I recently read that Canada alone as enough presently petroleum producing locations to raise global temperatures to 6 degrees C., as much more will come on line next year, and its proven reserves will supply several times enough. Peak phosphorus and potassium production, on the other hand, is at hand: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/11/are-we-heading-toward-peak-fertilizer. There are no substitutes. If we continue as we are, the prognosis is starvation on a wide scale in, say, forty years.

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