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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Aboard the Planetary Spaceship

Aboard the Planetary Spaceship

Book Review of Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life by Edward O. Wilson

by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA

The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world. – Alexander von Humboldt

Edward O. Wilson’s new book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (New York, W.W. Norton, 2016), offers a plan for the problem of species extinction: the dominant species, man, must hold itself back, must relinquish half the earth’s surface to those endangered. It is a challenging and on the face of it improbable thought, expressed in a terse style. But his phrases are packed because the hour is late. There is an air of finish in the offing, a great change to be rehearsed. What else is he asking for if not an awakening, an urgent and belated change of heart? Humankind must quarantine itself, must be satisfied to hold its own flawed predatory nature in check. Watching human desperation and greed kill the last rhinos in spite of massive and costly efforts at rescue, watching humanity’s thoughtless blunders erase the last of many other shy and obscure species, Wilson examines actions taken by sheer mounting numbers of humans bowing to social compulsions and market forces, often without particular malice but with deadly cumulative effect.

The “straw man” Wilson has elected to do battle with is what he calls the Anthropocene viewpoint, the man-centered view that most uncritical humans subscribe to, since it is supported by the creation story of the Old Testament, and holds that man has been given dominion over all the rest of nature. Only recently has “dominion” been reinterpreted by some thinkers and religious leaders to mean stewardship — tending, preserving and improving — which still doesn’t always recognize the right of other life forms to exist independent of their benefit to man. In contrast he posits the view of the naturalist and biologist engaged in understanding the complex web of life on Earth.

But making the case for nature-as-it-is, besieged and quickly shedding the hidden gift of its diversity, can be a tough sell. Why do we even need a biosphere with millions of species? From where we sit nearly all of those species are already invisible, and serve no clear purpose — economic, medicinal, nutritive or other — to us. It would seem Wilson must first convince the anthropocentric reader that there is hidden value to the biosphere independent of our place at the head of the table.

Regarding the urgency of our situation with 7.2 billion human mouths to feed, Wilson reports, “At present we consume nearly one-quarter of Earth’s natural photosynthetic productivity: that much of the planet’s freshly manufactured biomass ends up in our hands and stomachs and the share is growing. The remainder of the planet’s productivity is left for all of the other millions of species.” (172) He is often at his best in laying out the blunt truths of our ignorance. Speaking of the sheer scientific work to be done, he says “At least two-thirds of the species on Earth remain unknown and unnamed, and of the one-third known, fewer than one in a thousand have been subject to intensive biological research.” (104) So one large benefit of the book, not just for fellow scientists but for the rest of us, is how Wilson lays out the work to be done to even know where we stand regarding the health of the biosphere. Not just where to look and what to save, but what to do first.

Edward O. Wilson’s scientific emblem and lifework has been and remains the ant — industrious, versatile, sturdy, missing nothing as it forages among all the living underfoot. But then despite — or perhaps because of — his grounding, in mid-career he undertook an ambitious and vital work with larger implications. His book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) traced social and historical connections, and more elusive behavioral echoes, between species up the phylogenetic tree, from the simplest organisms to man. It was original, vigorous and sweeping in its implications, and was hotly debated. The tracing of almost ghostly parallels and inferences between the behaviors of species was exciting, finding hidden sources and echoes in ourselves, though much of the work’s implications reached far in advance of supporting evidence. It was one of those moments, as with Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), when science forewent its routine plodding, and suddenly leapt in the sunlight.

Professor Wilson is older and wiser now, but he’s gotten stirred up again, and regards the issue of species extinction as timely and urgent. Consider merely the most telling piece of his argument for biological diversity, which occurs when he turns to the human organism, and points out its dependence on the myriad bacteria and other symbionts that are complicit in human life. The very existence of the host — us! — depends upon healthy internal colonies with millions of members, acting in a dance of mutual benefit. He concludes with this description of our looming dilemma: “An Earth packed wall-to-wall with people would be a planetary spaceship, dependent on humanity’s future intellect and wisdom for the long-term survival of life.” (134) His view, in other words, is that the biosphere contains an alternative wisdom to the mental powers of humans, and that that diverse and vast array of life forms operates in the best interests of all aboard planet Earth.

Arriving at Wilson’s conclusions I found myself thumbing back through the book, seeing if I could glean in the flow of his argument a particular message for farmers. But there are indications that for all his hands-on science, he harbors an outsized faith in a cyber-future, and sees the problem of feeding the world as one to be solved by a combination of technology and agribusiness, rather than by millions of artisans planting what might grow well and best engage neighborhood appetites on their small diverse plots. He trusts the millennia of adaptive change and the complexity of the biosphere, yet pivots quickly in the present to put his trust in what he terms “synthetic biology,” praising “its potential benefits, easily visualized as spreading through medicine and agriculture.” (197) Yet on the previous page he had just described how maize took ten millennia to arrive at its present form, with human help selecting plants and seed potentially every step of the way. Then he concludes: “For all those millions of years…our species let the biosphere continue to evolve on its own. Then, with scythe and fire, guided more by ignorant instinct than by reason, we changed everything.” (204) Perhaps that scythe and fire were guided by ignorance, but perhaps by choices Wilson is not yet prepared to acknowledge.

