We pass over the obvious already sure we understand what it means. We do not give a proper hearing to words we think we already understand.
The following words say something so obvious we do not even hear it, yet it is fundamental to our future, perhaps it defines the difference between having a future or not – The Amazon rain-forest recycles about half the precipitation that falls, maintaining a moist continental interior which would otherwise be dry.
If we do not want the world to become desert we must realise that it is plants that rain and not the sky.
Rule of Thumb: Rain grows up from the ground!
If we consider the soil just as it is, as a living organism, its green mantle spreading out across the Earth, then we can begin to understand why it is that the rain does not fall but rises from the ground. Only in deserts is there no soil and plants and thus no rain. Forests are perhaps the most telling indicator of the life of the soil: In autumn, the ground lays strewn with leaves, which, by the fall the following year, have disappeared. This cycle continues year upon year making the soils beneath the forests the richest found on earth, which is why we have felled these forests to produce our agricultural land.
Climatologists will tell you that the disappearance of the savannah of North Africa has occurred due to heating and that the modern spread of the Sahara is due now to global warming and I would not deny these climate changes. Only, only…if humans had not been herding their animals on these savannahs, if they had never overgrazed these fragile ranges, then the Sahara might not be a desert at all.
If we study the climate we will necessarily see how the climate makes the climate. But this is to impute to the climate both the action and the agency; a desert climate will produce a desert! But is this so? How did the desert climate become a desert climate. If we just throw up our hands and accept the action and the agency as being the same thing then we will simply accept that the world is split into myriad things and not recognise the intimate, fundamental codependence of everything with everything.
The desert is not a desert because it is a desert. A desert only becomes a desert when conditions produce a desert. If left undisturbed, soil will produce a forest, savannah or prairie, never a desert. Deserts arise in the human mind, from the poverty of our reason that demands this and that, that sends us out into the world to extract this and that, that reduces the world to its ordering order and misses the suchness of each and every thing. The only way to produce a desert is to destroy – by overgrazing, by ploughing, by stripping the soil of its fertility – life.
If we could accept the world just as it is then plants will grow and rain will come. If we let everything be just what it is then plants and rain will produce more plants and rain…
Rain falls from the ground because it is the soil that makes the climate.
During the Holocene pluvial period (12,000-9,000 years ago), Lake Chad was the size of the Caspian Sea, and the Sahara was lush grassland. But over-grazing by pre-agricultural herders, at a time of declining rainfall, led to the destruction of the soil. Once the soil broke down, and dust storms took the light, clay particles, leaving only sand dunes, gravel, stones, and bare rock, the damage was irreversible, at least in historical time.
It is not that without grazing the same plants would have survived, this would simply be magic, but that as the rainfall decreased drought adapted plants would have grown to replace those requiring more rain and therefore the green mantle would have remained, only in changed form.
With the continued existence of plants, whose roots would have held on to the easily eroded soil, who would have made shade of the hot sun, who would have helped the macro and micro-organisms of the soil survive if not flourish; if the soil in the Sahara had just been able to grow the plants it is naturally able to do and not had these plants ripped from the ground by sheep, goats and even cattle, then the rain would have still fallen and the desert would have been kept in check.
The climatologists are not wrong, there has been and continues to be a radical change in the climate of North Africa, it now has spread in to southern Spain and travels the coast into Portugal to the West and France and Italy, the Balkans and Greece to the East. But it is not because of some neutral movement of climate but because the rains rely upon plants to fall and the plants rely upon humans to survive.
What will happen if we leave the soil on the edges of the desert to do what the soil on the edges of the desert would do undisturbed by human action? It is not that such things have not been tried and it is not that the results have not been more than obvious:
In Egypt, at Ras el Helma on the Mediterranean coast, land that had been exhausted through intensive human use, when enclosed, after only 4 years, produced strong and diverse vegetative growth, with plants completely absent elsewhere appearing.
In Mauritania, 7 parcels of land of about 29 hectares were enclosed, and in little over a year enormous changes were observed in the enclosed parcels. Grasses returned, as did ephemeral plants after a fall of rain and they in turn allowed the conditions for ligneous plants to sprout from seeds under their protective cover.
In Staffordshire, England, there were several hundred acres of land that was thought sterile and had never been cultivated but only ever used as rough pasture. However, part of this land was enclosed and Scottish pine had been planted. Twenty-five years later a noted British naturalist, Charles Darwin, wrote of this land in the Origin of the Species, 1859;
“The plantation had brought to this enclosed land a most remarkable change to the
vegetation and it was hard to believe the two lands had been the same. Not only the
number of heathers had completely changed, but 12 species of plants prospered in the
plantation that did not exist on the unenclosed land.”
