Most of the posts on this site are about making pure wine and improving the soil. But this is a commercial website. So by way of shameless self promotion. Here are some quotes about our wine: “We sure enjoy your wine. It is the Best!!!” Joe Greco “That bottle didn’t last through the night.” Daniel Kurpis “I don’t even drink red wine and I loved your Baco Noir.” Linda Coleman “I was here a couple weeks ago and bought a bottle of Lucie Kuhlmann. It was fabulous.” Linda Lewis
There is a lot of information on this site. It is programmed to come up showing this blog page. There are a lot of blogs but only a few may be of interest to you. Scroll down on the left side of the page to see the current topic categories and narrow down the range you want to read.
I am posting this picture and link to a gizmo I made to mix and move mulch from the soil yard to wherever I need it. There are doubtless improvements that can be made but it is very helpful so I am sharing this video.
We all feel like we are in command of our actions. And sometimes that command includes input
from “gut feelings”, “intestinal fortitude” and “having the stomach for
it”. Seldom do we consider that our
digestive system is in charge of our actions.
And it is even more rare to admit that our digestive systems are under
siege. But that is exactly the gist of a
presentation that John Ellis, naturopath and owner of Meyers Falls Market,
intended to give on March 24th, before the Corona Virus triggered a
cascade of cancelled gatherings. A talk
with him later revealed the dynamics of this conflict.
Looking to count how many cells are in our bodies and how
many of them are actually from our own DNA can be tricky as Ed Yong for Science
Alert magazine writes: “More recent estimates, put the total number of
human cells at anywhere from 15 trillion to 724 trillion, and the number of gut
microbes at anywhere between 30 trillion and 400 trillion. Which gives a ratio
that can best be expressed as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.” Some put the human percentage at 43%. “The
remaining 57 percent are bacteria, fungi and
single-celled eukaryotes that live in our guts, in our mouths, on our
skins, and in the female reproductive tract,” says Sarkis Mazmanian, a
microbiology researcher at Caltech. So
really we are each a living army of microbes.
The bacteria in our systems weigh more than our brain and affect how we
These microbes have a remarkably higher turnover rate than
the cells from our own DNA which can be good or bad news. Ellis points out that 80% of our immune
system is in the large intestine. The
microbes in our guts are actually the first line of defense against most of the
material entering our bodies. They can
change completely in 24 hours so we can start reinforcing those defenses
immediately by eating well. Napoleon
Bonaparte is said to have proclaimed “An army marches on its stomach.” The microbe army in your stomach marches on
the foods you eat. So those supply lines
are critical and often that is where the battle begins.
Ellis notes that it would take eating 30 of the commercial
apples in stores today to equal the nutrition of 1 apple from 50 years
ago. So even the foods we eat are not
getting the foods they themselves need to become nutritious. The soil itself is becoming a hydroponic soup
of agrichemicals. As one farmer put it
at a recent Soil Conservation District meeting in Colville “There’s not a worm
left in the Palouse.”
Refined sugars and processed foods have most of their
nutritive value stripped out of them. Animal-based protein can be even worse. For instance, animals raised in feed lots
don’t get to move around much and it turns out that moving around is what kills
toxins in their bodies (and in ours as well).
To make up for the natural foods and activities that would
keep animals healthy, they are given antibiotics. Ellis says that of the 35 tons of antibiotics
consumed in the United States every year 32 of those tons are fed to feedlot
animals which pass them on to us. So the
microbial army in our guts is not getting what it needs to march. To make matters worse, it harbors antibiotics
and our biome suffers heavy losses from those.
Ellis gives the herbicide, Atrazine as an example. It causes
endocrine disruption of the human hormone system that is effectively chemical
castration particularly in males. The American male sperm count has decreased
from 50% to 80% in the last 10 years depending on what reports you study. (Pesticide Action Network ) Compounding the
effect of agrichemicals are prescription drugs, alcohol, smoking, air and water
forces are aided behind the lines, so to speak, by detrimental bacteria, fungi
and yeasts. “Detrimental” might be
over-simplifying what goes on in our guts.
