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lophophora flower from oliver kellhammer on Vimeo.

Revered as ‘the flesh of god’ and ‘the furry thing’ since ancient times, Lophophora cacti are amazing for a whole lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they are powerfully psychoactive. I always keep a few around as ‘pets,’ though they are sadly too slow growing for me to be able to harvest more than once every quarter century. One of their appeals is that the flowers have thigmotactic anthers, which curl over onto the pistil when touched, depositing pollen. This allows Lophophora to self pollinate so they can set seed even if there aren’t others of their own kind growing nearby. Please enjoy my little video of this rather intimate botanical moment.

On another note, sound collage artists Negativland are all over things thigmotactic and have even released an album of the same name. As an added ‘Show So Far’ bonus, you’ll find that knowing the word ‘thigmotactic’ should enable you to kick some ass in your next Scrabble game.



For all of my plant geek readers, here are a few shoots of some of the various bamboos I have growing in my yard… Needless to say I love the stuff but it’s kind of taking over the place. My house is surrounded by big thickets and pretty soon I won’t be able to find the door…..


still here…

wolf investigating my neighbor's garbage

wolf investigating my neighbor's garbage

Another spring is upon us here on Canada’s West Coast, replete with its promise of respite from the brooding winter sky and the months of cold, slimy rain. The occasional few hours of sunshine, the unfurling of tender buds and in the hollows – the din of tree frogs in their tremulous nuptial chirping; it all reminds me that this is the season of new life and new beginnings.

Though Timothy Morton describes the current ecological moment as a kind of planetary ‘charnel ground’, i.e. we have basically already died and just haven’t realized it yet, I am perhaps stubbornly holding out for some hope. Despite the epic damage our species has wrought on its fellow organisms and on the very climatological systems that keep everything in its finely tuned balance, I am seeing signs here and there that the processes of planetary repair are kicking in, and that one day, the worst of what we have done will be obscured beneath layers of unquenchable biomass.

Which is not to say I am in denial about the severity of our present situation. Accelerated extinction and human-induced climate change are all too real and many of earth’s more fragile ecosystems have been badly diminished or at reduced to ‘museum’ status, surviving as relics only within the confines of national parks, constantly under threat from illegal logging, poaching and the abrasions of excessive tourism. Though I think it premature to declare the ‘end of nature,’ it is safe to say we are at the end of wilderness.

But what does this mean exactly? To be sure the figure/ground relationship between man and nature has changed fundamentally, perhaps irrevocably, as Bill McKibben pointed out in his prescient book, way back in 1989. A single species, ours, is now the greatest driving force behind species biodiversity, climate change and even geomorphology, via the amount of the earth’s crust we move and the structures we build, activities that geologists calculate now use up more energy annually than is expended by the natural growth of mountains and the deposition of sediments. Yet there are also signs that species are responding to us by evolving at an unprecedented rate. The New Scientist describes a type of ‘fast-track’ evolution, in which significant morphological traits of animals can evolve in mere decades to help them adapt to changing environmental conditions, provided there is enough genetic diversity in the original population to allow the expression of ‘back-up’ genes. Several of Darwin’s iconic Galapagos finches are already changing their beak sizes as they literally evolve into new species as the conditions of their Galapagos habitat are altered by changing climate and by the selective pressure of being fed leftover rice by the throngs of eco-tourists who have come to see them. The article also cites the now classic case of ‘industrial melanization’ in peppered moths, which rapidly evolved darker pigmentation in response to the contamination of the English Midlands by coal soot during the Industrial Revolution. Blackness too confers a survival advantage to organisms, especially birds, living in the ‘zone of alienation’ around the Chernobyl reactor site. It turns out that darker pigmentation frees up a molecule called glutathione (GSH), an antioxidant which protects tissues from radiation damage. So darker birds succeed, while their lighter cousins don’t, which has already skewed the way birds in the area look in the past twenty-five years since the explosion. Amazingly, a conspicuously black, radiotrophic fungus now thrives in one of the most radioactive places in the whole disaster area – the inside surfaces of the concrete sarcophagus that was hastily constructed to contain the radiation spewing from the stricken reactor as they continued to melt down.

