Bonnie Blodgett: Stewardship starts with observation

I’m reveling not just in the glorious spring weather but also in good news about an ailing chicken.

I had been convinced it was bird flu.

What with the latest pandemic taking out birds by the tens of thousands, all of us who raise chickens that are allowed to free range are on high alert.

Wild birds are dying in larger numbers than usual this time around, and that means any bird that lives mostly outdoors is theoretically more vulnerable.

I say “theoretically” because the odds are still low that homegrown hens are going to catch and spread the disease. More likely the high death count is the result of the virus being brought into a poultry confinement.

This raises the risk, as well, of a random mutation that is infectious to humans latching onto a person who cares for the chickens.

Unfortunately for confinement operators, chickens can’t raise themselves. People must be hired to move about among the birds. These people are often undocumented immigrants who have to stay in the shadows, which raises the risk even higher that a variant that infects humans could occur without the public being made aware of it. The longer such illness goes undetected, the longer it takes to develop protections against a pandemic.

I’m referring, of course, to vaccines and other precautions.

I know that experts like our own Michael Osterholm, the University of Minnesota epidemiologist who works both for the U of M and as a consultant on bio-security for the likes of Hormel, will dismiss my concerns as overwrought.

The same was said of COVID, before it morphed into a global catastrophe.

I know garden columns are supposed to be about pretty flowers, especially at this time of year and especially in Minnesota, where at this time of year we are desperate for signs of renewal.

I am not immune to spring fever myself, as you all know.

My own garden is springing back to life in a way that every strikes me as miraculous.

Our long winters erase all memories of previous springs, at least they do mine. Each new sprig of green, whether a leaf bud opening on a maple tree or a flower on a redbud or a hosta poking up or a dandelion spreading its tentacles as if to dare me to DO something about, has the same effect on my spirits.

It’s all good, weeds or not. I’ll take it.

But no self-respecting gardening columnist who is alert to natural changes in the habitat she stewards – for gardeners are the stewards of the plot of earth they tend — can ignore influences outside their control.

Just as pesticides drift from monoculture farms to their organic neighbors and kill crops on both parcels, so does everything else we do for the purpose of controlling weeds or promoting abundance in our gardens affect plants indiscriminately.

And as more and more urban gardens are turning into tiny farms, tending not just pretty plants but edible ones and some, like mine, raising hens for the dual purpose of enjoying their eggs and replenishing the soil with their manure, we find ourselves in the same predicament as “real” farmers — not just those with whom we share a belief in “natural,” “sustainable” and “organic” methods, but also those who prefer “conventional,” “industrial,” “chemical,” “monoculture” systems.

“System” is the operative term. The two “systems” to which we attach words that are as deceiving as they are inadequate are, if nothing else for certain, emphatically mutually exclusive.

We do not play well with each other. And the impositions of the conventional farm are vastly more onerous to us than the other way around.

Take bird flu.

This evening I picked up a hen who is my oldest (and therefore dearest to me) and whose failing health I could no longer ignore. She had been listless and off her feed for more than a week and she had developed a habit of twisting her neck as if she were trying to swallow but couldn’t.

When I gently stroked her back, a rancid yellow liquid dripped from her beak. I moved my hand to her chest, which seemed to be swollen.

She was unnaturally quiet through all of this, even at the moment when the drips turned to a slow trickle and the trickle into a torrent and I was suddenly on my feet, holding her away from my body as she disgorged a pint or more of the most foul-smelling brew.

My brain went from zero to 60. Bird flu.

Google moved me off the ledge in short order. Reading up on “why chickens vomit” allayed my worst fears. What she had was not bird flu, but something called sour crop — no fun for the patient, but curable and NOT contagious.

The rest of my birds were as healthy as they looked and acted. I was not imagining that either.

My point in telling you this story is, as you may have guessed, to remind you that gardening ain’t what it used to be.

When city gardeners begin raising their own food, whether by means of chickens or plain old plants, they become aware of the difference between conventional and natural food.

It saddens me that conventional is the new normal, if not natural in the least. And that it’s been allowed to take control of our food system in the span of a few decades, beginning with two scientific inventions.

The first was a way to make explosives that was deployed post-WWII to make synthetic nitrogen.

The second was the genetic modification of plants to make them resistant to pesticides.

The pesticides themselves had been in development since well before Rachel Carson warned of their toxicity in her book “Silent Spring,” which resulted in a ban on DDT and an understanding by the chemical industry that the public must not be informed about subsequent such adverse effects in the future.

These two discoveries enabled the creation of a system that rotated corn and soy not to feed people but animals, which for the purposes of “scaling up” the food supply were removed from the land and raised in warehouses (aka confinements) that are so toxic that if the huge fans that remove the methane stopped for one minute, all the animals would die.

In other words, the food we are told is “feeding the world” (read: growing consumer markets) is not feeding people but animals. And the animals are being raised in numbers far greater than is healthy either for people or for the environment in which people and animals both live.

We are told that the solution is MORE technological innovation. We should simply eliminate meat from our diets and eat plant-based meats and/or fake meat developed in the same sort of labs that created the GMOs than got us into this mess to begin with.

But just because we’ve created a monster, the solution isn’t to create a new monster, any more than to install giant mirrors to deflect sunlight (geothermal engineering) is the best way to reduce the heat that is produced by technologies such as conventional agriculture.

The best way is to recognize that knowledge isn’t better just because it’s new, any more than people aren’t better just because they’re good at making money.

This second fallacy is, in my view, what’s behind all these false narratives.

I am certainly not advocating an end to scientific inquiry. I am merely asking that when the applications of our discoveries are doing more harm than good, we own it and consult with those who farmed so effectively that farming itself controlled population growth and kept world population in the proper scale relative to that of other species.

We are witnessing the gravest species extinctions in human history, as well as a potential end to our own species owing to the effects of climate change and habitat loss.

A little humility would be an excellent counterweight to the irrational exuberance that humans are so prone to, which so often turns into hubris and arrogance that blind us to the facts in front of our faces.

In this era those facts are that our climate is changing, that the change means unpredictable and extreme weather, accompanied in some regions by unbearable heat. Other symptoms include rising sea levels and uncontrollable fires.

These are so frequent that insurance actuaries admit they no longer know how to protect their customers against them.

All of which means that as we welcome another spring and look forward to summer, we must do so with our eyes open — all of our senses, in fact.

That we must learn to distinguish between old-fashion manure smells and the foul odors that pour out of animal confinements and are as bad for our health as they are for the animals’.

That we ponder why we can’t seem to manage the invasive weeds, and why the chemicals running off our lawns are becoming a problem for water sanitation.

We must ask ourselves what’s wrong with our bee and butterfly and songbird populations. That is a question we can’t ask until we’ve taken the time to observe our bee and butterfly and songbird populations.

It’s our responsibility in the Anthropocene Age to reacquaint ourselves with the concept of stewardship. It begins with observing. And then doing what’s right.

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