The Green Spot (2)

We were in western Ireland last week, and I was out on a run when I passed this beautiful piece of re-purposed farm machinery. A geared wheel as a fence.IMG_0348The fence in question was to a large pasture near Cong, on Lough Corrib.IMG_0349

The sheep are marked here, as they are across Ireland, with big splotches of color.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

These particular sheep were Green Spots, appropriately enough for me, since the Irish whiskey I liked best (from the three that I tried) was, indeed, Green Spot. The whiskey name comes from the same origin – the different ageing barrels used to be marked with color splotches, just like the sheep.

Only a few of the lambs were marked with their own fresh green spot. Not sure that bodes well for the unmarked lambs…but they were very friendly.IMG_0346

Ovine Appreciation

Image of the suovetaurilia, a Roman sacrificial rite in which three animals - a sheep, a pig and a bull to the god of Mars.  "That with the good help of the gods success may crown our work, I bid thee, Manius, to take care to purify my farm, my land, my ground with this suovetaurilia, in whatever part thou thinkest best for them to be driven or carried around." This 1st century Roman engraving is found in the Louvre. Source: Wikipedia

Image of the suovetaurilia, a Roman sacrificial rite in which three animals – a sheep, a pig and a bull – were offered to the god of Mars. “That with the good help of the gods success may crown our work, I bid thee, Manius, to take care to purify my farm, my land, my ground with this suovetaurilia, in whatever part thou thinkest best for them to be driven or carried around.” This 1st century Roman engraving is found in the Louvre.
Source: Wikipedia

Sheep have been domesticated and a part of human life and agriculture for something around 10,000 years.

The annual sheep herd that grazes in the meadow next door to our place arrived over the weekend. They’ll forage here until December, when they get carted off again by a sheep farmer who places sheep in meadows all across our region like shaggy pawns in a large chessgame of milk, meat and wool.

French sheep farmers released a small flock of sheep into the Louvre Museum in Paris last week to protest cuts in subsidies to small farmers which are under discussion in the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Herd of sheep in the Louvre. Photo: antenna

Herd of sheep in the Louvre.
Photo: antenna

From a Reuters article, “They were objecting to the effects of the industrialisation of agriculture, saying they feared for farmers’ jobs.

“What we can see today is a desire on the part of the agricultural ministry to impose a marginalising policy which will get rid of farmers so we came here to say we don’t belong to a museum and that our place is in the countryside, where we can revitalise the countryside, create jobs and develop quality produce, that’s why we came here today,” said a spokesman.”

The sheep next door in the cherry orchard. Photo: PK Read

The sheep next door in the cherry orchard.
Photo: PK Read

The farm next to ours, and many around our place, unequivocally add to the life quality of our area, and not just in terms of food. The small farms here ensure that the area isn’t paved over with suburban and apartment developments, and that the farmers who have been here for generations carry on the knowledge of land and farming they have inherited.

I do feel a bit badly for the sheep that were herded through the Louvre, probably in panic and without any time to enjoy some of the lovely pastoral paintings there. But I do have a deep appreciation for the fact that no arrests were made – all protesting farmers and their sheep were released without charge.

Generative Art, Rootworm Evolution

A 'sheep' created by Electric Sheep. Image: Überraschungsbilder/Wikipedia

A ‘sheep’ created by Electric Sheep.
Image: Überraschungsbilder/Wikipedia

What do we call evolution that plays with the toys we provide, jumps the obstacles we set, which meets us on the field of our own choosing, and then bests us?

In the case of the shared technology created by Scott Draves for creating ever-changing, computer-human collaborations of software art known as Electric Sheep, we call each new creation a ‘sheep’.

In the case of Bt corn, we call it the ‘rootworm’. This little fellow has evolved both immunity to and an appetite for the very corn that was genetically modified to be resistant to the rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera).

Actually, Bacillus thuringiensis corn, or Bt corn, was genetically engineered to produce insecticidal toxins derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in order to kill pest insects and reduce the use of conventional insecticides.

Mature corn rootworm beetles. Photo: Univ. of Nebraska/FreeGeorge

Mature corn rootworm beetles.
Photo: Univ. of Nebraska/FreeGeorge

How did the rootworm turn the nifty trick of learning to love the plant created to kill it? It didn’t do it alone – it needed our help. If environmental recommendations had been followed, which is to say, if the GM corn fields had been interspersed with non-GM corn fields at given intervals (50% was the original recommendation, pushed down to 5 – 20% by seed companies and the Environmental Protection Agency, the rootworm might have stuck to the tasty, non-resistant corn, thus leaving intact the resistant corn’s viability.

But apparently, these recommendations were not followed. Or maybe they were, and the insect’s genetic evolution is just that creative. At any rate, now the pest feeds on both kinds of corn. And a second GM type of corn as well.

I should mention that for the short glory period of ten years during which Bt resistant corn was introduced by Monsanto and remained rootworm-resistant, the GM corn became the leading corn crop in the United States. It now makes up three-quarters of all corn grown there.

