Embrace the Hypocrisy

There are a lot of good stories about trees.

One well-known story about a tree is that of Adam & Eve, who ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—often said to be an apple or a pomegranate tree. Despite a clear warning against eating its fruit, it seemed like a good tree: good food, nice to look at, and of course, knowledge-increasing. Of course, the side effects turned out to be unfortunate. They fell from grace, and brought all of their descendants (i.e. us) down with them. The consequences of misguided behavior remain with us today.

Another story I happen to know: Hades, the ancient Greek god of the dead, kidnapped Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Skipping many details, I can tell you she was eventually rescued: Zeus, ruler of the gods, eventually forced Hades to return Persephone to her mother. However—and this is a big “however”—while she was with Hades, she ate the fruit from one of his pomegranate trees. This tied her to the underworld, and she was required, going forward, to spend part of every year there (during which Demeter mourned, and crops did not grow). She had, so to speak, one foot on the living earth and one in the land of the dead, even as she continued to work with her mother.

Several trees stand in a row along a harbor wall. One tree's leaves are turning.

Several trees stand in a row along a harbor wall. One’s leaves are turning.

For me, these can be useful stories to consider. As a hippie environmentalist, I often feel like I live in a dead, miserable world of empty consumption, corporate exploitation, and chronic disconnection, in bitter contrast to the world of fertile nature, nourishment, and supportive communities that I hold in my heart. I see the possibility of a beautiful way of life, and believe it to be the only viable path for humanity (if “humanity” can make that kind of decision), but I don’t see it manifest. It may exist somewhere, sometime: in a past golden age, or in a utopian future, or in some isolated mountain forest. I don’t know. It’s definitely not the way of the world I live in. For me, the ideal only exists in my heart and the hearts of others. I spend most of my time in the world of the dead.

It’s difficult to navigate the tension between the world I live in and the world I need to live in. Living in and engaging with the real world as it is in the present moment, I have a hard time not feeling like a hypocrite for holding the ideals of a life-giving, world-sustaining way of life even as I have not fully let go of everything belonging to another, contradictory way of life that leaves damage and suffering behind itself.

It’s hypocritical, and it’s hard on my heart. It’s hypocritical to visit a friend with similar views, and burn fossil fuels to get there. It’s hypocritical to criticize events in the world, and watch the media to learn about them. It’s hypocritical to talk about local food, and drink coffee. It’s hypocritical to reflect on social or environmental issues, and read about them on a smartphone. It’s hypocritical to receive support from one way of life, and then reject it and look for something else.

To be an environmentalist is to be a hypocrite. It’s impossible not to have eaten from the pomegranate, if you’re alive today. Whether we’ve received our vaccines, heated our apartments in the wintertime, or bought anything manufactured in another country—no matter what you decide or do in this moment, in some past moment (or many past moments), you did not reject the environmentally unfriendly option. In a very real, material sense, that is part of who you are now, and part of any action you take. We’re all bound to the dead world that feeds us. The flesh of the fruit you eat becomes part of your flesh, and part of yourself.

Don’t reject yourself and don’t reject the hypocrisy. Embrace the hypocrisy and the imperfection of your present action, even as you take that action. Your change—the change you want to see in the world—and the other changes we need are built on the foundation of the present. They’re built on the tension between the here-and-now and the abstract ideal.

Persephone went on to have a long, productive, and green career, despite being simultaneously bound up with death. With her mother, she continued to rebuild the earth year after year, when she was above ground. And together, they were the principle goddesses of one of the longest-lived mystery religions in recorded history, in which they assisted mortals preparing for a better future after death. Persephone’s encounter with the underworld must have been very difficult and confusing for her, and she nevertheless moved forward. Her story remained useful for thousands of years.