I can’t help but report how this argument over the beginnings and prospects of agriculture comes on the heels of his discussion of how “Decision, even for simple physical action, can proceed without awareness.” (203) He quotes Henry Poincare’s poetic 1902 description of the process:

“The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment, it has tact, delicacy; it knows better how to choose, to divine. What do I say? It knows better how to divine than the conscious self, since he succeeds where that has failed. In a word, is not the subliminal self superior to the conscious self?” (203)

The relatively sudden selection of species of plants and animals to domesticate seven to eleven thousand years ago may have been conscious or unconscious. Scientists have suggested that some of those animals may even have self-selected. In particular the dog and pig might have been drawn within the circle of the firelight and accepted the deal that was tacitly offered. But this gathering arrangement of plants and animals which led to agriculture and thence over time to civilization, which is to say living in one place under a roof by a fire with stable sources of food, then politics and art and all that entails, was not an evil, but a set of choices with implications that seem in the long light of time to have mostly gone one way, with no return. No one chose to go back to hunting and gathering, for all that lifestyle’s supposed advantages, once they had taken to herding instead of chasing after wild meats, and had tasted wheat and barley, corn and beans and potatoes that might keep for years. Those species of plants and animals whose survival until then had been part of the biosphere’s general diversity, subject to the same urgencies to survive or perish, found themselves chosen to thrive as part of an unfolding but perhaps unthinking strategy of man, with an undreamt-of success, their offspring over time spread worldwide.

Contrary to Wilson’s view, perhaps we don’t need to “radically improve agriculture with new crop species and ways to grow them,” (205) when the strategies of biotech and agribusiness have been to scrub all other life forms from the soil, creating an artificial wasteland responsive only to synthetic inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, denying the very diversity Wilson would champion. And as Wilson himself notes, “Technology without science is like an automobile without wheels and a road map.” (163)

In spite of my reservations about Professor Wilson’s consistency regarding the advent and prospects of agriculture over the last ten thousand years, and his enthusiastic appreciation of the computer’s potential for cataloguing the other species that inhabit the biosphere, Half-Earth offers some remarkable insights from the field, and an unparalleled opportunity to know where we stand regarding species diversity. The chapter entitled “the best places in the biosphere,” with its detailed survey of those lands around the world already set aside, which constitute some 15% of the Earth’s land area and 2.5% of its ocean area, should be required reading for the young and the hopeless, to know what is already being done. We might wish for more consistent insights from this statesman-scientist, yet we need the perspectives of science, especially the far-reaching, unselfish and ultimately optimistic insights of a thinker like Edward O. Wilson, whose lifetime of efforts in the wilds underfoot and around the world inform his sense of the importance to the planet of its living systems of species reaching back billions of years. “Threading the bottleneck” which he terms our present dilemma of endangered species, manmade global climate change and over-population, his is a bold and timely work that deserves our attention and thanks.

Spotlight On: Livestock

Cattle Handling Part 2 Use Good Cow Sense When Handling Cattle

Cattle Handling Part 2: Use Good Cow Sense When Handling Cattle

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Cattle are very intelligent, and are just as “trainable” as horses. Like horses, they “reason” differently than humans. Understanding the way cattle think and why they react to you the way they do can enable you handle them in ways that will help rather than hinder your purposes. If you can “think like a cow” you can more readily predict what cattle will do in various situations and be able to handle them with fewer problems.

Ask A Teamster Halters Off

Ask A Teamster: Halters Off!

When my friend and mentor, the late Addie Funk, first started helping me with my horses, he suggested that we get rid of my halter ropes with snaps and braid lead ropes on to all the halters permanently. Actually as I think about it, it was more than a suggestion. Knowing him, he probably just braided the new ropes on, confident that anyone with any sense would be pleased with the improvement. In any case, when the task was completed I clearly remember him saying to me, “Now nobody will turn a horse loose around here with a halter on.”

Developing Draft Colts

Developing Draft Colts

During October, 1910, The Pennsylvania State College and Experiment Station purchased a group of ten grade Belgian and Percheron colts and one pure bred Percheron for use in live stock judging classes. An accurate record of the initial cost, feeds consumed and changes in form has been kept in order that some definite information as to the cost of developing draft colts from weaning to maturity might be available for farmers, investigators and students.

Ask A Teamster Ten Common Wrecks With Driving Horses

Ask A Teamster: Ten Common Wrecks with Driving Horses

One of the things I’ve learned over time is that the truly great teamsters rarely – if ever – have upset horses, close calls, mishaps or wrecks, while the less meticulous horsemen often do. Even though it may take a few minutes longer, the master teamsters constantly follow a series of seemingly minute, endlessly detailed, but always wise safety tips. Here are 10 of them:

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

You are probably thinking why would I want to dry up a doe? If the plan is to rebreed the doe, then she will need time to rebuild her stamina. Milk production takes energy. Kid production takes energy, too. If the plan is to have a fresh goat in March, then toward the end of October start to dry her up. The first thing to do is cut back on her grain. Grain fuels milk production.

