A Chicken Named Dog

Adventures with a Flock Family

Stanley is Content

My Instagram Post 30 January 2018

After a hardy meal of grains, it’s time to sit back, relax, and chew your cud. That’s Stanley’s moto.
#chubbygoatie #momentsofgoats #goatlife #zen


Garlic bread

Hugelkultur In Raised Garden Beds And The Miracle of Harvesting Nitrogen Out of Thin Air

I will admit to using hugelkultur long before it became popular, and it was really a result of finding the purchase of “dirt” prohibitively expensive when building raised beds. I also found that when I bought “dirt,” it just crusted up and formed a sort of caliche crust on everything, making it difficult to dig. Just this past weekend I bought a small bag of dirt for $2.73 at Menards, and it didn’t even form a one-inch layer on my smallest garden beds. I used that dirt, on a smaller scale, to see if it would be more cost effective to set up a garden bed for planting strawberries with purchased ingredients versus using layer bedding (a.k.a. chicken poop straw) in small raised beds. Cost-effective to buy dirt? No, not for me, and I can also make it much more easily than I can carry it, but hugelkultur, or mounding up a pile of logs with compostable and dirt-making materials has been apparently been a garden method used before.

Example of hugelkultur

Turns out that hugelkultur has a long culture of use in Europe, according to Permaculture.org:

Used for centuries in Eastern Europe and Germany,hugelkultur (in German hugelkultur translates roughly as “mound culture”) is a gardening and farming technique whereby woody debris (fallen branches and/or logs) are used as a resource.

Often employed in permaculture systems, hugelkultur allows gardeners and farmers to mimic the nutrient cycling found in a natural woodland to realize several benefits. Woody debris (and other detritus) that falls to the forest floor can readily become sponge like, soaking up rainfall and releasing it slowly into the surrounding soil, thus making this moisture available to nearby plants.

For myself, my general dilemma is that I have a large garden space I want to prepare and no good means or money to buy dirt that I can haul in large quantities. Who has the trucks? The arm power? The patience? It’s much simpler to put cardboard in the base of my garden bed and fill it in with sticks I am trying to clean up, or fallen logs, branches, whatever I want cleared out of the path, then layer poopy straw, wood chips used as chicken bedding and kitchen veggies on top and put more straw or leaves on that.  My garden beds are large compost piles, essentially, with layers of wood at the bottom to hold moisture, layers of compost on top to provide nutrients, and presto-change-o-alakazoo, dirt is formed!

There is a book on this kind of sort of (and I use this term in the loosest way possible) “method,” called Lasagna Gardening,by Patricia Lanza, that I read years ago. The book advocates a specific layering pattern. You can read more about it here. I am not that precise.

I am rather averse to “precise” methods, and I don’t use peat moss as Patricia Lanza recommends in Lasagna Gardening and as is recommended by the other raised bed method of Square Foot Gardening because I have no desire to decimate someone else’s yard/ peat bog and emit a ton of CO2 into the environment in order to build my garden bed. The use of peat is not environmentally sustainable. And besides, I would have to pay for peat moss, which again raises that pesky barrier of getting enough material to fill multiple 4 foot by 12 foot by 2 feet garden beds, multiple, as in 5 and growing, not to mention an acre of other plantable land.

My “method” is born of a layering method that involves using all the organic matter I can to fill a garden bed and then I wait to see if it gets hot, if there is heat coming off the compost inside. If it’s not hot, releasing heat from the composting, then I go by smell. If it smells like rotting veggies, then I add a carbon source, usually straw. If it  smells like mold and is cold, I add a nitrogen source, like veggie scraps from my kitchen sink pile.  When a compost pile is actively breaking down nutrients, the microbes that digest the organic matter release heat, and this creates a sweet earthy smell. This heat is useful for killing off weed seeds and any possible harmful bacteria.  I like to stir up the uppermost layers of compost and then feel for heat in a day or two. Ideally, the raised bed stays warm for a few weeks, as I keep turning and mixing the top layers together. There will be mold in the pile, and some veggies that rot, but a well-balanced compost pile shouldn’t have any kind of bad odor.

As the compost rots, it builds great garden dirt. I tweak the mix depending on what I am growing, after the compost pile has been “hot” for a couple of weeks.  If I am growing a fruiting plant, I add a bit of calcium, in the form of oyster shells, or bone meal, because the calcium is important for setting the sweetest fruit, and I know that my particular mix has a lot of wood chips in it, making it more acidic, and the calcium source also helps balance the acidity from the pine chips. .

I sometimes “prepare” the bed by planting beans or peas in it before other crops to make sure that there is a usable source of nitrogen in the soil. Generally, I plant peas instead of beans because our spring is often cold and the peas are in preparation for tomatoes. Beans and legumes take nitrogen from the air and store it in root structures, which then break down and make nitrogen from the air available in the soil for roots of other plants. Plus, I like to eat peas.

How cool is it that nitrogen can be harvested from the air and deposited in the soil? I think it’s the equivalent of  a miracle, free fertilizer sucked right out of thin air? How does it work?  The Earth’s atmosphere (layers of “air”/gases surrounding the Earth) contains N2, or Nitrogen gas, and legumes (plants in the bean family) have the ability to convert this nitrogen gas into nitrogen for a plant.

Layers of Earth Atmosphere

Sounds like magic, but look at the picture above, the atmosphere level contains nitrogen that is captured by legumes and stored in these little nodules pictured below. This is a root system that has lumpy nitrogen nodules attached.

Nitrogen fixing nodules

New Mexico State University provided the nodule photographs, and this handy explanation of exactly how this process works:

Legume nitrogen fixation starts with the formation of a nodule (Figure 1). The rhizobia bacteria in the soil invade the root and multiply within its cortex cells. The plant supplies all the necessary nutrients and energy for the bacteria. Within a week after infection, small nodules are visible with the naked eye (Figure 1). In the field, small nodules can be seen 2–3 weeks after planting, depending on legume species and germination conditions. When nodules are young and not yet fixing nitrogen, they are usually white or gray inside. As nodules grow in size, they gradually turn pink or reddish in color, indicating nitrogen fixation has started (Figure 2). The pink or red color is caused by leghemoglobin (similar to hemoglobin in blood) that controls oxygen flow to the bacteria (Figure 2).

Healthy nodules have red centers

Ack, I am boring even myself with that description, even with the big pictures. Suffice to say that a type of bacteria on a legume root system helps the plant store nitrogen from the atmosphere in nodules at its roots so that the plant needs no nitrogen fertilizer. Making fertilizer out of thin air with no application needed. I will use that kind every time.

Cowpeas, soybeans, and fava beans, according to research, Walley et al., 1996; Cash et al., 1981, apparently fix the most nitrogen of any bean type, about 250 pounds per acre. Consider how much it costs to apply 250 pounds of fertilizer, at a rate of $10 for a 20 pound bag, and planting peas will net you $125 worth of fertilizer from the air. Combine that with savings “making” your own dirt, and building a raised bed using hugelkultur, compost, and nitrogen-fixing plants, and it really doesn’t get more cost-effective to garden. There is also no better man-made fertilizer around. Nature does these things best, and often most efficiently. If I want added fertilizer, I simply put worms in my compost pile, and I wait for them to make fertilizer. Notice how I let Mother Nature do the work, and that greatly reduces my work load.

Using compost and the hugelkultur method also helps a garden bed retain water. When a garden bed is filled with straight dirt, even finely sifted dirt, it drains water too quickly and compacts rapidly. Drains water quickly as in requiring watering every day. Personally, I have too many gardens to worry about watering every single day in a heat spell. I would lose too many plants if the gardens required watering everyday.

One might say that hugelkultur, composting, lasagna gardening, worms making fertilizer, and nitrogen-harvesting crops are all signs of profound laziness on my part, an apparent character flaw that attests to the fact that I don’t like garden work quite as much as I profess. I will say this: I love garden work, but it’s the simple economics of time management. I can’t manage all my plants and all my animals, and all the purchases, if the process is too fussy or expensive, let alone keep up with the watering in our increasingly variable summers. Usually when it’s 90 degrees F, with lots of humidity, I am worried about keeping my birds cool, setting out ice for our old roo, and I always put the animals first. I can’t water every garden bed and plant everyday, so while some might call it laziness, I call it sheer survival. Happily enough, it works, regardless of the perceived motivation. Hugelkultur, nitrogen-fixing, compost, and gardening–try it– just don’t pay for dirt, because it’s not really cheap at all, no matter the old saying.

Cinder Block Gardening: Safe For Food or Contaminated With Coal Ash?

I am always looking for new gardening beds, ways to construct raise beds, and since my grandmother has recently stated that she needs raised beds, I became interested in building raised beds out of cinder block. I saw some beautiful examples of raised cinder block beds on Pinterest and other sites.

cinder block raised garden bed

Here is another example of  a raised cinder block bed that I think it beautiful.

Raised beds at San Diego National Convention Garden Tour 2004

The problem with these beds is that I don’t know if the building material is safe for growing food. It’s obvious that people do grow garden foods in raised cinder block beds, but what is in the cinder blocks? The ornamental garden shown above has treated timbers as its base, and I wouldn’t want to grow in that. I do have some branches from fallen trees, so I was thinking maybe I could use those to build cinder block beds, but then I saw a post about how cinder blocks may be contaminated with “cinder ash,” a by-product of the coal industry. That’s not what I want to grow food in.

I am offering a warning of the possibility of poisons in this product and stressing that I would never grow my food in it. The product Fly Ash is used as a Portland Cement replacement for up to 30% of the cement used to manufacture these products. For those of you unaware, Fly Ash is a by product of burning coal. The EPA is and has for the last year been doing a study to decide whether or not to label Fly Ash as a Hazardous Waste due to the high levels of mercury, arsenic, and lead; leaving some “Industry Folk” to refer to concrete as the “New Asbestos” or the “New Lead Paint”. Though there is no definite date set for a decision the ball has started rolling.

That was a Facebook post, and since I generally don’t believe anything I read on Facebook, I thought I would check into the ways in which concrete or “cinder blocks” are made. Are they really made with cinders from burning coal?

Someone’s blog post, with unnamed sources, says that cinder blocks are made with coal ash:

Hazardous waste.  Yes, there are small amounts of heavy metals in concrete products.  Typically the main composition of Class C fly ash contains 3.5 to 40% calcium oxide, 0.5 to 40% aluminum oxide, and 2.5 to 25% Magnesium oxide.  However smaller percentages of strontium, chromium, nickel, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other heavy metals are also present which cause it to be classified as hazardous waste by the EPA.

The spherical particle size of coal fly ash varies from 5-120 microns which is similar to that of silty sand to silty clay.  The good news is that this material is bonded, insoluble, and immobile in concrete.  However if the concrete or blocks are pulverized in destruction or become soluble with acids, the surface area exposed is greatly increased and the heavy metals may become mobile.  Example: You would not want to use pulverized concrete to “lime” a garden where it could be acted upon by microbes and organic acids.

Since soil decomposes plant materials that become acidic, any decomposition process could, ostensibly leach if exposed to acids.

I did a quick Wikipedia search on cinder blocks and fount that their source for defining cinder blocks came from the dictionary, not necessarily proof that cement blocks are cinder blocks:

Those that use cinders (fly ash or bottom ash) are called cinder blocks in Canada, the US and New Zealand, breeze blocks (breeze is a synonym of ash)[1] in the UK and New Zealand, and hollow blocksin the Philippines.

Apparently it’s all in the name. Are the blocks used in the raised beds made of concrete or cinder? Now, I don’t know which is which. How to tell?  Menards lists the blocks that I had thought of as cinder blocks as concrete blocks. Maybe cinder blocks were made of ash residue, but cement blocks are made of cement aggregate?

Menards’ website says that the blocks I have always called “cinder blocks” are actually concrete blocks, not made of cinders:

  • Standard gray color
  • Made of strong and durable concrete
  • Made in the USA
  • Exceeds ASTM C-90 certified for strength and absorption

Mendards also says they are made by Midwest Manufacturing. I looked up Midwest Manufacturing, but I didn’t see any mention on their website of the way they manufactured cement blocks, nor their chemical composition. Then, I looked up another website, for a report from the coal mining industry that was published in 2014:

“The regulatory uncertainty that has impeded the beneficial use of coal ash for half a decade has finally come to an end,” affirms ACAA Executive Director Thomas Adams. “EPA’s decision to regulate coal ash as a ‘nonhazardous’ material puts science ahead of politics and clears the way for beneficial use of ash to begin growing again— thereby keeping ash out of landfills and disposal ponds in the first place.”

Such use has trended negatively against historical patterns since the agency initiated CCR management and disposal rulemaking in June 2009. The proposed rule offered two CCR classification options under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act: Subtitle D, tasking states with significant coal ash handling, storage and disposal oversight; and, Subtitle C, inviting “hazardous waste” labeling of landfill-bound ash and federal scrutiny of material management and disposal. The latter option sparked concern among cement and concrete interests over the stigma fly ash would carry as a material with essentially the same chemical properties as one EPA labeled hazardous. ACAA and allied groups endorsed aspects of the Subtitle D option, the course EPA ultimately chose.

According to ACAA’s most recent “Production and Use Survey,” released two days before the EPA final CCR rule, coal ash utilization hovered below 2008 levels for the fifth consecutive year in 2013. If the past five years had simply remained equal with 2008’s utilization, the association estimates, 26.4 million tons less coal ash would have been disposed.

