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Book Review – ‘The New Wild’ by Fred Pearce

I loved this book. It challenged my preconceptions about ecosystems, the balance of nature, invasive species, biodiversity …

Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, himalayan balsam, rhododendrons in the UK, kudzu in the USA: these are the enemy, right? Well, this book gives a new perspective on them all.

Alien species reduce biodiversity, right? They are bullies that elbow out native species and take over the prime spots? Well maybe not. In fact, Fred Pearce makes a strong case that japanese knotweed, water hyacinth, zebra mussels and other invaders clean up polluted sites.

Large parts of the rainforests of Amazonia, central Africa and Borneo were undisturbed by humans until the loggers and developers moved in, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, right? Maybe not. In fact the author gives evidence that there is no such thing as pristine rainforest.

Brownfield sites are ecological deserts, right? The author makes the case that they often host more species than areas we try to preserve.

From the final paragraph of the book:

” The old wild is dead. But the new wild is flourishing, and will do better if we allow it to have its head. It is there in hybridizing rhododendrons, in rare bees and spiders appearing amid the badlands of the Thames Estuary; on Ascension Island’s Green Mountain; in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone; across the bushlands of central Africa and the regrowing rainforests of Borneo …. Nature never goes back; it always moves on. Alien species, the vagabonds, are the pioneers and colonists in this constant renewal. Their invasions will not always be convenient for us, but nature will rewild in its own way.”

 

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No-dig raised bed

Made in an afternoon: a new raised bed using the no-dig method.

Partner Nigel made the timber frame and laid it on the lawn. I sorted out some cardboard that the tools had arrived in and laid it inside the rectangle, covering the grass. Then with the  Libra Shovel and Perseus Rake, I sorted out the compost and filled up the new bed. Now we will wait until the compost settles.

The lawn underneath will die and we haven’t disturbed the soil. No worms were harmed in the making of this raised bed (although I disturbed a wasp’s nest in the compost heap).

For more about no-dig, visit https://www.charlesdowding.co.uk

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Lack of slug damage – the evidence

Slugs used to devastate pretty well all of the young plants in our garden. Since we have used the bronze tools we don’t worry about them any more.

Here is some spinach I transplanted early last week, in a space between the overwintered onions. No protection – no damage.

Exhibit ‘b’. Bedding plants in the front garden. Plugs of lobelia and ageratum from a supermarket, planted out ten days ago. One of the lobelia was a bit withered – and was shredded by the slugs. The others are as you see them here.

Exhibit ‘c’. Partner Nigel scattered some seeds in the floor of the greenhouse, and they turned out to be lettuce. Untouched by slugs, as you can see.

However, some plants still get stripped. The slugs took a dislike to a perennial lobelia I planted in the front garden. So I won’t plant it again.

More about the slug and snail effect here.

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Book review – The Hidden Life of Trees

This book is enchanting and subversive. It is a sociology of trees. The author takes it for granted that the trees have feelings. He shows how they express pain or thirst. He shows how they communicate and care for each other, and look after their young. He also shows how they learn from experience.

The book is subversive because it shows how the trees form a sentient, coherent community, just as humans or a herd of elephants would do. Without specifically naming it, the author asks us to have respect for this community.

However, there are clear differences between a forest and a herd of elephants. Obviously, the trees are rooted to the ground. Their movement is by species, at the rate of a mile or so a year. This means the trees develop different strategies from animals when protecting the rising generation from predators. He tells how the beech and oak trees agree among each other when to produce the next generation – about once every five years. These years are known as mast years (after the beech fruit, the mast). The animals that feed on the masts and acorns can’t rely on a regular supply each year. In the glut of a mast year, some of the young trees get through.

The main difference from us humans is speed. Trees do everything more slowly than us. The author quotes a researcher who measured the speed of electrical transmission through a tree – about an inch in three minutes. That means a foot or so in an hour. It means the crown is in a different timezone from the roots. They plan next year’s buds now, a year in advance. We have difficulty enough registering an elephant’s vocalisations, which are outside our range of hearing. A tree’s will be much slower than that, requiring even greater effort on our part.

