I got word yesterday that plant tests sent to Cornell Cooperative Extension from our Brighton Community Garden showed positive for Late Blight in tomatoes. Late Blight became an ongoing topic of discussion over the weekend as I taught the second module of the PDC with my friend Kai. Friday I was on the phone to David from Providence and he asked how the weather was up here in Rochester, meaning “has it hit yet?” Same day, the NYTimes had an article on the blight.
Kai told me the Late Blight was the same fungus that wiped out the potato crop during the Irish Potato Famine. Michael Pollan’s book Botany of Desire goes into some detail about this. Apparently the Irish discovered that potato and cow’s milk formed a complete protein, and were able to operate this agriculture “under the radar” of British rule. Potatoes were looked at as somehow beneath Europeans, at the time, and were cited as evidence that the Irish were an inferior race and culture.
In doing my research on a theory of localized economics, I’ve started reading Jane Jacobs, and there’s a Potato Famine connection there as well. The British were successful in Ireland, in a way they weren’t successful in the American colonies, in preventing the emergence of a network of cities. Such a network, according to Jacobs, is the basis for dynamic city growth, and therefore national economic dynamism. According to Jacobs, there were no effective ports, replacement crops, or replacement industries or trades that could have absorbed the shock of the crop failure. The Irish economy of the time was anything but resilient.
Back at the PDC, we had a discussion going about what resilience is. This is one of the central tenets of both permaculture and Transition, that we should build resilient systems. But what excactly does that mean? I read from Odum and Barrett’s Fundamentals of Ecology on two types of stability. Resistance stability means the ability of the system to resist external shocks. Meanwhile, resilient stability means the ability of the system to absorb and recover from such shocks. These two modes appear to be mutually exclusive from an ecological point of view.
From this it emerges that the concepts of stability and resilience are quite different. A piece of glass is quite stable- some windows in my house probably date to its construction in 1902. Yet an external shock could easily shatter the glass, and broken glass is pretty hard to piece back together into a window. At least it requires significant energy input as heat and full remanufacturing process as well as purification. On the other hand a piece of raw dough or a bucket of “Slime” is resilient but not stable. I can mash it all day with my hands or whatever and it maintains its integrity, without the ability to have a stable shape.