As well as appearance, animal behavior is rapidly changing as the evolutionary pressure to adapt to the ubiquitous humans presence steadily mounts. These ‘cultural’ shifts are cropping up all over the place as in the case I wrote about previously concerning the extirpation and subsequent recolonization of wolves on Cortes Island, BC (where I live part time.) What is amazing about this situation was not that the wolves came back; they weren’t after all extinct on the nearby mainland; but that they adapted their behavior in response to the denser human settlement they encountered on their return. They now unabashedly lope through populated areas even during daylight hours to feast on a bounty of domestic animals, yard-fattened deer and household trash. Though normally a shy, secretive species, wolves on Cortes are now pushing the envelope in their interactions with the people, maintaining very little distance between themselves and us, their primary predator, and acting nonchalant. I’ve encountered them several times now and I have to say it is quite something to be given the once-over by one of these iconic predators, as is saunters nonchalantly down the same dirt road I frequent on my morning jog. The wolves’ adaptive strategy is clearly working on Cortes as the numbers of wolves remain more or less stable, despite occasional shootings by locals and Provincial Conservation officers, who get called in to cull overly habituated ‘problem’ animals. On the whole, the benefits of associating with humans must outweigh the risks them. The population of their main prey items, raccoons and black-tailed deer, explode in the disturbed, edge habitats humans create such as residential gardens and former clear-cuts that come up in lush alder groves after the conifers get logged out. Though not nearly as successful in our presence as their smaller cousin, the coyote, it’s only natural, I suppose, that some wolves; which are after all a highly intelligent species; have learned to live in our midst. Yet it is an open question as to whether this has a genetic basis. They sure are acting differently though. During the past week, I have heard two reliable reports of wolves, individually and in packs, chasing cars along the roads of Cortes. Clearly their behavior hasn’t stopped evolving yet.

A similar situation has arisen in upstate New York, where fishers, previously trapped out from much of their North American range due to the demand for their valuable furs, are returning in droves – not to the remote wildernesses we thought they preferred, and where they continue to decline, but to the fragmented suburban forests and the margins of golf courses of cities like Albany. Like the Cortes Island wolves, these over-sized weasels are learning to exploit the rich food resources available in the interstices of human settlement, hunting down house cats and dodging highway traffic, in marked contrast to their secretive wilderness cousins who abandon habitats frequented by people. These are decidedly cultural shifts from a species we thought categorically could not co-exist with us. Something has definitely shifted within this eastern population of fishers. Human induced hyper-evolution seems a likely explanation.

Perhaps most lovely of all is the oft-blogged spectacle of the thousands of Vaux’s swifts that have colonized the disused smoke stack of a school in Portland Oregon. Swifts, small, swallow-like birds, traditionally need the large hollow trees, once characteristic of the region’s now largely extirpated old-growth forests, in which to communally nest and roost. Yet the Portland population has somehow transposed this crucial requirement onto what seems a very different set of circumstances.

It makes me wonder how many other species are rapidly adapting to our built environment to use as their primary habitat, in the face of the massive evolutionary pressure to do so. Hawks certainly seem to be making this adjustment. During my last few winters in New York City, I was delighted to observe red-tailed hawks roosting in the stately American Elms of Tompkins Square Park, disemboweling the rats they’d snatched right in front of squealing crowds of spectators. These magnificent birds have spawned a new class of paparazzi, who blog their behavior in minute detail and lobby for their protection. A similar situation arose after a group of fellow squatters and I started Cottonwood Gardens in Vancouver. For a short while we were plagued by rats, attracted by the sudden availability of compost piles and the produce we were trying to cultivate. Just as we were about to despair, a pair of red-tailed hawks established a nest on a nearby cottonwood tree and they soon made short work of the rodents. They resided there every nesting season for several years until they were themselves supplanted by a pair of bald eagles who increased the size of the already enormous nest. Twenty years later there are now two bald eagle nests at the Cottonwood Gardens site, in close proximity to each other and one can regularly thrill to the site these apex predators soaring over the factories, warehouses and trash-littered terraine vague of what at first glance seems a most unprepossessing habitat from a wildlife point of view.

Tompkins Square hawk with rat

Tompkins Square hawk with rat

A recent report in the Guardian described a heavily contaminated refinery site, near Rochester in the UK, as a ‘Lost World,’ of critically endangered insects, which have been all but wiped out in so called ‘natural areas’ elsewhere. There is something about this ruin ecology’s unique interplay of disturbance and neglect that makes it an ideal habitat for these rare creatures. Yet perhaps it is the creatures themselves that have also changed, slowly adapting to live among us in the wastelands and ruins we have worked so hard to create. Our abandoned industrial sites and DMZs have become ‘disaster edens’ – a new frontier in ecological study. My first inkling of this happened during a visit to Berlin in the early 1980’s. I was astonished to observe a thriving diversity of wildlife in the land mine studded strip of no-man’s land between the two sections of the Berlin Wall. Clearly visible were scores of European hares grazing freely on a verdant meadow, too light to trip the lethal devices hidden mere centimeters beneath their twitching noses. They did not however escape the notice of the squadrons of kites, falcons and honey buzzards who regularly patrolled the air above them to pick off any stragglers. Though the Wall has long since been down, Berlin has lately been overrun with native wild boars who swarm in from the countryside to avail themselves of the city’s leafy boulevards, parks and gardens. Their population has grown so precipitously that urban hunters have been contracted to keep the numbers down.

