“Put a pepper in a pot!”-That’s what a friend of ours would say while we were planning a community garden initiative. Not only does this phrase contain delightful alliteration, but it also points to the to the fact that learning to garden is as simple as planting peppers (or tomatoes, herbs, or whatever vegetable you choose) in pots. Furthermore, something we don’t think of much is that in the act of gardening, one benefits from solar energy in one of its most natural forms. So what if you don’t have the money to install sexy photovoltaic solar panels, just plant something—anything–and experience the power of the sun.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting your hands on some solar panels to supply some (or all) of your electrical needs. However, in our mad dash for technological solutions to environmental problems, I think that we forget that (part of) the answer may be growing right under our feet, in and around us.
The old oil barons of the 19th century (and new ones continue the practice) started us on a course of buying energy. They mine the oil or coal (or more accurately, their workers, who often work in dangerous or hazardous conditions and who have had to fight hard to obtain basic workers’ rights) and sell it to us in various forms: heat for our homes, fuel for our cars and, in the form of electricity, power for our computers and lights. Some thinkers/writers like Wendell Berry (check out who he is here: Wendell Berry – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia ) claim that this has resulted in a hijacking of our brains. He calls our modern minds “cheap energy minds” because we now think of energy as something we buy, and for a long time, we could buy it fairly cheaply and thus began to feel entitled to its benefits. We expect that if we pay for this cheap energy, we are entitled to get places quickly, buy food “ready made” and “ready grown” and have light at the flick of a switch. This is vastly different from an older way of viewing the world in which people acknowledged and respected various sources of energy such as the Sun, the Ocean and the Earth itself. We have largely lost this reverence for natural processes that freely provide energy if one will enter into a mutual relationship with them. For example, If one plants a pepper in a pot, places it in a lighted area, protects it from frost, nourishes it with compost and gives it water, they will be rewarded with delicious peppers at the end of the season. This kind of energy requires patience. But not only does it give tangible fruit (peppers) it also may give a more elusive type of fruit: joy.
But, to backtrack a bit, I think that in the midst of this “cheap energy” crazed age we think of solutions to our “energy problem” in terms of what we can consume: Whether or not to legislate a system of carbon credits, the pros and cons of organically grown food, and whether or not to by a hybrid car. It is easy for me to feel lost and ungrounded in these discussions and thoughts. At these times I feel the need to connect to a deeper energy than the gas sold to me so cheaply (and yet it is getting more expensive by the year) by the BP station down the road and something more compatible with to wife and my meager rental dwelling than solar panels and wind turbines. Enter the humble garden and compost heap.
Contained in a few square feet of our garden are oodles of earthworms eating their way through the soil, gigantic, yet mostly invisible to us, webs of fungi, and scurrying neighborhoods of beetles, roly-poly’s, spiders and ants. This is not to mention the plants that reach their roots deep and wide through the topsoil and into the subsoil which then pull up water and food to feed the greenery up top. And that is where the real magic occurs: that photosynthesis stuff that we learned about back sometime in school. This is where CO2, water and sunlight are used to make sugars to sustain the plant. I could perhaps go on with boring (or if you’re a bit geeky like me, then maybe not so boring) scientific information about these processes, but I will refrain. Partly because I don’t actually know very much about the science of it, and partly because I think you’d do better getting out and planting something and experiencing it for yourself.
What I am trying to get at is the idea that maybe we need broaden our narrow conception of “energy”. The way I figure it, if Julie and I grow a few peppers in pots, or because we’ve gone a little garden crazy, grow a substantial chunk of our own veggies this summer, we will benefit from this delightful solar energy in the form of yummy food. We will also benefit by not having to drive to town so often to get groceries. Now that is some energy savings if you ask me. I not only don’t like to give the oil companies money, I also don’t like driving to the store and shopping for groceries that much. It is physically taxing at times.
Another thing, we won’t need an expensive gym membership, as we will be getting a workout from gardening-which brings me to my next little point: embodied energy. What heck does that mean? I first came across that two word phrase in a book about how to build in an eco-friendly manner. As I have used this phrase in writing and conversing about environmental issues I have gotten funny looks and have been asked to define what it means. Maybe this seems like a merely academic detour so far, and you’d certainly be justified for thinking that, but I have been thinking about this concept recently and want to see how it relates to gardening and energy. I’ve read a few definitions of this (here is a decent one: http://sustainablog.org/2010/03/embodied-energy-soccer-ball/ ) and will now try to posit my own. (Be warned, ramblings and bramblings ahead)
I think embodied energy is the amount of energy that it took to make a particular product. For example, the ubiquitous McDonald’s hamburger requires various energy “inputs” in order to be served to you hot in a matter of seconds. The beef, which is grown who knows where, is from cattle raised on grain that was grown with fertilizers and pesticides made from fossils fuels, the fields in which it was grown were farmed using heavy machinery that runs on diesel fuel. All of the veggies on that hamburger were raised in a similar fashion. Workers who are treated like slaves may have picked the tomatoes on the burger. All of these products (and more products) are then trucked around the country in refrigerated trucks, using, you guessed it, more fossil fuel energy. This is not to mention other energy intputs such as the energy of the underpaid workers who prepare and serve this food and the air conditioning and electric lights at the fast food joint. All of these energies are “embodied” in the hamburger: this hamburger could not exist in the fast food restaurant without all of these inputs. That is ridiculous! And that is why I’ve been searching for alternatives.
I think that the more of this energy that we embody-by growing and preparing our own food, biking and walking when it is practical, drying clothes on the line, etcthe more concrete this concept becomes for me. The energy that I use and participate with comes closer to where we live and becomes a part who we are. So, put a pepper in a pot, or something else as remarkably simple yet surprisingly profound and see what kind of new, renewable and renewing energy you find.
Photos courtesy of Julie Brewer.
Dumb humor courtesy of me.