life, Plants and Herbs

Grassassination II: Revengeance.

If you go on an allergy diet, you do it by eliminating common allergens, then re-introducing them one at a time over a period of weeks. This lets you figure out exactly what you’re reacting to, and how.

If you have sensitive skin, you probably also know not to add a lot of new products to your routine all at once. You add them one at a time, with space in between, so you can see how your skin responds.

If you have environmental allergies, it’s a bit trickier. When you move to a new place, you can’t really add in new allergens one at a time — your neighbors have flowers, and grass, and trees, and there are even new microorganisms to contend with.

So, when my partner was sniffling, sneezing, and miserable, it was hard to figure out what was causing it. He’d had an allergy test years ago, but no longer had the results. With so many new trees (and far more of them), there was no way to really tell what was making him feel so bad.

“Hey,” he called out to me, “What’s ‘Alternaria’?”

Alternaria. It sounded familiar.

“It rings a bell, but I’m not sure. Why, what’s up?”

“I found my old allergy test, and I was off the charts for that.”

Huh. It certainly seemed worth looking up, so I did. Fortunately, Microscope Master had some useful inf-

Wait.

Alternaria is a large genus that belongs to phylum Ascomycota (Sac fungi). A majority of Alternaria species are saprobic, which means that they are largely involved in the decomposition of various organic matter. As such, a good majority of these species can be found in environments with organic material and water (or moisture).
involved in the decomposition of various organic matter. As such, a good majority of these species can be found in environments with organic material and water (or moisture).
decomposition of various organic matter.
decomposition

FFFFFFFFFffffffffffffffffjkglhlrughjkfhvm,nmb

Okay.

So, the same measures we were taking to help tamp down the grass allergens and get rid of the invasive plants were also creating a gigantic allergenic cesspool. I mean, I knew that there would be fungi. At least 90% of the point of smothering the lawn with a tarp was so it’d die and break down, thereby enriching the soil, and you need fungi to do that. I did not exactly count on the fact that the grass would fight back by mounting an assassination attempt of its own.

Well played, lawn.

But that’s okay. I have another weapon up my sleeve. One they’ll never see coming.

Clear sheets.

I’m very much against using plastic where it isn’t absolutely necessary. Part of the reason we initially chose to use a tarp was because we could use it for other things afterward, so it wouldn’t be single use. Fortunately, we were able to find some heavy-duty clear plastic sheeting that, while absolutely not ideal, I will use elsewhere after pressing it into service for grassassination. Glass would be better, of course, but is in no way practical. We considered layering the whole yard in paper, cardboard, and compost, but that wasn’t practical either (and a lot of soil amendments contain ingredients that aren’t sustainably harvested, like peat). Renting a sod cutter, or calling out a service to peel off the grass for us, was too expensive. We’d also probably have to replace the topsoil that’d be stripped away by the grass’ roots, which would be expensive and require many single use plastic bags.

I mean, I already feel like I’m being The Worst Druid by killing this lawn in the first place. The end result with be worth it, but the whole series of events feels very, I don’t know… Machiavellian. Still, a grass lawn represents a lot of waste (and wasted potential). I console myself with pictures of lush violets, wild ginger, and partridgeberries.

Anyhow. Clear coverings inhibit the growth of fungi by allowing more light to pass through. They still inhibit photosynthesis, to a degree, and don’t trap quite as much heat as dark-colored ones do, but they work. They just take a little longer. And so, by the time you read this, I’ll be out wielding a mallet like Mjolnir, pounding giant staples into my lawn while cursing at the sludgy, dank mass of what used to be grass.

The lawn may have won the battle, but I shall win the war.

Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Grassassination.

I’m not lawn people.

I mean, I can appreciate a carpet of grass from an aesthetic perspective, but only because I find its unnatural smoothness and homogeneity both pleasing and unsettling. If the Uncanny Valley has plants, they are all putting green grass.

When we purchased this place, we also become responsible for several thousand square feet of lawn. I should probably put lawn in scare quotes, because it’s less “lawn” than it is an amalgamation of grasses and weeds that look just enough like grass from a distance. The “Hello, fellow kids” of grass, if you will.