In cities we get a preview of the larger trend toward ragamuffin ecologies or what has been called ‘Nature 2.0.’ Here native and exotic organisms co-mingle in hitherto unheard of combinations resulting in meta-ecologies that are adaptive and emergent. These are ecologies of disturbance, often first colonized by fast growing, cosmopolitan so called ‘invasive’ species such as Ailanthus (a.k.a. ‘Ghetto Palm’), Scotch Broom and Buddleja. These are blamed for wreaking all kinds of havoc, though I am increasingly convinced they often stabilize damaged landscapes long enough until native organisms can regain a foothold. I’ve seen this happen in the urban steppes of East Vancouver; abandoned car parks and railway sidings, which are first colonized by the nitrogen fixing Scotch Broom that move in quickly to cover exposed ground until the native Cottonwoods eventually dominate. Though they look different from the cathedral like groves of ancient conifers that are associated with the BC ecological brand, these emergent, pavement loving forests soon attract native birds such as the northern flicker and white-crowned sparrows as well as other creatures such as the coyote, only recently native to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland where it migrated from the province’s interior. Exotic species will forever be part of the mix though, despite the efforts of botanical nativists to ethnically cleanse the landscape of them.

a well developed emergent forest of both native and exotic species - East Vancouver (1994)

Well developed emergent forest of both native and exotic species (Himalayan Blackberry, English Walnut, Big-leafed Maple, Castanea, Corylus, hops etc.) - East Vancouver (1994)

Such processes of colonization and re-adaptation are important to track as they fall outside canonical notions of ecological restoration, which generally presuppose a return to a ‘native,’ prelapsarian kind of species composition, which is becoming increasingly meaningless in the now overarching context of the Anthropocene. I find these new hybrid realities fascinating and hopeful. It means we can do more than just wring our hands at the decline of nature as we thought we knew it. We might as well face it. There is no going back. Now is a good time to intelligently assess our limits and ask ourselves the Zen question: “What can I not do?” Nature might already be several steps ahead of us.

BTW: If any of you are in Vancouver from June 20th- 24th of this year, I am teaching a little Continuing Ed Course at Emily Carr University entitled: Open Source City: Field Studies. We’ll travel around town on the Skytrain, examining various emergent landscapes and also examples of temporary autonomous zones – places that people have created as urban commons, which exist outside the mainstream models of planning. I promise it will be a lot of fun, so please sign up if you can!


emergent cottonwood and birch grove

emergent cottonwood and birch grove in East Vancouver industrial zone

northern flicker in an abandoned industrial zone

northern flicker using the emergent forest habitat




copper solution

canker before

treating a canker with copper

canker after

a canker after being treated with copper wire for a few years

A penny for your thoughts?

From the earliest times we have valued the stuff and in many ways it has helped shape what we call ‘civilization.’ Two of the great ages of man – the Chalcolithic and the Bronze Age – are named after it and its subsequently discovered alloy, and it is so archetypal that the chemical symbol is the same one we use for ‘female.’ Yes copper is pretty amazing stuff and has a myriad uses. Because of its handy ability to conduct electricity, it is indispensable to modern life and it is almost unimaginable to think of how we would do without it. Aside from its technological utility, copper has some interesting biological properties. You might have heard how copper is a key component in the blood of Vulcans and prehistoric-looking horseshoe crabs, but more importantly it is lately being re-appreciated for its remarkable antibiotic qualities. Those brass doorknobs on old buildings weren’t just installed for their warm, burnished glow but because the copper in the brass actively kills microbial growth. With the increasing incidence of antibiotic resistance among pathogens, diseases we had been confident we could control are re-emerging with a vengeance threatening to reverse a century of progress in the control of infection. For some of these superbugs there are no new antibiotics in the pipeline and the potential for untreatable epidemics has now become worrisome. The evolution of drug resistant organisms is sped up substantially in hospitals because they provide ideal environments for many iterations of germs and antibiotics to interact. Through the brute force mechanism of Darwinian selection, a few bugs survive every exposure and pass their genes on to the next generation. Repeated enough times, this creates pathogens that are pretty much un-killable with conventional antibiotics, which has already happened in the case of MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

Enter copper. The New Scientist reported on trials at the University of Southampton, UK that demonstrated virulent MRSA bacteria are quickly killed simply by placing them on a copper plate. If it turns out that copper actually kills the bacteria before they get a chance to reproduce, it could precipitate a major re-think of infection control in health care facilities. Trials are currently underway. If they work out, it would mean that medical instruments and hospital surfaces could be made with enough copper in them to garner this effect, stopping the spread of superbugs before it even starts.

Though the copper industry will likely be quick to capitalize on this, there is really nothing new about the phenomenon and the curative effects of copper were well known even in ancient times.

As well as being bactericidal, copper is active on many other pathogens, including fungi. Where I live, in coastal British Columbia, fungal plant diseases like the late blight and anthracnose canker present a significant challenge to growers of fruits and vegetables. Whole crops of potatoes and tomatoes can be wiped out, if the weather gets damp at the end of summer and the blight sets in. In the case of tomatoes, there is a local folk remedy I have tried which involves sticking a short length of copper wire through the base of each plant, just above the ground. A variation of the technique is to use a longer bit of wire, inserted the same way but bent down to touch the soil. I’ve tried both ways and have found them to slow the onset of disease significantly but not to eliminate it, especially if the weather socks in for a long time. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth doing. Sometimes a few extra days of ripening can make the difference between a usable harvest and a waste of effort.

Anthracnose canker afflicts fruit trees badly here in coastal British Columbia, particularly apples, and I have tried various sprays with little or no effect. A few years ago a number of my trees got so badly infected I considered tearing them out and burning them to limit the disease’s spread. In a last ditch effort, I wrapped copper wire around the lesions to see if it might have the same beneficial effect to what it did with tomatoes. It took a while, but after a few months, the cankers I treated stopped spreading and the bark at the edges started growing back. My feeling after experimenting with this for a number of years is that the copper wire (and strapping) I am wrapping around the wounds doesn’t actually cure what is after all a systemic fungal infection, but rather limits the surface manifestation of the disease,  preventing it from girdling the tree and allowing  the cambium to continue its life-giving function. In any case, I’ve managed to save (or perhaps more accurately- extended the life of) many apple trees with this simple technique and it has paid off by giving me a lot of fruit. I realize this isn’t standard arboricultural practice, but if anyone out there in slobber space is doing similar experiments, please let me know via the comment feature of this blog. Sometimes it takes us plant geeks to move the knowledge forward!

a lovely crystal of copper sulfate (via Wikipedia)


Site of 1964 New York World's Fair

Site of 1964 New York World's fair

detail of a pterodactyl from a mural at the AMNH

detail of a pterodactyl from a mural at the AMNH


An island sixteen miles long, solid-founded, numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies…

(Walt Whitman – Mannahatta)

New York City, no matter how often one visits, never ceases to astonish. There is something hyperbolic about it, a daily tyranny of choice that ceaselessly inflicts itself upon the limits of one’s time and energy. At times it feels like a giant, hissing concrete lung; its people and vehicles seething around like blood corpuscles, clotting together and erupting again into vast, bubbling streams. I’ve fallen in and out of love with the place many times; sometimes even on the same day; at once oppressed and elated by it, my mind hovering in a tension of opposites, among the American buildings, American streets, beneath the American sky. I’m always struck by the absence of coniferous trees here, save for the living fossil gingkos, which everywhere line the avenues, the sour stench of their prehistoric fruits wafting up from rain-glistened pavement. Sharing the streets are legions of Gleditsias and Chinese Scholar trees, rattling their naked branches against the filigreed backdrop of overhead wires and converging contrails, all glowing orange in the soft winter sun.

ginkgo fruits - ripe and rank!

Art is the main reason I’m here. In contrast to what it is on offer in New York, Canadian art institutions seem perpetually measly. Yet it was ever thus. Even the biggest of Canadian burgs seems like a Siberian outpost compared to Manhattan’s great ship of skyscrapers looming on the Hudson. Canada isn’t exactly rife with New York’s hyper-kinetic energy either. At crosswalks, we stolidly wait for the traffic lights to change before mincing cautiously out into the intersection, we dutifully sanitize our hands at every public opportunity, and bottle up our just Canadian outrage until we have time to write a snippy letter to the Globe and Mail. I love my country but holy crap can it be boring! Well at least we don’t have to worry about being overstimulated. But back to ART… Because (in New York) you can take the existence of art for granted, it is possible to engage with work here that pushes the envelope of what art *is*. This is the liminal l ‘m most interested in and during my latest trip there, I was richly rewarded.

Take for example the work of Trevor Paglen on show as part of the New Museum’s Free exhibition. Paglen does amazing work documenting the so called ‘black’ world of military surveillance technology, which is deployed all around us but isn’t meant to be noticed, unless like Paglen and the amateur astronomy geeks he hangs out with, you know where to look. A couple of his photographs are described this way:

In They Watch the Moon, 2010, Paglen captures a surveillance station run by the NSA and the Navy in a part of West Virginia known as the US National Radio Quiet Zone, in which no electromagnetic radiation is permitted. While officially this is to prevent interference with the nearby Green Bank Observatory, it also services this radio telescope spying station, which was originally constructed to pick up telephone and other radio signals on the other side of the planet as they are transmitted out into space and bounce off of the moon. Paglen captures the site at night, glowing under the light of a full moon.

In Dead Military Satellite (DMSP 5D-F11) Near the Disk of the Moon (2010), Paglen captures a dead military satellite as it is about to cross the disk of the moon. In PAN (Unknown; USA-207), an array of stars is made visible using time-lapse photography as they streak across the night sky. Looking closer toward the center of the image there is a cluster of stationary dots that do not move along with the other stars. These are communications satellites that have been positioned in a narrow ring of orbit called the Clarke Belt, in which objects move at the exact speed of the earth‘s rotation and thus appear stationary above a particular global point. While these satellites are used for all kinds of communication, both commercial and military, the second dot from the left of the central cluster is a secret, unregistered satellite known as Pan, or Palladium at Night, hovering above Somalia and the Middle East. The image was captured in South Africa with the aid of amateur astronomers.

