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:

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:

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