Thursday, October 16, 2014

Feed the People by Feeding the Soil

Last eve's Hazelwood Initiative Planning Committee meeting went swimmingly. We have hazelnuts at the Hazelwood Food Forest. Lisa Kunst Vavro talked with Steve Novotny and others about the Kaboom playground hopefully late spring next year. Jim Richter and Kyle Pattison talked about crowd-sourcing to start Hazelwood Farms. Seth Nyer presented about the food forest, including a long-term hope of building a greenhouse there (though the site has spatial limitations) and Pittsburgh Permaculture using the food forest as a template for replication in other parts of the city. Grow Pittsburgh is providing funding for signage at the food forest. Kris DePietro suggested a mural on an adjacent building. Seth spoke about the permanent agriculture model as a way to rehabilitate abandoned/damaged areas. We talked about aesthetic presentation and using green to attract to the business district. The Hazelwood Food Forest has a facebook page. Dave Brewton referred to Elaine Price's Floriated Interpretations working with the food forest. Hanna Mosca talked about the YMCA-Hazelwood Garden as a resource for the whole community. I mentioned that Alex Bodnar, Matt Peters, Daniel Wade, myself, and a couple of others one year a coupla years ago did make a first attempt at coordinating late winter production of thousands of plant starts in the YMCA greenhouse for distribution in the community. Shelly Danko Day talked about the more than one acre former Blair St. Ballfield (the old "Grove") being available for a community garden. Matt Peters talked about forests, and other community urban farm models that could include chickens, bees, larger-scale composting, vermi-composting, biochar,... The community apiary in Homewood was mentioned. Dianne Shenk referenced permaculture services, training and site installation as a valuable enterprise. Rayden Sorock spoke to Grow Pittsburgh's involvement. Reverend Tim Smith talked about the need for education, and we all talked about permanency/resiliency in view of the differing ownership situations of the various sites. Leasing, sale of land was discussed. Scenarios in which people can securely (without vandalism) work individually and/or in groups to grow with or without sales of plants or produce in mind. Shelly, Tammy Carlini and others discussed dealing with contamination past and continuing from adjacent industrial activity. I brought up vital ecosystem services such as pollinators given the earthwide decline in insect populations.
From Pastor Tim Smith:
You are cordially invited to the premiere screening of the film
NOT FINISHED YET: Hazelwood's Perseverance in the face of food scarcity
a film by
Center of Life
presented by Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center
Join us on October 29, 2014 from 4 to 6 at the Kresge Theatre, College of Fine Arts Building CMU 5000 Forbes Ave. After the film there will be a panel discussion moderated by Just Harvest's Ken Regal, followed by a reception with light refreshments. Seating is limited, please rsvp by 10/22/14 to or call 412-268-2012.
Produced through funding from the Heinz Endowments.
Pittsburgh's Urban Forest One of the Largest in the Country
Living with Disaster: Stories from Northeastern Japan
Thursday, October 23, 4 – 6 p.m. University of Pittsburgh,
Room 3431 Posvar Hall, 230 S. Bouquet St.
"... earthquake and tsunami destroyed communities along 650 km of coastline... in northeastern Japan...Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdowns spread radiation over a wide area, and thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Three years later, many are still unable to return....stories from the disaster area,...overview of the damage and present situation,...current concerns..."
Saint Misbehavin'
is available from the Carnegie Library system.
The song "Basic Human Needs" by Wavy Gravy
"Wouldn't it be neat if people that you meet
had shoes upon their feet and something to eat?
And wouldn't it be fine if all humankind had shelter?...deep down in the garden, in the garden of your heart...
Jim McCue (St. Jim the Composter)

composter and biotech researcher

Pittsburgh's Urban Forest One of the Largest in the Country
As the colors of autumn entice us to do some foliage watching, many people in...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Community of Life

With all the fearful and sad perspectives in the news, I'm learning to write only about the positive ways of looking at things. There is always a better way to interpret something than to just say it's bad. Here's an example:

There are reports that Earth's average global temperature increase is causing mushrooming quantities of the greenhouse gas methane (natural gas) to be released into the atmosphere. Some scientists (wanting to believe the best, naturally) are minimizing the importance of the data coming from the Arctic, which indicates that exponentially increasing amounts of methane (previously encased in ice) is being released from ocean areas .

