Archive for August, 2014



The Japanese Garden that sits within Seattle’s8694056943_3e1ede8f88_z Arboretum is full of symbolism but it’s easy to find pleasure in its carefully manicured grounds without understanding what it all means.

This is a world of rivers, forests and mountains condensed into a site of a little over three acres where man’s mastery over nature creates a sense of serenity through careful planting and stylized vistas.

The island pines represent cranes and are symbols of longevity as are the turtles that lounge on the rocks or float with necks stretched out of the water as if to catch the sun’s rays.

Elegant bridges, gates and boulders show harmony between man and nature but it’s clear who has the upper hand in this world. You’ll struggle to find a weed on the moss-covered slopes and the trees are carefully pruned and shaped to meet an ideal of aesthetic perfection.

This is a place that’s instantly soothing, a place set apart from the harsher world beyond. The subtle planting with its multiple shades of green calm the mind and invite visitors to slow down and enjoy the moment.

Maintaining this level of perfection is anything but tranquil of course, it takes a lot of hard work. But it can be yours for a few hours and a few dollars without you having to lift a finger. And for that kind of serenity it seems cheap at the price.


This moving war memorial to merchant seamen sits on the dockside in Cardiff Bay, south Wales.

Approach from one direction and you see the ribs of a ship resting on its hull. Seen from the other you see the face that represents all the mariners who lost their lives keeping Britain’s shipping lanes open.

The Bay area is now a place of plush apartments, swish hotels, yacht marinas, fancy restaurants and arts venues. But it wasn’t always so.

When Cardiff was a thriving port, booming on coal exports, the lure of plentiful work and good pay drew people from around the globe.

With them, too, came ladies of the night, enticed by the prospect of separating lonely sailors from enforced celibacy and fat pay packets.

The area then was known as Tiger Bay and was a notorious red-light district, but as the coal trade went into decline so did the port and dereliction and dole became the new realities.

Despite the regeneration effort that began in the late 1980s, the scheme continues to be controversial.

Cardiff-born planning specialist Adrian Jones recently called it a contender for the worst example of waterside regeneration in Britain.

That seems a bit harsh considering what was there before, but it does reinforce how hard it is to build communities and that the intricate web of everyday life requires more than simply money and shiny new architecture.

SoilThe Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson 

At last, a book offering a glimmer of hope to pierce the all-pervading environmental gloom!

Author Ohlson digs deep into topics like soil science, mob-herding, no-till farming and cover crop husbandry to outline how we might yet undo the damage we’ve done to our ecosystem.

Better care of the land means healthier crops and animals, fewer flash floods, greater drought resistance, fewer chemical inputs, fewer issues with run-off and – best of all – massive amounts of carbon sequestration.

Modern agriculture, she says, has led to the loss of 80 billion tons of carbon from the world’s soils and her hope is that scientists, researchers and agrarian free-thinkers, working with nature, can put it back.

Much of what’s written in the book has its roots in far earlier layers of knowledge. As Ohlson points out, Pliny the Elder knew all about composting.

Pastoralists have long practiced crop rotation, green manuring, animal grazing and companion planting and many an old-time gardener grew up with the mantra “feed the soil, not the plant”.

What’s new is our grasp of the complex microbiological activity going on beneath our feet.  Full understanding remains a massive challenge, but the progress of soil science is starting to yield answers – and some spectacular results.

Examples of regenerative farming, where overworked land has been carefully managed and restored to rich earth, are as compelling as they are heartwarming.

And the people behind it – the scientists, foodies and farmers harnessing partnerships between plants and microorganisms – are the book’s heroes.

Up against them are skeptical minds and the political and financial might of Big Ag. In 2009 the sector spent $133m on lobbying, that’s almost as much as the nation’s defense contractors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

If the odds look unfavorable, then Ohlson suggests a grass roots campaign waged on the unlikely battleground of America’s lawns could be a turning point.

“What we do with our urban green matters, whether it’s in our yards or in our parks or even our highway median strips,” says Olson. And lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, taking up three times as much space as corn.

It’s going to take much more than that, of course, but it’s a start. And with farmers and ranchers trying to work the land in a more enlightened way, the seeds of the next agricultural revolution have been sown.

Postscript: The Guardian’s George Monbiot is highly sceptical of claims made by one of the book’s heroes