Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Mud Underground

The Mud Underground

I learned a new word reading an article in Wired Magazine about how despite it’s innumerable problems, coal is our energy present and immediate future.   MEGO is a journalist word that stands for “My Eyes Glaze Over”.   It’s perfect for coal and this recent series of blogs on boring topics.  Actually, coal fits well into this month’s topic, the Mud Underground.  Now that the snow has melted and the mud has dried I’m noticing how much stuff is in the ground that we take for granted or just ignore.

I updated the “mud map” of Pend Oreille County this month.

Mud Map of Pend Oreille County
Mud Map of Pend Oreille County

“Mud Map” is an Australian term for local maps which years ago were drawn in the mud during the rainy season and that dried in place to show the way throughout the rest of the year. Pend Oreille County has a site were our rock club finds 500 million year old trilobites, who ruled the seas for eons. But we don’t think about them anymore. They are just there in the mud underground – now turned to slate.

There was no better place to think about what is underground than the annual Panorama Gem and Mineral Show on March 7th and 8th.  which was a big success. The theme this year was “What’s

The Panorama Gem and Mineral Show
The Panorama Gem and Mineral Show

in a Rock?” There were some great display boxes. I put together one that showed the chemical formulas for minerals found around here along with a sample rock, a periodic table and a map to their locations. I’ve always thought it was cool to find iron, lead, molybdenum, uranium etc. in it’s native form. The ground is full of history. It’s a little distracting actually thinking about what’s in the road cuts you pass while driving. At least it’s not texting.

There was no rest after the Rock Show. The next weekend I gave a presentation at the local Home and Garden Show on grapes using slides from this year’s grape catalog.  and a few long grape canes that I used to demonstrate how to prune. There’s a whole lot of pruning going on.   While pruning I cut starts from the biggest and best grape canes of the varieties in the catalog.

Barreca Vineyards Grape Catalog for 2014
Barreca Vineyards Grape Catalog for 2014

This year I started them directly in 280 little pots that are heated from below on the floor of my office. Rooting is another underground activity that goes unnoticed. I used a potting mixture that contains biochar along with sand and aged manure. I first read about biochar as “Terra Preta” in the book 1491  about the Americas before Columbus. Archeologists found that huge civilizations with millions of people lived in what is now the Amazon jungle. The soil there is normally poor because nutrients are leached out by the torrential rains. But where the ancient peoples had slashed and burned the forest down to charcoal and then (crucially) extinguished the fires before they turned into ashes (maybe the rain helped this process) and the charcoal was buried in the soil, the charcoal held moisture and nutrients and supported micro-organisms that made it black and rich. Fruits and nuts from this “Terra Preta” – black earth – sustained these huge populations.   A local lady, Gloria Flora (that’s her real name), founded the United States Biochar Initiative  and was giving talks about “Terra Preta”; the value of

Making biochar in the backyard
Making biochar in the backyard

biochar for fertility and the carbon sequestration it provides; and how to make it. She has been giving talks on it locally and I attended one in the Cedonia Church basement down the highway from us. It’s not really that hard to make biochar. They prescribe mixing it with 10 parts manure or compost to one part biochar before applying it to your soil. So by the middle of the month I was making biochar in my own back yard and mixing it with the potting soil for my grape cuttings in the new old-fashioned way.

Beware the Ides of March. March 15th, the same day that I gave (incredibly) the most well-attended talk at the Home and Garden Show, I started FossilFreewaysmlreading Cruzin the Fossil Freeway by Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll. This book takes finding historical treasures underground to a whole new level. Many levels actually because it takes you on a trip through the West to sites in various “formations” which are layers of rock from times stretching back to the Cambrian era (-543 million years ago) and up to the Pleistocene, (- 1.8 MYA). It’s a very heavy duty book with thick pages illustrated with pictures by Ray Troll, the R Crumb of paleontology, and narrated by Kirk Johnson with thumbnail descriptions of fossil hunting sites, museums and small towms all over the eastern slope of the rockies. In the process it gives you a taste of the breathtaking scope of the many forms life has taken over the past 600 million years. I wasn’t that much into fossils before, but when you begin to fit them into this huge picture of prehistoric life, they become more than just keepsakes. Each one is another piece of the ancient puzzle of life. I see now that it is more important to add your treasures to the whole story than to keep them just for yourself. It adds to their individual importance and everyone’s understanding.

Harvest Festival Rice, Washington October 16th, 1914
Harvest Festival Rice, Washington October 16th, 1914

An old fellow who lives near Colville added to my understanding of where I live last week by giving me a picture of Rice, Washngton.  it was taken at the “Harvest Home Festival” in Rice Washington on October 16th, 1914, a hundred years ago this fall. When I scanned it at high resolution, I found out that the drum in the picture read: “Rice Military Band, Rice Washington in the Upper Columbia Valley, Land of Plenty.” This picture was taken near the beginning of the first World War and 20 years before Grand Coulee Dam drowned the Upper Columbia Valley. It’s a great example of how treasures like the Land of Plenty can be under the muddy bottom of the lake in front of you or hidden in the detail of a photo and you just don’t see them.Land of Plenty

And while we are talking about mud maps, Crusin’ the Fossile Freeway ends on a page with a picture of the Purgatoire sauropod trackway near LaJunta Colorado. It’s a mud map from 150 million years ago with footprints of huge vegetarian dinosaurs being followed by an carnivorous one. I suppose they also lived in a “Land of Plenty”. Who knows what tracks will be found in the virtual mud of the Internet a million years from now.

(It’s impossible to know if this blog will be one of those tracks, but it has accumulated 158 followers at last count. I’m not sure if you are all carnivorous or not, but I am curious about who reads this besides my die-hard friends and family and why. So drop me a note and I might even tailor the content to meet demand instead of just rambling on.)