Now, I'm not one of those people who think of a new source of natural gas as a good thing; we need to get off of fossil fuels. Those who are excited by warming-caused opening of formerly seasonally frozen shipping lanes are thinking with only one part of their brains; they're not thinking through the causes and effects of what's melting the ice. It's part of the vicious spiral of burning - causing melting - causing increasingly warming oceans due to less ice reflecting the sun - causing more melting. But I am more and more convinced that we humans are - by being increasingly able to access an infinite universal database of knowledge - able if we work together to deal with our mushrooming environmental problems.

Throughout history - and especially in modern times - breathtaking scientific advances have allowed problem after problem to be solved. Now that it's becoming common knowledge that the planet is in an extinction event, we can - by surrendering our habitual ways of thinking - look at the naked facts more clearly. But solving the problems will take changing ourselves, drastically.

Not only we humans, but all life is one community. Each life form, whether you're talking about plants or animals or microbes, works together in the web of life. We have to respect all living things and celebrate diversity. The way to help ourselves is to stop hurting Nature. The way to suppress disease, for example, is not to fight specific diseases (with, for instance, anti-biotics) - but rather to encourage a diversity of microbes via pro-biotics.

Here's a fact we don't often think about: We're arguing about whether humans can change the weather when in fact even microbes can and do affect it. Varieties of life such as bacteria and mold take gases from the air and turn them into other things. And microbes give off gases to the air. The seven plus billion of us humans who use oxygen and give off carbon dioxide when we breathe are doing the same - changing the atmosphere. And, on top of that, we burn stuff, which uses more oxygen and gives off more carbon dioxide.

Being the most powerful species on the planet (at the moment), we have the capacity to do the most harm and the most good; it's our job to do the best we can.

Grow as many and as varied plants as you can. Stop cutting down plants as much as you can. Pull yourself (as much as you can at any one moment) out of the parts of the industrial system that are destroying the ecosystem. Vote for an end to planned obsolescence. Don't participate in financial or military competition for fossil fuels. Open your heart to your human and other neighbors. We're all one family. We're not by any stretch of the imagination the only intelligent or loving species on or off the planet.

Jim McCue
(412) 421-6496

Monday, September 15, 2014

Clean and Green

Clean and green are action words. Nothing stays clean forever, so you have to keep cleaning it. Take midnight dumpers, for instance. Every now and then one or another of our less socially-motivated fellow citizens decides to break the law and dump a pickup truck sized pile of roofing or other waste on the side of the road. If they're not caught, the city or neighbors have to clean it up. Generations of wonderful volunteers have worked their hearts out cleaning up after the dummies. I say find them, fine them, make them clean it up, and publicize them for being bad citizens - maybe that would make for a cleaner Hazelwood.

And how about the businesses that leave behind pollution that stays long after they are gone, like the lead smelter that was at the corner of Path Way and Gloster Street? It closed it's doors some fifty years ago; isn't it about time we stepped up to the plate and cleaned up that mess? Since lead is a pollutant which is now spread throughout our world (though concentrated at certain sites), there has long been discussion of both the cleaning and the greening possibilities for that particular pollutant. Levels of this poison could be reduced from our local environment by: removing it from a site of concentration to the extent possible; covering lead-contaminated soils with organic matter such as wood chips (to make it less likely to come into contact with anyone); and/or adding healthy soil with complex communities of microbes and plants and animals (which make lead less biologically available). So here we could combine cleaning with greening by making wider use of our organic waste streams to both remediate our neighborhoods and literally green them up with more plants.

Among many green technologies being ramped up in the world today are facilities which feed the pollutant carbon dioxide (which by now everybody knows we've way too much of) to algae in fermentation vessels of various shapes which make use of artificial and natural sunlight in greenhouse-like structures. As climate change highlights the need to both drastically reduce our output of CO2 and sequester (absorb) CO2 already in the environment via various processes such as growing algae and other plants, the economics of the situation will create a market demand for any process that either uses this pollutant as an input or lessens the need for it to be produced.

I'm convinced the key to the future happiness for our species is waking up to the beauty and importance of the rest of the living world.

Jim McCue

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Miracle of Life

The fragility of life has been obvious to me over the years; from childhood friends dying to learning about how destructive World War 2 was, I've always known how easy it is for bad things to happen. But only as I've grown older have I come to appreciate how unfathomably miraculous it is also.

There has been discovered to be a self-organizing principle. The Universe is evolving harmoniously, consciously.

The best proof for me that there is a power of good in the world is how Nature (if allowed and given encouragement) can take a damaged piece of land and turn it into a productive place that's a joy to visit. What was the aftermath of the demolition of a three-story apartment building at the corner of West Elizabeth and Lytle Streets is now a tiny bit of ecosystem whose plants clean the air a little. It has a place to sit and eat what grows there. From a basement foundation full of bricks (covered with sand, leveled off, and some straw and grass seed thrown down) has grown a corner full of living things that are part of the healing of the planet.