The set of essays written to accompany Free provides some fresh analysis on the redefinition of public space emerging from the seething foment of networked communication in which we now live. The internet bathes us in information while at the same time acting as a receptacle for our thoughts, combining and recombining our utterances with those of others in strange new configurations that are then fed back to us. This twitchy interplay is the core concept of Free. Its curatorial hand never gets too didactic; instead we are given an engaging snapshot of the constantly changing informational landscape, which artists are simultaneously responding to and creating.

Charles Le Dray whose has a vast show at the Whitney, doesn’t challenge the nature of how we communicate with each other per se but rather how we connect to the objects in our everyday life. Le Dray, a master tailor, has packed several galleries with tiny outfits of clothing; exquisitely sewn, midget versions of what one might find hanging in any dry cleaning store, complete en masse with tiny wire coat hangers with even the little paper sleeves on them that say: “We ♥ our customers!” The combined effect is that of stumbling into an abandoned Lilliput; “Who were these tiny people?” and “Where did they all go?” Le Dray re-imagines clothing even further, fashioning what one might call ‘meta-clothing’ from human-sized jackets with swarms of tinier outfits erupting from the lining like budding hydras or the parthenogenetic aphids, who carry their own daughters and granddaughters inside them like nested Russian dolls. Or perhaps LeDray conceived this piece as a kind of parasitism, the little outfits fattening themselves on the nutritious fabrics of their larger sartorial cousins. In any case, it feels very biological. There is something enchanting about the fastidiousness and quality of obsessive iteration that Le Dray employs and he achieves this with the other materials he uses well, such as the tiny pottery vessels he has arranged in serried ranks in glass display cases and a set of astonishingly detailed, miniature models he has carved from human bone; a stalk of wheat, a cobbler’s bench and an orrery complete with miniscule planets arranged on hair thick shafts around a tiny ersatz sun.

Yoshitomo Nara, (whose work was at Asia Society) exists in another kind of feedback loop with the pop culture he simultaneously fetishizes and also influences. Nara is one of the leading proponents of the kowa kawaii (creepy cute) aesthetic that has been spilling out of Japan over the past years. His images of switch-blade wielding, big-headed children recall the demented revenge fantasies of a bullied middle schooler and their flatness and deft, dashed-offedness give them a curiously intense power. Heavily influenced by rock and roll, Nara’s work hangs in the uncanny balance between fan boy geek-itude and anarchic catabolism, creating and destroying itself in equal measure, never getting too ‘high-concept’ or big for its britches. The Japanese have coined yet another useful word for this type of delightful in-betweenness – heta-uma, which means ‘bad-good.’

With its hordes of pasty-faced tourists, MoMA these days can feel like being in a Disney theme park but the work on show there is always the best of the best. I was happy to commune again with the the work of one of my favorite, genre-defying artists – the late, great Gordon Matta-Clark, whose sliced-up buildings push the boundaries between objecthood and deconstruction. And, it has to be said that Din Q Le’s ‘Helicoptor’ installation was simply astonishing.

Matta-Clark's cut-up building

another Matta-Clark cut-up


‘In-between-ness’ is what Eyebeam is all about, and I loved seeing the boundaries between art and science get (literally) chewed up here. We attended the December, X-Lab theme dinner, somewhat cryptically dubbed ‘Space Invaders,’ but it concerned itself primarily with matters alimentary and chemical. Stefani Bardin wowed us with an account of her explorations into wireless gastroenterology, sharing with us some fetching movies taken from inside the human digestive tract, via a pill-sized transponder that is swallowed, and eventually retrieved at the toilet end of its tortuous journey. It was amazing to see how throroughly junk food impeded the progress of our intrepid little gastronaut and I’ll be thinking twice about having that second helping of Gummi Bears the next time I get the urge.

Also on the evening’s bill were presentations by Brooke Singer, who showed us some haunting images of the Superfund sites she is documenting and John Cohrs, who told us about a canoe trip he dubbed The Spice Trade Expedition in which he and his band of latter day voyageurs paddled into the industrial wastelands of New Jersey in search of the origins of artificial flavoring. We ended our eclectic evening doing a little flavor-tripping of our own in the form of Synsepalum dulcificum fruits, which, after we sucked them for a while, fooled our taste buds into perceiving everything that touched them as sweet. A lemon slice I was chewing seemed suddenly like the sweetest pink grapefruit of all and even a swig of the liquid from a jar of dill pickles went down like church picnic fruit punch. “I love phyto-chemicals!” I thought to myself on the long subway ride home, and then fell asleep to the reassuring hiss of steam pipes, my lips still pleasantly numb.

