permaciv


I began a very strange journey with my series on civil culture, vs the culture of thuggery that continues taking over the world. (And no, by that I don’t mean Islam.)

In my last post, I originally included this paragraph:

I also don’t buy that people who criticize Islam are islamophobes any more than people who criticize Christianity are Christianophobes, or people who criticize Marxists are Marxophobes. That’s just plain old bullying. People’s thinking influences their behavior, and inasmuch as Islam inspires and encourages anti-social behavior, it ought to be criticized, as should any other religion or ideology. Islam is — in part — ideas, and no ideas ought to be beyond the pale when it comes to criticism. “Abusing” a religion may be offensive to some, but it’s abusing people that should draw opprobrium.

I ended up deleting it, because I wanted more time more to think it through. I do believe strongly that criticizing is overall a beneficial activity, and part of the necessary – even crucial – feedback loop that keeps human behavior within certain agreed-upon norms. In addition, we in the west, children of classical Greece which pioneered wide-ranging, intrepid exploration of abstractions, generally do not think any ideas ought to be shielded from challenges and outspokenness, and that the only kind of speech that should carry legal penalties is personal slander and direct physical endangerment (yelling “fire” in a crowded place, or telling an abused spouse “next time, I will kill you.”).

That line gets fuzzy when it comes to speech that vilifies people traditionally put-upon, and might contribute to their physical endangerment in the long run. We Americans have mostly held the line where angry verbal insults are not – apart from the most egregious exceptions — the province of the law. Europeans tend to side more with the “hate speech” paradigm due to some highly unpleasant historical events in the 20th century that relied heavily on hate-mongering propaganda.

I have sympathies for both sides. When push comes to shove, I defend free speech. But I am not insensible toward people who want to maintain a certain level of cultivated discourse, of civility in relationships. It’s been my own experience that when two married people begin to use brutal invective against each other, the good will within the relationship takes a big hit. So, similarly, within a society. To bring that back to the discussion of “insulting religion” – I feel that while to jeer at or to attempt to discredit people’s cherished religious artifacts should never be a legal issue, I see it nonetheless as an undertaking that sows division, and often leads the critics themselves to dishonesty, unnecessary vehemence, sectarianism, and just plain angry disrespect. Would you walk into a house where your neighbors have an altar to the elephant deity Ganesha, and because you disagree and feel offended, pie the statue? Clearly a dick move.

Ganesha

Why spend energy on denouncing other people’s holy writ, be it the Christian Bible, the Islamic Koran, or the Jewish Tanach? They are precious to other people, and even though you disagree with their estimation, why would you go out of your way to malign what others hold in such tender regard? This behavior becomes especially unproductive in view of the fact that denouncing other people’s holy writs makes absolutely no dent in their belief, and likely reinforces their stance under duress.

We live in a world plagued by ideologies that do mischief, no doubt about that. Cults, religions, and secular ideologies are all linked to grievous damage to human communities throughout history. But these same movements have borne good fruits too, depending on who was doing what to whom. It seems to me that it would advance the cause of “civilized civilization” if we got a grip on how to deal with ideologies in a way that defuses their malignant aspects while leaving the positives in place.

There is no question that our way of thinking influences our behavior. But true intentions are notoriously difficult to ascertain, especially when they are not your own but someone else’s. So why not focus on behavior instead? If a woman is murdered, does it makes sense to analyze whether the perp was inspired by a biblical passage, a sura, secular misogyny, or psychopathic entitlement? The behavior is what matters, and the harm lies squarely in the behavior. Anything less serves those who wish to obfuscate this basic and clear fact.

And so this is my prescription for those who wish to battle toxic ideologies: focus on the very human and fallible embodiment of the underlying script. Interpretations, and the behaviors they inspire, are never beyond the pale when it comes to critical questioning. However divinely-inspired the scriptures are held to be, their applications in the here-and-now are entirely and only human. No matter what Exodus 22:18 says, whether a heretic is tortured or killed depends on what the believer does with those and many other ideas. And once we abandon the war of words about the Koran, we can focus on what Muslims actually do with the writings and traditions they have inherited. It is this foundation I will use to explore, in future posts, some of our current cultural dilemmas.

old book

Recently, I put forth the idea that it would be a good thing if this civilization, with all its captured energy, could metamorphose into a civilized social grouping, whatever it might be called. I once called it a “civilized civilization.” Permacivilization might be another term. This drew some, er, cat calls from my treasured readership. Perhaps an elaboration is in order.

