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Garbage in, Garden Out, The Recycling Gardener,

Updated on January 15, 2015

Analysis and Synthesis, a story

Don’t worry, we are not really going into deep science, rather, back to a very simple philosophy.

Here is what I mean.

Analysis really is simply breaking things into smaller pieces, and its purpose is to understand them better.

Let’s take our blown glass bowl we just dropped on the ground above.

For this story, we all live in a cave and someone has brought in the glass bowl, no one knows what it is but we liked it before it was dropped, and we want to make more of them. We need to understand what it is.

If I want to understand what it is made of, I analyze it, that is, I break it into smaller pieces to get a grasp on what it is. What kind of things make up this material that was once a bowl? I want to analyze the material.

Now let’s assume I am really smart but know nothing about glass or what it is made of. I drop it and take the smallest pieces and put them through various examinations and tests to see what it looks like, smells like, and so forth.

Of course, glass doesn’t smell or taste, so we are left with sight and feel, and, of course, we hear it break which is also a clue that it is a crystal of some kind. But what kind of crystal? I end up with a hammer and pound it into smaller pieces until I realize it looks a lot like sand.

Now I have a theory, this glass might be made of sand.

So now I have something I can test.

There are various ways to test this and in my made up cave world there just happens to be a lightning storm outside and the lightning hit some sand. I look at this after the storm passes and viola! There it is, something that looks like the glass.

No one believes me, but I am convinced.

“We need more proof!” claim the elders of the tribe, sitting by the fire in the cave looking at the shadows. Well, a few years ago a funny bird like thing passed overhead and out of it fell this metal container which we have found useful for cooking. So I figure out a way to heat up that handy metal container to very high temperatures (we happen to be burning oak logs) and I melt down the sand.

I have a hollow pipe, and, after this melted sand sits at very high temperatures for several hours, I dip my pipe into it, pull up a piece of this melted sand and blow through the pipe making a bulb at the end. When I am finished, being the really smart guy I claim to be I set it down next to my fire and cover it with warm sand and let the fire die down. (This keeps it from breaking while it cools incase it cools unevenly, and in glass making is called annealing.)

Two days later I come back and remember my glass jar and dig it out to show the elders. My proof is done, the stuff we broke as indeed a kind of melted sand.

This is synthesis of sand into glass. Synthesis is putting things together just as analysis is breaking them apart.

So my leaders stop looking at the shadows and pay attention to the real world, viola! I really made something that looks kind of like the glass bowl that we broke.

Seminar speaker

Sorry for the fuzzy photo, it was taken under poor light from a hundred feet away!
Sorry for the fuzzy photo, it was taken under poor light from a hundred feet away!


Many of the things we think today are a result of an oversimplification of nature which started with analysis but very little understanding of the extreme complexity of the organic systems involved.

Again, about one hundred fifty years ago the thinking in the biology of the inside of a cell was that it was only a simple protoplasm and some how, things happened there. Now we know that these are extremely complex mechanisms and systems that very systematically bring in nutrients, build structures, break down toxins, actually encapsulate some of these and organic machines that virtually walk the waste products out of the cell, push them through the cell wall and then reuse the container. (Search the Internet for “Harvard Cell Video” and check out how complex we now understand it to be and we are not done yet. This video shows only a cells response to an antigen.)

We now know that in the nucleus of the cell we have the most complex molecule ever discovered that encodes information and a very complex set of molecules that untwist this extremely complex, very highly structured code, take the information needed by following specific instructions found in what used to be wrongly called "Junk DNA" then follow the instructions to build the structures needed from the nutrient taken in via the circulatory system from the food we eat.

There are, of course many books written about this and this is as far as we need to go to understand the next point.

Returning to an earlier idea, when the word “scientist” was first used about 150 years ago to define people who looked for naturalistic explanations for what we see around us, the world was seen as a simple place. What this means, returning to my glass globe, is that they thought about the world like my analogy to the glass being only sand.

(By the way, prior to this time, the term “science” meant what the word meant in Greek, the collection of knowledge, so all studies where the formal man ended in “ology” and some others were understood to be sciences, collections of knowledge. The suffix “ology” from the Greek word “logos” for word or logic, “logic” losing the “c” sound to become “logi” or “ology” to append it to a word. Kant started this process by defining “natural science” in 1775, it took 75 years, until about 1850 before the word “scientist” came to be used to mean one who searches for naturalistic explanations for what we see around us.)

