Sunday, June 29, 2008


On the New Year holidays before we moved into this house, we visited my mother-in-law and I climbed the mountain behind her house. I used to climb it often before our son was born 10 years ago, and it felt good to be doing it again, especially in the ankle-deep snow. That is, until I stood up after my lunch and found that my knees were very painful. Still, I pushed on up to the top whereupon I realized that the descent was going to be a bit of a killer.

But I'd had trouble with my knees climbing mountains before, and I figured it would pass as it always did. Well, that was when I was ten years younger, and I had no such luck this time. The right knee got better, but the left has ached and twinged ever since. It effectively put a stop to my habit of running up hill and down dale in the dark after work for 30 minutes.

I had it X-rayed - nothing to see. I tried acupuncture. That felt OK, but it was expensive, and it didn't really do anything. Then I tried Kinesio taping but this also was very expensive. And the 'doctor' had a little handheld jack-hammer thing which he discharged without warning into the part of my knee that I had indicated was tender. Had I been warned, I probably wouldn't have screamed in pain. But then I would also have declined that particular treatment. This is what I believe is known as 'informed consent'. You can see why people value it when they go for medical treatment. Anyway, the taping didn't work, although the 'doctor' kept saying "That feels better now, right?"

A doctor at a local clinic mentioned steroid injections, and recommended I not do it for reasons that are unclear. Then I suggested I was bored with having a duff knee and asked him what the 'aggressive' treatment might be in this case. "A steroid injection" was the reply. So I had one, and it didn't work.

Next I tried massage at two different local clinics. It actually seemed to make a difference for a while, and I even started running again, albeit for only 10 minutes on a flat course. But in the end, it didn't seem to work.

Other minor treatments that haven't worked include the application of electricity, ultrasound, infrared, and magic. I didn't really want the lady in question to try the magic, but I was too polite to refuse.

The next recommendation was either a course of hyaluronic acid injections or an MRI scan, followed by surgery. I've pretty much decided to try the hyaluronan treatment, but this Friday at lunchtime I saw a program about a newish sports treatment called "kaatsu training", or I suppose, "applied pressure training" in English. This involves constricting the blood vessels of the arms and legs before doing light exercise. This works the muscles harder and when the constriction is removed, the blood vessels increase in size, and beneficial hormones are sent to the tissues of the limbs. It seems to have a sound scientific basis, and it is also supposed to have helped bed-ridden old people get up and walk again. Apparently it's also used on racehorses. (But then arsenic used to be used on racehorses too, with famously unfortunate effects.)

Anyway, I found a place in Ehime that does kaatsu training, and went on Saturday morning. The youngish man who conducted it on a one-on-one session inspired confidence. He made no fantastic claims, and was pleasant and gentle. Having one's legs constricted actually felt good, and the exercise wasn't at all challenging. He said I had strong legs. But lifting a small dumbbell with my arms constricted ... hurt. Not too badly, but he suggested I try to put up with it since it was normal, so I did and it was OK. He said he thought I had weak arms.

Then he asked if I knew what chiropractic was. Rather insensitively, I said, "That's the therapy that people say has no scientific basis, isn't it?" He mildly assented that that was indeed said of chiropractic, but that he believed it was effective. I had images of violent, dangerous spine manipulations and was getting suspicious.

He asked if he might check out my alignment, and when I agreed, he stood me in front of a mirror and felt lightly up and down from my shoulders to my ankles. It struck me that no other practitioner had done this, and it seemed like a very obvious and necessary first step. Then he offered a further check lying down. After manipulating my ankles, he suggested I had twisted my left ankle badly at some point. Indeed, when I was about 16 I had jumped over a wall, caught my heel on top of it, and been immobilised for about a week. I immediately conceived considerable respect for this style of treatment. I asked him more about his chiropractic and he told me that he too distrusted the 'crick' methods, believing that they do incremental and permanent damage. He favoured careful stretching under the patient's own power.

I don't know yet whether the kaatsu training is going to work, but at least I'm confident that I've found a specialist worth his salt. Nothing he said or did put me off him, a first.

Now you may very well be wondering what this has to do with sustainability, the general topic of this blog. Well, if something goes wrong with your health, you can no longer sustain some of the activities that you did hitherto, and your general health begins to suffer. By not running, I lost a method of relieving stress and I gained weight. And in an effort to regain your health, you travel around more than you otherwise would, you use energy in various forms, whether electric or magical, and you consume a variety of medical products whose production methods you may not be overly pleased to learn about. And so finding the best method of treating your health issues has implications for sustainability, both of one's own lifestyle and the wider world. If kaatsu training and a little chiropractic turn out to work, I'll be very pleased as they're about as close as you can get to self-regenerative medicine.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

First summer produce

So far this year we've had rain at least once a week, often more, interspersed with sunny days. This has been most beneficial for growing.

Today I was in charge of my own lunch, so I took my little basket into the garden and picked myself a 'sallet'. I had 'asparagus lettuce' which is a fantastically productive cut-and-come-again variety. I planted three, and we've eaten vast bowl-fulls of it for weeks now. I also cut some peppery nasturtium leaves (which the rest of my family refuse to eat for their own irrational reasons), and some Italian parsley. The first tomatoes had ripened and not split open in the rain, so I got a few of those. I had already plucked my first couple of cucumbers and they were in the fridge. I chopped one of the onions that had failed to grow into a proper one. These are often the object of unkind comments when first brought in from the garden, but for adding a certain je ne sais quoi to a salad, they have their uses. I must say I felt a little bit twee photographing my wicker basket while thinking hey-nonny-nonny things about 'sallets', but the first pickings of summer are very satisfying nonetheless.

Other good things include a pumpkin, an aubergine, and some peppers. These formed the basis of a nice early summer curry this evening. Either the pumpkin isn't a very flavoursome variety, or I just failed to feed it the right things, but it was little on the bland side. I'm hoping that my American heirloom sugar pumpkin will be more tasty. It's coming along a storm. And this year, I'm doing a better job of controlling the weeds (nothing clever, just more time spent picking them), so I'm definitely expecting good things.

One of several firsts this year was garlic. My friend assured me, "Even an idiot can grow garlic", and he was right. Each little clove miraculously turned into a bulb, without much more than mulch and a bit of weeding. The 'farmer's shelter' thoughtfully by our builder Hidaka-san really comes into its own for curing garlic.

The rice paddies are now mostly flooded and the rice seedling have been planted. The frogs are making an absolutely stunning racket, especially at night. Sunsets in the spring are not generally very photogenic, but the hotter weather is bringing something a bit more interesting to look at.

I heard today that Kadota-san of Khome's, who we asked to make a plan for our house, has died in a car accident. This is very sad news. Kadota-san was a talented architect, and a charming person. He will be missed by many people.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Can-O-Worms canned

Kitchen scraps gathered in an enamel dish

About four years ago I bought a Can-O-Worms which I had sent from Australia where they're made. I seem to remember it cost about 16,000 yen. I also bought a big bag of worms from somewhere in Gifu for about 5,000 yen. The bag contained about 1,500 worms.

Can-O-Worms on the left with yellow bucket

At that time we had an underground concrete garage with a metal shutter and I kept it in there. The garage stayed at a fairly even temperature and because it was kept closed most of the time, it was almost free of flies. Since it didn't get very hot, the kitchen scraps didn't smell, unless you took the lid off and put your face inside, whereupon you could detect the smell of decay. But since flies rely on their sense of smell for their livelihood, they can detect that smell even if you can't, so chances are that if you've got your face in the bin checking the smell, a fly that has been waiting patiently nearby has also slipped in and laid some invisible eggs. These will hatch and then you'll have maggots in the bin.

With the Can-O-Worms in the garage, I usually had vinegar fly maggots and soldier fly maggots most of the time. Vinegar flies have a life-cycle of about one week, so there are always adults to fly up in your face to greet you, and always maggots on the go. Soldier flies are admirable creatures in many ways. The adults are quite handsome flies, they don't sting or do any harm, and the larvae are voracious eaters. But when you're trying to keep worms, having a bin full of large white maggots can seem a bit disappointing. Worm casts are supposed to have almost magical properties in terms of growing vegetables, but I've never heard anything to that effect about maggot poo. But because soldier flies have a long life cycle, they're not a constant airborne nuisance like the other flies.

