Cultural Blindness and Agricultural Practice

Culture is a powerful thing. Here is some earth, laid bare by a plow, in preparation for seeding in the spring. In the past, it has been used to grow tomatoes. This last year, it lay fallow, to recover.

In Canadian culture, this is an image of fruitfulness, taken at the most fruitful time of year. Enjoy it.

The only thing is, it’s not fruitful, it’s dead. Look at how this soil is nothing but congealed clay and sand. Living soil, that things grow in, is a complex environment of fungi, microbes, insects and dead and living plant material. This is just clay and sand.

And it started like this.

 

That’s how powerful culture is.

How The Sun Makes Rich Soil

It’s simply beautiful how it is done. First, water sorts out the finest grains of silt, and deposits them on the surface of low points in the earth, filling them in. Then the sun evaporates the water, and  cracks the silt all crazy like.
Wind and gravity (and birds passing through the seasons) deposit feathers and leaves. The angular effect of the sun on the fluid shape of the silt holds them from drifting.
When the rains come again to the lowest ground, it fills the cracks, softens leaf and feather, and then deposits new silt around them.

They are now mixed in.

The cycle repeats with each season, or each thundercloud.

This is the lightning of the earth.

Beautiful, isn’t it!

What exquisite music.

Battling SCS, the Petroleum-Induced Cancer, in the Okanagan

You know that corn on the cob that tastes so good? No, this is not corn.

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This a farm here in Vernon that grew sweet corn for a few years and now grows wild mustard, and not much of that, because the soil is dead. It’s an illness produced by a soil-depleting monoculture (sweet corn), aggressive tilling, aggressive application of herbicides and aggressive application of petroleum-based fertilizers. The result is forty acres of land that needs about 1000 full dump truck loads of manure to be alive again, but, of course, that much manure is going to add a lot of cow methane to the atmosphere, and there goes global warming. You could say: the image below is the image of global warming.

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And even so, all this manure added to the soil wouldn’t be enough to make it “full of nutrients” or “full or water-retaining organic matter” or any of those good things, although they are important. It would just make it alive. It’s just a start. Here’s some soil:

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A common description of that would be that these fungi are living off of dead organic matter, and breaking it down into nutrients, which plants can use. Huh. Isn’t that a description of science’s own methods, rather than of the following image (grassland soil)?

P2250059 That complexity is complex life. Note, I didn’t say “supports” complex life, because the guys below are part of it.twobucks

How can soil die? Isn’t it dead already? Rock and stuff? No, this is rock:

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This is soil.

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It tends to be a social affair.

P1020086 Very social.

herd It reaches into the air.

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Flies.

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And lands again.

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Fun stuff. Some plants get into that wing thing themselves.

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I mean, if you want to attract things with wings, grow wings, right? It’s what you do in the air, after all. You open. You wing. You stick your head into soil that has turned into pollen.P1010645Of course, you can move through the sky, as the soil, in the open, without wings, but it means you have to have long legs. But do note the ear wings! Makes sense, they’re in the sky, right?

P1030018Or spines, so long-legged soil doesn’t eat you. They make their point.

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Yeah, I know, it’s normal to think of soil as a bunch of grains of rock and decayed organic matter, munched on by microbes and worms and soaked with water, but, really, it’s big stuff. With ears.

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And eyes. It sees you.

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Just because sweet corn is bred to be super sweet, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Just because it stores for a week in a truck on the way to a grocery store doesn’t mean it’s good for us. We’re basically making an image of the petro state. Here’s how that works. You start out with the aerial soil called a grassland…

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… and mumbo jumbo presto magic you get the stuff in the image below. That’s the Sweet Corn Syndrome (SCS).P1010788

Here, let me guide you to what you’re seeing: at the top of the image is a blue bunch wheatgrass grassland reduced to pasture weeds, that’s the first step of conversion of soil to petroleum, c. 1870; in the middle of the image is an apple orchard, grown like corn, the second step, c. 1990-2016; in the foreground is a former apple orchard (grown like an apple orchard) given over to value-added designer petroleum (corn and pumpkins) for a few years (c. 2000-2016), as well as a GMO seed trial (C. 2013-2015) for canola (a form of vegetable petroleum), which involved some heavy herbicide applications to create a buffer zone (the soil version of keeping monkeys in laboratory cages), and which has now been reduced to ground up rock (Petros). It has petered (petrified) out, i.e. it has gone to rock, because the life has been mined from it. The next step is to skip the designer petroleum and just turn the corn into petroleum itself. 45% of the corn grown in Iowa is turned into petroleum, actually, and Iowa is a corn monoculture. If we keep on on that path, we’re going to have cities made out of ground up rock, and a planet (soil) that looks like this:

 

 

P1010718But here’s the deal. Remember that grassland I showed you?

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Yeah, that’s the one. Well, that’s someone’s back porch. On the toe of that slope coming in from the right, you’ll find this:P1030061Last year’s coyote nursery den, with weeds! Not only is it part of the soil and not only does it have a great view, but it’s strategically located. Look again: where the contours of the land lead water, they also bring life to soil, including deer. This is one of their trails. It goes around the front of the den, at a distance of about two metres.

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That’s how you do it when you are part of the soil. You let life come to you.

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It’s that or die.

 

The Earth Has Beautiful Skin

Or at least it should. A few days ago, I showed you what the practice of grazing cattle on grassland slopes has done to the earth. Here’s an image of a destroyed slope.P2240186 And here’s an image of one of the trails they make as they wander back and forth in hunger and boredom.P2240044I love cattle. That’s not the point. The point is that in this climate, the earth has a skin, made up of hundreds of species of life, and it looks like this, sometimes …. P2250059… and sometimes it looks like this …P2250060

…and sometimes like this …

… and even this …

There are hundreds, even thousands, of other local variations, but in all of them the earth has a living skin, which modulates water and gas exchange (it breathes, and not as a metaphor), such as in leaf photoplasts or in human intestines, lungs and other cell membranes, and captures seeds and water, in a process analogous to the molecular captures of the carbon strings of photosynthesis. Seeds here don’t sprout in dust or in mud. They join a living community. This “pasture”…

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… is not a living community. It is dead. On an earth like that, humans start fantasizing about zombies and artificial intelligence. Oh, people, look in a mirror …

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… and see poverty.

The Beautiful Math of Soil

Here’s what I’m talking about.

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Look how the sun and its shadows are interacting with the slopes of this ravine to create wet and dry, cold and warm zones (which alternate with seasons and time of day) to move water (and life) through the soil. If this irregular surface were flattened (the same as if DNA were flattened, or the hydrocarbons of leaves were flattened), the potentiality of such activity would be shifted to some other point of boundary between these forces, at the valley bottom, at the lake shore, at a stream bed, or some point fifty kilometres away, wherever the boundary was. Here’s also what I mean about the beautiful mathematics of soil: P2160057

Notice how the flat, packed surface is impervious to the sun, and retains its snow, while the grassy slopes lose snow quickly. It’s not just about slope. Here’s another reason, grass:

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Each blade of the grass, adept at collecting light for photosynthesis in the summer, can also collect heat, transmit it downwards, concentrate it in the increasingly-dense mound of the grass, and not only melt the snow but deliver its water to the roots of the grass, which soak it up. The surface might be a boundary to visual creatures, like humans, but it is an exploited and manipulated space by the grass: infinitely malleable; a place that can gather sun and water. Here’s a grass that specializes in this surface manipulation more than most, blue bunch wheatgrass:

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She knows the power of resonance effects well. Now, I know, I promised to talk about soil, so let’s not forget that this is not soil:

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That is glacial clay laid down rapidly 10,000 years ago as the glaciers melted away. It has been bared to the air for a decade now, with not even the tiniest weed to show for itself. It’s just ground up mountain. Plants have no use for this stuff. This is soil:

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Here all kinds of “life” have modified their mineral selves by self-replicating and climbing towers and conduits of water tension manipulated by surfaces and the sun, and have create new and far more complex surfaces in the process, concentrating water tension in the same way that the blue bunch wheat grass above concentrated the sun into resonance patterns within their mounds. We could talk for a long time about the complex biological processes involved in this work, and it would be a great pleasure, but it’s joyful to also celebrate the simplicity driving it all: surface. It not only creates this…

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… which can be represented by this…

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… which is grand stuff, or viewed as it is in the material universe (in the same level of beauty and complexity, but using different factors, as read by bodies not cognitive systems)…

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And, let’s remember, that this story of surfaces continues deep underground and that if a cloud passes overhead …

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… the bacteria that make up the soil, breathing the underground atmosphere and the life-giving breath of plant roots, react to it with a complexity equally or exceeding this:

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(x2+y2)2 + (z2+w2)2 + 2b(xz-yw)2+2c(xw+yz)2 = 0

And remember that we all, all of us, have the words for this. There are many of them. Here are three: elk, sumac, and pond.

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It’s not that mathematics can be rendered in presence and dance but that there is presence, and there is dance. They are all extensions of soil.

Living Soil

Here’s some soil:

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It’s a series of shelters, which capture water, minerals and heat, and amplify the conditions for light and seed germination, in the warm area in the first millimetres above the earth’s surface.Yes, I know, this isn’t “soil” as the dictionary defines it:

The top layer of the earth’s surface in which plants can grow, consisting of rock and mineral particles mixed with decayed organic matter and having the capability of retaining water.

But look at this:

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That image of moss fulfills this definition of soil (the 5th of five in online dictionaries):

 place or condition favourable to growth; a breeding ground.

Such a breeding ground can become complex:

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That’s definitely soil, and is full of life. It’s also a growing surface. The common definition looks like the corn (and tomato) field below:

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Note the chopped up cornstalks, and the chopped up and shredded plastic sheeting, designed to heat this ground up to achieve a similar effect to the one the mound of moss in the image below does on its own.

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Mounds have been shown to dramatically raise the temperature of their environments and are the chosen form of plants in extreme environments. Notice how the mound above has a fellow traveller, a sprouted flowering plant putting out its first leaves. The flat, warm surface of the earth has been amplified, and in this heat, with the water that is trapped in the moss, like this water caught between these pine needles, …

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… the plant has many basic needs fulfilled. Rather than flowing away, the water is held by the tension between two surfaces, at which point its own surface tension, amplified by the support of the surfaces around it, is stronger than gravity.

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The “agricultural soil” that is “the top surface of the earth” is doing no more: the soil has one surface, but beneath that surface all the grains of mineral of which it is formed amplify that surface area many millions of times, and allow that water to bind and defy gravity. It makes a web not that dissimilar from the multi-year complex of this stag horn sumac:

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Plants pick it up from there. Above ground, none of that is visible. It looks like “soil” is a magical mineral and compost mix, not that that is a clumsy approximation of a complex life-giving environment.

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This subterranean story is not much different from the moss story except that the agricultural version of this soil is a simplified, manufactured material. Plant growth is chopped up and tilled into a mineral substrate, along with its plastic heating technology; simple bacterial and fungal growth, feeding off of the petroleum-based fertilizer which has provided nitrogen, essential for plant growth (and otherwise obtainable from the atmosphere, at least in complex living environments) decays that material into water-absorbing cellulose filaments and releases trace minerals, which another generation of plants can use. It’s an intervention.

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It’s not pretty, though, and it’s a very simplified system that, without the application of nitrogen fertilizers or industrially-grown and sown seeds, produces only simplified weed cultures, of little value to anyone.

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It is a new age of the earth. No-one knows what these weed ecologies are doing, because no-one is watching them. Certainly, they are building soil, and that is most true, but what, then is soil? The manufactured, mulch product, such as this desert landscape with unpicked tomatoes?

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No, it’s far more. It is recreating life. Here’s a clue, from the shade under an old sagebrush plant on the hill.

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Soil is a complex environment of fungi and bacteria and other microorganisms. They are the living things that cluster around the roots of plants like these blue bunch wheat grasses…

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… or around the roots of larger plants like this robin-rich cottonwood …

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… and recreate the living soil surface in the complex weather patterns of the underground atmosphere. Yes, there is one. When the air content of soil goes below a certain threshold, through either compaction or water saturation, everything dies. Air is key. After all, these plants couldn’t tolerate drowning.

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Neither can their sisters underground. The atmosphere above the soil is turbulent. In it, water is released from saturation into precipitation and is taken back up again to balance the pressure of the air.

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It’s the same underground, except there the process is expressed through the work of up to 1,000 different species per cubic metre of grassland soil; there, water, clinging to the mineral particles of the soil, attracts minerals, extracted not from the clouds by the sun and the cold, but extracted by microorganisms, and passed onto plant roots, which provide them with oxygen, which they breathe out. The large cousins of these microorganisms on the surface are doing this work, too. There we call it photosynthesis.

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Each leaf is the earth. The earth is a leaf. Soil is not mineral. It is a living process of breath, as is the way leaves breathe the sun and the air and make stone move and bloom.

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~

Next: more on the relationship between photosynthesis, soil atmosphere, plants and the sky.

Soil and Water: Children of the Stars

Within a slope constructed at the angle of gravity, that’s to say at the angle that is the balance between the earth’s spin and the concentration of that spin at it’s core, water flows downhill at a rate balanced to the evaporative potential of the air above it, and the plants (in this case bunchgrass) that represent it (and mine it). When these lines of energy are cut, such as by the Grey Canal (now a walking path) in the centre of the image below, the balance is changed, water pools, and wetland life colonizes it. The seeds drifting on the wind that created the cat tails below are blowing everywhere through the valley. They materialize as a new wetland only when there is a wetland to materialize in, which is dependent on alterations to the balance of pressures between the atmosphere and gravity. The Earth is a child of the stars, and we can harvest their energy, should we watch and pay attention. Soil is the story of this balance. So is life.

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Tomorrow: the beauty of surfaces within the story of soil.

Gravity Pools

Soil.

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Not soil.

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9 years, nothing growing yet.

Soil

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Not soil.
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Nothing even germinates here.

Soil.

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You find soil where water pools. (Rocks, too.)

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It is life — a gravitational effect that manifests itself at boundaries.

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Mineral earth is just mineral earth. A good place for bees to burrow.

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Very small bees.

Plants prefer even rocks over that stuff.

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The life that grows in mineral earth is growing in the soil within the earth, not the earth.

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Plants, after all, came from the sea. They know about stuff like this. Gravity pools, a form of dry land tidal pool, help. Below is a pool of green water in a deer’s footprint (centre left).

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Here’s a gravity pool collecting rain within a stone.

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Here’s one flowing, as water will.

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Plants root in life like this. Dirt is just an environment of ground up mountains that allows soil, a kind of living weather, to form, if the conditions are right.

 

The Difference Between Earth, Soil and Dirt

Rock falls are earth.
frostmoss They power complex communities. Beautifully.frostmoss2 They speak of gravity and sun and air, and bring them to life.
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Soil is what water leaves.

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Dirt is tillage.

It is time to learn to work with the Earth.

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Beautifully.

Three Ways to Make Soil

One: You will need a poplar tree to drop yellow leaves on the ground. Leave them. Let it rain, freeze, thaw and snow in intervals. Two months later, drop one green leaf on top. Wait.

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Two: You will need a fir needle. Many fir needles. And some sand. See if you can borrow a road. Let it rain. Lots. On a gentle slope of hill, the soil will gather itself.

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Three: Cheat. No soil required. This is the way of rock and grasslands. Lichen and moss extract minerals from rock. Seeds that fall into the spaces between stalks of moss find water, warmth, shelter, dust that blows in from the stars, and those dissolved minerals — everything that soil can do.

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Soil is not rock. It is alive. I hope you make some today!