The real staff of life

In the third of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series on the culture and politics of sustenance, UW geologist and Macarthur Fellow David Montgomery walked us through a few millenia of catastrophes caused by people abusing dirt. And in fact, he says, if we don’t knock it off, we stand to run out of fertile topsoil in only one or two more centuries.

First, the science. Basically, Mother Nature sees her job as moving all these mountains right here down there into the ocean, so that she can make room for her new mountains. Here’s how it happens. Rock thrusts up from the mantle of the globe, and heat, cold, water, plant roots, chemical processes and other forces break it up and grind it down. Plants and animals die on it, and worms fold their remains into the mix. Then rain and wind carry it downhill. This is nature’s long slow tumble of creation and destruction. David says that it can take about 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil; the covering of topsoil around the globe is only about one to three feet thick. Comparing the earth to the human body, soil is a “much thinner and more fragile layer than human skin.”

At the same time, the “fundamental condition for sustaining a civilization is sustaining soil and fertility.” Over and over again, civilizations from Neolithic Europe to the Easter Islands to the American Dustbowl have radically suffered or even disappeared as they have exhausted their soil. Remember that it can take 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil? Right now, the rate of erosion is one inch every 60 years.

David calls soil degradation an “under-appreciated crisis, a secret silent environmental disaster.” This was not news to the people living through it; Plato, for instance, comments that “the rich soft soil has all run away, leaving the land nothing but skin and bone.” And (skipping ahead a few years) our own George Washington observed that the situation could be turned around if farmers “were taught how to improve the old, instead of going in pursuit of new and productive soils.”

George had it right–the real cause is not THAT we farm, but HOW we farm. David traces the growing crisis all the way back to the invention of the plow; the plow, he says, fundamentally altered the balance between soil production and erosion, dramatically increasing erosion by breaking up the ground cover that knits the soil in place. (We won’t even discuss the modern “512 disk ripper” plow for ridding your fields of “soil compaction.”)  In short, we practice self-destructive agriculture. As FDR had it, “a nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself.”

But if we change our agricultural practices, we can turn the situation around. And we actually already know how to do this! (–And have for centuries.) For instance, we could cut subsidies for erosive agricultural practices, and we could support no-till ag, terracing, and other soil-preserving strategies. To rebuild soil, you need to apply just two things, David says:  organic matter and labor. Small labor-intensive organic farms are in fact the most productive in the world. But to get there from here, we need to alter our whole socio-economic model of food production: we need to stop treating soil as a commodity and start treating it as the fragile ecosystem that it is.

Great talk!–I can’t do justice to it in just these few paragraphs. Get the book! (David R. Montgomery, University of California Press, 2007)

“Local” isn’t enough

“Mind the ‘local’ trap,” Branden Born warned. But wait, I thought “local” was good!?! Last Thursday, in the debut talk in a Seattle Arts & Lectures series on the culture and politics of sustenance, Born challenged us to get clear about what we really want from our food system.

He points out that the food industry has been nimble in capturing the words we use to describe what we want our food to be: “natural,” “organic” . . . and, yes, “local.” In the face of this country’s huge losses of agricultural land, rapid urbanization, and corporatization of the food system, we no longer know what our food looks like, where it comes from, or how it actually gets from plot to plate. We don’t know who grows it or who processes it for our consumption. But we have a sneaking feeling that we have put ourselves in the hands of people who just may have interests other than feeding us well! He quotes Wendell Berry, the animating spirit of the lecture series:  as urban dwellers, we now share the fears of “people who understand what it means to be landless.”

When we say we want to eat locally, in Born’s view, we point to a whole range of more fundamental ideas that we value (and he encourages us to discuss values, not scale). Food safety. Food equity. Access to healthy food. Democratization of the food system. Connection to the earth. Given our current urban environment and food supply-chain system, these values are in fact in trouble. But Born points out a range of alternative choices that we can begin to make to create a “new urbanity”around food.

For instance, if we value community engagement over food production efficiency, we might join an urban ag activity like Seattle’s p-patch system.  Go here to see a group working  in the High Point Garden (–one of 75 community gardens in the city. These gardens don’t just provide food and a sense of community for the people who work them; last year, p-patch gardeners donated almost 21,000 lbs. of fresh produce to local food banks and feeding programs. (Full disclosure: I put myself on the waiting list for my neighborhood p-patch last year; I hope to get a plot before I’m too old to work it. I mean, I’d better hurry!)

Or, we might go with urban development that scales up our sense of what urban gardening can be; vertical gardens can cover the side of your house (see or a chunk of a huge multi-story building like Weber Thompson’s Eco-Laboratory (see, designed around a community garden and featuring numerous other “green design” elements–energy systems, ventilation, etc.

Or, we might focus on urban community-development activities. Born described a number of fascinating programs. To offer just one example, the Clean Greens program runs a community garden east of Seattle in Carnation (read: likely to get some actual sun) to grow and deliver “clean, healthy, and fair produce for everyone at affordable prices” (, especially families in need in Seattle’s Central District. They also have a thriving educational program focused on healthy eating habits and food justice.

Eye-opening talk! You can find much more on these topics on Born’s website,

Branden Born is a professor in UW’s Dept. of Urban Design and Planning. His talk, “Bringing the Urban Back into the Food System–Questions of Culture & Technology,” was the first in a five-talk series from Seattle Arts & Lectures, “Following Wendell: The Culture & Politics of Sustenance,” I’m signed up for the series, so stay tuned for future installments!

Food bank gourmet

Last Sunday, FamilyWorks, my neighborhood’s food bank, threw a semi-“iron chef” event! Two top local chefs each prepared a three-course meal using ingredients typically found on the food bank’s shelves. Emceed by local celebrity chef Kathy Casey, the event featured Rachel Yang of Joule Restaurant and Amy McCray of Eva Restaurant, who both cooked us up a treat of a meal.

(Why semi-”iron chef?” Neither of these pro’s showed the least trace of a killer instinct!–More like “tofu chef.” But their food was great!)

Using just a small table for a workspace and two gas-canister-fueled hotplates, Rachel and Amy each came up with a starter, a main dish, and a dessert. And as each course got done, volunteers divvied it up for the dozens of us to sample. We also had a wine-tasting going on in the corner and a spread of hors d’oeuvres laid out on a side table so we wouldn’t get too restive. Sozo Wine was a sponsor of the event. Interesting organization! Check them out:

Rachel opened with an Asian-accented pancake (a specialty of her newest restaurant, Revel) made with canned peas and fresh spinach.

Next, she went with a stew made with chicken thighs, mushrooms, veg, and–I suspect, not an ingredient she’s used to working with!–Top Ramen. Delicious.

What could be better for dessert than rice pudding? She made hers with sauted apple slices, “left-over” rice (“who doesn’t have left-over rice?”), and canned coconut milk. (The exact brand I have on my own pantry shelf. Yes, I saw it on the shelf in the food bank too. This is Seattle.)

Amy went in a different direction for the starter–a fresh salad with shredded sweet peppers and a citrus vinaigrette. (Like most neighborhood food banks, FamilyWorks gets fresh produce from Northwest Harvest and other large distributors. Stay tuned for a posting on how food distribution works in urban America.)

Next, she went with a chicken curry with carrots. Here, she worked in a “mystery ingredient”–a packet of nasi goreng flavoring. (Yes, from the food bank shelves. Again, this is Seattle.) The curry also incorporated coconut milk and canned peas. This stew may have shared some ingredients with Rachel’s, but tasted totally different! Also delicious.

(The volunteer who gave us our tour of the food bank showed us the substantial range of food products they offer to their clients. Many, many plastic bins of canned goods, peanut butter, fruit, produce, breads and other starches marched along a long table, each labeled with how many of each item could be taken by a family on each visit.)

For dessert, Amy also made rice pudding!–but again, a very different dish from Rachel’s. Amy started her rice in coconut milk, then zested several oranges (remember that citrus vinaigrette?–nothing going to waste here) and threw it all in. A lot of it! And we were glad she did–lovely fresh taste.

Great food!–And a fun event. Hats off to FamilyWorks for a creative fundraiser that was also an eye-opening introduction to the work they are doing to make good food accessible to every family. Do you have a similar effort in your neighborhood? Give us a snapshot of what it does.