“As an organization devoted to using coal ash in environmentally responsible and technically sound ways, we look forward to finally being able to focus all of our attention back on growing these uses,” Adams affirms. Coal ash has never qualified as a “hazardous waste” based on its toxicity, he adds, as its trace levels of metals are comparable to those materials it replaces in common recycling applications.

None of this tells me anything other than the fact that the EPA didn’t register fly ash as a carcinogen, which means nothing to me, as I don’t believe the EPA defines anything as a carcinogen. The EPA seems to live in a constant state of denial at odds with the rest of the world; however, when there is a market for an industrial waste product, the EPA seems quick to determine that waste product non-hazardous. In the lead-up to the 2014 decision from the American Coal Ash Association, the complaint was that there was a lot of ash left over from producing coal that the Coal Ash industry didn’t know what to do with and then wanted to “recycle” by means of selling it to concrete manufacturers. When the EPA found that the American Coal Ash Association wanted to sell the coal ash, it determined that coal ash was safe to “recycle” by selling it to concrete manufacturers. Notice that there is no information about how coal ash was determined safe for humans. The history of the 2014 decision was outlined in this article published in 2009, which outlines the coal waste product and then the EPA’s recognition that it was safe (with unpublished methods) after a market was created for the coal ash waste product:

According to ACAA’s “Production and Use Survey,” 51.4 million tons of coal combustion products (CCP) were beneficially used in 2013 —down from 51.9 million tons in 2012 and well below the 2008 peak of 60.6 million tons. In the closely watched category of fly ash consumed in concrete mixes, utilization increased only slightly to 12.3 million tons, up by 577,705 tons over 2012, but still below 12.6 million tons in 2008.

The decline occurred as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed coal ash management regulations that could have designated the material as “hazardous waste” when disposed. A final rule issued in late December averts that label and acknowledges the large volume of recycling embodied in ASTM C618-grade fly ash marketing and related concrete specifications.

Prior to the final rule, ACAA observed growing numbers of ash producers, specifiers and customers restricting coal ash use in light of the regulatory uncertainty and publicity surrounding EPA rulemaking activities. “Regulatory certainty is imperative if we are to increase volumes of coal ash that are beneficially used rather than disposed,” Executive Director Thomas Adams noted upon release of the 2013 Production and Use Survey results. “People don’t just wake up one day and decide to recycle more. It takes planning and investment that are difficult to justify in an environment of regulatory uncertainty and misleading publicity about the safety of coal ash.”

The decline in 2009-13 recycling volumes stands in stark contrast to the previous decade’s trend, he adds: “In 2000, when the recycling volume was 32.1 million tons, the EPA issued its Final Regulatory Determination that regulation of ash as a ‘hazardous waste’ was not warranted. Over the next eight years, EPA also began actively promoting the beneficial use of coal ash and the recycling volume soared to 60.6 million tons.

Strangely enough, and aren’t all things with the EPA strange, the EPA began “actively promoting the beneficial use of coal ash” after the market for its purchase was created. The big question for me is: is there cinder ash or coal mining residue in the blocks I want to buy at Menards to build a raised garden bed?

I am reminded of a section of a book I just bought and read about the science of soil acidity, in The Garden Explored (2013) by Mia Amato , and the woman writes in chapter 3 that her family had a Douglas fir at Christmas that they planted, and it languished near the garage until her father repaired the garage with a mix of lime and cement, upon which followed rains and a leaching of chemical components into the soil that made the tree shoot up in height over that summer. This was an encouraging story until I realized that concrete leached something into the soil, and then if that concrete is contaminated with coal ash residue, it doesn’t seem safe to eat.

My sister just suffered through the removal of all the large trees in her yard in her Midland house when Dow chemical announced that the soil in her neighborhood was contaminated with dioxin and that trees in her yard were also contaminated. Dow wouldn’t have cleaned it up but for regulatory forcing, and Dow removed all the plants, soil, and trees that were contaminated from contaminated soil. Isn’t that what had happened to the woman in the story about the family Christmas tree next to the garage?

I looked up the following table on Wikipedia under the search term “concrete” to find the following handy table:

Property Portland
(ASTM C618 Class F)
Fly Ash
(ASTM C618 Class C)
Fly Ash
SiO2 content (%) 21.9 52 35 35 85–97
Al2O3 content (%) 6.9 23 18 12
Fe2O3 content (%) 3 11 6 1
CaO content (%) 63 5 21 40 < 1
MgO content (%) 2.5
SO3 content (%) 1.7
Specific surfaceb
370 420 420 400 15,000–
Specific gravity 3.15 2.38 2.65 2.94 2.22
General use
in concrete
aValues shown are approximate: those of a specific material may vary.
bSpecific surface measurements for silica fume by nitrogen adsorption (BET) method,
others by air permeability method (Blaine).

Fly ash is the coal ash waste product. So, it’s not as simple as a nomenclature to determine if the blocks are cinder or cement, because cement often includes cinder ash.

Wikipedia lists the following description for concrete or cement:

A major component of concrete is cement, which similarly exerts environmental and social effects.[54]:142The cement industry is one of the three primary producers of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas (the other two being the energy production and transportation industries). As of 2001, the production of Portland cement contributed 7% to global anthropogenic CO2 emissions, largely due to the sintering of limestone and clay at 1,500 °C (2,730 °F).[78]

Concrete is used to create hard surfaces that contribute to surface runoff, which can cause heavy soil erosion, water pollution, and flooding, but conversely can be used to divert, dam, and control flooding.

Concrete is a contributor to the urban heat island effect, though less so than asphalt.[79]

Workers who cut, grind or polish concrete are at risk of inhaling airborne silica, which can lead tosilicosis.[80]

Concrete or cinder blocks both could have fly ash or coal manufacturing residue in them. Does this mean that it’s good for growing garden beds for food consumption? It appears that even the people who support the addition of fly ash or coal cinder into cement blocks or cinder blocks outright assert that the material isn’t for consumption:

“In North America, the burning of coal for power generates about a half a cubic foot per person per year,” explains Bruce King, P.E., director, Ecological Building Network, San Rafael, Calif., and author of the book, “Making Better Concrete: Guidelines to Using Fly Ash for Higher Quality, Eco-Friendly Structures.”

“That’s a bucket of ash in the name of every man, woman and child in America, every year,” he says. “Whether we like it or not, we have to do something with it.”

“Even the guys who sell fly ash would tell you not to put this stuff on your pancakes,” quips King. “Like most of the substances in the natural world, fly ash is not for consumption or respiration. Does that mean we—or rather, the EPA—should formally declare it a hazardous substance, thus ending any chance of beneficial reuse or recycling?”

If this stuff isn’t for consumption, why recycle it? Well, it seems that most people don’t lick buildings, and under this premise, fly ash additive or coal waste could be added to cement to make it stronger if only, if only the EPA would allow it to be “recycled.” Note that a large part of the recycling drive is that the coal industry has created a toxic product that pollutes the environment, so it needs some way to add this waste product to something, and concrete seems to be the mix:

CalStar’s patented process actually takes this even further as fly ash fully replaces cement in their products, which are also not fired in an energy-intensive kiln. As a result, the company reports an 85% reduction in energy and CO2 emissions for their products. It’s easy to see why so many companies have put so much emphasis on fly ash as a “green” path forward.

Fly ash is also known to increase the concrete’s durability, so “longer service life means that much less material and energy will be used to repair, rebuild or replace constructions,” adds Kren.

Furthermore, fly ash enhances concrete performance—including increased strength, improved sulfate resistance, decreased permeability, a reduction in the water/cement ratio required, and enhancement of pumpability and workability of the concrete, according to Shepherd.

Of course, the other reality that needs to be dealt with is the sheer volume of fly ash which is produced by coal combustion every year

There is the very real possibility that encasing something hazardous in stone may be considered a way to dispose of something so toxic that it pollutes anything it touches. Greenbuilder.com says that the coal waste/fly ash becomes chemically different when heated in the cement mix; however, I can’t find out who has validated this “finding” that coal waste becomes inert when heated in a cement slurry:

In fact, when concrete is produced, “much of the fly ash reacts with the Portland cement products of combustion to become, get this—calcium silicate hydrate—the same mineral that gives concrete its strength,” explains Michael Chusid, RA, FCSI, CCS, principal of the Tarzana, Calif.-based architectural technology consulting firm, Chusid Associates. “Any trace amount of heavy metal gets entrapped in the hydrated cement crystals and will have a very difficult time becoming liberated.”

Filling in more details on this unique chemical reaction, David Shepherd, AIA, LEED AP, sustainable development director, Portland Cement Association, Skokie, Ill., explains, “unlike some encapsulation techniques which coat a contaminant with material to ‘glue’ it into place, fly ash chemically reacts with cement during the hydration process and becomes an integral part of the new crystalline structure.”

Consequently, many independent building professionals, and even some environmental groups, are on board with the EPA’s current position that the encapsulated use of fly ash is a very good alternative to sending the ash to the landfills where it faces a greater risk of environmental catastrophe such as the collapse of a Tennessee Valley Authority’s fly ash containment structure in 2008, which sent 5.4 million cubit yards of toxic sludge across 300 acres in Kingston, Tenn.

It appears, for the time being, that there is no nomenclature solution to my problem of using either cinder or cement blocks in creating a raised bed for my grandmother to garden in, as it appears that coal waste products in the form of fly ash are added to both cinder blocks and concrete.

If fly ash/coal waste is already being added to cement, we may well be in the same position with any of our buildings in the U.S., safe unless we lick them or eat out of them. We also may cause a leaching of dangerous chemical contaminants if we put soil or organic matter that is naturally acidic into cement blocks and that acid change makes the chemicals of the fly ash/coal waste additive leach out into our food, a form of licking that I don’t want to try.

Think  I am crazy to think about licking buildings, or even mentioning whether they are edible, there are, in fact, salty buildings that people lick, like the Salt Palace in Saline, Texas.

Saline, Texas

Or, there is a salt hotel in South America, in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni,

Palacio de Sal Uyuni

I, personally, would not lick the salt walls in the Palacio de Sal Uyuni, as this salt from Bolivia contains a large amount of lithium, which is used in manufacturing batteries here in the United States.

Bolivia holds about 43% of the world’s lithium reserves;[13] most of those are located in the Salar de Uyuni.

Lithium is concentrated in the brine under the salt crust at a relatively high concentration of about 0.3%. It is also present in the top layers of the porous halite body lying under the brine; however the liquid brine is easier to extract, by boring into the crust and pumping out the brine.[14]

Actually, we covered this in a class I taught on South American Geography, and while the buildings made from salt brick in the Bolivian salt flats are stunning to look at, I wouldn’t consider them safe to lick. I also wouldn’t consider the concrete blocks made in the U.S. here safe to lick or eat plants out of, either. I will have to settle for shots like this, and perhaps plan a succulent garden that I won’t eat and neither will Grandma Kay.

Cement Block Raised Beds

Safe To Grow Ornamentals Not Food

Of course, if you would prefer not to support the coal mining/burning industry, it appears cement beds are out, as well. I am off to find the next garden wonder, and hope I don’t find any toxic political mess in that newest solution. I will keep you posted.

Pet Food Safety: Does the Copper Sulfate Additive Kill White Terriers?

I have been troubled this weekend, saddened, and feeling conflicted about the safety of food we purchase for our animals. My sister’s dog Molly, a small and lovable rescued Westie was found to have liver enzymes so elevated that the vets couldn’t safely give her anesthesia to clean her teeth. Molly has some tartar build up. My sister took Molly to the vet to get her teeth cleaned and was hit with a devastating diagnosis of elevated copper in Molly’s system, stored in her liver, blamed on a genetic condition that makes it hard for certain terriers, notably Bedlington terriers, West Highland Terriers, and also Doberman Pinchers to metabolize copper in the body. Or, so we thought. Molly is also approaching seven years old, or middle age, for a dog, which in medical speak also coincides apparently with end of life. Blood tests revealed Molly’s liver was so stressed that her liver enzymes had almost tripled in the last few months, indicating that her liver was being weighed down by the copper her body couldn’t process. Oh, and Molly also had a heart murmur, possibly a sign of stress on the body, but chest x-rays revealed that Molly’s heart was not abnormally enlarged or struggling.

Molly had a rough beginning. My neighbors and I noticed Molly running the neighborhood in a week when other neighbors had family visiting. We assumed she was the neighbor’s family, but when the camper left with the family, Molly remained. No one knew where Molly came from, so I took the group of neighborhood girls with me as we walked little Moll on a leash asking who might know her. I thought I was teaching the girls to help return a lost pet. I didn’t know what I was getting into.

It was  a hot day, in July in Michigan, which meant it was mid-80’s and something like 90% humidity. We were walking through a sauna, but all the better to get the little dog home, right? We had walked about four blocks, which with small children and a small dog in the sun and heat is quite an accomplishment. We were followed for a block by a man in his mid twenties with his hand down his pants, jeans low at the hips, wearing a tank top and using his other hand occasionally to scratch the stubble on his face and his scalp. I had a number of little girls, a lost dog, and a strange man following me. I couldn’t run. I didn’t know why he was following me, but finally I put all the kids on neighbor’s grassy side lawn, had them hold the dog and finally confronted the man to ask why he was following us.