The Electric Sheep project has been ongoing since 1999 and comes up with ever new iterations of ‘sheep’, lovely swirls of ever changing software DNA, pleasing to the eye and in constant motion.

The evolutionary project of the rootworm has been going on for over four million years, and apparently, it’s also still in constant motion.

Happy Vernal Equinox!

The Biology Thing

It’s no secret that the collective imagination has a deep-rooted fear of wolves. Our legends and fairy tales are populated with powerful wolves getting up to all manner of naughtiness, from pretending to be something they aren’t (whether dressed as Grandmother or sheep), to reflecting our animal sides in the form of werewolves, to simply eating things we’d rather they didn’t.

Gray wolf Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

Gray wolf
Image: Womaneko/Deviantart

The gray wolf was hunted to near extinction in the United States, and was then listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act. It’s been making a steady comeback over the years, although by comparison to the real success stories of the ESA, the wolf is nowhere near truly recovered as a species. It’s out of the ICU, but still stuck on life support.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) moved to delist the gray wolf on a federal level in 2013 and turn wolf management over to the state level. It has already been allowed to be delisted in several individual states, and the effect on the wolf population through hunting and trapping has been devastating. Years of conservation work has been undone.

The room to make comments on the USFWS proposal, which had been closed, has now been reopened due to an outcry among conservationists that the USFWS had not used the best available science to reach their delisting recommendation. Comments can now be made here until March 27.

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

Group of gray wolves (Canus lupus)

According to Lance Richardson of Slate, the premature delisting of the gray wolf is due to a confluence of a certain complacency about the protected status of the wolf together with “the residual anger towards wolves in the rural West, where influential ranchers have long fought wolves for depredating livestock. Merge that in with the whole Tea Party fervor against [the federal] government, and what you end up with in the state legislatures is this race to the bottom to see who can be more anti-wolf. The biology of the thing gets thrown right out the window.”

Well, the biology. Apex predators play such an important role in ecosystems, above and beyond controlling the population of prey animals. I’m including a concise summary (four minutes long) of just how important wolves have been to the recovery of the Yellowstone Park ecosystem here:

But the ‘biology of the thing’ is also what allows us to keep fearing wolves even if, since we’ve the means to outrun, outgun and outmaneuver them, they’ve had more to fear from us than we’ve had to fear from them. Big predators have been scaring us for millennia, and it appears that all the scientific understanding in the world can’t do away with that in just a couple of generations.

Unfortunately, if the wolf is delisted by the USFWS, the object of our fear may end up truly being only a creature of fairy tales.

Please take a moment to visit Eripe Lupus, a site that is promoting Twitter storm today in support of comments for the USFWS proposal, to learn more.

From: Old French Fairy Tales by  Comtesse de Ségur /

From: Old French Fairy Tales by Comtesse de Ségur /

End of Season

A few photographs from the old farm next door to our place. Autumn is always a busy time – the garden gets readied for winter, the wood gets stacked, and best of all, they’ve been pressing apple cider. We’ve been lucky to be on the receiving end, every year, of their fine product.

The apple press, clean and ready for a new day of work. This is the small press. The giant stone press, hardly ever used these days, is here.DSC01903

The inner workings of the apple masher.DSC01905

And the stone fountain where all the cleaning takes place.DSC01902

The whole courtyard is filled with the sweet scent of apples and the hay used to filter the juice. And out back by the compost, the remains of the press.DSC01915


The walnuts have been out drying for a couple of weeks now. They’ll be cracked and pressed into walnut oil.DSC01904

Old barrels meeting their end.DSC01894

And the hoops that once bound them.DSC01906

The number of pumpkins has been steadily dwindling with every passing week as they get made into soups and stews.DSC01888

The sheep look ready for their winter quarters at another farm up the hill. They graze here from early spring until late fall or early winter.DSC01917

The people who run this farm are in their 70s, and I don’t imagine their children will be carrying on the old habits of this place, which has been a working farm in the family since the mid-1800s. I’m grateful for every season we get to live in proximity to this heritage.

All photos: PK Read

Lazy Afternoon

It’s a lazy afternoon here – the rains have stopped (for now); it’s hot, but not too hot, a fluffy cloud kind of day to not do very much.

Here are a few shots from the farm right next door on a lazy August afternoon.

Phlox Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

This wall, the outer wall of a woodshed, is in a dormant state right now and looks like it’s just a place to hang wire – but during the harvest season, it is filled with shelves of squash, pumpkins, piles of string for binding together various vines.

Barn wall Photo: PK Read

Barn wall
Photo: PK Read

Out in the orchard, sheep were dozing against one of the woodpiles.

Sleepy sheep Photo: PK Read

Sleepy sheep
Photo: PK Read

Other sheep from the flock saw me from across the orchard and came running, hoping for a few chunks of old bread.

Eager sheep Photo: PK Read

Eager sheep
Photo: PK Read

I obliged. Who could say ‘no’ to those sheep eyes?

Begging sheep Photo: PK Read

Begging sheep
Photo: PK Read

Have a good weekend!