With trillions of microbes playing different roles health is more a
matter of balance than elimination. We
have only been able to sequence the DNA in microbes for the last 10 years. Labs can only grow less than 1% of them
outside of a living digestive system. So
nutrionists are basically working with a black box, changing inputs and
watching effects without identifying the whole process.
“A spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down in a most
delightful way” but it is sure to be consumed by fungi which will include
candida. Too much candida can bloom when
antibiotics take out the bacteria that keep it in check. Then it contributes to itching, bloating,
vaginal infections and trouble sleeping.
Furthermore it can act behind the lines of your guts defenses to promote
There are indications that yeasts, parasites and some other
microbes promote their own favorite foods by causing cravings for things that
are not really good for the rest of the system.
Jazmine Polk relates how her cravings for pancakes loaded with sweets
drove a bad case of Candidiasis. But the good news is that she was able to cure
that by changing her diet. She
eliminated sugars, grains and alcohol and switched to eating green vegetables,
meat, fish, eggs, salad, almonds, walnuts, herbal tea, green juice, and
unsweetened coconut water. (health.com)
This is basically the kind of diet that Ellis recommends
along with bone broth, aloe juice, probiotics and prebiotics. “Prebiotics are
a type of fiber that the human body cannot digest. They serve as food for
probiotics, which are tiny living microorganisms, including bacteria and yeast.”
(medicalnewstoday.com) Probiotics are
the reinforcements our systems need to balance out our gut biome.
The transition may not be entirely easy. Not only might you have cravings for
unhealthy food, you might not have the right biota to digest healthy
foods. Ellis points out that there are
2500 species of microbes in our guts but we are probably missing 500 species
that have gone extinct. The missing
microbes have a ripple effect where other organisms depend on them for their
own nutrition and so are also in short supply.
These microbes might still be found in aboriginal populations and recovered
through fecal transplants.
Another impediment to getting the benefits of fresh leafy
greens might lie within the greens themselves.
Endocrinologist, Dr. Zach Bush, had recommended a green vegetable rich
diet to his clients in rural Virginia. He
was surprised to see that they were still getting sick. Looking into it he found that glyphosate (Roundup)
had been taken up by vegetables after it got into the water and air. It acts as an antibiotic. Besides destroying
bacteria in your gut, it opens up holes in your gut membrane. “Your gut
membrane is the largest barrier to the outside world: it covers two tennis
courts in surface area and is the thickness of half of the width of a human
hair.” The injury that Roundup does to
your guts “starts
to activate the immune system, and we become reactive to our foods. So, we
develop allergies of all sorts, pollen allergies and environmental allergies,
but also all the food allergies that have become so prevalent in our children
today.” (Dr. Zach Bush on Salon.com)
This membrane is the real front line of the gut war.
Luckily the battle is not necessarily lost. Nature has a way of balancing the biome if
you are only exposed to more of it. Dr.
Bush says “The microbiome we breathe will ultimately populate our gut through
different mechanisms. Touch it. Consume it through fermented foods.” He advocates getting out in nature as much as
possible, walking barefoot, going to the mountains and the ocean.
John Ellis realizes that people who have not been eating
celery, cabbage, broccoli, kale and asparagus regularly don’t digest it
well. These foods just seem to cause
flatulence for them. To build up the
microbes that will help digest these greens he suggests overcooking them at
first, like you would cook baby food.
Over time cook them less and the bacteria and other microbes in your gut
That part of John’s recommendations reminded me of some
advice Randy Greenland gave to the
workers at a log mill where I once worked while we sat around a fire in the
yard eating lunch. He talked about a
really healthy horse he had. After a
ride when its saddle was taken off it would roll on its back, jump up to its
feet and fart loudly. The adage he
related was “A fartin’ horse will never tire.
A fartin’ man’s the man to hire.”
