Planting Rather Than Mining


In contemplative moments I like to think about all the manufactured products that could come from the soil surface rather than from deep underground.  Today I was listening to a report on NPR about flutes made of bamboo. Bamboo is a marvelous example of how plants can replace metal and plastic. Asians even make bicycles out of bamboo and use it as scaffolding in construction work.

Bamboo is very invasive and I won’t try growing it after I saw what a weed it has become around Chadds Ford, Pa. where I used to visit often. But invasiveness is an interesting subject for contemplation too. If we decided to make bicycles and structural lumber out of bamboo, it would suddenly become a major resource rather than an invasive plant, would it not?

We could easily go back to baseball bats made of ash like the major leagues still use. The metal ones that have replaced wood in softball and amateur baseball drive the ball farther and break less, but the good ones are more expensive too. One reason the major leagues stick with wood is because metal bats can rocket the ball at lethal speeds back at the pitcher. Also they can render most of the major league ball parks obsolete because with a metal bat even I could knock the ball over the fence. In some ways the case for wood vs. metal in ball bats limns the whole debate about planting vs. mining. It all comes down to money.

Henry Ford made car bodies out of plasticized soybeans. Wood-paneled station wagons were once almost common. Good artificial limbs can be made out of willow. Osage orange has more tensile strength than steel. I have catalpa fence posts that were used for forty years (20 years each by my grandfather and uncle) and are still going strong for me. A friend of mine makes flutes out of various American native woods. We can all think of many such examples.

Ironically, manufacturing literally means making by hand. Right next to our house are four cords of stove wood (see photo), enough to keep us warm for three winter months, all from one dead ash tree. I “manufactured” those cords myself at extremely low cost since I consider the labor healthful and relaxing exercise. It sounds naïve but I am convinced (argue with me) that if one tree can supply most of the heat for a home in an Ohio winter, there is, with proper planning, enough space in the world to supply a tree for every household every winter on an ongoing basis. But I am still not out of the woods. There is the metal chainsaw and the maul I needed to “manufacture” the wood heat.

The only example I know about where we are trying to supply one of our major needs by planting rather than mining is growing corn for ethanol. That is something of a disaster because all our arable farmland can’t produce but a fraction of the gas to keep all our cars running. On the other hand, I think I could easily make enough moonshine from my corn patch to supply my evening drink and my chainsaw all winter. I could distill the ethanol on the stove that is keeping the house warm. On yet another hand, a friend of mine years ago put a wood-burning methane generator on his pickup truck and just to make a point, drove all the way from Pennsylvania to New England and back on dead tree limbs he scavenged along the way.


Well comfrey is a weed, as it has a root system that’s hard to eradicate, but it’s also great in organic gardening. I bordered two sides of my garden with it. Over the years, they provide a huge amount of leaves for mulching, and they are also very beneficial to the compost.
I used Russian comfrey, an hybrid comfrey that’s been promoted by organic farmers, as the normal comfrey found in the woods is much smaller.
Bees love it too.
Just like mint, it needs to be contained. Not a big problem in a vegetable garden.

I have seen Comfrey used a weed and then chopped down so it fertilizes regrows and then is chopped again.. Better and easier than any Industrial Ag fertilizer.

I AM resolute and I AM a strong worker (beekeeper you know) but I’ll admit your post has me a bit daunted, second guessing this endeavor. However, before you responded I had bought a No. 4 bench plane and a book on how to sharpen, tune, and use it. I’m in the study and information gathering stage. Will let you know how it goes!

I have used the barnwood for other self-taught projects–a chicken coop and a goat shed (used as is with no smoothing or planing) and I’ll admit hammering nails in the stuff was a job, but those buildings aren’t going anywhere for at least another 100 years! I hear tell there is something called “square” in building and carpentry, which neither of these projects benefited from ;).

This resonates with me. Here in our community in southern Virginia we are involved in a debate over whether a corporation should be permitted to mine uranium here. We are sitting on some of the best farmland in the country, most of which isn’t being farmed (due to the demise of the tobacco crop). Instead of using the great resource we’ve been given (our farmland) to produce healthy food, the powers that be are pushing for extraction mining (of uranium, no less). It seems to me unlikely that there will be much demand for food grown in a community with an open uranium mine. Planting, rather than mining, seems the more sensible way to go here as well.

