Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ethics and Ecosystem Interactions: Why Reconciliation Ecology Matters

The problem with ecosystem interactions
Here’s a phrase that’s lately been haunting me: “the extinction of ecosystem interactions.” I first encountered it in science writer Connie Barlow’s fascinating book, The Ghosts of Evolution, which is about the plants, mainly trees, that have lingered into modern times even though the megafauna with which they were co-evolved, that ate their fruits and dispersed their seeds, have gone extinct. Of the several reasons the animals disappeared, a major one has everything to do with our species’ penchant for using a resource until there is nothing left. Thus, when you look at, say, an Osage orange tree, with its large, inedible, multi-seeded fruits, or savor the delicious flesh of an avocado (while not eating the insanely large, poisonous seed contained within), you are summoning the ghosts of the elephant-like gomphotheres and others that once roamed the Americas.

This is an excellent example of the extinction of ecosystem interactions. Once the animals disappeared, so too did the relationships and their attending interactions, leaving the plants hard put to survive into the present day. How and why they did so is a long, convoluted story best told by Barlow. The phrase itself comes from a short article, published in 1977 by pioneering ecologist Dan Janzen, called “The Deflowering of Central America,” in which he traces the relationship of a particular bee species with a certain species of flowering plant, and describes what happens when that relationship is interrupted by over-disturbance of the human kind.

When we think about species extinction, we often think about individual, usually charismatic species such as honeybees, monarch butterflies, eagles, wolves or polar bears, or plants such as giant sequoias. However, individual species of plants and animals do not exist in a vacuum. They live as participants in a four-dimensional structure of relationships, dependencies, limiting factors, physical environment, weather, and multiple stocks and flows that includes all the other living beings who also exist in this same web. For example, plants have flowers so they’ll attract pollinators, who forage among the flowers for food in order to raise their young so that the whole cycle can perpetuate itself. And some pollinators such as monarch butterflies are so exquisitely adapted that their young can only grow and thrive on the pollen and nectar of certain plants. Plants also produce fruits and seeds, and, if not wind-dispersed, rely on animals to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds, though the animals, of course, are looking for tasty food. Then there are the soil critters with whom the plants interact (the biological system of the soil), and the predators that hunt the herbivores, and on and on in the dizzying complex web of interactions that makes a healthy, dynamically balanced ecosystem.

It is this web of interactions that can get thrown seriously out of whack through destructive human disturbance, which, as we can’t avoid knowing, is happening on a planetary scale.  Human overpopulation is a major factor. Urban overdevelopment on the one hand, and, on the other, desertification caused by overgrazing and unsustainable farming practices that include overuse of groundwater are perfect instances of what I’m talking about.  So is clear cutting forest, and in a very extreme example, the nearly complete replacement of thriving, complex ecosystems such as the oak savannas and prairies of the Midwest or parts of the tropical rainforests of Brazil with industrial corn and soy production. In these latter cases, the destruction of interactions extends as far as killing off a thriving soil biome and polluting streams and rivers.

Even in less extreme cases such as when land is cleared for a school, shopping mall or housing development, the native plants get cleared away, native bees and other insect pollinators, predators and herbivores subsequently decline through lack of food and habitat to enable good reproduction, which leads to further plant declines for lack of pollination. When the insects and the seeds and berries produced by native plants decline, so do the songbirds that depend on them, as do the raptors that hunt the songbirds.  The same pattern goes for all the other life of the ecosystem: mammals large and small, amphibians and other reptiles, and the myriad life of the soil. When birds and other dispersers decline, plants further decline, and so on in a downward spiral of impoverishment until--in my part of the world-- the prairie, savanna or woodland becomes a shadow of its former self. If enough of these interactions go extinct, the ecosystem, which by definition is a complex adaptive system, will, owing to positive feedback loops, slide into a less complex state, with a cascade of negative effects for all other species in the system, including further extinction of species. The word for these kinds of sad landscapes is depauperate: they are poor, impoverished and devoid of the richness and biodiversity that should be there by rights.

All of this is a long-winded way of getting around to what I want to discuss, which is the importance of the protection and restoration of ecosystem interactions in human dominated landscapes and how reconciliation ecology can help us do so. The question is not just how we can save any particular good-looking species such as monarchs. Beyond that lies the bigger question: What can we can do to encourage complex ecological interactions, and do it on a large enough scale, quickly enough, thus saving monarchs, and all kinds of other species (some of which we haven’t even discovered yet), as well?

This is an altogether more interesting, difficult question. It is also more fraught: with danger, difficulty, and potential failure. Yet only by attempting to answer and act on this question in a given place—and indeed the answer is worked out through the action—can we, ourselves, find a home within nature, and help ensure that all kinds of ecosystems—and ultimately the planet—will be not only a suitable habitat for these others, but also for us. The question is fundamentally practical because answering it could go a long way towards helping solve many global environmental problems such as climate change and the need for carbon sequestration.  Yet it is deeply ethical and spiritual as well. Discovering answers and appropriate actions requires a shift in thinking, a redefinition of humanity’s proper role vis a vis the biosphere as well as a shift in ethics, religious doctrine and spiritual practice. In the long run, the complex definition of what it means to be human may shift and change, as well.

What is reconciliation ecology and how can it help?
As formulated by Michael J. Rosenzweig in 2003, reconciliation ecology is “the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play." Implied is an ethos demonstrated through action that has the potential to help us move beyond our current, cruel dilemma of how to live on the earth without wrecking it. Like ecological restoration does at the landscape level, it does not focus specifically on saving one or another particular species. When most effective, reconciliation ecology helps a given piece of land recover the myriad functions and interactions that enable it and all its denizens to thrive, yet does not post “keep out” signs for humans. Importantly, unlike conservation or preservation, which focus on reserving landscapes specifically for non-human species, reconciliation ecology also encompasses the work of reconfiguring overly human-dominated landscapes to make room for other species. It enables humans to take our rightful place as caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the earth.

The thing about natural systems is that they need a lot of space. In ecology, the species-area curve suggests that the larger the area, the more biodiversity can be supported. Thus, in general, islands have less biodiversity than continents. By extension, in a fragmented landscape of nature reserves surrounded by human development the reserves function like islands. Species go extinct and ecosystem interactions wink out when there is not enough habitat and contiguous landmass to sustain enough different species of plants and animals so they’re able to reproduce well enough to keep populations at a healthy size. While nature reserves are of the utmost importance, no matter how we increase their size and extent, they are not by themselves enough to provide for real habitat needs, even if connected by corridors. We can see this clearly in the case of bee and butterfly declines in the US. Yes, pesticides and disease take a deadly toll; but it is also simple lack of habitat—of large areas with huge numbers of diverse flowers that allow for healthy ecosystem interactions—that is a major factor in the struggles pollinators face in maintaining viable populations.

E.O. Wilson has recently proposed that we should give over to nature half of the earth by creating vast reserves on land and sea. This statement could bring to mind the old human culture/nature dichotomy so prominent in Western thought, including the either/or binary thinking and non-holistic problem solving that has so often and still continues to result in incomplete solutions that in turn generate further problems. This type of thinking gave us the now generally discredited idea that there is a bright line of demarcation (perhaps symbolized by a fence) separating humans and human culture from the rest of earth’s species. One might fearfully imagine the human population huddled in crowded cities, sequestered from vast areas where we are not allowed. This is clearly not Wilson’s intent, however. One of his models is places such as Area de Conservaci√≥n Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica, where Dan Janzen and his wife Winnie Hallwachs have, with local people, developed a model of conservation and restoration that includes livelihoods for residents.

