Train Your Inner Lizard

Sometimes what you want to want is the opposite of what you want want.

When I was a teenager I accepted an invitation to visit a friend’s house while the rest of their family was away. Together, we baked a Betty Crocker packet cake, then gorged on it, straight from the oven, drowning the spongy sweetened mass with Sarah Lee Ultrachocolate Ice-cream.

Never before had I experienced the ritual of deliberate overeating. Up until that point in my life my parents regulated what food I bought and how much I could eat. People living in our modern, consumerist society would describe that time in my life as “growing up” and “becoming independent”. Looking back I can now see I was actually becoming isolated and disconnected from socially imposed eating habits.

For most of my life I have been very controlling about my dietary habits. My childhood of suffering with nonstop sinusitis and asthma evaporated when I stopped eating dairy products in my late teens. My digestion improved dramatically when I cut out wheat in my late twenties. The food I ate from then on was cheap and plain. Eating at restaurants was a minefield, so I avoided social occasions most of the time, or sat there awkwardly not eating in the midst of the feast.

Since moving to the farm full time I have had the occasional lapse eating junk food. During these occasions the strategy was to overindulge, to make any negative effects obvious, hoping I would be discouraged from repeating the experiment. In the last year, when I hit a point of feeling burnt out and a little hopeless with the farm project, I allowed myself to sink deeper into that hole. I tried to justify it, rationalising that the entire panoply of wondrous industrial foods could soon vanish from the world, so why not wallow in them for a while?

I’ve since snapped out of that destructive cycle, with my determination restored to achieve what I can on the farm in what is left of my life. But the ingrained habits of the last year are something that will need attention. I don’t believe all that much in will power or effort. The cards are stacked against the individual in the modern world. I grew up being fed addictive stimulants (chocolate/sugar) from early childhood in the context of it being a treat. Teams of advertising psychologists and food scientists toil day and night to harness our deeper impulses, sacrificing our well-being for the sake of their profits. Industrial civilisation has reduced us to isolated individuals, doomed to struggle alone against a world eating system.

Junk food is designed to hit the bliss point of multiple key ingredients, coupled with a wall of manipulated images to appeal to our base psychology. But perhaps the perfection of this trap is its ultimate weakness.

We all know of cases where a person ate a bad prawn, a half-rotten fruit, a rancid nut, and found themselves unable to face eating that ingredient, often for the rest of their lives. Humans are designed to identify food with desirable nutrients (as exploited by the junk food industry), but are also designed to avoid foods that threaten them. For a long time I have asked myself the question- is it possible to train our subconscious food oriented mind for our own purposes, just as skilfully as the junk food industry?

The original conception of the plan went something like this. The processed food industry uses a dazzling array of flavour and aroma chemicals that are very loosely regulated. A million dollar product would combine a range of foul substances, optimised using the same tools of industrial food science and psychology that designed coke and mars bars, to find a recipe which could be applied to any addictive junk food the customer was struggling to stop eating. The concentrations would be such that the immediate experience of eating their favourite “treat” would be mostly unchanged. However once consumed, the abundant taste buds that line the digestive tract would register something wrong with the junk food, not enough to be dangerous or harmful, just enough to produce a feeling of ill-ease that would train the subconscious brain to avoid that food in the future.

If someone else wants to pick up this idea and bring a product to market then they are welcome to it. Anything that gives people a weapon to fight back against processed food would be welcome. I suspect that appreciating the packaging, branding and advertising around the troublesome product during the process of eating the tainted version would be useful in undermining every step in the addiction process. It is worth noting that this wouldn’t be a magic wand, and that tainting the subconscious response to one junk food might just leave the door open to become hooked on a different one (though tainting an unfamiliar junk food type the first time you try it might be more effective than breaking the stronger bonds to an old food).

Humble me, sitting on my farm, wondered if there might be a more home grown approach to take that didn’t involve ordering and blending industrial chemicals. There are plenty of things I grow that have awful flavour profiles. With a little cautious self-experimentation I figured I might be able to find a workable approach. Two possible “natural” ingredients for tainting junk food came to mind.

The first was persimmon. Ripe persimmons are a delight, probably the sweetest thing I grow on the farm (apart from sugarcane juice and honey). Unripe persimmons by contrast are packed with tannins. Eating a fruit that is even slightly unripe causes a horrible, puckering mouth feel that lasts for hours and often puts me off risking another ripe persimmon for weeks. So I picked a basket of unripe persimmons, removed the skin (since it contains a substance that can form solid masses in the stomach called bezoars), then grated the pulp. I bought a tub of Sara-Lee Ultrachocolate Ice-cream, as a homage to where the habit of overeating junk originated.

I started by eating a teaspoon of untainted ice-cream. Then blended an eight of a teaspoon of unripe persimmon pulp and found the mouth pucker was almost imperceptible. I slowly increased the dose, taking five minutes between doses, until I reached a one in four ratio of persimmon pulp to ice-cream. At this point the texture was starting to feel slightly wrong, but I could eat the mixture without any immediate urge to spit it out. I look some time to smell the product and look at the packaging before putting it away.

About half an hour later a distinct warmth emanated from my stomach. I didn’t feel nausea or cramps, just a strange feeling of suspicion toward the ice-cream. It was funny because my conscious mind knew exactly what had happened, yet on a subconscious level all sorts of alarms were flashing. The feeling persisted for the next couple of hours, slowly easing. The next day the feeling of suspicion toward the ice-cream continued but I suffered no apparent after effects. I encouraged myself to have another bowl but couldn’t motivate myself to serve it up. The plan is to repeat the dosing when the urge to eat ice-cream returns. Waiting for the urge to surface naturally, then meeting it with the same suspect product, seems like the best way to retrain that urge. I grated and froze a larger amount of pulp so I can use it through the year.

Another home grown ingredient is Aloe. I am quite fond of bitter vegetables, but the taste of Aloe is profoundly revolting to me. Consuming aloe vera gel has become popular in recent times despite clear evidence of its carcinogenic potential (clearer than for glyphosate for example). To continue the experiment I took a block of my favourite chocolate and painted the back side with aloe gel. I applied as much as I could (1-2 mm deep) and let it dry out in the fridge overnight. When consumed I could detect a mild bitter aftertaste, but unlike the persimmon there was little lingering effect, so I would tentatively call the experiment unsuccessful. My initial impression is that simply ruining the immediate flavour impression of the food in question is ineffective, as your conscious mind can easily reorient itself back toward the untainted version. Unripe persimmon had the effect of causing delayed and prolonged subconscious impressions of being ill at ease, which coupled nicely with a noticeable aftertaste of the junk food without significant notes of the added ingredient.

