Sunday, November 23, 2008

Musings about Vetiver fragrance and melancholia

A damp Honolulu evening, my wandering fingers, and an insatiable appreciation for the smell of all things Vetiver led me to the Forest Rat's musings:

« Furry Little Creatures
Trees to Thoreau to Terroir

Lately I have been noticing a lot of connections among things. I think about one thing and, while researching it, I run across other interesting things that often connect to something else I've been thinking about.
Well, a couple of posts back (Silent Skies) I was hanging around a woodpile, watching the evening deepen. I commented about the unique scent of the freshly cut logs:
“To me locust wood has an earthy, mossy, slightly sweet, and almost but not quite musty scent. It reminds me of the wonderful sweet perfume of the flowers that cover the tree in white raiment each spring, only it is muted and mixed with the dark richness of the soil that feeds the tree’s inner life.”
At the same time I happened to be reading “The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” I reached the end of the book and read a reprint of Emerson’s eulogy following the death of Henry Thoreau, which includes this observation:
“He thought the scent a more oracular inquisition than the sight - more oracular and trustworthy. The scent, of course, reveals what is concealed from the other senses. By it he detected earthiness.”
Interesting. I was just thinking about the scent of wood and its earthiness. I thought I'd look into just what makes earth (dirt, soil, mould) smell the way it does.
Even though we might not know what causes it, we've all smelled it: the smell of a freshly plowed field, or the smell of the soil when you dig a hole in the garden to plant a tree or a rose bush, or the scent on the air after a summer downpour (which smells like worms).
That scent is caused by a chemical called geosmin and it is produced by bacteria in the soil called actinomycetes. No one knows why the bacteria produce this compound or why humans find it pleasant. However, I ran into this interesting tidbit - this “friendly” bacteria can serve as an antidepressant which leads researchers to wonder whether we should spend more time playing in the dirt.
This led me to an article about how bacteria in the soil alter the composition of certain essential oils. Investigators have learned that they can alter fragrance by controlling "food" for bacteria, and conclude: “This finding may go some way to explain why the properties of Vetiver oil change significantly depending on the environment in which the Vetiver was grown.”
This path lead me through tangled vines of related words to the french word terroir. Terroir brought me back to the soil. Terroir seems to translate to something like “a sense of place” or “a taste of the soil” or, as one author wrote: somewhere-ness. It's a quality imparted to a crop, grapes in particular, by the locale in which it is grown. So some might say that part of what makes a great French wine great is that it comes from grapes grown in France, in a particular French vineyard, and maybe even in a particular section of a particular vineyard in France.
Although terroir is a complex and controversial concept in the wine world, I just like the idea that places have a taste.
In Silent Skies I wrote:
“Each species of tree has its own unique scent, just as each one has a unique grain pattern, color, and texture. Veteran woodworkers can identify species of wood by smell alone, the same way oenophiles can identify vintages. If you think about it, wooden barrels figure prominently in winemaking, and the type of wood used is critical to imparting just the right flavors and aromas.”
This was before I learned about terroir. Maybe the scent of the wood, like the taste of a wine, depends not only on the species of tree, but also on the plot that reared it. Maybe locust wood near my home has a slightly different scent than wood from Pennsylvania - I’ll bet that it does.
P.S. Another quote from Thoreau where he mixes his senses: “I put on some hemlock-boughs, and the rich salt crackling of their leaves was like mustard to the ear, the crackling of uncountable regiments. Dead trees love the fire.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

We CANNOT wait forever!!

In the early 1960s when I first started my professional career as a conservationist and agriculturist in Zambia, soil erosion was a major problem. Nearly 50 years later worldwide erosion is worse. When I worked in Ethiopia 40 years ago, the cost of highway maintenance was very high because of bad drainage and erosion, which are still major and worsening problems in most developing countries. When I worked in eastern Nigeria 30 years ago, the formation of massive gullies was so bad that houses were engulfed. Today the situation is even more dire. When I worked in India 20 years ago, irrigation without recharge was depleting groundwater. Water issues are even worse today. In the past 10 years, water supplies throughout Asia have become increasingly contaminated by agricultural and industrial waste, resulting in serious health problems. Climate change and global temperature changes are causing more violent weather, which results in more frequent and serious storm-related disasters.