One way I like to think of sharing the earth is to picture a continuum, with outright wilderness on one end and completely human-dominated areas, e.g. over-developed urban centers or industrial zones such as the tar sands mining areas on the other. These are extremes. It is desirable—and necessary—to greatly enlarge protected wilderness zones and to restore as many natural areas as possible, while sharply decreasing the size and impact of anthropogenic sites— and completely eliminating the most egregious. But in-between there is a huge amount of territory that is and will remain mostly human-impacted but livable. Here lie plenty of opportunities for reconciliation ecology at every scale.

Living the good life in the middle landscape
In the US, at least, much of our landscape is what could be considered what literary critic Leo Marx described as a “middle landscape” that blends human culture and nature—admittedly, often disastrously at the moment, but where we also have the most obvious chance to do better. This middle landscape, as discussed by Marx and others subsequently, encompasses towns, suburbs, farms and even nature preserves in a human-managed patchwork. This is the type of landscape within which Thoreau resided and wrote so productively about nature, as did both Aldo Leopold, when he moved back to the Midwest after years out west in wilderness areas and May Watts, who lived in Chicago and whose writings celebrated and defended close-by natural areas. It is where my colleagues and I do our own ecological restoration and management work in Chicago-area forest preserves and where I do my native plant gardening at in my backyard.  Most Americans may never hike in the Rockies or, conversely, visit the tar sands desolation. But most of us do reside in some version of the middle landscape. Here is where most ecological restoration via the practice of reconciliation ecology must and can be done—at home.

I like to think of reconciliation ecology as the umbrella term for all the ways that people are learning to live and work while making room for nature and biodiversity. The list is long and encompasses multiple, overlapping disciplines: ecological restoration and rehabilitation, carbon farming and ranching, organic farming, agroecology, agroforestry and permaculture, among others that involve working on the land hewing closely to natural processes and cycles, while looking to increase biodiversity.  Urban planners, architects, landscape architects and designers who are incorporating green infrastructure, green corridors and other resilient features into their designs must also be included, as well as native plant and bird gardeners, regenerative gardeners and myriad others.

It all adds up. The fact that my next-door neighbor and I garden with native plants in our backyards might not be enough to help increase ecosystem interactions in our town. But the fact that over the last five to ten years hundreds of people in the same town have begun to engage in some form of native plant gardening, along with local schools and parks, means that for many species of animals, especially birds and insects, there is increased habitat richness and abundance, leading to the chance for increased complexity of ecological interactions and hence, a stronger ecosystem. Meanwhile, backyard carbon sequestration is going on, the air is a little less polluted, the soil is healthier, and rainwater more easily absorbed. And, these gardens form a link or corridor with the forest preserves, helping to expand habitat a little further—important not only for resident birds but for all the migrating warblers and other birds that pass through spring and fall. In this way, we local gardeners are contributing to improved ecosystem interactions at a continental, even a hemispheric level.

The kind of earth-centered ethos and practice I am talking about recognizes that, while human beliefs and actions help “bring the world into being,” a foundational teaching in some indigenous belief and ceremonial systems, our species is, as is becoming increasingly clear, not the boss of nature, even though we bear responsibility as caretakers. Nature gives us great gifts: life itself, for example, and the wherewithal to create societies and enduring civilizations. We might ask ourselves what we owe in return, and how we can reestablish a relationship of reciprocity. We indeed are not “as gods so we might as well get good at it,” as the Whole Earth Catalog famously proclaimed in 1968 and some neo-environmentalists seem lately to have taken for a motto, particularly those in favor of techno-fixes for ecological problems.

This is not at all to dismiss science or technology; I thoroughly understand the roles both will have to play as we work to help ecosystems recover their natural functioning. But, as Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out, also in the 1960’s, we must mature past “cowboy” ideas about living on earth. Hard limits mean we do not actually have the freedom to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, with no planetary consequences. Many people are still resisting if not outright denying this truth. However, ever-increasing numbers of people have embraced an idea of reciprocity, even if not fully articulated, from those risking their lives in environmental struggles in Honduras to affluent Midwest suburbanites who have stopped using pesticides, let their lawns get a little less “pristine,” and begun to plant milkweeds for the monarchs.

They all have recognized in some way and have expressed through their actions that it is time, past time, to once again take up our sacred role and responsibility of tending to the earth, whoever and wherever we are. This goes double for those of us who are not of indigenous cultures. In this light, reconciliation ecology might be seen as a religious project, for, as Chicago-based William Jordon (who coined the term “restoration ecology” in the 1980’s) writes, “religion is the art and discipline of dealing with the problems of relationship at the psychological and spiritual levels.” I recognize that some of those most committed to ecological restoration and reconciliation ecology would be the last people to speak in overtly spiritual, much less religious terms. Yet there it is. If we work faithfully and patiently to aid wild nature, we just might avoid mass extinction while helping mitigate climate change and making up for grievous mistakes we have made and continue to make. 

I am not advocating a return to a hunter-gathering way of life, or, again, getting rid of science, nor the scientific method; nor am I advocating romantic pie-in-the-sky solutions that ignore the very real, implacable natural processes that can be so destructive to human kind. Nature is not our cuddly Disney friend, and much restoration work is hard, dirty and can involve sheer drudgery; I say this from experience. But I do believe that unless the spiritual, ethical and moral elements are reincorporated into our relations with nature, we will not get very far in our efforts against climate change, pollution or any other environmental problems we face.

Can reconciliation ecology, along with conservation and ecological restoration, return continental ecosystems to how they were before European settlement (in the US), a rule of thumb standard for many in the ecological restoration community? No, not likely. For one thing, time and change only move forward. As Heraclitus pointed out, a person cannot ever step twice into the same river because the water flows and the person changes.  So it is with landscapes: they can only ever evolve into something new. Physical conditions change, the people and other species inhabiting them are different, human culture is different and myriad new (and some destructively invasive) species have made their homes across the country. We must beware the false dream that there is some past, edenic golden age to which we might return, if only such and such conditions were met. (Also, as a reminder, in many places, pre-European landscapes were not unpeopled wilderness. The land was managed in ways to increase overall productivity; management was part of and requisite to material culture and spiritual belief systems.)

Physical conditions in the past were not those of today, and true to the nature of history, we can’t ever fully know what they were. Even if we had access to a wayback machine, the complexity would be too great for us to recreate. Even in the present we can’t know all the interactions in a given ecosystem, or for that matter, whether we are truly restoring or instead helping create something new. As Jordan has written, there are always “Humpty Dumpties,” or ecosystem features that may have contributed to the structure and ecological functioning of a given place that cannot ever happen again, preventing the landscape we are restoring from exactly entering its historical arc. The mere fact of taking on such a project in the present by modern people would guarantee that such a recreation would be inexact. However, though we can’t know all the interactions we are trying to restore, it is still possible to get things going again and build up to some kind of critical mass so that the web of relationships begins to recomplexify on its own.

The upshot is that if we carry on restoration and management projects, large and small, and make plenty of room for wild nature, as E.O. Wilson suggests, there is hope that continental ecosystems can recover into a new state of health. But much would have to change.

Where are we going? How will we get there?
 Based on the evidence of climate change, resource depletion and species extinction, it is clear that many of our currently accepted, conventional ways of life and means of solving problems based on the model of “progress” aren’t good enough anymore because they fail to take the biosphere enough into account. To truly “return,” or recreate something even approximating pre-European conditions, in which there could be expansive enough habitat to maintain good enough biodiversity so as to least slow species extinction to normal ranges, while also increasing resilience and helping to sequester carbon and slow climate change, the US population would have to stabilize and ultimately shrink. In the meantime our society would have to evolve, hopefully by choice, but also perforce, into something so radically different from its present state as possibly to become nearly unrecognizable to many people alive today. Yet this new, biocentric or ecocentric civilization and resulting land use might also be unrecognizable to historic native peoples, though based on similar cultural deep structures of relationship with the natural world as those societies had and their descendants continue to have.

