Soil: It's alive!
"Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it." From Vedas Sanskrit Scripture – 1500 BC.
More and more on my journey toward self reliance I come across this issue of soil degradation. What is it? Does it even really exist? Or is it just scare tactics?
I am particularly passionate about soil. Went I was a young boy growing up in the Caribbean, I remember being told that soil was 'alive'. I never really understood or was that much interested at the time but I always remember the soil in and around our house being a rich dark colour, moist and full of creepy crawlies. I have observed that we, especially in the developed world, treat soil as something of little to no importance. I feel that it has only been in the last few decades that the idea of soil as a living organism has really taken off.
So what is soil? There are a few scientific definitions for this question. The website www.lifeunderyourfeet.org simply describes soil as a mixture of broken rocks and minerals, living organisms, and decaying organic matter called humus. Soil is also made up of water and air. Soil, as formally defined in the Soil Science Society of America Glossary of Soil Science Terms, is:
The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants.
The unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of: climate (including water and temperature effects), and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time.
The key words, for me, when describing soil is organic matter or material, and organisms. A hand full of your average garden soil is home to billions and billions of tiny organisms which are mostly responsible for giving soil it's amazing ability of supporting life. We humans tend to believe that life, smaller than us is somehow less important. This, I believe, is why we have allowed the war on soil to progress as far as it has. We treat soil like dirt, and have been doing so for hundreds of years.
There are countless records of statistics and documented video footage all confirming that the skin of the Earth, our living soil, is being destroyed. Natural forces and phenomenon do hold some of the credit for this, however human kind are what seems to be driving the process at an alarming rate. This is a worrying state of affairs if you are human or an inhabitant of planet Earth. The important of healthy soil cannot be exaggerated. Soil performs many critical functions in almost any ecosystem (whether a farm, forest, pasture, marsh, or suburban watershed). There are several roles that soils play:
Soils serve as media for growth of all kinds of plants.
Soils modify the atmosphere by emitting and absorbing gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour, and the like) and dust.
Soils provide habitat for animals that live in the soil (such as groundhogs and mice) to organisms (such as bacteria and fungi), that account for most of the living things on Earth.
Soils absorb, hold, release, alter, and purify most of the water in terrestrial systems.
Soils process recycled nutrients, including carbon, so that living things can use them over and over again.
Without healthy soils life on this planet will undoubtedly become very difficult. It's not just about growing food.
My passion is in building healthy soil. Soil which is rich in life supporting micro and macro organisms. How do we do this? Well it's very simple, once you're showed how. Permaculture urges us to become better observers. By studying the natural world and the systems it employs to aid in its functioning, we are better equip to design and integrate functioning arrangements which not only provides for our needs, but also benefits the environment. Mulch, manure and compost are some of the mediums I use to help build healthy soil. I have been experimenting with compost for a few years now and have developed a great love for the art. Taking waste material and turning it into nutrient rich substrate with minimal input on our part, the art of compost is pure magic.
Bare soil is a foreign concept in the natural world. When an area of land is disturbed and the soil is exposed to the open air, mother nature deploys her agents to quickly mend the wound. What we call weeds are actually first aiders for the land and soil. When soil is left exposed its' not long before it is carried away by natural forces like wind and rain. Weeds are like bandages for the land, protecting the soil until more substantial vegetation can take over the task of holding the soil in place. Again, bare soil does occur due to natural activity, for example when an animal digs a borrow or a tree falls and creates a clearing. The issue here is the rate and scale at which we, humans, create bare soil. We have become extremely efficient at clearing landscape to the point that nature finds it difficult to patch up the damage we have done before it becomes a permanent scar on the land.
Fortunately there are people out there who have dedicated there life to finding ways to fix the problems we as a species have caused. Geoff Lawton, a world renowned Permaculture educator and practitioner has done some amazing work in the Jordanian desert regenerating degraded soils to grown food and encourage the return of native wildlife. His technique involves catching and storing rainfall within the soil, using swales, then mulching and planting vegetation which will feed the organisms that help build healthy humus rich soil over time. It's such a simple concept that works. It make me wonder why it's not being practised on a large scale. Other methods like Allan Savorys' Holistic (Animal) Management are also addressing these problems of land erosion, using correct animal management along with water retention methods to regenerate landscapes on an even faster scale.
One challenge I faced when I became aware of this overwhelming problem of soil degradation, erosion and desertification was a feeling of insignificance. 'What can I do? I am only one man with little to no influence.' It is a normal reaction to feel that the worlds' problems are way too big for us as individuals to tackle. It wasn't long before I realised that just worrying about the problems without actively engaging in the potential solutions was not going to get me anywhere. Permaculture encourages us to play to our strengths and to start small. I've always been good with my hands, and enjoyed working outdoors within nature. I decided that I was going to master the art of making compost. All the resources I read said it was a simple and satisfying process. I built a compost bin and began collecting organic material. It took me a while to get the hang of the process, and over the years I began experimenting with different materials, combinations and techniques. I was hooked. The resources were right, it was simple and oh so satisfying. Composting is a natural process and wants to happen. With a little intervention on our part we can speed up the process and in so doing help create some of the most nutrient rich soil. It is my feeling that everything starts with the soil. Whether we are trying to grow food, stabilise slopes, or recharge aquifers the quality of the soil is of utmost importance. Making compost provides a means of improving soils, and not only that, it also helps to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills.
Once I had felt I had mastered the art of composting I began putting together the outline for a short course on the subject. Even though composting is a fairly simple process there are a number of things we can do to improve the process. For example, by chopping up the material for composting before adding it to your system you can greatly reduce the time a pile takes to fully compost. There are also some plants you might add to your pile to increase certain minerals and/or nutrients within the pile. I find composting fascinating, and very addictive. There are many different ways of doing it and I have tried many of them. On my courses I strive to share my experiences with each participant and help them gain the confidence to develop their own unique technique of making compost.
Soil degradation is a huge problem which will affect us all. The encouraging news is that it's reversible. Everything we need to do this is available, the knowledge and technologies are here right now. There are examples of this currently happening all over the globe. There is no sane reason why we as a species should life on a planet with dying soil. The media has become very effective at demoralising and scaring us into submission. I encourage you to seek out those who are living the change you would like to see happen in the world, and learn from their experiences. Remember these principles of living; follow the praise to find your niche (play to your strengths) and use small and slow solutions (start small). Everything we do makes a difference no matter how small. We change the world every day, whether we mean to or not. My advice to you is simply this. Don't spend too much time worrying about the problems of the world, take action;