Archives for posts with tag: eco

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is a native of the Appalacian mountains of North America yet it thrives in most lands it has been introduced to.

The tree was introduced to the UK in 1636 and can now be found hidden in plain sight in many parks, municipal borders and even deep in some semi natural ancient woodlands. In many woodlands it’s overlooked by all who do not look for it – slipping in to the subconscious as if simply a native Ash.

Given it’s name by Jesuit missionaries due to its likeness to its relative the Spanish Locust, otherwise known as the carob tree, the Black Locust is actually much more toxic.

A member of the pea family and also leguminous, this tree fixes it’s own nitrogen in the soil, suckers like mad and produces an abundance of seeds – added to the the vicious thorns it can grow if grazed or pruned and you end up with a formidable tree.

The tree bears straight-ish main trunks with often zig-zagged branches and deeply furrowed grey bark.

In many areas (including states within its home country) the Black Locust is considered to be incredibly invasive.

However, as with many invasives they are often very useful in other ways. In this case the wood is outstandingly longlasting in the soil, even if untreated.

The heart wood has such a high level of flavinoids in it that it can last in the soil for a century! That’s a long time for a fence to last!

There are few snippets of folklore associated with this tree – one of which suggests that under the Black Locust is where one should bury secrets. I wonder if this originally meant under the timber and not under the tree – after all, a body or item buried under a century lasting fence post wouldn’t be discovered for a long time! No one would have need to disturb it…

The grain is often straight in the upright trunks and although fresh wood has an unpleasant and bitter odour (like if excessive tannins in bad red wine were a smell). This scent fades as it’s aged. These qualities are leading many furniture merchants to consider this wood instead of rare tropical imports – easier on the planet and the pocket.

That straight grain, dense wood and readiness to coppice also makes this tree an ideal firewood – even one that will burn while still green.

Like many trees which are relatives of the pea and bean, many of their parts will kill you if you eat them.

In this case almost all of the plant is toxic – when eaten by horses it requires immediate veterinary treatment and causes depression, cardiac arrhythmia, colic and incontinence…. I wouldn’t recommend you find out what it does to a human… unless you have a salad loving enemy.

There is, however, one part of the plant traditionally eaten – the freshly opened flowers.

These are beautiful and have a mint/citrus / bleach kind of smell and are picked and separated from all green bits apart from the small flower stalk before being eaten.

These flowers are also the primary source of ‘acacia honey’ in France (despite it’s scientific name outing it as a ‘false acacia’). The varying presence of the quantity of flowers annually means that only around one in five years gives a good honey crop.

There are some reports that the seeds are also edible. … but I find more reports that they are rather toxic…. so use caution if trying.

The flowers are only available for a little over a week each May/June are either eaten raw or fried in batter – see recipe below. This is seasonal eating at its finest.

Black Locust Flower Fritters

– Pick only the freshly opened flowers and take all green parts off other than the small stalks that attach to the flowers.

– mix a thick sweet batter – flour, water ( or milk), sugar and an optional egg, plus a little nutmeg or similar if you like.

– pour the batter on the flowers and stir in well until they are covered.

– Place spoonfuls of the mixture in to hot oil and cook until browned on both sides (a minute or two per side).

– Lift out with a slotted spoon and set to drain excess oil on a towel or paper.

– Dust with sugar and eat…. say ‘nom nom nom.’

– Congratulate yourself for not eating the toxic bits before panicking that you left too much stalk on and maybe you did eat the toxic bits….

– Enjoy a second time if you picked the right bits 🙂

Those daring enough to try should remember that they are eating flowers and thus preventing seeds of an invasive species forming as well as eating a food known to Native Americans for centuries but thousands of miles apart.

I hope you are all daring enough – go on…. be adventurous.

​In the Northern Hemisphere, at this verdant time of year it can be all to easy to forget about the soil beneath our feet. In fact the only time we see bare soil at this time of year is when it is freshly disturbed; within weeks, though, this softly broken earth will be flourishing with fresh leaves as nature paints a green blanket over the fertile soil. This is one of the wonders that I’d like to talk about here – that bare soil usually doesn’t stay bare for too long. You see soil is very much alive and the life within it has evolved to be buried.

If we took a heaped teaspoon of fresh topsoil and peered at it incredibly closely we’d notice that there were all manners of tiny critters in there – little beetles, mites and wiggly wormy things… If we upped the magnification substantially, we’d also discover that the single spoonful of soil contained around between three and five billion bacteria, up to two million fungal organisms and half a million algae and up to five thousand nematodes… And we wouldn’t have even truly looked at the fully extent of microbes in there yet – it’s estimated that there could be as many as fifty billion in each teaspoon of soil.Many of these tiny living beings are badly affected (cooked) by ultraviolet radiation and so really aren’t that fond of the sunlight.  