In such a society many of our accepted conventions would be turned on their heads and categories that are clear-cut to us would become permeable and would blur and change. I find it easy to imagine the landscapes, and harder to imagine the embedded society. Cities might become biodiversity hubs interlaced with green infrastructure, farms and wide green corridors that would connect large natural areas outside their limits, while in the meantime farms and ranches might not be easily to distinguish from the surrounding “wild” countryside. Large parts of the country would be off-limits to development and would be places dangerous for the unwary owing to a proliferation not only of herds of herbivores, but of the large carnivores on which ecosystems depend for their health. There might be fewer roads, and those that remained would have wide overpasses designed for free wildlife movement. There might be new religions, and traditional ones might become more ecocentric. Perhaps the old versions that focus on reaching for the sky at the expense of life on earth would come to be considered immature. The nature of work might change in unforeseen ways. Children would be trained in systems thinking and would grow up with a working knowledge of ecology in general and ecosystem knowledge specific to their place. Materialism might decline. With restrictions on resource use across the board, and particularly fossil fuels, material wealth would certainly decline, and life would be less “convenient” and harder, possibly much harder, measured by modern American expectations. There would be no such thing as “disposable” anything, dwelling spaces would be smaller, travel more difficult.

Such is the logic of truly low-carbon, ecosystem-sensitive living, which requires an ethic of modesty and restraint, the practice of living within the constraints of community and a willingness to attune human ambition, societal expectations and mores to what a balanced ecosystem permits. I do not in the least think I am indulging in “ecotopian” thinking. Human nature wouldn’t change and people in general would not suddenly become wiser and more wonderful than they are today. I suspect that many Americans, if deposited suddenly in this kind of society, would not find it to their liking. Yet I also suspect there might be satisfactions of a different kind than we are mostly accustomed to.

Related Posts: 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

On Pretending That What’s Happening Isn’t Actually Happening

Deep Winter Ruminations
"Unbelievable Winter Color" by Albert H. Krehbiel
Des Plaines River, 1928

In December I found myself sliding into a state of extreme unwillingness to take on new projects, to continue work on those in hand, to write, or do much of anything else, really, at work or at home. I found myself prodded awake in the night by worries about global warming, the tides of war and migration, the ramifications of random, dismal environmental facts come upon during the course of a day’s work, or of social justice problems encountered in the news and on the streets of Chicago; about any of which I can do very little to help. There were too many meetings with environmental groups, and no time for walks. I could not look at a tree without wondering how its species would fare in coming, climate disrupted years. I had reached a state of incipient burnout. 

Thus, for a few weeks--a month and more, actually--after the solstice, I went into a state of semi-retreat. I did this by allowing myself to hope that COP21 would help bend the climate curve, and by pretending that our ongoing environmental catastrophe, of which climate change, is, after all, only a pernicious, deadly symptom, isn’t happening. I also attempted to pay less attention to the ever increasing spate of bad news, from war, to race relations, to migration, to the grim presidential race—and on and on and on, much of which is at least partly related to said catastrophe, with some industrial civilizational collapse, resource depletion and overpopulation thrown in.

I cooked and baked; had family over for meals; helped my mother with projects; visited with my children; went to a party; accompanied my husband to concerts that featured unamplified voices and acoustical instruments; saw friends; wandered through art exhibits; cleaned out a closet; finished one crochet project and started another; and read books whose vocabularies did not include the words “ecology,” “habitat”, or “ecosystem.” I went so far as to go to a movie, watch a TV show, spend time on Facebook and make an effort to listen to people talk about football without wishing I were somewhere else. Most of these things I’d do anyway, but the difference was that I determinedly wasn’t thinking about ecological collapse and the need for ecological restoration all the while earnestly pretending I was too busy to take a walk through the cold, leafless woodland savannah along the gelid Des Plaines river near my home.

In short, I made an effort—attitudinally, at least—to live what I imagine to be “normal” life: at least as an educated, white, fairly-comfortably-situated American might, and as many people I know seem actually to live. So many are so deeply immersed in their private lives and, whether by press of circumstance or by willful turning away and emotional dissociation, manage to express concern but are too busy to do much about larger issues at hand, not to mention attempting to recognize and ameliorate their own complicity in same. We Americans are very busy.

It couldn’t be a full retreat: my day job requires ongoing understanding of, engagement with, and action regarding environmental and sustainability issues ranging from climate change to ecology, from transportation to recycling, with some energy thrown in. My day-to-day lifestyle continues in semi-collapsed mode, as in John Michael Greer’s half ironic, half serious slogan “collapse now and avoid the rush.” Various family responsibilities (and finances) preclude my hying myself off to some Benedictine monastery, Zen-flavored spa in beautiful scenery, or rural artist’s retreat. But I told myself the story that I could, for awhile, at least, stop paying attention to the matters that concern my relationship with those whom the Potawatomi language calls “the standing people” and all their friends and relations. For a while, at any rate, I could turn away from concern with Gaia. I told myself that this would somehow make me feel better. I stayed indoors. Kept my walking confined to neighborhood sidewalks. It should have been very easy.

Everything about American life is geared towards this kind of pretense. It’s so easy, when online, to choose to spend hours down the rabbit hole of surfing, shopping, reading feature articles about fashion, health, exercise, or what have you, not to mention politics. It’s so easy to get obsessed with handbags or shoes or celebrities, watch sports on TV, movies on Netflix, so easy to get in the car and drive somewhere instead of taking public transit, walking or biking, easier still that it’s winter. It’s so easy to buy packaged food, to imagine that organizing and decorating your house will transform your life—and give you more room to buy more things!—so easy to go out to eat, so easy to “be concerned” about the environment, but keep your own house warm enough to wear a short-sleeve t-shirt when it’s 10 degrees (F) outside, or fly, without thinking about it, somewhere for business or pleasure. It’s so easy to separate one’s professional life—no matter how “do goody,” from one’s personal life of comfort and consumption. It’s so easy to live a life separate from the natural world and thus from its concerns. Yeah, global warming is terrible, have you joined Amazon Prime?

(It is also incredibly easy to be judgmental about all of the above, as though one were not, oneself, present and participating in American culture, one way or another.)

To not do those easy things, to avoid falling into those easy habits takes a certain kind of discipline. In here somewhere also is a question of balance. How is one to balance family, work and calling? How does one stay dedicated to one’s calling and still keep friendly relationships with family, friends and colleagues who mostly don’t think about trees, rivers or birds? Who mostly think, in fact, that paying attention, spending time outside at the expense of more practical matters is somehow self indulgent or evading responsibilities? How does one do what one can do without burning out? How does one carry out a spiritually and practically earthcentered way of life while living in an American and global culture—in which we all are embedded, willy-nilly, no matter how disengaged—dedicated to ignoring the true environmental costs of the ways in which it keeps itself going? How much of one’s own “private” life does one sacrifice? How much do one person’s actions count, anyway? What constitutes private life? How on earth does one keep up good relations with Gaia and the standing people?

I understand I can ask these questions because, as an employed member of the shrinking middle class in the US, on a global scale I am incredibly privileged. I can choose how high to turn up the heat, have enough nutritious food to eat and can go to sleep at night without worrying that my neighborhood will be lit up by gunfire and/or cratered by bombs. There is enough water and it is more-or-less safe to drink. I can decide to pretend everything is ok and maintain the illusion pretty steadily. But for me, this pretense of living the good life doesn’t work. Most available electronic entertainments and on-offer material appeasements to our craving—for what, exactly?— get tedious and do nothing to calm the underlying nature-and-environment-related, deep structural anxieties that I believe infect our culture like a disease, disturbing even the most willfully dense, even the richest and most powerful among us.

Besides the distractions of entertainment, there are other ways of displacing, rather than attending to this often unacknowledged anxiety; there are, for example, the high abstractions of ideology, and, regrettably often, the run-of-the-mill blaming of those of another religion, color, political party, nationality, or what have you for whatever social problems there are. This is not to say that politics don't matter, that discrimination and poverty don’t need to be ameliorated, because obviously they do: societal injustice and inequality are terribly real; destructive things happen, terribly, in the name of one social worldview or another. Rather it is to say that ideological thought often confuses an abstract model for the messy reality of complex systems, in its believers, at any rate, and often results in an effort to make the messy reality match the beautiful abstraction to often brutal results. Ideologies thus become a distraction from, and symptom of, our separation from the natural world and, crucially, because of that separation, from the truly existential environmental problems that do already or soon will afflict us all. Even more crucially, they can separate us from the possibility of developing regenerative ways of life. From this perspective, one could even say that the most extreme and violent ideologies, religious or not, are fueled by the most extreme refusal to see what the real, actual problems are, much less grapple with them in constructive ways that would benefit people, other species, and the biosphere as a whole. There is no lack of examples, but no point in naming them.

I haven't yet worked out an answer to my own dilemmas and possibly never will. I have started to read natural history again and a few days ago spent time outdoors. Alone, loafing about, as Thoreau or Whitman might put it, though never out of earshot of traffic noise. In the morning light early groups of sandhill cranes made their way north in that raggedy, glittering way they have. Later, two red tailed hawks circled over woods and fields in ever widening, ascending spirals. A chickadee called. I ate lunch sitting on a log in a sunny space. I walked along a muddy path, collecting dark goo on my boots, appreciating the soft, non-concrete feel of it. Sunlight shone on the smooth ripples and white-capped riffles of a noisy creek littered with boulders left by the last glacier. The bare trees were every imaginable, glowing shade of brown. Flat, shelflike fungi gleamed on fallen, crumbling logs. Two cardinals sat on a branch overhanging the water, watching me approach for a while before deciding to change trees. Unseen woodpeckers announced the news that a human was in the vicinity. Before returning home, I picked up a couple of spherical seed clusters from beneath a sycamore tree and a few clean, white and black mussel shells from a miniature sand spit. The shells will stay in my jacket pocket for awhile, as reminders. Some time this spring I expect I’ll be watching a clutch of baby sycamores unfurl their new leaves in a nursery flat. I’m looking forward to it.

Related Posts:
Summer Notes: Birds, Pollinators, and Prairie Flowers Over Six Feet Tall
Spring Notes: Plants, Birds, and Bumblebees
Ecological Reality Is Not What You Hypothesize

Monday, December 14, 2015

Why Osage-Orange Trees? Why Here? Why Now?

Maclura pomifera, an excellent hedging tree
In Which Some Planting Gets Done, with Hope 

Part of an ongoing series about the post-modern hedgerow and its uses in the landscape. 

Under a gray October sky, with a stiff prairie breeze coming from the south and west, six people were planting little saplings along the line that divides our Quaker-owned property from an expansive field to the west. A farming friend, also a Quaker, who lives down the road and helps care for the property, walked over, smiling under his baseball cap. What are you putting in?” he asked. “Osage-oranges,” I said, “we’re making a hedgerow.” His face rearranged itself slightly. “Oh. What are you doing that for? What will I say to my neighbors? Do you know the heat I’ll catch if it gets out we’re growing Osage-oranges? Everybody around here hates them. We’ve spent so much time getting rid of those things. They’re messy. The hedge apples are bad for the machinery.” 

My friend is in his seventies and has lived in Putnam County, Illinois his entire life. He’s seen a thing or two. He remembers when farms used to be small mixed farms with long crop rotations, livestock, chickens and vegetable gardens. He remembers when Osage-orange hedges were actually used as livestock barriers, “and we’d have to go out every year and cut them with machetes. What a lot of work. I can’t believe you’re doing this.” He considers the remnant, neglected hedgerows elsewhere on the property, the Osage-oranges grown into trees interspersed with black walnuts, brambles, gooseberries, grasses, violets and a mixture of other native and non-native wildings, to be messy—though admittedly good for birds. He remembers farmers, including himself, getting rid of most hedgerows in the county, later planting multiflora roses at the government’s recommendation, and subsequent struggles with that: multiflora rose has become such a nuisance that it’s now illegal in Illinois and most other states. “I’d probably get arrested—I’ve still got it on my property, though I keep mowing,” he said. Besides growing corn and soy, he keeps bees, maintains a bee meadow planted to a mix of native flowers and white clover, and looks after a “timber,” a remnant woodland full of native forbs and grasses that slopes down to a creek—person and property in marked contrast to much of the farming done around there. But still, he was wondering: why on earth would we ever plant Osage-oranges now? And what will he tell the neighbors, especially the farmer next door to our property, once the trees are big enough to be identifiable? 

A backyard nursery 

In the fall of 2013, I had asked an acquaintance to bring me some hedge apples, Osage-orange fruits, from the Quaker campus at McNabb, Putnam County, Illinois. My idea was that I would propagate them in my backyard so that we could create a wildlife friendly, post-modern hedgerow on the west side of campus where our land abuts land planted to soy or corn in alternate years. The trees would be the backbone, the spaces filled in with other small native trees, shrubs, and possibly forbs and grasses. 

I described the hedge apples: fluorescent green, softball-sized spheres, the color appealing, even stylish. The skin is deeply wrinkled, like an orange with character, or a small brain. There is a distinct orange-y, citrusy odor. Armed with this description, she collected about ten, brought them to me, and I arranged them in a misshapen pyramid under the pagoda dogwood in my backyard, between the native ginger and the Iris reticulata. I did this on the advice of 19th century sources that said that letting the hedge apples age over the winter would make it much easier to remove the seeds and plant them come spring. There they sat, through the mild autumn—during which a few squirrels tried them out and decided they weren’t so attractive—and, covered with snow, through the first polar vortex winter. 

Besides their distinctive green color, recently dropped hedge apples are very firm; inside is a sticky, milky sap with seeds lodged firmly within. You could play a game of catch with one, or set a few in the basement to help repel insects, but for planting, it really is best to let them age. In the spring, what had been firm green balls were now misshapen brown blobs. The skin had lost its integrity and had softened like wet cardboard. The sticky white interior matrix had become a reddish, slimy gel. It was planting time.

Aged hedge apples in my backyard
As far as I know, hardly anyone grows Osage-orange trees on purpose any more, though during the 1980’s garden writer Jeff Ball touted them as perfect for the suburban hedgerows he championed. Farmers in prior times would closely plant mail-order whips or plow a very shallow (an inch or less) furrow and plant with a slurry of mashed, aged hedge apples. With regular trimming, the resultant thick growth would become a stout, thorny hedge. (The seeds need warmth, light and contact with mineral soil to sprout. Plant them too deeply and they’ll refuse to appear.) Since my backyard is small, and I’d be
transporting the trees out to McNabb, I cut up the fruits, smooshed out the seeds with my fingers, washed them off in a colander, and planted them in containers. In the interest of experimentation, I planted some outdoors in an old window box planter and a couple of other containers and some in flats in the greenhouse at my school. A couple of weeks later they had all germinated, coddled or not. When they had a few true leaves, I transplanted them into some old 4-inch pots I had sitting around and when I ran out of those, simply left the ones in the window box alone. 

That June I brought the greenhouse-grown ones home to sit with the others and then basically ignored them, other than occasional water, for the rest of the summer. They thrived. I’d hoped to be able to plant them at McNabb in the fall, but various life events intervened and there I was, with fifty babies to get through the winter. Luckily, they were still in their small pots, so after harvesting the tomatoes and basil from my semi-raised bed, I buried the pots in the dirt and then spread a 6-8-inch thick blanket of straw over the whole, so that only the little saplings were visible. A second polar vortex winter ensued. Would they make it? 