It all started with an account I was reading about a naturalist whose main job was taking care of displaced orangutans near Borneo. He became curious about small trees that were thriving around a large tree of the same species that was dying. He wondered if they were related and also why something that was killing the older trees seemed to be helping the younger ones. That goes against our standard idea of disease as something that hurts everything and in turn must itself be completely destroyed. He dug up the roots and traced them back between the trees. They were connected and the old mother tree seemed to be feeding the young ones with its last bit of energy and creating space in the canopy to bring light to the young trees.
find the reference again when I looked for it.
But then I came across a TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] talk by
Suzanne Simard about trees. As a forest
biologist Simard wondered if trees of different species shared information with
She concocted an experiment using a
little plantation of trees set in an older forest. Trees produce sugar
carbohydrates during photosynthesis. She
set up pairs of trees and covered a birch tree in clear plastic and a fir tree
in black plastic so that the clear one would be photosynthesizing sugars and
the other would be just using sugars.
Then she introduces radioactive carbon-14 carbon dioxide gas into the
clear plastic tent. She did that to 80
pairs of trees until a mother grizzly bear chased her back to her truck. She
waited in her truck for an hour or so while the mother grizzly bear and her cub
settled down in a nearby huckleberry patch and the birch tree under the clear
plastic photosynthesized using carbon 14.
tested the trees with a Geiger counter. The fir trees under the black plastic showed
up as having carbon-14 that it could only have gotten from sugars created by
the birch tree.
That was over 30 years ago. Many tests on trees of the same species,
trees of different species and trees near their offspring showed that most
shared sugars, particularly if they also had the same DNA. In fact fir trees sent sugars back to birch
trees in the winter when the birch had lost their leaves. So yes trees could be mothers to younger
trees and good neighbors to companion trees of different species.
check this out in my own patch of forest, I walked up an old road. I saw lots of young trees near old fir trees
on the wet side of the hill. As I got to
the top of the grade a group of deer ran off with their white tails waving
behind them. They had been standing in a
grove of pine trees. But the ground
underneath was bare except for pine needles, not even brush. It was a good place for deer to wait with
clear views and open escape routes, but not really a forest of mother trees or
more was going on here. I contacted my
friendly local foresters for some advice.
Jay Berube retired as a forest ecologist in 2003. This companion tree line of thinking was not
well known back then. It was known that
trees of the same species adapt to their local environment and matching seed
stock to their locale was important for resistance to diseases such as root
rot. Jay noted that pine trees do better
in dry ground than fir trees. The fir
trees were growing young to restock the wet side of the hill. The pine trees depend on fire to regenerate
but must resist it somewhat to survive.
So an open grove with no ladder fuels for fires but pine needles on the
ground was a perfect for them. Berube said that pine trees are
allopathic and actually prevent other plants from growing. There were younger pine trees growing in road
cuts with some serviceberry trees for companions. And just a few hundred feet away was a dense
stand of young pine that had regenerated after a fire or farming disturbance
with no other species underneath.
finding from Suzanne Simod’s studies was that mixed species forests are more
resistant to disease. The reason for this
is not simply that the bugs are more spread out between their preferred host
species but also that they share signals that certain pests are around and the
trees develop resistance to them. The
combination of spreading out the target species and help from the companion
species must act a little like “social distancing” and give trees more time to
“flatten the curve” of infection.
But it is
not just trees that are involved. The
pathway for this communication and exchange of material is not roots alone. (TED.com)
Mycorrhizal fungi act as the highways between the tree roots. Several species of the hundreds of possible
fungi may work with each tree. They live
on the sugars from the trees but also bring water, minerals, sugars and signals
from the rest of the underground biome to their hosts.
So the take
away is that “as below, so above.” The
plants in the air, like the millions of organisms in the soil help each other
out. The hallmarks of a healthy
environment are not only diversity and abundance, but also cooperation. Survival of the fittest means survival of the
most cooperative. Approaches to
management that attempt to eliminate “pathogens” using chemicals and mechanics
that involve massive collateral damage ultimately make plants even more
susceptible to drought and disease.
