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 despoliation 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:

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why Not Start Today? Backyard Carbon Sequestration Is Something Nearly Everyone Can Do

Part one of a series about using regenerative gardening techniques to enhance carbon storage while improving soil health.

To make it simple as a crayon sketch, there are two ways to mitigate climate change that, in tandem, could work. One is to lower emissions. To decarbonize, if you will—and de-nitrous oxide-ize, de-methane-ize, and de-soot-ize as well. It is true that to keep the earth’s average temperature from warming more than 2° C (3.6° F), emissions will have to fall. Drastically. Which means lifestyles, in fact whole cultures and economies, will have to change, and everyone, especially the well off, will have to share in the sacrifices and changes to be made. This necessity is the real inconvenient truth implied by the inconvenient truth of climate change and one mostly being ignored or rationalized away by pretty much everyone, except a small percentage of realists. Part of the problem, I think, might not be so much willful ignorance as a failure of imagination. Quite a few people I speak with about climate change—well educated, thoughtful, caring individuals for the most part—simply cannot imagine what it would be like to live even a slightly less oil dependent version of the life they currently live, though they grasp the facts and urgently agree that something must be done.

As for the second, carbon sequestration, or pulling carbon out of the air and storing it deep in the ground, as noted environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert points out in a recent article, no one knows how to do this.

So far, technology-based carbon capture and sequestration hasn't panned out
However, this is not precisely true, though in a modern technological sense of course it is. Anyone who owns or rents a little land on which plants grow can, him or herself, sequester carbon, and may even be doing so at this very moment without even realizing it. It’s not hard. Healthy soil does this naturally. All we have to do is help nature along. And as we do so, we can help improve ecosystems, improve soil fertility, and even help endangered species survive. Regenerative farmers and ranchers are doing this in a big way all over the world, though the ones I’m most familiar with are working in the US, in places like North Dakota, Illinois and Minnesota. Even though farming and gardening practice has usually, seemingly inevitably, depleted the soil, scientists such as R. Lal, Christine Jones, Michelle Wander, Michel Cavigelli and others, as well as entities such as the Rodale Institute, have shown that regenerative techniques actually rejuvenate the soil and sequester carbon. And, not only is their, and others’, long-term research showing how and why this works, but scientists are also teaming up with farmers to demonstrate and study practical techniques—and even conducting classes to teach farmers soil conservation methods. This is vitally important work, since agriculture and other domestic land management is responsible for something like 30% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

But what about the rest of us? 
My yard is much smaller than the typical ¼ acre suburban plot; my garden encompasses about 2,000 square feet, smaller than many houses. Most people in the US and elsewhere live in similar urbanized areas. Large-scale carbon sequestration on vast acreage, as potentially could be practiced by farmers (some two percent of the US population) is beyond reach. We regular folks are left with yet another situation where direct-action participation in solutions to the climate disruption problem might seem impossible. Most of us aren’t off-grid homesteaders; we rely on the local utilities and pubic services; non-existent public transit might force us to drive even if we’d rather not; and other realities of our everyday lives might prevent us from doing as much as we’d like. Even if we can imagine what is necessary to be done, and are prepared to help decarbonize our society, we might feel powerless, possibly unable to take positive, rewarding action to help remedy the situation.

Yet we can do something. Quite a lot, actually. For the first part, we can consciously reduce our lifestyles and become actively civically engaged; for the second, we can practice backyard carbon sequestration by becoming carbon gardeners, ourselves, and in the company of others. I agree with those that argue that unless there are mass movements and unless governments and corporations change their ways, individual changes won’t mean that much. However, I also believe that the butterfly effect is just as real in human systems as in earth systems, and in fact, backyard soil carbon storage works in both at once.

Thus I say, again, strongly, to everyone who is in charge of caring for a backyard, front yard, side yard, or some other patch of ground where plants grow, soil carbon sequestration is something you can do, on your own, fairly easily. You will have to give some things up, such as synthetic fertilizer, but rather than feeling deprived, you will be helping create abundance.