A tale of prehistoric relics 

The Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera, is an ancient tree, a prehistoric survivor. Though related to the mulberry, it is alone in its genus, and is native to the North American continent, where it thrives in zones 5-9—across the Great Plains and up to Ontario. Officially, it is only native to the Red River region of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, which is where it was growing at the time of European settlement. Thus, it has not conventionally been considered native here in Illinois, or even in Missouri, where it grows freely in the woods. With its dense wood, thorns, shiny leaves, “messy” growth habit and large fruit, it is unique in appearance and irredeemably wild in nature. The tree is fairly small, rarely reaching more than 50 feet when allowed to grow without cutting back. In full sunlight, with plenty of space between, it develops multiple stems. It is dioecious--that is there are male and female trees; the female produces the distinctive fruit. It is thorny in the extreme and has the ability to sucker freely after coppicing. Pruning, trimming and coppicing only increase its tangled, thicketing behavior. The wood is hard, dense and rot resistant—and resilient enough that Native Americans valued it for making bows; a lively trade in “Bois d’Arc” (“bow wood”), as the French called it, or “bodark,” as my mother, originally from Texas, calls it, carried on across the continent. 

Ad in the Ohio Cultivator, 1858
Nineteenth-century farmers prized the wood because it is so good for making tool handles and fence posts. And, valuable on the treeless prairie during long cold winters prior to easy access to fossil fuels, the wood burns hot and long, almost like charcoal, even requiring a coal grate. The ability to grow it and keep it trimmed in hedges that were “horse high, bull strong, and hog tight,” was an advantage in the years prior to the invention of barbed wire in 1875. No wonder Osage-orange champions Jonathan Baldwin Turner and Dr. John Kennicott, both of Illinois, were able to promote it with such ease. Turner researched and grew several species of hedging plants and touted Osage-orange as the best. Kennicott claimed that Osage-orange trees offered more economic benefits to farmers than any other crop. These men were not thinking about whether or not the tree was native or the effect it would have on ecosystems; they wanted to help farmers settle and thrive on the fertile prairies. You could say they considered Osage-orange trees to be part of the tool kit of civilization building, of Manifest Destiny, though I’m not sure either ever wrote or spoke in quite such grandiose terms. 

Questions in the Midwest 

Now, a person inclined to think speculatively or ecologically about plant forms might look at an Osage-orange and start wondering. For example: why does this tree respond so well to coppicing, growing only denser and thornier? Why is it so thorny in the first place? Why is its historic range so restricted and the fruits so heavy and large that they’re not be easily carried far from the mother tree the way acorns and other nuts are by squirrels? Strangely, for years, few people asked these questions. The tree went from being desirable to undesirable as cultures and agricultural practices changed. In the 20th century some of those questions did begin to be asked, but actually planting Osage-oranges, on purpose, outside of the historic range, was frowned upon, not only by farmers in the grip of the industrial farming enchantment, but also by people concerned with the ecological preservation and restoration of historic wild or natural landscapes using native plants. 

These questions are easily turned around: In what sort of ecosystem, including animals, might such a tree evolve so that it could thrive and, in fact, expand its range? What would the pressures be, and what the opportunities? Trees that, when young, are grazed—or subjected to fire—often adapt to re-sprout vigorously. Trees that want to survive grazing also often develop thorns. Because they are driven to reproduce and increase their land holdings, as it were, trees produce tasty, seductive fruit and seeds, which might be light enough to travel by wind, as in the case of maple “whirligigs,” or may need hungry animals to help with dispersal. The fundamental question becomes, in what kind of landscape would the tree do well and what kinds of animals would eat hedge apples such that the seeds would travel and germinate elsewhere? 

In the case of our tree, its re-sprouting ability does mean it’s well adapted to large reaches of the American continent, where for thousands of years both herds of grazers and wildfires roamed the plains. But the seriously sizable thorns? The big heavy fruits? The tree seems evolved to simultaneously repel and attract some really, really big herbivores. Yet our historic landscape has always lacked any native herbivores of the size that would think large thorns only somewhat of an impediment, or find the fruits just right for snacking. 

Answers from Costa Rica 

Some answers first came from Costa Rica, where, in the 1980’s, ecologists Dan Janzen and Paul Martin, faced with some detective work involving a similar “ecological anachronism,” (a plant or animal having characteristics that don’t make sense for the place where it is found), a tree called Cassia grandis, whose foot long pods no native animals would eat, but introduced horses would. They hypothesized that prior to about 13,000 years ago, when elephant-like gomphotheres, giant ground sloths (400 pounds to 3 tons) and other species of megafauna roamed the Americas, Cassia grandis would have had a wider range, the fruits being dispersed by these animals. Then, roughly 13,000 years ago, the glaciers retreated, and climate warming ensued, driving some species to extinction. The Clovis people, ancestors of today’s Native Americans, colonized the Americas, bringing their sharp spears and hunting skills to places where such large animals had never encountered such small, dangerous predators. The megafauna lost out. Gone the gomphotheres, the 5-ton mastodons, the 6-ton wooly mammoths and 9-ton Columbian mammoths, gone the giant ground sloths, native horses and camels. 

9-ton Columbian mammoths once roamed North America
Could something similar to what happened to Cassia grandis have happened to the Osage-orange? It appears likely. To a 9-ton Columbian mammoth or 5-ton mastodon, hedge apples might seem the size a chocolate truffle is to us. As they browsed, roamed, ate the fruits and pooped out the seeds, the co-evolved tree maintained and possibly expanded its range. But later, absent its natural dispersers, our tree became an ecological anachronism and its range shrank—it might even have become extinct, had not the tribes in that area discovered the wood’s usefulness and started trading it, to their material advantage. Today, (re-introduced) horses pastured where Osage-oranges are present will eat hedge apples and poop out the seeds; anecdotally, trees sprout where they’ve done this. Squirrels—as I discovered this fall when they demolished a new pile of hedge apples in my backyard—also can learn to eat them, but since they shred the skin and eat the seeds, they’re not dispersers. From the field of paleoecology, with its analysis of fossilized pollen, comes the news that Osage-orange was indeed once dispersed throughout North America up to Ontario; in fact there were once seven separate species of Maclura. That range, of course, is about the same as where the tree is found now, thanks to modern humans, the new disperser. Thus, in planting our hedgerow, you could say we were planting a native species after all. 

Why an Osage-orange hedgerow now?

All the saplings did indeed survive the winter. When the weather warmed up and they leafed out, I potted them on in some old one and two gallon pots. They sat in my backyard all summer; we had decided that it would be best to plant them in early fall, counting on fall rains to help them acclimate. Finally, we set a planting date, took them out to McNabb and started in to work. 

As we planted the saplings, added plastic tree guards to protect them from over-enthusiastic mowers, and finally watered them in, we kept answering our friend’s questions. Yes, we were, as he observed, planting the trees too far apart to make a true hedgerow, and we weren’t planning to trim them down the first couple of years. We were going to let them grow into whatever their natural forms would be. Why was that? Because, I explained, we are making a post-modern hedgerow. I’d noticed that the Osage-oranges in our property’s remnant, naturalized hedgerows seemed to withstand herbicide drift from the neighboring fields, and we wanted some of that benefit here. The discussion went on, different members of the group chiming in. We are planning to infill with other wild native species of small trees and shrubs. We think that the Osage-oranges will help provide an environment where other species can 
take hold. Plants do that, the right plants in the right place helping create, or recreate a bio-diverse ecosystem that welcomes other, compatible plants; they all work together to create soil health through the process of photosynthesis. We don’t yet know exactly how wide our multi-species hedgerow will be. Besides serving as a form of windbreak against the strong prevailing west winds, it will serve as a shelterbelt for local birds and wildlife. We talked some more about beneficial insects, birds and other animals. 