Insects, animals and birds also cooperate in this biome.
Bill Berrigan reminds us that “There is so much
more to learn about tree’s interactions that we should not be making cutting
decisions that may hurt the trees and the soils that they grow in.”
This is my inventory of two year old grape plants. I prefer to sell them at two years so the roots are more developed. I do have these varieties in one year old plants. The one year plants are now in bigger pots and will sell for $10 each next year. These older plants are selling for $7 each because they are in smaller pots. While building our new greenhouse last year I did not have time to move them to bigger pots.
We will have these plants for sale at Farmer’s Markets starting in May. But if you want the best selection it would be better to come to our vineyard before then. If you want to do that, please call first, 509-680-6357.
It’s been a tough winter so far. Our small greenhouse cover collapsed and big
parts of two elm trees broke under the heavy snow crashing into the
vineyard. Only one vine was hurt but
there is a lot of cleanup to do.
Cleanup for me means lopping off the smaller branches and
sledding them out to a pile near the shredder.
Branches about the diameter of an arm are stacked in a rack where they
can be cut into smaller pieces to burn for biochar. The pieces big enough to make firewood are
cut to length and stacked to dry. So
eventually the whole tree is ready to recycle.
Figure 1 Rack for cutting branches
I was surprised one morning to see a doe standing on the
edge of the woods watching me take our food scraps out to the compost
pile. As I walked back by, there she was
chowing down on the budding tips of the elm branches I had piled up to
shred. It got me to thinking about the
whole process of digestion and nature.
One of my mentors in understanding natural farming is Youngsang
Cho. In his book, JADAM Organic Farming,
he has a lot to say about the philosophy of farming. (JADAM is an acronym for a Korean phrase meaning
“People that Resemble Nature”.) I’m sure
there is a better translation but his advice is rooted in the 16th
Century BCE admonition of Asian Philosopher Laozi Dao De Jing who said “The
wisdom is always found in nature.”
An example is that nature lays down a carpet of leaves and
grass before winter snow sets in.
Therefore late Fall is the right time to put a layer of mulch on your
growing beds. You will notice that in
the Spring after the snow melts and before grass springs up the flattened
leaves and dead grass have a web of fungus on them. I noticed that canes, pine needles and stems
that I shredded and left out in tubs earlier in the winter had a similar white
fuzz on them. Fungus is uniquely suited
to breaking down the complex molecules of wood.
It can work in the wet cold of winter preparing the way for microbes
that like warm earth and old fungus.
That doe was part of the continuous cycle of digestion. Her dung is a rich gold mine that will add to
the microbial feast in the soil.
Youngsang Cho says that all microbes are beneficial, especially if local
and especially if found under leaf mold.
This goes against some conventional wisdom that fears the rotting parts
of plants left on the ground will spread disease in the Spring. He points out that the minerals and other
nutrients most used by a particular plant will be most abundant in the rotting
remains of that plant itself. Sure there
will be mold or insect eggs but he further notes that “one mold spore can
produce 1 billion in 10 hours.” In fact
he uses that multiplication through microbial teas to fertilize plants and also
fight disease. You cannot eradicate mold, weeds or other organisms. You need to manage the soil to promote health
and out-compete disease.
Weeds fill a vacuum.
Find what the soil needs and fill that need. Cho admonishes that “The good and bad are
one.” Too much of a good thing can be
bad and visa versa. Planting the same plant in the same place is what Nature
does all the time. Having just that one
kind of plant in a place is something nature never does. Cover crops and a rich diversity of organic
matter are also what nature does.
Getting back to the deer and the elm tree, I tend to think
of nature as one gigantic digestive system and the soil is a big part of it. Looking at it that way you can think of good
soil management as a kind of diet.
Running branches through a shredder or having them trampled by cattle is
a bit like chewing your food. Getting
the ground wet is like adding saliva and sending food to the stomach and beyond.