We can help nature do the job
Considering that we in the US have in excess of 40 million acres of lawn and untold millions of acres of conventionally cared for gardens (including “landscaping” and vegetable gardens), there’s room for a great deal of carbon sequestration on domestic and institutional land within cities, suburbs, towns, villages and hamlets. In 2005, Christina Milesi and others built a computer model that calculated how lawn with moderate fertilizer and an inch of water a week does indeed sequester more carbon than it releases, particularly if grass clippings are left on the lawn when it is mowed. (She also demonstrated that in large swathes of the country, without coddling, lawns would basically cease to exist.) I’m not sure anyone has ever calculated the potential sequestration that could be achieved through consciously regenerative practice on so huge an acreage. If someone reading this can do so, please let me know. I would love also to see field experiments in backyards, of the sort carried out on ranches and farms, which would assess different kinds of urban and suburban gardening practices for carbon storage.

Now when it comes to deep carbon storage, anyone practicing various forms of ecological gardening, organic gardening, permaculture or bio-dynamic gardening is already at least part way there: carbon sequestration is part of everyday practice. However, in the US at least, as with regenerative farmers, permaculturalists and other gardeners of their ilk are few and far between. Even if you add the daily growing host of wildlife, native plant, and pollinator gardeners, the needed acreage is not increasing quickly enough. And because most of these folks are not explicitly gardening for carbon sequestration, there are still things they can learn. Though for many, all that’s required, perhaps, is some new information, a shift in perspective.

What every would-be carbon sequestration DIYer needs to know 
Compost doesn’t store carbon. Like other ecological gardeners, I know that having a healthy soil biome is very important in all kinds of ways. I’ve always made compost and added it to my beds, and also use it to top dress my polyculture lawn. It's vitally important because it helps plants grow better, without the need to add synthetic, inorganic fertilizer. I’ve also known that it’s important to provide lots of organic matter because the soil critters—the fungi, bacteria, arthropods, nematodes and so on, utilize that organic matter and in turn, convert it into nutrients plants can use. In just one example, most gardeners know that the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that colonize the roots of legumes such as clover can convert nitrogen from the air into a form plants can use (one reason it’s good to grow clover in your lawn). However, healthy soil also contains free-living soil bacteria and other microbes that do the same thing. In my yard, more organic material gets added in the form of grass clippings left in place, and fallen leaves left under bushes and trees to develop naturally into duff. Organic mulch is also helpful, in terms of protecting the soil and helping provide nourishment to the soil critters. I can confidently say that my soil has plenty of organic material, especially in the areas that are planted with native prairie plants: they are deep rooted, and approximately 1/3 of the roots die every year, providing even more organic matter for all these critters to live on.

So far so good. However, what we are after is deep, stable carbon. And that is not provided by the process of breaking down of plant residues, manure and the like into compost or incorporating organic material into the soil. Strictly speaking, that catabolic process releases CO2 into the air as the decomposers and other critters access nutrients. What is needed is the creation of humus: we want to foster the relationships between actively growing plants, fungi and soil microbes and all the other critters that build soil. It is humification that, as topsoil is built, stores carbon at a deep level and in a stable form that can stay in storage for hundreds of years, as long as it is part of a healthy ecosystem or good soil nurturing methods are used.

Humification stores carbon and depends on actively growing plants. How does this work? Very briefly, here is what happens. While plants are growing, they pull carbon dioxide out of the air (and absorb water through leaves and roots). During the complex process of photosynthesis the CO2 breaks down into oxygen, which the plant releases into the air, and carbon, which gets combined with water and converted into the carbon sugars the plant uses to fuel itself. However, something else happens to the carbon sugars, which might, intuitively, seem counterproductive. Some of this “liquid carbon,” as Australian soil scientist Christine Jones calls it, travels down to the roots, and, as it fuels their growth, a portion leaks out of the roots into the soil. Why would this be? It would seem inefficient, like the leaky faucet in someone’s bathroom that wastes water and increases the owner’s monthly bill.

The answer is that, like canny traders, plants use the liquid carbon, or “root exudates,” as a kind of exchange medium, which they trade to mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria and other microbes not only in return for nutrients such as nitrogen (those free-living bacteria get their own carbon fuel by living in association with growing plants) and phosphorus, but also the wide range of other nutrients plants need to help fuel growth. In fact, in healthy soil plants get 85-90% of nutrients they need through this carbon exchange. In the process, vast networks of mycorrhizae form in the soil, connecting plant roots with nutrients they couldn’t otherwise access. Unlike with the water waste and higher bill, plants don’t seem negatively affected by this loss of carbon sugars. Rather, the more mycorrhizae and microbes there are getting fed, the healthier the soil and the healthier the plants.