Our friend, who remembers an abundance of wildlife populating the area when he was young, started smiling again when he heard “shelterbelt.” He thought this would be a better word to use in the inevitable conversations. And maybe helping birds could be worked in. Everyone likes birds, and many of his neighbors have noticed how once common species such as red-headed woodpeckers are no longer so evident. 

Planting into the future 

In creating this shelterbelt, this post-modern hedgerow, I like to think my friends and I are doing a form of restoration that Aldo Leopold might recognize, similar to the work he did with farmers in Wisconsin. The project does not seek to remove people or pretend that this piece of ground can be returned to a “state of nature” or to its “pre-settlement” condition. In his book “Once and Future Planet,” Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth writes about many of the thorny questions involved in restoration projects. In some cases, he says, restoration is not about attempting to “rewild,” to remove human impact. Some ancient worked landscapes, in Italy, for example, have resulted over time in increased biodiversity. And in Ireland, farmers are helping restore native woods to land where they’d gone missing in favor of monocultural tree plantations. On our property, islanded by a sea of industrial farming, we cannot return the field to the timber and prairie that once cloaked the soil; we cannot return it to a point in its historic trajectory where it could continue on a path it might have followed had it been farmed less, with less toxic methods, and more of it left wild. We can, though, restore part of a historical, remembered landscape, restoring, perhaps, an aspect that only the land might “remember” but is outside of human recorded history. By renewing a physical aspect of the landscape in danger of being lost or forgotten, we are re-affirming the history, but also, in our use of these ancient trees, reaching beyond our human history to help pull deeper time into the present—as those 19th century farmers were doing all unbeknownst to them. And we are, by beginning to reintroduce native biodiversity, pushing small levers in the currently established system. One could say we are performing an act of manumission in a place where the land has been enslaved—turned into property and used exclusively for our purposes—which, after 180 years of farming, has brought on serious natural and cultural imbalance and loss. 

Environmentally, our actions will add to our property’s overall land health. Culturally, they are also part of a larger story that writer and plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about when discussing the Anishinaabe prophecy of the seven fires. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. As she recounts the prophecy, in this time of the seventh fire we can choose the charred, dead path of continued environmental destruction or the living path that helps the earth. Those walking the living green path into the future, must, as part of their task during their journey, go back and pick up things left along the way—stories, life ways, methods, memories—in order to carry them forward so they can help constitute a generative future. When I saw her speak in spring of 2014, she was very clear that she thinks this prophecy is talking not only about and for Native Americans, but that we all, especially those deeply connected to the land, together must tread this path as allies. 

In a memoir about his own journey into deep land awareness, British blogger and woodsman Jason Heppenstall quotes Gandhi as saying, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” For me, the simple, mundane task of propagating that ancient species, of planting the young trees by hand, in their historic, and possibly prehistoric place, was deeply symbolic. My friends and I are re-creating but also newly creating: perhaps helping awaken something in the land, perhaps connecting to the ancient spirit of place that is always present, no matter how some humans try to kill it. We said no prayers aloud, held no ceremonies. The collective actions of growing, planting, watering and pledging to look after them seemed ceremony enough. In a few years the trees will be taller than a tall person. A few years after that they’ll become sexually mature and the females will begin to produce fruit. The hawthorns, currants, hazelnuts and other shrubs we plant with them in coming seasons will grow to fully express their shrubby natures. Birds and other creatures will take residence. Below ground, the soil biome will grow healthier and more complex and will begin to store more carbon. Our friend will stop by to check how the trees are doing and will explain to his neighbors about the new shelterbelt. In so doing, he might, just perhaps, initiate a slight cultural shift toward a new land consciousness. You never know. 

Thus begins the story of the first Osage-orange hedgerow, aka shelterbelt, planted in Putnam County, Illinois in sixty or more years. 

A Few Resources: 

  • "Aldo Leopold on Agriculture," by Robert E. Sayer, who serves on the Advisory Board, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
  • "Living on the (H)edge," by horticulturalist Dave Coulter
  • "The Path to Odin's Lake," Jason Heppenstall
  • Thanks to Google Books it is possible to read 19th century magazines such as the Ohio Cultivator and the Prairie Farmer, to which both Kennicott and Turner contributed, and which offer insights into 19th-century farming life

Related Hedgerow Posts:
Where Do We Find Beauty in a Landscape?
Just What is a Hedgerow: A Few Notes on History, Form and Function
Hedgerow Hypotheticals: Our Cities and Suburbs Need Hedgerows Too
Foraging for Blackberries along a Hedgerow in Norfolk

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Backyard Carbon Sequestration: What Does Synthetic Fertilizer Have to Do with It?

Part two of a series exploring how regenerative gardening techniques can enhance carbon storage while improving soil health. In part one I discussed some of the principles behind the factors involved in soil health and how plants and the soil biological community work together to store carbon and build appropriate fertility. “Why Not Start Today: Backyard Carbon Sequestration Is Something Nearly Everyone Can Do” can be found here. 

 A brief digression about the term “regenerative gardening” 
So what is regenerative gardening, anyway? Regenerative gardening is an umbrella term that embraces many styles and traditions of organic cultivation and adds explicit intentionality regarding carbon sequestration. The recent Rodale white paper, “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change,” says that, “regenerative organic agriculture refers to working with nature to utilize photosynthesis and healthy soil microbiology to draw down greenhouse gases.” The same goes for gardening. Like regenerative farming and ranching, regenerative gardening aims for land cultivation and management that builds soil health and helps improve the health of the ecosystem within which that garden is located, while growing plants and harvesting crops useful to humans, whether food, medicine, fiber or wood—and along the way, creating beauty. And, doing all this while, importantly, helping mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil and reducing nitrous oxide emissions. So what’s so special about that? Isn’t that what all farming and gardening aims for, or should? I can imagine many readers asking this, especially those already practicing some form of ecosystem-based gardening.

The City of Cahokia, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, boasted 20,000 inhabitants in 1200 C.E.
The short answer is, not always or historically. The more than ten thousand year history of agriculture is full of one form of land despoliation or another, which in some cases has brought great civilizations to ruin. Societies in all epochs, on all parts of the earth, from the ancient Romans to the Mississippian-culture city of Cahokia in Illinois, have farmed in ways that have depleted the soil, particularly as population pressures led to more marginal lands being put to use—with logical, disastrous results. Since the European invasion and colonization of the US, modern Americans have continued the ancient tradition of using up a piece of land and then moving somewhere else to begin the process over again. It’s been, in some ways, worse than what ancient cultures did, because, as also in 19th century Australia, the immigrant farmers were trying to replicate what they had known in the vastly different ecosystems of their home countries. Most had little real ecosystem knowledge of the land in which they found themselves and thus no real concept of how to farm it sustainably.

However, even in the 19th century, strong voices were crying out against the ravishment of our grand, beautiful North American continent. While much has been saved, big farmers in the US—and around the world—have continued, and with the use of fossil fuels and agri-chemicals, doubled down, on this civilization-wrecking path: farm fencerow-to-fencerow, expand into marginal lands, deplete the soil and use the available chemicals to attempt to raise fertility…to the logical, disastrous results now in play.

The problem these days, though, is there’s nowhere else to go, for Americans or anyone else. The world is full—overfull—of people and wrecked ecosystems alike. Conquering other countries for their (used up) land or moving to Mars are both equally untenable. (Though you’d never know it from the wars currently in progress and recent propaganda from the pro-space colonization department.) And, meanwhile, the nightmarish specter of climate disruption casts its pall over the earth like the shadow emanating from Mordor.