Well, glass is made from sand, but sand that is highly refined. You see, if I just melt sand, I have so many impurities that my glass looks a lot like the glass from the lightning strike, muddy and discolored and it breaks too easily to be useful. If we do not keep it hot for days, then it has too many bubbles in it to be useful.

Sand is much more complex than just silicon dioxide, which is what we think of when we think of glass. It is mostly silicon dioxide, but really very much more complex, or, if you make pure glass, sand is contaminated with many things you don’t need in glass.

So, the tribal leaders in my story above would send me back to the fires to find out how to make glass that looks more like the fine glass globe we started with and it takes me a long time to figure out how to remove each of the various elements. In fact, it takes thousands of years.

Nature is like that. It is very complex and not even yet fully understood, but at once, simple and beautiful to use. Go figure.

Suffice to say that there are systems in place to accomplish those things we want if we just try to think about things as complexes, and avoid reducing our thinking to the oversimplified version that led to overgrazing of grasslands, oversimplified fertilizers with three main chemical salts, and so forth. There are tens of thousands of nutrient available when using the organic systems correctly. A little fertilizer? Sure, but not much. Feed the soil instead.

We need to think of in-place organic systems that operate around us all the time. Our farming and gardening practices have failed to do so for a long time but are now trying to integrate these concepts back into practice to reduce costs, increase the health of the soils, reduce the use of toxic chemicals, and develop organic systems which keep the environment healthy and sustainable.

Primarily think about teleology, or the purpose or place of things in the natural order. What it the purpose of, say, an insect, or bird, and then, once dead, how is it recycled? The later gives you the teleology or purpose of bacteria, fungi, bugs, and worms. They recycle everything. Everything you can put back into your soil should go back into your soil.

A few pictures from my garden

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How do you help your soil? What do you put into it?

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More thinking from the Recycling Gardener

An exercise you can do to help you think is this; when you hear a statement that sounds something like “This is only that” realize the error just made is in assuming an oversimplified view of the world. Its use or application might be simple, and the complexity might not be understood, but few things are that simple.

For instance, if I say “glass is only melted sand” the argument sounds correct until you review the information above and realize it is more than “only sand.” Rather, it starts as highly purified sand and then is treated with many other things to make it functional and useful for windows (say, add iron), or Pyrex (add boron) or clear glass that turns purple (forget to remove magnesium then add sunlight, yes, old bottles for instance) and so on. Even this description is over simplified, but you understand where I am going.

There is a danger of following systems of thought that oversimplify things by analysis and then try to synthesize the same item from that analysis. You end up with an incomplete picture.

Living things are like that. My fish that dies obviously has all the parts it had just before it died, but we have obviously lost something.

Your garden is much more complex than this glass story, or elsewhere, my fish analogy.

The good news is, if you treat it like the natural system it is, a system with complex relationships of sand and clay, gravel, organic matter, bacteria, fungi, worms, and larger organisms, and that these all need food and water, and at that, it is not very picky about what it is fed, you are starting to think about the garden as a system, and not as a mere compilation of individual and unrelated components.

When someone makes any statement and says in that statement “it’s only,” then you can usually reply, “no, it is more than that” and usually you will be correct, in fact, nearly always. This is a form of reductionism, sometimes referred to as "nothing buttery."

Think about the ecological impact of things you do. Do I really want to throw this item in the trash if can it be used to improve my garden? Even more, think about it selfishly, if that works for you: Do I want this complex carbon material and minerals, say, food waste, to be hauled to the dump, or can my garden make use of it right here to improve the plants growing in my garden, add to the bird life and butterflies in the area?

Everyone has self-interest, so that method of thinking might work best. Preserve carbon based elements to use in your garden as opposed to making the city haul it to a dumpsite where you waste energy taking it there and loose the use of it for your soil.

In biological systems, carbon is the very base on which everything lives on. In fact the term "organic chemistry" is really the study of "fixed" carbon taken from the air. Something living organisms do.

© 2015 Ronald A Newcomb

What kind of carbon do you preserve in your soils?

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