I repeated the chocolate bar experiment with a layer of grated unripe persimmon on top. The immediate tannic mouthfeel was impossible to ignore (unlike in the ice-cream where it almost vanished). Anticipating the same slow moving feeling of mild nausea, I saved an untainted sample of chocolate to smell and slowly eat as that process unfolded. Nothing much happened in the hours after consumption. I think that the ice-cream experiment was more effective since the product is mostly water. However, the next day I contemplated eating chocolate again and I experienced the same gut reaction of suspicion. Time will tell whether or not I am simply going through a placebo/psychosomatic experience. I can say at least a week after the ice cream experiment the suspicion remains.

An unavoidable caveat here- all self-experimentation carries unknown risks and this article is not advice for you to copy my method. This has never been done before as far as I can tell and could carry unknown risks. How effective this approach ends up being is also a big unknown at this stage, since the potential for placebo effects this early in the process is quite high. I’ll make an effort to report back in down the track (possibly in the comments if not in a separate post).

I’m thinking of launching a new chocolate bar. Instead of Cherry Ripe I will call it Persimmon Unri[pe.

The City is a Lion

For most of recorded history the majority of the population lived in rural hinterlands. Cities and towns with higher population densities were the rare exception, and those crowded centres relied on a constant inflow of rural immigrants to maintain their populations. Cities only became capable of supporting their own population growth in the late 19th century, such were the challenges of sanitation, nutrition and disease in urban spaces.

Different aspects of humanity serve different ecological functions within functional societies. As such I would like to argue the city functioned for most of history as a predator/scavenger/parasite, soaking up the excess population of the rural zones and utilising them for its own purposes. The ecological food pyramid can be better viewed upside down, with excess resources at one level overflowing to make the next, smaller level possible. The city populations extracting food and other resources from the hinterland (most often by force) likewise functioned in this manner.

The average rural citizen tended to view the city dwelling elites as antagonistic to their comfort and survival. This turns up frequently in our language, in predatory lending, parasitic bourgeoisie, and blood-sucking aristocrats. Viewed from the other side kings compared themselves to eagles and lions, while ordinary people were sheep or cattle.

An understanding of ecology however shows that predators and parasites serve an essential function, most critically in stabilising the whole system. Returning to the overflow analogy of the food pyramid, a predator is like a spillway that allows surplus to overflow between levels. In their absence the barrier is likely to overfill and later collapse catastrophically. Ecosystems deprived of predators tend to become deeply dysfunctional. A real world example of this shows up in the Irish potato famine. The population of that island had been long suppressed by the British extracting crops for export, snatched from the mouths of hungry babies. When the potato came along its primary advantage was not in its productivity, but in the difficulty of both locating the crop for taxation purposes, and the logistical problems that made long distance export unprofitable (unlike grain, potatoes are mostly water and tend to be damaged in transit). As a result, the peasant population grew exponentially, creating the preconditions for the resulting famine.

The industrial revolution changed the dynamic relationship between urban and rural populations, mostly due to improvements in the economics of moving large quantities of food by rail and ship, and through infrastructure improvements in the management of fresh water and sewage. That allowed the city to finally break free of growth limits, while continuing to draw excess rural population into its grasp (mostly due to industrialisation of rural production).

With terminal depletion of critical resources looming on the horizon, the city is likely to return to its usual role as a net consumer of human population. This transition has already begun in many westernised countries, where people living in crowded cities survive on falling real incomes that force them to reproduce at rates well below replacement. With their connections to other population centres, cities are once again likely to be on the front lines of pandemic disease, the major driver of rapid population decline in history, though rural populations usually follow in time.

Rural populations are likely to face exacerbation of the trends that drove the recent mass migration into cities, namely overshoot of local resources and economic penalties for living at the periphery of resource distribution networks. When the population of Ireland crashed following the potato famine around one million died but two million migrated. I expect a similar pattern to play out so long as transportation and a subsistence level of cheap industrial food is available. When shortages hit, rural populations are likely to be the first to simply run out. This may trigger further waves of mass migration to cities, leaving those who stay behind in the countryside to begin the slow and difficult task of restoring productive local economies. Facing no better choice, the majority of the industrialised population will follow the lure of chemical bread and digital circuses, voluntarily walking into the jaws of the great beast.

The spectacular rise of urban populations in recent history (

Brisk Fiction- Fall of the Fire Eaters

After encouragement from several regular readers I decided to write some short science fiction to share on the blog, partly as a prelude to (eventually) releasing my series of novellas (more than halfway written, just resting my brain before the final rewrites and revisions). For me the best science fiction takes established realistic principles and uses them to imagine a different kind of world. Mass produced science fiction hasn’t done much of that for many decades in my humble opinion, churning out the same tired fantasies of humans rampaging across the universe to smooch on sexy humanoid aliens.

Since fiction is something new on the blog feel free to let me know if you would like to see more like this. I have a limited number of crop species, and a limited capacity for real world experiments, so occasional short fiction pieces might be a useful ingredient to maintain output and variety. Likewise let me know if you don’t want to see fiction on this blog and I will consider publishing it elsewhere.

Fall of the Fire-Eaters

Soon the dawn light would be too bright to carry on.

The procession hurried through the receding gloom, through the shushering cassurea forest, footsteps scrussing on patches of fine sand. The radiant heat of the previous day had long since expired, replaced by warm exhalations of leaf litter underfoot. The canopy yawned, anticipating the coming light. Our men guarded the front and rear, protecting women ladened with hammocks and tools, goats slung with suckling infants, and children balancing baskets of weaver ant nests on slender poles. Awhile away, the camp among the sleeping trees beckoned us. Orange-black sunlight spilled over the horizon, threatening to scald our delicate skins if we lingered.

That time of year we moved camp every few days, once the ants had gathered the rich seeds from the wattle-tree groves. The trees near the river were especially productive, a variety to sow all along our migration line and share with other tribes. Every night the women sat in circles, carefully separating the oil-bodies from the seeds, packing both into gourds they buried in concealed locations. It was vital food for the lazy return journey, through the long dry season of spinning and weaving, sowing and sickling, birth and slaughter, songs and celebrations.

My tribe walked in silence, ears left hollow to catch any sounds of the other people, the fire-eaters. Our camp ahead was not far from a small river, the favored place where fire-eaters might build their mud walled shelters. Chief Wazza said they lived in the lowlands beside the undrinkable sea, numbers swelling during wet years, spilling up the rivers in dry years when the current slowed. Fire-eaters traveled in large numbers and ruined the land wherever they settled. But they feared the night due to their defective eyes. We hurried to make camp and secure the area before daybreak, for fear of an attack. Chief Wazza tilted forward and increased the pace as the first yellow-black rays cut through the canopy.

