10 Steps for Stripping Down in the Garden

14577804547_17d042b819_bThis is the briefest guide to simple living, but it’s a place to start if clearing the clutter, reducing the load and building community are what you’re after. Perhaps the most personal way to make it simple is join the fun on World Naked Gardening Day – yes it’s a real thing. (Maybe it’s just me, but barefoot spade work doesn’t sound too appealing, likewise running a rototiller or trimming the blackberry canes, but hey, whatever puts zip in your skip.)

Here’s the truth: For more than a decade, people around the world have been dropping their socks and everything else on the first Saturday in May – in 2017 it’s May 6 – and heading to the garden in their birthday suits to plant, weed, prune and frolic in the buff.

WNGD observers say there’s plenty of friction, dissatisfaction and fear to go around these days. Resisting these forces takes courage and tenacity, the naked gardeners say. And, they claim one way to find strength for the long haul is to strip away the things that weigh us down and live lighter and brighter – unclothed – as nature intended.

SEASONAL INTERCHANGE

by Michael Aitken

In Winter, when the trees are bare,
We mortals don our winter wear.
In Spring, when trees begin to dress,
We mortals then start wearing less,
Until, for some, with Summer’s heat
The role reversal is complete.

Whether or not naked bathing is appealing, here are 10 simple steps you, your family, friends and neighbors can take to use less energy, become more mindful about choices, and build stronger bonds within your family and your community, while sprucing up the garden.

  1. Build community. Relationships are the foundation of resilient communities. Get to know your neighbors by organizing a potluck, sharing something, or simply stopping by to say hello.
  1. Grow some of your own food. You can start simple by growing in containers on a patio or windowsill or renting a plot in a community garden. Or, if you have access to land, start a garden or go all out with a permablitz, a way of bringing the community together and turning a suburban house into an urban homestead… in a single day.
  1. Share and repair. Two simple and rewarding ways to reduce consumption and save money are by sharing things you don’t use all the time (vacuum, car, tools, etc.) with friends and neighbors, and by repairing items when they break instead of buying new ones. The New Dream Community Action Kit is all about sharing: everything from starting a tool library to organizing a solar cooperative, from holding a clothing swap to launching a time bank.
  1. Minimize waste by buying fresh and bulk foods to avoid extra packaging, and start composting organic waste.
  1. Help keep wealth in your community. Buy local when possible, and consider switching to a local bank or credit union.
  1. Reduce home energy use and save money by hanging a clothesline or conducting a home energy efficiency audit.
  1. Conserve water. Fix the leaks, take shorter showers, sheet mulch your lawn, and install a greywater or rainwater harvesting system.
  1. Green your ride. Walk or get a bicycle, learn how to use public transport, or redesign your routine to minimize your drive.
  1. Build inner resilience. Cultivate meaningful relationships, practice mindfulness or spend time in nature. The Japanese call it “forest bathing,” a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/shinrin-yoku.html
  1. Join a Transition town or community resilience initiative near you, and start transforming your community!

IMG_4183

Here is the “Simple Living Manifesto” http://zenhabits.net/simple-living-manifesto-72-ideas-to-simplify-your-life/

Information about World Naked Gardening Day is online at: http://www.wngd.org/

 

Advertisements

Zen of Barometric Pressure

img_4185

Imperial Tea Court garden in Berkeley C

Just lost power for an hour in Sacramento/Natomas and spent time on my cell checking the weather. Got curious about what barometric pressure actually means. Barometers were used in the old days to forecast weather, long before there were satellites and computers and all kinds of sensors.

U.S. Weather Service says barometric pressure in my area is currently at 29.22 and falling. Lowest pressure ever recorded in Sacramento was 28.95 on Jan. 27, 1916. So, things are getting pretty funky low down around here.

Science.com says barometric pressure rarely increases or decreases more than 1 inch of mercury above or below the 30-inch mark unless weather conditions are extreme — or will be in a couple of days.