punks and persimmons

Russian persimmon close-up

Russian persimmons at Cottonwood

Inspecting Persimmons

Inspecting Persimmons


One of the delights of late autumn is the sweet taste of persimmon. Almost 20 years ago, when I was first designing the Asian arboretum at the brand new Cottonwood Community Gardens, I ordered a few small, bare-root trees from a nursery called Oregon Exotics. Its proprietor, Jerome R Black, described himself as a peripatetic ethno-botanist and his catalog featured a diversity of rare plant varieties I hadn’t seen anywhere else. He collected many of the parent plants himself, in remote areas of Asia and South America, where he traveled in search of overlooked crops worth trying in warmish temperate climates. Vancouver, with its relatively cool and wet weather is at the northern edge of where persimmons might be expected to flourish, so I selected three varieties from his listings – ‘Russian,’ ‘Korean,’ and ‘Great Wall,’ which were described as cold tolerant and early maturing. Cottonwood Gardens is situated in a kind of urban heat island, so I had high hopes of seeing the fruit ripen, in time for the torrential rains of fall. The trees got off to a slow start, but after three years or so, the first fruits appeared. Life brought about its inevitable changes and after I moved away to New York City (and eventually Cortes Island), I wasn’t able to check in with my former botanical charges nearly as often as I would have liked.

While I was back in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, I got to hang out with of the Purple Thistle Collective. They are a youth group who are doing amazing work farming the parking strips of East Van’s industrial zone. Their gonzo, earth-repair spirit reminded me of when we first started Cottonwood, which is in the same area, some 20 years ago.

Purple Thistle's Industrial Zone farming

Purple Thistle's Industrial Zone farming


In addition to being guerrilla gardeners, the gang at the Thistle turn out to be Super 8mm film geeks, determined to bring the endearingly crusty medium back to a whole new generation of enthusiasts. There is something particularly endearing about these teens and twenty-somethings, raised in the great smothering bosom of the Internet, seeking to re-vivify Super 8, with all of its grainy unpredictability and lack of instant gratification. Viva Analog!! I’ll be pulling some of my ‘Haute Cold War’ footage from the vault soon to screen for them, – stuff I shot in Berlin, Toronto and New York, in the early 1980’s. There is a sequence they might like, which shows the thriving DMZ ecology of the no-man’s land in between the two sections of the Berlin Wall – a mine field covered in lush meadow that supported a teeming population of hares, which in turn were preyed upon by a proliferation of raptors.

Anyway, back to the persimmons. When the Thistles and I trooped over to look at the plantings in Cottonwood, I was happy to see the persimmon trees bearing better than ever, their shiny leaved branches, bobbing in the November drizzle with jaunty orange fruits. For those of you who have never eaten a persimmon, some caution is in order. Fuyu, type persimmons taste sweet even when not completely ripe but many others, such as the popular Hachiya, need to be quite soft before you eat them, otherwise your mouth will feel like you’ve just sucked on a deodorant stick, – a saliva-less gaping hole through which you will have to beg for water. Well not quite that bad, but the fruit-fancier’s description of ‘astringent’ is well worth noting. When sufficiently ripened though, these persimmons are sheer ambrosia. Though native to the Far East, these ‘kaki’ type persimmons (Diospyros kaki), have a long history of cultivation in the Mediterranean. Over the years, I’ve noticed quite a few of these trees popping up in East Vancouver, usually in the yards of Italian immigrants, and many of them seem to be producing well. Given the right location and a bit of care, Asian persimmons should thrive in at least the mildest parts of Canada. The related American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is native to areas not that far south of the Great Lakes and can stand quite a bit of cold. Clearly some experimentation is in order. Grimo Nut Nursery offers some varieties they say do well in Southern Ontario, which might be worth a try in other mild-ish areas as well.

I’ve grown quite a few persimmon trees from seed over the years, though none have yet reached fruiting size. The trick is to let the seeds overwinter outside or in a fridge, to stimulate germination the following spring. I put them into a zip-lock bag with a bit of soil, in a spot where rodents can’t get at them. I’ve got a couple of Diospyros lotus seedlings, also known as Date plums, growing in my Cortes Island yard. I originally propagated them from a fruit I picked up from the path in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. The trees, though small, seem to be doing well and haven’t yet been set back during the past few winters. The fruits of the parent tree were quite small as I recall, not exactly the ‘food of the gods,’ implied by their Latin name – unless of course the gods were not particularly discerning fruit-wise. Odysseus’s men were said to have been way-laid by them in the land of the lotus eaters. Maybe the fruits were larger in those days or maybe Odysseus and his gang were tiny midget people the size of human thumbs. Probably though, his sailors just got bored of being told to “smite the gray seas with their oars,” by their hard-ass captain and were holding out for a little well-deserved ‘R and R.’ So my date plums will likely be relegated to my ever expanding collection of ‘somewhat edible’ plants, an aspect of my gardening hobby that my significant other continues to find perplexing.