By nurturing the widest variety and the greatest quantity of life - and adding organic material such as wood chips, cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, newspaper, kitchen scraps, and manures - the land has been healed and is hosting honeybees and other insects, earthworms, beneficial molds and bacteria, and other living things large and small which work together to biodegrade pollution. Is this not a miracle?

From a government publication called "Compost - New Applications for an Age-Old Technology", which can be found at , it is clear that an enormous amount of good can come of simply changing what we do with the biodegradable sectors of our waste.

All over the world, humankind's increasingly powerful hand has been causing undesirable side effects. And everywhere new applications of ancient scientific/spiritual principles are coming to the fore to restore balance to an Ecosystem clearly in danger of capsizing. We are in an extinction event, and we are one of the species in danger of extinction. We need to respect all life. We are all connected. Love is the answer.
"A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."
~Albert Einstein (1950)
Jim McCue

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Community gardening

There are so many different ways of looking at things that it's hard to find agreement about how to grow a garden. Some gardeners have stable, set ways of thinking and so pretty much know how they want their efforts to turn out; to them beauty is aligned with simplicity - "I know what I like, case closed." I'm more interested in change myself, and so end up with what may seem a chaos of conflicting desires; gardens I've started have often been blooming jungles of surprises. Do you want beauty or peace or productivity or learning to be the product of your garden? Do you want food or medicine from it? Do you want your garden efforts to result in a friendlier neighborhood?

Maybe you just want a garden to be a place to be alone in and let nature heal with its sounds and smells and comfort. A healing garden might combine medicinal with aromatherapy plants - a place where some can harvest plants to make salves and soothing or invigorating teas while others find the sights, sounds, and smells all the cure they need. Maybe you want a garden that's a place for people to get together, or a place of memories.

Everyone's Garden (at the corner of West Elizabeth and Lytle Streets) is, true to it's name, a little bit of everything, the creation of many people. I used to be strictly a food plant person - only interested in growing something if some part of it was edible; but relationships with other gardeners have opened up my mind and heart a bit. Neighbors planted iris and several other plants I still don't know the name of, but which yearly come back and add to the beauty. People complimenting the garden have led me to more often slow down and smell the roses. Bee balm is in flower inside the little circle of salvaged bricks where Fran Soltesz is remembered.

I yearn to produce great quantities of food, but this garden is ideal only for introducing various food plants to people; real production will have to take place where more controlled conditions are possible. It's a wonderful thing to be able to show children food plants and how to harvest and what parts they can take home to eat; but picking something before it's ready (and sometimes just for kids to throw around in a food fight) just can't be allowed in a working food production garden. Everyone's Garden is a public amenity similar to our parks; it isn't fenced in to keep out either wildlife or wild people. So rabbits and raucous neighbors are free to eat and/or trample plants there. Someone just walked off with our three pairs of hand clippers.

Learning for me has been partly via the School of Hard Knocks, which I notice quite a few others are alumni of. The work-in-progress appearance of Everyone's Garden is the result not only of my learning but also having to consensus with others with other goals and opinions. All in all, I'm grateful for the opportunity to work together with people producing satisfaction and community as best we can.

Jim McCue

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Green tech

Along with the mushrooming interacting problems in the world today, there are also quantum leaps in the number of potential solutions to those difficulties. And the quantum leap in humankind's communication capacity makes those solutions ever more easily applied where they're needed. Technological progress has miniaturized computers (which when they first came out took up the space of whole rooms) so that they can now be made small enough to fit in your pocket. That same technological capacity is now exploding with solutions to the environmental problems we have. Applied research is allowing us to do what we want to do with smaller amounts of materials. If we humans manage as a species to get past our belief in conflict (belief that fighting - including economic competition - is necessary), then we will not only be able to survive all the perfect storms in our present and near future, we will be able to thrive in a paradisical world of our own making. We can literally together create a heaven on Earth.

Central to our being able to work together is the humility to see past our own contexts to the bigger world we each are a part of. It is our unconscious arrogance that makes us so sure what we think is right. It is arrogance to think that our group, whatever it is, is the best. And it is sheer (if unconscious) arrogance to think that we humans are the greatest piece of work the whole Universe has managed as of yet to throw up. Once we grow up and stop being afraid to face the fact that we humans are the ones doing the damage to Spaceship Earth, then we will start noticing there are many other ways of doing things that are less harmful or even healing. Once we stop being afraid to think because we're afraid to change, then we'll find ourselves with millions of others sharing so many amazing solutions. Then the times will feel miraculous.