As the rising earth underfoot turned to soil then worn rock, the canopy changed from musty cassurea to resinous wattles, their heavy seedpods rustling in the restful dark. However, another smell settled upon the group, poisonous, hateful: the growing stench of smoke. The entire tribe sniffed as one, thought as one, feared as one. Nobody needed to speak. Burnt wattle dominated the aroma, but traces of sisal and spear lilies added to the mix, precious plants that circled the sleeping tree camp.

Not risking a closer approach, Chief Wazza chose a grove beside a concealed well. The exhausted women raised the sleeping hammocks. Children placed the baskets of weaver ants in the wattles to begin harvesting then hurried to bed. The goats stayed close to camp, whipped if they made a sound. Deeno and I were the youngest men and fastest runners, so Chief Wazza selected us to scout ahead, saying “Retreat at the first sound of fire-eaters. If they chase you, lead them away from us”. He handed us dyecloths to cover our eyes if we were not back before sunup, and confiscated our blowguns to prevent us from confronting the enemy. For strength, we drank a gourd of freshly drawn blood-milk before we departed.

The acrid stink clawed at our tongues as we crossed into the burnt territory, an empty, silent world, the soil crunching dead undertoe. The storm a few days ago must have extinguished the fire and saved the sleeping trees grove, their buttressed roots burnt only a little. Half the surrounding weaving plants were scorched, but the spear lilies showed some signs of regrowth. The blackened land traced down the far side of the hill toward the river. Deeno urged us on further, skirting the unburnt edge of the wattle forest for cover. The sun was growing bright, the shadows retreating behind the trunks, the sky turning a painful ash blue. I wanted to run, to hide, but I could not leave him to face the enemy alone.

We climbed a rise that overlooked the riverbank, the filthy brown water of the wounded river shimmering in the dawn light. Further upstream, in the centre of the burnt landscape, a plume of fresh smoke stained the sky. The fire-eaters were still here and the sun rose swiftly in their favor. I gestured frantically that we must return to tell Chief Wazza, but Deeno ignored me and pressed closer, weaving higher up the rocky overlook. I followed a distance behind, ashamed at thoughts of running if the enemy fell upon my brother. From behind a blackened tree we peered down on the camp, eyes straining at the growing light, counting twoteen men sitting around the fire, their savage spears leant against the dirt huts. A small number of women and infants hacked at the muddy banks of the river, tending tangled vines, crops that were poisonous unless half burnt. A small breakaway group from the crowded lowlands, as Chief Wazza predicted.

We crept back the way we came, checking and checking again nobody noticed or followed. Once we were past the blackened earth we broke into a frantic sprint, air whistling in our throats, sunbeams nipping at our ankles, energised by our daring. The women and children slept, hoisted high in their woven hammocks, but the men sat circled below, guarding, awaiting our return.

Deeno related what we had seen as the men shifted their faces, calculating odds and strategies. “Stir the snake-mother,” was all Chief Wazza said, before sending most of the men to rest. The old woman descended the rope ladder and fished the tightly drawn cloth bags from inside her robes. She cooed, like a mother to a baby, as she massaged the snake inside. Only the oldest woman handled the eyeless snakes, given the danger of milking them. Through the fabric she located the head and held it firmly between her bony fingers. She squeezed the mouth of the glistening brown snake over the edge of a small gourd and the precious venom dribbled out. Once she had milked every snake she gave a little shudder to release the tension, then returned the bags to warm at her side while she slept.

The men shook the darts from their canisters to dip in the venom, ensuring the grooves were fully loaded before laying them out to dry. They moved even more deliberately than the snake-mother, the slightest scratch from every sliver of bone a promise of rapid death. Noticing our drooping eyelids, the Chief sent us up into our hammocks. We needed to rest, to be ready for the coming night.

It was difficult to sleep. I wanted to talk to Deeno, but he willed himself to sleep. Ever since we were boys we had trained every night, running at full speed through the forest without making a sound, firing practice darts from our goat bone blowguns. It was fun trying to keep up with him when it was only a game. That night would be no game. That night would be a fight for the survival of our tribe. If we allowed the fire-eaters to remain their numbers would increase. We had no choice but to stop them.

We awoke to the red-black sunset and joined the other men in a rich meal of wattle seed oil-bodies. The fearful silence of my people, my people who loved to sing and laugh as they worked: that silence cut into my heart. They would feel safe again once we had purged the threat. Once the sun fell behind the Earth, Chief Wazza assembled the men and spoke of the plan, his quiet, simple words describing a quiet and simple trap.

We walked over the hill in silence, past the damaged sleeping-tree camp, closer and closer to the smoke and noise of the fire-eaters and closer to danger. I reminded myself of their weakness. The fire-eaters feared the darkness and could not see through it. They were helpless babies, unable to move with purpose or grace once deprived of their fire. We waited in shadows until our nerves released and we could once more breathe with our whole bodies. Graceful movement and accurate shots both come from the proper breath. That is what Chief Wazza had taught, though a tremble remained in my outstretched fingers. Why couldn’t I be braver? When a bank of cloud drifted across the moonlit sky the Chief gestured for Deeno to circle around and begin the attack. My brother was the fastest runner, fearless, unlike me. I feared enough for the both of us.

The rest of us crept closer, to the edge of the flickering light that danced across the ashes, close enough to smell the animal stench of the settlement. These people rarely moved, wallowing in their own filth. The Chief was watching Deeno circle the camp, his eyes the keenest in the black night. That is why he was chief and took all the women as wives. We waited, breathing as one, waited as a bank of clouds drifted from star to star, towards the moon. When the bright sky fell into darkness the Chief howled like a strange animal.

Aaaaaeeee aaaaaooiii aaaaassssssss!”

The three guards around the fire stopped their chatter. One stood with his heavy spear and peered into the darkness. Once again the chief howled, and the other two grabbed their weapons and crept toward the edge of the firelight, almost beyond the edge of the camp.

That’s when I saw Deeno, practically flying through the distant darkness towards the fire, carrying a bundle of gourds in each hand. He flashed past the fire, dropping the gourds without stopping. Hissing steam filled the air as the firelight died in an instant.

