The miraculous milpa

If you jumped in a time machine and materialised 4000 years ago in what is now modern Mexico, it is likely that you would see maize being cultivated in a field called a milpa. This would not have resembled the vast fields of monocultural grain which can currently be seen in the American Midwest. The ancient maize would be mixed in with avocado, squashes, chili, amaranth, and climbing beans which would be using the maize stalks as a trellis to get closer to the sunlight. This is a highly productive arrangement, capable of producing hundreds of tons of food per hectare.

Purple beans climbing maize plants

The most impressive thing about this scene is that if you returned to your own time it is possible that you might see the same milpabeing cultivated in the same way, four thousand years later. This is an extraordinary achievement in our modern agricultural world where we maintain soil fertility by either the addition of fertiliser or by practicing crop rotation. Forty centuries of continuous cultivation is probably unique in the history of world agriculture.



Soon I will eat you

Even better, throw in a couple of other crops and you have yourself a complete food source. Maize provides starch but an incomplete set of proteins. Beans provide fibre and the remaining proteins that the human body needs. Avocadoes provide fat. Squashes provide vitamins and trace nutrients. Chillies provide flavour. This near-perfect combination of nutrition and agricultural stability mean that the milpa may be the most perfect agricultural system yet devised. The only input is human labour.

I’m an experimentally-minded person so I thought I’d try to plant a milpa in my family’s garden allotment in Collingwood. We selected sweet corn as our maize of choice and allowed them to grow to about a foot tall. Then we planted purple climbing beans about three weeks ago and they have started to wend their way up the maize stalks. Underneath it all we’ve planted cucumbers as our squash, mainly because my daughters love them.

The first harvest of cucumbers


As you can see, it’s working really well. I was worried that the maize would shade the others out, but it turned out that that was an excellent idea for a Melbourne summer. The cucumbers aren’t drying out too much, the maize (planted in a block for pollination reasons) is thriving, and the beans, boring though they are, don’t need to be staked to be productive.

So much of the modern agricultural system is built around minimising human labour (because it’s expensive) and making up for that with extensive chemical and mechanised input. That has been both highly productive but also highly damaging. We may be coming up to a time where growing food at home is again a good use of time and resources (as well as deeply satisfying). If that is the case, we could learn some lessons from ancient agricultural systems, in particularly the extraordinary milpa.

Another satisfied customer

New year, new gym

I cancelled my membership at my gym this morning. It was kind of an inverse New Year resolution, and the fit young man behind the desk was briefly confused. But when I explained that I was buying myself a home gym, he immediately understood.

“Yeah mate. Throwing money away coming here.”

It’s not the money that’s the issue though. It’s that I’ve been remarkably shit at getting to the gym lately, not out of any laziness on my part. I love the gym. It’s my break from the rest of my life as well as being a generally virtuous thing to do. However getting there becomes a difficult proposition when I need around 90 minutes of child-free, work-free, responsibility-free time. I manage that around once a week.

I take that time of course, but let’s be honest – I’m not really achieving anything. At best I’m treating water, athletically. I can’t do that too long before I start to move backwards down Dave Tate’s continuum from suck towards shit.

So I have ordered the basic ingredients of a home gym. My current dwelling has a garage which is mostly used for storage, but which can also accommodate a barbell and some iron. It’s a very basic setup – just the bar and around 160kg of plates, mostly bumpers. I won’t be able to back squat, and most lifts will require me to power clean the bar first. I don’t mind – it’s a bit of extra training and the simplicity of it appeals. My friend Kyle from Athletic Club East has kindly written me a program entitled “the Lonely Barbell” to accommodate my limitations.

Travel time to my new gym is about thirty seconds. The return trip to the shower is about the same.

No more bros.

No more curling in the squat rack.

No more disinterested “trainers”.

No more TV and shitty music.
No more Prancercise.
Clothes optional.