What happens to the carbon sugars: how does the humus build? 
The story doesn’t end there. The mycorrhizae themselves, having utilized the carbon sugars and supplied plants with nutrients, also practice exudation: in this case a gluey, sticky protein called glomalin. With other gums and glues produced in the carbon-nutrient exchange, glomalin aids in the formation of soil aggregates by sticking together particles of sand, clay and silt into the larger clumps that that collectively we call humus, which is where the real carbon storage action is. Glomalin is thirty to forty percent carbon and is incredibly stable and long-lasting. Soil high in humus is soil that is storing carbon—humus is about 60% carbon. It’s only since 1996, when Dr. Sara Wright described glomalin and its role in humus production, that we have been able to accurately measure the carbon being sequestered in soils, so we now can assess our carbon-storage efforts. As important as carbon storage, however, is the effect soil aggregation has on nitrogen: the aggregates that form humus also enable nitrogen-fixing bacteria to function, enabling plants to get more of the nourishment they need

As long as there have been gardeners, humus has been appreciated, since its presence happens to guarantee that soil is fertile and has good tilth—it has plenty of texture: porous, “fluffy,” with air pockets, room for water penetration and good water holding capacity, among other virtues. Soil in good tilth often looks a little like “black cottage cheese,” as farmer Gabe Brown has described it: it doesn’t pour through your hands like sand or break into large, hard chunks like clay. Humus isn’t something you can separate out of the soil. Structurally it is the soil, woven throughout the way novelist Henry James once described meaning and symbolism being woven into a novel like the design in a carpet. As every good gardener knows, humus-rich loam is the best medium for growing flowers or vegetables. What is new is the discovery of the relationships that build humus and how all that carbon gets stored—and also what disturbs the system.

Barriers to carbon storage 
1% Carbon on left; 5% Carbon on right
It’s clear that no matter what, building soil health would be very desirable, but that carbon storage makes it essential. The key is to help soil store more carbon than is released, while at the same time encouraging nitrogen fixation and general nutrient production. Unfortunately, a number of standard farming and gardening practices prevent these desirable processes. For example, applying synthetic NPK fertilizer shuts down soil production of nitrogen and slows down or even halts humus formation and carbon storage. Aspects of these processes are being demonstrated in numerous long-term studies, such as the Morrow plots in Illinois and the Beltsville Farming Project in Maryland. Christine Jones says that when they are fed NPK fertilizer, plants cease to produce the liquid carbon, and the soil begins to deteriorate due to the broken relationships. Also, plowing, tilling or extensive digging slices up soil aggregates, breaks up the vast fungal networks and, by exposing the soil to air, releases CO2 and nitrous oxide. Soil structure declines, and so does its biological health. And finally, leaving soil bare for months at a time means depriving the soil biome of the benefits that growing plants provide by interrupting vital relationships and starving the soil critters. These three practices can result in compacted, poorly textured, soil that is infertile, and unable to manage water or grow plants.
Carbon sequestration happening here

We can all be carbon gardeners
So, what to do? How can we actively foster all the biological relationships that build up the carbon reserves in our gardens and by so doing, building resilience into the soil system, thereby helping build resiliency into earth systems and our human society? In part two, I’ll discuss practical methods for turning a backyard into a carbon sink.

Online Resources:

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Compost by Any Other Name
The Polyculture Lawn, a Primer

Monday, July 13, 2015

Summer Notes: A Rainy June and Hummingbird Questions

The rainy days of early summer
See more at Illinois State Climatologist
While the planet as a whole has continued to heat up, increasing its insistence via extreme weather events that humans really do need to “pay attention already, dammit!”,  Illinois has been in its very own extremely deep pocket of coolish, rainy weather. It’s easy to notice conditions are far from normal when the basil in your raised bed is not growing with its normal exuberance, while the lettuce, normally starting to bolt already, continues lush and sweet; you put the tomato starts in on July 1st, a month overdue, because the soil in your allotment is just too wet; and when traveling in mid-June to help with a bioblitz at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge on the Illinois river, you notice that fields where corn and soy should be growing are vast shallow ponds, some with ducks. 