Weather experts say pressure readings are most useful for forecasting weather during the next 12 to 24 hours — as in telling us what’s about to happen. In general, a falling barometer indicates the approach of a storm. Forecasts for Northern California call for a big storm Sunday night into Monday, which barometers seem to confirm. Just hope it’s not too big.

If the mercury continues to fall, atmospheric scientists say the weather will worsen. When the mercury level is between 30.20 and 29.80 inches and dropping rapidly, (like it is now) expect precipitation. If the reading is less than 29.80 inches and still shooting down, expect, my words, to get walloped.

But not to worry, as of 2010, the lowest air pressure ever recorded for a hurricane was Gilbert in 1988. Its air pressure was just above 26 inches. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 hit a barometric pressure low of 27.92 over Atlantic City, New Jersey. Things could be worse and California water experts say we’ll likely be able to ride out the next series of storms without further damage to Oroville Dam

“Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.” —-The Buddha.

 

Image may contain: plant, shoes, tree, outdoor, nature and water

Dahlias: Picture Perfect

I got my first “grown-up” camera in 1980 after graduating from journalism school at San Francisco State. Back in the day, cub reporters needed a camera and a car to get a foot in the door at a newspaper. I had a yellow Volkswagen bug, but no camera. To make matters worse, my training focused on writing and I’d never held anything more complicated in my hand than an old Instamatic.

To remedy this gap in my professional training, I took my brand new Konica T4 to Golden Gate Park to learn my way around the equipment and take practice shots, using Kodachrome film in 24-shot rolls. At the time digital was still connected to fingers and complicated math problems, not cameras. Not like today’s sophisticated point-and-shoot cameras.

juul-in-dahlia-dell-large

San Francisco dahlia expert Erik Juul in the dell outside the Conservatory of Flowers.       Photo by Gerda Juul

My first stop on my test run was the Dahlia Dell at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. My beginner’s shots weren’t always in focus or properly lighted, but the experience of looking deeply into the color and bloom structure of dahlias created a love for this wildly beautiful flower and I was hooked.

Native to Mexico and Central America, the flower has been cultivated and bred for ever more showy flowers for more than 200 years in Europe and North America. The flowering ornamental is named for Andreas Dahl, Swedish scientist and environmentalist. They generally flower from May to November, with the heaviest bloom in late summer into fall.

pink-dahlia-wallpaper-3929-4149-hd-wallpapers

While history and science are important, I was reminded of my emotional attachment to dahlias the other day when my friend Kasey Kronquist, head of the California Cut Flower Commission, posted some photos from an amazing Field to Vase Dinner at the farm of world-renowned celebrity event designer—turned American flower farmer—David Beahm.

14355506_10208916150354829_5696578070563737766_n

David Beahm

He owns Thistle Dew Farm in Quakertown Pennsylvania and a major events company in New York City. Think parties for the Oscars, Victoria’s Secret Beauty, Christian Dior, McDonald’s and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. He does weddings and social events all over the world. As to the price tag for these parties, one can only guess.

Beyond high society event planners turned farmers, these dinners are held at premier flower farms around the country. They feature gourmet food, fine wines and elegant settings. Of course, there are flowers.  I mean lots and lots of flowers at the peak of perfection.

The next event will be Oct. 16 at Cornerstone in Sonoma California. Guests will be among the first to experience the new home of Sunset Magazine’s test garden at Cornerstone. Guests will be greeted by Sunset garden editor Johanna Silver, who will host the sneak peak of the test gardens. Usually a sellout, tickets can be purchased online at http://www.americangrownflowers.org/fieldtovase/

Field to Vase dinners are sponsored by the American Grown Flower organization to promote the nation’s floral industry. The events are more romantic than chick flicks, more fun than pulling weeds and more delicious than a mere 5-stars.

