Spinning Gold out of Air

If you had told me that I would pick up and read The Alchemy of Air, a book about….well, basically about chemistry and fertilizer, I would have laughed at you. Not only did I read it, but it was the best book I read in the last year.

I’ve belonged to the same book group for about 40 years. We have increasingly been reading more challenging, non-fiction books. Sometimes I long for the old days when we could read books like Bridges of Madison County (yes, groan….we did!) or a Harry Potter book. On the other hand, I am reading books I never would have attempted otherwise. Last month we read Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick. This swash-buckling tale about Charles Wilkes, the volatile leader of a highly successful, but disastrous exploring expedition in the early 1800’s was a page turner.

But this month’s book was even better. The Alchemy of Air, by Thomas Hager, is about two German men, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, both brilliant–but flawed. In the words of the author, “This is the story of two men who invented a way to turn air into bread, built factories the size of small cities, made enormous fortunes, helped engineer the deaths of millions of people, and saved the lives of billions more.” Both men received Nobel prizes for their work. Haber, incidentally, was Jewish, and that fact played a lot into his drive for success in a country that, even before the rise of the Nazis, made it difficult to succeed if you were Jewish. His compromises ultimately put him into some unfortunate situations.

Much of the book dealt with early 1900’s German history, but some of my favorite chapters centered on the early and frantic guano trade along the South American coast. Yes, the book is about fertilizer! It’s a story of pulling fertilizer out of the air, the stuff of fairy tales. But fairy tales end happily and this one was hardly that. The Haber-Bosch process did produce fertilizer for crops (today it’s used all over the world), but it also produced gunpowder and high explosives, poisonous gas, and a problem we all face today–nitrogen pollution. The author also views the obesity pandemic today as a result of this process. He points out that there is no shortage of food, but there is a problem (due to wars and natural disasters) of getting it to the people who need it.

I appreciated the short chapters and the readability for a non-scientific person like myself. I found it hard to put the book down. This was a history I did not know–and  the others in my book group admitted the same thing. I am even looking at my vegetable garden and the plants in my yard in a different way.

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What’s for Dinner?

Mr. Muscle came this morning and whipped my three raised beds into shape in time for planting. You can almost see the food sprouting out of them already–peas, beans, carrots, kale, zucchini (ONE plant only), pumpkins, spinach, lettuce, beets,  and radishes. Three long boxes, each divided in half–it’s like six blank canvases. My fingers are just itching to paint-plant.

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Three raised beds crafted by the Potter many years ago.

But I have other diners at my table to consider. Because the rabbits also relish my lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, and peas, those seeds get planted in the one box that has a low fence around it. One year I was able to plant a “spicy lettuce mix” in an unfenced area and they didn’t touch it–but it was too spicy for me, too, so that was a lost effort.

For years the peas mysteriously disappeared every spring–every single seed–and sometimes before they had even sprouted out of the ground. I suspected the rabbits of hopping the fence, but nothing else was touched. Eventually I noticed a Stellar’s Jay methodically working his way down the row of peas. Now I also cover the whole fenced area with a berry net.

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Crocuses nestled up against some hyachinths

I found another mystery last year when I noticed many of my beautiful purple crocuses ever so neatly clipped off. Already this year, the bed is looking like a bridal path of scattered purple petals. The culprit? Rabbits again. Turns out their tastes run beyond veggies. Some of the crocuses are eaten right down to the ground.

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No way could I blame the disappearing little green figs on the rabbits. Every fall, after the fig tree drops its leaves, it holds onto a second crop of small, hard green figs that never develop. Later we rake up a lot off the ground, but I’ve noticed squirrels in the tree making off with the rest.

After the peas are up several inches, I can move the netting onto the blueberries. Small birds still figure out intricate, secret routes underneath the netting, but I manage to save some for myself this way.

The August a flock of crows was slashing their way through my beeautiful juicy yellow pears was also the month a crow died in my neighborhood–by sheer coincidence, I swear. When we hung the two wings in the tree, the crows shrieked for a time, and then left. I hange those two wings each summer and I’ve never seen a crow in the tree since.

One summer I saw signs from a bear underneath an old apple tree that had several broken limbs. Every few years a few beautiful deer wander through and sample from the different apple trees. I figure they’re comparison shopping.

The wildlife and I exist side by side. I love seeing them all, even the crows. We enjoy trying to outwit each other, making life entertaining for all of us critters.

Dead Zones (revisited, revised for this month of change, November, 2016)

His back ached and he could still taste grit between his teeth, but as he rocked in the porch swing at the end of the day and looked out over the land, he could see it going on for years and years. His children and their children would continue to grow the small herd of beef cattle and the vegetable crops for the local market. Perhaps they could pick up that piece just west of them and expand their holdings.

He didn’t know about dead zones.

The years passed, and he passed, too. His children went to war and wandered to the cities. The land was divided and sold. The years passed and the land was divided again and sold. And then again.