East Van persimmon tree

East Van persimmon – 5th & Nanaimo


 biospheric automobile absorption  

biospheric absorption of a car – Cortes Island, BC


Crusts of radiotrophic fungi fractalizing across the walls of Chernobyl’s blown out reactor core, cancer eating microbes drifting through the hyper-toxic waters of a lake full of mine tailings in Montana, the charred trunk of a ginkgo tree re-sprouting delicate leaves after the atomic blast at Hiroshima, Detroit’s feral houses and its ghetto pheasants – all these things indicate that despite the current ecological apocalypse, despite catastrophic climate change and the mass extinction of biota – nature itself isn’t going to go away any time soon.

biospheric automobile absorption 

more biospheric automobile absorption – Cortes Island, BC


No matter how much destruction we wreak, there are processes of regeneration lying in wait that are quietly evolving around us, or biding their time until we turn our backs. It’s as if the earth has a sentient biological field that sucks up our poisons and smothers the detritus of our civilization so that life itself can go on. Though it’s quite likely that we will precipitate the extinction of our own species along with the countless others we have already wiped out, the bio-field will survive, as it must. It is the immune system of the planet and the signs of it are everywhere if you know where to look. Regular readers will know I’ve long been interested in ruderal ecologies, which evolve when we stop maintaining architectural landscapes and they gradually transform into habitat for a range of pioneering organisms such as ragweed, coyotes and Ailanthus trees. Lately though, I’ve been tracking the absorption of various mass produced objects into the bio-field, some long discarded, others still in daily use. The shiny, manufactured surfaces we so fetishize are little match for the relentless progression of slimes, films and crusts that soon moves in to obscure them. Yet there is something magnificent in these ancient, incremental processes. Life on earth has a future. And it’s far beyond us.

biological crusts on satellite TV dish 

bio-crusts on a satellite dish

biological crusts on satellite TV dish 

more bio-crusts on a satellite dish


an old chestnut

looking up into the canopy of an old chestnut

Possible American Chestnut Whaletown BC

late after noon with chestnut leaves

rustling late afternoon spire


One of my earliest and most cherished childhood memories is of lying back on the rear seat of my parents’ thrumming Buick, never having known the restraint of a car seat or a safety belt and gazing up through the rear window as great leafy vaults of deciduous trees passed overhead, interspersed now and then by flashes of golden, late afternoon sunshine. I remember the sharp smell of the road dust and the orange glint of an oriole, clinging to its bag-like nest, high in an overhanging bough. For me, these childhood memories of shimmering tree tunnels are the archetype of summer; languid yet ephemeral and intensely poignant; all the more so knowing as I do that the trees and the bucolic dirt roads they overshadowed were obliterated by Toronto’s urban sprawl just a few years after I first experienced them. But even before the onslaught of cul de sacs and strip malls, the landscape of my childhood was changing. As I blissfully dozed on that vast bench seat, there were elm trees all around me getting silently infected by Dutch Elm disease. Within a decade or so their massive viridian canopies stood leafless and rattling against the Ontario sky like the withered tentacles of giant squids for whom the sea had suddenly drained away.

50 years before the great dying of the elms, an even more widespread and perhaps more consequential tree extirpation was underway. This was demise of the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), once a key component of the hardwood forest zone that stretches from southern Ontario through the Appalachians into the American South. The American chestnut, which by some accounts comprised up to 25% of these predominantly deciduous forests, was almost completely extirpated by a fungal blight, mistakenly introduced to North America via the importation of a few Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) trees to the Bronx. The disease spread virulently through the highly susceptible American species and within a few decades, millions had died, changing the character of the Eastern forests forever. Yet here and there a few clung to life, protected because they grew in places somehow inaccessible to the blight’s spores or because they had quirky genetics, which rendered them partial immune to the rampant epidemic. Since the peak of the blight, these genetically endowed survivors have been sought out by plant breeders who have been crossing them with Chinese chestnuts in the hopes of developing trees that combine the lofty growth of the American tree with the disease resistance of their compact Chinese parents. Progress has been slow but steady and the successful progeny of these breeding trials have been being planted in parks and arboretums for some years now, sponsered primarily by the American and Canadian Chestnut societies.

The loss of the American Chestnut was a colossal blow not only to the biodiversity of their habitat (their nuts were a key food source for the now extinct Passenger Pigeon) but to the human food supply as well. Chestnuts are similar in food value to grains and also contain significant quantities of Vitamin C yet they don’t need the intense inputs of energy and resources demanded every year by most cereal crops. Once trees are established, the only labor is to harvest nuts once a year and perhaps thin competing trees here and there to maintain the health of the grove. J. Russell Smith describes traditional European agroforestry systems base on chestnuts in his classic (1929) Tree Crops – A Permanent Agriculture; a book he wrote in response to the contemporaneous collapse of the American agriculture system at the start of the Great Depression. Smith extols the virtues of these perennial tree-based ‘permacultures’ and recounts a level of prosperity and leisure in the nut growing areas, unthinkable to the misery inflicted grain farmers of the Dust Bowl era. In addition to the market value of the nuts themselves, Smith describes the exceptional quality and desirability of the pork fattened on nuts left behind under the trees after the harvest. In this day and age, given the amount of arable land devoted to corn, which is in turn fed to cattle and pigs, it seems to make a lot sense to switch, at least partially, to animal food sourced from such sustainable, tree-based permacultures. This would also provide added benefits such as enhanced wildlife habitat, the protection of watersheds and carbon sequestration. A recent Purdue University study showed that the American Chestnut can store up to three times more carbon than other trees sharing its ecosystem, which against the backdrop of climate change gives us another compelling reason to reestablish chestnut over large areas.