The situation in the last house was tolerable. There were not enough flies around to bother anybody else in the garage, and there was no noticeable smell. I had a very small garden, so whenever one tray from the Can was full, it actually contributed a significant portion of additional soil. And this soil was quite a nice black, soft, inoffensive substance. The liquid 'tea' that dripped slowly from the tap also seemed to do the plants good. So for the couple of years that it was in the garage it was fine. During that time I tried a number of things to defeat the flies completely such as using shredded newspaper, sheets of newspaper, scattering rice husks on the surface, occasionally adding garden lime and so on. None of it worked, and the paper was just a big hassle.

Under the balcony

In the new house, the Can-O-Worms went outside under the balcony. Things started going wrong very quickly. In the cold season from October to April, the worms hardly ate anything at all. In the hot season, they ate, but the scraps were quite noticeably smelly, and there were lots of flies. The soldier flies found a way of laying eggs by scraping their little bottoms along the joins between the trays, and when the little maggots hatched, they were able to squeeze through, which they did in vast numbers. There was always a crust of yellow eggs between the trays. The 'soil' produced was not nice. It was a sloppy, fudgy mess with a generally decayed smell. And one tray doesn't go very far when you have some twenty plants as well as tens of metres of hedges.

A crust of soldier fly eggs

Legions of 'toilet flies'

Then at the end of last year, the bin became infested with little moth-like flies. Normally this kind of fly likes to sit alone on the damp towel hanging in the toilet of snack bars. But this time it came in Pharonic numbers. Every time I lifted the lid to put in fresh scraps, they swarmed out, flying up my nose, sitting on my eyelids, and churning dumbly about the concrete floor. I finally decided to try putting a piece of hessian sacking on top of the scraps, which all sources assure one is a great way for suppressing flies. Not only did it not have the least effect on the flies, it became infested with a very merry motley of moulds which degraded it into an annoying mess within about a month.

In your face

The procedure for swapping trays is not all plain sailing either. In theory, the worms are supposed to make their way up to the top tray in an orderly fashion. Well they don't. In fact, they rather like to hang about in the bottom tray of casts which are supposed to be mildly poisonous to them (just as we like to wallow about in bars which are mildly poisonous to us). So the bottom tray has to be placed on the top and the casts removed carefully with a trowel, as you coax the little worms down through the holes to the tray below with the 'fresh' food in it.

Managing the trays (awkwardly)

The trays, being full of a damp soil mixture, are heavy, and you have to lift two of them at a time to get the bottom one out. This is not very good for either the knees or back, whichever part you decide to sacrifice at the time.

Adult worms, baby worms, toilet flies, avocado seeds, eggshells, and sloppy casts

Well today, after much internal debate, I decided to can the Can-O-Worms. I just emptied out the contents of each tray into my two-bay compost heap. I was surprised to find that, after 16 months outside, there were in fact not very many worms in there at all. I think they must have been out-competed by the various fly larvae.

The compost heap however is full of worms anyway. And not just the red composting worms of the type that live in the Can-O-Worms, but the big snakey earthworms too. These attain spectacularly large sizes, so I assume they must eat a lot.

The fresher half of the two-bay compost has a preponderance of the red worms, while the more mature half has lots of the earthworms. This biodiverse situation seems more satisfactory than the monotype that the Can-O-Worms aims for but general fails to achieve.

So to sum up, claims that the Can-O-Worms of worms is fly-proof and easy to manage really are bunk. The suggestions presented for dealing with the problems that inevitably occur also did not work in my experience. However, with a small garden and somewhere enclosed to keep the bin, it may be worth having a Can-O-Worms. But whatever your situation, the same benefits can be achieved by composting and mulching, so I can only conclude that a worm bin is little more than a time-consuming curiosity.