The girls stood on the corner, silent, watching, and listening. I would say a hush fell over them, but the second I walked away, they had been mute, not just quieted. The man said that the dog was his sister’s. He said he was looking for her. I told him that the dog had been in our yards for a week. I asked where he lived, and he pointed a block up a busy road nearby. He said he didn’t want the dog anymore, although she ran to him when I went and took the leash. He pushed her down and said it was his son’s dog, and his son was caring for her. His son was 3 years old. Then he asked me if I wanted her, that I could come to his house and get her things. He never took his hand out of his waistband. I declined. The girls, still silent, started to tear up. Then the man said that if I didn’t take her, he was going to let her run into the street and get hit by a car. This time I heard audible gasps and a few small sobs, but no speech.

I finally told the man that I would go and get my car and see if my husband had any problem with me bringing home another dog. I asked him where he lived, and he pointed out the house. I took the crying girls by the hand and walked away as if I wasn’t brooking any argument. They began to cry in earnest, saying they didn’t want the dog with that man. The seven-year old girls asked me why I would bother to save a dog by walking around the neighborhood only to leave it with a man who was going to send it to busy street to kill it. They asked me why I wouldn’t save the dog. They cried and begged me. They had good logic in their argument, but I will admit I was afraid to be near the man any longer. I didn’t tell them that, only told them that we don’t ever go into strangers’ homes, nor did we ever go places alone with people we didn’t know. There really are so few times in our children’s lives when we can be their savior  and so few in an animal’s really, that I wanted to be the savior. I just didn’t know how. I walked the girls home, and I told them I would not leave the dog with the “man who hurt her,” as the girls said.

Long story short, I went to my husband and told him that we needed to get into the car and go and get the dog and quickly. I didn’t know what to do after that, and while I wouldn’t put the dog’s safety above that of the children or my own, I wanted to bring the dog home. My husband and I retrieved the dog without incident. The man loaded her crate into the back of our truck, and I brought her home to joyous children who gave her repeated baths over the course of the day to remove fleas embedded in her coat and skin.

We named her Molly, to give her a new start, and we commenced to shaving her matted coat. I found long burns on her skin, possibly from a rope or leash, crisscrossed on her back and stomach. She ducked when surprised, indicating she had been hit, and like a true abuse victim, never made a sound if something hurt. I found that out when trying to brush a mat out under her armpit. The skin began to pull, but Molly laid limp in my arms. I decided to just shave her coat off, to heck with brushing and possibly hurting the dog who didn’t move in the face of what I perceived to be painful.

Molly recovered, and I began to look for a home for her after she and my other little female dog began to have “discussions” about which dog owned the yard. My sister had bonded with Molly and kept her. They have been inseparable ever since, through my sister’s different apartments, boyfriends, jobs, and school, M and Molly have always been together. So, imagine the shock when a teeth-cleaning appointment turns into a devastating diagnosis.

My dog who had lived to be 16 years old had had a heart murmur, possibly as a result of a parvo infection she had when she lived on the street, and I had treated that successfully for years with Hawthorne. I started there. I looked up Hawthorne, and while I trust an herbs long use in human history as general testament to its safety, feeling that we have made it to this point on our human journey due to the intelligence of our ancestors, I still always look up whatever information I can find on hawthorne, again, just to be sure no new information had been found. I wanted to recommend hawthorne for Molly, but I wanted to make sure that nothing had changed in the last two years since I had lost my Mandy (16-year old Beagle mix).

When I look to see if I can find any scientific studies on a topic, I usually use Google to search PubMed, and although Google probably collects ever private information known to exist in the digital world, with the exception of using the bathroom (although this might be searchable through FitBit uploads), I needed scientific information, and PubMed has a terrible search string formulation. In other words, Google does that better. Hawthorne (Crataegus) offers a good number of heart benefits, including helping to normalize heart rhythms. PubMed had information.

Evidence is accumulating that hawthorn may induce anti-ischemia/reperfusion-injury, anti-arrhythmic, hypolipidemic and hypotensive effects. These beneficial effects may in part be due to the presence of antioxidant flavonoid components.

Another study demonstrated that “stable” heart attack patients who combined hawthorne and exercise showed improved health, calling it “an effective strategy” for lowering the risk of heart problems and atherosclerosis, or hardening of arteries. Since our bodies require a liquid transport for all of our nutrients, as in blood moving oxygen or carbon dioxide, hardening of the heart structures or supply lines to it or from it means less liquid moves through, causing us problems. Keeping the heart structure softened certainly helps move our necessary blood through our body. Hawthorne helps with that.

Hawthorne contains polyphenols (micronutrients in our diets) that help prevent the oxidation that can cause heart problems. Hawthorne is an antioxidant. Hawthorne helps protect the heart and is prescribed for heart failure.  There are more studies. Hawthorne may reduce the “incidence of sudden cardiac death,” or in other words, may protect people from dying from heart attacks. Sold.

Molly’s current vet seems to think that diet plays no role in Molly’s illness; however, when I investigated a news story written by a vet located in Battle Creek, Michigan , it appears that the addition of copper sulfate to dog foods has caused other white terriers to die from liver failure, namely the vet who did the investigating’s 6 1/2 year old white terrier (so similar to Molly). Here is an excerpt from Dr. VanVranken’s discussion about the dangers of copper sulfate in dog food.

For long-time Battle Creek veterinarian Dr. Pete VanVranken, it began with listening to a presentation about the amount of copper in baby pigs.Now, VanVranken wants people to listen to him.

“Nobody seems willing to say, ‘I want to be the head of the light brigade,’ ” he said. “Somebody’s got to wake up.”The issue for VanVranken is personal but it also goes to the heart of who he is and what he does.A fixture at the Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic for four decades ago, he has been a passionate and outspoken advocate for animals and their proper care.

So last February, when his 6-year-old mixed breed dog Cookie developed signs of hepatitis, he had a colleague biopsy her liver.

“I was too emotionally attached to do it,” he said.

His colleague diagnosed liver cancer, but VanVranken had the biopsy sent to Michigan State University for confirmation and that diagnosis came back as hepatitis, a liver disease.

But what stunned VanVranken was the amount of copper in Cookie’s liver — more than 2,000 parts per million.”It should have been under 300,” he said. “Actually, it should have been between 50 and 60.”

Eventually, the disease killed his beloved dog and reinforced his belief that copper levels in dogs were too high and, very likely, fatal.

He contacted MSU and asked the vets how much copper they were seeing in dogs and their answer was that almost half had too much.That was enough for VanVranken, who recalled the talk in 1993 about copper in the diets of baby pigs and how it now appeared in all forms of dog food.

“Somebody wrote an article back in 1993 about replacing cupric oxide,” he said. “They did some tests and decided copper sulfate was a more biologically available source of diet for pigs. So someone decided to go across the board to all (animals with one stomach) and replace it with copper sulfate.” Since 1996, VanVranken said the number of dogs with copper storage in their livers was rising and he was convinced it was because of the copper sulfate that had no place in a dog’s diet.

“There’s no such disease as copper shortage in dogs,” he said. “There’s no benefit. It occurs naturally in most grains and organ meats. This was all based on a paper about baby pigs.”

That belief was further bolstered by Dr. Sharon Center of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, who offered a similar warning. “She said, ‘You guys need to watch out for this,’ ” he said.

VanVranken said copper sulfate is an ingredient used in foot baths for cattle to help keep them from getting infections and to keep hoof rot at bay.


The pet food industry issued a rebuttal, calling the paper that published the article a “tabloid,” which it is not.The “Enquirer” in the The Battle Creek Enquirer is not related to the nationally syndicated tabloid, “The Enquirer,” but it seems this titular difference has been played up by the pet food industry to malign an independent vet’s report on the dog food industry’s use of copper sulfate in food, namely that the copper sulfate added is the same type used in the battery manufacturing business and that the copper guidelines were based on a piglet study, having no relation to actual dogs.

The personal interest story that was recently published in a local tabloid appears to base its warnings about copper sulfate on a hypothesis proposed by one well-meaning veterinarian.

And his theory is certainly worthy of further investigation.

Yet it’s important to keep in mind that as long as copper — or any other nutrient — is confirmed through testing by its manufacturer to be present in a dog food in a healthy amount, your pet should be considered safe.

For an enlightening scientific explanation on this topic, be sure to read this pet food industry article about copper sulfate.

It was researched and written by a respected animal nutritionist, Dr. Greg Aldrich of Kansas State University.

Why the pet food  industry’s vet is supposedly more reliable than an outside vet is anyone’s guess.

So, I looked up the pet food industry article about copper sulfate, and here is what it says copper sulfate is also used for in the industrial manufacturing. Note that there is currently no safe amount of copper sulfate determined for cats. There is no citation for the method of supposedly determining a “safe” amount for dogs:

Thus, the inclusion of copper sulfate to meet the target amounts in the diet remains very small if you compare copper needs and the safe upper limit. For dogs and many other species, the maximum tolerable level is 250 mg/kg (no upper limit has been identified for cats). To accurately weigh and mix something that is 25% copper (250,000 mg/kg) into a complete diet to achieve a 5 to 15 mg/kg target (0.04 lb. to 0.13 lb. copper sulfate per ton of petfood) amount and not exceed 250 mg/kg (2 lbs. copper sulfate per ton of petfood) is not within the normal tolerances in a full-scale petfood production facility.

To make this work properly requires well-controlled dilution steps. For this process, it is common to utilize the services of a premix manufacturer to help dilute the copper concentration and achieve a uniform distribution of the ingredient over a wider base of raw materials. Petfood manufacturers also commonly make a “premix” with these trace mineral premixes before adding them to the base mix/dry blend and then producing the finished food. These serial dilution steps and checks and balances help add a measure of safety to the use of copper sulfate in normal petfood production.

Another concern expressed about the use of copper sulfate in petfood stems from its many other reported applications. For example, in agriculture, it has been used as a pesticide, germicide, soil amendment and feed growth promoter. Medically, it can be used as a fungicide, bactericide and astringent. Industrially, it is used as an electrolyte for batteries and as an electroplating agent, as a floatation reagent to recover zinc and lead in mining, and as a mordant in preparation of azo dyes in textiles.

While these industrial applications may seem odd to the uninitiated and perhaps erode copper sulfate’s public relations, it is a very common practice to develop as many markets for raw materials as possible. It is smart for business and smart for quality and consistent supply. So, multiple uses should not diminish the value of this important ingredient.

For any pet owners  out there that might read this article, you’ve got a lot more issues to worry about than copper sulfate at fractions of a percent in your pets’ diet, like whether or not the dog is chewing on your shoes or the cat coughed up a hairball right where you just stepped. For the petfood industry, there are other options to nutritionally fortify the diet with supplemental copper, but each has similar mixing and handling requirements. Copper sulfate has been the tried and true form of this trace mineral and handled properly should continue to be a vital ingredient in our formulation toolbox for many years to come.

Just because there are multiple uses for a product and it’s “smart business” to include it in pet food doesn’t make it safe for dogs to consume. The article is condescending in its address of owners’ concerns about copper poisoning. The argument that we pet owners have more to worry about with our dog chewing our shoes than our dog dying of copper accumulation in the liver is a specious argument if the food we buy kills them.

Supposedly the pet food industry says it’s safe to add copper sulfate to foods, but I wanted to see if there is a pet food that doesn’t contain copper sulfate, and while I found one, you can only get it by prescription, and guess what it’s a prescription food for? Liver failure. You heard that right. While the pet food manufacturing industry claims it’s safe to include an ingredient in dog food that is also used in batteries, it also has found there is a market for making dog foods for dogs with liver failure from copper build up in the liver, and guess what? Those foods don’t contain the copper that the industry says is safe for a dog’s liver.

The pet food without the copper sulfate additive? According to Dr. VanVranken, it’s Hill’s Prescription L/D diet. The ingredient list doesn’t state that copper sulfate is an additive. I checked out the actual food from Hill’s Prescription, a pet food industry manufacturer, and by the sounds of it, the industry has created a food with a known market, dogs with liver failure from copper toxicity. The food is advertised as a prescription food to protect the liver, with low copper levels:

The liver is your dog’s largest internal organ with many functions, including the digestion and conversion of nutrients, the removal of toxic substances from the blood and the storage of vitamins and minerals. The liver has an amazing ability to repair and regenerate itself, and nutrition plays a vital role in this process.

Hill’s nutritionists and veterinarians developed Prescription Diet® l/d®, clinical nutrition especially formulated to support your dog’s liver health. In fact, l/d is formulated to help protect vital liver function

How It Helps:

  • Helps reduce liver workload allowing liver tissue to regenerate
  • Helps maintain normal fat metabolism in the liver
  • Helps avoid nutrient deficiencies commonly related to liver issues
  • Supports a healthy immune system

How It Works:

  • Moderate levels of high quality protein

  • High L-carnitine & L-arginine levels

  • Appropriate level of zinc

  • Low copper

  • Clinically proven antioxidants

It takes a long time to manufacture and produce a dog food, and it takes a large market share for a manufacturer to invest in the dog food product line creation this way, which means that the dog food industry knows that there are dogs who will be impacted by copper levels, have liver problems and thereby ensuring there is a steady market for a food designed to help with a liver damaged by copper levels.
The local Battle Creek, Michigan newspaper wasn’t the only one to cover Dr. Van Vranken’s cautionary tale about how much copper sulfate is added to dog foods. Fox News Online also covered Van Vranken’s story and there is a video interview with Van Vranken about his findings of liver toxicity from the copper exposure (which is really heavy metal toxicity).
What is the treatment for liver failure, even that caused by the ingestion of heavy metals, like copper sulfate? Allopathic medicine doesn’t have a replacement for cirrhosis. Herbs like silymarin (milk thistle) and nutrients like SAM-E are some of the only treatments. Honest disclosure: I never believe someone when they say that what we eat doesn’t affect our health. If what we eat can cause heart diseases, diabetes and cancer, in we humans and copper toxicity liver failure in our pets, then what we eat definitely affects our health.
I have always considered our diet, herbs, which are often food, a part of our health. The vet Molly saw recommended a supplement called Denamarin. I had used it when both of my old dogs had developed organ failure, and one had been diagnosed with liver cancer (from which that dog’s mother also died). My dogs were old, over 10 years old for my 110-pound lab mix (large breeds life spans tend to max out around 8-10 years) and another very old rescue Beagle mix who lived to be almost 16 year old, but when my old dogs began having problems, herbs helped them ease into their next grand adventure in Squirrels in the Sky. I trusted the herbs listed in the supplement.

Just to be informed, because I do love Molly and my sister so much, I started to do research. I have 25-pages of it, actually. I guess you could say “luckily for us,” but I don’t really believe testing on animals is lucky, most supplements and herbs and medications are tested for years on animals, lots of dogs, before giving them to humans. It’s a part of a drug testing process to test on animals. Herbs don’t always get tested, but in the case of silymarin, one of the active ingredients in Denamarin, not much else has been proven to heal the liver in people or other animals like milk thistle can. Silymarin/milk thistle has been proven to help the liver regenerate, has a protective effect, and here is a sampling of a PubMed article about how Silymarin works:

Silymarin offers good protection in various toxic models of experimental liver diseases in laboratory animals. It acts by antioxidative, anti-lipid peroxidative, antifibrotic, anti-inflammatory, membrane stabilizing, immunomodulatory and liver regenerating mechanisms. Silymarin has clinical applications in alcoholic liverdiseases, liver cirrhosis, Amanita mushroom poisoning, viral hepatitis, toxic and drug induced liver diseases and in diabetic patients. Though silymarindoes not have antiviral properties against hepatitis virus, it promotes protein synthesis, helps in regenerating liver tissue, controls inflammation, enhances glucuronidation and protects against glutathione depletion.

Pretty amazing what plants can do. But does silymarin work on livers that are already injured, like Molly’s? The answer is, of course, yes. We animals are exposed to toxins in our environment frequently, probably from all sorts (plants we may have ingested, but also possibly minerals from our rock tool roots, and chemicals naturally occurring in Nature that we may inadvertently ingest or come into contact with, alcohol with has a history of thousands of years of human consumption, even mushrooms), so it makes sense that Nature has a way of lessening these effects, or all we susceptible animals would have died out long ago. Thistle is a potent detoxifier. (Think also in the thistle family: artichoke, milk thistle, Canadian thistle, part of the sunflower family, Asteracea, including calendula and echinacea, a huge plant group!)

Silymarin/ Milk Thistle (stock photo)

Silymarin is an antioxidant for the liver. It helps liver cells regenerate “promotes hepatocyte regeneration,” stops the liver from getting so brittle or hardened, “fibrogenesis in the liver” that it can’t filter, and acts as an anti-inflammatory for the liver. Another PubMed article for your perusal, also states that silymarin can help reduce the rate at which tumor cells grow:

In chronic liver diseases caused by oxidative stress (alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases, drug- and chemical-induced hepatic toxicity), the antioxidant medicines such as silymarin can have beneficial effect. Liver cirrhosis, non-alcoholic fatty liver and steatohepatitis are risk factors for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Insulin resistance and oxidative stress are the major pathogenetic mechanisms leading the hepatic cell injury in these patients. The silymarin exerts membrane-stabilizing and antioxidant activity, it promotes hepatocyte regeneration; furthermore it reduces the inflammatory reaction, and inhibits the fibrogenesis in the liver. These results have been established by experimental and clinical trials. According to open studies the long-term administration of silymarin significantly increased survival time of patients with alcohol induced liver cirrhosis. Based on the results of studies using methods of molecular biology, silymarin can significantly reduce tumor cell proliferation, angiogenesis as well as insulin resistance. Furthermore, it exerts an anti-atherosclerotic effect, and suppresses tumor necrosis factor-alpha-induced protein production and mRNA expression due to adhesion molecules.

Denamarin was tested on animals receiving chemotherapy. Chemotherapy works on the premise that cancer cells grow without an off switch, meaning cancer cells replicate faster than normal cells, making it almost impossible for our normal cells to attack a cell that has almost a suicidal intent to reproduce. Chemotherapy stops cell reproduction, and by this method, stops all cell replication, cancer cells and normal cell reproduction alike. Stopping normal cell replication is stressful to the body, and since the liver is part of our cleaning mechanism, the liver is often uniquely stressed by chemotherapy. Denamarin helped support the liver, even in the face of chemotherapy, allowing more dogs to complete their cancer treatments when Denamarin was subjected to scientific study.

We started Molly on Denamarin. We don’t have any test results, but Molly did seem more energetic after a few doses of Denamarin. I will keep you posted. Let’s hope for good news. Little Molly needs all the help she can get.

Naked And Afraid: How Quickly We Revert to Foraging Even In Urban Areas

I watched more television last night than I normally do, watching two episodes of Naked and Afraid with my family, and I couldn’t help thinking about foraging. The people on the show routinely get hungry, and they resort to foraging mainly to help feed themselves. I wonder at their hunger when I see their locations, because the areas in which the contestants were placed were full of food, but most of the people didn’t know how to find it. Foraging is much easier on a body’s energy stores than hunting, and the men unequivocally tried hunting without much success. One contestant ate rats, another ate a coral snake, and the third caught a grasshopper. As far as food went, it seemed that no one had a good idea of how to fish, much less look for a group of plants to act as a main food source. One team lived almost exclusively on bananas, but bananas are reliably offered in supermarkets and an easily recognizable food that has been cultivated for years.

It’s easy to think that we are distanced from Naked and Afraid by the plethora of supermarkets and pre-made food, until noticing that Big Rapids meets the qualifications for a food desert. I began to think about foraging last night, in part because I wondered about the separation from food cultivation and growth that evidences itself on shows like Naked and Afraid. People don’t know how to find food unless they know how to grow food and therefore understand habitats that support our food habits.

It’s very easy to say that we humans rely extensively on grass-based foods to feed us now, witness the rise of wheat, corn, rice, rye, oats, and barley. Weeds and rushes have been a food source for thousands of years, in the form of wild rice, but supposedly the Neolithic cultures also cultivated grass plants in the form of barley, spelt and wheat.

That’s not even scratching the surface on root crops. Think of potatoes, peanuts, yams, cassava, manioc, yuca and the starch that makes tapioca.  Cassava, manioc and tapioca are the same plant, a root tuber that is grown mainly through South America. According to a University of Colorado team, the Mayans consumed Cassava.

cassava root

The commentators on the show kept commenting on the male contestants’ weakness as saying, “it’s been x number of days since they had any protein,” meaning having eaten meat; however, what generally kept people alive on the show were plants, palm hearts, bananas, and coconuts.

It made me think of our foraging roots. Some time ago I read the book The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Taylor and found it interesting. I swear I had bought it, but I can’t find it. Urban foraging has a tradition in Central Park, NY. Even though NYC officials tried to stop the foraging, it still continues, according to a NY Times report back in 2012.

Now parks officials want them to stop. New York’s public lands are not a communal pantry, they say. In recent months, the city has stepped up training of park rangers and enforcement-patrol officers, directing them to keep an eye out for foragers and chase them off.

“If people decide that they want to make their salads out of our plants, then we’re not going to have any chipmunks,” said Maria Hernandez, director of horticulture for the Central Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group that manages Central Park.

Plants are not the only things people are taking. In Prospect Park in Brooklyn last week, park rangers issued four summonses to two people for illegal fishing. Although officials say such poaching is not widespread, park advocates say taking fish and turtles for food is not uncommon, and some have reported evidence of traps designed to snare wildfowl…

Foraging used to be a quirky niche, filled most notably by “Wildman” Steve Brill, who for years has led foraging tours in the Northeast, including in Central Park. (He now sells a foraging app, too.) But foragers today are an eclectic bunch, including downtown hipsters, recent immigrants, vegans and people who do not believe in paying for food.

Even those who would never dream of plucking sassafras during a walk in the park can read about it. The magazine Edible Manhattan has an “Urban Forager” column (as does The New York Times’s City Room blog). And the current issue of Martha Stewart Living features a colorful spread about foraging on Ms. Stewart’s property in Maine — but at least all those plants belong to her.

The Gothamist says that up to 20% of the New Yorker population forages, not generally a popular image of New Yorkers:

Roughly 20 percent of the city’s population forages, estimates Marla Emery, a researcher with the US Forest Service who, along with Dr. Patrick Hurley, investigates foraging in urban environments. “That encompasses everyone like Marie, who are very focused and who dedicate a lot of time to foraging, and people who take a hike and pop a few berries into their mouth,” Emery says.

A local New Yorker takes people on foraging tours, and she even has foraging walks for children. Marie Viljoen writes a blog called 66SquareFeet about her experience foraging.

Young forager photo on 66squarefeet blog


How many children pick dandelions every year without realizing that the leaves and roots are edible? I prefer the young dandelion greens, and we always feed some to our small chicks and ducklings. Our next door neighbor shudders when he sees my yard abloom, and he warns me that the seeds blow into his yard, but I can’t help myself–I use the dandelion greens. I am contemplating digging the roots to roast this spring, as soon as the snow blanket is gone. I haven’t tried that before.

Foraging is pretty popular in NYC, as Wildman Steve Brill, another forager, has pointed out, and when I checked out his website, he has more good photos of plants for forage than do most books on foraging. I checked out pictures of plantain, which is usually used to help heal skin irritations, a common but often misidentified plant, and Steve’s website has multiple pictures, with this one being one of the most helpful:

Common plantain in flower

It’s a good picture, so I thought I would check out elderberry, which has different varieties and is also something which can be easily misidentified, and his information on elderberry was also sound, with a caution about refraining from taking all the flowers off the plant:

Elderberry flowers

Steve’s advice on harvesting the flowers was solid:

Avoid elderberries species with red fruit growing in rounded, instead of flat clusters. They may make you sick. Herculesí club is a shrub or small tree with feather-compound leaves that looks a little like the common elderberry. It has flat clusters of poisonous, black berries, often arranged in a ring, and a short, unbranched, thorny trunk. Elderberries are thornless.

The common elderberry often grows in large, dense stands in moist places. Look for it in marshes, along riverbanks, along roadsides, and in moist woods and thickets in eastern North America and the West Indies.

Collect the flowers by plucking off the stalk at the clusterís base. I tís impossible to remove each tiny flower individually. Take a small proportion of the flowers from each bush, and collect only where they are abundant or the plant won’t produce any berries. Where you find one elder bush, you usually find many more.

Foraging here in Big Rapids may not be advertised, but my parents have apple trees in their front yards, and even though they frequently get bugs or apple scab, people ask for the fruit every year. Our next door neighbor’s brother used to ask for apples every year to make cider, and in exchange he would bring over a gallon or two of the most delicious cider I had tasted. Repair personnel have asked for fruit, as have other adults walking by. They call out to us on the front porch and ask if they can have some apples. We always say yes, because we have plenty. Children walking to and from school will often snag a piece of fruit off the ground, and occasionally boldly take a piece of fruit off the trees without asking, but that is very rare.

The children’s picking reminds me of my own foraging history, of peaches, in Saugatuck, MI. My great-granny had a family cottage on Lake Michigan. This lake cottage sits directly on Lake Michigan, an area that has now been hugely overdeveloped and moved out of the price range of most local families (think the development of Martha’s Vineyard or Cape Ann on the East coast), but when my grandfather gave his family share to his brother, my great-Uncle Bob, we were allowed one week in the summer to stay on Lake Michigan. As the years passed, we weren’t allowed even that until our rights were forfeited altogether by prickly family politics and my grandfather’s death in recent years, so to find that foraging memory, I had to stretch way back.

As a child, though, I often felt that fruit on the ground was fair game, and I wanted peaches that were growing on a family farm on our way from the cottage into the town of Saugatuck. The peach trees were loaded, and the fruit was dropping. The smell was incredibly sweet, rich, and in some areas with just a touch of vinegars as hot peaches in the sun are wont to move quickly to a luscious vinegar. Vinegar-ripened peaches attracted yellow jackets, so I stayed away from those, but the freshly fallen fruit, magnificent. Often times the fruit that fell landed on the ground hard, and being perfectly ripe, the ground-side was bruised, but the side pointing to the sun was warm, golden, and so sweet that my twin sister and I would sneak out past our allowed play place and steal sun-warmed peaches. There is nothing on this earth that is sweeter. Seriously.

My brothers were small children at that point, and while they wouldn’t venture into the forbidden peach land, they would beg for some, and soon my twin and would sneak toward the field, duck under the fence line and fill our shirts with warm peaches from the ground. We would duck back under the fence, trying not to drop them and head back to the cottage. My parents caught us, of course, and we got scolded for stealing peaches, and then my parents went to the farm family to tell them what had happened.  I am sure my parents thought that being good neighbors meant coming clean about the unofficial ground peach harvest, and I am also sure that it’s not particularly a fun role as a parent to go and explain that your children have been harvesting groundling peaches while they were supposed to be playing in the yard. I expected more yelling and I was so ashamed for stealing, because I hadn’t thought I was stealing. I was just picking fruit I knew no one else would eat off the ground, which didn’t seem wrong until we were caught.

My father marched over to the house and my sister and I hid, afraid of how he might come home saying we owed money we had no way of paying. We watched from behind the tree swing as my father returned smiling broadly and said that the farm family had laughed at him, told him that we were more than welcome to help ourselves to fallen peaches and that they found it funny that the kids had found the ripest peaches in the world, that those were the best but couldn’t be sold because they had fallen. The farm family had been proud, in fact, that we loved their peaches so much, and I remember that summer eating peaches until our stomachs hurt and then eating more. It was so warm and sweet and satisfying to know that people liked us eating the fallen fruit, which they said would only go to waste, and we smiled when talked about how the family laughed at the children risking a scolding for sneaking away from a play spot to eat fallen peaches.

This isn’t a picture from my childhood, but one I found on the internet’s glorious image gallery. I don’t have any pictures of my ground peach adventure, but this is how the peach trees look. Imagine this from a child’s perspective, a small child’s perspective, close to the ground, and it you can only imagine how close the feast was:

peaches on the ground in an orchard

I still buy “over ripe” peaches from our Farmer’s Market, the grocery store, or whomever will give me some. They make the most incredible cobbler. Their fuzz is not prickly but soft and easily brushed way with the back of the hand, and with that memory in mind, I never scold the kids in the neighborhood who pick up fallen apples or start guiltily when I find them picking wild blackberries in my yard. I laugh. I remember foraging, and I have apparently taught by example, because my nephews, my niece and other children follow behind me and eat the mulberries from the trees in the yard. The older children are now able to climb the trees and hand down little buckets brimming with berries for the smaller children and myself. The tree won’t hold my weight, but the children move easily amongst its branches, and I think that I couldn’t stop them if I tried.

Putting my mind to foraging, I am reminded of another woman who is so fond of mulberry jam that she knew of the parks and recreation department’s mulberry trees and would sneak under them at night with a big sheet, catching berries while her husband shook the branches. She makes jam from the berries every year.

I am reminded of another family who has tomato plants in pots near the sidewalk, and people walking by routinely pop cherry tomatoes in their mouths as if they are unable to control themselves. It seems a compulsion to test a cherry tomato, and it’s a common compulsion if the attempt at unobtrusive tomato snitches are any indication. This same family has, in fact, been a huge proponent of starting the Big Rapids Community Garden, and they have always ardently supported urban gardening. Their gardens are beautiful.

I keep thinking back to Naked and Afraid, to our foraging roots, and to how quickly we can revert, even in an urban area, to looking around to see what is edible, even if it’s not polite.

Controversy Over Straw Bale Gardening And 2,4-D Dangers: Our Children As Unwitting 2,4-D Test Subjects

An experiment with straw bale gardening sounds innocuous, and before my father and I started having “discussions” about using treated straw, I never would have imagined straw bale gardening could be a source of discontent. Turns out, my father and I can disagree about anything, straw bales included.

Our current bone of contention is innocuous enough: straw bale gardening. My father read the book Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten. My father also attended a popular lecture given by a local woman named Carleen Rose at our Big Rapids Community Library, popular in part due to Ms. Rose’s accidental mis-speak characterizing the organisms growing in her straw bales as “orgasms.” It went something along the lines of: “I saw all these orgasms all over my straw bales and was so excited! Oh my goodness, did I just say orgasms?? I meant organisms. There were organisms in my straw bales, not orgasms…” That was the first time I had heard of straw bale gardening being linked to orgasms, multiple ones at that. In essence, and mainly by accident, straw bale gardening became a popular topic of conversation in the local community.

To set the scene for straw bale gardening’s attractiveness for my father, it’s important to mention that my father tilled another patch of ground west of our Main Garden while his father, my grandfather (Grandpa Williams, to me), was undergoing a failed chemotherapy treatment for leukemia that eventually resulted in his death. While our family was struggling with my grandfather’s illness and death, my father tilled. He tilled and tilled, putting on his ear protection as his father had warned him to do (my Grandpa Williams had to retire from his law practice due to hearing loss), and my father tilled himself another garden, christened as my father’s West Garden.

My father’s garden has a surface of sand that my father thinks is hydrophobic, a type of sand placed in the location by the drilling company that came to drill for oil many years ago. My parents opposed the drilling and the destruction of the trees and land that came with it, but they had no means to stop it, because they didn’t own the mineral and drilling rights to the property. For the uninitiated, the drilling and mining right ownership meant that other owners were able to do a prospective drill to see if there were any harvestable oil or natural gas wells beneath the land. There weren’t any, thank goodness, but the sand that was left is considered by my father to be “hydrophobic,” meaning it repels water.

Hydrophobic soils can be naturally occurring, arising after extreme heat from fires changes the crystalline structure of soil. Hydrophobic soil can also arise from a waxy-type or oily residue in soil, but since my father believes the sand in his West Garden is hydrophobic,  my father has seen a possible means of addressing the poor soil in his West Garden  through straw bale gardening.

The West Garden is named in relation to our Main Garden, the family garden shared by my father and I, home to our animals, digging spots for my baby nieces and nephews and the bean crops we can every year, as well as the main tomato crops that we also can. It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the Main Garden, acting as a nucleus to all of our family activities at my parents’ property. It is so central to our activities, in fact, that as we walk away from it, the babies routinely feel that they are leaving my parents’ property and eventually refuse to walk further down the trail. Leaving the property would be tough for a baby to do given that my parents own close to 300 acres, but the draw of the Main Garden is so intense, that even the babies recognize it, and all other designations of location emanate from the Main Garden.

My father has  moved away from chemical use in the Main Garden in deference to the animals consuming those chemicals and because I suffered horrible blistering burns on my face and hands after unwittingly putting straw in nesting boxes that I had not known was treated with 2,4-D. It took weeks for my face and hands to heal, and my family doctor told me I had suffered chemical burns. I tried to cover up the painful blisters, but they peeled and my face was a burning mess for a solid 6 weeks. We didn’t know the straw had been sprayed, but word to the wise, it’s always best to ask about a straw bale’s origins, something I know now to do with diligence.

Because it is convenient to pick up at our local feed store, and because my father believes he can overcome his soil deficiencies in the West Garden, my father has begun long rows of chemically treated straw under the belief that it won’t impact his garden, nor does it remain in the straw. We know the straw has been sprayed with 2,4-D because the local feed store employees told us when we asked that they only carried sprayed straw.

Since placing the straw in the West Garden, on two separate occasions, my father has had burning red skin on his face, itchy and watering eyes, an allergenic response that he sought treatment for at the doctor’s office, and my father believes it is from a medication he is taking. The doctor said it was an allergic reaction, most likely from the medication, but he also didn’t know about the straw. Twice now my father has had these reactions, each time he handles the straw, but he maintains it is not linked to the straw whatsoever.

Who knew you could argue about straw? I never did. Who knew that the book Straw Bale Gardens Complete would trigger family discord? I didn’t. The author of Straw Bale Gardens suggests doing a simple bioassay, a test crop, which really means planting some crops in the treated straw to see if it kills the crops, peas and tomatoes being good test crops. The problem is this: we have a very short season and don’t have time to try to grow two sets of crops. If straw bale gardening fails, we lose all of our produce for the season and have to try again a year later. That’s a big hit to take for an experiment, no garden produce whatsoever. It’s not really feasible to try.

Joel Karsten had one small section in his book about using treated straw, and while I remember reading it, I can’t find it listed in the index section to give you a place to read it for yourself, if you so choose. Karsten mentions testing with crops, there is only a small reference to this problem amidst a 176-page endorsement of the method, a method that without a good bale of straw, is for us, catastrophic. Given the importance of the growing material to the book’s purpose, the amount of attention given to using treated material is wholly inadequate. The illustrations of successful imagined gardens on pages 66-75 are beautiful, but there is virtually no information about how to make sure you are using a viable growing material without planting crops just to see if they die, which makes this method virtually unusable for anyone with a short growing season and no idea how to identify good straw, upon which the title itself is based.

Just because I start with the beginning, I looked to see what the chemical giant Monsanto had to say about herbicides and came up with this entertaining video about how harmless Round-Up is for people to drink, harmless enough to justify its use worldwide, but when offered a cup of Round-Up in water to drink, the Monsanto-mouthpiece refuses to drink it himself saying he is “not an idiot.” Life doesn’t get much better, so I would recommend a watch:

Apparently herbicides are safe for OTHER people to drink, not Monsanto supporters.

My father had routinely said that herbicides “break down” in Nature, that they don’t have a long-lasting effect. Whenever I am told that a chemical “breaks down,” I always wonder how quickly this happens and how, especially considering that the burns I suffered from 2,4-D treated straw did not seem to demonstrate any chemical break down. I began looking at scientific studies about 2,4-D to find out about the breakdown, and the information has perhaps been, if one is generous, reported with a positive but less than accurate slant, or if one is being honest, most likely just a misleading representation.

Strangely enough, tests on 2,4-D breaking down in soil are few and far between reports the World Health Organization:

In contrast to the large amount of work done on the analytical methodology of 2,4-D residues in plant material, the opposite is true for soils. Only two reports concerning the extraction of 2,4-D from soils have appeared, in which acidic ether (Woodham et al. l9l 1) and acidic acetone (Gutenman and Lisk 1964) were used to give recoveries of 84-102% and 79-81%, respectively, from fortified soils. Modifications of both these methods were used and a comparison of results was made. All samples were analyzed on a Microtek MT 220 equipped with a Ni63 electron capture detector and a Coulson electrolytic conductivity detector (CCD) Model C 321 operating in the halide mode.

Saying that “recoveries” of 84-102% in soils of chemical contaminants is not encouraging for the concept of these chemicals breaking down.

There is the conflicting report that “despite breakdown,” the chemical has been found in our water supplies, even back in 1996:

Despite its short half-life in soil and in aquatic environments, the compound has been detected in groundwater supplies in at least five States and in Canada [20]. Very low concentrations have also been detected in surface waters throughout the U.S. [23].

So, even if there are chemical residues in the soils, are their chemical residues in the food? Say we didn’t touch the soil ( I know, I know, impossible when you harvest your own food), would there be any risk to the family eating the food?

I looked for the old studies, the ones upon which current data is supposedly based, and it turns out that in our climate, the growing season is too short to allow the residue to break down on cereal grains or straw, which explains why I had such bad chemical burns just from handling the straw:

No residues were found in the harvested grain or threshed straw collected after 80 days. Klingman et al. (1966) found 58 ppm 2,4-D acid within one half-hour after spraying forage with 2.25 kg butyl ester/ha, which decreased to 5 ppm on the 7th day. Recoveries of 2,4-D residues from fortified soil samples using acidic acetone or acidic ether extraction gave recoveries in the range 8l-95%, with a lower limit of detection at the 0.01 ppm level

This means that although the chemical residues decreased with time, the scientists were still able to “recover from the soil, chemical residues.” Recovery in this sense means being able to find the chemical in the soil. The scientists were also able to find chemical residues on the food crops and straw up to sometime around the 2 and half month mark after spray application. After 2.5 months, the residues on the straw and grain must have broken down, because in 1966, no residue was found on the straw after 80 days. With one application of 2,4-D, breakdown on cereal grains and straw seemed complete after 80 days in 1966.

In 1975 the Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues explained that 2,4-D is applied 14-21 days before harvest, so at least twice in the season, to kill off tall weeds:

However, when tall weeds growing up in the crop make harvesting
    difficult, if not impossible, 2,4-D herbicides may be applied 14-21
    days prior to harvest to destroy, defoliate or regulate the growth of
    the weeds so as to prevent interference with harvesting.

The 1975 study found that when 2,4-D is applied in the three weeks before harvest, chemical residue does taint food crops, but supposedly it shouldn’t matter because of the amount of contamination:

The data in Table 1 indicate that there is a noticeable
    accumulation of 2,4-D residues in the grain during the two weeks
    following application when treatment is made within 3 weeks of
    harvest. This is not unexpected in view of the systematic properties
    of the herbicide. However the amount of 2,4-D found in grain is not
    particularly great following normal rates of application, reaching
    levels above 0.5 mg/kg only at excessive rates of the order of
    10 kg/ha.

I always enjoy a little herbicide in the morning cereal, don’t you? Frankly, I don’t want to eat herbicides, but this mode of transmission is omitted from most toxicology study reports by the chemical industry who claim that since herbicides aren’t consumed, studies determining 2,4-D’s ability to cause cancer in rats and animals are invalid because no one eats the herbicide.  Seems like, in fact, they do. The average food consumer obviously does get exposed to 2,4-D by eating because the crops contain chemical residue.

Strangely enough, when I read the US Government’s Agency on Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Report, supposedly only people exposed to chemicals for a long time would have problems with 2,4-D, and even stranger, the Registry makes no mention of the fact that people are exposed to these chemicals since at least 1975, when one of the first reports proved people were eating these chemicals in our foods. Is 40 years of exposure long enough to cause problems?