Confucius, another figure in another long-lived civilization, had a lot to say about the subtle tension between living in the present and moving forward to the future. Most of what he said was about stability and the status quo, but he also talked about humanity’s shared, even co-created, path forward. Humanity broadens that path—the path doesn’t broaden humanity (Analects, 15:29). What is here and now is dictated by inertia, and we can’t look to it to fix itself; however, even as we live in the here-and-now, we are preparing for what comes next, and, ideally, making room for something better than now. The path forward is nothing more or less than the next step taken.

Your next step is part of our path.

Update, 2017-03-03: this site was quietly hacked (for the lolz, according to the brief message which overwrote this particular post) in the February 2017 feeding frenzy. Oops. Interesting they chose this particular essay to write over, rather than, say, the front page, to deface. … A reminder to myself, and anyone reading, to stay on the ball.

But a Mast

“Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.” —Khalil Gibran

One of the side effects of working for yourself is that—much as a gardener’s activities are dependent on the weather and a retail shop’s activities vary by the volume of customers—sometimes your activities and focus need to change based on external circumstances. For example, if you get a lot of work at once, both from new client relationships that require attention in order to set good expectations and from valued long-term clients.

But that’s enough about work for now. I’m sure I’ll be writing much more in the near future about it. I’m just bringing it up now because this all happened in the past couple of weeks; as such, part two of What Lead Us Here is still under development.

Meanwhile, there have been other humble but positive developments in our small part of the world.

Two wheeled plastic trash cans sit on a small brick patio.

Some of the many spare bricks in the backyard have gone to construct a mini-patio to place our trash cans and make the back corner a little classier. We’ll see how the bricks look after a few months and some rainfall, but it seems stable so far.

Meanwhile, my housemates and neighbors are coming together to combine our backyards for raised beds and rain gardening. We recently removed a picket fence inconveniently splitting the sunniest part in half, and donated it to our local community garden. One of our mothers (God Bless Mothers!) is a landscaper, and she’s giving us quite a few native plants. Someone from a local Baltimore clean water organization is also coming by in a couple weeks to give us a rainwater assessment. I can’t speak for my housemates or neighbors, but I’m very hopeful that growing most of our own food next season is in the realm of possibility.

The root ball of a small cedar sits in a hole being watered.

The conifers are mostly gone—at this point there are only two left in the ground, just waiting for a new home. In the meantime we’re taking care of them. They’ve been mostly dug out so that the roots get used to being in a ball instead of having all the ground through which to spread, and we keep them watered so the root ball doesn’t dry out.

A branch of roses beside a brick wall.

It isn’t all gardening, of course. There’s been a lot of homemaking, shared cooking, and dreaming as we figure out how we all want to move forward, both in the backyard, in our new community, and in our own lives. I just have more photos of the garden than anything else. :) It’s also a little hard for me to capture in photos the ongoing development of domesticity and a nurturing, shared environment that supports everyone’s work and aspirations … unless screenshots of our long email chains or shared spreadsheets count.

“Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.” —Khalil Gibran

A white pillow on a curved couch in a bay window.

What Lead Us Here (part one)

Recently I learned a whole lot about urban soil contamination. We had our soil tested and it seems that our beautiful backyard isn’t completely safe.

A brick path extends forward. There's dirt on on it.

“See solutions, not problems.” —Bill Mollison

Recently I learned a whole lot about urban soil contamination. We had our soil tested and it seems that our beautiful backyard isn’t completely safe. When I first saw the test results, I was pretty upset and frustrated, but fortunately we gave the numbers a closer look, and I took a quiet afternoon to research and understand exactly what our soil tests tell us, and what solutions are available.

Part of a soil test report, providing measurements of nutrients and trace elements.

We had four separate sections in our backyard tested, because the previous residents had cultivated four sections very differently. It definitely showed up in the test results, but I’d like to focus on just one result today: lead. The lead measurements ranged from 59 to 111… and the report’s recommended maximum measurement for lead is 22. Definitely high.

There’s quite a lot of information out there about lead in soil, and plenty of scary consequences to high lead exposure, for adults and especially children. I dove in and started sorting through it.