Plans for Hog Houses

Plans for Hog Houses

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Missouri Sunlit Hog House: This is an east and west type of house lighted by windows in the south roof. A single stack ventilation system with distributed inlets provides ventilation. Pen partitions may be of wood or metal. This plan takes the place of the original Missouri sunlit house since many farmers had difficulty in building it.

Mini Horse Haying

Mini Horse Haying

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The first mini I bought was a three year old gelding named Casper. He taught me a lot about what a 38 inch mini could do just by driving me around the neighborhood. He didn’t cover the miles fast, but he did get me there! It wasn’t long before several more 38 inch tall minis found their way home. I presently have four minis that are relatively quiet, responsive to the bit, and can work without a lot of drama.

Horseshoeing Part 1A

Horseshoeing Part 1A

Horseshoeing, though apparently simple, involves many difficulties, owing to the fact that the hoof is not an unchanging body, but varies much with respect to form, growth, quality, and elasticity. Furthermore, there are such great differences in the character of ground-surfaces and in the nature of horses’ work that shoeing which is not performed with great ability and care induces disease and makes horses lame.

Horseshoeing Part 1C

Horseshoeing Part 1C

The horn capsule or hoof is nothing more than a very thick epidermis that protects the horse’s foot, just as a well fitting shoe protects the human foot. The hoof of a sound foot is so firmly united with the underlying pododerm that only an extraordinary force can separate them. The hoof is divided into three principal parts, which are solidly united in the healthy foot – namely, the wall, the sole, and the frog.

Chicken

How To Cure Chicken Roup: Then and Now

How To Cure The Common (Chicken) Cold

Work Horse Handbook

Grooming Work Horses

The serviceability of the work horse may be increased or decreased according to the care which is bestowed upon him. If he is groomed in a perfunctory fashion his efficiency as an animal motor is lessened. On the other hand, if he is well groomed he is snappier and fresher in appearance and is constantly up on the bit.

Livestock Guardians

Introducing Your Guard Dog To New Livestock And Other Dogs

When you introduce new animals to an established herd or flock, you should observe your dog’s reactions and behavior for a few days. Since he will be curious anyway, it is a good idea to introduce him to the new animals while he is leashed or to place the new animals in a nearby area.

Calves that Don't Breathe at Birth

Calves that Don’t Breathe at Birth

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Heart rate is one way to tell if the calf is in respiratory distress, since it drops as the body is deprived of oxygen. Normal heart rate in a newborn calf is 100 to 120 beats per minute. Place your hand over the lower left side of the ribcage, just behind and above the elbow of his front leg. If heart rate has dropped as low as 40, the calf ’s condition is critical; he needs to start breathing immediately.

The Anatomy of Thrift: Harvest Day

On the Anatomy of Thrift Part 2: Harvest Day

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals. Harvest Day is the second in the series, which explores the ‘cheer’ that is prepared on the day of slaughter, and dives deep into the philosophy and psychology of our relationship to animals.

Harnessing the Future

Harnessing the Future

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En route to a remote pasture where the Belgian draft horses, Prince and Tom, are grazing, we survey the vast green landscape, a fine mist hovering in distant low lying areas. We are enveloped in a profusion of sweet, earthy balance. Interns and other workers start their chores; one pauses to check his smart phone. Scattered about are many animal-powered rustic implements. This rich and agriculturally diverse, peaceful place is steeped in contrasts: modern and ancient.

Sheep A Logical Choice

Sheep: A Logical Choice

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Sheep have numerous uses on a smallholding. They are excellent grazers and are ideal at revitalizing old pastures as well as an excellent follower of the cows in a rotational grazing system. Cropping the grass at 2-3 inches that the cows have left at 8 inches encourages new growth in the spring. Their manure is usually in pellet form and is spread throughout a pasture as they graze. A sheep shares a ton a year of fertilizer with the earth.

Horseshoeing Part 1B

Horseshoeing Part 1B

Since the horse is useful to man only by reason of his movements, his foot deserves the most careful attention. The horse-shoer should be familiar with all its parts. Fig. 3 shows the osseous framework of the foot, consisting of the lower end of the cannon bone, the long pastern, the two sesamoid bones, the short pastern, and the pedal bone.

The Mule Part 1

The Mule – Part 1

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There is no more useful or willing animal than the Mule. And perhaps there is no other animal so much abused, or so little cared for. Popular opinion of his nature has not been favorable; and he has had to plod and work through life against the prejudices of the ignorant. Still, he has been the great friend of man, in war and in peace serving him well and faithfully. If he could tell man what he most needed it would be kind treatment.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT