Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mother Earth, the pedosphere

Soil is a complex and dynamic substance.  Not only a support for vegetation, soils lie at the interface of numerous interactions between Earth's atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere.  What's more, soils lie at the interface of the living and non-living, biotic and abiotic, organic and inorganic, casting doubt upon the duality implied by these domains.  In healthy soil, absorbancy, storing (largest terrestrial pool of carbon), recycling and processing is high in relation to the limits set by climate.  Soil is the foundation of our home, a host to our activities, and a witness to our comings and goings.  It is ancient (but fertile), easy to destroy, and all too easy to overlook.  A thorough understanding of soils requires knowledge of many earth sciences and natural sciences.  (The two main branches of soil science are pedology and edaphology.  Pedology deals with pedogenesis, soil morphology, and soil classification, while edaphology studies the way soils influence plants, fungi, and other living things.)  E.O. Wilson's interest in microbial ecology is clearly a subject with close ties to soil science. 

Now a word on the romanticisation of agriculture and pastoral life.  Humans never wanted it, we only entered into that enterprise through necessity (source: The Wild Life of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn, as read in here).  Do I love the farm life?  It can be very good, but it will never compare to the beauty of raw wilderness.  The over emphasis on fertility and growth that farmers tend to have is due to their need for productive farmland and crops.  Soil doesn't need to be maximally productive, like a weight-lifter on steroids, to be healthy, it just needs to be at its natural balancing point.  Organic farmers have recognized that this balance point is higher than we tend to give it credit for.  A whole slew of back to the land, natural farming philosophies developed in the 20th century to address and repair our dysfunctional relationship with the Earth.  I would be content with a field of raspberries to pick.  The sobering reality is that soil conservation must be built into society.  It is harder to gain back once it is lost.  Aside from the use of earth moving equipment, most of our interaction with the soil is indirect.  How do we affect water runoff and drainage?  Leaf litter accumulation?  Plant diversity and growth?  Sun and shade patterns?  Soil structure and compaction?  What animals do we allow on our soil?  Questions like these are central for the soil conservationist. 

Any meditation on the transience of life would do well to include variations on the following Christian passages that identify a symbiotic relationship between man and soil:
“The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  Genesis 2:7
“For dust you are, and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19
“All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Ecclesiastes 3:20
There are many who literally want to do, and have done this, among them Malcolm Beck (alive), and W.D. Hamilton (dead).  In a pedocentric world, perhaps the purpose of death is to return to mother earth, enrich the soil with our bodies, and allow our matter to find reanimation in another form of life.  [Update: Helen Knight's article in New Scientist explores this in more depth.]

Sauna: The Finnish Bath by H.J. Viherjuuri

This is a short and pleasant little book.  What I like most about it is the way in which the author relates the experience of taking a sauna and it's positive effects.  “The feeling of well-being which follows the cold dip is undoubtedly one of the most delightful sensations which the human body can experience.” (41)  “the most delicious moment of all... when the bath is over and one can lie naked in the fresh air outside the sauna...” (44)  “The sauna banishes psychological troubles and ill humors.  In its heat, the mind is relieved of all pressure, and recovers its true balance.  A man bowed down by worries may come out of its doors in a philosophical and even humorous frame of mind.”  (45) 

Viherjuuri recommends a distance of at least 42 inches between the top platform and the ceiling, a 20 inch minimum width of the upper tier (78) and using bands of cloth hung from the ceiling as leg supports when lying down.  He also states that aspen (poplar) makes good material for benches. (55)  A nice full page “Rules of Thumb for Bathing” is included. (68)  “Regardless of where the stove may be placed, it should have a wooden guard rail around it.” (79)  Fiberglass bats should be stapled, not glued as the adhesive could melt. (80)  Regarding the sauna stones, he recommends igneous or basalt. (83)  I have struggled with ideas for a simple and effective floor drain, Viherjuuri recommends a “floor which slopes gently down to a drain in the corner of the hot room; the floor can be scrubbed and rinsed with a minimum of trouble, and the water brushed toward the drain.” (82)  I encountered a lot of advice in this book that I recall reading from later sauna books that recycled Viherjuuri's wisdom.  He is clearly viewed as an authority in his field.