Is there any chance for This Ugly Civilization to metamorphose into something largely positive? Let’s look at our options. (I won’t dwell on die-off since I think it’s inevitable; its extent will be up to Gaia, not me.)

Future A: business as usual; the long decline, a la Rome, into small warring principalities and neofeudalism; much culture lost but patron-supported cultural refugia maintained for the privileged, akin to monasteries of old

Future B: reform; Lester Brown’s Plan B and Transition Towns; a sustainable civilization premised on structural reforms and various green technologies

Future C: rapid collapse and eventual reconstitution of human societies at the level of late stone age; most if not all of our culture and technology lost (a la the Mayan civilization); far-flung villages and nomadic groups eking out a living via foraging and low-tech cultivation plus scavenging civilization’s detritus

Future D: metamorphosis into another, less complex kind of civilization where a great deal of our cultural and technical knowledge is preserved; a world of medium and small towns and thriving countryside; emphasis on local self-determination, broad cooperation, and community

Well then. Are there any other possibilities? For me, option A is not something I wish to further. Option B is, in my view, not doable, because it requires massive elite involvement in restructuring everything toward peace, cooperation, sharing and frugality; besides, current high-tech green technologies are not that green but are created by highly destructive industrial processes. The elites have shown no intention to cut off the branch they are sitting on; their imperial predecessors have always driven their chariot off the cliff rather than reform the system to their personal disadvantage. And I have seen many lesser attempts at reform be readily coopted or sidetracked by the system. Future C may well end up happening; history supports such natural progression in the event of an abrupt and severe societal collapse. A stone age future is not unattractive; my only problem with that possibility is the loss of the cultural knowledge humanity has accumulated and paid such a high price for.

Future C means no glass and glasses, no electricity, no modern dentistry, no acute care in hospitals, no books or computers, no history, no phones, no plastics, no velcro, no bicycles, no transportation faster than a horse, no steel pressure cookers, no high quality tools. Survivable, even deeply enjoyable, but far from optimal. My preferred future would preserve a great deal of current knowledge for the generations to come, so that perhaps another kind of knowledge and technology, a biophilic kind, can piggyback on what we know today, and rise from the ashes of our suffering world. And it would counter, through its otherness, its appealing alternative cultural vortex, the push towards neofeudalism already on its way.

This, then, is why I throw my lot with the metamorphosis crowd rather than the primitivist crowd. The primitivist version is always the ultimate default; I would prefer something more… broadly inspiring, complex and preservationist. Something that would help us avoid losing this cultural wealth, enabling us instead to use it for the good of us and those coming after.

Is such a metamorphosis possible? To answer the question, one must first consider how Mother Nature does metamorphosis. It is a partially understood process that I have outlined in graphic detail here. To sum up, the high-embodied-energy caterpillar goes into a decline while hidden clusters of “imaginal cells” begin to grow and connect, using the nutrients the caterpillar had amassed for its radical transformation. After a time out of sight, protected within a cocoon or a chrysalis, the moth or butterfly emerges: a creature more delightful in its utter unlikeness to its caterpillar predecessor one could hardly imagine.

Here is my thinking: first, metamorphosis is real. It is a natural process that enables the creation of something utterly different; something no reform can accomplish. Second, cultural metamorphosis has been observed. It has been seen in a troop of baboons, who metamorphosed from a brutal, bully male-run domination culture into a largely non-violent, collaborative, female-vigilant culture. It has been observed indirectly in the social setting of a remote island, Tikopia (this remoteness may have provided the necessary cocoon). And finally, isn’t this our best option? However small its chances, why would I want to throw my support behind anything less?!

we have a choice to make

(not an endorsement, like the image; click to enlarge)

 

We should all get the hell out of the way, with our bodies decently planted in the earth to nourish other forms of life — weeds, flowers, shrubs, trees, which support other forms of life, which support the ongoing human pageant — the lives of our children. That seems good enough to me.
— Edward Abbey

For most of human history, deceased human beings were left exposed, to feed carrion eaters and the soil critters underneath. About 100,000 years ago, first shallow graves appeared — the body enriched the topsoil while being protected from the beasties by a layer of soil and rock. And so it continued, until the Neolithic.

That’s when funerary customs took a bizarre turn. In the settlements transitioning from foraging to agriculture people began to bury the dead under the floor of their houses. Sometimes, they disinterred the cadaver and cut off its skull, to be plastered and painted for display. (Didn’t they mind the stench and gruesomeness?!)

As elites rose into power, all around the world they began to build elaborate tombs to house their mortal remains. In some places, the brisk business of embalming sold sure tickets to the next world. But whether the bodies were embalmed or not, the soil was denied its due as corpses rotted or mummified in stone chambers. Was this the first time the nutrient cycle was broken? As the lower orders aped their “betters,” the idea caught on. Flip the bird to Mother Nature: you can’t have my body back, you old hag! I am too fancy for the likes of you!

Fast forward to the present. In some parts of the world, scant remaining forests are denuded to burn corpses on a pyre so their ashes can be thrown into the river people drink from. Um. Sky burials sound reasonable until you find out that priests are engaged to dismember and deflesh the naked corpses high on the mountain. Did the vultures demand smaller pieces, or is it another example of priestly entrepreneurial zeal? Alas, western civ hasn’t done any better. Let us review the options on offer to the distraught relatives of our neighbors who have just shuffled off their mortal coil.

1. Burn the body, place the ashes in a metal or marble urn, and stash them away in a mausoleum where they will sit till the sun burns out. (Although, for a small fee a company will spread them out at sea, or the families can find a remote natural spot.) This method was cunningly designed to burn vast amounts of natural gas or propane, in addition to ensuring that we all end up breathing corpse particles along with mercury fillings, dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur and carbon dioxide. Please note that in some crowded places on the planet (Japan, parts of China and western Europe), this is now the only option available. It gives new meaning to the image of Beijing shrouded in smog.

Data from the funeral industry are hard to come by; my back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that my small house in Colorado could be heated by the propane used in one cremation for about a month.

2. Bury the body 6 feet under, in a large wooden coffin with brass handles encased in a concrete or metal vault, making sure the body decays as slowly as possible within a layer of soil with very few microorganisms, thus causing maximum groundwater pollution. Forests die so that fancy oaken or tropical wood coffins can be ostentatiously displayed. Embalming — a horrid process I mostly skipped over when reading informative Grave Matters, a book promoting greener funerals — makes sure that the groundwater is not only polluted with cadaver goo, but also with some 200 different types of toxic ick. The undertakers as a profession suffer from diseases caused by frequent exposure.

According to National Geographic, American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance.

Way to go, folks! Way to go? No, thank you. Myself, I’d rather go quietly back to the earth that brought me forth, and skip the parts where my ol’ body burns up enough gas to heat a house in the winter, kills forests or pollutes air and watersheds. Neither am I one of those who would rather pretend they can evade the deep truth: “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

What, then, are my options?

Walking off to a remote place and letting the good beasties have me sounded swell until I realized that when I am dying, I probably won’t have the vim and vigor required for a long hike.

Promession is a Swedish process whereby the body is placed in a tub of liquid nitrogen, freeze-dried, then jostled and turned into powder which can then be buried in topsoil and will compost within the year. Alas, the inventor has promised more than she can deliver, and the whole thing sounds like vaporware.

Resomation (aka bio-cremation) puts the body in a steel tank containing water and lye, applies modest heat (about 350°F compared to 2000°F needed for incineration), and pressure. After several hours, the bone fragments are given to the family and the rest of the brew is unceremoniously flushed down the drain. Ah. New Hampshire and the Catholic Church have developed doubts about that bit. But several states and Saskatchewan do make resomation currently available, and indeed, it seems much greener than the popular choices, as long as your sewer pipes and waste water plant can handle it. Some universities use it to dispose of bodies in their donor programs. On the other hand, it externalizes the disposition of the cadaverous chemicals onto the public infrastructure, and ultimately the waterways.

Natural burial in green cemeteries appeals a great deal because it supports nature reserves that might otherwise fall to the developers’ axe. There are more than 200 such woodland or meadow cemeteries in the UK, and about 20 in the States, with more on the way. Green cemeteries ban embalming, fancy coffins and vaults, and implement shallow graves. And they are loveliness itself, a joy for grieving families and hikers, both.

