February 18, 2015
Dear Richard Branson,
I had the pleasure of reading your post about the Virgin Earth Challenge yesterday. While it appears that the contest has been closed for some time from further entries, you mentioned that no winner from the finalists has been selected. Perhaps this is because while the proposals you’ve received are all viable, sensible methods, the no-nonsense answer to sequestering carbon that works the world over is to grow trees for and in each environment. As you are aware, mankind has globally decimated (and continues to decimate) inconceivable swaths of our natural forests to grow monoculture cash crops. Your generation and mine did not see most of these trees disappear, and my generation was born to even fewer trees than yours was…and so it continues.
Trees wick water up from the earth and respire it out, they even “catch rain” if you will. Trees were used for this purpose, for attracting rain and growing food on the barren mountain Ascension Island in the Atlantic. The simplicity within the complexity of this climate crisis, to the extent that man is responsible, is that to sequester carbon, reduce carbon dioxide and help ensure water security we need to grow back the forests. This is what plants do. This will require a radical shift in agricultural practices and paradigms, as the woods are seen in current thought as the antithesis to making money in agriculture.
I live in Ohio, which was 90% forested when the newcomers arrived here and found the First Peoples living sustainably, wild cultivating their resources. Ohio’s forests plummeted after the conquering of America to 10%, and we now sit at 30% which is still a very sad number for biosecurity. It is said a squirrel could travel from Virginia to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground, there were so many trees. That is certainly not the case now.
The Native Americans, who kept the trees living even through their heavy reliance on them, propagated the woodland and prairie plants for food, plant technology and medicine. They emulated nature’s model in their stewarding of resources. Native Americans were completely dependent on trees: wood was used for building homes, for fire to cook food and create warmth, for food and medicine (cambium and nuts were eaten, cambium, leaves, buds, resins were very effective medicine from certain trees), baskets were woven from the roots which were selectively sustainably harvested as well as the bark was harvested in a manner that kept the tree living, being used for weaving not just baskets but spinning cloth as well. And yet, despite this heavy reliance on wood, they kept the forests alive. My purpose in relaying this information to you is to illustrate that the forests provide much of what we need and we can steward them and take from them without destroying them, adapting to our modern context. The trick is to teach others the value of woodland plants for mind, body, spirit and the pocket book. Indeed, there are hundreds of forest plants with multiple uses that are viable cash crops if managed properly. Many are hot commodities today and are suffering from excessive wild harvesting and lack intentional propagation.
Regarding the finalists: the technologies proposed are sharp, but a unifying factor has yet to be established. There are so many great technologies and ideas that need to be implemented and disseminated. Perhaps they need a nucleus to radiate outward from, an epicenter if you will, where people can come to have a full immersion experience living, tasting, breathing and learning about the ways of living within Nature’s model in a modern context…a chance to witness a complete carbon sequestration, Earth-friendly way of life, if you will. This nucleus would be a model eco village for:
- Ongoing Research and Development for Earth-sustaining practices, acquiring data
- Implementing carbon sequestering and bioremediating techniques
- Alternative energy
- “Green” Expos
- Ceremonies and Life Celebrations
- Courses on
o Sustainable Building
o Forest Agriculture and Wild Cultivation techniques
o Plant Medicine
o Holistic Bee Keeping, Wild Herding and more
This space will provide the opportunity to learn and experience sustainable living. They will be given resources, contacts, tools and techniques. They will see how permaculture, biochar and wild herding has benefited the plants and the soil, they will see mycoremediation and greywater filtration in action. They will experience alternative energy functioning. They will be able to look to the woods and see abundance-- abundance that can be maintained and multiplied without destroying the ecosystem all while sequestering carbon. Too often people look to the woods and think it means “lost.” They look to the trees and see nothing but something that could swallow them. They look to the woods and see something that stands in their way of dollars. We need to shift this perspective by flipping the coin and showing the value to our primary source of carbon sequestration and Life. We need to help humanity look to the woods and see something that heals, inspires, provides and sustains. We need to bring them a new economy: a Forest Economy.
We can do it. I’ve always said “the plants bring people together” and it is true still. The plants are what this is all about and they need the efforts proposed to you and it needs to start at one mother ship located in the middle of a working, wild cultivated natural environment: a living, breathing eco village in a forest that is “Keeping It Living” (to steal the title of a book that has deeply inspired me). A place to research, experiment with different natural models, show progress, yields, closely detail success and failings; where idealism meets reality and function. Ultimately this model needs to be replicated—but adapted in other countries to their own climates. What works for the environment there? What grows there? A solution in Appalachia will not necessarily work for Ghana. But there are permaculture and wild cultivation practices that indeed will work there. They need to be developed and there must be a hub to do this in and share it in. We cannot correct a big problem with a big answer. It has to start small and flesh out. It requires a nucleus that will replicate around the globe. I can see it.