What is the world doing about all this?! VERY LITTLE! Why? Politics, cost, the enormous scale of the problem, wrong technologies, agenda conflicts, APATHY, LACK of COURAGE, and LACK of LEADERSHIP. If ACTION is not undertaken on a wide scale many people will die, and our natural resources will be destroyed. The CHALLENGE is to do something, and to do it SOON. Achieving quick results simultaneously in many locations requires community involvement and commitment, and the use of relatively simple technology that can be applied at micro scale.

Very few technologies can meet this challenge. The VETIVER SYSTEM (VS) is one that can. It is easy to train community leaders in VS fundamentals; the work is documented and readily available in the public domain. Vetiver plant material is quickly and easily propagated, and people, given some fairly minor technical support, can identify key locations that require VS application. Here's just one example: A few weeks ago I described the way erosion sediment had destroyed inshore fisheries and coral reefs in Vanuatu. VS stabilized the area and allowed reforestation to occur. By stopping sediment flows, Vetiver allowed the reef and fisheries to recover. This is just one example of thousands of sites that needs help. One publicized application every decade will not solve our problems! Every time a tropical storm strikes the Caribbean, tons of island sediment land in the sea. Effluent from leaking septic systems and other point sources (mines, industrial sites) washes onto beaches and into the sea, and personal property is destroyed. This devastation is predictable and can be prevented. On a small scale, VS can control septic tank effluent. The application of VS followed by tree planting can stabilize point source erosion sites, including watershed minetailings - a source of water borne contaminants. Similarly, VS can stabilize sea walls/dykes, riverbanks, bridge abutments, and roadscan, which can minimize infrastructure and flood damage. The list goes on. This one technology can do it all!

Tens of thousands of paid persons in developing countries are doing very little and making even less impact. They should be retrained and put to work. I can guarantee that these workers will respond positively to good leaders. Schools should introduce VS as part of the curricula for rural children. We know it works! The East Bali Poverty Project changed the lives of 10,000 families by introducing Vetiver to children. No more starvation. No more unbalanced diets. These communities now enjoy good clean water and improved health, roads that don't collapse, and hillsides that don't slide. See If nothing is done, developing communities will eventually vanish, and, so, too, the world's resources. As President-Elect Obama says, "We CAN." I say, "We MUST." Now is the time for ACTION - not TALK.

Dick Grimshaw

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Vetiver hedges work with nature to curb erosion

The following is excerpted from a recent letter to Elise Pinners by John Greenfield, author of Vetiver Grass: The Hedge Against Eriosion (1990) and The Vetiver System for Soil and Water Conservation (the 2008 update of his 1987 manual), and widely regarded as the Father of the Renaissance of the Vetiver Movement:

From my 50+ years of experience starting with the Soil Conservation Service, and comparing its widely published schemes with yeomans, border listing, deep ripping, ridge and furrow, through to Fanya Juu – I noted they share one thing in common: all are constructed unnatural systems that work against nature rather than with it. They either move runoff out of the area that it fell in, or accumulate it in "puddles" or ponds that render it unavailable to crops without a lot of effort.

Compare these with the vetiver hedge properly installed across the slope or on the contour. It controls runoff, spreads it out, and allows the runoff to “ooze” through its entire length on its way down the slope, effectively watering the whole area and benefiting the plants. Vetiver hedges welcome the rain; more rain means more moisture is spread over the area. When we first discovered the world’s oldest vetiver hedges in Gundalpet, India, (where they were used to mark farm boundaries), the resulting crop in areas where these hedges crossed the slope had grown in so evenly that it looked as if it had been irrigated. Two reasons support this fact --the hedges eventually level the land because collected silt fills low areas behind the hedge, and the water spends a longer time on the surface, which breaks up surface sealing and allows the water to penetrate to depths where the moisture is needed. Since the hedges do not convey the runoff, it backs up and waits to ooze through the hedge.