Disoriented in the sudden darkness, the fire-eater men called out, alerting the whole camp. They turned to feel their way back and the Chief landed a dart in the back of the largest, quickly joined by expert shots from the other men. The fire-eaters shouted and swatted at the stinging barbs. They bumped into each other in the dark. The Chief had not lied: without their fire they were utterly helpless. More figures emerged from inside their shelters, some half asleep. They provided easy targets, the satisfying thwoop of breath channeled through the blowguns punctuating the night. Soon the sounds of strangled sobbing and screams joined the confusion as the women and children fell into range. It would only take a little longer for the venom to reach their hearts.

Movement in the river caught my attention. I then realised I had been frozen in place, overwhelmed with fear and then awe as the attack unfolded. Only I saw the young fire-eater on a canoe trying to escape. Chief Wazza said that none could return to their people downriver to spread our secrets. They would fear us most if they did not know us.

I scrambled along the charred hillside, circling the chaos to get in range of the canoe. I reached the muddy bank and my legs sank as I waded out. My first shot missed and plopped into the water. The fire-eater turned and peered into the dark, struggling to see me. It was a young woman, her useless eyes opened wide. For a moment I hesitated, pondering her wretched life, unable to survive without burning the world around her. The true breath returned to my chest and launched the second dart that buried itself in her throat.

The clouds passed and moonlight spilled over me. In my moment of concentration I had not noticed the large warrior rushing towards me. My feet were too deep in the mud to retreat. He charged toward me, spear held forward, shouting out to the girl now screaming upon the water. I fumbled with my weapon. If I landed a dart it would not save me from his rage. Had I at least helped my people in my final act of bravery, killing a terrified girl?

My attacker was only five steps away when I saw movement behind him. Swiftly, deftly, silently in the darkness, my brother Deeno darted between the swarming fire-eaters. He swept up one of their own spears dropped in the confusion and drove the point into the back of my attacker. The great brute swung around and fastened his fingers in Deeno’s hair, dragging him to the ground. Other enemies soon swarmed over them, turning their dying strength into fury. For a shameful moment I hesitated, before dragging my feet from the mud and retreating up the hillside as the enemy smothered my brother’s cries.

The clouds slipped again and the moonlight dimmed. The fire-eater camp fell into relative stillness. My tribe listened for survivors from the shadows. Women sobbed in slow, spreading agony. Men argued as they struggled to relight the fire with paralyzed hands. A baby screamed, the raw, curdled gasps of the dying. We had struck every one of them. One by one their pleading voices fell silent, until their camp was peaceful apart from the ruppling of the river.

Chief Wazza spoke, distant, subdued. “Leave everything. Touch nothing. Their sun sucked bones will speak to those who might follow.

Then we marched home, never speaking of Deeno again.

For a nine days the men hung in their hammocks, far from the sleeping tree camp, waiting and watching for signs of the sicknesses of the fire-eaters. We feasted on fatty goat meat, a reward tossed our way by the women. With the men isolated the women worked twice as hard, taking on the duty of cutting uneaten undergrowth with goat jaw sickles. The hauled the vegetation to the dung piles to plant the next gourd crop.

Since I had entered the enemy camp and touched the river I stayed away longer than the others, but no illness fell upon me. It was forbidden to speak of the dead, but I thought of Deeno dying for us, dying for me. I thought of him more than I slept. I thought of him as I splintered the slick long bones and sharpened them into darts against my teeth. When I returned to camp, Chief Wazza spoke to me in front of the others in his direct and simple way. “Thanks to your keen eyes, no fire-eaters escaped. Thanks to your vision, our land and secrets are safe. Grow strong, young one, and you may be Chief one day.”

Reliably Unreliable

We have nothing to rely on but unreliability itself.

Please accept my apologies for the absence of regular posts for the last year. I spent most of that time writing science fiction and it became an all-consuming passion (four novellas drafted and a separate novel currently undergoing outlining). Not much has happened on the farm (my goats are fat and trees a little taller) but I have come out the other side of that interlude with a new creative outlet and a renewed dedication to my long term farming goals. I have my best seed grown lines of vegetables safely tucked away in storage and will get back into my overgrown house garden in coming months with some new ideas and refined priorities. A reduction in vegetable consumption seems to have improved my digestive health as well.

We recently received 1.2 m of rainfall over a few days, leading to the worst flooding since the late 1800s when records began. We get downpours and floods pretty regularly here, and we had no major damage apart from some sad and soggy goats, unlike many of our less fortunate neighbours. Rain of similar intensity happens about once every decade due to the regular el nino/la nina cycle of the south pacific. In between we often suffer droughts, fires and heatwaves. Having lived on the farm for a full el nino cycle now we have seen most of what nature can throw at us here. With or without climate change, we already had a very changeable climate in Australia, one that European settlers never really got a handle on in the last two centuries, especially after industrialisation allowed us to ignore the extremes.

Attempting to consistently produce calorie crops under such conditions is extra challenging. It has been argued that the emergence of complex, grain based civilisation all across the planet around 10-5 thousand years ago was triggered by the climate shifting into a period of relative stability. Growing grains relies a predictable cycle of sufficient warmth and moisture during sowing time, then a period of relative dryness during harvest in preparation for storage, something we lack here. Crop losses still happened fairly regularly, but stored grain allowed society to maintain complexity through difficult seasons. When consecutive crop failures occurred then genuine famines and upheavals occurred.

Australia never developed an extensive grain dependent civilisation, likely due to the highly variable climate. The seeds of many wild species were consumed, and the habitats were actively managed, but usually grain was only eaten if better food like meat was unavailable. Grain dependent civilisation needs a predictable edge, for example the banks of the Nile or Tigris rivers surrounded by more arid conditions. In Australia that edge was too variable in space and time to allow complex settled civilisation. Complexity even of the level of medieval Europe may not be possible in much of Australia, with or without further climate change. If/when the global climate returns to a state of general instability then the same may become true for most of the planet.

Last spring I planted a large maize crop on my silty creek flats, cutting back Inga trees in my alley system for several weeks, processing the deep mulch, sowing by hand. I ran out of dry weather to try burning the wood to clear space for small seeded crops, an experiment for another time. I wondered if a flood would be an issue, so I sowed a bit later than usual. I did a little experiment and proved that maize stored on the cob over winter retained excellent viability (a seemingly small but important detail since I previously relied on airtight plastic containers and drying agents). I also figured out I could put down my metal hoe and sow the crop more easily with a thumb thickness twig since the soil was sufficiently spongey after years of Inga biomass. I tried interplanting amaranth, huazontle, chia and pumpkins, but unfortunately all of those died in the flood, along with almost all the maize. I also lost a bit of topsoil and all the mulch from around the crop (while the weedy rows either side were unaffected). Topsoil loss is completely unacceptable and irreversible in practice, so I will no longer be sowing annual crops on the creek flats in years when flooding seems likely.