A final satisfaction in this book is that the author is poacher turned gamekeeper. He trained as a forester, which meant seeing trees as commodities: lumber to be felled. He takes us through the transition he has made from exploiting the trees to working with them. He acknowledges and regrets his past ignorance (and the pain and damage he unwittingly caused) as he uncovers the complicated networks and clever strategies the trees use. He shows us that they are much better at managing their ecosystem for optimum conditions than any forester. He learns from them, and shows us his notes.

I loved this book. Highly recommended.

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What is a successful business?

How do you measure the success of a business? Is it the fact that it pays its way? And does that mean that if it makes more money it is more successful? These are questions I keep coming back to.

Running a business is not too different from running a household. It is an enterprise, with incomings and outgoings. With the place you live there are bills to pay: electricity, gas, rates and rent or mortgage payments. If you are able to pay the bills, does that mean the household is a success? Sure, if you don’t keep up with the bills there will be problems. Is it even more of a success if I add extra rooms? For me, these are not valid measures. For me, the success of the place I live is that it is my home.

If a tap leaks, why do I want to fix it? If I am a property speculator it may be to protect my investment. However, in my case I do it because I want the settlement of knowing the house is sound. The house looks after me and I look after it.

In the same way, a business has to pay its bills, and it has to make a profit in order to do so. But if that is its primary purpose then it is not very attractive. There was a local plumber who was like that. He had apparently been told that plumbing was a good way to make money. I haven’t seen him around here recently. A good plumber understands water. The plumber we use (when we can book him – he is ever so busy) has a respect for water and the way it flows. In his spare time he goes fishing – he can’t keep away from water. He is a lovely man.

So, how do you measure the success of a business?

Looking at the businesses I deal with, the ones I enjoy mixing with the most are where its people are proud of what they do. They know they are making a contribution. They have a service they can offer, and the business is their way of doing so. It seems to be a human characteristic that we want to feel useful.

All this does not mean that the business doesn’t grow. However, just as there was a reason for launching the business in the first place, there has to a reason for the growth. Has the volume of work increased to the point where we have outgrown our premises? Are there new products that we want to add to our range? Are there new ideas we want to explore? Personally, I hate going into debt, so I try to fund any expansion out of profits. Growth itself is neither good nor bad. Sometimes it’s needed and sometimes it isn’t. It is the pursuit of growth for its own sake that for me is an issue.

The reason I am writing this is because I regularly receive offers of business loans and other incentives to grow and expand our business. The people calling me seem to assume that all businesses want to get bigger, and all that is holding them back is lack of funds. I often feel that the people who call with these offers inhabit a different universe from the one I live in, so I tried to understand their point of view.

This ‘go-for-growth’ way of thinking permeates our world, from individual to national level. Companies will consider making redundancies in departments or sectors that are not profitable. Surely, then, making more money equals success? Otherwise you may lose your job.

The government measures the success of the economy by how much more money it turned over this year compared to last year. When large businesses, or countries, make less money than previously they are deemed to be in trouble.

It is a fact that when China’s growth rate drops by one or two percent, there will be repercussions worldwide. Some people will lose their jobs and have difficulty keeping going. But is the corollary equally true: that when its growth rate increases this is a mark of increasing  success?

I know people have questioned this many times before. Bhutan briefly hit the news headlines when their government decided to measure gross national happiness rather than gross national product as their criterion for success. But old habits die hard, it seems.

For me, the fact that a business (or a country) pays its way is necessary, but is a one-dimensional measure of its success. Just as paying the bills does not make a house into a home, the purpose of a business has to lie somewhere other than profitability. That calls for more sophisticated measures of success than whether it made more money this year compared to last year.

I also think that what is valid at the macro level (governments and large companies) may play out differently at the level of a small business like ours. The first dividing line seems to come when you take on employees. As a principle, we prefer to work with people, rather than employ them to work for us.

The next time someone phones or emails to offer me ways to grow our business that is what I will say to them.