We don't need nuclear power; perhaps somehow it could be re-designed to be safe from cradle to grave, but that's not happening right now. We don't need natural gas, coal, or oil; we need to minimize combustion processes generally. Our suffering from climate change will keep increasing because of changes already in the works. But we can lessen, and adapt to, those changes by making drastic lifestyle changes such as going to local distributed energy and food. Our problems are ultimately spiritual. The extinction event we are in makes it clear we're approaching The Final Exam, as Buckminster Fuller put it. Universal Intelligence is leading us to a renewed reverence for all life, so that we can regenerate the ecosystem of which we are a part.

Once again, come see Everyone's Garden and celebrate this little corner full of Nature's Beauty at W. Elizabeth and Lytle Streets. Growing at Everyone's:
an evergreen tree and bush, stinging nettle, hyssop, squash, radishes, sunflowers, pumpkin, sunchoke, roses, okra, peppers, asparagus, collards, lambs quarters, garlic, cleavers, purslane, onions, strawberries, endives, arugula, 6 peach trees, mints, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, dill, fennel, parsley, coriander (cilantro), fennel, tomato, rose-of-sharon, sage, eggplant, 2 apple trees, 2 apricot trees that are not fruiting yet, a bunch of fig trees that (barely) survived the cold winter, thyme,...and rabbits,...and wild kids who sometimes pull up garlic and pick fruit before it's ready...

Jim McCue

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


A better world than the one that presently exists is possible; in some ways a better one has already existed. As a kid living in Greenfield I remember the produce man coming around in a truck hollering "Fruits and Vegetables!" or "Vegetable man!" or something like that. You could buy groceries fresh picked from farms nearby. Local farms were the only farms you could buy from. Our present system, in which massive amounts of fossil fuels are burned to carry food grown in all parts of the world to be sold in all parts of the world, is based on very poor short-term business strategy. The disruption of the climate is only one part of Earth's ecosystem which is being harmed by our addiction to Big Ag and Big Energy rather than small local food production and distributed power. The pollutants from transportation combustion processes MUST be curtailed, drastically and quickly.

Productive intellectual work in this time of great change includes considering the possible advantages of making changes that actually go back in time to the way some things were done in "the good old days" (not that those days were necessarily all that great as a whole).

The Hazelwood Initiative committee called Small Food Vendors in Hazelwood has the goal of increasing affordable access to healthier food for residents while providing income, training and experience in the food industry. Several committee members are working on plans to start their own small businesses selling fresh unprocessed and/or prepared foods such as soup and sandwiches off of trucks, along with delivering food.

Beginning this summer, fresh locally-grown produce, locally grown herbs (both whole plants in pots and cuttings) and various home-cooked specialties and baked delicacies will be available via outdoor stands on Second Avenue. Loss of funding all over the Pittsburgh area for the farmstand program is being ameliorated by new creative efforts via the YMCA's garden program and others to take up the slack. Local individuals and groups able to grow and/or prepare healthy foods for local sale will be welcomed. I will be offering cut herbs, potted herb plants, and unusual easy to grow wild edibles such as purslane and lambs quarters free to try - part of my effort to get more people to recognize how we can all grow at least a little of our own healthy food. Drop off any plant pots at Everyone's Garden at the corner of W. Elizabeth and Lytle Streets to donate to the effort. Our many-years goal of establishing a farmers market in Hazelwood is taking another step forward.

A much better world is possible by playing one's part in the community of life. A re-defining of what it means to be productive is taking place. Right now we only have an ice cream truck that spreads the sweet but short rush of a sugar high to our residents. We can and will do better. Sweet is not the only good taste. In fact, the different kinds of sugars in all fruits and many vegetables, naturally grown, can re-ignite a complexity of food tastes we have forgotten. Sugars are all made by nature, but our refining and concentrating them - throwing out the enzymes, minerals, and vitamins from the sugar cane, sugar beet, and corn plants - is causing much of the poor health we are suffering from.

A new understanding of the need to nourish the community of life at the level of the soil is also yielding a much-needed paradigm shift in our transitioning to a more sustainable world. A garden will not produce a healthy crop of plants for beauty, food, and medicine if the ground is not replenished with organic matter. So we need to set up neighborhood recycling of organic wastes to the soil. The Earth cannot produce if we do not feed it.

Jim McCue 412-421-6496