Just how rainy? According to the Illinois State Climatologist, an average of 9.3 inches made this the rainiest June in official record-keeping history (which only goes back to 1895, but still). And he asks us to note that seven of the last eight Junes have been rainier than average (4.09 inches) and that seven of the ten rainiest Junes on record have occurred since 1993. Perhaps it’s a trend.

This June was so outstanding in its overall wetness that not only was it the rainiest for us, but Illinois was the rainiest state in the entire continental US. And July is continuing with more of the same. Odd to think that just three years ago I was biking to work in the midst of intense heat and drought. I won’t discuss destabilized jet streams or the polar vortices of the past two winters. More of us need to be paying serious attention, and taking action at every level.

So, about the hummingbirds
The other morning I was looking at a robin perched on the dead branch at the top of my neighbor’s apple tree two doors down, where the birds like to gather in groups of several species to take the air and discuss current events. Through the binoculars, what had appeared to be a bump on a large twig resolved into a hummingbird. This year, my next-door neighbor Muriel and I have been seeing two of them around since late April. They must be a mating pair, though at this point the female, identified by the lack of a red patch on her throat, is raising her clutch of two chicks on her own, and they should be flying soon, if not already.

I often see her—or possibly a juvenile—and after demonstrating her flight skills around our yards for a while, she usually disappears into one of the tall silver maple, honey locust or elm trees in the back yards across the alley and on that street. This is the first year that hummers have been around during mating season—that we’ve seen, anyway. Since Muriel first put up feeders in 2008, and we started our project more formally in 2009, they’d only appeared during the late summer-to-fall migration period. Our project is described here on this page.

"Ruby Throated Hummingbird" by Joe Schneid, Louisville, KY
To those who reside in western states where multiple species congregate, or in less urban parts of our area, boasting multiple pairs visiting feeders, this would be no big deal. And ruby throats are in no way endangered or unusual. Yet considering that until we set out to attract them, not one had been seen on our block for a minimum of twenty years, it’s pretty exciting for us. We provided habitat, and two feeders (now reduced to one); they stopped by during migration, and now appear to have decided to nest. It’s a thrill to stand by a patch of scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) and see a hummer hovering right there, not two feet away, sipping nectar from the tubular flowers most conveniently designed to suit its needs and preferences. Ain’t co-evolution grand!

I wonder what the process was and how they finally decided to settle in for the summer. Have we by this point planted enough of the right flowers? Did juveniles who stopped by last year during fall migration decide to return here for mating this year? Were they here all along and we just never saw them? That I doubt. We’ve both been keeping close watch for six years now.

If they come back next spring, I’ll consider our whole project a success.

Related Posts:

Friday, June 26, 2015

Earthcare, Literally Speaking

A version of this essay appeared in the May-June 2015 edition of BeFriending Creation, the newsletter of Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW), with the title “An Earth Testimony.” In light of the Pope's climate encyclical, it seems appropriate to share more widely. From the beginning, care for the living Earth and all its creatures has been woven throughout Quaker theology and testimonies, always united with what has come to be called environmental justice. QEW was formed in 1987. At that time, the founders wrote: “We have concluded from our worship and our study that there is, indeed, a need for Friends to give forceful witness to the holiness of creation and to demonstrate in their lives the meaning of this testimony.”

George Fox
By Violet Oakley, Pennsylvania State Capitol, 1906
Historical Note:  George Fox, referenced below, was one of the founders of the Religious Society of Friends during the 17th century; his journals are seminal to Quaker thought and practice. The 17th century was a time somewhat analogous to our own. Global climate disruption in the form of the Little Ice Age caused extreme weather events, floods, droughts and failed harvests; it was a time of religious and civil wars, sectarian violence, empires jockeying for position, extreme income inequality, a time of polluted cities, impoverished rural areas, and vast human migrations.

Remarkably, and counterintuitively, in Europe one result of this tumult was the formation of several “peace” churches. In England the Religious Society of Friends managed to get in trouble with both the Church of England and the Puritans for their refusal to fight in wars; their belief in equality (including women preachers), freedom of worship and continuing revelation; their lack of paid clergy; and their insistence that the Bible was not the inerrant word of God, but was “written by Man.”  They often met out of doors in fields and orchards. During Meeting for Worship, they sat in silence “waiting on the Lord,” and members spoke as so moved. American “unprogrammed” Friends continue in this old tradition, radical by some lights even today.