Alongside this rather dismal history of agriculture, some societies, through trial and error and expert ecosystem knowledge, were able to farm sustainably for centuries, if not always actively improving soil and ecosystem health, at least maintaining it. In large part, these were societies that stayed put—some for thousands of years—and maintained ecologically sustainable populations, either voluntarily, as with birth control and out-migration or involuntarily, as with disease, war, and occasional famine—or some combination. Although some sources show that GHG’s did indeed start slowly increasing at about the time humans invented and began practicing agriculture, they were not a concern, neither known about nor their reduction and sequestration necessary. Unfortunately, as modernization and “conventional” agriculture expanded and became the norm, the traditional ways of land management—crop rotations, milpas and forest gardens, relying on hedgerows and native plant areas to harbor the beneficial insects that helped with pests, and so on, came increasingly under pressure.
A modern day milpa shown at the El Pilar Forest Garden Network website

Often, even as agriculture expanded and industrialized, gardening, or the growing of useful and beautiful plants on small areas adjacent to or near one’s home, has until very recent times tended to hew more closely to the older traditions. In part it may be our innate love of beauty that has long helped keep gardeners moving along a sustainable path, although, as I’ve written elsewhere, that love of beauty has since the 20th century been manipulated by marketing and societal norms into a simplified concept of rigorous control only achievable with the use of industrial strength agricultural chemicals. And modern gardeners and landscapers mostly have conformed, as a visit to any big-box garden center or ride through the suburbs shows, even today. But in gardening, too, there has been strong countervailing interest in and practice of organic and ecosystem-friendly methods.

Why use the term regenerative? What separates it from other forms of ecosystem-based gardening? 
In all, it might seem as though “regenerative” is a new-fangled term in search of an old concept. After all, all these other earth-friendly forms of gardening and farming also consider healthy soil and ecosystems to be the necessary central focus. Much of what regenerative farmers and gardeners are doing has been done before, possibly for centuries, and an emphasis on using scientific measurement and experimentation to help achieve results has also been used for various purposes. The difference is that since the early 20th century, organic methods combining traditional practices with modern scientific knowledge have developed to the point where immense soil regeneration confirmed by good measurement is possible. We now know how much carbon can be stored and that it could give us enough time to transition to a low carbon society.

Perhaps there is something definitively human, some moral and spiritual dimension in this ambition, this desire to right climate and environmental wrongs and heal the earth. To tell someone that one is a regenerative gardener is saying that not only is one practicing ecological gardening in one of its many varieties, but also is doing so with a certain intention. One is gardening in such a way that one is not simply using the earth for one’s own needs and desires, but giving back, fostering the processes, the complicated, complex, four dimensional dance among sun, rain, air; plants, animals, and the life in the soil that will in turn help us mitigate climate change. And what are the practices that make gardening for carbon sequestration different from permaculture, ecological gardening, organic gardening, or reconciliation ecology in general? Maybe simply a subtle shift in emphasis, a slight change in practice, a new attentiveness to the pattern of the dance.

Good rules to garden by
For deep carbon sequestration, the basic requirements are as follows: Help plants maximize photosynthesis and tend the soil biology. Minimize plowing or tilling and digging, grow multi-species polycultures, don’t leave soil bare for extended periods, don’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizer.

When I was planning this series of posts, I couldn’t decide whether to start the discussion with the plants, the soil or pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. In the real world, as every gardener knows, what we might think of as separate garden topics become inextricably woven together, each strand of the web performing multiple roles, the web formed of multiple relationships. To me, it seems logical to start first with what the would-be regenerative gardener should stop doing and the reasons therefore, before getting into positive practices. Therefore, the discussion will commence with synthetic fertilizer. Not only does its production and transport contribute greatly to GHG emissions, but its long term use also actively lowers soil fertility and prevents carbon sequestration. Fertilizer use contributes to nitrus oxide atmospheric emissions and nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that in turn, contribute to polluted waterways, dead zones along seacoasts and the growth of toxic algae in freshwater lakes and rivers.

As an ecological gardener, I myself have not used either pesticides or synthetic fertilizer for many years, and I’m assuming most of my readers don’t either. When I stopped, I wasn’t thinking about carbon sequestration. I wanted to grow plants organically, and didn’t want my children exposed to toxins. First I learned and practiced a form of integrated pest management, which involves getting to know the insects in the garden, practicing non-chemical controls, and only spraying as a last resort. As I learned more about organic methods such as permaculture, and how to help the ecological balance in my yard I gradually left off chemical inputs altogether. Upon learning about pollinators and beneficial insects and hearing the carbon story, I made more adjustments. My story is an exceedingly common one, yet I talk with plenty of folks who still believe that the gardening year starts with an application of fertilizer, pre-emergent weed killer, fungicides and grub control to their lawn, and continues with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides in the vegetable and ornamental plant beds, and further lawn treatments through the season. (Whole neighborhoods, particularly in well-to-do suburbs, could be classified as biological deserts.) And many people who garden in an environmentally-aware manner may not know exactly how or why synthetic inputs can be so deleterious.

The problem with synthetic chemical fertilizer: what it is, what it does, long-term effects and repercussions 
In his book, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan describes the soil in a Midwestern industrial
potato field he visited as gray, dusty, and lacking in good structure. He thought it was the natural soil until he visited an organic potato farm with good dark, friable soil and realized what had been done in the name of farming at the first site. I, myself, noticed this same effect just a few weeks ago when helping plant a row of Osage orange saplings along a property line in central Illinois. On one side was a field long planted to a conventional soy/corn rotation with the ground left bare for the winter after harvest; on the other side, where the trees were being planted, a polyculture of grass, clover and various common lawn weeds, never fertilized, regularly mown, and the clippings left on the ground. On the field side, pale yellow-gray-brown dusty soil. On the grass side, very dark brown clay loam.
A dividing line between healthy and unhealthy soil

Like the soil on the organic farm or my friends’ grassy area, the gray, dusty substance was once well-structured soil full of organic material and teeming with microbes and all the other creatures that form the underground community in healthy soil. What happened? Synthetic fertilizers, among other things. All plants need nutrients, which, since plants first appeared on the scene some 500 million years ago, have been supplied from the earth’s natural systems. This changed in the early 20th century when synthetic fertilizer was invented. The idea was that farming could be more scientific and agricultural yields would increase to feed the world’s beginning-to-burgeon population. The short-term effects were nothing short of miraculous: even previously infertile soils could now grow crops, a boon to farmers and the people they fed.

Fertilizer production didn’t really ramp up until after World War II. A huge supply of ammonium nitrate used for explosives manufacture was left over in munitions factories. (It’s still used for roadside bombs.) With energy and materials from increasingly-available cheap oil and gas, the fertilizer industry took off. Its wonderful effects, coupled with the support of agricultural scientists, the government and large corporations, helped revolutionize farming here and in countries like India and China. This was the fabled ‘Green Revolution” of the 1950's and ‘60's. Naturally, homeowners, landscapers, golf course proprietors and other non-agricultural property owners wanted the stuff and naturally, fertilizer companies were happy to oblige, with the result that U.S. homeowners now use more synthetic chemicals than farmers do in their fields.

Unfortunately, few, other than organic farmers, realized the long-term negative side effects. To begin with, fertilizer manufacture is carbon-intensive and completely reliant on available supplies of oil and gas. Manufacturing not only uses non-renewable resources (and toxic chemicals such as sulfuric acid), themselves extracted, refined and transported in carbon-intensive ways, but the manufacturing and retailing processes involve more carbon use and GHG emissions. To buy a bag of fertilizer is to make a direct contribution to global warming.
Urea fertilizer plant owned by Koch Industries

It turns out, though, that while all plants need nutrients, the way they get them is as important as what they get. Thus, even more important than the benefits of synthetic fertilizers are their deleterious effects on soil structures, on plant-soil creature interactions—and on the planetary ecosystem. As science writer Yvonne Baskin puts it in her book Under Ground, their use (along with pesticides and herbicides) “decouples plants from their dependence on the soil,” so that “the soil does little more than prop up the plants.” Recent scientific studies increasingly confirm what the organic folks have long held.