Most of these tiny beings feed on other tiny beings and on decaying organic matter in the soil. (My inner bard at this point tells me that We could even suggest that the soil life is quite well paralleled with vampire and zombie legends, if they were tweaked a little bit that is…. If we were to say conjure up an image of a vampire so terrified of sunlight that it conspired, along with all of it’s darkness loving kin, to encourage other forms of life that it could both hide behind and consume.It would also seem that this is not so far from the truth either… If we took out all of the microbes and tiny beings in our soil, say by over application of chemical fertilizers and ploughing to expose them to sunlight, we end up with a dustbowl. Dustbowls are not conducive to life at all.If we were to take a look outside when next we walk alongside a ploughes and chemically fed field, we might notice that the soil level inside the field can be inches lower than that of the surrounding areas… That shows just how much of the soil is made up of living beings.

 In an attempt to make this a little more personal, I’m going to suggest that we are soil making organism – yes, that’s right, Night Soil. Our faeces consists of as much as 90% bacteria – all that life within us, of us an yet not ‘us’ if we think in a way that defines ‘us’ as merely being the individual mind that so many of us identify with. Our own toilet will testify to the fact that ‘we’ are far more than just ‘us’. We really are connected to the Earth in so many ways, and complex life upon the Earth relies on simple life – relies on those tiny beings that dwell in the soil.          

  When we work with Earth, there is often a tendency to think of a Strong, Nourishing and Motherly element, all mountains, caves, jagged crystal and metal ores. While those qualities are true, they are also relative. The Earth may well be Strong and Nourishing… but we are pushing our luck with the Motherly part, sooner or later, every mother disciplines their children.

If, as I’ve said above, complex life (humans, edible plants, dogs and squirrels to name a few) relies on the existence of conspiring ‘simple’ life (bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa) then it’s in our interest to look after that simple life. More than 90% of all this simple life lives within the top six inches of the soil. If we make that relative and compare it to a medium sized orange, then that top layer – the layer of life – is thinner than the shine on the surface of the peel o the orange. And to throw in further figures 1.2 billion hectares of the World’s agricultural land is considered to be suffering with moderate to severe soil degradation. It’s estimated that the vast majority of agricultural lands have, even with intensive chemical feeding, less than 100 growing seasons of production left in them.

 Production which has already begun to decline.But the good news is that soil can be rebuilt and can recover – there are many smart people out there working on it now. It could even be suggested that every time you buy organic, or pop something in to your compost, you are helping to build soil. 

And you can use a mulch to keep it covered and dig less to ease oxidation and you’ll be helping even more.

The element of Earth has a gentle and vulnerable side, that side is the soil. Without the grace of vulnerability, the strong could never nurture. We must understand vulnerability to understand need. The Earth sees ours and feeds us, shelters us, nourishes us from birth to death. Let’s return the favour and try to nourish our Earth too – it’s the only one we have.
*** text originally  from an article  submitted in September 2014  to Touchstone – the magazine of OBOD  (www.druidry.org )  –  and printed in October(?) of that same  year ****

 

wpid-20151122_152639.jpg

For quite some time I have wanted to take part in a charcoal burn, there’s so much about charcoal burning that can only be learned through experience … there’s a long way to go before I gain enough of that to be an expert at all.

So here, for posterity, are a few things learned as a participant in a charcoal making day. Although the end of that last sentence is a bit of a lie – it’s very difficult to make charcoal in a day as it requires around 18 hours of burn time for a medium sized charcoal kiln (1.5-2 cubic metres).

With that extra long burn time in mind, the day was started at the end of the process with a look at the results of a burn that had been lit four days before, allowed to burn or 19 hours and then capped and allowed to cool for a further two and a half days (just to make doubly certain that it was all out).

The heavy metal kiln lid was removed to display the  lovely black charcoal inside (above left). The charcoal inside was exquisite in a way I had never seen it before. Due to the slow pyrolisis of the wood all of the details of what was once bark and wood could be seen – the logs inside could be identified by species type the detail was that immaculate. Upon handling, however, a lot of these finer details turned to dust.
The next step was to empty and sort the charcoal and so the kiln was rolled back to expose the mound inside. (Above right).
This was the moment that I noticed that there are four evenly spaced stubby flues welded on to the base of the kiln each at each cross quarter point as well as four detachable and maneuverable stubby flues – four to act as chimneys and four to act as air inlets. The mechanics of this would become apparent later on.

The exposed charcoal was now moved from the pile to a sorting platform. The platform consisted of a couple of layers of mesh suspended in a wooden frame which was mesh-less at one end (above left). This frame was suspended over a large bucket and a bag was positioned under the end without mesh. The mesh allowed the larger parts to be retained, which could then be fed in to the bag while the smaller particles and dust were deposited in the bucket. The former was the finished product (above right) while the later would go to either feed the soil as biochar or to be added to a blacksmith’s forge to help impart more carbon in to ferrous metals when worked.

While working through the charcoal before bagging the pieces were squeezed to check for ease of breaking. Those that didn’t crumble or crack as expected were often brownish in colour  and had not fully undergone pyrolisis. These were separated out from the finished product and would later be used to help ignite the next burn. (Below)
wpid-20151122_103223.jpg

…………………………………………………

After the pile of charcoal from the previous burn had been sorted and bagged the area that the kiln had been sat on was dug out, ash and small bits of charcoal were removed leaving a ring of soil above a stone hard standing some six inches below the surrounding soil surface.
The soil abutting the footprint was then scooped back away from the edges as this would be used to seal the bottom of the kiln once in place.
Any charcoal rich soil needed to be removed as there is a risk that this could catch fire in the next burn if used to seal a kiln base – that would break the seal and allow air in which would render the whole kiln full of wood to ash as it would burn through fully.

Once sufficient soil had been removed the kiln was rolled back in place and stood upright  the four movable flues were slotted in between the four welded in place flues. These were spaced equidistantly – though if the wind was blowing strongly from one side they would have been placed differently – in such a way that the air flow in to the kiln encourages an equal burning throughout.
Once the flues were in place soil was mounded up against the base of the kiln and firmed in well, making sure that the flue / chimney base holes were not covered.

In the centre of the kiln was placed a large handful of shredded paper and cardboard, with the ‘browns’ stacked on top. (Below left).
Leading off of this pile were four ‘corridors’ made with the positioning of long lengths of split log and capped with more logs. These four corridors, one leading to every other flue, would be where the flaming brands would later be stuck to start the burn.

At this point  numerous logs that had seasoned for a full year were cut, split and stacked in to the kiln. In this case the logs were stacked horizontally, though I have  a suspicion that if they were stacked vertically more would fit in the bin and the direction of the fibres in the wood would encourage a better burn resulting in less browns (I’ll have to try it that way sometime).

Once the bin was filled to the top (above middle) the four chimneys and four vents were allocated based on the wind direction and speed. As this was a pretty still day it was decided to alternate inlets and  chimneys. The Inlets were capped and the bottom inlet hole was part filled with soil, leaving around 20% of the vent able to draw air in. (Above right).

The kiln was now ready to light.

 

 

Lit brands (diesel soaked cloths on sticks) were prepared and offered in to the still open vents at the base of the chimney flues. Within moments thick white smoke and steam came billowing out of the top of the kiln rising to at least fifty foot in the air.
The smoke was incredibly thick and produced in amazing volumes (above middle); filling a nearby field with ‘fog’ as it fell from the heady heights it had reached. After a few minutes of being lit pops were heard coming from within the kiln as the wood caught well and truly on fire. The inside of the kiln becoming red hot after a very short while as could be seen through the base of the chimney vents(above right).

While the kiln was catching alight the chimney poles had been set on top of the kiln to warm up (to encourage a better draw once put in place later) (see below) and a leaf blower was used in place of the traditional bellows to ensure the fire had taken in all areas of the kiln.

Once the fire had definitely taken a firm hold, the chimney poles were slid off and the lid was slotted on top, causing jets of fire to come shooting out of the holes at the base of the kiln (below left) … these were rather warming on one’s chestnuts if one happened to be foolishly stood in the wrong place.

With the lid in position the  chimney poles were slotted in place and the vents at the base of the chimney flue were blocked off with soil.
The lid also had soil pressed in to the edge where it met the inside of the kiln. This was firmed in place to make a soil cap that would keep air out of the kiln (above centre). It steamed a little but  was revisited a few times to ensure a good seal had been achieved.

The kiln would now be allowed to burn slowly throughout the night, the lack of freely available oxygen converting most of the wood in to charcoal rather than ash. The colour of the smoke would be used as an indication as to when it needed ‘closing  down’ – whereby all air is excluded from the kiln to complete the process.  As can be seen in part in the final picture above the smoke changes from white to grey to blue to almost clear. When the clear stage is reached then the fire is starting to consume charcoal having driven of all the water and impurities. At this stage the burn should be closed down fully to smother the fire and prevent the loss of charcoal. To close down the chimneys are pulled out and the stubby flues are filled with soil. The base of the inlet vents are also filled with soil.

The Kiln will then be left for a day or so to cool down – lifting the lid too early can result in the charcoal bursting in to flames and being consumed without ever so much as having a sausage near it, let alone fulfilling it’s BBQ destiny.

I hope you enjoyed that little journey with me – look out for a future blog where I will hopefully be making a charcoal kiln in miniature using an old oil barrel ( I just need to source one and the time …) and hopefully making artist charcoal using a biscuit tin kiln. I can’t promise when these blog posts will come out, but I’m pretty sure that they will.

In the original post I forgot to put the website details. The session was held at Marbury Country Park in Cheshire and was run by Ranger type figure David James.
The Day was organised by Saul Burton of Groundwork CLM (http://www.groundwork.org.uk/sites/clm) who runs the  Saltscape Project (http://www.saltscape.co.uk/). Check out the Websites for details of volunteering opportunities (a great way to learn new skills) and for other Saltscape activities and opportunities coming up.