Any of you who have made bread or made wine, know that a
tiny bit of yeast given some water, warmth and sugar can become a roiling mass
of microbes in short order. Components
of a soil diet mimic the components of a healthy diet in many respects. You can pretty much guarantee that the
microbes will be in the ground already including some yeast and fungus (which
are closely related). Water and warmth
come naturally in the Spring when rapid growth occurs. To carry the analogy further we can group soil
components like food diets as carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals, sugars and
Minerals are the rocks or soluble elements in the dirt itself. Although a great deal of fuss is made over the proportion and availability of minerals in sand, gravel, clay, acidic and alkaline dirt, the bottom line is that microbes move these minerals into organic compounds and balance out their contributions to overall soil health. Reducing descriptions of soil health to a periodic chart seen through a spectrograph without acknowledging the trillions of microbes, 99.9% of which we cannot replicate in a lab or identify (JADAM Organic Farming, page 59) misses the fact that each kind of bacteria is a tiny chemical factory that makes these minerals available to other microbes as organic compounds, all of which by definition include carbon. Adding boron, lime and other refined minerals can have lasting good or bad effects. “Good and bad are one.”
The biggest proportion of a good soil diet is carbon-rich
cellulose – straw, wood chips, shredded branches and leaves. These take a long time and many
transformations to build the soil. But if
you want long term organic matter and microbial life, start there even if you
don’t have anything else.
For the protein part of this diet I would suggest the really
rich components of manure, rotten fish and spoiled grain. These give a quick boost of nitrogen and a
healthy source of probiotic microbes that can leap into action with a little
warmth and water. Like protein, a little
goes a long way. “Good and bad are one.” Too much too soon will burn your
plants. (In humans too much protein can increase inflammation.)
For vegetables I would add, well, vegetables. Basically fresh cut green grass and other
plants that feed worms and larger biota.
Rotting green material takes up some of the nitrogen from manure
etc. So it can be used as a buffer. It works from the bottom up so crushing a
cover crop and planting through the debris can feed the crop and suppress
Amazingly, food grade sugar itself can be used as a
fertilizer. I have read of molasses
diluted in water as a crop stimulant. As
with any sugar I would proceed with caution.
I’m imagining hordes of ants and flies with overuse. Nevertheless bacteria and fungi get sugar
from the roots of photosynthesizing plants so it is a part of the soil diet.
In a related news item, eating charcoal reduces flatulence
in cows (bbc.com)
Cattle ranchers tell me that cows will eat charcoal when they feel like it (not briquettes that
have binders etc. in them). In Australia
a farmer added it to cattle feed as a way to incorporate charcoal into the
soil. It is known to retain moisture and
provide shelter to keep bacteria and other microbes from being leached out by
rain. As a bonus charcoal (biochar)
Although that was the main objective for the Australian
farmer, Doug Pow, adding biochar to feed
can also reduce up to 20% of methane released by cows. Methane is 25 time more potent as a
greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide so it is a big deal. (bbc.com)
Part of Pow’s breakthrough was that he imported cow dung beetles that
immediately bury cow pies and stop further release of methane as well as adding
the carbon to the soil. So, yes, add
biochar to your soil’s diet.
I tend to think of this mixture as a mulch rather than a
compost. As a top dressing the hyphae
from the fungi can grow without being broken as they would be when compost is
worked into the soil. But timing is also
a factor. Richer feed in the spring,
some special snacks before harvest and a lot of cellulose before winter: sounds
like a healthy soil diet to me.
There are also a number of “herbal” remedies for soil
problems, but this is probably enough to digest for now.
This is not an ordinary blog post. I recently became aware of some other vineyards that use regenerative agriculture techniques. I am providing this link to Hopewell Vineyard near Salem, Oregon Although there are many good reasons to check out this vineyard, what put it over the top for me was a link from that website to a podcast interview with the owner, Mimi Casteel, in a series called Tractor Time on Acres USA. Here is a link to that podcast. It is an hour long and I encourage you to listen to it because Mimi Casteel expresses many of the viewpoints that I have come to see in regard to what it means to manage land and make wine.