Throughout the previous ten year el nino cycle only three years which allowed me to produce a successful maize crop. During the droughts I could not get them growing before the weather turned cool. During the wettest years either a flood or cyclonic winds destroyed the crop, often rotting it at maturity. With more careful timing, and possibly shifting the crop to higher ground during wet summers, I could maybe get my success rate up to 50%. That is still far too low for maize to ever be a primary staple crop in our region. By contrast, preindustrial farms usually suffered a crop failure about once in every five years (an 80% success rate), and had successive crop failures about once every 25 years. In my region successive crop failures would happen at least as often as successive successes. Maize is the only calorie grain that has proven capable of withstanding our heavy bird pressure. My conclusion is stark: grain based self-sufficiency is not possible in this region. Most tuber crops suffer similar issues. Potatoes cannot be stored at scale without refrigeration and also suffer during droughts and floods, sweet potatoes become infested with weevils and stop growing during droughts and bandicoots destroy cassava.

This long process of getting to know my particular soil and climate has reinforced the conclusion that the world is changing so radically that we cannot simply go back to the past models. Even regions that once supported much smaller populations from locally produced calorie crops now have a changing climate, different atmospheric composition of photosynthesis limiting carbon dioxide, degraded and imbalanced soils, and most of the old landrace crop genetics are long lost anyway, never mind the considerable skill needed to grow, harvest and process the crop. Throw in the likelihood of increasing year to year variability and it means more radical changes are needed. In my town self-sufficient agriculture has never been achieved: hunter-gatherers used to pass through quickly, and then came an extractive tentacle of the global industrial economy that imported cheap food while it sucked out local resources.

My response to all this is to redouble my efforts with Canna edulis, the hardy, pest resistant perennial root crop that easily persists during droughts and grows opportunistically whenever rain arrives. It also easily survives the wettest conditions. You can even set it on fire and it simply grows back. Best of all the starch in its roots can be extracted and stored indefinitely, unlike grains which slowly go rancid even under ideal conditions. Grains will likely always play a smaller part in my system, but hardier, nutrient dense grains like chia and amaranth are likely to get more attention since they offer more than plain calories. And my dairy goats and geese are shaping up to be critical components of the system.

Whenever I am suffering a set-back or having a bad day I remind myself that I am attempting to do something that nobody has ever done in my region before, something that no person has ever achieved alone or in one lifetime, and that the world is changing so rapidly that I am trying to hit a moving target. With one decade behind me and I have trialled almost every staple crop species with a chance of performing here. Through a long chain of necessary failures I whittled down the pool of species worth growing. I have also accepted I probably won’t achieve my ultimate goals within the two more decades remaining. Hopefully with a little patience and persistence I can hand the resources I have scraped together on to another generation in the future.

There is an old saying: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. It is the ultimate reflection of the reductionist, industrial mindset. Outside of controlled experiments in a laboratory the reality is the exact opposite: doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same result is foolish. We must come to terms with how often we will fail due to factors beyond our control or prediction and make all those considerations a key component of our systems.

Only a few maize plants survived the flood. Tenochtitlan will not be rising from the ashes of my small town.
My paddies survived without damage, possibly thanks to my instincts to leave the weeds on the retaining walls undisturbed. Now to figure out how to get Typha or Blechnum indicum growing in them.

Index Post August 2021

Index Post July 2020- August 2021
Seed List Spring 2020

Hybrid Geese

Plant Profiles

Three Useful Grasses

Three Sweet Myrtles


Edible Bamboo

The Vegetable Tier List



Finocchio Fennel

Tools and Techniques
The Chicken Sled

The Fire Sleigh

Bamboo Trellises (without string)

The Minimum Human Habitat

Climbing Mount Capillarity

Four Types of Evolution

The Diminishing Returns on Collapse

One Hundred and Ten Percent


Planet of the Dodos

Have I Seen My Farm

Falling Forward

The Great Race Race

Disturbing Thoughts

Abundant Edge Podcast Interview #1

Article in Permaculture News

Differentiation and Integration

Scale and Scalability

Cheating to Win- Earthworks

Cheating to Win- Herbicides

Cheating to Win- Fences

Book Reviews
Disunited Nations (Zeihan) plus Reflections on Australasian Geopolitics

Older Indexed Posts
Autumn seed for sale 2020
Spring seed for sale 2019

Goat Economics
Geese- Come to the Nest

Plant profiles
Summer leafy greens
Snake bean
Ice cream bean
Bunya and beyond
Lima bean
Spigarello (leaf broccoli)
Atherton raspberry
Lettuce and endive
Spring onion
Winged yam
Potato (The Spuds of Doom)
Grain Amaranth

Tools and Techniques
Basic Biochar
Throwing a paddy
Canna flour
A taste of reality (pigeon pea taste test)
Good, better, best
Hoes and weeding
Direct sowing versus transplanting
Everywhere is a river (water and irrigation)
Inga alley establishment

Zero input agriculture
Our place
Adapting in place
Against permanence
The three times plants (almost) destroyed the planet
Chesterton’s fence around the food forest
The mechanical garden
Liebig’s law of diminishing returns
On abundance
Do nothing
The cosmic slippery dip
Look on my compost ye mighty
The master of jewels
Against design
No such animal
Letting go with open arms
Getting to Know You
Permaculture Without Vegetables
A Feast of Poison
Dunbar’s Number for Plants
The Starvation Rainbow
The Concentration Game
Origin of the Speciousness
Pasture- You Never Choose Your Friends But You Always Choose Your Enemies
Food System Input-Output Dynamics

Book reviews
Farmers for Forty Centuries (1911)
Book Review- The One Straw Revolution, M. Fukuoka (1978)

Southern Creek Flats

Differentiation and Integration

I detest the idea of writing posts about what I am planning to do, and hope that I have maintained a pretty good balance in mixing real world results and experiences with a heavy dose of research and philosophy on issues of agriculture, ecology and philosophy. This post will go a bit outside that mould since I want to talk about my future plans and reflect a bit on where I am in my personal journey.