And then, when you toss in specialty flower farmers like Michael Genovese, owner of Summer Dreams Farm Oxford, Michigan, well, I’m done here.  I’m just telling you, when I started out with a camera and some vague career dreams, there weren’t any farmers like Michael hanging out at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

3t0a3617

Michael Genovese, owner of Summer Dreams Farm, Oxford, Michigan

3t0a3640

Michael Genovese and friend on the farm.

But, if you’re ready to be seduced, as I was — by the beauty of dahlias — I mean, here’s a list of display gardens throughout the U.S. and Canada:  http://www.dahlias.net/OGtopbox/opengarden.htm

If you want to grow dahlias, here’s a link to the American Dahlia Society: http://www.dahlia.org/ They have chapters around the U.S. where experts and enthusiasts gather to teach and trade the latest dahlia hybrids.

And, it’s not too late to catch the last of the dahlia bloom in Golden Gate Park, but hurry. Bye the way, dahlias have been the City of San Francisco’s official flower since 1926. More info on visiting the park is online at https://goldengatepark.com/dahlia-dell-garden-in-golden-gate-park.html

Can’t get enough dahlias? Here’s a link to free dahlia flower computer wallpaper: http://collectwall.com/topwallpaper/dahlia-flower-hd-wallpaper.html

dahlia-flower-hd-wallpaper

Blitzing California’s Coastal Forests: And How You Can Help

BERKELEY—With California’s 2016 rain totals higher than they’ve been in more than four years, forestry experts say our coastal forests are at extreme risk of disease. They warn sudden oak death moves silently through forest and gardens, killing tree after tree where it stands—and death will be on the rise this year.

It is the primary cause of tree mortality in coastal California, researchers say, with more than 3 million trees having died already in 15 counties since its discovery in the mid-1990s. Dead trees mean loss of habitat and increased wildfire danger. There is no cure for the disease.

The killer pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, a fungus, is spread by water and air, with rainwater being a major route for disease spread. No one is sure how the pathogen got into California’s coastal forests or how to stop its spread. It is killing trees from Big Sur to Humboldt County, with Santa Cruz, Marin and Sonoma counties being particularly hard hit.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 360

Infected tree. Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service

The pathogen will take advantage of bark wounding, but it’s not necessary for infection to occur. California bay laurel seems to be the main source of inoculum in forests. Green waste, such as leaf litter and tree stumps, are also capable of supporting P. ramorum and acting as a disease reservoir. Because P. ramorum can infect many ornamental plants, such as rhododendron, and can be spread by moving them, experts are calling for the public’s help in locating infected trees and tracking disease spread.

IMG_8439 (2)

Wild Rhododendron, among species susceptible to SOD infection, photo taken while camping at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz County

Researchers have found infections concentrated around illegal marijuana grows and suspect movement of supplies and soil amendments in Northern California watersheds result in forests with high levels of disease. Hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders may also help move the pathogen to uninfected areas through contamination of boots, clothes, animals and equipment.

With so much at stake, researchers need help with the 10th annual spring SOD Blitzes (citizen scientist surveys for SOD). They hope this year’s citizen surveys will generate record participation. If you live, hike, bike or ride the trails in coastal forests, your help is essential to tracking the disease.

“This year is going to be one of the most critical yet for monitoring the more than 500 miles of susceptible and impacted coastal landscapes for SOD,” said Matteo Garbelotto, UC Berkeley faculty member who runs the Blitzes.

“We’re calling for as many seasoned and novice SOD Blitzers as we can possibly get to join the cause,” he said last week. “Their help is critical to informing communities about disease encroachment, while also helping to determine how effective current treatment and management efforts have been at reducing infection rates and protecting at-risk trees.”

 How to Help: If you live or will spend time in coastal forests, parks or communities this spring, you’re encouraged to participate in the disease-spotting effort.

 When:  Spring 2016, Weekends, April 9 – June 4, 2016.

 Training: 1-hour training sessions – Required.