Her talk is number 38. There are other great podcasts on this list and I encourage you to listen to number 37 with Zach Bush about the gut effects of Glyphosate (Roundup Weed Killer) and its ties to soil sterility and the entire food chain.
I graduated from college with a degree in philosophy in
1969, two years after this song was released, I’ve been joking about never
finding a job as a philosopher ever since.
But now as a farmer, I might have found it. My studies back then focused on the history of
western philosophy, concepts like everything is composed of earth, air water
and fire (Aristotle) and these ideas will explain
everything: the ‘Mechanics’, the ‘Physics’, and the ‘Organic
Physics’ (Hegel). Missing from that
education however was any recognition of Asian philosophers.
I did a little catching up by reading Alan
Watts who assured me that I am one with everything. This was one of many books that have changed
me. I spent a more transformative time learning Vipassana meditation where I
maintained silence for a week and focused on my breath. What you really end up doing in that kind of
meditation is becoming aware of what you are paying attention to. I realized that controlling my “monkey mind”
was not at all that easy. Just as disturbing however, was beginning to notice that
our whole marketing-based economy is trying to grab our attention. In fact I am trying to get some of yours
So I bought another book, The Attention Economy by Thomas Davenport. It boiled down to something I had heard of before, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, typically illustrated as a pyramid with dominant “Deficiency Needs” such as food, shelter, safety and love as big attention-getters at the bottom and needs for growth: knowledge, beauty and spirituality, making the narrower part at the top. It made a lot of sense at the time but as I will propose, things have changed.
Another influential book was The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler which (along with ruining my back while working at a log mill) convinced me that computers were going to be a big thing. Years later having learned to program and securing a job programming in Dbase II, I was unhappy to realize that I had to reprogram all my work in FoxPro. Seems like you used to be able to learn a skill, welding for instance, and stick with it. Not any more. It began to dawn on me that there was no end to this. One new programming language or platform would replace the next year after year. Similarly all my years of schooling had taught me “facts” that became less true and valuable as time went on and basically all I accomplished was learning how to learn.
I’ll get back to Maslow, but first I want to introduce another illustration, the Tree of Life. A simple look at living things we can see and imagine as the branches of evolution leaves us with a picture that harkens back to my college education. Since then scientists have been mapping the complete DNA of earths trillions of creatures. A more complete picture of the results of 4.5 billion years of evolutions looks like a giant fan. As the anthropocentric picture of mankind at the apex of evolution begins to dissolve, we find the vast majority of life on earth is microscopic “According to a new estimate, there are about one trillion species of microbes on Earth, and 99.999 percent of them have yet to be discovered.” (NYTimes) To bring that figure home, Scientists concluded that the average human body contains approximately 37.2 trillion cells! (wonderpolis.com). “An unfathomably vast array of invisible life – bacteria, protists, archaea, and fungi – thrives on us and in us… Their cells outnumber our own cells by at least three to one. (The Hidden Half of Nature, Montgomery)
So here we are,
right up there with slime molds and fungi as the apex of multicellular
lifeforms. Not too glamorous really and those inscrutable single cell
microbiota make up the majority of what we think of as our own bodies.
But what if we
move away from picturing the kinds of DNA to weighing biomass? Surely our position at the top of the food
chain makes us the rare royalty of evolution.
There is some truth to this in the original terrestrial ecosystem. But a closer look at the top predators,
eagles, lions, bears, coyotes, wolves etc. shows that they get a lot of their
food from carrion and tend to die off quickly if the supply of herbivores
dwindles. So it surprised me to learn
that in an aquatic ecosystem the top predators, (basically sharks) have much
more mass than the fish they eat. (https://www.brainkart.com/)
What makes the difference is that in water they don’t have
to spend much energy hunting or keeping up their temperature. You might also conclude that they don’t pay
as much attention to finding food. It
turns out that we are a lot like sharks that way now. “Thanks to the mind-boggling scale of factory
farms, 70 billion animals now exist as objects for human consumption, including
60% of all mammals on earth.” (Wired Magazine)
So there are about 10 animals out there to eat for every human.
Yuval Noah Harari in his bestselling book, Sapiens, explores the evolutionary explosion of a limited number of plants and animals that have accompanied humankind to its massive position in earth’s ecology. He writes: “Egg-laying hens, dairy cows and draft animals are sometimes allowed to live for many years. But the price is subjugation to a way of life completely alien to their urges and desires.” This is one of the many ironies he finds in a science-based look at who we are.
Science itself is almost an oxymoron. “Modern science is based on the Latin
injunction ignoramus – ‘we do not know’. It assumes that we don’t know
everything. Even more critically, it accepts that the things that we think we
know could be proven wrong as we gain more knowledge. No concept, idea or
theory is sacred and beyond challenge.” (Harari) So my classical education faces continual
upsets from evidence-based scientific discoveries, which brings me back to
In a world where the pressure to just survive predicates our
very existence, focus on food and safety is helpful and necessary. Maslow’s triangle mirrors the eastern concept
of chakras. Food, sex and fighting for
safety are necessary. But in a world of
abundance there has been an explosion of information and communication more in
resonance with mind and spirit. Like
sharks in a less stressful ecology we can afford to pay more attention to the
thoughts of others than to merely surviving.
Microbes and plants in the soil feed on organic matter that in turn
becomes the feedstock of other lifeforms. Our life experience is built with attention.
Increasingly that attention feeds on media and information built from the
thoughts and desires of other people. In
many ways that attention is being farmed to feed views of the world that may be
only self-serving and will be overturned eventually. We need to spend more time sorting fact from
fiction and to pay attention to what we are paying attention to.
There is hope and fear in the realization that these
revolutions in thought portend the probability that there are realms of being
and knowing that we have no clue about.
Maybe they will arise from dark matter, artificial intelligence, native
cultures, quantum entanglement, psi energy or from realities for which we have
no words. The admission of ignorance
opens the gates of knowledge. Feed your
If you met Chris Wujek on
a mountain trail, your attention would immediately go to his companions: 2
Llamas, 22 Goats, 4 Sheep and a Yak. Technically these are “pack animals” which
are allowed to graze on trails and certainly do, but more realistically, this
is a coherent group that depends on each other for survival. They follow Chris
without being tied with ropes or being fenced at night. During the summer months and into
early fall, goat milk provides the majority of the daily calories. Wild
vegetables including onion, nettle, biscuitroot, and yampa are cooked with milk
over a fire. Fruits, nuts, grains, and berries are eaten fresh and dried for
winter use. Chris can live for months on the trail without packing much more
than some simple camp gear and spices for himself as well as salt and kelp for
the herd. But he loves coffee and wheat more than he should, so some extras
usually come along, especially if he’s close to town.
Surviving in this style
is human tradition going back thousands of years. Doing it with animals whose
ancestors come from around the globe is a more modern twist. Each animal has a
role to play. The toughest characters in terms of what they will eat and how
long they can go without water are the llamas. A member of the camel family, llamas can extract more
nutrition from their feed than even the thrifty goats or sheep. The yak prefers
grass but will eat in a similar matter to the goats, eating Oregon Grape, young
fir bark and needles, and dry grass seed heads when more palatable forage is
covered with snow. Goats are the least hardy of the animals because of their
lack of wool, but are the most personable and curious.
Ironically, the llamas are afraid of the goats and given the chance, will stay
at the back of the pack train while the goats stay right behind Chris. Llamas
are also the most protective of the group when it comes to warding off
predators. So bringing up the rear while Chris is in front suits their role.
Chris’s role is much more
than meets the eye. He picks out prime places to graze and camp. Although he
doesn’t carry a gun, he protects the herd. Cougars have killed a couple of his
goats but he also drove off a cougar by throwing an apple at it. He kept the carcass of one goat for
himself, the other went to the cougar. Especially in
cool weather, he can hang goat meat and eat off of it for some time. He has
trained the herd to be wary of fire but also to take advantage of its warmth at
night. He sleeps with the animals carrying only a felt blanket and a tarp for
cover. He also has some chickens that ride in cages on the llamas when they
travel, hang out around camp eating scraps, bugs etc. and roost in the trees at
night. So you can add eggs to Chris’s diet.