One man who splashed pure 2,4-dichlorophenol on his arm and leg died shortly after the accident. Workers who made pesticides from chlorophenols and were exposed to chlorophenols as well as other chemicals through breathing and through the skin developed acne and mild injury to their livers. According to some studies, the risk of cancer was also slightly higher among workers who had made pesticides for a long time. These workers were exposed to very high levels of other chemicals as well as chlorophenols, so it is not certain whether the effects were caused by the chlorophenols or the other chemicals.

Animals that were given food or drinking water containing chlorophenols at high levels developed adverse or negative health effects. The major effects with exposure to high levels of chlorophenols were on the liver and the immune system. Also, the animals that ate or drank chlorophenols did not gain as much weight as the animals that ate food and drank water not containing chlorophenols.

Feeding rats and mice high doses of 2,4- dichlorophenol for a long time did not cause cancer. However, long-term treatment of rats and mice with high doses of 2,4,6-trichlorophenol in food caused leukemia in rats and liver cancer in mice, suggesting that 2,4,6-trichlorophenol may be a carcinogen. The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that 2,4,6-trichlorophenol may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that the chlorophenols as a group, are possibly carcinogenic to man. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that 2,4,6-trichlorophenol is a probable carcinogen.

Sounds like as long as you don’t bathe in it, those chemicals are supposedly perfectly safe. We may as well live in the Land of Oz and dance down the yellow-brick road. How cheerful is it that we are pretty much immune to chemical contamination? Well, unless you spill it on your arm, and then you die, or unless you tack a little “6” on the end, and then that chemical causes cancer, but without spilling it on your arm or lacking that pesky 6, we should all follow the yellow brick road.

So what about the rat study? How was it figured? The Chicago Tribune published a report on the 1995 study that is referenced in the article basically saying 2,4-D is safe to consume, unless you tack a 6 onto the end.

The EPA relied on a 1995 Dow study that found rats dosed daily with 75 milligrams of pure 2,4-D per kilogram of body weight (or mg/kg) over a two-year period gained less weight and experienced changes in kidney, thyroid, liver, lung, reproductive organ and blood chemistry measures compared with untreated rats.

Rats that consumed the next lowest dose — 5 mg/kg — showed no ill effects. This is called the “no observed adverse effect level,” and it’s the most important measure in a pesticide toxicity study.

Next came a series of math exercises. As they always do, EPA officials divided that dose by a factor of 100 to account for the fact that rats and humans are different and some people have heightened sensitivity to chemicals.

Since the mid-1990s, the EPA has been required to divide again — this time by a factor of 10 — because Landrigan’s panel found children are more vulnerable than adults. This protection may be removed only if “such margin will be safe for infants and children.”

In the case of 2,4-D, the EPA kept it in place because its scientists couldn’t tell whether 2,4-D disrupts hormones, immunity and neurological development.

When the dividing was done, the EPA under President George W. Bush set the acceptable daily intake of 2,4-D at 0.005 mg/kg. Separate calculations showed that nobody was consuming too much, the EPA said at the time.

Safe daily limit is .005mg/kg? Back in 1975, crop residues showed that food contained .5mg/kg 2,4-D. We exceeded our daily safe limit for 2,4-D consumption by 100% back in 1975. I don’t understand the claims that people would only be exposed to 2,4-D through the skin (warning label information) when apparently the majority of consumers already eat most of our herbicide exposure, herbicides that remain on grain crops after a single diluted concentration of 2,4-D for up to 80 days.

Rat studies, rat studies. Does it all come down to rats? Maybe. If it doesn’t kill rats, it won’t kill us? Except that I did find a study that linked rat doses of 2,4-D to increased rates of cancers:

We found that 2,4-D acid iso-octylester caused the formation of atypical cell foci (ACF) in the pancreata and livers of rats. ACF that were formed experimentally by exposure to azaserine had increased diameter, volume and number of atypical cell foci/mm(2) and mm(3) after exposure to 2,4-D acid iso-octylester. Our observations indicated that this herbicide potentially is a cancer initiator.

And, it appears that absorption of 2,4-D through the skin increases when sunscreens are used and alcohol is consumed, another study on rats:

Skin from rats ingesting low (1.5 g/kg) medium (4.3 g/kg) or high (6 g/kg) ethanol doses or saline control was treated with a commercially available sunscreen containing titanium dioxide and octyl methoxycinnimate and transdermal absorption of 2,4-D was monitored. Ethanol increased penetration by a factor of 1.9, 2.0 and 2.5 for animals treated with 1.5, 4.3 and 6 g/kg respectively, demonstrating an ethanol-induced dose response. Sunscreen application to skin from ethanol gavagedrats caused 2,4-D absorption above that induced by ethanol alone by an additional factor of 1.3, 2.1 and 2.9 for 1.5, 4.3 and 6 g/kg respectively.

What are the take-aways from a rat study? Well, apparently that workers using 2,4-D shouldn’t drink alcohol but should continue with sunscreen. Of course, the chemical isn’t implicated. Rat studies are complicated.

Results of this study emphasize the importance of limiting excessive alcohol consumption in individuals with potential herbicide exposure rather than discouraging the use of sunscreens, since the consequences of UV-induced skin cancer are far more series than the risks that would be associated with observed increases in chemical exposure.

Since I can’t find THE definitive rat study that supposedly says that 2,4-D is safe, I looked for A rat study proving its safety, but this is what I came up with, a 1996 publication from the Extension Toxicology Network, a conglomeration of universities, including Michigan State, studying the effects of pesticides:

2,4-D fed to rats for 2 years caused an increase in malignant tumors [7]. Female mice given a single injection of 2,4-D developed cancer (reticulum-cell sarcomas) [7]. Another study in rodents shows a low incidence of brain tumors at moderate exposure levels (45 mg/kg/day) over a lifetime [1,7]. However, a number of questions have been raised about the validity of this evidence and thus about the carcinogenic potential of 2,4-D.

I can’t find this particular study on PubMed, which is strange, because all the other studies are easily accessible on PubMed and are available to we taxpayers, because our taxes that then become grants, help fund them. Rat studies seem to be rife with controversy, so I decided to look up whether or not people showed an effect from chemical exposure, and it turns out that the more chemicals are sprayed, the more children in the US are born with birth defects, particularly those children in areas where the most chemicals are sprayed:

To evaluate this hypothesis, 935 births to 34,772 state-licensed, private pesticide appliers in Minnesota occurring between 1989 and 1992 were linked to the Minnesota state birth registry containing 210,723 live births in this timeframe. The birth defect rate for all birth anomalies was significantly increased in children born to private appliers. Specific birth defect categories, circulatory/respiratory, urogenital, and musculoskeletal/integumental, showed significant increases. For the general population and for appliers, the birth anomaly rate differed by corp-growing region. Western Minnesota, a major wheat, sugar beet, and potato growing region, showed the highest rate of birth anomalies per/1000 live births: 30.0 for private appliers versus 26.9 for the general population of the same region. The lowest rates, 23.7/1000 for private appliers versus 18.3/1000 for the general population, occurred in noncrop regions. The highest frequency of use of chlorophenoxy herbicides and fungicides also occurred in western Minnesota. Births in the general population of western Minnesota showed a significant increase in birth anomalies in the same three birth anomaly categories as appliers and for central nervous system anomalies.                         

Forget rats, we apparently already have been unwitting human test subjects, and it turns out that infants and children bear the brunt of chemical sprays, including in another study linking 2,4-D exposure in children to more birth defects. Another, separate study, again compared 2,4-D exposure to birth defects and found that the more spray applied, the higher the rate of birth defects:

Significant increases in birth malformations were observed for the circulatory/respiratory category for combined sexes [odds ratio (OR) = 1.65; 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.07-2.55]. A stronger effect was observed for the subcategory, which excluded heart malformations (OR = 2.03; 95% CI, 1.14-3.59). In addition, infants conceived during April-June–the time of herbicide application–had an increased chance of being diagnosed with circulatory/respiratory (excluding heart) malformations compared with births conceived during other months of the year (OR = 1.75; 95% CI, 1.09-2.80). Musculoskeletal/integumental anomalies increased for combined sexes in the high-wheat counties (OR = 1.50; 95% CI, 1.06-2.12). Infant death from congenital anomalies significantly increased in high-wheat counties for males (OR = 2.66; 95% CI, 1.52-4.65) but not for females (OR = 0.48; 95% CI, 0.20-1.15). These results are especially of concern because of widespread use of chlorophenoxy herbicides.

Our kids can apparently become innocent chemical test subjects, and chemical companies pressured the Obama administration to increase the supposed safe amount of chemical exposure, despite these studies.

Now, however, concentrations of 2,4-D application have increased to combat super weeds, and in response, the EPA says it’s safe to consume more 2,4-D because more of it is being applied. The Chicago Tribune also found that if GMO crops-2,4-D dependent are planted, children in the US will be some of the only children in the world consuming levels of 2,4-D that are internationally found to be unsafe.

If these crops are widely adopted, the government’s maximum-exposure projections show that U.S. children ages 1 to 12 could consume levels of 2,4-D that the World Health Organization, Russia, Australia, South Korea, Canada, Brazil and China consider unsafe.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had considered that exposure dangerous for decades as well. But the Obama administration’s EPA now says it is safe to allow 41 times more 2,4-D into the American diet than before he took office.

To reach that conclusion, the Tribune found, the agency’s scientists changed their analysis of a pivotal rat study by Dow, tossing aside signs of kidney trouble that Dow researchers said were caused by 2,4-D.

Because life is stranger than fiction, and I literally can’t make this shit up, after approving a Hulk-type 2,4-D back in 2015, the EPA filed a stay order in a federal court to overturn its own safety ruling, stating that the EPA believed they hadn’t reviewed all the evidence. In other words, the EPA tried to vacate and undo its earlier approval of the herbicide it had approved.

Now that the EPA is being investigated by Congress for its ruling that we are somehow safely capable of consuming 41 times the herbicide we could before just because Dow released a new product, the EPA is claiming that only one scientist is responsible for misleading the country about herbicide toxicity:

“We were concerned to learn that, during this process, EPA dismissed a key study linking 2,4-D to kidney abnormalities based on one scientist’s analysis, and in doing so, effectively gave the green light for 41 times more of the chemical to enter the America diet than was previously allowed,” the lawmakers wrote.

Seems the Chicago Tribune report triggered some more investigating. The same reporter who broke the story about the EPA rat study from 1995 that I quoted above, wrote the following:

The EPA is reconsidering its approval of Enlist Duo, but agency officials told the Tribune last December that its scientists solely are determining whether bigger no-spray zones are needed to protect endangered plants near the edges of farm fields. The fact that the agency’s review is focusing only on plants and not people was troubling to the lawmakers.

“These actions do not address questions about serious potential health risks brought to light by the Chicago Tribune,” the lawmakers wrote.

Aside from the fact that no one seems to worry about chemical companies using American children in unwilling and unethical experiments involving the toxicity of their chemicals, even when chemical exposure increases rates of birth defects, meaning our infants are damaged even in utero, how does it relate to straw bale gardening? Will treated straw bales even work for gardening?

Why not look at plants that are killed by 2,4-D to find out how long enough chemical residue remains in the straw or hay treated with 2,4-D. Let’s just take a look whether or not the chemical is still active by whether or not legumes, which are killed by 2-4,D will grow.

According to the North Caroline Cooperative Extension Service, herbicide residue in straw and hay, often used in gardens and for animal feed, is so pervasive that care should be taken not to introduce it into gardens, with herbicide residue lasting for up to 3 years on hay stored in a barn. The hay and straw I bought were stored in the perfect conditions to keep 2,4-D active for 3 years. No wonder I was so burned.  According to a 2,4-D Chemical Fact sheet, one of the salts of 2,4-D is the most toxic class “by eye exposure.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my father’s eyes were so irritated after handling the treated straw.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension report states that herbicides fed to animals in the form of contaminated hay remain active in the manure even after it is composted:

Depending on the situation, the herbicides can be deactivated in as few as 30 days, but some field reports indicate that complete deactivation and breakdown can take several years. Hay has been reported to have residual herbicide activity after three years’ storage in dry, dark barns. Degradation is particularly slow in piles of manure and compost. When mulches, manures, or composts with residual herbicide activity are applied to fields or gardens to raise certain vegetables, flowers, or other broadleaf crops, potentially devastating damage can occur (Table 2).

I can’t get the table to insert, but tomatoes, peas, grapes, strawberries,eggplants, potatoes, peppers and in a fit of exhaustion “vegetables, in general” are listed as being killed by herbicide residues.  So putting that straw in his garden has the potential to kill my father’s hope of vegetables this year and possibly for years afterward. The report goes on to state that the hay or straw is only safe on grass fields, not for growing crops.

The herbicides of concern can also remain active on the hay itself. Do not sell or give away treated hay (even if it is several years old) for use as mulch or for making compost. The hay can be sold for consumption by livestock and horses, but be sure the purchaser is aware that the herbicide may pass through into the manure. Advise people feeding this hay to their animals to spread the manure on grass pastures or grass hayfields, being sure to follow all safety guidelines and regulations. According to the labels, plant materials treated with these herbicides should not be considered safe for growing sensitive crops until the plant materials are completely decayed. Breakdown of the herbicides is most rapid in sunlight under warm, moist conditions and may be enhanced with irrigation

I didn’t know there were now safety guidelines for spreading manure. Maybe there are safety guidelines for spreading chemically contaminated manure? Note that there is no mention of a source for determining how the herbicide is broken down. The report doesn’t mention how you know if “breakdown” has occurred. Great. We have long rows of straw bales in a garden that have the potential to kill our next-row pole beans, flanked on the other side by tomatoes.