Pyrolysium might some day dispose of bodies via pyrolysis, and turn our dearly departed into sacks of biochar that can be conveniently used as soil amendment.

Composting large road-kill like deer has been successfully implemented in several places around the country by laying the corpse on a bed of woodchips, then piling a whole lot of chips on top. The decomposition is completed within several months, and the bones ground up for bone meal fertilizer. Why not do that with humans? I would be happy to volunteer. It sounds like the cleanest, sanest, simplest, and cheapest alternative of all.

Unless, of course, you can bury your loved one on your own plot of land. It is not that difficult in most states, and the book Final Rights will help you navigate the legalities.

And don’t forget biodegradable, tree-sparing coffins and shrouds, ranging from cardboard boxes (lame), through soft winding sheets, all the way to beautiful willow basketry, felt cocoons, and papier-mache pods. About time.

Let’s all play “beat the reaper” and turn our used-up bodies into new life!

Everything here is a little bit harder.
— a Rabbit

From each community I have visited, something wonderful’s stuck in my mind. In Earthaven, daffodils blooming at every fork in the road and the lovely floor mosaic in the community house. At Possibility Alliance, the clear pond with its happy flock of ducks and geese and cat-tails all around, and funky cob outdoor kitchen. At Dancing Rabbit, the enormity and clarity of the night sky, and the endless buckets of humanure that travel from the community house to the composting ground (a good good thing! :-)).

I spent two weeks last month at the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, which finds itself on a large old farm far from just about anywhere, in the area known as NEMO (North Eastern Missouri). The land itself is mostly rolling pasture, with some trees and woods along the creeks and washes. Walking the land is easy on the paths mown in the tall grass and weeds. Next door is the Red Earth Farms, an offshoot of DR. And three miles down the road is another small, older community, Sandhill.

The Rabbits run a very well organized visitors program. The six of us newbies would meet every day for a check-in, and to attend some workshop or work party. The group itself was multifarious: an LA man working in the film industry, retooling himself as an alternative builder, wanting out. A woman touring U.S. communities, freshly come from a large Hare Krishna ashram/cow sanctuary in West Virginia where she had been learning farming. A Canadian with Old Colony (very old fashioned) Mennonite background who knitted her way through our DR days. A musician from North Carolina who used to run a nightclub, realized that he had thrown out one drunk too many in his life, and time had come for a radical turnaround. And an intrepid man from Boston looking to start an ecovillage in New England came to explore both DR and Possibility Alliance.

Our workshops covered the history of DR and took us on several tours of the land, the main community kitchen and its rules, and the houses. We learned about consensus, permaculture, land use planning for DR’s future expansion, a bit about how DR gets things done, the various coops, and about the alternative building and energy at DR. DR builders are moving somewhat away from natural building and into green building which goes up faster and doesn’t grow mold. They use propane and county water, are on the grid for electricity, and produce enough from wind turbines and solar panels to sell back to the grid. One rather notable workshop dealt with “inner sustainability” and learning to navigate relationships and conflict at DR. We discussed various techniques for inner work, from Coherence Counseling to Naka Ima/Heart of Now and Zegg Forums, and co-counseling was demonstrated.

One night we were treated to a Q & A session where many Rabbits came to offer answers to our questions; they all stress that each person’s answer is partial and particular, and we were always encouraged to gather a number of points of view. We participated in the WIP (“week in preview”) session on Sunday where announcements are made for the coming week, people schedule car trips, and in general everyone coordinates their activities as needed. We also hauled dirt to someone’s future green roof, learned to make joinery pegs the old fashioned way on a shaving horse, planted garlic, and some people helped with a new round house going up made of pallets, clay-straw, cob, and natural plasters. We were also treated to delightful tours of the neighbor eco-communities.

A particularly interesting workshop was on DR’s internal currency. It’s called ELMs, is entirely computerized, practical, and unique, and run by two volunteers. Converting into dollars 1:1, it is widely used, and the community pays those who work on its behalf in ELMs. About $40,000 worth changes hands every month, increasing fast. How do people make a living in DR? Well, there are those who live off their trust funds or pensions, a few run computer businesses, and others go off-farm for seasonal jobs (for example, a cruise ship job, sheep farm job, soil testing for area farmers, and the like). The community does provide some limited flow of money to those who live there and decide to provide child care or building and maintenance services. DR itself offers several part-time accounting and high-level coordination jobs.