Quaker Tapestry, "Ecology," Kendal in Cumbria
Once during Meeting for Worship, a member spoke of how she had always heard the saying that Friends should walk cheerfully over the earth…speaking to that of God in everyone. Then she read what George Fox actually wrote: that we should “walk cheerfully over the earth…answering that of God in everyone” (italics mine). There are differences, she said, between “speaking to” and “answering.” The former sets us apart: perhaps it is didactic, or implies lecturing, as a schoolteacher, public speaker or media commentator might do. The latter requires looking and listening, even searching; it puts us in relation to others and provides openings for reciprocity. On reflection it seems to me there are many “everyones:” not only humans, but other species. Fox’s dictum could be extended further: “walk cheerfully over the earth…answering that of God in all of creation.”

Humans often “speak to” nature, as when we assume a dominant attitude and expect to be able to “improve” upon nature with technological solutions to perceived (or real) problems, rather than looking to see how nature does things, learning from nature’s processes, and coming up with nature-based solutions—all of which could be considered a form of answering that of God. This idea applies to many areas of concern. For instance, there is the difference in approach between those who favor technological fixes for climate change (itself a result of speaking to rather than answering nature), and those who would look to how land heals itself, often with the aid of humans who have combined closely studied ecological processes and traditional indigenous knowledge. The word “land” I mean in Aldo Leopold’s sense, that is, the whole package of rock, soil, and all the living things therein and thereon forming all together a well-functioning ecosystem, the “biotic community.” Of which humans can and should be citizens, for after all, we belong here too. There are quite a few people—ecologists, biologists, regenerative farmers, carbon ranchers, permaculturalists, agroecologists, ecological restorationists, and I’m sure, readers of this publication—who, however they articulate it, believe this very thing. To help solve climate change we must help our ecosystems heal themselves. One way to do so is to start with the earth we are walking over (hopefully cheerfully), in other words, with the soil.

For much of my life I didn’t think about soil, though I grew up playing in the mud and later gardened partly so I could keep digging in the dirt. I’ve been lucky enough to live in pre-WWII houses built on prairie in a place blessed with good precipitation. As a child I believed all soil was black—a sign, I later learned, of good organic content. As an adult in another house, whatever I planted grew just fine as long as other factors such as climate and available light were paid attention to. I’ve dug a trench for rhubarb starts and holes for shrubs and never hit sub-soil. Lucky, lucky me. Though I’ve always made compost, not until I trained as a master gardener did I learn very basic soil science: about pH factor, the difference between clay, silt and sand, the existence of subsoil, the need to improve fertility, how organic matter improves the soil, and the importance of good tilth.

In the last few years I have learned some new, astonishing things. With proper attention and care, the earth beneath our feet—in city backyards, in gardens, parks, on corporate campuses and on farms and ranches—has the potential to sequester enough carbon to help us mitigate drastic climate change while we transition to a low carbon society. In fact this effort rightly can be seen as a major part of the transition. Not only that, but organic gardening, regenerative farming and carbon ranching, which actually improve soil, if taken to scale across the globe have the potential to feed billions sustainably. This is a far cry from standard landscaping and industrialized agriculture that strip the soil of its organic content—and its carbon—and destroy the complex web of life involving billions of tiny creatures, bacteria and fungi interacting with organic matter, minerals, water and plants that we call “topsoil.”

Terrestrial Carbon Sequestration, EPA
To me, answering that of God means learning enough of the science—some of it very new— to understand how practice can be changed so that residence on a piece of land, no matter the size, includes helping this subterranean ecosystem thrive. Long-term research shows that more biodiverse ecosystems store more carbon, are more productive and include higher populations of beneficial insects than single species monocultures. Research has also demonstrated how carbon storage comes about through the complex interactions among plants and soil-dwelling fungi and organisms. And answering means practicing, as practice around the world has shown that carbon can be sequestered and topsoil built up through specific gardening, farming and ranching techniques, coupled with ecological restoration.