When runoff is being conveyed to another outlet like a natural drainage outlet, spillway, waterway, pit or dam, it moves continually. Water from a useful rain does not remain on the ground long enough to break up surface sealing before it's lost as runoff. The more intense the rain, the faster it moves and the less moisture is stored. This pattern results in more damage to a constructed system. A constructed conservation bank can only operate safely for 300 m before it discharges the water it is conveying or storing. Otherwise the bank will overflow and burst. A vetiver hedge, on the other hand, can be run safely for kilometres because it doesn’t convey the water --it filters the water through its entire length. Since constructed systems are built from the same soil you're trying to protect from erosion, they are exposed to the same dangers of erosion and runoff as the unprotected bare ground. They are not "anchored" into the ground. In contrast, the massive root systems of Vetiver hedges anchor them to the ground.

Ridges and furrows, Fanya Juu, contour banks and their ilk are a lot of pain for very little gain. Given his plowing and planting program, the average subsistence farmer lacks the time to put them in place. Once in place, he lacks the time and labor to maintain or reconstruct them. However, once a vetiver hedge is in place, the farmer has little to worry about.

Elise, as you say in Dutch, “We get too soon old and too late smart”


John Greenfield.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Thai students apply Vetiver Solution to solve water problems

Thailand's monarch, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has been an ardent supporter of Vetiver Technology for nearly 25 years, and recognizes Vetiver's importance to water conservation. More than 400 high school students from 20 schools nationwide responded to the King's first Junior Water Challenge this year. In Thai, the contest is named Pi Num Nong Raknam Tam Naew Pra Rajdamri, which means "Elder Students Lead the Younger Ones to Conserve Water Resources by Applying His Majesty the King's Initiatives."
The project is a collaborative effort by the Coca-Cola Foundation, the National Council on Social Welfare of Thailand, the Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute, the Royal Irrigation Department, the Ministry of Education, and the Office of the Royal Development Projects Board. It intends to educate students about, and raise their awareness of, sustainable water management and conservation. Each participating school generated its own water conservation project and developed water conservation networks in their community and nearby schools.
Among the competitors were students from Huai Yot School in Trang province, the southern region winner, which presented its "Vetiver Planting on the Banks of Huai Yot School's Reservoirs According to the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy." The project aimed to protect two precious reservoirs near the school, which are also its community's major water sources.
During the rainy season, heavy rains usually collapse the reservoirs' banks and reduce the water levels. The annual collapses also contaminate the water with garbage and leaf debris.
The students planted vetiver grass on the reservoirs' banks, using Vetiver's deep thick roots to stabilise the soil and prevent it from collapsing. In addition, "we will use the grass for roofing. Also, we intend to produce paper from vetiver grass in the future," said a Huai Yot School student. They also plan to use their school as a vetiver grass distribution centre.
More information about the Raknam project is available at

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bacteria may hold fragrance secrets

Washington, Nov 1 (ANI): The day is not far when bacteria will yield perfume, says a new study, which has discovered bacteria in the root of Vetiver, a tropical grass, whose oil is used widely in the cosmetic and perfumery industries. The bacteria apparently boosts production of essential oils, and changes the molecular structure of the oil, giving it different flavours and termicidal, insecticidal, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties.
The researchers, led by Italian microbiologists Pietro Alifano, Luigi Del Giudice, and the plant biologist Massimo Maffei, focused their study on Vetiver grass through interdisciplinary research. They found that Vetiver root cells produce a few oil precursors, which are then metabolised by the root bacteria to build up the complexity of the Vetiver oil. The researchers found the bacteria in the oil-producing cells as well as in root locations closely associated with the essential oil.
Vetiver grass is the only grass cultivated specifically for its root essential oil, which is made up of chemicals called sesquiterpenes, which the plants use as pheromones and juvenile hormones.
Also present in the essential oils are alcohols and hydrocarbons, which are used primarily in perfumery and cosmetics. The perfumery and flavouring industry could benefit from the increased variety in fragrance and taste that these bacteria provide to these oils. The bacteria responsible for this transformation include alpha-, beta- and gamma-proteobacteria, high-G+C Gram-positive bacteria as well as microbes which belong to the Fibrobacteres / Acidobacteria group.
This research opens new frontiers in the biotech arena of natural bioactive compounds. Pharmaceutical, perfumery and flavouring industries may now exploit the selected microbial strains and widen their metabolic libraries, said Professor Alifano. The metabolic interplay between a plant, which offers a few simple molecules, and root bacteria, which biotransforms them into an array of bioactive compounds, increases fitness and reveals economical new survival strategies, said Professor Maffei.