Grass is also a major drain on the local environment here. While its vital to areas like the African savannah, keeping it lawn-perfect requires too much water, fertilizer, pesticide, and either gas or electricity to mow. I say “too much,” because grass gives virtually nothing back when it’s confined to a postage-stamp of lawn. You can’t eat it, it’s too short to weave into anything useful, and mown grass is too tiny and insubstantial to make decent fuel. Lawns aren’t even good at feeding wildlife. If grass were allowed to go to seed, it could feed birds, but maintaining a lawn means cutting it short long it before it gets to that point. All lawns do is take, take, take. In a place where droughts are likely to become both more severe and commonplace, and habitat loss drives away native species, lawns can suck it.

A cocker spaniel puppy, sprawled on a lawn, looks up at the camera.
Shown: The only useful purpose for a lawn.

Besides, all grass lawns are are socio-economic symbols. The ability to use a property for aesthetics and leisure alone signifies a certain level of economic security, which, back in History Times, was pretty much a form of rich people gloating. Turning the land around your fancy estate into an immaculate green carpet meant that everyone could see and marvel at your fancy estate. Having a grass lawn around your house, as a concept, is pretty new.

“But j,” you might be saying, “Flowers are grown for aesthetics, too!” This is true, but not entirely. Flowers are pretty, but they also feed pollinators. Grass is wind-pollinated, so it barely even feeds bugs. Flowers are also often the precursor to edible fruit. Even roses fruit, and they’re good for you!

I have a patch of soil at my disposal, so it feels more responsible to use it for the production of either food (if not for humans, than for wildlife) or native habitat. I don’t have a homeowner’s association, so nobody can tell me what to do with the dirt and I am free to create the habitat my wretched little goblin heart desires.

I also have very specific feelings regarding the stewardship of a yard. It’s land that was taken, carved into a suburb, had all of the native flora scrubbed off of it, and made to grow a boring, repetitive lawn. It just feels more respectful to the people, plants, and animals who once called it home to turn it back into something… I don’t know. More nourishing. Less sterile. More diverse. Abundant. Comfier. Sustainable, and sustaining in turn. Even if I live here until I die, this place will outlast me. I gotta do right by it.

I’m fortunate that not everything here is grass, though. On the margins of the property, you can see where the people who lived here before made a mark. There’s a rose bush, rue, a potted sedum, crape myrtle, and azaleas. Tucked away, there are some blueberries, an apple tree, a young persimmon, and a red maple. Like islands in squares of lawn, there are two tiny, tiny Japanese maples.

All of this is to explain why most of my front yard is currently a black tarp. Even if we’d needed to have a grass lawn for some reason, the front yard is about 50% actual grass, and 50% other kinds of plants (mostly invasives) that just kind of moved in when the intense light and heat killed off patches of the grass. Doing anything useful with the grassy areas pretty much involves going scorched earth — literally.

A large black tarp, held down with rocks and a metal rake, covers a rectangular patch of grass.
This is the gardening equivalent of having a rusted-out truck up on blocks in your driveway.

I spent a lot of time researching different ways to get rid of — and subsequently replace — an entire lawn, and this is the solution that seemed to be the best for our situation. A black tarp, when placed over closely cropped grass, captures a lot of heat. This, coupled with the deprivation of moisture and sunlight, kills the plants under it. They break down over a period of weeks, and you get a nice, nutritious patch of soil for growing better plants on. Right now, the plan is to replace everything with a mixture of sun-loving local groundcovers and plants that can pull double-duty as ornamentals and sources of food — Passiflora incarnata, for example, which produces these amazingly alien-looking blooms followed by tasty fruit. I’d also like to adopt the custom of growing edible plants near front gates and fences for passers-by. Even if people don’t want them, the birds will.

The tarp thing is just one method of grass assassination (or grassassination, if you would). We’re also using the “lasagna method” in other areas, which entails mowing the grass short, covering it in layers of paper and cardboard, and smothering that in compost, mulch, and soil. The grass dies, it and the paper break down, and you’ve got the foundation for a very fancy raised bed. (So far, this method is working very well for some bee balm and elderberry plants I put down in one corner of the yard, but more on that another time.)

