Several weeks ago you started your American tour in California. Did you see "artificial nature" there, too?
It was really a shock for me to see the degenerate condition of California. Ever since the Spanish introduced their grazing cows and sheep, along with such annual pasture grasses as foxtail and wild oats, the native grasses have been all but eliminated. In addition, the ground water there has been overdrawn for agriculture, and huge dams and irrigation projects have interrupted the natural circulation of surface water. Forests have been logged heavily and carelessly, causing soil erosion and damage to streams and fish populations. As a result of all this, the land is becoming more and more arid. It's a dreadful situation . . . because of human intervention, the desert is creeping across the state, but no one will admit it.
I've spent much of 2015 reading, going to conferences, meeting people, and finishing two permaculture design courses. Redesigning a garden and small nursery this year have also kept me busy. Amidst all of this and the sometimes unexpected paths life can take one on I have thought much about the things that make it possible to grow the best tasting and healthiest food. In the kitchen it is intuitive for me most of the time. I know what to do to get the flavors I am looking for. The first flavor though is that of the raw ingredient. I've now tasted enough great food in my time as a cook to know when food grown in the best soils hits my taste buds. If I use the analogy of the kitchen for the farm, we are dealing with a very complicated recipe. In this Year of Soil as declared by the United Nations, we look to one of the most important parts of that list of ingredients, what the French call "fond de cuisine, the foundation or base. In the truest sense of the phrase, soil really is the basis for all of the characteristics of the foods we eat, whether it's flavor, aesthetics, or nutrients. Good soil, not dirt, is what maintains healthy plants and ecosystems. Unfortunately, we have come to farm in a way that extracts the very resource that we depend on for our survival and healthy, delicious food.
Under the MicroscopeSoil science is still relatively young and we are now only beginning to understand a fraction of the numerous organisms that make up our soils. In a teaspoon of healthy soil, bacteria alone easily number in the hundreds of millions(see the work of Elaine Ingham). Many of them have yet to even be identified. Still, when we look at healthy forest and grassland soils we can see deep root systems that are its building blocks. The constant cycle of life dying out and being born is what makes good soil and healthy plants. Degraded soil takes a long time to return to a state where it can hold 10 times its weight in water without human intervention. Our interaction with our land and soil is not nurturing, it is degrading. The landscapes have been so drastically altered we have not only affected the hydrological cycle, we have affected the soil's ability to stay hydrated during times of drought. It is two major catastrophes happening at the same time. These are the reasons why we are facing unprecedented drought and fire in our lifetimes.
Looking Back to Native Knowledge
When the Spanish arrived in the 1800's to California what they saw and recorded was a veritable paradise. The Central Valley was full of wetlands. Millions of Tule elk and antelope roamed there. Beavers and otters were plentiful in the rivers up and down the coast. Wildflowers carpeted the meadows. The scenes described are almost hard to believe. The Europeans saw their definition of wilderness: a wild untamed land that was ripe for cultivation. This was the beginning of the destruction and degradation of one of the most beautiful places on our planet. What they did not see were the reasons behind all the beauty. At the time anywhere from 500,000 or more native Americans were managing these landscapes. When we think of taking care of our soil and gardens we usually think of compost, fertilizers, and tilling. Our traditional concepts of agriculture were unknown to the natives. While they did practice seed gathering, pruning, coppicing, and planting it was within the scope of forest and meadow ecosystems. There was intimate knowledge of what plants grew where, how to harvest, how much, and when, that was passed down from generation to generation. Native Americans have no word for wilderness. They were constantly interacting with their environment, observing it and manipulating it to create the optimal environments for abundance. Prescribed burning was one of the most important management techniques of Native Americans. They burned grasses and woody plants to get straight material the following spring for basketry, weapons, and utensils. It also accomplished the germination of food for animals with seeds that were fire sensitive as well as holding back the growth of forest into open spaces for hunting. It had the added benefit of building soil by partially killing off roots. These fires are low intensity and trigger the plants to send up new shoots that are conditioned to a fire ecology. Our policy over the past two hundred years has been one of leaving the forest as "wilderness". Whereas the natives burned regularly and managed the excess fuel in the forests, we now have an immense fuel load as the result of our hands off policy that is creating scorched earth wherever fires occur.
|On the edge of the 2013 Rim Fire outside of Yosemite, a burned pine weaves it's way through oaks|
Interaction as Protection and The Bout of the Century over Park Land
Our parks and wild lands require us to interact and care for them. This idea of tending is the opposite of the exploit vs. hands off relationship of our past. Indigenous peoples were able to strike this difficult balance between nature and culture. Conservation biologist Edward Grumbine once said,
"Biological diversity will not be sustained if new ways of managing nature do not also transfom how we experience our place in nature, how we manage ourselves."
Several weeks ago I attended a hearing on the Oakland Zoo expansion into one of our local parks. The plan for the expansion involves cutting down 50 oak trees, some of which are more than 50 years old. The park is essentially an oak savanna ecosystem that is habitat for many animals as well as plants. It deeply disturbed me to see how easy it has been for this project to begin. If a zoo's mission is about preservation of species then surely the irony of destroying habitat is not lost on the city planners. What I see here is as much a problem of vision as anything else. Whatever monetary motivations there are for developing the land, it is partly driven by their supposed goal of education. The sad part is the educational opportunity for restoring the park is far greater than anything one can build by degrading it. This is the type of thinking we seek to change as we ease our way into a new generation of ecologically minded young people. Bringing children into the park to interact, learn, and get their hands dirty is the ideal education. They have a chance to understand the history of the place they live that has as much value and biological diversity as anywhere else on the planet.
If we are to restore our native ecologies and actively participate in their care we will need more education for the public. Policies are more likely to change through public opinion and not with government action--see Governor Brown's signing of the euthanasia bill. I believe education starts with interaction. Getting citizens and students out to interact with nature, to recognize they are part of the ecosystem and not separate from it, is a most critical step for us to take in repairing the damage that has occurred. In the end technology will not solve the problems we've created. Only human observation and thoughtful action will.
For more in-depth information on fire ecology in California check out Erik Ohlsen's blog at Permaculture Skills Center