“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for life.” What a great old adage, and still is completely true. Big Ag can’t sustainably feed the world without actively destroying the biomes it uses, and it does nothing to address the environmental issues in the area where people are starving, all while feeding them and increasing their populations so there are simply more starving people in an area of the world that can’t support much at all. I’m not suggesting we don’t feed the hungry, but I am saying that we need to “Teach a man to fish…” Permaculture and wild cultivation techniques adapted for these areas, taught to residents will enable poor soils to become richer and dry soils to stay moister, enabling remote communities in stressed lands that cannot support commercial agriculture to produce more adequate food yields and happier environments to support their populations in a healthier manner.
Who am I and why do I care? I am a wife, mother, a plant geek and a clinical herbalist by training. I teach herbal medicine classes and have written my own curriculum. I practice permaculture techniques in my gardens. I grew up in the country, raised chickens and pigs and had a pumpkin patch. My husband is certified in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has worked in the Natural Products Industry in many roles for almost 25 years. He is just as passionate as I am with more experience and business savvy and, like me, is chomping at the bit to create change on our own piece of earth which we are acquiring this Spring.
For us, this connection with the Natural world is both easy and necessary. Most people do not come by the same curiosity or passions. Many people don’t see why they should care while they walk on baking concrete and text on their iPhone and drink Vitamin Water, or sit in front of their t.v. taking a drag on a cigarette while eating nacho cheese and chips. Many are very ill and it shows in their bodies, minds and on their faces. It is hard to win over the priorities of a person’s heart, especially when we possess so many entertaining and technological distractions in these times. Many fundamental thought processes in humans need to change to engender a love of trees and biodiversity, from the canopy to the understory, to the forest floor and fungi and the soil beneath. All of these plants and organisms work with each other, depend upon each other, help each other. We, too have a non-negotiable, interdependent relationship upon plants and microorganisms. The plants are our oxygen, our breath…they are our food, medicine, shelter, aromatherapy. They bring rain, they break winds. The microbes on the plants and in the soil live in our guts (and get there via our food) and play a vital role in our digestion, immune systems and even reduce inflammation. The good microbes were even cultivated by our ancestors to preserve food.
So we know we need the forests, and the question is how do we make people care about them? The forests are seen as the arch-nemesis of food production in modern paradigms. Humans are experiential creatures. The only way is to make them not just care about all of the plants, but make them love them, to see value in them so that they want to use them, buy and eat what plants provide so that humans desire to ultimately grow, protect and steward them. The only way I see to win over all of these senses and ignite the fire in humanity’s heart is by providing the place to learn, taste, experience and be among the plants. There are many paths and one goal. The missing magical “something” we are looking for is the glue that brings all of our ideas together. And the glue is the plants; growing the living model itself, in the soil. My husband and I have had this vision in our head for years, with a name, but know to create something so big takes both patience, time, resources and many minds of various expertise willing to come together at the hub and take action together. It is our hope for the future that we will have a role in growing the model as we remediate our own piece of Midwestern earth and try to regrow the past. Perhaps no place could illustrate the drastic change of bioremediation and carbon sequestration with food production working sustainably with reforestation than the agricultural wasteland of the American Midwest.
It is the simplicity within the complexity that is our modern challenge; it is the simplicity within the complexity that our ancestors had mastered. The past is our future. We must adapt these practices within our technology and the times. We must shift our priorities from piggish consumerism to sensible sustainability. They are two vastly different models, two vastly different worlds, but in the end, the shift must occur and the waters mix. It’s time for humanity to, pardon my French, poo or get off the pot. Let’s take that filth and compost it into something good.
I sincerely thank you for reading my manifesto. I sent a copy of this to Virgin Earth Challenge. I sense you are looking to create the same sort of change that we are and felt that if anyone was willing to read and envision the creative process burning in our hearts, it might be you. If you ever want to get in touch, perhaps to check where we are at periodically on our journey, or to pick our brains about viable forest crops, I sent contact information with the letter to VEC. Our niche is herbal medicine and my husband specializes in raw materials brokering and natural products sales. Humanity is only limited by its own imagination…
Branwen and Jason Hunolt