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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…..


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.

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.