Things quickly started getting muddled for me. I found unsafe levels of lead are usually discussed in terms of 400 ppm or even higher numbers (way higher than 22!), and most confusingly, I learned that “it has been considered safe to use garden produce grown in soils with total lead levels less than 300 ppm” and that “areas testing higher than 400 parts per million total lead should not be used for growing vegetables or herbs”. So why the drastic disconnect between the report and these other sources? Is our backyard safe or not?

Some bare dirt with a small pile of bricks and a few small plants.

The first thing to recognize is that a soil test is just a measurement tool. The lab we went with, at University of Massachusetts Amherst, emphasizes that their tests use a specific test method and provide certain metrics, which correlate with certain soil conditions. Other labs—and more importantly to me, other fact sheets and documents—might present information using different metrics.

So, what I was missing (and what I hope, by reading this, others might understand a little faster than I did!) is that a 22 on this test correlates with 300ppm present in the soil itself. Higher results on this test, compared to this test’s norms (such as our test results), are therefore unsafely high.

However, it’s also not a hazardous waste situation, which (at least per the EPA) would be “400 ppm by weight in play areas … and an average of 1,200 ppm in bare soil in the remainder of the yard”. What constitutes a “hazardous” level is much lower in the EU and some US states, of course, and either way, we definitely shouldn’t let kids play in our dirt, as we’re above 400ppm across the board.

Fortunately, it seems we can still grow food—although again, it’s complicated.

The risk of lead exposure comes mainly from the contaminated soil itself, not from eating plants that grow in it. In addition, the soil quality is a factor in how much lead plants take up, and good soil will minimize lead uptake. As such, according to some sources, fruiting crops with edible parts that don’t touch the dirt (like tomatoes, corn, or peas) are safe to grow and eat, especially if we manage the soil pH and add lots of compost. UMass, for example, says we have “medium” lead, and can grow some things and not others.

However, most fact sheets I read actually recommend not growing any food whatsoever when lead is above 300-400ppm, perhaps because even though it’s not the main risk factor, plants do take up some lead. I don’t get the feeling anyone really recommends growing food in contaminated soil—only that some sources are willing to discuss how to do it less dangerously. It’s also tricky because, again, different labs and organizations are coming from different places. UMass puts lead contamination and recommendations on a continuum from low to very high, while most other sources frame the issue in a one-or-the-other dichotomy.

This raises a lot of questions, and I might write about them later. But for now—another option, of course, is raised beds, which just avoid the whole problem. I suspect that’s what our solution will be, in combination with non-food native plants. By building raised beds, and making sure we get clean soil for them, we can be almost completely safe, and we can also safely grow crops like salad greens, beets, or potatoes.

Besides planning the garden with lead in mind, we’ll also be implementing other best practices, like always wearing gloves when gardening, washing vegetables thoroughly, and covering bare ground (with e.g. mulch) to keep dust from blowing around. Raised beds and remediated soil can still become contaminated through airborne pollutants, so we’ll probably get our soil and raised beds tested regularly. And perhaps we’ll plant some sunflowers and try some phytoremediation to slowly repair the soil, so if anyone lives here in 200 years, they can garden more safely. Lead apparently will stay in the ground for centuries, and I think we all should try to leave a place better than we found it, if we can.

Have you had experience with contaminated soil or do you know someone who has? I’d love to hear about it—this is all new stuff to me! UMass Amherst isn’t the only soil testing lab out there—maybe we need to get tested for lead using a test more specifically intended for lead, or maybe we also just need to get a “second opinion”—although testing can get expensive, so I’m a little hesitant about it.

I read a lot of material as I researched this, much of which is already linked to above. In addition, I’d like to give a quick link to another Baltimore gardener who blogged about soil testing, and especially a link to this fantastically thorough article. If you read anything I linked to in this post, make it that article.

Stay tuned for part two to find out if we have a zinc situation as well, and part three, to find out about the other exciting test results!