It’s depressing that these issues with herbicide contamination aren’t more broadly discussed. I didn’t even get into the numerous studies that have linked pesticides, and 2,4-D is also considered a pesticide (hell, that stuff kills everything!), with increased childhood cancers and 2,4-D’s specific link to non-Hodgkins lymphomas.

A basic study, though, tells us that the more we are exposed, the more likely we are to have an increase in cancer:

There was a 50% excess of NHL among men who mixed or applied 2,4-D (odds ratio [OR] = 1.5; 95% confidence interval = 0.9, 2.5). The risk of NHL increased with the average frequency of use to over threefold for those exposed 20 or more days per year (p for trend = 0.051). Adjusting for use of organophosphate insecticides lowered the risk estimate for frequent users (OR = 1.8), but adjustment for fungicide use increased the risk estimate (OR = 4.5).

NHL does not euphemistically relate to the National Hockey League but to Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. There is a 300% increase in developing non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in men who mix or apply 2,4-D.

In the 2,4-D Chemical Watch Fact sheet, there is a listing stating that 2,4-D “breaks down” in soil, an article published in 1992 that cautions that the data found regarding soil breakdown in 2,4-D is site-dependent and cautioned that this information would be lost and the chemical could be misused:

For each parameter we suggest a “Selected Value” which we believe to be the best available, recognizing, however, that persistence and soil sorption are sensitive to specific site conditions. These Selected Values are being incorporated into pesticide environmental-impact risk assessment procedures by state and federal agencies, and are considered to be consensus values. However, there is a serious potential for misuse of these data, particularly the error of using small differences between active ingredients to make regulatory distinctions between them. The ability to relate these data to environmental impact is an essential need and is improving, but is currently at a primitive level.

Look, the study says that the little “6” we mentioned in 2,4-D being “safe” was already forecast back in 1992. Evaluating chemical impact in 1992 was considered “primitive,” and yet this study was used as the basis for studies claiming that 2,4-D breaks down.

I didn’t know my father and I could have disagreements with straw, because, quite honestly, I didn’t realize the depth of the politics involved in big farming that impacted me to such an extent. It’s not that I believe these things won’t affect me, but how could I know that straw was sprayed with 2,4-D? I was trying to give my birds fresh bedding. I have since moved to wood mulch that is chopped right on our property, and I have found an organic straw supplier. It only costs $4/bale for organic straw, and no burns!

I wish there was a way to communicate to those others who grow their own food that the food industry is far from transparent, and the chemical farming isn’t always forthright in representations of its own impact on others. It takes other farmers who have lost millions of dollars in lost crops to start some of the discussions on the ways in which large agriculture is infringing on the rights of all of our families to grow our own food. There are right to farm laws that protect our rights to grow our own foods, but what happens when big agriculture takes away those rights?

Meyers, founder of Vinetenders, LLC., is one of the region’s most experienced vineyard managers, with 35 years in what has become an internationally-acclaimed facet of Oregon agriculture. He says herbicide drift damages grapes, blueberries, nursery stock and organic crops — all valuable and expanding sectors of farming.

Meyers and other grape growers believe 2,4-D use should be banned from April through October, the growing season. Washington has taken that step and California has strict limitations as well. Vineyard operators are disappointed the Oregon Department of Agriculture hasn’t followed suit.

“We feel like we’ve now got a significant wine growing industry and we’re asking for similar protection,” said Doug Tunnell, owner of Brick House Vineyards. “People are losing revenue, losing grapes, every year; 2,4-D is so dangerous around grape vines.”

Guess in our little town I don’t know where to start. Straw bale gardening sure isn’t the panacea for poor soil if you happen to get a hold of straw sprayed with herbicides.

Now, it’s 11:45 at night. My daughter whispered that she was going up to bed without me over an hour ago as if she were kindly breaking some bad news to me. She kind of was–we love to read in bed at night, just for fun. And how to tell the family that my father’s garden may be no more?

When Chickens Dust Bathe After Injury: Mud Isn’t Just For Facials and Pies

I mentioned in my other post on maggots, that we had a chicken named Brownie heal from a serious injury using mud. It was much too long to include in my last post. Brownie actually had been hurt years before Lucky, but as I am simply writing as I remember them, Lucky’s most recent injury is more fresh in my mind. Brownie is a Golden-Laced Wyandotte, a big rounded hen, with the darkest underskirt of feathers in the group of chicks we had purchased. She laid eggs reliably, and as she was fertile, she often attracted the attention of our rooster, Sunny. One day Sunny must have broken off part of his spur (we don’t remove spurs, we just file them down with a nail file until they aren’t sharp, usually). This is not unusual for Sunny. He breaks a spur off quite frequently when it gets long enough. The problem: Sunny mated with Brownie with a sharp spur, sometime in the morning before we came to the garden, and the injury to Brownie’s side was devastating.

When a rooster mates with a hen, sometimes his feet slide down her body, and this happened with Sunny, but as it did, his broken and therefore sharp spur, split the skin over Brownie’s ribcage and sliced it cleanly. We took a picture of the injury and showed it to one of our vets who said that he was fairly certain the injury was caused by a rooster. At first, we had no idea how Brownie had gotten so injured, and were worried that there had been an unknown predator visiting injury upon our hens that we had yet to detect. Nope, not a predator, a rooster. An inevitable part of having animals is that they can sometimes hurt one another unintentionally.

When we found Brownie’s injury, she was holding her wing at an unnatural angle, and she had filled the injury with mud, packed it in to the point that dust fell off her as she walked around the garden. My first instinct, to wash the injury, meant that I brought Brownie home with us, certain her demise was imminent, because after all, how could a chicken sustain such a severe injury and still survive? I have never been of the opinion that I need to “put an animal down” or kill it under the guise of being humane, because I don’t understand why being human makes it ok for us to kill an animal based upon our own justification that it’s life is no longer worthwhile. (I have only done it once, with a chicken that had been attacked by a dog and whose rib cages were exposed and when I found her had maggots falling out of her lungs because she was in extreme pain. I don’t know, still, if it was the right decision and found myself so conflicted that on the way out of the vet’s office I backed into a cement pillar and had to center myself before driving home because I was crying so hard.)

Brownie, injury packed with mud, came home with us. My daughter held Brownie gently under her arm, with Brownie’s head covered with a Kleenex, enough to cover her eyes to calm Brownie but not interfere with Brownie’s breathing. Upon further inspection, the injury was not infected. There were no maggots, no tissue necrosis. She just had a 4-inch by 3-inch section of her body covered with mud and a skin flap hanging off the side of the injury.

Once again, I used a little sterile saline to rinse the wound. If the skin is terribly raw, sterile saline should be used as a rinse because our bodies are really a salty mess. We don’t have plain water in our veins, nor water treated with chlorine, as most municipal water supplies are, or flouride, generally added to water, too. You know how it stings if you blister your hand doing something like raking the yard, and then that big flap of skin can pull off and it burns like fire when you just get water on it? Or, perhaps, if you get too much tap water in your eyes and it burns? It’s because we don’t have plain water in our bodies, a balanced saline solution is much more comfortable, so if my birds are injured, that’s what I use to rinse. It can be bought at all major retailers, comes in a squirt or spray bottle and is perfect for flushing a wound.

Rinsing didn’t get the dirt out of the wound, and in fact, it appeared that the dirt pack had stopped the bleeding, formed  lattice to help the body form a scab. Removing the dirt would have meant removing a scab that covered Brownie’s side. I decided that the chicken must have had a reason for dust bathing an injury and off I went to research mud. Guess what? Brownie knew what she was doing. I, clearly, had not.

Science says that mud has abilities to kill bacteria, all kinds of nasty bacteria.

The colloquial medical advice “rub some dirt in it” appears to have some merit. Researchers at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute have been experimenting with different clays, and it appears in research presented in the journal PLoS ONE that they’ve come across a family of antibacterial clays capable of killing pathogens ranging from E. coli to methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as hard-to-kill MRSA.

It turns out that’s probably because some clays–particularly clays rich in a certain group of metallic ions–work as antibacterial agents. In their study, the ASU researchers tested a variety of different clays with similar mineral composition but ranging compositions of metallic ions against E. coli and MRSA. They found that five metal ions–iron, copper, cobalt, nickel, and zinc–could fight the two bacterial strains, both of which are increasingly difficult to kill using standard antibiotics and antibacterials.

Chicken knowledge surpassed my own? Not surprising since we human children are taught that mud is bad, dirty, needing to be washed, and generally not a household welcome guest. Chickens, on the other hand, live in dirt. They need it, require it to eat, to digest food, to poop. They have an instinct to dig that can’t be stopped. Brownie knew how to heal herself.

I didn’t test our mud to determine the concentration of metallic ions, but it makes sense that bacteria can’t grow on a metal like zinc. Zinc is used in many over the counter antibiotic ointments, like bacitracin zinc ointment. Zinc is used in sunscreen with a zinc oxide formulation and in diaper ointments to help soothe skin. Zinc consumption has been proven to help shorten the duration of common viral illnesses.

Bacitracin zinc, itself,  is made from a group of organisms that compete with bacteria, possibly for food sources ( I really don’t know why), and so these organisms secrete antibacterial agents. Voila! Antibiotic ointment is born. Dirt, or mud, heavy in minerals and in agents that are designed to naturally compete with pathogenic bacteria form their own “antibiotics” and so kill off bacteria that are harmful in wounds. This could be why I have never gotten an infected wound from the myriad of scratches and cuts I get while working in the garden, even if they get dirt in them, neither has my husband, nor our daughter.

Brownie never did have any infection. As her skin healed, a little at a time, I kept her home, away from any of the other birds who might curiously “groom” her injury by pecking it, and as the skin healed, the mud flaked off on it’s own, and Brownie is now a happy 5-year old hen who continues to lay during the bright sunlight of summer.

Am I suggesting packing your own injuries with mud? Nope. I will admit to using a mud pack on my own scrapes, on my daughter’s scrapes, too; however, I don’t know that all mud has these healing properties. I do know our garden mud seems to, because we don’t get infections when we use mud. Actually, there are multiple antibiotic allergies in our family, so as a general rule, we don’t use antibiotics either. They just are safe for us. I do know that when my father-in-law lost his leg in a gas field explosion he landed in some mud that packed the wound from his missing leg, and he didn’t bleed to death, even with missing a leg.  I don’t advocate mud packs for everyone else, but it has worked for us and our animals.

I am just suggesting that Nature has some incredible healing mechanisms of her own, mechanisms that our animals generally understand. Consider that wound packing supplies are being developed for the U.S. Military to use an animal product, chitosan a blood-clotting, antimicrobial substance that comes from shrimp shells, and sterile wood pulp as an emergency treatment to stop bleeding  on the battlefield. I wouldn’t advocate packing a wound with shrimp shells either, but the bandages with natural ingredients are the most efficient at stopping hemorrhage. The bottom line is that if an animal is showing an instinctual response to an injury, don’t immediately work to undo it. Pay attention, because sometimes the animal knows more about how to heal itself than we do.

The Value of Maggots: Eating Dead Skin Is Good For Us

I will admit that maggots have a gross factor that even I am not immune to, having in fact had maggots crawling all over my arms and hands at one point made me nauseous for a solid week. We had found that our little hen, Lucky, had sustained an injury at some point, and within a few days, her wound was crawling with maggots.We don’t know how Lucky had gotten injured, and we had been out of town for a day or two, but Lucky has a way of finding the tiniest spaces, the most efficient means of escaping, and sometimes she has gotten hurt.  Lucky had an infection, and I feared the maggots were only a sign of fatality, that surely my little hen couldn’t survive this assault.

We called our vet who, thankfully, had a vet on staff who didn’t know the most humane way to euthanize a chicken with that level of injury, and I decided that if Lucky wanted to fight, I would do my level best to help her. My daughter and I brought her home wrapped in a towel, maggots and all, and I decided the first thing to do was to bathe Lucky. Into the washtub we placed the bird and began to rinse the area with saline. At the first rinse, maggots swarmed out of Lucky’s wound and onto my hands. They begged to escape by crawling my arms, my hands, and trying to make their way into my sleeves.

I had no dead skin on me, so there was no food source for them, but feeling maggots crawling everywhere certainly was a unique scientific experience that I had never before experienced. I was thinking maggots=death.  Poor little Lucky. We would hold her, keep her at the house, which she actually dearly loves, and let her ease down peacefully. Lucky had no ideas of peace about her and began to fight my cleaning ministrations. I had no hands free to get the maggots off myself, and tried to just keep rinsing and silent. Added emotional drama didn’t seem to be helpful, so I focused on trying to determine the life cycle of the maggots rinsing down the drain and into my arms, young maggots and old maggots. Lucky had had the injury for a few days.

When I cleaned Lucky off, I found that she had sustained a puncture injury, perhaps from a rooster’s mating attempt, perhaps from jumping off her perch, or from some means I hadn’t imagined. Her puncture injury was right near the cloaca, and egg-laying must have been extraordinarily painful. My first response was to place Lucky in lowered light levels to stop her from laying, signaling to her body that it needed to rest. I turned down the lights, continued rinsing, and when I had finished flushing the wound with sterile saline to remove all the dirt (when injured, chickens will dust bathe, which does serve a purpose, but that is another story about Brownie, who dust bathed and stopped  hemorrhage).