Where: For locations and local details, go to https://nature.berkeley.edu/garbelottowp/?page_id=816

Cost: FREE — Attendees should bring mobile devices or GPS units if they have them.

New_SOD_Blitz_2012_Data_sm

Symptomatic California bay laurel leaves generally precede oak and tanoak infections, and are often the first sign that P. ramorum is in a location. Participants will be trained to identify and collect symptomatic bay leaves and record sample locations.

Volunteers are encouraged to bring their smartphone to the training with the free “SODmap mobile” app already installed (SOD distribution map of laboratory-confirmed positive and negative samples in California, not including nurseries) as it can help in identifying potential collection locations.

Blitz samples will be taken to the UC Berkeley Garbelotto lab to determine the presence or absence of the pathogen. Results will be posted online in the fall to SODmap (www.SODmap.org) and to the SODmap mobile app (www.sodmapmobile.org). When used as instructed, these two tools will help inform thousands of people as to the presence and risk of SOD at a given location.

SOD Blitzes are made possible by the work of local volunteers, along with funding from the PG&E Foundation and the USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry organizations.

IMG_4429_MyLevels

SOD Blitz volunteers gathering suspect leaf material for lab analysis. Photo courtesy California Oak Mortality Task Force.

“Not only do these volunteers provide invaluable data for the fight against SOD, they also help lead the charge in proactive SOD management on private property, with Blitzers 10 times more likely to actively manage their properties, collectively helping to slow disease spread,” Garbelotto said.

For more information on SOD Blitzes, go to www.sodblitz.org.

For more information on Sudden Oak Death and P. ramorum, go to the California Oak Mortality Task Force website at www.suddenoakdeath.org  or contact Katie Harrell at (510) 847-5482 or kpalmieri@berkeley.edu.

The Art of Shaping Nature’s Narrative

The semi cascade bonsai style Han-kengai  mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

My semi-cascade juniper in need of training. The Han-kengai bonsai style mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

Loving bonsai is about loving your great grandchildren—a love that can, if the art is carefully practiced, endure for generations. In part, it’s this idea of a trans-generational love narrative that attracts me to bonsai and sent me on a quest to find a practicing bonsai master in California.

I found many masters. I realized, after settling in with one to learn the basics of this horticultural art form, that part of the art is about understanding and accepting my own aesthetic values. To start out, I would have to listen and think about my bonsai–for a long time.

While the art of bonsai is often associated with Japan, horticultural historians say it actually originated first in China, and then spread eastward to Korea before reaching Japan. The practice of shaping tiny trees to mimic or stylize nature was spread by Buddhist monks who wanted to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples.

From ancient paintings and manuscripts, Asia scholars found “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by the Chinese around 600 AD, but many scholars think bonsai, or at least potted trees, were being grown in China as far back as 500 to 1,000 BC. Bonsai first appeared in Japan during the 12th century.

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C. by Yamaki in 1976.  Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/390-year-old-tree-survived-bombing-hiroshima-180956157/#5HDRLezQAtQdMth1.99

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C., by master Masaru Yamaki in 1976.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/390-year-old-tree-survived-bombing-hiroshima-180956157/#5HDRLezQAtQdMth1.99

Holistic health practitioners say benefits of growing bonsai include:

  • Careful pruning, wiring and shaping helps relieve stress.
  • Constantly caring for a plant can help develop mindfulness.
  • Working with nature, including bonsai trees, creates peaceful feelings.
  • Successfully growing and caring for a bonsai tree can create a sense of accomplishment.

Improbably, I appeared at the gates of a bonsai nursery in the San Fernando Valley a couple of years ago prepared to listen and learn about bonsai from a master. I was willing to consider accepting a tree into my care. Killing the plant out of ignorance wasn’t part of my plan so I’d given taking on the responsibility some thought.

