Open the Pea Pod Bay Doors, HAL

On 12th May 2015 an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia. Eight passengers lost their lives. Most of the other passengers were injured. As the details of the crash spread through news channels, many reports featured discussions of an automated system known as Positive Train Control (PTC) which, it is believed, would have prevented the accident had it been in use on that stretch of Amtrak’s route.

It is reasonable to believe that with PTC been in place the accident might not have happened. Still, thousands of trains, driven by hundreds of engineers, have safely negotiated that curve without PTC or anything like it. The engineer involved in the accident himself was fully capable of safely negotiating that curve.

At the time that the details of this accident were becoming public knowledge I also happened to be reading Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. A few hours spent reading that book and his earlier work, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains are hours well spent.

Although it is wise to read his work with one’s critical thinking skills engaged, Nicholas Carr is not a 21st-century Luddite. He would observe that both the Internet and automation have tremendous value from which he and we benefit every day. Nonetheless he does question the value of automation in certain specific applications, such as autopilot systems on commercial aircraft, driverless cars, electronic medical records and diagnostic systems, and GPS systems.

Carr begins The Glass Cage by citing an FAA SAFO, or Safety Alert For Operators, issued on 4th January 2013: “This SAFO encourages operators to promote manual flight operations when appropriate.” In other words, commercial pilots should be encouraged to switch off the autopilot system from time to time to maintain their skill in responding to changing flying conditions.

He cites examples such as the crash of Continental Airlines Flight 3407 in Buffalo in 2009 and the introduction of GPS navigation among the Inuit residents of Igloolik Island in far northern Canada to support the argument that heavy or total reliance on automation is not necessarily a good thing.

In the chapter on GPS systems he cites research in neuroscience that suggests exercising the areas of the brain involved in navigation is critical in maintaining the ability to remember things in general. “It may well be that the brain’s navigational sense—its ancient, intricate way of plotting and recording movement through space—is the evolutionary font of all memory.” One neuroscientist he cites even suggests that letting the brain’s navigation center atrophy could result in a “general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia.”

As an editor and a wannabe writer I rely on automation and digital technologies, including the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary, search engines, and sophisticated  word-processing software. For all of their power, however, digital technologies can’t replace the very basic knowledge and skills that help me correct poor syntax, recognize when “form” has been typed when “from” is needed, or write a cohesive and coherent paragraph.

As a hobbyist gardener I also rely on digital technology to help with some things, such as figuring out why my dieffenbachia plant is failing, researching recipes that make use of garlic scapes, or deciding what native plants to include in my garden plans to attract pollinators. However, even though it might be possible to build a robotic system to till the soil in the spring, turn in the compost in the fall, or pull out the sorrel and lamb’s quarter in the summer, those are still tasks that will be done manually, with tools powered by carbohydrates and not hydrocarbons, in our garden.

squash plant and garden trowel
A manual planting device and an analog squash plant.

Concluding his discourse on automation, Nicholas Carr turns to Robert Frost. Quoting the next to last line of “Mowing,” Carr observes “Labor, whether of the body or of the mind, is more than a way of getting things done. It’s a form of contemplation, a way of seeing the world face to face rather than through a glass [as in a glass cage].”

 I am encouraged that among the readers of these posts are people who enjoy physical activity and some forms of manual labor. They know that they need to put away the keyboard and screen, the tablet, or the smart phone, if only for a few minutes, and go out and dig in the dirt, look for the bugs and the birds, or follow the red blazes to the summit. Best wishes to all of you for an active, healthy, productive summer 2015.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Lettuce Alone (Maybe With Spinach or Peas) for a Successful School Garden

The school garden has grown in popularity in recent years, whether it consists of a few plastic containers in the corner of a paved school yard, or a group of raised beds on the school lawn. There are many vegetables and herbs that will grow and yield a harvest in even the most modest of gardens. There is also no end to the list of lessons that teachers, students, and parents can harvest from a garden.

Basil in a container.
Basil in a container.

Because the school year ends in May or June in most of the United States, a school garden presents a timing challenge to the teachers, students, and parents who plant and maintain it. Many of the popular vegetables that do well in small gardens, from beans to broccoli, from tomatoes to collard greens, mature later in the season. This means that the students who plant the tomatoes often don’t get to enjoy the tomatoes.

A raised bed garden at a suburban school.
A raised bed garden at a suburban school.

Here’s how one school met that challenge. A K-2 school in northern New Jersey has had a school garden for three years. At the suggestion of one of the first grade teachers, who is also a home gardener, the garden includes lettuce. By the end of May this one school garden can yield two or three harvests of salad greens with still more to come.

Lettuce seeds can be planted in the school garden early in the spring. Lettuce grows best in the cooler weeks of April and May. Best of all, with lettuce the whole plant above the root is edible. That means that the smaller lettuce plants can be harvested, cleaned, and eaten as a means of thinning the garden. Think baby mixed greens. As the remaining plants continue to grow, the leaves can be harvested and the plants will continue to grow new leaves. Take care to wash the greens thoroughly. A salad spinner will remove the water after each washing.

Although it might seem improbable, the lettuce from this garden is a real crowd-pleaser. Even in this suburban setting the children and some of the adults who sample the harvest are surprised by how much flavor fresh-from-the-garden greens can deliver.

What kind of lettuce gives you this kind of harvest? Look for mixed greens, sometimes called mesclun. Read the package to see what varieties you will get. You might be surprised to find things like mustard greens and dandelions in the mix. Don’t worry; the dandelions are different from the ones you pull out of your lawn and they won’t infect any nearby turf unless they are allowed to flower and go to seed.

Are there other crops that can be planted and harvested in the spring before school lets out for the summer? Spinach fits that description. In northern New Jersey spinach seeds can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked. Mid-March is not too early. Peas also thrive in cool weather; look for varieties of peas with edible pods. Ask your local garden center staff for their recommendations. Feel to post your own in the comments section of this post!

The school garden season is winding down for this school year, but it’s not too early to plan for next year, or even to think about some fall plantings. Best wishes for success with your own school or home or community garden.

With a tip of the hat to Jodi Mattock Walsh for suggesting this post, thanks as always for stopping by!

The Season’s First Harvest

The lettuce needed to be thinned, and some of it was mature enough to be put in a salad, so we enjoyed with our evening meal the first produce from the garden at our new home. This event brought to mind a recent article circulated on Twitter by @Food_Tank ( As the headline indicates, as much as one-fifth of the world’s food is now produced by urban farms. One needs to look to places such as sub-Saharan Africa to find cities with truly substantial urban food production. In such places up to 40 percent of the urban population is engaged in food production. That percentage is much smaller in the United States but it appears to be growing.

The first lettuce of the season.

Among the issues that the article discusses, this one caught my attention: “How far — and in what direction — can this trend go? What portion of a city’s food can local farmers grow, at what price, and who will be privileged to eat it? And can such projects make a meaningful contribution to food security in an increasingly crowded world?”

Coincidentally—although I don’t believe in coincidences—our church’s adult Sunday School class has been discussing food insecurity after viewing the documentary film A Place at the Table. ( Here’s where the question “who will be privileged to eat it?” becomes salient. The readers of this blog know that I believe small farms and gardens can be a part of the sustainable world that we need to imagine and build for our children and grandchildren. How does the produce from these plots get to the people who need it most, the people who live in the places that have become known as food deserts?

Organizations such as City Green, an urban farm organization run as a nonprofit enterprise, have a mission to provide affordable organic produce to urban areas in and around lower Passaic County, New Jersey. In northeastern Essex County another nonprofit, A Lot to Grow, maintains several community gardens. The vegetables that they raise go to homeless shelters, food pantries, and facilities that provide assistance specifically to seniors.

There are several well-stocked for-profit produce stands and farmers markets selling local produce in season in the area, and we patronize them when we can. There are, however, many times when we have to check our enthusiasm and limit our purchases because locally grown fresh produce can be expensive. We’re not wealthy; we’re still members of a shrinking middle class. If we can’t always afford local produce in season, how can the people who have to string together a series of low-wage jobs possibly afford fresh produce for their families?

We (now a broader “we” than just my spouse and I) might be tempted to think that the U.S. federal government can and should solve the issue of food insecurity and eliminate the food deserts in America’s urban areas. But the federal government won’t. Not even if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren is elected President in 2016. That’s not intended to be a rant but an observation. There are undoubtedly many elected and appointed officials who would use the power of their office to bring about the necessary changes if they could. However, If Barack and Michelle Obama, who planted a vegetable garden on the White House grounds, could not advance the cause of food security for urban residents, it’s unlikely that any elected official can do so in the near future. The best hope for mitigating food insecurity is still the private sector and nonprofit organizations.

Dear reader, thank you for your patience with this post. My hope and prayer is that just one of you will find a local community garden or urban farming organization to which you can donate some of your time or treasure. Tending a garden, whether it’s my garden or an organization’s garden, is one of the most satisfying forms of work I can think of. The work is physically demanding, to be sure, but the aches and blisters are temporary. Bending over and pulling weeds from the rows of vegetables, or cutting those weeds down with a scuffle hoe, I smile when I think of the people who might enjoy those vegetables in a few weeks. In our country, with the abundance of resources that we can all enjoy sustainably, there is little reason why every resident should not have access to affordable fresh vegetables and fruits in season from local sources.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.