I applied antibiotic ointment. Lucky hated it. She kept trying to straighten her feathers, and she didn’t like the way the oils stuck to them. I rinsed the maggots down the drain. And, put Lucky in the dog crate we keep for purposes like this, with water mixed with a good amount of yarrow and sage (both help stop bleeding and “weeping” or moist infections) and a little oxytetracycline, but only a small amount of the antibiotic. Lucky, as with most of our birds, hates drinking water with any additive except herbs. She will avoid any medicated water, waiting until she gets fresh water to drink anything. Since she was already stressed, I merely put herbs in her water, turned down the lights, told her we loved her, petted her gently, made her a soft nest and headed out of the room. Lucky turned away from us unhappily in the darkness and proceeded to try to groom the ointment out of her feathers. It’s always a good sign when a bird grooms themselves, because it shows that they are well enough to try to order their feathers and keep themselves clean, much like when you know you have recovered from the flu when you want to brush your hair and shower finally.

I woke up the next morning trying to steel myself for the inevitable silence I felt for sure would greet me. I told myself that we did the best we could, we had loved her, we had cared for her, we must let her go if it was her time. I came downstairs and I heard pecking, and an inquisitive chirp that Lucky does so well when she is curious. Lucky was up and eating and drinking. Her breathing was still relatively rapid, a sign of stress, and her surrounding infected area was still very warm and read to the touch. The puncture wound in the light of the day was sobering. It was the size of an egg, perhaps that area having been stretched by egg laying, had blackened tissue around the edges, and there was a deep, deep scab that seemed to hang heavily from her delicate skin near the cloaca. It looked painful. Maggots were still crawling, but not as plentiful.

I was disturbed by the blackness, the dead skin, and I flashed back to debridment of wounds, how to care for burns and deep wounds, which to the uninitiated, means scraping off the dead tissue to release live tissue underneath to prevent the infection from festering. Inevitably this is painful because by scraping off dead tissue, the live tissue underneath gets pulled off in the process. I had no idea how to do this with such a deep wound and no desire to inflict that on my precious little hen. Then I thought of the maggots. The night before the maggots had been plentiful, but there hadn’t been so much dead tissue, and the fact of the matter was, the maggots had been cleaning the wound of dead skin, probably painlessly because Lucky didn’t pick the maggots off and eat them the way most chickens grab worms. She left them in place for a reason, and looking at that blackened skin, I vowed to do the same. I could not find a way to remove the dead skin to let the wound drain more effectively than the maggots had.

Lest you think this is a crazy idea, maggots have been used in medical settings to remove dead skin. Maggots actually help a wound heal, and it works in people, is considered a valid medical treatment for infected wounds. Science Daily just covered scientifically “improved” maggots bred for wound debridement:

Sterile, lab-raised green bottle fly larvae are used for maggot debridement therapy (MDT), in which maggots are applied to non-healing wounds, especially diabetic foot ulcers, to promote healing. Maggots clean the wound, remove dead tissue and secrete anti-microbial factors. The treatment is cost-effective and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. However, there is no evidence from randomized clinical trials that MDT shortens wound healing times.

With the goal of making a strain of maggots with enhanced wound-healing activity, NC State researchers genetically engineered maggots to produce and then secrete human platelet derived growth factor-BB (PDGF-BB), which is known to aid the healing process by stimulating cell growth and survival.

What?? Maggots help us? Nature created something crawly that serves a purpose? It sure did for Lucky. I let the smaller maggots continue to clean the wound, and by that evening, the black tissue around the wound was gone, Lucky was moving more, and the scab started to show signs of loosening around the edges. I continued with the herbs in the water, provided fresh greens, lowered light to stop her laying, and provided small items of interest for her to dig out of her food dish, sunflower seeds, lettuce leaves, a piece of bread (which she didn’t really eat but dearly loved to shred), and Lucky continued to recover. I also continued to give her small doses of antibiotics in her water, and I changed it three times a day, added a separate container of electrolytes, and within a few days, the wound was healing and the maggots were gone. I didn’t kill them. I don’t know where they went.

We brought Lucky back to the garden for a few hours everyday, and at one point when I picked her up, the scab on her loosened at the edge a yellowish-lymph and pus-filled liquid ran from the wound and onto my hands. It was thin and had lots of clear fluid in the mix, and while I struggled to determine what industrial strength cleaner I would need to wash my hands, I did compress the area a bit more, and the wound drained on it’s own. Within a day or two after that, the big scab fell off completely, and there was only healthy pink tissue showing.

A large, pink organ showed beneath the skin, and when I looked it up in Nature, I found that a chicken has an immune organ called a bursa, and this swells when a chicken fights infection. Turns out that scientists have been studying chicken immune systems for the last 60 years to determine where cancers in humans originate, and the bursa in chickens is similar to our bone marrow producing immune cells (think of human dysfunction with this as it manifests in leukemia–fascinating research on the ways animals inform our understanding of ourselves, if you wan to read it).

As Lucky continued to heal, the swelling in her bursa went down, the infection never resurfaced, and within two weeks, after that Lucky’s wound healed over completely. It seemed as if magic was visited upon us, and everyday I went to the garden and rejoiced in Lucky’s persistent attempts to escape her pen to chase off the other hens from her favorite digging place.

Maggots. Who would have believed that maggots could be so healing? Who would have believed that maggots can do what modern medicine cannot, clean a wound of dead tissue so easily and capably that a seemingly fatal wound and infection heal without a trace. We live in an amazing world. I had stumbled on what battlefield surgeons noticed years ago: maggots help heal wounds and clear infections.

Maggots are efficient consumers of dead tissue. They munch on rotting flesh, leaving healthy tissue practically unscathed. Physicians in Napoleon’s army used the larvae to clean wounds. In World War I, American surgeon William Baer noticed that soldiers with maggot-infested gashes didn’t have the expected infection or swelling seen in other patients. The rise of penicillin in the 1940s made clinical maggots less useful, but they bounced back in the 1990s when antibiotic-resistant bacteria created a new demand for alternative treatments. In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved maggot therapy as a prescription treatment.

Although anecdotal reports suggested that maggots curb inflammation, no one had scientifically tested the idea. So a team led by surgical resident Gwendolyn Cazander of Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands siphoned samples of maggot secretions from disinfected maggots in the lab and added them to donated blood samples from four healthy adults. The researchers then measured the levels of so-called complement proteins, which are involved in the body’s inflammatory response.

Every blood sample treated with maggot secretions showed lower levels of complement proteins than did control samples—99.9% less in the best case, the team reports in the current issue of Wound Repair and Regeneration. Looking closer, the researchers found the broken-down remnants of two complement proteins—C3 and C4—in the secretion-treated samples, suggesting that the secretions had ripped the proteins apart. When the team tested blood samples from postoperative patients, whose wounded bodies were already scrambling to heal, they found that maggot secretions reduced the levels of complement proteins by 19% to 55%.

School Gardens: SocioEconomic Equality And Play

When people talk about school gardens, they often look for metrics, metrics that they hope will “prove” that having gardens at school causally increases grades.  In a testing-centered curriculum, metrics of increased test scores are the gold standard for implementing an educational program. Do school gardens improve test scores? The short answer is : yes. The National Science Teacher’s Association found that students scored significantly higher on test scores when they were part of a school garden program, regardless of gender or other social factors.

If school gardens help raise test scores for students, and test scores are used to measure educational progress, why doesn’t every school have a school garden? Or more than one garden?

That question is tough to answer, and emerging social dynamics in the field of educational resources and funding seem to play a role. In short, though, the presence of school gardens and their included curriculum might be more of a signifier of socioeconomic factors and school district functionality rather than test scores or funding.

One columnist writing about school gardens in 2010 claims that because gardening is experimental, it’s not appropriate for schools:

The need for better research on the impact of garden-based learning is at the heart of criticism of the movement. In a scathing article in The Atlantic in 2010, Caitlin Flanagan described the trend as “a giant experiment, one that is predicated on a set of assumptions that are largely unproved, even unexamined.”

“That no one is calling foul on this is only one manifestation of the way the new Food Hysteria has come to dominate and diminish our shared cultural life,” Flanagan contended.

Aside from the fact that laboratories and experiments are generally considered a part of schooling and a normal facet of human exploration, critics of the school gardening movement miss the point if they are looking solely to see if having a garden at a school raises grades.  Why is it so unimportant for children to taste good, fresh food at school? Why would experimentation with growing be suddenly considered a form of non-academia? The columnist goes on to comment that it’s teacher work-load that prevents teachers from actively providing lessons outdoors that relate to mandated curricula.

Another challenge that skeptics point to is that teachers are already so overwhelmed with demands on their time — thanks to a number of factors, including standardized testing and educational standards outlined by Common Core and Next Generation — that it becomes difficult to implement garden-based learning in a meaningful way.

Meaningful way? Gardening must be meaningful from a math perspective, or it’s not useful? If there is no science lesson accompanying the garden space, then the garden space is useless? That’s like saying that all children live in a vacuum and have no interaction or knowledge of their natural world unless their teacher tells them what they can look for.  Children are natural observers, and teachers don’t necessarily have to work to make a math lesson out of gardening–it comes, well, naturally.

How much soil do we need to buy to fill a raised bed with dirt? (If you buy soil as opposed to making it with compost, as some schools do with lunchroom waste.) Perimeter is the amount of fencing needed. Surface area is the planting surface, and cubic feet is the manner in which soil is measured and sold in bags in stores. Math application in “real life” is not difficult, and, in fact, many people are searching for that link between their instruction and life’s applications. (I am reminded of my mother-in-law who said that maybe if she had ever learned that “solving for x” meant telling her how much interest she could earn with savings or pay when taking out a loan, she might have paid more attention in math class. She never knew it applied to her life.) I have also taught children how to measure angles to figure out the length of wood needed to build small nesting boxes, basic geometry, and how to figure out how much produce their garden bed produced over a season based on space.

Trying to equate gardening in schools with increased test scores is a symptom of low socioeconomic educational systems who must struggle for test scores to the exclusion of all else, and then the inevitable conclusion is that if students are low performing, they don’t deserve time for something enjoyable or non-test related. School gardens, then, are the economic equalizer.

Even if school gardens provide only a place for unstructured play, students in low performing schools deserve to have a safe place to enjoy unstructured play as a necessary right of human development. Unstructured play is so important that even the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a public service announcement stating that unstructured play is necessary for children.  Failure to provide school gardens could, in that sense, then be considered a form of economic discrimination against low-performing and underfunded students, which are predominantly minority.

When we expound on the benefits of recess, and there are many (as backed most recently by a Stanford study, among many), why not include gardening ? Recess is not an academic subject but has been found to be important to students, so why assume that unless there is a direct academic course built around school gardens that students won’t benefit?

Realistically, school gardens, with a focus on exploration, experimentation and growing have the capacity to increase green space and safe spaces at schools. Green spaces are important to we humans, as we are animals, too. Green spaces convey a sense of value, of quality, and demonstrate pride in an environment, all elements that would certainly benefit schools. Studies of green spaces have been directly tied to economic benefits, much like the push try to equate school gardens with increased test scores, but the research is compelling:

Views of plants increase job satisfaction. Employees with an outside view of plants experience less job pressure and greater job satisfaction than workers viewing man-made objects or having no outside view. They also report fewer headaches and other ailments than workers without the view.11

Nature increases worker productivity. Psychologists have found that access to plants and green spaces provides a sense of rest and allows workers to be more productive.12

Landscaping renews business districts. Greening of business districts increases community pride and positive perception of an area, drawing customers to the businesses.13

Quality landscaping means quality goods. A recent study found that consumers would be willing to pay, on average, a 12% premium for goods purchased in retail establishments that are accompanied by quality landscaping.14

Why would these benefits not extend to schools and work ethics, pride, and quality?Simply put, there is a fear that if the gardens don’t raise test scores for low-performing students that the students don’t deserve to have anything else, and it’s a pervasive assignment for low-performing schools, usually in under privileged areas.

It’s not that school gardens have no impact on academics–they do, and in positive ways.

Some studies that have taken a closer look at the direct academic impact of school gardens have also had encouraging results. In 2013, Dilafruz Williams and P. Scott Dixon conducted a comprehensive review of 20 years of literature on programs of this nature. Of 22 studies included in the review, 93 percent reported improved student performance in science, 80 percent saw improvement in math and 72 percent noted improvement in language arts. Williams and Dixon’s analysis also noted, however, that more rigorous research on the topic would be beneficial.

It’s just that providing fresh food and unstructured play are human rights for children, not just an academic experiment, and school gardens can provide both. Gardening is rewarding for children, in any capacity, and the students who most need a safe place to play and experiment are often minorities and might only have that ability at school.

We are Nature’s creatures, after all. We can’t exist without Nature. In fact, recent studies have determined that children’s rates of vision problems are increasing because children don’t get access to enough sunlight. Our indoor lifestyle is literally causing our children to be nearsighted.  So when does the discussion move from “rewarding” our children with Nature  to recognizing that things like school gardens are a necessary form of an economic equalizer for our most precarious students and all students?



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