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29 March, 2010

Oh My Biomass

On some Sundays, before the righteous are even dressing for church, I'm out in creation laboring away: pruning, weeding, digging, planting.

For some reason, there's always something left over. Twigs and branches and boles. Dandelion roots and blackberry canes. Sods of clover, grass, and weeds.

Residential neighborhoods tend to evict that stuff. Maybe just toss it into the municipal woods to fend for itself, but more likely put it in a greenwaste bin, a couple of mechanized dumps and a short drive from municipal compost heap. Or if you don't want monthly bills for that service, you can haul and pay it yourself when the mood strikes.

The mood strikes me just about never.

Big enough branches and the tree I took down last year provide home and cooking heat. Sticks that suit become bean and hop poles (if I cn get them before they become tipi poles for the kids). Whippy withes become all sorts of things, as befits their flexibility. Wee twigs and leaves subside into soil eventually.

Then there's the less benign stuff, weeds exotic and aggressive. Not that I'm a persistent eradicator, but when I dig a new bed or eliminate less tasty competition from garden ground, I don't let the biomass escape. Because grass clods re-root so readily here in the misty northwest, I pile them in a couple of places, tamping them down into new topographic features: a terrace in the front, a low escarpment in back where blueberries will one day be that much closer to the sun. In the darkest backest part of the back yard, a few pick-up loads of mixed windfall wood, weeds, sods, stray gravel, and bark have developed into a woodland plateau.

Just as the various sizes of alder wood have their specific uses, so do other vegetative resources. Conifer bark weed control, cedar leaf acid mulch for berries, alder leaf blanket mulch for dahlias, alder and hazelnut catkin soil amendment, and on and on. Every leftover is a feast, seen from the right angle.

Meanwhile, a box of redworms quietly eat their way through all the vegetable trimmings and leftovers, pooping out fertilizer. I just added a second box. After cookouts (using the downed alder, as if you needed to ask), I cut off the oxygen flow, and the next day stir ashes and charcoal into the soil. Besides the fertilizing benefit for this year's garden, the fire leavings will be good substrate for morel mushrooms. As an archaeologist, I've often seen another benefit of this: buried charcoal is durable and persistent in the soil; it is low-tech carbon sequestration. (And yeah, I know, a bunch of CO2 smoked up off the grill, but I had to eat.)

So, no green-waste can here. A partial can of recyclables every other week. A 25 gallon trash can on the other every other week. One trip to the dump in a year. That's about it. The rest is destined to return to the earth right here.

Until I have a lot more time, I'll be a net importer of biomass. I don't grow hardly any food, to be honest, so almost all of those veggie scraps came from some other piece of earth. In the past couple of years, I've also brought in somewhere between one and two pickup loads of compost, mulch, and peat moss to amend the sandy soil here, and to help along new trees and such. That rate should slow down this year, and I am hoping that as I keep cycling the yard's biomass back into soil, and start producing more fruit and vegetables here at home, the trade imbalance will even out some.

The funny thing is that this is all pretty radical to most people, even in crunchy green Olympia. I have a neighbor who always offers me any spare space in her greenwaste bin, but actually I think she's the only one who notices hat a biomass hoarder I am, and that's just because she knows I use it all, not so much because she can point to some pile of weeds or moldering wood.

21 March, 2010


Happy Spring, yall. The photo is of wildflower in mid-Columbia country.

Days of sunshine led up to the Vernal Equinox, and now a nice Sunday morning shower quenches the advancing plants on the first full day o' Spring. Best of all, someone is giving away wild phlox. So I'm outta here.

Energy Smorgasbord

I've written about windmills and what-not energies before, but a recent trip up the Columbia got that train of thought rolling again.

The picture's train is hauling a load of coal, probably that high sulphur western washington stuff, seeing as 'twas headed upriver with a sick yellow tinge to it. The two engines burn diesel--you can see the exhaust blurrippling the center windmills. Then there's the fender telling us that good old gasoline is represented, so you can pretty well say you got your fossil fuels covered.

For that matter, I drove while I shot that photo, gaining east on Route 14 at a solid 60-per and holding the camera as far riight as possible. For a shot when I was forced to pay at least some attention to vehicles ahead and behind on 2 lanes with-a-tunnel-approaching,...I'm happy.

With the wind in the picture, as it is in the Northwest, 'alternative energy' contributes more than a token, though not nearly as much as back when wind was 'standard energy' that powered sailing cultures and global commerce. Wind doesn't emit gas or ash or trash or carcinogens, much less stuff that stays radioactive for thousands of generations (as it does upriver). Seeing the wind corkscrew through a line of them all in synch is pretty. On the other hand, it most definitely intrudes on the landscape, and sometimes slices birds in half. Ain't nothing free.

What you don't see in the photo is most important: the Columbia. Navigable by boat, plane, train, automobile, and bikes. Windy as all get-out. Flowing mightily. The Columbia, dammed by glacier and landslide alike for eons, and then by man as well, mostly for the cheap electricity. Since the water wheel of antiquity we've helped ourselves to the power of flow, and in the 20th Century we went hog-wild, resulting in fairly cheap NW power. Dams don't emit bad stuff either, unless you count the turbined fish going down or the poop-plume when sea-lions feast on fish that cannot swim up. Dams do drown entire ecosystems and towns, though, which ain't good.

Nothing's perfect, but a heck of a lot of things beat burning fossil fuel. I only hope to live to the day when I can be like Ed Begley on an episode of The Simpsons, and drive a car "Powered by my own sense of self-satisfaction."

06 March, 2010


Alder, scorned upon trash-tree of the Northwest. From irritating thicket to senescence in 50 years, too full of rot to make good wood most of the time, dropping stuff constantly to the dismay and disgust of homeowners. People like the firewood, but that's about it.

There were 7 of these in the yard when I moved in, and a half dozen left now. The other warmed the house and cooked many a meal since I dismantled it nearly a year ago. The buds are red and swollen as little monkey-butts right now, ready to unfurl into something much more beautiful. Sunny and warming quickly right as I write, so we could get leafage this very day.

But standing in the still frosty yard on a clear morning like this, what silhouettes itself against the bluetiful sky are the naughty bits: great dangling catkins ready to explode pollen, cones with their mysteriously beckoning little openings. Strangely enough, most people do not find this arousing in the least, they look up and think, "I'm gonna have to rake all this crap up."

Because yes, after the party is over, the confetti falls away forgotten. The alders are generous, and throw in twigs and branches, slough some lichen and moss. There are people who will bag it up and throw it out, or put it in the green-waste bin for the city to haul away.

But you know I wouldn't do that.

Being shiftless, I've never tracked down figures on how much biomass an alder pumps out on an annual basis. But the spring brings thousands of catkins and cones, spent or wanting to hop into seed-bed, raining residue from the great spawning. Some cultures, closer to the earth by history or just by dint, would recognize this as especially good mulch--leaves can insulate and make soil eventually, but the tree's reproductive organs may bestow fertility, life force. Even if you don't believe in that, there's the biomass, maybe a trace of minerals mined by the tree's roots, worm-fodder. Soil to be.