That day I learned bonsai literally means “tree in a tray.” The tree and container must form a single entity, work together in a design sense. The most desired containers for the finest Japanese bonsai are often exquisite antiques. I also learned bonsai is not a house plant. The miniature trees, like their full-grown counterparts in nature, are meant to grow outdoors.

The master said he knew immediately when people brought yellow or graying bonsai into the nursery for his advice on how to improve the plant’s heath that it had been growing indoors. He said bonsai are miniature versions of species that grow naturally in nature and should be treated as such.

I also learned would-be bonsai artists should have more than one tree to work on. The reason for multiple trees, my master told me, is so the artist doesn’t overwork just one tree; multiple trees keep the artist engaged in bonsai and help avoid frustration.

He recommended sitting and contemplating the trees, listening for their stories, before taking action to shape those stories with wire and clippers into the narrative the trees want to tell.

After a long walk in his small nursery where bonsai starter plants are cultivated, the master determined my artistic leaning was toward the “Han Kengai” form an ancient cascade style symbolizing the “overflowing potential for growth.” The style is characterized by trees grown in the way the tree or shrub’s trunk and branches stretch below the pot. The branches flow down and out, attracting the observer’s attention.

bonsai-style-5

Han-kengai bonsai at the Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden in Oakland, considered one of the best collections on the West Coast.

I’ve lived with and studied the juniper given to me by the master for more than two years. It put out tiny berries this winter, to my delight. Over time I’ve considered its form and its ability to express my thoughts into the future. I spend a few moments every day contemplating this plant and have decided it’s time to take some creative action.

April 9 to 10, the American Bonsai Association of Sacramento will hold its spring show, which includes demonstrations, classes, exhibits and sales of bonsai supplies. The annual event will take place at Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park in Sacramento. I plan to pick up a few more trees and get some supplies.

And I hope to take a workshop from Peter Tea, who has studied with masters Boon Manakitivipart and Junichiro Tanaka at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya Japan. Tea is in the process of building his own bonsai nursery and studio in Auburn, CA.

Show hours are Saturday, April 9, 10:00 AM till 5:00 PM, and Sunday, April 10, 10:00 AM till 4:00 PM. Demonstrations are Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 PM. Demonstration trees are included in daily raffles. I hope to learn how to better shape my tree’s narrative in the decades to come for those I love.

Here’s a link to my Jan 2014 feature story on the art of bonsai that appeared in California Bountiful magazine http://californiabountiful.com/features/article.aspx?arID=1317

And here’s a link to a story that suggests stressed out high-tech hipsters in San Francisco are turning to bonsai for relaxation: http://www.7×7.com/culture/tiny-trees-deep-roots-history-bonsai-bay-area

 

Planting Palms and Poetry – W.S. Merwin Forest Honors

Merwin and Palms PBS

In reverence, poet W.S. Merwin began planting trees nearly 40 years ago on land surrounding his home in Maui. He created and cultivated an 18-acre palm tree botanical garden, that has become one of the largest and most important collections of palms in the world.

The collection includes more than 2,740 individual palm trees, representing more than 480 taxonomic species and more than 125 unique genera, and featuring nearly 900 different horticultural varieties, the Merwin Palms and the land on which they live have been called Hawaii’s Walden Pond.

The plantation has become The Merwin Conservancy, which preserves the palm collection and the land from future development. The conservancy allows for scientific and botanical study of the palm species.

Merwin’s home on the property has been preserved as a place where art and nature intersect.  Many of the most famous poems and literary works authored by Merwin were written there. The Poet’s Home is now offered to poets, artists and authors as a retreat center.

Appointed United States Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2010, William Stanley Merwin has a career that has spanned six decades. A poet, translator, gardener and environmental activist, he is one of the most widely read and honored poets in America.

Awards include the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the Bollingen Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Lilly Prize and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award. His Migration: New and Selected Poems won the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry and Present Company, which closely followed it, earned him the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress.

Now, in recognition of his botanical accomplishments, Merwin will be among 13 distinguished honorees at the 2015 Arbor Day Award ceremony on April 25 in Lincoln Nebraska.

