Silver Donald Cameron

Archive for October, 2009

The Fungus Among Us

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

October 18, 2009

Paul Stamets is a mycologist. He studies fungi and mushrooms. He wants you to understand that mushrooms can revive ecosystems, cure diseases, control pests, convey nutrition and information, and seed other planets with life.

Oh, yeah? Well, Stamets is a highly respected scientist who has discovered four new mushroom species, and built a successful business selling mushroom products. (www.fungi,com) He has received the National Geographic Adventure Magazine’s Green-Novator and the Argosy Foundation’s E-chievement Awards, and has been chosen as one of Utne Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.”

Mushrooms, Stamets explains, are the visible manifestation of vast fungal mats within the soil that “infuse all landscapes,” hold soil together, convert dead vegetation into humus — and much more. The fungi are everywhere, and mushrooms burst up out of them with a force that can split asphalt. A single cubic inch of soil can contain more than eight miles of mycelium cells. Your foot may cover up to 300 miles of them. The spongy soils they create provide a habitat for innumerable micro-organisms. And the mats can become enormous. One huge mycelium mat in eastern Oregon is 2200 acres in size, and more than 2000 years old — in Stamets’ estimation, the largest organism on earth.

The fungi were the first organisms to migrate from the sea to the land, which they made habitable by secreting acids and enzymes that broke down the rocks and began the process of soil creation. About 420 million years ago, the earth’s dominant life-form was a type of giant mushroom called Prototaxites, which covered most of the land.

But it is the work that fungi do that makes Paul Stamets downright evangelical about them. Animals and fungi are both targets for bacteria, which is the reason that our best antibiotics are derived from fungi. Woodland fungi allow the various plants that collectively make a forest to nourish one another. Through the fungi around their roots, trees transfer excess nutrients and carbon to other trees that don’t have enough.

It now appears that the fungi use radiation as a source of energy, just as plants use light. That explains how mushrooms can grow in the dark — and it suggests that fungus-like life-forms are very likely to have evolved on other planets. (If not, we can put them there.) It also explains how mushrooms can clean up oil spills.

In one experiment, Stamets introduced mycelium into a heap of oil-soaked soil, which he covered with a tarpaulin. The mycelium produces enzymes called peroxydases that break carbon-hydrogen bonds, in effect disassembling hydrocarbons. Six weeks later, when the tarp was removed, the once-dirty earth was covered with oyster mushrooms, and the soil was light brown. Then the mushrooms “sporulated,” and the spores attracted insects, which laid eggs, which became larvae, which attracted birds, who dropped seeds. The pile of dirty soil became “an oasis of life,” and its oil content fell from 10,000 parts per million to less than 200 in eight weeks.

Magic mushrooms indeed. Stamets has also shown that mycelium networks can clean water by straining out chemicals and bacteria, including e.coli, and he’s developed totally organic pesticides from fungi. Noting that certain fungi, when sporulating, repel termites and carpenter ants, Stamets bred a non-sporulating strain and set it out for the ants. They ate it and died. Then tiny mushrooms grew out of their bodies and distributed spores around the vicinity, effectively inoculating the house against the insects.

Stamets is particularly fascinated by a very rare mushroom called Agaricon, now found only in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. An ancient Greek experimenter named Diascorides considered Agaricon to be useful for treating tuberculosis, an idea that deserves to be explored. Meanwhile, Stamets and his team have shown that Agaricon derivatives are potent anti-viral agents, useful not only against poxes like smallpox, but also against various strains of influenza.

What’s lovely about Stamets and his work is both his transparent delight in the vast realms of knowledge discernible through the micro-world of the fungi — and the huge plumes of creative opportunity that burst forth from his fungal world like mushrooms erupting from a mycelial mat.

What a rich and elegant planet we inhabit! Mushroom power. Who knew?

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The Diocese of Antigonish

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

October 11, 2009

This is the column I’ve been dodging for a decade. This is the column about the Diocese of Antigonish.

I’m not a Roman Catholic, and never have been. But I’ve spent most of my adult life in Cape Breton, which is part of the Diocese of Antigonish, and I have a longer and deeper relationship with the Catholic Church there than with any other religious organization. I have some treasured friendships with its priests. I have great respect and affection for the clerics and Catholic lay leaders I’ve worked with in voluntary organizations and at Cape Breton University. I revere the memory of priests like Coady, Tompkins and their successors, the populist priests who spread the co-operative movement throughout the region.

But in recent years the Diocese itself has behaved disgracefully, and it needs to be held accountable.

I remember the day after three priests who had served in our own parish were charged with sexual abuse. One was innocent. Two were guilty, and I knew a few of their victims. The day they were charged, I had a visit from the priest then serving the parish. Perhaps he came to see me because I was, broadly speaking, a member of his flock, but not a Catholic. He felt heartsick, betrayed, abandoned, barely able to face his parishioners, aghast to think what they might be speculating about him. My heart ached for him then. It aches for him now.

But my friend was particularly shattered because of something he had heard that day from a parishioner. The man had tried to comfort him by saying, “Don’t worry about it, Father. It’s nothin’ new.”

“It’s nothing new?” my friend cried out in anguish. “It’s nothing new? What’s been going on here, and for how long?”

So this is what I have to say about the Diocese of Antigonish. Pedophilia in the diocese is nothing new. It’s been going on for a long time. I can no longer listen silently to the argument that we’re all fallible, that we must forgive sinners just as Christ did, that lots of other people abuse children, that every barrel has a few bad apples. That’s all true, but there’s a point that is always missed. The Diocese of Antigonish may be a barrel that holds a few bad apples — but the diocesan barrel itself is rotten, too.

