MCO 2.0 - Life rhythms and soil systems

— 7 minute read

Sunday. Dropping the day counting thing because I can't be bothered. MCO throughout Malaysia has been extended to February 4th, but our daily cases have gotten up to more than 4,000 and I don't think we'll be going anywhere anytime soon.

Last year we were MCO'ed at about 125 daily cases. The lockdown was stricter, and it lasted a good three months. This time, at 4,000, we have more businesses open - apparently you can even buy perfume and jewellery narrows eyes - and so I don't think this time around the MCO will have the same level of effectiveness.

Anyway. To matters within our control and to time in the immediate present - I've been doing well. The past week has flown by swimmingly in part because I have been writing smoothly. Every day I wake up around 5:30 in the morning, not by choice but by some curious force of the biological clock. I make a mug of instant 2-in-1 white coffee and start work immediately. Which is to say, at 9:30am when Leo wakes up, I've done about four hours of work already. The burst of productivity slows naturally by 11 or 12, when I have to make lunch and eat it. After that I'm cool with spreading out the remaining hours of work, incorporating a siesta after lunch and a yoga session after the siesta, and the day winds down around dinnertime.

After trying it out for a week I think this is the ideal rhythm for me. Knowing my tendency to panic when I haven't done enough by noon, and the need for an afternoon nap after lunch (I practically keel over right after finishing the meal), frontloading most of the work means that the afternoons are much more relaxed. The goal is to achieve at least eight hours, with anything extra as a bonus, since by that time I would not be operating at full analytical brain capacity and the time is better used for rest or to cultivate other parts of the brain. It's more sustainable this way, and so far it's been great.

And one key thing that I've been doing is to keep my phone turned off until at least 10am. Previously, even with my propensity to wake up early, the mornings were largely wasted because of all the half asleep doom scrolling, which I tried to counter the effects of by doing yoga after it. Now, the shot of caffeine from the white coffee wakes my brain up, I get straight into writing, and I leave yoga to the afternoon to recover from the nap. It all works out.

Anxiety levels are low, intrinsic motivation to work is high, and there has been time to do other things that I'm interested in, even amidst deadline chasing with a pandemic in the background.

The thing about the biological clock is that it doesn't recognise weekends, so even on a Sunday I was up by 5:30am, accompanied by the azan, which is also weekend-indifferent. It's 9:30am now and I've spent the morning learning about soil science, one of my recent obsessions.

The more I learn about soil the less confident I am about gardening, and this morning when learning about microbes in the soil I've realised that it's probably impossible for me to amass enough knowledge to be completely certain about what's going on in the garden - I just have to trust that nature knows best and not tilt the balance too much towards any direction. And that instead of thinking about feeding the plants, I have to think about feeding the soil (referring to the microorganisms within), because once that is sorted out, the plants will also be happy.

Now that's easily said, but how to do that is incredibly complex, plus I have the constraints of living in an apartment. Most of the reference materials that I can find (mainly lectures on YouTube) talk about yards and gardens, and how to improve soil quality of land. However, my considerations are different - all my soil is bought, or come with the plants that I buy/receive, and I need to amend them. The different considerations about soil structure, soil pH, microbiology, conditions needed by different plants, relationships between individual plants, etc. are simply mind boggling.

I've also come to the realisation that the composting system that I've had for a few years may need some revamping. What used to happen is that we collected our kitchen waste in small containers and dumped them all into our balcony compost system once every month or so. At the same time the "finished" compost was harvested - I put in quote marks because I actually don't think they're finished finished. More about that later.

The balcony composting system comprises of two large rubbish bins that we drilled holes in, and they are set on a bed of soil (that is housed in a flat container we got from IKEA, which original purpose was to increase storage underneath the bed) so that it filters out the leachate and all that. However, about a month ago I got two bokashi bins from my friend Natasha, and so now we have a different situation. We're now able to first pickle the kitchen waste before we put it into the compost pile, and from there it should be easy to just cover the bokashi pre-compost with soil, and within a month or two get compost.

So back to the "finished" compost that we've been harvesting - I suspect that it is not the best because of the texture of it, and also because the conditions in the original composter are probably not proper aerobic (with oxygen) conditions with proper materials. We dump things in quite haphazardly, disregarding the green brown ratios, with a general happy-go-lucky attitude that decomposition happens anyway. Right?

WRONG. As I've learnt, anaerobic breakdown of organic material produces harmful chemicals, such as alcohol and formaldehyde, and it kills off good bacteria and enables pathogens, which can survive in anaerobic conditions. I wipe cold sweat off my brow and think - what have I done?? But in any case, I don't use my unfinished compost straight anyway, I usually let it sit for some time and sometimes mix it with soil first, and I assume that the organic material is still useful, judging from the amount of worm activity.

But now, armed with new knowledge and new bokashi bins, I can try to make things better. I look forward to building a thriving microbe community by burying the bokashi pre-compost with old container soil. Our first pre-compost will be ready soon and it's all very exciting.

Speaking of microbes, I've learnt SO MUCH about them that I didn't know. Well, I started off with zero knowledge so it's not a very difficult baseline to surpass. It has been mind opening to see the soil system as an ecosystem instead of just N, P, K - to actually acknowledge that even snails (which I hate and fear) have their importance in the ecosystem as part of the soil food web. Their movement in the soil creates aeration, and their slime helps to bind soil into aggregates, which is good for soil structure.

The soil ecosystem helps plants to absorb nutrients, and so healthy soil is fundamental for healthy plants. It doesn't matter how much nitrogen you have in the soil if it is not bio-available to plants - organic fertiliser requires an active microbe environment to break that nitrogen down to be absorbed. Nitrogen from inorganic fertilisers apparently gets absorbed instantly, but disrupts the natural environment and the run-off can seriously pollute the planet. Organic all the way!

So yes. Lots to learn. It's about 3:30pm now and I've been writing this post interspersed with intervals of watching lectures about soil on Youtube and small naps in between. Moving on to other things now :)