Arbor Day is an annual observance that celebrates the role of trees in our lives and promotes tree planting and care. As a formal holiday, it was first observed in 1872, but tree planting festivals are as old as civilization.

Merwin will receive the Good Steward Award recognizing the value of the botanical garden he created. The Arbor Day Foundation said the impact of Merwin’s work reflects the values of wilderness, the stillness of nature, and our personal connection to the natural world.

Merwin Rain in Trees Cover

 From: “THE RAIN IN THE TREES”

W.S. Merwin, 1993

PLACE

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

what for

not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit

is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands

in the earth for the first time

with the sun already

going down

and the water

touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead

and the clouds passing

one by one

over its leaves

Merwin Conservancy

Text © 1988 by W.S. Merwin. Reproduced by permission of Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author. All rights reserved.

Information on the Arbor Day awards are online at https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/.

The work of the Merwin Conservancy is online at www.merwinconservancy.org.

Saving the World — One Rose Bush at a Time

IMG_7596Stuff happens – and stuff happens in the garden. But, these things can’t be talked about with neighbors who notice my mail box tilts drunkenly or who remark that the new people across the street should mow their lawn more frequently, especially now that it’s getting warmer. Walking alone in my garden with coffee cup in hand, the night dew still slickening the leaves, I pause at a new plant at another struggling to survive. I notice fungus on my rose bushes and fret about the future of mankind.

It’s the weekend. I can think about whatever I want. Right?

OK. So I’m told that, not tomorrow or the next day, but in the future, say 65 million years from now, we may not be here. I peer at the roses, the fungus exhaling millions of spores as I stand mute in my ignorance and bathrobe, and wonder if this is the beginning of the end, wonder if this is proof that we’re all doomed. The world is ending, not in a cataclysm, but in the stealthy creep of must and mildew, pathogens will rule the world.

Silly? I’m not alone in this concern, as dramatic as it sounds. Writer Elizabeth Kolbert has written The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, an epic, riveting story of our species that reads like a scientific thriller–only scarier because it talks about now and and what may happen in the future.

What I got from the article she published in The New Yorker is that pathogens, specifically, fungi are attacking various life forms and killing them – frogs, bats and California oak trees.

Of the numerous species that have ever existed on earth, scientists say more than 99 percent have disappeared. But, extinction, which is seen as bad and preventable, causes a lot of argument and finger pointing, not to mention investment of tax dollars to prevent it.

I worry these attempts are futile, even silly. Are we homo sapiens merely putting our fingers in the evolutionary dike and pretending we can make a difference in the history of the universe? Is global warming the single cause of our demise? Are we all doomed? I study my roses for the answer.

Throughout the 18th century, the prevailing view was that species were fixed they exist and always will if human will just stop annihilating them. Charles Darwin believed extinction happened slowly, but he was wrong. In Kolbert’s article, she noted that researchers have found that during the past half billion years, there have been at least 20 mass extinctions. Five of these—the so-called Big Five—were so devastating that they’re usually put in their own category. Keep in mind, I’m talking Earth time, which spans about 4.5 billion years.

Kilbert notes the fifth extinction, the end-Cretaceous event, occurred a mere 65 million years ago. The event exterminated not just the dinosaurs, but 75 percent of all species on earth. Once a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions of years for life to recover, and when it does it’s generally with a new cast of characters.

In this way, mass extinctions have played a big role in evolution’s course. It’s hard to say when the current extinction event—sometimes called the sixth extinction— began, but we’re in it. Scientists speculate that its opening phase started about fifty thousand years ago, when the first humans migrated across Australia and America.

If current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone. For example, researchers first noticed something odd was happening to amphibians. The main culprit in the wavelike series of amphibian population crashes it turns out is a chytrid fungus, known as Bd. At this point, Bd appears to be unstoppable and its killing effect is spreading.

