Backing into Eden Chapter 19: Earth
I live in Washington State, and all the news for the last two weeks has been the unthinkable Oso mudslide. Slides are not unusual here, although I have never heard of one with this much destructive force. It got me reflecting about the relationship between earth and water.
The desert near my parent’s home in Mesa, Arizona can do well with very little water while parched farmland turns into a spiderweb of empty cracks with the same amount of rainfall.
As the climate changes, soil changes. When the balance transforms dramatically, we can get flood or drought, and the soil – described by the World Wildlife foundation as, “the fragile skin of the Earth,” can change consistency or place and richness. It can become incapable of sustaining the same life that it was once in balance with.
Soil is complex. It’s made of eroded rocks, silt, sand, dead plants, living organisms, water and air. Soil composition varies from place to place, but always the basic elements are in a dance and the points of balance matter.
This series is about gardening the Earth, and if there is anything gardeners know, it’s to tend to the soil.
The US Department of Natural Resources suggests that we change our way of thinking, and begin to treat soil as an organism, that we imagine it as something that can experience health and disease, as something that can be nurtured. Something living. This is directly in line with the concept of humans as caretakers of the environment. So let’s explore some ways to do that:
- Early in this blog series, I discussed frameworks for land use and held up the Forterra NGO in Washington state as an example. Forterra works to create large connected ecosystems where natural processes can maintain health. One of their tools is land-swaps, which allows for aggregation and protection of wild lands.
- One lesson form the Oso landslide is that data can help. We had LiDar and ortho-photography of the hillside that came down on Oso, but not much of it was transparent to the people living in the way of the slide. Had that information been easily available, it’s possible some people would have made different decisions.
- We knew the hillside was dangerous, but there were no tools to keep people from living there: almost no local government can afford to seriously challenge property rights. The laws are on the side of the people who want to do whatever they like on their land whether or not it makes sense for safety, ecology, or the greater good. Short of limited eminent domain, local governments lack tools. This is where NGO’s like Forterra can develop and use methods to both aggregate land and leave the original landowner in an acceptable or even improved situation.
- Many farming and urban gardening practices damage soils. There are social movements and business drivers working to recognize and correct this problem; these should be supported and expanded. Urban farmers can use natural fertilizers and pest management, even if they are harder and slightly less effective. It’s important to create healthy organic soils in gardens of all sizes.
- Organic growing methods produce food that is better for us and better for soil health.
- Overgrazing does damage, but managed grazing is actually good for soil. Traditional farmers are beginning to use better grazing techniques, and some entire ecosystems are being restored with the use of wild grazing herds.
- There are more dramatic possible solutions. Thanks to our household seventeen year old, I found an article by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (linked below) that contemplates a synthetic creature – a designed biological entity – that heals soils. We may not want manufactured life in our yards, but there are a lot of seriously contaminated places where futuristic synthetic biology might be very useful.
- Healthy soil is a carbon sink. There are estimates that soil has lost more than 50% of its carbon, releasing most of it into the air as CO2. But healthy ground is partly made of decaying plants. As a double-win, healthier soil grows more food and keeps carbon out of the atmosphere.
Soil is critical. So is learning more about the world we walk on. Doing research for this blog series and general research on fracking, I’ve learned that there are living organisms far below the surface, some as far as two miles below the surface. We know almost nothing about these organisms, but to me they seem to be yet more proof of the tenacity of life. Perhaps they are the type of life that we will find on Mars some day, or even living on the moon. Perhaps they perform functions we need in order to have the right balance in the soil on the slopes above our houses.
Climate change management is about the air that we breathe, but it’s also about water and land, about the soil on which we walk and on which we depend for food. It’s about the earth we live on, and the land that we don’t want to have thundering down onto our heads and turning our houses to splinters.
WWF Threats: Soil Erosion and Degradation
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Soils
Latest Aerial Imagery of the Oso Landslide, Seattle Times, April 1, 2014
Ecologists turn to planned grazing to revive grassland soil: the Salt: NPR, August 5th, 2013, by Luke Runyon
Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New weapon in Climate Fight?, Yale Environment 360, March 2014, by Judith D. Schwartz
Designing for the sixth extinction, Project 2013, by Alexandra Daily Ginsberg
Learning from my soil: the 2014 garden dialogue, Resilience, February 25th, 2014, by Claire Schosser
What lies beneath: Tiny organism thrive below Earth’s surface, Livescience, December 29, 2013, by Tia Ghose