Green sweatbee on butterweed,
Arie Crown Forest, Cook County, IL
So how can we all become carbon sequestration practitioners, wherever we happen to live? By following some old-fashioned advice: We can educate ourselves by reading books such as Grass, Soil, Hope, by Courtney White, The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson, or Under Ground by Yvonne Baskin, or by watching films such as Symphony of the Soil.  We can learn the basic ecosystem facts, including plants, animals (including insects) and soils, of the places where we live. Gardeners can grow perennial, biodiverse, polycultures of mostly native plants; make compost and use it; and refrain from using pesticides or artificial fertilizer. Rural land managers can learn the techniques innovative farmers and ranchers are using to harvest remarkable results by growing carbon as well as crops and herds. We can all join or form groups involved with earthcare and ecological restoration, and if we are practitioners, can help educate others.

Answering that of God includes having a vision of what a restored piece of land—restored earth—might look and function like, nurturing it so that it can repair itself, and in so doing, repair and restore the humans who are tending it.  Eventually it might mean taking on an earthcentered identity, in the sense of the deepest green recognition that our selves are formed by the ecosystem of which we are a part and the earthly place in which we reside. When QEW members say we “seek an earth restored,” we literally need look no further than our own backyards. In seeking to answer, in putting ourselves in relationship, in remembering we literally are of the earth, in changing our practice: there lies hope.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Bees and Other Pollinators Love These Flowering Plants

Queen bumblebee foraging on Amsonia in spring
This is an updated repost of "Flowering Plants Native Bees Love," first published July 26, 2013. 

Given that here in the Midwest it's still planting season, and pollinators still (always!) need good habitat, I hope that anyone reading this will feel inspired to add more native plants to their gardens. Even if you already have a good selection, there's always room for one more species: biodiversity is one area where more is always better. This goes double for food gardeners. Every vegetable plot should have native flowering plants (and grasses) nearby to provide habitat for the pollinators and beneficial insects that act as partners to your gardening efforts. 

In general, not including annual vegetables, a proportion of 70-80% native plants in the garden seems to provide good habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects, and, of course, the birds everyone loves. Even one native species, such as a decorative serviceberry planted in the front yard or some butterfly weed or other milkweed species tucked in the perennial border, will help bring any garden into better ecological balance--and greater beauty. 

For those new to native plant gardening, here are some planting guidelines and a list of species suggestions. I have experience with every plant listed and therefore feel I can recommend them. Native bees, honey bees and butterflies will all take advantage of the foraging opportunities you offer.  

In general
Bees and other pollinators such as butterflies prefer sunny areas that are protected from wind and offer plenty of different kind of flowers. Ideally there would be several types of flowers in bloom spring through fall. In my yard, different areas might be blooming at different times--but I have a small yard, so the bees don't seem to mind. Those with larger yards might plan for groupings of different varieties in one or more beds. No matter what size your yard or garden is, every area planted with mostly native flowers will be beneficial for pollinators, particularly in urban and suburban areas, because it increases the availability of pollen and nectar these creatures need to thrive. The plants listed here are suitable for large parts of the Midwest. This is not a complete list and something that works well for you might be left off. There are many more species of Midwestern prairie and savanna plants that could be included. If you live elsewhere, this simple rule applies: bees and butterflies native to a region are best adapted to plants native to that region. Finding out what those plants are and adding them to your garden can be a worthwhile, enjoyable endeavor.

Minute pollinators on Spiderwort Tradescantia spp.
Learn more about native plants and use them in your garden 
According to the Xerces Society, "research suggests native plants are four times more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers." Garden herbs (allowed to flower) and annuals, especially heirloom varieties, can also provide good foraging. Avoid hybrids that have double blooms, since they often do not produce as much nectar or pollen. Native flowering shrubs also provide nectar and pollen for bees and serve as host plants for caterpillars. If using non-native garden plants, please make sure they are not invasive where you live. Also, certain kinds of weeds (but definitely not all!) can be a good thing: early-appearing bumblebees appreciate dandelions and creeping Charlie, for example.  

Two essential books are Attracting Native Pollinators, from the Xerces Society; and Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy. One essential website is Xerces.org. Other like-minded gardeners can be found by joining a chapter of Wild Ones (www.wildones.org),

Plan to have something in bloom all season long
Bees and butterflies fly at different times. They, and humans, appreciate a garden that has many varieties of flowers and a long season of bloom. If you mostly have native perennials, it's good to slip some long flowering heirloom annuals in various areas to keep going during perennials' in-between times. This is also a good strategy when starting a new area of young natives that might not bloom the first year.

