One of the great gifts of writing is the knowledge that one gains from the research necessary to create intelligent composition. My high school English teacher—who also taught Kurt Vonnegut—once told me that there were seven basic plots in literature and not to worry about outlining a wholly original narrative, but instead, to be imaginative and establish my own voice.
I’ve been asked to write the first of a series of articles for Erosion Control magazine on behalf of the newly formed Living Soils Alliance (formerly known as the Sustainable Soil Alliance). More on that organization toward the end of this article, but let me start out by saying that it is a real honor being asked to opine on subjects that are dear to me—in this case, topsoil protection and preservation. It’s taken some time to pull together, condense, and edit my thoughts on this issue; there is so much that needs to be said about this topic and so many writers—from Plato to Wendell Berry—have described the need to respect and protect living soil in ways that make my brain shrink at the prospect of adding anything substantial to the existing narrative.
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But if you’re reading this magazine, you’re more than halfway into my thoughts already, and thus I don’t need to preach to a choir of like-minded individuals. Therefore, I think instead I’ll focus on providing you, dear reader, with some CliffsNotes philosophy, references, and historical examples that relate to soil as the primary organ of life as we know it.
The Erosion of Civilizations
There are quite a few authors and scientists who have documented the “erosion of civilizations” based on society’s contempt or, at best, disregard for the importance of their soil resources. Makes for some interesting reading in front of the fireplace at night when the rest of the worn-down world is asleep and electronic distractions have been turned off or call-forwarded. Pretty soon, you start to realize that concepts of “sustainability,” “carbon sequestration,” and “soil organic matter”—the buzzwords of today’s eco-awareness—have been talked about for decades, if not centuries; we just weren’t listening. These are some of my most recent readings:
Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years, written in 1999 by W. C. Lowdermilk. This is a USDA-published Agricultural Information Bulleting (No. 99) based on studies Lowdermilk made in the late 1930s. One of the quotes I like from this volume is “Here in a nutshell, so to speak, we have the underlying hazard of civilization. By clearing and cultivating sloping lands—for most of our lands are more or less sloping—we expose soils to accelerated erosion by water or by wind . . . In doing this we enter upon a regime of self-destructive agriculture.”
Then there is Edward Hyams’ Soil and Civilization (1976), in which humanity is described as a bunch of parasites on the soil. My personal favorite of recent vintage is Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization by David R. Montgomery in 2007. If you Google this topic, you’re going to come up with some very thought-provoking slide presentations by Mr. Montgomery, as well as YouTube videos of some of his talks. The International Erosion Control Association (IECA) needs to get this guy as a keynote speaker for Long Beach in 2018.
Examples of Soil Stewardship and Not-So-Stewardship
Sticking to the CliffsNotes version of some of my research in preparing this article, let me give you a couple of examples of civilizations that respected soil and water resources and those that did not, and let you decide for yourself how each has fared in their turn.
Ahupua’a: From the Mountain to the Sea. In ancient Hawai’i, an ahupua’a was a narrow wedge of land that ran from the uplands to the sea following the natural boundaries of the watershed. The ahupua’a functioned as a self-sustaining unit for communities or individual families. Each ahupua’a was sized based on natural fertility, the abundance of the land, and contained all the resources that a community needed in the form of water from the mountaintop, koa, and other trees in upslope areas, fertile land mid-slope for growing taro or sweet potatoes, and fish and salt from ponds at the toe of the slopes and the sea itself.
Hawaiians consider soil a resource as much as water; sediment in water—in fact, most pollutants in water—are merely resources that are out of place. Stewardship of the land was vital—not because there were laws, regulations, or consequential fines, but because failure was not an option if the human community was to endure. I’ve always suggested that you can’t legislate personal responsibility, and after 40 years in this field, I really think that you can’t regulate environmental quality: you have to first of all, educate. To me, the concept of ahupua’a embodies both of these precepts.
In the Land of the Lemurs. A few years ago I was asked to travel to Madagascar as part of a fact-finding mission in an international arbitration case involving construction erosion issues. While I cannot speak to the specifics of that particular case, I can tell you about my impressions of Madagascar: The environment that I saw was nothing like what you see in National Geographic specials.
In doing a little research before my first trip I found that Madagascar—the fourth-largest island on the planet—is home to flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. About 90% of all these plants and animals are endemic, and 80% of the 14,883 plant species are found nowhere else in the world. Sounds like the place would be a tropical Garden of Eden, and such was my expectation.
As an erosion control and revegetation professional sitting by the window during an Airlink flight from Johannesburg (South Africa) to Antananarivo—the capital and largest city on Madagascar—I started to realize that something appeared very wrong from 30,000 feet as we gained the coastline after a two-hour flight from the African continent. There appeared to be tremendous sediment plumes from where a few rivers discharged their red sediment load into the ocean. I learned later that at the time of French colonization, there were six ports on the margins of the island. Today, there is only one port due to sediment strangulation delivered from the rivers. As we flew more inland, the hills seemed to have been denuded long ago of their vegetative cover. A thin, turbid vein of rusty water sclerotically meandered through wide flats of sediment deposited in the river valleys.
I learned that Madagascar has lost 90% of its original forest, due in large part to tavy, a traditional slash-and-burn agricultural technique. Contributing to this loss of protective vegetative cover is the growth of cattle herding, widespread coffee plantations, and a reliance by the local people on charcoal for cooking. It is estimated that between 1950 and 2000, 40% of the island’s original forest cover was lost through illicit and state-sanctioned harvesting of precious woods within Madagascar’s national parks. Some estimates are that all of the island’s rainforests—with the exception of those in protected areas and those in extremely steep, mountainous areas—will be gone by 2025.
Of course with the loss of vegetation comes the loss of wildlife habitat, and in Madagascar, that means fewer lemurs. Scientist say that a number of giant lemur species have vanished since human settlers arrived on the island over 2,000 years ago. Other smaller species of lemurs have become extinct as the human population has grown, putting more pressure on the animals’ habitats, and as Malagasy table fare turns in desperation toward Lemuroidea. There are simply too many humans and the place—in my observation—reached its carrying capacity long ago.
We Proceed Onward
In September 2005, I found myself on my knees in a North Dakota cornfield, honoring history.
It was the second of a three-year expedition to aerially retrace the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail during the nation’s bicentennial celebration. I was the leader of 40 volunteers: pilots, scientists, and some—like myself—who were both. The overall objective of our “Flight of Discovery” was to use current technology (aviation and science) to compare present-day cultural, environmental, and anthropological resources to the 200-year-old historical record contained in journals, correspondence, notes, and samples assembled from 1804 to 1806 by the Corps of Discovery.
But these sorts of adventures take on a purpose all to themselves and develop a direction that can’t be compassed at the beginning of the journey. Just ask Meriwether Lewis, who found neither the Northwest Passage nor the Great River of the West, but succeeded in opening up a continent to westward expansion and the consequences that have resulted. Our own particular journey transformed from documenting a “barometer of environmental change” to one of connecting young people that we met at airports, schools, museums, and reservations to the environments in which they lived. Our scientists and pilots all bought into this evolving emphasis.
There are modern soil surveys for most of the counties in the US. These surveys—produced by the US Department of Agriculture—document the boundaries of soil associations and the chemical, physical, and engineering properties of soil. A soil survey can tell you where to build your house—or perhaps more importantly, where not to—and where to put your septic tank. There’s even information on the erodibility of particular soils, the kinds of native plants that can be found on them, and what kind of yields can be expected from agricultural crops grown in them—a lot of information.
I recently obtained a US Army Corps of Engineers document that recorded the suspended sediment at various sampling points along the Missouri River from Rulo, NE, to its confluence with the Mississippi River at St. Louis—a distance of about 495 river miles. One year’s worth of data—columns upon columns of numbers—took up around 250 printed pages and illustrated that the great river of Lewis and Clark contributes more than 70% of the sediment load in the Mississippi. Who wouldn’t get excited about that? Well, the truth is, most people would be about as thrilled to have to interpret this document as they would be to get a root canal . . . without anesthetic.
For this reason, the Flight of Discovery decided to illuminate the importance of soils by hanging them on an historic framework—the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Rob and Andrew McGann and my son, Lee, took soil samples all along the trail, and today we have a collection of more than 100 1-inch clear plastic tubes from such diverse historical sites as:
- Fort Clatsop, OR, where the Corps of Discovery spent the cold and wet winter of 1805, trading buttons from their clothes to the local Indian tribes for dog meat because they were sick of eating salmon
- Weippe Prairie, ID, where Lewis and Clark were rescued by the Flathead Indians after nearly starving to death in their transit of the snows in the Bitterroots
- Lemhi Pass at the Continental Divide, where—gazing westward—Lewis first understood that there would be no easy Northwest Passage to the Orient, when he beheld miles of snow-capped peaks between the Corps and the Pacific Ocean instead of a great river. History has not recorded his exact words at that moment.
- Great Falls of the Missouri, the 30-mile stretch of Montana prickly pear that took the Corps nearly 30 days to portage around in 1805, dragging their dugout canoes behind them on wheels made from the cross-sections of trees
- Council Bluffs, IA, where we took a representative sample of the soil in which the only member of the Corps of Discovery—Sergeant Charles Floyd—is buried
One of the Flight of Discovery’s greatest treasures is a column of the soil framed in native oak that we received from the State of Missouri soil scientist. When you pull out these soil tubes and explain the time and place of these samples in the annals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, people—particularly youngsters—really take notice. Dirt comes to life.
So it was that on a beautiful fall day in September 2005, Amy Mossett, executive director of the Northern Plains Heritage Foundation, led the Flight of Discovery to a traditional Mandan garden near Newtown, ND. There, some 700 hundred years before Lewis and Clark, the Mandans had been cultivating the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans, the foundational crops upon which their civilization survived, and which, in their time, Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery survived the rigorous winter of 1805. My guess is that if in the next 700 years everything in America goes to hell, the Mandans will still be cultivating and growing crops in this soil. That is stewardship, my friends. We were honored to be allowed to take a sample of this soil for our educational collection.
To achieve some of the objectives of long-term soil protection, reinvigoration, and restoration, a small group of IECA members met during the February 2016 conference, EC16 in San Antonio, TX; in Edinburgh, IN, during May 2016; and again in August 2016 at StormCon in Indianapolis.
The group—initially named the Sustainable Soil Alliance—has since changed its name to the Living Soil Alliance, or LSA. The LSA was formed to increase education and information related to sustainability and reinvigoration of the soil resource. Through the knowledge and experience possessed by its diverse membership, the LSA believes that it is in a unique position to coordinate with other like-minded organizations and institutions to educate designers, engineers, landscape contractors, and regulatory agencies on the use of natural, biotic approaches and their delivery systems to prevent degradation, remediate impacts, advance recovery, and promote protection of the soil resource.
The vision of the group is to become a global resource for individuals, organizations, and institutions whose members share a common concern for the sustainability and reinvigoration of soil, water, and plant resources.
Some of the LSA’s stated goals are to
- Develop an operational framework for the organization that reflects the expectations of members and sustains LSA’s mission.
- Identify opportunities for the advancement of sustainable soil technology through participation in other organizations, conferences, and academic research.
- Identify opportunities for the advancement of design and specification of sustainable soil technology by local, regional, and national government agencies.
- Disseminate information concerning the products and services of LSA members.
- Establish a resource library of existing research, papers, presentations, and literature that reflects the interests of members and that is available for public access.
- Promote the concepts of soil sustainability and soil regeneration to local, regional, and national government organizations that address soil erosion control, bioremediation, revegetation, or stormwater pollution prevention.
In upcoming issues of Erosion Control, LSA members will be presenting topics related to reviving and restoring our precious soil resource. If you are interested in becoming part of the discussion, you are encouraged to contact the author of this article.