And when my friend Connie and her husband bought one of those much smaller pieces, just a fraction of the farmer’s, they hauled in rich topsoil all around the house. They set about developing beautiful gardens–a small orchard down near the road, raised vegetable beds behind the house, flowers for every season surrounding it, and a lush carpet of lawn in front.

Connie doesn’t have a green thumb–she has ten green fingers. Past president of the garden club, she can grow anything.

Almost anything. Connie didn’t know about the dead zone.

She planted a plum tree by the side of the house that had a great southern exposure. It died. She pulled it out and planted another fruit tree nearby. It died also.

In frustration she finally contacted the county extension office. They weren’t surprised at her question. They’d heard this complaint before. Many years ago, farmers often kept one area, perhaps a corner, away from the house and their animals, as a dumping ground for any chemicals, old fertilizers, or poisons. This, a dead zone, passes on and on for generations.

Dead zones also exist in the oceans, areas where the oxygen concentration is so low that animals can’t live there. These areas can occur naturally, but human activity can also create or enhance them. Excess fertilizer runs off the land (hence the concern about septic tanks or farm animals close to streams, rivers and salt water) and then into the sea. Those nutrients promote algae growth. As that algae decomposes, the process consumes the oxygen in the water that’s necessary for marine life.

Connie’s farmer had neglected to visualize that division of his land, the population growth, the loss of the farm. He didn’t know that what he was doing would continue to contaminate the soil for generations after he was gone. Connie dealt with her dead zone by planting grass whose shallow roots didn’t run beneath the rich topsoil. She calls it the “Dead Zone.”

Today we know about the dead zones, in the water and on the land. We know that whatever we spray or sprinkle on our little patches of ground will stay there. We know the lawn chemicals won’t magically evaporate or sink into nothingness, in spite of what the manufacturers claim. They accumulate over the years, over the generations.

Today we know that the over-emittance of greenhouse gases is contributing to the increase of Earth’s temperatures at an alarming rate. Scientists have warned us about this for years. We’ve resisted their warnings for a long time. Now we’re beginning to feel it in the changing weather patterns. We can no longer claim ignorance.

Today we know that if we don’t make significant changes in the way we live, we will be producing more dead zones all over the world.

We know all about the dead zones. What will our grandchildren and their children inherit?

We know better.

Bathroom Gardening

Bathrooms and who can use them are the news of the day. In my house it’s no different–my bathroom is the most popular room in the house right now. No, it’s nothing fancy–the old fixtures are rust-stained and the ceiling needs a coat of paint.

I must admit it’s a little awkward when a guest comes in the back door and I say, “Please come into my bathroom–I want to show you something!” I haven’t had anyone refuse me, although with all the media hype around bathrooms, that may happen yet.

The small window in that very private room is about 24 inches by 16 inches. As you look out the window, this is your view looking to the left:

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To the far left you can see the white rhododendron “Unique” that blossoms near my birthday. Next are the shy lavender and salmon-colored azaleas, and then, on the right, the  stately, dark red rhody “Jean Marie.” Branches of the cherry tree are in the background. Underneath the azaleas is a little native ground cover that moved in on its own some years back and decided to stay. It will have small white flowers and then die back during the summer.

Now take a second look out the window. This is your view looking to the right:

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The striking “Jean Marie” rhody again claims the middle of the stage, and a calla lily is just to the right of her, holding the promise of more blossoms. To the right of the calla lily is a native fern just beginning to unfurl its new fronds, and then the rosemary bush, also blossoming. It got an expert trimming from a gardening friend earlier this spring. Below the rosemary are those lovely little lilies-of-the-valley. Behind the rosemary is a peony bush that has a couple dozen buds about to pop. You might see a hint of dark blue behind the fern. Those are the bachelor buttons, or cornflowers.

Right behind the calla lily you can see a lush-looking plant. It is the most obnoxious plant I’ve ever met. I’ve written about it in a previous post (“The Curse of the Voodoo Lily”). A botany professor described its aromatic fragrance as “a mixture of cow dung, carrion, dead fish, manure and halitosis.” The voodoo lily isn’t blossoming yet, but when it does, visitors will no longer linger at my back door–or possibly even in the neighborhood.

I once went skinny-dipping with a friend in her big old claw-footed, sun-heated bathtub out in her back yard, with native woods all around us. If the UPS truck had come, we might have been in trouble, but her yard was so remote, that thought never occurred to us.

I swear you can find anything on the Internet. When I googled “Bathroom Gardening” today, the first bathroom that popped up was one that I could live in as a house. It had some gorgeous plants, including one good-sized tree. Another site, “Outdoor Bathrooms and Indoor Gardens” had photos of really lovely bathrooms–yes, outside. The only drawback to these tropical-type rooms was that I was pretty sure there was a snake curled up in the corner of almost every one.

I think my bathroom garden, the showpiece of my yard, tops them all. And the irony is that for all the hours I spend weeding in other areas around my yard, this bathroom area, for the most part, just takes care of itself.

Perhaps people who use public bathrooms can do the same thing?