Group flowers together in attractive drifts 
This old design rule makes good sense to bees as well as humans. Bees find good forage by sight. Clusters of flowers of the same species will attract more pollinators and enable better foraging than individual plants scattered through the garden. Where space allows, plant big clumps (at least four feet in diameter) or sizable drifts, which might require five or more plants.

Plant different types of flowers to support a wide variety of bees
Bees range in size from minute sweatbees at less than 1/8-in. to robust carpenter bees over an inch long. They also have different tongue lengths, and need suitable flowers. Some prefer flat, daisy-like flowers, while others prefer tubular blossoms. They are also attracted to brightly colored flowers that are blue, white, purple, and yellow--nor, in my observation, do they object to red. Please include milkweed. It is the only plant that serves as a host plant for monarch butterflies.

Do not use insecticides in your garden
Even organic pesticides can be harmful. Other chemicals such as fungicides can be dangerous--to humans as well as bees.  I have discussed the dangers of neonicotinoids in "City Bees, Country Bees." Habitat loss and insecticide use are the two main threats to bees and butterflies. A well-run ecological garden attracts birds and beneficial insects that help keep pests to a minimum. Purchase native plants through plant sales hosted by native plant organizations or at nurseries that do not use neonicotinoids when growing plants. These are usually independent nurseries that grow their own stock.

Suitable Plants

Spring can be a difficult time for native and honey bees, especially in urban areas with few early-blooming perennials. Queen bumblebees emerge at this time and fly for several weeks foraging before settling down to make their nests. An asterisk denotes species that flourish in areas that become shady when the trees leaf out. These are just a few examples.

Native Perennials
Amsonia Amsonia tabernaemontana
Columbine Aquilegia canadensis
*Violets Viola spp.
*Virginia bluebells Mertensia pulmonoides
*Virginia waterleaf Hydrophyllum spp.
*Wild geranium Geranium spp.
Wild indigo Baptisia spp.
Wild Strawberry Fragaria spp.
Non-native Perennials

Siberian Squill Scilla spp.
Chives Allium spp.
Periwinkle Vinca minor
Bumblebee on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
Summer-Late Summer (into Fall) is a halcyon period for all bees if the foraging is good. Plenty of sources of nectar and pollen ensure good populations, which in turn insure a continuation of the species. Male bees use flowers as sheltered places to rest while they look for young queens with whom to mate.
Native Perennials 
Aster Aster spp. 
Beebalm Monarda spp.
Asters Aster spp.
Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia spp.
Blazing Star Liatris spp.
Butterfly weed Asclepias tuberosa
Compass plant Silphium lanciatum
Cup plant Silphium perfoliatum
Giant hyssop Agastache spp.
Goldenrod Solidago spp.
Joe-pye weed Eupatorium spp.
Milkweed Asclepias spp.
Penstemon Penstemon
Liatris Liatris spp.
Phlox Phlox spp.
Purple coneflower Echinacea spp.
Rattlesnake master Eryngium spp.
Sage Salvia spp.
Spiderwort Tradescantia spp.
Sunflower Helianthus spp.
Tickseed Coreopsis spp.
Non-native Annuals and Perennials 
Basil Ocimum spp.
Catmint Nepeta spp.
Cosmos Cosmos spp.
English lavender Lavandula 
Marjoram Origanum 
Marigold Tagetes
Parsley Petroselinum crispum
Rosemary Rosmarinus
Salvia Salvia spp.
Stonecrop Sedum spp.
Zinnia Zinnia
Flowering Trees and Shrubs  offer more foraging opportunities from early spring through summer, and are often butterflies' preferred host plants.

Natives are Best 
Chokeberry Aronia spp.Currents and GooseberriesDogwood Cornus spp.Lilac Syringa vulgarisRaspberry Rubus spp.
Redbud Cercis canadensisRose Rosa spp.Serviceberry Amelanchier spp.Viburnum Viburnum spp.
Willow Salix spp.

Note: This is part of a series about how urban areas might offer the best hope and some of the best habitat for native bees. "City Bees, Country Bees" is here; "City Bees, Country Bees, Part 2" is here.