European Chestnut, Cortes Island.

European Chestnut, Carrington Bay.

Coastal British Columbia is far removed from the native range of the American Chestnut yet its European cousin (Castanea sativa) has been planted here occasionally and thrives, particularly in areas such as the Gulf Islands and the Lower Mainland, which have warmer summers. For years, I have been admiring a particularly stately tree that grows on the edge of my property in Whaletown on Cortes Island. I had always assumed it was a particularly large specimen of Castanea sativa yet there was something odd about the tree’s great height – over 60 feet. It seems to have no trouble completing for sun with the surrounding Douglas firs and Big-leaf maples and looks truly at home in its forest setting. The nuts it produces are tiny; less than 3/4 of an inch or so, which is much smaller than any commercially available eating chestnuts I have seen.

All of this made me wonder if I might all these years have been looking at an example of the elusive American chestnut – Castanea dentata. I figured the odds were pretty small, given that the European species is so prevalent in these parts but still my doubts persisted.

A couple of weeks ago, I finally got around to keying out the tree, using this helpful on-line guide (chestnut ID) put out by the Massachusetts Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, as well as this web site (more ID), which provides detailed photos of the leaves, twigs and nuts of all the chestnut species, for easy comparison. Surprisingly, my tree shows a lot of the characteristics of the American variety, yet I’m still not exactly certain. Chestnuts seem maddeningly difficult to identify, especially since hybridization is always a possibility.

A good portion of the older fruit trees on Cortes Island trace their provenance to a man by the name of Hayes, a former employee of the genius plant breeder Luther Burbank, who moved to these parts in the early days 20th century, so it is possible that the chestnut was one of Burbank’s (crosses). The tree seems to be about the right age, just shy of a hundred, given its substantial girth and height. The leaves of the tree are papery thin and extremely long; the longest one I measured coming in at almost 11 inches. The leaf edges are serrated by curved teeth ending in a single bristle in accordance with the descriptions for Castanea dentata. The twigs are smooth and supple, which also points to the American Chestnut. The vast majority of the nuts when they drop from the tree, shrivel, un-pollinated inside their sea urchin-like casings, but every year a few of them germinate in the leaf litter until, inevitably, they get browsed down by hungry deer. This year though, I have 5 or 6 of the seedlings in pots and I plan to grow more in the hopes of getting a grove going and to be able to distribute the seedlings to other nut enthusiasts. It’d be great to see whole forests of these magnificent trees get established, in blight-free areas of the West Coast, especially on large tracts of logged over land, ravaged by the forest industry.

I’ve attached a link to a Flickr photo set of the whole tree, the nut casings and the leaves as well as the leaves of another chestnut variety I purchased around ten years ago as C. sativa, for the purposes of comparison. If anyone can help me identify this magnificent tree, I would be most appreciative. Please do so via the comment feature of this blog and I’ll get right back to you. Thanks so much!

in search of lost asphalt

Untitled from oliver kellhammer on Vimeo.

In this video, I search for an abandoned tennis court that is slowly getting eaten by a hungry forest.



Japanese Fantailed willow

Cryptomeria japonica 'Cristata'

Cockscomb Cryptomeria


It’s all around us.

Billowing from the tail pipes of cars on cold winter mornings. The way cream dissolves into a cup of coffee beneath the buzzing white lights of a donut shop. The seething gray clouds that come before a long-awaited spring. Turbulence. It’s order diffusing into chaos. Energy erupting through a system. Sometimes it’s violent. Sometimes it’s fertile. Plants too can show the effects of turbulence surging through their tissues. What we see is a kind of slow motion wake of distortion. The phenomenon, called fasciation, occurs fairly regularly, even within the sheltered confines of my own backyard. Sometimes the genes of the plant start to twist and spin in their chromosomes, leading to the most remarkable contortions at the macro level. Such is the case with the Japanese Fantailed willow (Salix sachalinensis ‘Sekka’) in which a mutation has caused normal pussy willow twigs to curl up like octopus tentacles, while at the same time compressing them into antler-esque straps of catkin-studded wood. The Cockscomb Cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Cristata’) is similarly affected, its sprigs of needles fusing together to form prickly, multi-lobed mittens.

Sometimes all it takes is a simple mechanical injury to trigger this botanical strangeness. Recently, a branch of Forsythia started to fasciate after getting knocked around for years by my garden gate. Why now? I wondered. Perhaps the disturbance needed to build up to some point of instability, before the turbulence could unleash itself through the system. Instead of being harmed, the flowing river of cells that comprises the Forsythia, simply accommodates the disruption by altering its form. Perhaps that is a lesson to us all.


fasciated Forsythia