In 2007, biologist Al Hicks, of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the National Wildlife Health Center, started looking at mysterious bat deaths in the U.S. Many of the dead bats were discovered with a white substance on their nose, which was cultured and found to be an unidentified fungus. In California, millions of native oak trees have died from the fungus-like Phytophthora ramorum, a photo of how destructive it can be is show here.

 

P ramorum sonoma-mortality

Sonoma County California tree deaths from P. ramorum infection. Photo courtesy: http://www.suddenoakdeath.org/

 

Just in the last century, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have changed by as much as they normally do in a hundred-thousand-year glacial cycle. In the end, the most deadly aspect of human activity may simply be the pace of change itself, moving too fast for life as we know it to catch up.

One of the maddening puzzles of mass extinction is why, at certain junctures, the resourcefulness of life seems to falter. If we’re getting ahead of ourselves, pathogens jump into the breach. Today Fungi account for about 30 percent of emerging plant diseases. These microscopic maladies are the bane of gardeners and farmers who watch in dismay as plants wilt and succumb to these microscopic killers. Fungal diseases radically alter natural ecosystems, as well as food and our environment.

A recent report in Science Daily noted that fungus, including chestnut blight fungus, which eliminated nearly 100 percent of native chestnut trees throughout eastern American forests during the last century, and at the same time Phytophthora cinnamomi fungus is threatening native forests throughout Australia.

And, in human time, fungal pathogens have been around for a long time, sometimes changing the course of history. For example, potato blight was responsible for the epidemic leading to the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and the largest immigration event in U.S. history. More recently, stem rust disease of wheat, first identified in Uganda in 1998, is threatening crops in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

If more fungus is creeping across our landscapes, if it is occurring more frequently, what’s going on? Is it climate change or sun spots? Is it signs the Sixth Extinction is accelerating and the end of life as we know it is near? What’s going on? Should we worry?

“It’s the next annihilation of vast numbers of species and it is happening now, and we, the human race, are its cause,” explains Dr. Richard Leakey, the world’s most famous paleoanthropologist and co-author of the 1995 book The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. He says every year between 17,000 and 100,000 species vanish from our planet.

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume the number is 50,000 a year,” Leakey says. “Whatever way you look at it, we’re destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet, or even a shower of vast heavenly bodies.”

The statistics he has assembled are staggering. Fifty per cent of the Earth’s species will have vanished inside the next 100 years; mankind is using almost half the energy available to sustain life on the planet, and this figure will only grow as our population leaps from 5.7 billion to 10 billion inside the next half-century.

A dramatic and overwhelming mass extinction threatens the entire complex fabric of life on Earth, Leakey said, including the species responsible for it: Homo sapiens, that all life as we know it is destined to vanish.

Oh, boy. That’s a lot to worry about as I contemplate my garden. Do you think my neighbors want to hear one peep about the end of the world out of me? Like I said, I worry and wonder, study the underside of leaves in my garden and don’t care one way or another about how often my neighbors mow their lawns.

But, all this talk about the nature of pathogens is raising startling new questions in my peanut brain. I wonder about the role of fundamental scientific research and how the study of evolution plays into our understanding of emerging disease. I get another cup of coffee.

Then there’s this: Associated Press reported last year that coffee farmers and harvesters in Central and South America have been hit by Roya, or “coffee rust,” a fast-spreading fungus that infects the leaves of coffee plants. Roya has caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, and threatened the livelihoods of more than half a million farm families from Mexico to Peru.

This is a bad situation and an example of what worries me. In particular, I’m concerned about how specific new species occur when a subset of a fungal population shifts to a new host. Another example? Fungus is now attacking frogs and bats. All of this is just too much to contemplate. When a neighbor passing by my garden asks how I’m doing, I say “fine” and hope they don’t notice the mildew on my roses.

ST LYNN'S Coffee for Roses Cover

Great website for gardeners: http://coffeeforroses.com/