For the last decade (the last five years full time) I have been gathering different genetics of different crop species and running them through the wringer that is my particular soil and climate. Through that process I only retained the genetics that could produce an output that I actually wanted to use and that relied on minimal inputs- zero irrigation, no off site fertility or mulching, minimal management with hand tools and capable of sustaining a complete lifecycle on site. I now have a suite of annual vegetables that fulfil all our household needs, with the only gaps remaining in perennial types that can provide a little to get by during prolonged droughts. I am still continuing trials and breeding in this area. I also have a decent range of annual grain and dry legume crops, and have at least identified the workable staple tuber crops, though need to do more selection and breeding with them. I have identified which tree crops are most vigorous for me, but time will tell which turn out to be both productive and useful once they mature.

This initial phase, that I like to think of as differentiation, is mostly complete now. After a pleasant hiatus, when a cold and wet summer turned into cold and wet winter, as I sat inside many days back in my pyjamas after a morning spent tending the animals while the weeds grew all around, I am ready to launch into the second phase- the integration step. This is where I optimise the systems that combine different crop species together into a more functional whole, not just in how they are planted in time and space but how they fit together in the whole farm ecosystem (which ultimately also includes the kitchen and the people eating the food it produces).

The process of integrating different selected crops is considerably more complex than simply killing off the ones that don’t work. The problem highlighted in the following table, which shows the number of species in a grouping and the number of unique relationships between them.

Number of speciesNumber of relationshipsNumber of speciesNumber of relationships

For small numbers of species the number of relationships is fairly manageable. For example take the stereotypical “three sisters” combination of maize, climbing beans and pumpkins. Here there are only three relationships to consider (or double that if you want to think about each direction of interaction between partners). The maize physically supports the climbing beans, the maize half shades the pumpkins, the pumpkins and beans keep out of each other’s way. Supposedly the beans fix nitrogen for the others but in reality they just do that for themselves.

If you tried to integrate two trios of crops that mostly get along with each other you would have fifteen different interactions to consider, with a decent chance being that some of the combinations would be a problem. This includes physical interactions (dominating/shading out), more invisible chemical interactions (plants are constantly giving off chemical weapons to slow their neighbours down and tinker with the soil microbiome) to boring agronomic issues (e.g. you can’t dig up the potato crop without killing off the carrots which are trying to set seed). You might be tempted to look up those sprawling companion plant charts. My advice is don’t waste your time since they are mostly nonsense. Plant interactions are highly situational and like everything else you will need to do your own trials to really know what is possible in your space.

Originally I split my vegetable gardens into distinct cells, surrounded by hedges, since I used geese to clear the original kikuyu pasture. This made it convenient to prepare one new cell every autumn and plant five rows of crops, initially in blocks of monocrops. This made sense during the early trial phase since often a new crop would fail, and it was easier to replant the space as a simple block. As some crops became proven I trialled some two crop combinations, generally selected based on similar life span and differing plant family, with acceptable results.

I am now removing the dividing hedges and turning the vegetable growing space into a continuous system where I plan to prepare and sow one new bed every month or so (slowing down during prolonged droughts, then catching up when the rains return). This will change managing the vegetable garden from a once a year burden to a more ongoing background job. It will also incentivise me to experiment more widely with sowing times and crop combinations since it won’t be as easy to plant one bed with just one or two crops at a time. To make this experiment the most informative I will probably sow each bed with one row of a particular crop, then a second parallel row with patches of different crops. This will allow me to thoroughly evaluate the interactions between one main crop and several others at the same time, mostly to identify any negative combinations. I might do some completely chaotic multispecies mixes as well, just out of curiosity. Saving your own seed in decent quantities makes this feasible. My aim is to end up with combinations of around 3-5 crops without harmful interactions that also have compatible or complementary life cycles and growth habits, hopefully ending up with an integrated assembly that leaves fewer gaps for weeds.

The integration of crops happens in time, as crop rotation, as well as in space as companion planting/mixed cropping. In the vegetable garden the aging annual beds will be put under staple crops undergoing breeding work, then to biomass plants as fallow (and to make some handy animal feed), then disturbed and enriched to restart the cycle every 2.5 years (which should offset warm and cool season crops to make an effectively 5 year rotation before the same annual crop returns).

My staple crop systems are also coming into an integration phase, especially those grown in my Inga alley system. Last season showed the double wide rows produce better crops due to the lower need for constant pruning of the Inga regrowth to manage shading. In time I may convert two single width rows into a second double width, and add another double width row further up the hill. The limitation with the double width rows is that they don’t produce enough leaf mulch to cover the whole row, but I also have the problem that they produce large amounts of waste wood. Combining these issues I think I can mulch just along the outer edge of the row and use this space for growing large seeded crops like maize and pumpkins. The wood can be converted to biochar in a windrow in the centre row, the heat clearing weed seeds from the surface and making germination of small seeded crops like amaranth and chia viable. After a summer grain crop the area can be covered in trellises and yams and lima beans grown together for 2-3 years. Then a mixed crop of arrowroot and cassava could be planted with an understory of shade tolerant root crops like turmeric for 2 years, eventually dug for starch extraction and starting the cycle over again.

For tree crops the process is much slower. I already have a good idea of which species are vigorous under my conditions, but will need to wait for them to mature to find out if they are productive and if their output is wanted and how different species of trees and understory can be integrated. In these spaces integrating the tree crops with livestock is the primary challenge, but often relies on trees reaching sufficient maturity and high enough levels of good quality alternative fodder being present in order for goat browsing pressure to be manageable. It does at least appear that my dairy goats mostly ignore bunyas and macadamias beyond a certain size. I suspect I may be able to integrate staple cucurbit production into some of these orchards if I create concentrated mounds of biomass in the future.

Thus marks a turning point in my farming adventure, from differentiation to integration. There is no point dabbing different types of paint upon your canvas until you are sure that the colours you like will stick. I have completed enough of my test swatches to start assembling the complete picture, though for this creation I have to watch out in case the cobalt blue causes the nearby sunset yellow to turn black. In the future the number of new plant profile posts will decline (though breeding reports will continue) but reports on crop relationships and guild trials will become more common. If and when output increases then the final step of integrating resource flows through livestock (to further reduce reliance on bought feed) and different ingredients into worthwhile meals will follow.

A spontaneous happy combination, self sown cucamelons growing over my pineapples, surrounded by tulsi and various friendly weeds.
More persistent happy combinations, old shallots and spigarello hanging on in the bed which is buried in asparagus every summer, now sporting a weed suppressing dichondra ground cover.


Just a very quick note to let subscribers know that the blog is not dead, just dormant while I work on some other writing projects and raise a litter of puppies. I am still accumulating observations for future posts and have a couple of podcast interviews in the pipeline. Thanks for your patience.