So, if you’ve been reading here and wondering why I haven’t been posting, it is not because I’ve been kept busy with paid writing or have abandoned society and gone on a bender in a forest. I have been battling one of my greatest foes: LAWNS.

This is for that summer you made me spend on prednisone, you little green S.O.Bs.

Link round up

Good News Round Up: 6.10.2022

Hello! I am writing this in between drying fruit and trying to explain to one of my cats that there is a very good reason why he isn’t allowed to eat the cacti, and that reason is not that I don’t want him to have any fun. This is a round up of stories and articles that I found interesting or inspiring, or just made me feel a little bit better about the state of things. I hope they can do the same for you:

A new battery design could last for an entire 100 years. Power storage has long been the bugbear of renewables. Coal and oil, unfortunately, have been mainstays for this reason — if you need more power, burn more. If you don’t, save it. While batteries and renewables have made enormous strides, these new designs could produce a battery that’s much more energy-dense than anything currently on the market.

The Chemistry of the Sun: Resolving a Decade-Long Controversy About the Composition of Our Star. Speaking of power sources — scientists have recently updated their ideas about the composition of the Sun. For a long time, ideas about the Sun’s internal structure and ideas about what the internal structure should be (based on how stars happen) have been somewhat in conflict. After all, the Sun is very hot, very far, and it’s not like we can just go grab a scoop of it to see what it’s made of. New calculations have resolved this conflict, and it turns out the Sun has a lot more oxygen, neon, and silicon than everyone figured.

Eat These Vegetables To Reduce Air Pollution Toxins in Your Body. Okay, I’m honestly very skeptical every time an article says you need some superfood in order to combat some vague notions about undefined “toxins.” These vegetables, however, have science behind them. As it turns out, apiaceous vegetables (think carrots and parsley) may provide a protective benefit against a specific toxin called acrolein, which is abundant in car exhaust, cigarette smoke, and other forms of air pollution. They can help reduce acrolein-based oxidative stress and signs of toxicity via the liver, since their phytonutrients help the body convert acrolein to a water-soluble, easily-excreted substance. Best of all, you don’t need much — based on researchers’ calculations, a cup or so a day may be enough.

Every Planet Will Be Viewable In The Night Sky At Once This Month. Well, maybe not every planet, but a whole bunch of ’em. In late June (for most of us, around the 27th), you’ll be able to see seven planets in a row with the naked eye. Nice!

“Superworms” Can Happily Eat Polystrene, Offering Help To Plastic Problem. This news isn’t super new — we’ve known for a bit that the larvae of darkling beetles can eat and process Styrofoam just fine. They have a special enzyme, courtesy of their intestinal flora, that allows them to break the stuff down and actually use it. Researchers have identified the genes that code for this enzyme, and have theorized that you could produce the enzyme itself and allow it to work on polystyrene directly, no worms needed.

(The only downside to using superworms for this is that they produce a lot of CO2 in the process. I’ve actually been refining a design that’d allow me to keep superworms in a tub under one of my plant cabinets, and use a small duct and fan to direct the CO2 into the cabinet itself to help with growth. It’s a bit of a slow process, and I’m still trying to figure out how to best dispose of the superworm waste. As far as I know, nobody’s really chemically analyzed superworm poots. If they don’t contain plastic residue, they could be composted. If they do, then disposing of the waste outdoors could introduce microplastics into the water and soil. Dilemma!)

Goodbye gasoline cars? E.U. lawmakers vote to ban new sales from 2035. Just like it says on the tin. This brings the EU a little bit its goal of cutting emissions from new passenger/light commercial vehicles by 100 percent by 2035.

Tribes Halt Major Copper Mine on Ancestral Lands in Arizona. The Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe, among others, managed to take a mining company to court and win. New technology (like the batteries mentioned above) requires minerals, but there are no reasons why those need to come from sacred ancestral ground.