References: Illinois Wildflowers, www.wildflowers.info;  Xerces Society Fact Sheets, “Upper Midwest Plants for Native Bees” and “Butterfly Gardening,” the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, www.xerces.org; USDA.

Related Posts:
If We're Serious About Saving Bees and Butterflies, Here's What We Should Do
Creating a Hummingbird Habitat
In Praise of Native Shrubs
Attracting Native Pollinators
An Excellent, Timeless Book

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Resilience.org Asked Me a Few Questions

Most of my posts are cross-posted at Resilience.org, a site that functions as a multifaceted, solutions-oriented resource for folks interested in resilience topics such as peak oil, permaculture, climate change, transition, limits to growth, and other matters of interest.

The site is a production of the
Post Carbon Institute, an organization dedicated to providing information and resources that will contribute to the transition to a more sustainable, just and equitable society.

They have started a new series called "Resilience Reflections," which are interviews with regular contributors about their work and motivations. My turn just came up; you can read my interview here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Getting Beyond the Green Wall: Mary Oliver, Kay Ryan and William Blake

"A Woody Landscape" by William Blake
How poems are like landscapes
So much of what we call reading is actually scanning for the gist, especially online. We do this all day long with email and the internet—it’s a way of managing waves of relentless information. Reading is something else entirely. One can read a landscape, a garden, a tree, a bird, or a poem. This kind of reading involves engagement, contemplation, and associative as well as analytical thinking. It requires time, repetition and memory.

If you scan a poem, you’ll miss it, just as scanning doesn’t work for penetrating the “green wall” and truly observing plants or animals. A bur oak’s genetic makeup can be analyzed in the lab; only prolonged observation out of doors on many occasions in different seasons will enable one to know the species or a particular tree. Aldo Leopold used to test students by taking them to a place in a landscape and then having them read it in detail in order to glean understanding about the inhabitants, human and otherwise, the state of the soil, state of overall ecosystem health and so on.

A poem is obviously not like a tree, garden or landscape. Yet a good one will reward the same kind of alert, repetitive attention that puts us more deeply in relationship with ourselves, with other people, and with the world at large. A good poem pulls the reader away from abstraction and into experience.

Three poems

"The Kingfisher," by Mary Oliver
Very familiar is the Mary Oliver quote that asks, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It is from “The Summer Day,” which gets quoted by newspaper columnists and bloggers as a way to remind themselves and readers of their connection to nature.  Once I saw Oliver read, a smallish woman dressed in black with a calm voice and quiet demeanor. I don’t remember if she read that poem, but like to imagine she did. She must have done, it is so popular. Her poems are touchstones for many nature lovers. Clear, accessible, they articulate for readers the feelings one might have when encountering other species and natural processes. “The Kingfisher” exemplifies her lyric Romanticism.

The Kingfisher

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak 
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is 
the prettiest world--so long as you don't mind 
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn't have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn't born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water--hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don't say he's right. Neither
do I say he's wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn't rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

"Felix Crow," by Kay Ryan
Kay Ryan is another species entirely, someone I think of as the anti-lyric lyricist. Oh, she writes short poems full of rhyme and a kind of internal rhyme she calls “recombinant rhyme,” often on natural subjects such as animals, but there’s not much sweetness there, and no fallacy, pathetic or otherwise. She was Poet Laureate of the US in from 2008-2010. When contemplating whether or not to devote her life to writing poetry, she rode her bicycle on a 4,000 mile trip in order to think things over. Her poems sometimes go off like little bombs when you least expect it, and her humor is often of a wry, dry kind. Somehow I associate her work with the ironic science cartoons found at the blog xkcd, though the subject matter is vastly different.

Felix Crow
Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

"Hear the Voice of the Bard," by William Blake
I was going to add a piece by Jorie Graham, a poet of significant accomplishment who has just published a book of selected poems. Her work is interesting and can be difficult: full of large ideas, elliptic lines and deliberate gaps. But then at a concert I heard Martha Redbone sing William Blake poems for which she and her husband had written gospel/bluegrass/roots settings. Appalachian music keeps traditions alive and Blake’s poems might seem as simple in rhythm and language as old ballads—but that apparent simplicity carries complexities dark and light. Blake is not a safe read, as nature is not safe.

Hear the Voice of the Bard
Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk'd among the ancient trees;

Calling the lapsèd soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

'O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.

'Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.’