While the role of plants feeding the
herd is obvious, the benefit of the herd eating the plants is not. Deer eat
down the Oregon Grape plants on my farm when the snow gets deep. But Oregon
Grape is very tough. It bounces back in the spring, survives from just its
roots when dug up and pops back in the forest after the ground is covered in
wood chips. Similarly, grass rebounds
after being eaten but less so if eaten repeatedly. The nitrogen and other
nutrients in animal urine and manure promote healthy soil and nutrient cycling.
He was not born into a nomadic
herding family. He studied the lessons of Andre Voisin, Joel Salatin, Allan
Savoy, and Greg Judy. Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist and livestock farmer,
originated the Holistic management system. His methods have helped to turn
extensive acreages in Zimbabwe and other overgrazed desserts around the world
into thriving grasslands that support large herds of livestock. Wujek did
something similar to an overgrazed ranch near Umatilla, Oregon with a group of
friends using rotational grazing. Rotational grazing is the practice of moving
livestock between pastures (often called paddocks) as needed or on a regular
basis. (Wikipedia) Over the course of 7 years Chris and his partners turned
land that an agricultural agent had written off as having no legumes but a lot
of houndstongue and poison hemlock (poisonous invasive species that the agent
suggested be killed with herbicides) to a lush bottomland pasture. They did
this by moving cows and sheep every day using two lines of electric polycord.
This experience gave
Chris a keen sense of what animals would graze on in a given amount of time. In
the right-sized paddock they will eat down thistle and other weeds. Too big a paddock leaves weeds
behind, too small and you move animals twice a day.
After they are moved, the grasses bounce back and eventually crowd out the
weeds. Unfortunately bringing the ranch back to life also brought its value
back higher in the real estate market. It was sold out from under the young
Having experience is one
part of the formula for surviving as a herder. Having the right animals is
another. Chris likes long-haired cattle with significant horns, like Highland
Cattle. They can protect themselves and ward off the cold. He wants to reduce
the number of goats and increase the number of sheep for similar reasons. This
is not an occupation that needs mountain trails to exist. Chris sees endless
opportunities in the lowlands. Overgrazed and undergrazed land both exist in
abundance. Animals are born on the trail from equinox to equinox so there is
plenty of milk. But winter pasture without baled hay also works.
On private land, Chris
deploys a solar-charged electric fence. This keeps the animals concentrated in
an area, often just a fraction of an acre, so that they eat both the plants
they like and those they don’t prefer but will tolerate. It also gives Chris a chance to
attend to other business such as looking for a shepherdess.
The herd enjoys a wide variety of
grass, shrubs, and trees (including the bark during the winter), Himalayan
blackberries, all thistles, knapweed, and many more that Chris doesn’t know.
Many toxic plants can be eaten in smaller amounts, including houndstongue,
poison hemlock, and hoary alyssum. Nettles can be
found in the right places at any time of year. Fiddlehead Ferns and Bracken
Ferns are good for both herd and herder. Chris is familiar with a wide range of
edible wild plants. For instance he collects Wapato, also known as “Indian
Potato” from shallow waters of Lake Coeur D’Alene in Idaho by dancing barefoot
in the water until the tubers rise to the surface. Biscuitroot,
bitterroot and wild onions are all part of his meals seasonally. Groceries are not a big expense. He has a small truck and
trailer to move his animals and a cell phone, but not much else.
From an environmental
point of view, this is a fantastically good lifestyle, good for the health of
the herd, the health of the land, the ecological economy and Chris’s personal
health. But what struck me most dramatically about his work is how much he
enjoys it. Chris is one happy dude. Living without a lot of media, money,
possessions and projects really means that “seldom is heard a discouraging
word” and you really can be at home on the range.