Fungal Diversity

Six years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find much fungus on our fraction of an acre. Except for the occasional puffball, not much was growing. What a difference shifting from 50 years of chemlawn to a permaculture approach has made! We’ve been composting and recycling our yard waste in place, partly inspired by the raised log beds of hugelkultur. With so much organic material decomposing, this year’s crop of fungus was the most diverse yet.

The increase in ecological diversity is visible across plants and animals as well as fungi. The secret seems to be mostly in leaving things alone and letting nature recolonize in stages. Slugs gave way to toads and earthworms in the first two years. Centipedes and doodlebugs established a presence under every brick and stone in the next two. Skunks still visit us, but now are joined by rabbits, chipmunks, moles, woodchucks, bluebirds and flocks of sparrows.

Hello Chippy

A chipmunk jumping over a small gully

Apparently my yard offers prime habitat for the common chipmunk.

Chipmunk on stone wall
A chipmunk resting above the entrance to a burrow in the rock wall.

They’ve made a home in my rock wall. Supposedly they hide their tailings by carrying the dirt away in their cheeks. I haven’t witnessed this behavior in action, but dirt piles will often appear below a hole in the wall and then vanish over a period of days.

What the trail cam lacks in sophistication and detail, it makes up for in persistence and patience.

The Great Meadow

“The many historical uses and meanings of the Meadows have left their marks on the landscape. Today, what would a representation of the Meadows look like that pays generous attention to them? What mixtures of subject matter and means would inform them? What understanding and interpretation of the Meadows’ natural and cultural histories would shape them?” –The Great Meadow, 2016

These are the questions that Anthony Lee, Claudette Lambert Peterson and I addressed in our exhibition The Great Meadow: Natural and Cultural Histories of Northampton’s Meadow at Historic Northampton.

The Great Meadow Exhibition

I wanted to look extremely closely at a landscape that has been so well documented already, using a robotic tripod to gather panoramic images of the smallest details of the ground. You see a lot of bugs and trash from an altitude of two inches, but also features that echo river bends and stone walls.

The Great Meadow Exhibition

I especially enjoyed the creative process of working as a group to understand the Meadows, with Lee’s landscapes informing my choice of subject matter and the bits of trash I found making an appearance as natural history objects in Peterson’s work. Technology is ubiquitous in the “natural” setting of the Meadows, from the bottle caps and other human castings to the cultivated corn and bits of brick.

Leaf Litter and other Works

The names the 17th century settlers gave to plots of the Meadows are evocative. Venturer’s Field was so called because a family chose to spend a winter in a cave there. Bark Wigwam referenced an existing structure, but also the presence of other inhabitants. And you can easily imagine how Hog’s Bladder got its name. There is a ball field in the Meadows to this day.

Map of Northampton Meadows 1831

In the Meadows

You will meet a lot of people if you spend six hours in the Northampton Meadows with a robotic camera rig. Dog walkers, bird watchers, cops who want to know if you saw a suspicious SUV go by, people who just want to park and smoke and be left alone. This is truly a liminal space, where many paths cross. Looking down intently, I found many of their traces as well. Here are a few early returns from the project.

Cast Aways

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m something of a hoarder, gathering bits and pieces of technology that have the potential for a second act as part of a robot. These cast aways have been coming along nicely over the last few months. I just finished a workshop for teachers where we built robots and drew all over the floor of the Media Lab at Mount Holyoke with them.

castaways

Meet the Trees

Maple Tree
This tree is too old to tap, with signs of fungus and moss covering much of the trunk. Years of soil neglect have taken their toll.

It’s been a busy 16 months. I’ve had a baby girl, taught Introduction to Robotics at Mount Holyoke College, and continued to apply permaculture techniques to our land. Christine asked me the other day why my technology blog had veered so far into gardening before going quiet. I see the garden and all the living creatures in it as being intimately connected with technology – a showcase and a test bed. To wit:

This spring I tapped the row of maple trees on our property. By some accounts Native Americans got 17% of their calories from maple sugar, and I have been wanting to try my hand at it. This year I got a jump and ordered the taps and tubes in December, so that when the temperatures started climbing above freezing by day I would be ready.

My mother recently completed her chemotherapy and had her port removed. This was on my mind as I inserted ports, aka spiles, into my maple trees and began collecting fluid. I’ve gathered about 3 gallons of sap so far. The biggest surprise is how tasty it is when it’s only been boiled down about 25%. It has all sorts of subtle flavors beyond sweet that put me in mind of birch beer.

2015-03-14 18.07.28
My test batch – a pint of sap yields a tablespoon of syrup.
2015-03-14 17.44.58
Gonna need a bigger pot

The process of tapping also forced me to look closely at my trees. Most of them are quite robust and are putting out a good amount of sap, but two had enough signs of distress that I chose to pass them by. One is just getting on in years and being taken over by moss. The other has a narrow fork that looks like it is starting to rot out. Both of these trees had their roots exposed by decades of poor soil management, and will probably have to come down in the near(ish) future. Which is a topic for my next post…

In the meantime I’ll keep the sap boiling and continue to enjoy all the health benefits of locally-sourced, sustainably produced, small batch artisanal maple water and maple syrup.

The Reach of Our Senses

The news that the Voyager Spacecraft has left the solar system and entered interstellar space fills me with happiness. Launched in 1977 – the year I was born – this little tendril of technology has extended our senses to the planets and now to the edge of our celestial neighborhood. You can actually hear a change in pitch from Voyager’s sensors as it passes the interstellar boundary. It senses, and communicates.

voyager

Continue reading The Reach of Our Senses

The Brick

Brick, American, 20th century
Brick, American, 19th century

There’s a great post on Next Nature about brick sculpture by Maarten Vanden Eynde. Bricks are one of my favorite technologies for being incredibly long lived and durable. The basic form of fired brick has hardly changed in over 6,000 years! They are living proof that technologies don’t go extinct.

The landscape where we live is littered with bricks, the residue of our recent industrial past. They erode from hillsides and stream beds like fossils. A great many were spread along the Mill River by the Flood of 1874, forming a technological smear in the landscape that will persist for millennia. Still functional, the bones of old mills make their way into my garden terraces.