Oh Betty, unless you are a real resolute and strong worker by any definition, I worry, from your question that you are not ready for hand planing old barn boards. Some people love the beauty of weathered old barn boards just the way they are and make bookshelves out of them that way. Others will take their boards to a carpentry workshop or lumber yard that has planing services to get the boards smoothed with power planers. Handplanning wood, especially hard wood like oak, is a tough skill to learn. Gene

Invasive species are mostly an invention of Industrial Monoculture Agriculture.On a farm where there are multispecies of animals and crops there is almost always some animal or plant that can benefit from most any plant.Take Kudzo for instance it will cover everthing in its path if there is nothing to eat it but its an excellent animal forage,so take some fence panels and fence in a place in the middle of a goat pasture and plant Kudzo it’ll supply a whole lot of forage as it grows thru the panels to where the goats can reach it and I’d imagine Bambo could easily be controlled the same way so you’d have a nice stand stand of Bambo thats not going to get any bigger and some goat forage to boot.Of course this is a big minus for the Ag Chemical Companies as they don’t make much profit off my goats eating ‘their’ weeds they need to sell poisons to kill.
Like turning a bunch of White Chinese Gesse loose in a weedy (invasive or not) corn patch not very many weeds the geese won’t clean up or stomp down in a hurry plus a virtually free side dressing of organic fertilizer.What product has Industrial Ag ever come up with to turn weeds into a top rate fertilizer?

thetinfoilhatsociety December 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Gene, bamboo is only invasive when one doesn’t eat the bamboo shoots regularly. If more people ate them they wouldn’t become a problem. In Asia, there are perfectly manicured bamboo fences that protect homes from prying eyes; the shoots that spring up where they are not wanted as a fence are simply cut down and eaten.

I think perhaps that bamboo is a case of not seeing a food source for what it is, much like many other things you’ve talked about here on your blog. If bamboo didn’t require so much water I would consider growing it. Food, fence, and kindling all in one plant, you can’t go wrong with such a combination!

Great article! The reason low input practical and cheap solutions are discouraged is there is no money in it for corporations and Gov’ts.They depend on complicated solutions that require many inputs and things changing hands many times with a profit or tax at each step.Example are fence posts if I go to a building supply house and buy 25 treated fence posts there are dozens of people and companies that had a hand in producing them all paying taxes along the way and companies making a profit.On the other hand if I go out and cut 25 fence Locust posts on my land I’ll have just as good or better posts and almost no one else gets piece of the action,the little bit of fuel I burn is less than the diesel I’d burn going over the building supply place plus the limbs and extra wood off the Locust trees is some of the best firewood that can be had.Guess I’m ‘bad’ for the economy by today’s standards(LOL)

Wood QUESTION: I have some old barnwood that I want to make bookshelves from. I am not a carpenter. Can I hand plane these boards? What kind of plane should I buy? Can anyone point me to a good book or video that can help me learn the skills I need to use this wood?

Many young elms are still alive too, or those that are pruned into hedges so that branches are too small for borers, but they’re dying after a while nevertheless.
Elms are different though, as they are not killed directly by the borer, but by the disease it transports. The pruning into hedges strategy might work better for the ash tree than for elms.

kjmclark, I’ve said for two years now,(and caught hell for saying that the government was wasting millions of dollars,) that the ash borer would not kill off the ash. I use my own woods as proof. The old ashes are dead but hundreds of seedlings are springing up too little for the borer to bore and they will survive just like seedling elms are coming up to take over from the old dead elms. Gene

Good news on the ash tree front. I was talking to a PhD researcher about ash trees this summer. I live in the SE Michigan ‘nuclear destruction’ zone for ash. The ash borer pretty much wiped out ash here on its way to the rest of the country. First, there are a number of ashes that survived the onslaught, either because they were small or for some other reason. Second, the ash borer is likely to nearly wipe itself out. It’s a fairly weak flyer. Since they pretty much destroyed ashes here, there was nothing for them to live on, so any left here probably just died out. Since it’s unlikely they’ll fly back here, there’s a good chance they won’t be back any time soon.

