Thursday, March 14, 2013
water farm history with Crow
A few days ago Crow and I were sitting in his parlour sipping Remy and nibbling on fruitcake talking about this that when I suddenly remembered reading about a new food growing method called aquaponics. An aquaponics system circulates used water from fish tanks through plants, whose roots extract by-products as nutrients. The purified water is then sent back to the fish with next-to-no water loss. It sounded pretty good to me as a development for feeding people who live in urban areas since the systems can be set up in either large or quite small areas. I wondered why nobody had ever thought about it before.
'It sounds like an industrial version of a chinampa to me', he retorted.
'Chinawhat?', I replied.
'Just goes to show how much you know', replied my venerable corvid companion with some asperity, 'It seems you must never have heard about the Aztec Chinampas either. How is it you went to school for all those years and didn't learn anything useful?'
There's not much for me to say when he gets into one of these moods, other than to sit quietly and wait for the inevitable lecture that will reveal all, so I nibbled on an especially delicious morsel of brandy soaked cake and sat back to listen.
'The simplest definition is that chinampa describes a system of intensive agricultural production in marshes and muddy-bottomed wetlands. The chinampa system was established in shallow lagoons where the terrain was raised into long narrow islands separated by canals. Nowadays they're usually known as Aztec Chinampas because the Aztecs were in charge of Central America when the Spanish arrived in the Valley of Mexico but the technique itself is far older and was in use throughout Central and South America for more than 1500 years before the conquistadors arrived. It was the Maya who first developed chinampa agriculture as a way to feed their huge populations in an environment that was rough and rocky land intermixed with swamps and vast wetlands. The garden land was built up from the wetland by stacking alternating layers of lake mud and thick mats of decaying vegetation that allowed them to grow exceptionally high yields of many crops as well as fruit and flowers. When modern Westerners look at wetlands today, you see nothing but trouble but in the past they were considered real breadbaskets in many parts of the world. The Maya were long gone by the time the Europeans arrived in Central Mexico but the area surrounding the old pre-conquest capital city of Tenochtitlan with its population of 1.5 million people was a 75 sq mile, or 22,400 acre, metropolis of cultivated chinampa farms.'
'Even though I saw it myself it's difficult to imagine an area where masses of people lived in close harmony with nature to the new Mexico City. Now 21 million people live there but those lakes and floating gardens are just distant memories except for a tiny, polluted area mostly saved for tourists. Just in case you still don't believe me, here are a couple of descriptions written by early chroniclers:'
Tenochtitlan was bigger than Paris, Europe’s greatest metropolis. The Spanish gawped like yokels at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away. Boats flitted like butterflies around the three grand causeways that linked Tenochitlan to the mainland. Long aqueducts conveyed water from the distant mountains across the lake and into the city. Even more astounding than the great temples and immense banners and colorful promenades were the botanical gardens – none existed in Europe.
The first hand account of Francisco Lopez de Gomara (1553) describes the Aztec capital as a city…
…built on water, exactly like Venice. The whole body of the city is in water. The wide and pleasant streets are of three kinds. Some consist entirely of water with a great many bridges, others are completely solid, and a third type combines solid and water, with people walking on the dry half and using boats on the other half… Almost all houses have two doors: One leading to the pavement and the other to the water on which they travel by boat.
'I can see from that starry eyed look on you face it all sounds pretty nice but Mexico City isn't going to get its drained lakes back any sooner than Chicago is likely to build chinampas in Lake Michigan or NYC in the Hudson River. Still, it's good to remember that human beings have been clever for a very long time (although not as clever as crows). Babylon had its hanging gardens and Mexico had floating islands, so maybe one day when the thousand mile fruit delivery to your local supermarket comes to a halt, there may be more options than you can imagine now. If one of them is an aquaponic garden set in an abandoned shopping mall in what used to be Detroit then I wish you well. I have a feeling there are many surprises in store when your fossil fueled empires are remembered no better than you remember the glory of the Nile Valley. What? That's a story for another time. Now please refill my snifter, I'm dry from all this talk of water gardens.'
That's my Crow - smartass - but I love him.