Plant Profile- Maize

Maize was one of the last major staple crops domesticated, a mere 6000 years ago compared to wheat at 10 000 years. Despite that late start I consider it to be the ultimate human adapted staple grain. It also underwent the most dramatic transformation from wild ancestors that barely resemble the modern form we know. By contrast the wild ancestors of wheat and immediately recognisable. Part of this may be due to its distinct reproductive strategy with separate pollen producing flowers held high above the receptive cobs. Maize is a sex maniac compared to most other staple crops that tend to self-pollinate most of the time. This proclivity has allowed maize to adapt and evolve more rapidly than other staple crops, meaning it can follow humans across the globe between different places more rapidly than normal. It is a plant that behaves more like an animal.

However in order to tap into this enormous potential for local adaptation you need a reasonable amount of genetic diversity as a starting point. Australia is remarkably poor in terms of maize genetics. Its status as a major industrial crop and susceptibility to a host of serious pests and diseases means importing maize seed is almost impossible. Decades ago I trialled some of the few diverse strains in circulation and found them to be promising but not quite enough, though with enough crossing and selection could probably get some way to improvement. Looking at comparable climates overseas revealed the lowland subtropics of the world features white dent maize. These forms are used as a staple crop for the production of masa, the sticky dough used to make tortillas and other forms of flat bread. Unfortunately no such maize was in circulation at the time.

Serendipitously I stumbled on a government run seed bank for tropical staple crops. Figuring I had nothing to lose I enquired if I could access their material for my breeding work and surprisingly they said yes. From the vast database I selected about twenty types labelled as “white maize”. Unfortunately the descriptions were limited to short titles. I was thrilled to plant out two positions of each variety, labelling each carefully. Then I sat back and watched. The plants varied dramatically in their form, size, rate of maturation and the qualities of the cobs as they formed. The most interesting thing was seeing our local parrot population destroy the cobs of almost all the varieties. Most people would despair at this point but I was ecstatic- almost all destroyed means that a handful seemed to be resistant to this major local hurdle. The next year I only planted out the varieties that had shown some parrot resistance and allowed them to cross. I also included a little seed from the first trial year that potentially had received pollen from all of the varieties. I have continued to grow and select this population for a decade now and they continue to steadily improve. They mostly set single large cobs up to 25 cm long that have large tightly packed seeds. This trait seems to make it harder for corn earworm to damage many kernels. The kernels are white with a variable peach blush. The husks are wrapped incredibly tight, meaning it takes a little more effort to husk them after harvest. The upside is that parrots and rats have great difficulty getting to the cobs. When they do attack they tend to start at the far end of one cob and gradually work their way down. This means only a small number of cobs experience low levels of damage. With weaker husks the parrots will take a bite out of every single cob in an afternoon and destroy the entire crop.

Through a variety of different seasons I have gradually developed a fairly reliable way to grow corn. Ideally I sow between Xmas and New Year and timing is important. If I sow too early then the cobs are too likely to mature when the weather is still hot and wet, making the chance of rot and insect pests greater. If I plant too late then the cobs mature as the weather turns cold, slowing down their growth rate and increasing the chance the vermin will take them before maturity (field rats get very hungry in late autumn here). If the soil is still too dry by mid-January then it is better to not plant a crop. I estimate maize will fail this way about once every five years under my conditions, which is similar to the rate of crop failures in most pre-industrial agricultural societies. They generally could weather a single crop failure with limited damage. About once every 25 years two crop failures would occur in successive years and food stores would be depleted, leading to famine. This is also a common feature of pre-industrial farming systems and was likely a key mechanism for managing human population levels.

I sow maize seed in shallow hoed out holes spaced about 20-30 cm apart, in rows at least 1.5 m apart. I prefer to sow 2-4 seeds per hole. The seed is large enough to learn to toss a few into the hole without leaning over. I then hoe back over and step on each position to make it a little more work for a rat to dig them up. My main maize crop grows on my creek flats where the soil is silty and reasonably deep. I cut back the Inga alleys in this position in early spring, giving the leaf litter time to fall and be separated from the branches. The maize was sown in three widely spaced rows in the double wide Inga alley since maize is very intolerant of shading. I hoed out the established weeds (mostly stagnant cobbler’s pegs) then allowed the weed seed to germinate before culling it with the fire chariot outlined in an earlier post. The Inga mulch was hoed aside for sowing and germination. One light weed hoeing was repeated around the seedlings once they reached 10 cm in height. This was also the time the maize seedlings were thinned to a single one and the mulch was swept back around the seedlings. I usually select the seedlings with the thickest stems rather than greatest height. Maize has a reputation to be a very hungry crop but this population grows just fine without any added fertiliser. The Inga mulch and weeds seem to supply everything it needs.

The crop then basically looks after itself until harvest time. Once the maize has a head start it is very good at dominating any late germinating weeds. I sowed tepary beans in the rows between the maize but they never took off (they are still an experimental crop for me). I also sowed Seminole pumpkins between the maize rows but they had a strangely poor season for me wherever I put them. Possibly this was because summer was strangely cool and wet. Weirdly the pumpkins are now only just starting to take off in late autumn. Combining maize with other staple crops is a priority for me going forward but will require a lot more experimentation. People love to point out the three sisters systems of the new world but fail to realise the complexity in finding not just the lines of the three crops that suit your local conditions but also finding varieties that are compatible with each other (not to mention the knowledge of how to manage their relationships).

Once I start seeing parrot damage on the cobs I generally know it is time to harvest. There is a certain feeling of firmness when mature. I am not bothered if I discover 5 % of the cobs are slightly immature during processing. That just helps me eliminate late maturing genetics from the population. If I had a crop with variable maturity I would need to spend a lot more time assessing each cob for ripeness, and the later cobs would probably be lost to vermin anyway. I usually husk in the field to reduce the amount of material I need to carry the half a kilometre home from the creek flats. Cobs are then dried in mesh bottomed trays for a few weeks, being carried outside during the day and kept safe indoors at night. If there is a chance of rain they stay inside for the day since getting rained on can ruin them instantly. Once the kernels are slightly loose I set to shucking them (removing them from the cobs). This can be hard on the hands, but my technique is to first remove two rows running the length of the cob, then quickly push the remaining seeds sideways into the gap I created. Seed come loose much more easily this way.

Cobs are graded during husking. Those that are small, poorly pollinated, attacked by vermin or contain more than one caterpillar are set aside for eating only. Those that are large and untouched are set aside into an elite pile mostly for seed saving. The majority (maybe 80%) remain in the intermediate pile. I save the bottom half seed from the elite cobs. The largest seed are at the bottom of the cob and give the strongest seedlings. The seed from the bottom 1 cm of the intermediate pile is also kept for sowing. This approach balances the need to maintain high quality genetics against the danger of inbreeding if I select too narrowly. Maize relies on growing reasonable sized populations to prevent loss of genetic diversity, at least 100 plants but ideally 1000 or more. This year I grew about 250 plants and plan to double that next year.

