31 May 2010

gray shadow of infinite mystery

Anyone who has been to Northern California in July or August knows that the fog is part of the landscape. Photographers call it atmosphere, it has been a back-drop to many movies and adds a certain romance and mood. The only thing that can be seen for miles around in San Francisco would be the two lights on top of the Golden Gate Bridge. The very fog that made this particular area very dangerous for shipping a few decades ago also plays an important role in climate control. Without fog there would be no redwoods and no salmon.

This fact was reinforced when I visited the woods a few weeks ago and a park ranger was generous enough with her time to explain to me the dependence of the ecosystem on fog. To anyone who has been to Muir Woods, the thought of no redwoods would send them into a mild panic. Muir Woods is a natural haven north of Sausalito and named after Sierra Club founder and famous environmentalist - John Muir. Walking through the groves of redwoods of indescribable proportions opens your senses to the over-whelming silence and that fresh forest smell. Quiet simply beautiful.

Before I get carried away, I was talking about fog. The formation of summer fog in a rather unique phenomenon influenced by the difference in temperatures between Central Valley and the coast. There are several factors responsible for the fog every summer and now with global warming, the fog is changing as well. Fog enables all life in California acting as a natural air-conditioner.

The redwood trees in Muir Woods and elsewhere require a cloud cover in order not to become desiccated. During the summer months, the trees absorb moisture from the air in order to survive as ground water levels are too low. The trees themselves are rather inefficient reservoirs of water and because of their size lose more water than they can hold. Reduction in summer fog can dry out the forest so much that it becomes vulnerable to forest fires. Fog also influence Coho salmon spawning and the survival of amphibians like salamanders. It is also one of the essential components for wine-making in Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

Current climate predictions are not sophisticated enough to accurately say whether the rising temperatures will result in an increase or decrease of fog. We do know that fog in addition to adding a certain beauty to the coast, also acts a vital thermostat. In The Sea Wolf, native San Franciscan Jack London compared the fog to "the gray shadow of infinite mystery, brooding over the whirling speck of earth". Since the beginning of the century when London wrote that line, we know a lot about how fog behaves and what causes it. However we do not understand everything and it remains a gray shadow of infinite mystery - as perplexing now as it ever was.

Photo: Muir Woods. Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

08 May 2010

springing food

Spring has sprung and it is decidedly an excellent season for some fresh food. Spring vegetables and fruit are coming into their own now and farmers' and local markets are brimming with countless varieties of freshness. A pretty comprehensive list about what is in season can be found here and it is further broken down into region as well. Another good place to look is here which also gives you some recipes to try. My seasonal favourites include the berries, asparagus, morrells and artichokes.

Eating seasonally is a very good method to ensure nutrients in the food are at their highest. When you buy local and organic, it also drastically cuts down the 'foobon footprint'. This is a term I coined and in a previous post I write about the benefits of eating locally, organically and seasonally. So you may wonder why I'm posting something similar again.

Well, I have read a lot more, learnt a lot more and understood a lot more about the industrial food-chain to advocate a kind of eating that is most natural. There is nothing natural about strawberries in December or out-of-season asparagus flown in from Peru in October. I'm not even attacking the whole meat debate here as I am saving it for another post. The British Council started a SOUL food project in Ireland and it advocates eating the way food should be eaten. SOUL (Seasonal, Organic, Unprocessed, Local) is a concept that we have moved away from and it is now proving to have drastic consequences not only on our health but also the health of our planet.

I have spent the last couple of weekends visiting farmer's markets and talking to the farmer's themselves about the methods they use to cultivate their produce. Every farmer that I have spoken to uses a method that creates a holistic ecosystem on their land. None of these growers advocate factory farming of animals or growing fruits and vegetables out of season. They possess a deep understanding of the limits of the natural systems and also knowledge of how best to coax these systems to give them the best yield. The sense of pride that any farmer feels for his produce and farm, regardless of where they are from is a palpable energy they exude.

Most of these farms have more yield per acre than monoculture farms. In addition, they also have better soil health, animal health and use absolutely no chemicals and generate no waste. Many farms advocate an 'off-grid' method of cultivation where their produce can sustain not only the people living on the farms themselves but also the local community. This may seems like an Uthopian ideal to many city-dwellers but all agriculture started off this way before monoculture, GM crops and factory farms. All the industrialized methods of food production use pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics and an array of chemical arsenal to ward of diseases and boost health.

Health is a default state of Nature - most small organic farmers understand that when their animals exhibit poor health, then there is something wrong with the system, not the animal. The same goes for plants. By encouraging this mass industrialization of food we are compromising on at least 30 different kinds of health. We are also encouraging government subsidiaries to promote 'cheap' food and are not entirely realizing the real cost of it.

Spring is a season brimming with newness and possibilities. So start a new movement today, eat local, eat seasonal and eat organic. Head out to the nearest farmer's market, speak to the people who grow your food and learn where it comes from. Your food bills might increase a little but remember that you are paying for quality, health and well-being which is something you cannot put a price on. Also, did I mention that fresh, unprocessed, organic food tastes a whole lot better?

Photos: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

06 May 2010

eco paper

Take a moment's pause and think about the amount of paper all around you. Everything that is packaged uses some from of it. Today there are so many kinds of it with a multitude of uses. It's hard to imagine that it started off so humbly - when someone in ancient Egypt used papyrus to write upon.

The closest link to modern day paper-making is from China. In the 13th century it spread from China and entered medieval Europe where water-powered paper mills were built. This introduced the mechanization of paper-making and soon mills increased their capacities which made paper readily available. The paper business started to boom with the invention of the printing press and hasn't slackened since.

Paper was most commonly made with wood, silk and cotton pulp. Today most printing grade paper is made exclusively with wood pulp. This fact alone does not make paper unsustainable and like anything else, the sustainability 'quotient' or 'factor' has a lot to do with the whole life-cycle.However, the perceived lack of sustainability of paper has led to many innovations and some of them are very creative

My first encounter with alternate paper came from the Auroville Press in Pondicherry, India who make excellent hand-made paper with vegetable fibers and no toxic dyes. Recently I have been reading a lot about paper made from elephant dung which was a process started in Sri Lanka and India. The power of globalization is such that my first encounter with it happened to be in the UC Davis campus bookstore!

This innovative idea started in Sri Lankan elephant sanctuaries and profits from sales were pumped back into taking care of abandoned/abused elephants. Haathi Chap in India and PooPoo Paper in America use the same method to make writing paper from elephant dung. In the same store, I also encountered banana paper made from banana fibers. In the same method, paper can also be made from bamboo, hemp and other sources. Bamboo is supposedly the most sustainable source as it is a fast-growing grass.

Hand-made paper has a nice texture and feel, making it ideal for photo-albums, scrap-books, invitations, greeting cards etc. It requires very little embellishing to make it look ornate. Improvements with organic dyeing technology means that it is available in pretty much any colour. Some are even made with embedded flower petals and are scented. Think of a more sustainable alternative for your paper needs the next time. With Mother's day around the corner; perhaps a hand-made, eco-friendly paper card expresses the proper sentiment to mothers everywhere.

Photos: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

all carrots are not created equal

The great debate about organic food has been whether it has significant health benefits over conventionally grown food. (There are other great debates about organic food as well, but one at a time) In order to better answer this question, a little bit about soil biology is essential.

My first encounter with serious biology was as a microbiologist , this has instilled in me a great respect for soil and the myriad creatures that work to create it. Healthy soil is an ecosphere in its own right containing various species of bacteria, fungi, worms, insects and other critters which we do not fully appreciate. It smells wonderful, is rich, loamy and contains high levels of organic compounds, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). It has the capacity to hold water in suspension and regenerate itself season after season if managed properly.

Traveling back to the 1940s - the English agronomist Albert Howard's groundbreaking study 'An Agricultural Testament' made its appearance with strong claims that synthetic fertilizer with artificially produced NPK will deplete soil fertility in the long run. This was a man who understood soil biology profoundly and has often been quoted since in other organic literature such as Wendell Berry and Rodale. These lions of the organic food movement understood way back then that the health of soil is intricately connected with human, animal and environmental health.

Fast forward today - agriculture is heavily industrialized with a lack of understanding or respect to the limits of the natural world. In a well-managed farm, there should be no need for fertilizer or pesticides with wastes being recycled and each system nourishing the other in a continuous loop. Today even organic farms have given in to intensive agriculture, demanding supply chains and the term itself can be often misleading. More about this later.

Coming back to the question of whether organic food is healthier for you: the answer is, yes. This was confirmed in 2003 by a study in UC Davis where varieties of corn, berries were grown in neighbouring plots using different methods. They were then compared for vitamins and polyphenols. The scientists found that sustainably cultivated crops had higher levels of these nutrients. Why are polyphenols important? These are secondary metabolites manufactured by plants, in other words, they are antioxidants and we all know why these are important. The reason why organic foods contain more polyphenols is this: these compounds are released by plant to ward off pests, diseases and insects - when ingested by humans, they continue to act in much the same way. These products then are results of natural selection and the coevolutionary relationship between plants and humans.

In our modern system of agriculture we fail to respect this. Plants grown with fertilizer/pesticide intensive methods fail to produce high levels of polyphenols because they simply do not need to and also because soil fertility inspite of chemicals is less than optimal. Rich, healthy, naturally managed soil adds a subset of polyphenols called flavonols which impart characteristic taste of a fruit or vegetable.

All carrots are therefore not created equal - the way we grow it, the quality of soil, what we feed that soil all contribute towards the qualities of a carrot.

The title of this post and a lot of its material is adapted from 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' - Michael Pollan. To anyone who has not read this book, it comes highly recommended.
Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

first encounter with a living roof

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

A few weeks ago, I spent a day at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. With little planning, it turned out to be a pretty green day. I took the public transport and ate organic food at their cafe as well as spent a lot of time appreciating science and the natural world in general.

The academy is big on sustainability and the first impression of this is when you walk in to be greeted with a revamped building with lots of natural light and clean lines. The second is found on the back of their maps: "printed on 100% recycled post-consumer paper "and "please return after use to help the museum save resources". The many other signs include the climate change exhibit, the organic food served in their cafe, eco-friendly items in the gift shop, including organic cotton T-shirts, solar panels on the roof, water-saving toilets and their carefully chosen exhibits. Best of all was the 2.5 acre living green roof - I have previously blogged about green roofs but that was well before I saw one of this proportion. It was covered in little hills of native Californian wildflowers which are endangered, supported bees, butterflies and birds as well as a massive installation of solar panels. It was a treat for sore eyes and it made me hopeful again about the possibilities of technology. More information about the green roof can be found here.

The academy is housed in the largest LEED Platinum-rated public building and it is the greenest museum in the world. The innovative use of materials and energy efficiency have made it a model for green buildings.

The other thing that blew my mind was the planetarium. The Morrison planetarium is the biggest all-digital dome in the world with a 75-foot projection screen tilted at a 30 degree angle. The kind of imagery it produces gives you the feeling that you are flying in space especially because everything is happening above your head. To celebrate Earth Day they were show-casing 'Fragile Planet' narrated by Sigourney Weaver - truly goose-bump inducing stuff, stressing the importance of protecting the only home we know.

For anyone living in the Bay Area or visiting, the Academy is a must-see and provides an enjoyable day out for everyone in the family.