When the Mount Cashel scandal broke, then-Bishop Colin Campbell advanced the contemptible suggestion that the victimized boys had actually seduced the clerics. Through its lawyers, the Diocese has denied that it knew, or ought to have known, about the pedophiles in its own ranks. Really? At its peak, the Diocese employed about 250 priests; it has about half that number today. It is casuistry to contend that in so small a community, with a pattern of sexual abuse stretching back for generations and occurring from one end of the Diocese to the other, nobody in authority ever suspected anything.

Successive Bishops apparently covered up for the pedophiles, did not discharge them, and never reported their criminal offences to the civil authorities. Instead, the Diocese fought the victims in court, arguing that it had not given its priests authority to break the laws of God and Canada. The Diocese even claimed that it was not responsible for what its priests did “after working hours.”

As the years passed, and one sexual abuse case succeeded another, I kept waiting for the Diocese to stop hiding in the courts, and start acting morally. I wanted it to say, “We’re sorry. What can we do to make amends, and to repair the damage?” But it took the Diocese nearly 20 years — and a class action lawsuit — to accept any responsibility at all for its role in the whole sordid debacle.

The behaviour of the Diocese looks to me like criminal negligence. The organization and its officers should probably be charged and tried. But at its core, the issue is much sadder than that. Priests hold unique positions of trust in the lives of Catholic children. Bishops have moral responsibilities, not just legal ones. They will have no lawyers with them when they stand before their God. What are they going to say then?

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Grape Stomp in Gaspereau

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

October 4, 2009

On this cool, sunny September day, four young women in straw hats and short denim shorts are stomping their bare feet in a child’s fiberglass wading pool outside a long red barn. When they started, the pool contained 42 pounds of pale green Geisenheim grapes. As the women stomp, the grapes burst. Two of the women dipper the mush into a colander. The juice drains out into a pail.

At the end of ten minutes, the crowd counts down: FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! The women stop. The juice is weighed. Twenty-six pounds! The Julie Skaling Physiotherapy team from Kentville now leads the competition in the Gaspereau Vineyard Grape Stomp. If they win, their prize money will relieve lymphedema, a condition that leaves the upper arms of breast-cancer survivors swollen with fluid. My mother suffered from lymphedema. I hope this team wins.

This is the vineyard’s Fifth Annual Autumn Food and Wine Festival, and the loft of the adjoining barn hums with happy conversation. Gourmets and gluttons meander from table to table, sampling the wine from other local wineries Grand Pre (the original farm winery), Jost Vineyards (which owns Gaspereau), Blomidon Estates, Annapolis Highlands, Muir Murray, Benjamin Bridge. A band called (I am not making this up)“Swig” belts out east-coast standards like “Sonny’s Dream” and “Coal Town Road.”

At other tables, local eateries like Paddy’s Pub, Pizzazz Bistro and the Fireside Cafe serve spanakopita and hearty, succulent sausages from Al’s Home Style Sausages. Glen Breton, North America’s only single-malt whisky, faces an innovative saponifier, Jennifer Christopherson of Creative Wanderings Bath and Body. Marjorie picks up a fragrant bar of Jack Frost peppermint soap. Tangled Garden offers glorious jellies, vinegars and liqueurs that combine herbs from the proprietors’ garden with local wines and fruit. Hmm. The Ginger Lime Thyme Jelly hits the palate like a starburst, and we take a bottle of that, too.

Boutique vineyards like Gaspereau represent an astonishing success story. Forty years ago, wines produced in Nova Scotia were slightly more appealing than varnish, though rather less palatable than vinegar. Their function was to provide a quick, inexpensive route to oblivion. Meanwhile, though, a couple of daft Dalhousie professors were trying to grow wine grapes in the Annapolis Valley, and a German immigrant family had planted a few vines in Malagash to produce wine for their own table.

Thus began Grand Pre and Jost. As the years passed, growers identified grape varieties suited to Nova Scotian micro-climates. Marechal Foch, Seyval Blanc, New York Muscat, L’Acadie Blanc. Vineyards appeared in Bear River, the LaHave Valley, Antigonish, even Cape Breton. The Jost family developed a very substantial winery. In 1986, provincial legislation allowed wineries to sell directly to the public. The wines the ice wines in particular started winning national and international awards.

Marjorie and I found ourselves buying local wines not out of patriotism or curiosity, but because we liked them. We discovered Jost’s flavourful red Trilogy and aromatic Eagle Tree Muscat on the same evening, and they have been favourites ever since. It turns out that muscats are produced by several Nova Scotia wineries, and we came home this time with the Grand Pre version along with Gaspereau’s Vitis and Castel reds.

The wines are transforming the province. Consider Gaspereau’s winemaker, a young woman named Gina Haverstock, whose family operates a funeral parlour in Port Hawkesbury. Studying for admission to medical school, Gina sequestered herself at the family summer cottage in Malagash, working part-time at the nearby Jost operation. She “fell in love with the art of wine-making,” scuttled her pre-med studies and took a second degree at Brock University in viticulture and oenology.

Nova Scotia vineyards now cover about 1000 hectares and sustain eleven wineries, though not all of the wineries offer stores and tasting bars. It’s possible to take a modest wine-country tour here, echoing Europe and California. And the experts are musing aloud that Nova Scotia may be Canada’s next big wine region.

I’ll drink to that. And also to my physiotherapists, who won both the $300 prize for the grape stomp, and a $100 prize for the best-dressed team. Good fun, good works, good wine. Does it get better?

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