Seed for eating is further dried in the oven at 100 C for 15-30 minutes at a time then I take it out to let it air. I repeat this process once or twice a day until the feeling and sound of the corn changes. You can feel the humidity on the freshly heated corn if it is not ready yet. It is then stored in airtight containers with a chunk of oven dried Epsom salts in both the top and the bottom. Residual moisture can concentrate in different parts of the container and very little is needed to support the growth of moulds. Seed for growing is air dried another week or two then also put into containers with dried Epsom salts. It stores this way at room temperature for at least 5 years.

I would love to share this parrot proof maize population more widely, but unfortunately there are very few people with the time, space and interest in growing their own staple grains. It is not a crop that can be maintained in small vegetable gardens due to the inevitability of inbreeding. Most people can’t even be bothered saving seed from easy sweet corn anyway. Currently I am the only person with this peculiar race of maize and the original government seed bank was sold off to commercial interests long ago. The path that is traced through history to a particular moment is irreproducible. A crop like maize is an example of how adaptable we can be if we continue to share and are not afraid to discard what we no longer need.

A set of cobs left with their husks. These were braided to experiment with storing cobs whole. Time will tell if viability is retained at acceptable levels.
Sowing seeds in shallow hoed holes.
Germination of stored seeds feels like a miracle every time.
A week or two after sowing. The rows on the right were sowed about a week ahead of the other two to test conditions were suitable.
Thinning at around two weeks
Four weeks from sowing after a follow up weeding
A view of the crop around 6 weeks from sowing
The crop at around 2.5 months, tall enough to cope with weeds from this point.

Nearly finished at 3.5 months from sowing

Select cobs air drying
Trays for oven drying eating corn

Larger bottom seeds shucked from select cobs to save for sowing

Mid grade cobs laid out to air dry. The red cob is a different variety added to the mix years ago that still pops up sometimes.

An example of parrot damage on a highly resistant husk

Planet of the Dodos

Sometimes I wonder about the ancestors of the dodo that flew across the Indian Ocean to the tiny island of Reunion. That ecosystem was peaceful and abundant, allowing their offspring to multiply and thrive. Over time they lost the ability to fly- an expensive extravagance in the absence of any predators. They grew much larger, a strategy to become more efficient since small organisms use more energy per gram of body weight than large ones. Increasing size also made digesting the mostly vegetarian diet of the island more practical. If those ancestors had known that after millions of years of peace and prosperity their entire line would be wiped out would they have kept flying on to more hostile lands? Every change that made them more suited to their fly speck of heaven in a hostile world only made their eventual doom more inevitable. Nearly identical stories of isolation, optimisation and extinction have repeated for millions of years before humans set sail.

The general pattern repeats in all biology. As conditions become more favourable species engage in a race to become more complex in order to capture more resources. The complexity usually manifests as a combination of parts, often a symbiosis of different starting organisms. This process took very simple bacterial cells and viruses through sequential endosymbiosis to create the much larger and more complex eukaryotic cells. These nucleated cells then glued themselves together to make multicellular plants, animals and fungi. All of these organisms engaged in various types of symbiosis, up to the pinnacle of pollination and parasitisation between distinct multicellular organisms. Ecosystems in more favourable environments piled countless species together in intricate webs of dependencies.

Could all of this optimisation and complexification be a seductive trap, just like the verdant island of Reunion was for the ancestors of the dodo? If systems such as permaculture really do aspire to permanence on a scale that transcends human history then perhaps we need to engineer a culture of avoiding over optimisation and come to understand instead the most prudent level of complexity and “productivity” in order to balance them against adaptability and durability in the face of change.

What might this look like in practice? One place to start might be to imagine alternate histories of the emergence of agriculture (in the narrow sense of large, centralised grain based civilisations). At a key stage the very earliest agricultural societies were consolidating their crop and livestock genetics in a series of domestication events around 10 000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. The earliest agriculturalists were generally in poor health compared to their neighbouring nomadic peoples, especially until domestic animals were added to their grain based diets. Is it plausible that the nomads could have snuffed out the spark of agriculture if they had known the threat it posed to their way of life? Would modern day humans be able to recognise the threat of a similar emerging leap in human lifestyles and social structures and mount a meaningful response? The emergence of multiple centres of domestication across the entire planet from 10-5 thousand years ago suggests that the trend was merely a symptom of larger driving forces such as climate change. Likewise if a comparable metamorphosis lies in our future then it may similarly be futile to try to prevent it. An analogy would be for one group of flying pigeons to try to prevent any other pigeons from settling on Reunion to prevent disaster in the distant future….a futile thought.

Are there any alternative approaches? I would simply point out that there are numerous groups of people alive today that have avoided being replaced or assimilated by the spread of agricultural or more recently industrial civilizational models and human genetics. Who cares if dodos go extinct so long as birds like their flying ancestors survive somewhere? Relatively functional examples of these people and societies persist in Africa (including the Khoi-San and the various central Pygmies who are currently persecuted and in decline), the Sentinelese (currently being impinged upon by India) and a constellation of smaller groups through South East Asia, Australasia and the Americas that are fighting to maintain their traditions and territories. These people and their heritage probably represent a more viable seed for a post-industrial humanity than all the well-meaning industrialised people growing lettuce in the suburbs put together. We agricultural and industrial people may have already permanently lost our wings as we settled into our abundant industrial island generations ago. When that peaceful bubble is shattered we may well find it is too late for us no matter how hard we flap. In the great tree of evolution the vast majority of branches lead to dead ends. As long as a few lineages remain to branch again then the world continues.

Planet Earth itself can be thought of as an idyllic island in a hostile universe, a place where matter is permitted to become ridiculously complex and fat as it is shielded from the harsh radiation and cold vacuum of space. We humans are probably too fragile and optimised to ever leave this place and the same is likely true for any of our potential descendants. Just like Reunion to the dodo this world is both our Eden and our tomb. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy warming ourselves in the filtered rays of the sun while our time lasts. Leaving room for peoples who were not tempted into our mechanical honey-trap might be the best hope for a world with a place for humans in the millennia to come. And perhaps we can help our hardier distant cousins on the tree of life find new islands across the universe while we still have the means to try.

Historic sketch of a dodo by Adriaen van de Venne