The car coop serves this community of 70+ with three biodiesel cars. On one hand, this is part of the glue that helps the community stick together. It is however fairly expensive to pay per mile into the coop, and some people hang onto their own cars so they can work off-farm or visit relatives. This is creating considerable tension at the moment, and will be the subject of a large (and contentious) community meeting this month. I am expecting that the strict standard will be somewhat relaxed, but at the same time, it presents a difficult issue to the Rabbits because the commitment to shared biodiesel cars is one of the founding principles of DR. The tiny town of Rutledge is 3 miles away and people do bicycle or walk there, and to the organic dairy nearby.

One of the amazing things about DR is the richness of the cultural life there. I often wondered… how come the typical small town in America feels so dead, with very little going on, esp. for young people, whereas DR is just brimming with events and gatherings? Every night, there was something of interest: potlucks, a concert, support groups, self-growth workshops, men’s and women’s groups, singing and healing circles, yoga, parties, movie nights… or simply informal gatherings in the community house to share stories or to make music. A true cultural oasis.

The food, on the other hand, was often dreadful. We circulated among the various community kitchens which are run as coops into which people pay a monthly fee, and share the chores of cooking and keeping the place stocked and modestly clean. Veganism seems to be the prevalent ethos even though most of the people there are not vegan. I guess it’s cheap to feed people that way. To give you the flavor of it, one day for lunch we got some tasteless split peas with carrots, millet, and popcorn. Ugh. There were meals that were tasty, but they were more of an exception to the rule, and when Thursdays came, many of us converged on the Mercantile to wolf down handmade pizza. (The Mercantile is a straw-bale B&B inn and a shop/bar.) The community kitchens range from modern kitchens all the way to outdoor open sheds where cooking is done on hand-crafted rocket stoves.

Most of the current settlers at DR are quite young, and the turnover is considerable. Many people go for the experience, not to settle there. This may shift as DR keeps on growing. The community is really one big laboratory for building methods, community design, relationships, co-governance, and now, finally, gearing up for restorative agriculture. I attended the ag committee meeting, and it turns out that most of the early settlers came here for the natural building opportunity (no zoning laws). The ag lands have lain fallow for 15 years, harvesting a government subsidy that helped DR pay off its land mortgage. Now 19 acres have been removed from that program, and the ag committee is busy setting up some basic guidelines for farming. The land itself is very degraded: I was told that much of the topsoil blew away in the 30s, followed by bad farming practices, and now there is only about an inch of topsoil overlying clay. People who garden have had to resort to importing soil from elsewhere for their raised beds. Given the vegan ethos of the community, regeneration of soil via rotational grazing is regarded with suspicion, but a go-ahead has been given for a small herd of goats and sheep, beginning next year.

Well. I am just bursting with more stories from the stay, and the post is getting lengthy. I think I will tell you two more things, and then tuck in. I have enough memories and reflections for another post or two! The thing that completely caught me off guard and unprepared was this: DR is inhabited mainly by extroverts who have taken over. It was hard for me to bear, all the compulsive socializing, the fast talking without pauses, the loudness and ruckus attending gatherings, the obligatory hand-holding circles, the many meetings, and the lack of sociable silence. The extroverts are aware their ways are hard for introverts to live with — that is, intellectually, they are aware. Behavior-wise, they seem oblivious. The extrovert culture has at its roots an assumption — a sense of entitlement, even — that introverts adapt and assimilate. In the sense that the outside culture is driven by extrovert values and needs, the Rabbits have brought Babylon in with them (says this much put-upon grumpy introvert).

I did not camp out as my mateys did, but rented one of the more notable structures at DR; a tiny cob house named Gobcobatron, built as a spiral and very lovely and enjoyable for a brief stay (see its pic below). High on charm, it is also mostly unlivable, having no insulation in the walls or the roof. One afternoon when I dozed off without covering myself, I woke up chilled to the bone even though it was warmish outside: the massive earthen walls just suck the heat out of the living body. Evenings, I put a little stove to good use. The house was a quiet and calming retreat for me from all the bustle of the community. Its owners have learned some important lessons and are now living in a partially finished straw-bale house built on stilts to insulate it from the damp ground.

I am very grateful for everything these brave pioneers so whole-heartedly and generously shared with us visitors. All hail the hard-working, merry Dancing Rabbits!

I’ve thought for some time that 1) vision is what unifies us, and 2) vision is something that does not need extended formal visioning sessions… when the vision is ripe, it takes but a few minutes to formulate it.

I would like to put it to the test. If we were to formulate a vision for the world of our dreams, what would it be? Here are the simple rules of engagement:

  • keep it to one sentence
  • focus on the human world
  • what are you hoping for, in your heart of hearts?

Here is an example (albeit with a focus on technology). All those wonderful people with their flapping, bicycle-powered, or just push-off-the-hill flying contraptions towards the end of the 19th century… they had a simple and clear vision: a human-carrying flying machine. There were many groups trying many different ideas and designs, but the vision unified them, enabled them to share what they learned, and kept the machines evolving.

Similarly, we need a vision for another, possible human world. Simple yet far-reaching, and widely agreed upon. Triggered by something a friend had said, I sat down this morning, and wrote it down. This is the vision that underlies all the various posts on this blog, though I had not come to clarify it before. Does it speak to you? What is your own vision? And can we come to share them without compromising the vision in each person’s heart?

Here is mine; the tasty kernel within the butternut of my dreams:

A sane human world where wisdom rather than folly gets amplified.


Economics start with photosynthesis.
— Abe Collins

I feel like getting naked and running though the streets, yelling eureka, eureka! By George, I think I’ve got it. And I wasn’t even looking. It all began a few days ago, when I started on a post about creating soil from scratch. A radical notion in its own right, to be sure. So let’s begin with the story there.

Growing new topsoil

Human future depends on the future of earthly soils. The most meaningful indicator for the health of the land, and the long term wealth of a people, is whether soil is being formed or lost. If soil is being lost, so too is the economic and ecological foundation of society.
— Christine Jones (paraphrased)

I won’t dwell again on the dire facts of soil loss around the world. We all know it’s a serious problem. What is not so clear to many of us is that the major efforts out there attempting to counter this trend merely hope to slow down the rate of loss. The option of growing new soil and actually coming out ahead is only considered by a few maverick soil scientists and small groups of farmers who’ve finally had the courage to forgo conventional ag advice and forge their own path. Most gardeners are familiar with soil-building, but this generally involves robbing Peter to pay Paul, as manures or leaf mold are imported from elsewhere.

The process that forms soil from weathered rocks takes thousands of years. But new soils can form quite rapidly from the soil that’s already there, provided the natural sequence is unimpeded. Here is how it happens:

  • In order for new soil to grow, it must be living.
  • In order for soil to be living, it must be covered.
  • In order for soil to be covered, it must be periodically disturbed.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Only living things can grow. For soil to grow, it must be a thriving community of microorganisms, fungi, insects, and worms. These need to be sheltered from weather extremes and kept moist. A ground cover of live plants and decomposing plant litter protects the living soil by buffering temperature extremes, improving water infiltration and slowing evaporation.

To flourish, these ground covers need to be fed. This is where soil disturbance comes in. Nature brings in herbivores on the hoof who trample decomposing plant material into the ground, pushing it into the root zone. They break up the soil crust and aerate it, making it more permeable to water. And they crush old dried stalks so that sunlight can reach new growth.

As the herbivores graze and chew off the tops of the grasses, part of the root system dies back and feeds the soil organisms. Intermittent grazing creates cycles of root die-back and regrowth that provides a rich feast for all who inhabit the soil community. And there are a lot of hungry mouths! It is said that a teaspoon of good soil contains almost as many tiny denizens as there are people on Earth.

Well fed soil microorganisms then produce the gums and sugars that build crumbly, porous soil texture which provides spaces for roots, passageways for small invertebrates, and room for rain. Since these gums and sugars need to be continually replenished, a steady supply of food — decomposing plant roots and litter alongside water, air and minerals — must be coming their way.

This simple and elegant process begins to produce new topsoil within the year, with dramatic results reported in three years. The higher the biomass and turnover of plant roots, the faster new topsoil will form.

Here is the recipe for growing new soil:

  1. seed or plant perennial ground covers known for extensive, deep root systems
  2. graze or slash new growth intermittently
  3. then disturb the soil by working decaying plant material into the root zone, whether by hooves, hoes, or disks
  4. since high levels of biological activity are required, avoid pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers known to harm soil life
  5. on drylands, predigestion of plant matter (either in ruminant stomachs or via composting) is essential; without adequate moisture old plant matter oxidizes rather than rots

Now I understand why lawns take so much fussy effort. Without the third step — intermittent disturbance — the grasses need to be constantly propped up by chemicals and aerating machinery, while at the same time, the chemical brews depress soil life.

The miracle of humus

Feeding soil life depends ultimately on photosynthesis. Powered by sunlight, plants synthesize nutrients out of water and CO2. They use these nutrients for their own growth and maintenance, and share the surplus by exuding the rest through the roots. This carbon-rich fluid is used in turn by mycorrhizal fungi and other micro-critters as they turn plant remains into humus.

I admit to being woefully misinformed. While the term ‘humus’ does commonly refer to the dark, fertile, friable stuff compost eventually turns into, the real miracle is the substance soil scientists call stable humus. This dark colloidal gel consists largely of water and carbon in many permutations (humic acids, humins, etc.), tightly bound to clay and metal hydroxides. Greatly resistant to further decomposition, it plays an essential role in providing soil structure, increases the ability of soil to store nutrients resistant to leaching, buffers acids and alkalis, binds toxic heavy metals, and can hold the equivalent of 80-90% of its weight in water. It can last in the soil for centuries and perhaps longer, sequestering water and carbon for slow release.

Stable humus is used up en masse by plowing and high nitrogen fertilizers. On the other hand, its formation can be encouraged by following the soil growth generative sequence, and by the addition of chopped roots of grass species (to restore mycorrhizal fungi) or black carbon (biochar). Rotational grazing where feasible optimizes conditions for photosynthesis and humification. And how can we tell we are getting somewhere? Soils with high humus content feel sticky to the touch when rubbed between the fingers.

The soil solution

It would be awesome enough to have access to a simple process that grows new topsoil, and to become skilled in aiding humification to keep these soils highly fertile over the long term. But it gets better.

Is your area plagued by drought and desertification? Is the local aquifer steadily depleting? Did you have endless days of 115°F heat last summer? Are you worried about food security? Maybe your region’s lands have suffered from declining rainfall or salinization. I have some truly good news for you. Growing soil with high stable humus content is the healing treatment for all these ills.

Nature works on the principle that waste (of some) equals food (for others). Civilized humans in our unsapiential wisdom work hard to turn what could be food into waste. We’ve been doing it with human manures for some 150 years, with animal manures for a few decades, and as it turns out, we’ve really done a number on water and carbon, the very stuff of life, spewing them into the air while soils go begging.

After the oceans, the soil is the Earth’s largest carbon sink. But humus depleting agricultural practices have caused soils to lose both water and carbon to the atmosphere where these otherwise life-giving substances do mischief in high concentrations. Perhaps there are enough of us now who appreciate the value of humus-laden soils, ready to turn things around. Here are a few quotes I have pulled from the work of Dr. Christine Jones, Australian soil scientist who has been working with farmers and ranchers for many years to successfully regenerate the soils under their care and sequester large amounts of carbon and water at the same time.

Photosynthesis is a cooling process. Lack of green cover on the land greatly increases heat absorption, causing a dramatic increase in evaporation. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas of greater significance for global warming than CO2. Lower rainfall can also result from groundcover loss.

Of the estimated 3060 gigatonnes of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, 82 per cent is in soils. That’s over four times the amount of carbon stored in the world’s vegetation… If only 18 per cent is stored in vegetation, why all the emphasis on biomass, rather than soil, as a carbon sink?

1% carbon increase in grasslands and cropsoils in Australia would offset the entire “legacy load” or total rise in CO2 over the last 50 years. Carbon sequestration of farmlands can be higher than that of tropical forests.

Discussions on adapting to climate [weirding] are irrelevant unless they focus on rebuilding healthy topsoil.

Soil loss and soil destruction spread far and wide as domination-based civilization claimed larger and larger portions of the planet. When we fan out, bringing about soil gain and soil regeneration wherever we go, we’ll know that our metamorphosis into viable human earthlings is well underway.