This landmark decision further validates that Rosemont’s foreign owners have neither the legal right nor the valid mining claims for their proposed plan to destroy sacred sites beneath a mountain of poisonous mine waste[.] The ruling thoroughly dismantles the error-riddled process and reinforces the importance of protecting these sites and the entire region’s water supply. As decisive as this decision is, Rosemont’s foreign investors will likely continue to try and profit through environmental and cultural destruction. We must not allow this to happen.

Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr.

(Also, please recycle your electronics.)

How Building a Bee Hotel Can Help Protect Your Local Pollinators. A lot of buzz (ha) has been about protecting honeybees, but honeybees aren’t indigenous to the US. While a lot of our food supply has come to depend on trucked-in bees for pollination, that’s a whole other conversation about the problems inherent in monoculture. Unfortunately, native bees have been getting the short end of the stick for a long time. Many of them don’t live in hives and produce a ton of honey, so they’re largely ignored. Loss of habitat, pesticides, and the use of non-native plants in agriculture and landscaping have negatively impacted them. Building a bee hotel to provide a living and breeding space for these species can help.

Have a good weekend! (This is mandatory.)
j.

Link round up

Good News Round Up: 6.3.2022

Hello! I was going to make a post yesterday, but was forced to take a brief hiatus. Apparently racoons and possums can just show up and dig through people’s trash, but when I do it, it’s “trespassing” and I “need to put some pants on.” Ridiculous.

Anyhow, here is a small round up of news and articles I found interesting or inspiring, or just made me feel good:

“Great Day” For Bumblebees As Californian Court Rules That They Are Fish. Due to the oddities of legal language, California’s laws regarding the protection of threatened and endangered species don’t include insects. However, the definition of “fish” is worded in a way that could allow bumblebees to qualify, granting them legal protection.

Painting the Porch ‘Haint Blue’ Is a Great Way to Deter Wasps. Want to deter other sting-y bugs without harming bees? The answer may lie in a color called “Haint Blue.” Originally, the Gullah people used this color to deter ghosts and malevolent spirits from trying to enter the home, hence the name “haint” (“haunt”). As it turns out, it can confuse wasps too.

Scientists Discovered The World’s Largest Known Plant, And It’s Over 100 Miles Long. Seagrasses are one of those plants that can reproduce via rhizomes — by sending out specialized stems through their substrate that allow new leaves to emerge. These are all effectively clones of the parent plant. Recently, scientists discovered an absolute unit of a seagrass. While DNA testing individuals in a large deep-sea meadow, they made a surprising discovery: It was all the same plant!

Paper Constructions Confine Skeletons to Uncanny Spaces in Jason Limon’s Paintings. “The uncanny structures trap his recurring skeletal characters in cramped boxes and funhouse-esque constructions, where they attempt to disentangle themselves from their surroundings. Rendered in muted pigments, or what the artist calls “repressed tones,” the paintings utilize the anonymity and ubiquity of the bony figures to invoke emotional narratives.”

How to Paint a Dresser So You Don’t End Up With a Sticky, Streaky Finish. If you’re living a low-waste, “buy it once” lifestyle, it helps to know how to refurbish things. This guide can help you repaint furniture so it lasts.

Geologists plan to crack open ancient crystal that may contain life. This is fascinating, but I’m also pretty sure I’ve seen this horror movie.

2,100-year-old farmstead in Israel found ‘frozen in time’ after owners disappeared. Whoever lived there left in a hurry — researchers found still-intact storage jars, a weaving loom, and more!

Research Does Not Support the Adage “Boys Will Be Boys.” As it turns out, children who exhibit stereotypically gendered behavior in one category are not more likely to do so in other categories.

3 Tips To Release Stuck Emotions, From A Therapist & Trauma Specialist. I have trouble with stuck feelings converting to physical symptoms — like tightness in my upper back. If you’re like me, these tips can help release those emotions.

Rebelious Princess – Ana de Mendoza y de la Cerda, Princess of Éboli. While I was searching for medieval and Renaissance portraits to see what might have inspired the Isabellas, I came across the story of Princess Ana. She lost an eye, perhaps to a fencing accident, was widowed at a young age, had an affair with a king, entered a convent, decided it sucked, left the convent, was caught up in political intrigue, and eventually placed under house arrest — where she apologized for nothing, and, let’s be real, probably died with both middle fingers upraised. I love her.