Finnish Sauna by Allan Konya

I recently finished reading “Finnish Sauna” by Allan Konya.  He pointed out:  “The sauna is the only form of bath in which both dry and damp air are present, and in which the dampness can be controlled by the bathers themselves.” (5)   “Some people consider that the pile of stones on top of the sauna stove is a relic of an altar used in pagan times and that the throwing of water over the stones was a form of sacrificial ceremony to supernatural beings.” (7)  I think this is more than a bit of a stretch, but a fun piece of lore all the same.  “On entering the hot room, bathers are enveloped at once by a delightful heat, not stifling, in no way oppressive, but rather like the protective, nurturing warmth of an incubator.” (13)  I like the analogy of a sauna to an incubator.  “It is advisable to start off with a lower temperature and increase it gradually to the required level.  This allows one's blood vessels to expand slowly and the circulation to improve.” (14)  Especially for the novice!  “Sauna and an after-sauna supper (saunapala) is a fairly common form of entertaining.” (16)

“Too low a humidity can result in the following problems: an unpleasant 'dry room' smell; the drying out of the mucous membranes of nose and throat; perspiration evaporating too quickly from the skin surface, allowing it to become too dry.” (18)  “Fresh air should ideally be drawn directly from outside and certainly not from an adjoining room where odors may be present... The correct (and traditional) position for the [venting] outlet is in the wall opposite the inlet and at least slightly above it.” (19)  An outlet area of five square inches per person is recommended.  Later on page 74 he begins describing how a flue above this outlet can improve the suction and form the updraft needed to counteract any effects of back pressure.  An illustration of a venting outlet flue inside the sauna is shown, although I might consider putting this flue outside the wall, where it won't take up any interior space.  Konya describes something called the “piston effect”:  “When water is poured on the stones, the superheated vapor expands greatly, rising quickly to the ceiling and forming a thickening blanket of loyly which pushes the air downward, forcing the heavier stale air through the outlet.  This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the 'piston effect', a term which describes the action rather well.” (19) 

On construction:  “The roof usually projected over the gable end which contained the low door – not much above chin level and with a high threshold.” (9)  Konya recommends siting the sauna such that the windows face west “as the time for to sauna is generally the evening, very often at sunset, the rays of the setting sun will stream into these rooms, helping the bathers to relax.” (31)  “Once the [sauna] room approaches a square on plan, arrangements with L-shaped benches are usually more economical, up to a size of about [7x7 feet] internally.” (33)  Regarding floor construction “Materials like linoleum, which have a characteristic smell, must be avoided at all costs.” (48)  “Benches supported only from the walls... it is better to avoid timber supports at floor level, where fungal attack is most likely to occur.  [But] wherever the benches are supported on the floor [and stabilized with connection to the walls], rubber doorstops should be screwed to the undersides of the supports with non-ferrous screws, to prevent contact between the floor and the end grain of the  timber.” (52)  “Cellular plastics... some types cannot withstand the high temperatures encountered in a sauna.” (61)  I should call the manufacturer to see if foil faced R-max foam board insulation will work in this application.  “The door... can consist of a standard solid core flush panel door, with insulating material, vapor barrier and paneling added to the inside face.  A heavy ball or roller catch keeps the door closed.  If it must be locked... a hasp and staple with padlock offers the best solution.” (73)  “To ensure sufficient draught for effective operation, the flue should, if at all possible, be not less than about 13 feet in total length.” (88) A gable roof, rather than a flat roof, would support a ceiling peak of greatest height for a tall chimney flue.  “The [chimney pipe] joints must be airtight and should be fitted with female end upward otherwise there can be difficulty with tar and condensation leaking to the outside of the pipes...”  (89)

I also enjoyed looking at "Finnish Villas and Saunas", which is a feast for the eyes.