Researchers at the University of Illinois have shown that continued use of synthetic fertilizers actually causes reduced carbon storage, and thus reduced fertility in the soil, even when organic matter is added. The Morrow Plots at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana have been planted to corn (and other crops) since 1876, the longest continual corn cultivation for the purposes of study in the world. (The Morrow Plots are so important that when U of I built a new library, it was constructed underground so as not to disturb ongoing studies. It’s been rumored that unauthorized student trespass onto the Plots results in immediate expulsion.) Scientist Richard Mulvaney and his colleagues found that from 1904 to 1967, the period when study plots were fertilized with manure, soil organic carbon steadily rose. After the switch to synthetic nitrogen in 1967, soil carbon declined, even though crop residues were incorporated into the soil. Equally surprisingly, nitrogen in the soil declined as well. What was happening?

Apparently, an influx of easily accessed nitrogen causes a soil flora and fauna population explosion. The microbes eat the nitrogen and any organic matter, causing over time a net loss of organic matter and consequent decreased storage of organic nitrogen. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are negatively affected. Eventually, as organic material is consumed, micro flora and fauna can starve and die. Lacking their multifarious presence, the soil clusters that make up good loam start to break down. Overall soil structure weakens, leading to compaction and increased erosion. Water retention and drainage decline. Salts build up in the soil. Since the soil can no longer store nitrogen efficiently, what it can’t store leaches into groundwater. In Illinois, this leaching has a direct and negative effect on our waterways and contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The excess nitrogen also enters the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas that can trap 300 times more heat than carbon dioxide (CO2). Ultimately, as researcher Mulvaney told journalist Tom Philpotts in 2009, “the soil is bleeding.”

The upshot? As synthetic fertilizers continue to be used and carbon is lost, the soil’s fertility depletes. Consequently, plants can show less disease resistance, fruits and vegetables show reduced vitamin and protein content, and plants can have difficulty accessing and using other nutrients they need because of the decline in soil life. And, according to soil scientist Christine Jones, plants get “lazy,” ceasing to produce much in the way of the carbon sugars they trade with bacteria and fungi for nutrients through the production of root exudates. This is happening on farms—and, by extension, gardens, around the world.

The farmer and gardener, and the land they tend, become locked in a vicious, addictive cycle. Faced with declining plant vigor, a typical, and for the farmer, seemingly necessary, reaction is to simply add more fertilizer, instead of working to rebuild soil health. These days, this situation is slowly beginning to change as more scientific studies show the value of organic and sustainable farming practices and states like Illinois write new protocols to help conventional farmers reduce fertilizer applications and incorporate conservation practices into their operations. Trends are favorable: for one thing, because of the cost of inputs, and the “organic premium,” studies by Rodale and other long term studies are demonstrating that organic farming actually can be more profitable than conventional farming. Farmers are beginning to pay attention.

Fortunately, we gardeners are not trapped in the destructive logic and ecosystem-ruining requirements of industrial corn and soy production. We can stop using synthetic fertilizer and begin to rebuild soil health right now.

A gradual approach is best for kicking the fertilizer habit 
I don’t exactly remember how I stopped using synthetic fertilizer. Perhaps I simply ran out and never bought more. Perhaps it was as a result of observing how a granular fertilizer spill poisoned the plants in a neighbor’s yard. At any rate, because I had good soil to begin with and had been nurturing good soil health as I understood it at the time, I never noticed much of a difference. Other plants than grass did appear in my lawn, but that has to do more with the no pesticides part of the story. Eventually I learned to maintain my lawn as a polyculture lawn.

In general, going off fertilizer and building natural soil health is a process that takes time—three to five years. It is important not to stop cold turkey because at first there won’t be enough soil life to help plants thrive. Christine Jones recommends tapering by reducing application by 20% the first year, 30% for the two subsequent years and then finally stopping. According to studies done by the Rodale Institute, as fertilizer is reduced, while carbon sequestration practices are followed, during the first three to five years, not much deep carbon is stored. However, after that, the amount of measurable carbon increases over the next thirteen years or so before stabilizing. In ensuing years, increased carbon storage is dependent on even more intensive practice. Multi-species cover crops, no-till planting, use of manure and growing perennials can all help carbon storage continue to increase. 

Jones’ recommendations are for farmers, but gardeners and landscapers should be able to follow this schedule. The 20-30-30 reduction regime would be perfect for lawns, the largest, most heavily fertilized “crop” grown by non-farmers in the US. Like farmers, conventional gardeners should not try to quit all at once, especially if not much has been done to increase organic matter in the soil. Instead, anyone planning to transition should do so gradually, while at the same time changing other gardening practices, including reducing tilling or digging, adding organic matter, and, in some cases, changing the plants being grown. In this way, soil aggregates can form and populations of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria (“associative diazotrophs”), mycorrhizae, arthropods and all the other soil life can increase.

How to avoid fertilizer withdrawal symptoms
Here are a few methods that will help ensure successful fertilizer reduction, some of which will be explored more in depth in coming posts. I’m sure most of my readers already do these things anyway,  and more besides, but in case not, here they are, with the necessary caveat that all gardening conditions are local, indeed, hyper-local.

Lawns: Decreasing the overall size of the lawn in favor of other plantings is a good step to take. In temperate zones such as mine, I don’t advocate getting rid of lawns altogether, since a grassy area is a nice place for a picnic, for children’s play, for paths among garden beds and other recreational uses. Anyone with a lawn can, while tapering off fertilizer, mow high (set the mower at 3”), over-seed with Dutch white clover, and top-dress in fall with finely-sifted compost, as I’ve written here, in “The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer.” Gradually the lawn will begin to function something like a multi-species perennial cover crop and its soil will improve and begin to store carbon.

Planting beds: Increase the size of non-lawn areas as much as possible, use native perennials, shrubs and trees as much as possible, and use mulch judiciously. Anyone who still double digs should just stop, since the idea is to lessen soil disturbance. Learn permaculture and forest garden techniques such as growing edibles, herbs and flowers in the same beds. Large containers are perfect for annuals. Often, at least in my part of the world, something like 80% natives to 20% non-invasive exotics is a fair way to go, for a host of ecological reasons, though I know plenty of native plant gardeners who are serious about their prairie and woodland gardens and only plant natives. And reassess fall clean-up; fallen leaves and other organic “mess” are all soil-building, carbon-storing materials.

Vegetable beds: Here is where some of the advice for farmers can be experimented with more fully, especially if the gardener has a fairly large area. Raised beds benefit by laying on compost and composted manure and then covering with straw. I was going to try a cover crop on my raised bed this year, but since as of this writing I’ve still got chard going and bumblebees still foraging in the heirloom marigolds and calendula, I decided to let things be, and after the first hard frost will amend the soil. Large growing areas, where everything is harvested in the fall, could benefit by frost-killed cover crops sown in the early fall, by use of straw mulch, by the application of composted manure if you don’t have chickens or livestock, and by horizontal, or lasagna-style composting. In the spring, leguminous cover crops/"living mulches" can be planted in the rows between vegetables.
Early October marigolds, tomatoes and bumblebees

Fertilizer is not alone in its threat to soil health and carbon storage. Pesticides, including herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, pose their own unique dangers to soil biology, as well as to above ground life. This series will continue (with possible interruptions by other posts) with a discussion of some pesticide problems and solutions and will then move on to other topics such as “armoring the soil,” and a deeper discussion of the role of plants.

Related Post: