Posts Tagged ‘History’

Bloedel’s Retreat

September 7th, 2010

This past weekend, Sara and I rode our bikes onto the ferry to Bainbridge Island and headed out to spend the afternoon exploring the peaceful acreage of Bloedel Reserve.

In the 80′s, Prentice and Virginia Bloedel opened their former home to the public as a collection of gardens. Like all gardens, it is a curated, supernatural experience of nature. As if listening to a ‘greatest hits’ record of natural beauty, walking the grounds was an inspired dialogue  for someone left, too often, without the time or patience to seek out these sublime combinations in the wilderness. Unlike most other gardens, however, Bloedel Reserve is big enough to come across like the real thing. It is at once both wild and tamed — anarchic and groomed. It manages to be represent both inspiration and artwork all rolled into one.

One has the suspicion that the unique flavor of Bloedel Reserve has its roots in the union of personalities that birthed it. Prentice and Virginia were possessed of two very different sensibilities when it came to the things they fancied. Prentice was part of the Bloedel family — owners of a far reaching timber empire. He was Yale educated and, as a young man, desired to teach, but he was lured back into the family business. The way that he took to the industry, however, suggests that it may have the been the job he was born to do. He pioneered the economical practice of using sawdust and other mill “wastes” as fuel as well as the practice of reforestation of lands that were logged by planting saplings as the land was cleared. Overall, one gets the impression that he loved nature, the woods, and promoted man’s responsible and economical use of natural resources. He was attracted to the grounds that became the reserve because of its large acreage and rugged beauty.

Virginia Bloedel, however, fell in love with the French-style main house that occupied the plot (the Bloedels purchased the land and main house in the early 1950′s). She was lover of beauty and order. She filled the house with art and Louis XVI style furniture. She passed her love of art on to her daughter (also named Virginia), who ended up collecting (with her husband Bagley Wright) the bulk of what is now the Modern collection of the Seattle Art Museum. All the parts of the estate that seem to have an ordered class and an European beauty I attribute to Ma Bloedel.

There is a reflecting pool (pictured top) in the center of the grounds. It was the Bloedel’s favorite place to hang out in the garden. A single bench sits at one end of the pool, and a vase of bright flowers sits at the other. It’s a surprising venue for quiet contemplation.

The large shallow pool was built with the guidance of landscape designer Thomas Church and was later reworked by Richard Haag, who added a tall rectangular hedge around the whole thing. In a way, this place encapsulates the spirit of the entire Reserve — the surprising presence of man’s mind and hand in the middle of wild forest.

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Explosion: Population Follows Food Production

December 30th, 2009

As the world moved into the 20th century – populations growing and food sources being strained – there was a growing concern about a 100-year-old idea known as the Malthusian catastrope. Thomas Malthus’ theory recognized, basically, that there are a fixed amount of resources available on Earth, and that, sooner or later, the human population is going to exceed a level that those resources can comfortably support.

…misery is the check that represses the
superior power of population and keeps its effects equal to the means
of subsistence.

- T.R. Malthus from An Essay on the Principle of Population

One of the big hurdles preventing an increase in food production has to do with nitrogen - an elemental building block in the growth of plants. While nitrogen is plentiful in our atmosphere, it must be “fixed” by first converting it into ammonia and then oxidizing it in order for plants to be able to use it. Back in the day, the only practical way known to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere was to plant legumes (beans, peas, and the like) and let a natural symbiotic bacterial process unique to these plants produce fixed nitrogen in the surrounding soil. To keep their fields enriched, farmers had to alternate crops from year to year between legumes and whatever other more profitable or bountiful plant that they wanted to grow. Farmers were also forced to keep and feed animals to further fertilize the fields. All of these limitations kept a cap on the amount of food that could be grown for human consumption.

Enter Fritz Haber, a German Jewish chemist who perfected a process in 1909 to artificially fix Nitrogen using a whole lot of heat, pressure, and a catalyst. After commercializing his process with the help of Carl Bosch and BASF, the world finally had a plentiful source of fertilizer that was limited only by the availability of energy (fossil fuels) and the gears of industry. Supposedly, two out of five people on Earth would not be able to feed themselves today if it weren’t for Haber’s invention.

So why isn’t Haber hailed as a modern day hero for ushering in an era of unprecedented human growth and productivity? Well, it just so happens that the other popular use for all that ammonia is as a chemical weapon. Haber soon went to work for the German military and oversaw the deployment of poison gas on the battlefield (ironically and horribly paving the way for the gassing of his own relatives in concentration camps during WWII). Despite the wartime uses for the Haber process, many of the factories that synthesized ammonia and nitrogen for gas and bombs during WWII were converted to produce fertilizer after the war. The yield from all these factories enabled the exponential population boom that began shortly thereafter.

I’ve been reading a book by Michael Pollan called The Omnivore’s Dilemma that calls attention to Haber’s significant effect on food production. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of him, given all that he did to change food (a subject I am passionate about), so I wanted to do a little research. Anyways, the book is a really interesting read so far, and I recommend it to anyone that wonders how the modern state of food came about, and what we might want to think about as we continue our mass consumption into the future.

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