That’s not necessarily great news for the rest of the country (let’s hope they stop the borers somehow), but it does mean that the borers might not permanently remove ash from American forests like the American elms mostly disappeared. And the trees that survived may have some genetics to help fend off the borers for the future.

MJ, I am rather conflicted by mulberry as is evident from my latest book on trees. In earlier books I supported the idea of mulberries as a way to keep birds from eating cherries. That works, but not much I have learned. There are various kinds of mulberry. The American native tree that grows in one of my woodlots is a hundred years old at least, and has not spread seedlings at all. Other mulberries, the introduced one that was used for silkworm food, spreads badly and its berries are not as tasty. It crosses with the native mulberries and the native mulberries vary among themselves and so it is hard to make generalizations. The farther south one goes, the better the quality of the native species and the blacker the berry. Mulberry groves used to be used in the south to fatten hogs. Obviously in ths situation, they were not considered invasive. What I have here in my home grove is a cross between foreign and native species, I think, and I must keep it controlled in the gardens area. Whether it would be destructive in the wild I don’t know. Probably not. Gene.

Interesting concept, of invasive vs useful. I was reading yesterday about using duckweed and invasive water hyacinth as biofuels and livestock feed. Why use corn for ethanol, when we could use hyacinth? Several states are already spending a bunch of $$$ just to get rid of it.

Just a question from one of your previous essays. Why do you pull out all your mulberry trees? I thought they were good feed for wildlife and chickens. Also, lured birds away from blueberry bushes…..have I planted a monster?

A most poignant and thoughtful post…there are 2 types of bamboo…one that clumps and one that invades…Smaller gardens can always choose the non invasive kind and you can always contain bamboo within a garden by being careful how you edge it. We might think that we can’t do without all of our mined creature comforts but we have only been living with them for a comparatively short time in the scheme of things and the industrial age was only in the late 1800’s. It won’t take long for us to relearn past skills and putting aside our need to tunnel mine and in the process undermine our precious planet for up front profit margins and little else, we really need to think about what actually is attainable and what this race for more actually means to our survival here on earth. Great post and lots to think about…might have to get thinking about how to make that car that runs on sticks! Watch for the explosion all the way from Tasmania 😉

Nice woodpile, Gene — you obviously learned your lessons from a master stacker! As one who ranches in the dry west, I am keenly aware that I cannot expand my growing operations beyond the water capacity of my land. We are lucky enough to have a ranch that was homesteaded in the days before electric or fuel-operated pumps were available, and we have multiple springs as well as a number of ponds that can supply water (gravity feed only) during our dry summers. We’re still figuring out how the old system works and trying to read the long-dead minds of former owners so we can grow things within our resource limits — a very challenging activity. After six years we have not begun to make a dent in the downed wood on the place, even though we burn and have sold firewood as well as built several new buildings with wood we cut, milled and planed ourselves. It does take a little fossil fuel for the mill and the chainsaw, plus electricity for the planer, but not nearly as much as it would if we bought it from an outside source.

I wonder how many years we have left to enjoy the ash tree, which seems to be going the way of the elm… Makes great fodder for cattle too, raw or ensilaged, like they made a few thousand years ago: Old forgotten silos were found in caves where large quantities of ash foliage (now small quantities of compost) were covered with stones and dirt, most likely to make silage for the winter.

I don’t think it will be long before planting and mining become complementary as a source of raw food production or transformation. It’s already happening for some food production, such as caves for mushroom growing, cheese making, wine aging, but with LED diodes being so cheap to manufacture and running on cheap DC current adapted to renewable energy (solar, geothermal), how long will it be before we see our first underground fields, i.e. mining for planting.

By the way, underground caves would be a great way to protect the remaining elms, ash trees, chestnut trees from the diseases and plights that ravage them, until we can figure out a way to salvage them.

Assuming cost is distributed over centuries, the only problem with underground growing is water usage, as we are already depleting this resource at unprecedented rates with ground cultivation. So I don’t see this happening before we get cheap and efficient desalination techniques, so we can use sea water to irrigate crops and produce salt and rare earth elements on the side.
On the other hand, even on the ground, corn irrigation made all the difference this year between a 30 and a 300 bushels/acre yield in many places, some farmers never even getting a 2-digit yield. Had these fields been irrigated, you would have a higher water usage, but at the same time, you would need 10 times less acreage for the same production volume, and you would get the rest of the soil to replenish itself with 9 years of combined fallow and green manure growing. You could instantly double the cultivated acreage for these growing population needs and still keep 80% of that land in fallow in green manure for 8 years. In that regard, can we still afford cultivating drylands? I know it is a thought-provoking idea, but I think that growing crops in drylands is nothing but gambling on the weather and a waste of resources (seeds, work hours, oil for planter, fertilized, etc.) as well as a factor of erosion if nothing grows. In this age where we try to make every seed count by planting it at the right depth, at the right temperature and moisture, compacting the soil around the seed for the best germination and the least amount of rot, planting in drylands seems like we are throwing away all these best practice principles, which we compensate with subsidized crop insurance that pays back 10 cents for every dollar a decent farmer contributes to it, and encourages farming practices such as drylands farming for a better payback. Don’t get me wrong, drylands farming is great for some areas, in conjunction with water conservation techniques, and no-till is one way in the right direction, but on its own, it is not sufficient to provide the quantity of water required by crops such as corn or even wheat, as attests the more than twice bigger wheat yield between mostly drylands United States and temperate/irrigated Europe.

As for safety, far from being a concern, underground caves are an advantage: In case of earthquakes, you can use all the caves around the San Andreas fault line as shelter for, say, all the Republicans in the area? If any are left. 😉

Even though Rudolf Steiner described the bee as an insect of the Sun, I am persuaded that these smart social insects will soon reengineer their 8-shaped dances to indicate directions relative to underground landmarks rather than Sun path. Of course, if they do, that would be a new dawn for bee intelligence and evolution, and humans will be doomed…

Gene, we have our wood stacked, food in the larder, and oil for the lamp. Every bit of it we learned from reading your books. When bad storms come there is no disruption in our lives. But every time we do say a blessing for the lessons you and Carol teach.

Gene, I don’t think you could be more cool! You make me think every week, which is more than I can say about TV or most newspapers.

I can thank Hurricane Sandy for next year’s supply of firewood … just one tree.

Wood heat takes a fair bit of cutting and splitting every year, then a slice of time and attention each day throughout the heating season. Even in regions where there’s plenty of wood and no restrictions on burning it, most people have not yet re-ordered their priorities and energies enough to take advantage of this local fuel source. It still seems that sports, video, Facebook and shopping take first priority outside of daily employment or school.

Meanwhile the big thinkers talk about growing megatons of warm-season grasses to haul to central power plants to burn in boilers to spin a turbine to power the grid to run things like electric heaters.

Here we live on an earth packed with bounty, yet we find ways to subvert nature. It astonishes me that we feed corn (and worse) to ruminants, creatures perfectly designed to turn grasses inedible to us into protein-rich milk and meat. It astonishes me that we subsidize extraction of oil and gas, yet put so little into wind and solar. I live in a part of Ohio that’s being invaded by frackers, the ultimate despoilers of the ground, water, and air. What I’m finding out is disheartening and yet empowering. We have work to do:

Hmm, I never knew anything about baseball bats. But I agree. I use baskets around here (usually bought in thrift stores). When they are breaking down, they go out to the yard for container gardening (same with metal containers with holes). I just finished canning my Thanksgiving decor pumpkin and now I have the material for 9 more pies, with minimal impact of the environment. A friend collects the extra pumpkins and throws them to her chickens (and neither of us wastes a scrap that chickens can eat). I wrap a lot of presents the Japanese way with a big square scarf..we have a collection in the wrap box and the kids have seen the same scarves go round for years. I try to use and reuse what’s been grown before buying a new manufactored item.

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