What Lies Beneath
Take a look beneath your feet. What do you see right now? Is it concrete, hardwood flooring, linoleum, carpet? What is beneath that? If we keep looking beneath all these layers, we eventually hit the soil, the dirt, the Earth, whatever you want to call it. The soil that we live on top of is the backbone to basically all forms of Life. There is, in fact, so much Life within this very soil that the numbers can actually be quite astounding. There’s an estimated billion invisible bacteria, a few yards of also invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa and a few dozen nematodes in one teaspoon of healthy soil. Not to mention the incredible, heavy lifters we know as earthworms. Some folks don’t think about soil as something that’s alive, but it’s incredibly alive and full of Life. Soil is actually probably one of the most diverse, and productive ecosystems on the planet, and it’s all happening right beneath our noses - or feet.
The sad part about this scientifically known, but seemingly hidden fact, is how we are losing so much of this ecosystem every single minute. It’s been said that we’ve lost over half of the biological “building blocks” that make up truly healthy soil. If you live in the country, or have passed through it, chances are you’ve driven by an agricultural field. Most of these fields are typically managed in more or less the same fashion. They are plowed once, or more every year. They are sprayed with pesticides, fungicides and herbicides (whose main functions are to destroy life) and planted with genetically modified seed. This is all detrimental to the soil, not to mention it’s not an honest living. The most devastating part is probably the tilling, plowing, or disruption of the soil. Every time a tractor drives over that field, soil is compacted, there is less air, and therefore less aerobic bacteria in that soil. Aerobic organisms are some of the most effective and hard working microbes we have on our side - and they thrive on oxygen. There are several different types, all working at their own range of temperatures and conditions, and they really do an outstanding job at creating healthy soil. One may ask “how do we introduce this oxygen that these guys need without tilling?”. The answer is, we don’t, there is a system that works here, without human intervention. Every visible organism in soil, whether it’s a worm, pillbug, millipede, all of those “creepy crawlies”, they introduce the oxygen! It’s a harmonious balance, a symbiotic relationship that has been around for millennia.
Another destructive result of tilling or plowing, is the pure act of disruption and severe loosening of the soil. All of this Life has a home under our feet, channels and tunnels and crevices that they’ve worked hard to create, much like the homes that you or I live in. Every time these are disrupted, they are effectively destroyed. Any organisms that manage to survive the onslaught are forced to start from scratch. When we loosen the soil, this also makes it extremely susceptible to erosion. Erosion can happen in a multitude of ways, it can be caused by rain, wind, slope or a number of other factors. When we have perennial plants in place, (or even annuals by nature - their biological purpose is to place a “band-aid” on the soil until a perennial can take it’s place) their roots form dense mats that bind with the soil. This relationship protects the plants from washing or being blown away, and also holds the soil firmly in place, where it belongs on the hillside, and not in our water. In some areas of the US that are heavily farmed, over an inch of topsoil can be lost in just one year. This inch took an estimated 1,000 years to form through natural means of decomposition.
Some neglected soil. Looks like a wasteland, huh?
We don’t have to wait 1,000 years to build this soil back up, though. Think about how much soil has been lost, due to environmentally careless agriculture techniques, or due to another unnecessary interstate ramp construction. Any bare soil eventually becomes lost, if it is not covered or otherwise protected. We can build these soils back up. In a matter of 3-5 years, using no-till methods, and adding lots of organic matter (which is abundant in almost every area of the country, and is also considered “waste” by mainstream society) and by using deep mulch, soil can be greatly improved. We can play a major role in the creation of something so magical, so incredibly beautiful. I know I’d feel honored to be a part of something like that, indeed I do. Much of this is so simple too, doing things like collecting your leaves, or your kitchen scraps, or coffee grounds from a local cafe, these things can all be added and incorporated into your soil. You may wonder how they can be incorporated without physically mixing them in, well, have you ever lifted up a log, or a tarp, or even a piece of trash that’s been there for an extended amount of time off of the ground? Did you happen to notice how many little bugs and worms there are under there, absolutely lavishing the cover it provides, while getting rid of the competitive grass? This same concept can and should be applied to garden beds or agricultural fields. Deep mulch provides cover for these beings to come up and eat and incorporate all of this “waste material” or organic matter, and all of this benefits your soil in the long run.
Deep mulch on a bed. “Waste” being turned into soil.
Soil is a truly amazing thing. Did you know there are more than 20,000 different types of soil in the US alone? Imagine the different textures, colors, mineral compositions, smells and looks. When we destroy, disrupt or otherwise compromise the natural structure of the soil, we do much more damage than we see. Disrupted soil actually releases organic matter in the form of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As if the tractor dragging the plow doesn’t release enough carbonaceous fumes, the sheer act of upsetting the natural order of things is also polluting. Not just polluting to our atmosphere either. When erosion happens, where do all these soil particles go? They go where the water goes, and the water eventually drains to our rivers, streams and lakes. We see vastly varying colors in different rivers, or even the same river at different times of the year after various weather occurrences. Some of this silt and sediment would naturally be there, but definitely not all of it. It’s been stated that some rivers have about 10 feet of deposited sediment on their beds, all due to soil erosion. With these soil particles also travels the minerals - or worse, chemicals - that they contain. When industrial agriculture applies chemical fertilizers or pesticides or herbicides, those applications most likely travel to, and pollute our water. Those who live in the state of Vermont know how much our politicians and environmental groups talk about cleaning up Lake Champlain. Well, it’s not unclean due to natural causes, that’s for sure.
We can help prevent all of these damages. These were once all accepted practices, but the difference now is; we know better. We know that these practices cause a myriad of problems, and we know there is a better way. There are many better ways. One way is by urging your farmers, your gardeners, or even yourselves to practice techniques such as deep mulch, on-contour planting, or not tilling. There are many different catchphrases or names for some of these techniques, whether it’s “Back to Eden” or “swales” or “no-dig”, they all have the same message, and the same concern at heart. They all have the well-being of the Earth at heart, and when you care for the Earth, when you act with reciprocity, the Earth can care for and nourish you. When you feed the soil, the soil can feed you. Erosion and tillage, they both require constant applications of new fertilizer, new amendments. This just isn’t the case when you build up the soil, you’re benefiting it, and in turn it benefits you. What a magnificent circle reciprocity can be.
We need to really think through our actions, and our practices before we set them in motion. Once something is in motion, it takes a lot of energy, a lot of force to stop, much like a rock rolling down a hill, or soil particles being washed away. Let’s use this to our advantage. Let’s spread the word about better and smarter techniques, let’s encourage each other to think about our ways, and let’s all plant trees instead of lawns. Imagine what used to be a slightly sloping cornfield, but with trees on it, producing copious amounts of food. These different trees could produce fruit for fresh eating or storage, nuts for fat and protein, or for flour and animal feed. These trees could be planted on mounds or berms that are in line with the contour of the slope, not only preventing erosion, but restoring fertility, restoring groundwater. These mounds give the tree roots access to constant moisture, and eliminate the need for irrigation. These trees will outlive you or I, require little maintenance, and also just so happen to build the soil and fertilize with every falling leaf. Annual, industrial agriculture may be feeding the world, but there are other ways, healthier ways to go about this. We can feed the People of the world, and the World at the same time, and we can do it with Love, care, passion and reciprocity. The beauty is all around us, and beneath us, we can’t forget about the little things, the things we can’t see.