329 years later, last Salem ‘witch’ is pardoned. A curious group of middle schoolers had taken up the cause of Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who had no descendants to clear her name. While Johnson wasn’t executed, neither was she pardoned — until now.

DC Spring Animal Sightings, Ranked From Worst to Wildest. DC might be a city, but some of the wildlife here is… well, wild. Here are the spring animal sightings, including a rabid fox with an appetite for congressmen, savage turkeys, an Assateague pony who was just being a bit of a dick, and a hungry bear in Silver Spring.

Have a good weekend!
This is an order.

Environment, life

Fines don’t matter when you’re rich.

Monetary punishments only work as a deterrent for poor people. For the wealthy, fines are just the cost of doing business.

This happens across the entire legal system, too. To someone living at or below poverty level, parking fines actually work — you think twice about parking illegally if it’s going to get you hit with a $200 fine. For someone who can afford to lose that money, the world looks different. There are no illegal spots, just spots that cost more to park in than others.

If that sounds outlandish, look at this bullshit here:

Developer In Takoma Cuts Protected Heritage Tree, Over Protests From Neighbors

The title buries the lede a bit. This wasn’t a bunch of nosy neighbors protesting the felling of a tree. This was a developer outright breaking the law in a way that impacts an entire community, and that community attempting to stop them.

A pair of very old trees, with their trunks and roots covered in moss.

Looking deeper, you can see where the parking space analogy comes into play:

“‘Get off my property, I’m going to cut this tree down,’’ Giancola recalls him saying. Neighbors told the owner that cutting the tree was illegal, Giancola says.

“He said, ‘I don’t care. Everybody does it, all developers do it. We pay the fines, nobody cares,’” Giancola says.

[…]

Eutsler says the property owner is facing as much as $72,000 in fines for cutting down three protected trees — the heritage oak, and two smaller “special trees.”

It’s the same thing. Only, instead of talking about a $200 parking space, we’re talking about a fine potentially over $72,000.

And it doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter?

“If by removing a protected heritage tree, you can add substantial square footage to a building, you’re probably able to simply recover the cost that the fine imposes,” says Eutsler.

So, in short, wealthy developers are incentivized to break the law, because doing so lets them squeeze another couple hundred square feet out of a property. That allows them to absorb the cost of the fine, and then some.

A gnarled old olive tree.

What’s even more laughable is that this is, at the moment, completely unpreventable. The channels that handle this aren’t empowered to actually stop it from happening. Forestry has to wait for the trees to be felled, and then the fines (the completely pointless fines that developers don’t care about) are levied.

The thing is, bigger fines wouldn’t even necessarily help. Making them proportional to the perpetrator’s income would, as well as keep poor families from being bankrupt by a minor infraction. The angry treehugger in me, however, wishes it was a jailable offense. If Forestry can’t order them to stop work, then they need to be stopped somehow. (I should note that I’m not in favor of the carceral state. However, in the absence of a law that would allow the forestry department to stuff perpetrators into burlap sacks, I figure you need to work with what’s available.)

This isn’t even necessarily about the trees themselves, as much as I hate seeing a 100-year-old oak fall. It could’ve been a street sign instead. It could’ve been a tree that was getting ready to fall over. It could be anything, and the fact that money allows people to break the law with impunity would still be abhorrent. Fines don’t work to deter crime except for at the poorest levels of society, but poor people aren’t the ones going around dumping hazardous materials, lying about safety, or chopping down heritage trees.

An old oak tree with twisted, spreading branches.

I could get into the urban heat island effect, the importance of old trees as micro-ecosystems unto themselves, the deleterious impact of urban deforestation, or that people of color (especially women) bear the brunt of the impact of poor conservation and climate change, but I don’t think anyone has that much time.

Just remember. Environmental destruction isn’t a faceless, unstoppable phenomenon. It’s perpetrated by people, and they have names.