What makes the difference in these apparently lifeless, dry soils? Enclosure. Not the enclosure of the 17th and 18th Century which forced the peasant people of Europe off what had once been common land, but the enclosure from all human use and abuse of this fragile soil.
Nature when left undisturbed, soil when allowed to do be just what it is, grows plants and covers the soil and from out of this ground cover emerge bushes and then trees. And if the abuse has been widespread and longterm, then we should bring back these seeds that will be missing from the soil, seedball them and leave them on the surface to sprout when they will.
This is our work now, in the disturbed farmland around the Mediterranean, on the West coast of the US and in its dry interior. After the dust bowl, Roosevelt, inaugurated a large plan of earth works to try and protect the region from the terrible winds that blew the soil away. It had only a small impact in an enormous area, but shows what might be done if we had a simpler technique to get plants growing in these ephemeral soils once more.
But, by seedballing billions of seed and then scattering them over the semi-desert regions, we provide the one resource missing to bring the soils and climate back to what it once was. If we were to stop all abuse of these brittle landscapes and drop our billion seedballs from aeroplanes, in 5 years grasses, bushes, young trees would grow up and turn the land back to Earth.
There are those who will throw up their hands at the wastefulness of such measures, now, at the beginning of what they see as the inevitable coming of climate change. But what they have not understood, what no one yet seems to have understood deeply, is that climate is not the master but the slave of the soil.
The climate governs nothing, quite the contrary, climate is entirely governed. The soil when left to itself does what soil does, it plants and then plants when left to themselves do what plants do, they rain. However strange it may sound to our ears, when we do without the idea of an agency and, what is just does what it is, then, ‘soil plants and plants rain’, just that!
But it is worth digging deeper to make sense of something so apparently nonsensical.
The climate is governed firstly by the sun, that is to say, by latitude. Secondly, it is governed by the soil and the state that it is found – disturbed or not by human action. When the soil is sterile the climate becomes dry and hot like the Sahara, when the soil is extremely fertile it will produce much vegetation like the Amazon.
To make the Sahara the Amazon requires only that the soil becomes fertile, to make the Amazon the Sahara requires only that the soil become sterile!
In the 16th century the Portuguese arrived in the State of Ceara, in the North-East of Brazil, at the same latitude as the heart of the Amazon, and found a dense, tropical jungle. They cleared the forest, intensively cultivated sugar cane until sugar beet made the growing of sugar cane uneconomical, they then turned to cotton. Between the sugar cane and the cotton the soil became exhausted and the land was turned over to rough pasture, where, as always, in extractive, ‘economic’ agriculture, it was overgrazed. The weather of this region began to experience unusually long dry spells, the length of the time between rains extending until both animals and humans began to suffer. Every few years the dry spells recurred, causing catastrophic loss of herds, until even the grazing could no longer be supported by the now arid landscape.
What this small piece of colonial history provides is the understanding of why many regions of the world have become desertified over the preceding centuries. The European colonialisation of non-temperate regions of the world brought unsuitable agricultural techniques with it, that in quick time destroyed the more fragile soils of the tropics and sub-tropics. In the case of Ceara, Brazil, there is the rigorous logic of destruction applied to the soil and then, necessarily, the following desertification of the climate.
The more fertile the soil, the more moderate the climate. The poorer the soils, the more extreme the climate.
That the worlds soils have become poorer over the last few hundred years is doubted by no one, that climate change is happening is doubted by no one; but what no one has yet suggested is that the climate is linked to the soil and when fertility falls due to modern conventional farming practices, the climate worsens too. This is not just a mild correlation but an absolute fact that is as apparent in England as it is in the Amazon as it is in the Sahara. If we want to stop the excesses of climate change that are predicted over the coming centuries all we have to do is change our agriculture to farming. All we have to do is grow plants, or even better, let the soil grow the plants it will grow. This is NF, we tend the land having attended it and in doing so we let it be what it is and by doing so we become what we are.
When nature natures, the soil produces the vegetation which the soil needs to support itself. Just as with bees, if we were to take all the honey the bees would die, so as with soil, if we take all the vegetation we will kill the soil. This is not difficult to understand, indeed it is obvious, but it is so easily lost as we endlessly attempt to maximise our yields in order to maximise our profits, as poor farmers extract ever more from the fast impoverishing land to keep the wolf from the door.
But why is the wolf at the door? Is it because we need this latest machine, these particular seeds and that weedkiller that goes with the seeds and then the fertiliser that must be given and then the spray…I think that we have all felt real sympathy with farmers and the struggle they have to keep up with the demands imposed upon them, most often by the supermarket chains, for exactly this type of veg, this size, this shape, this colour, this storage life and at this price…farmers do not have the time to walk their land, because they must plough, weed, spray in order to maintain the standards imposed by the supermarkets.
Yet, in blaming the supermarkets we miss another essential factor; their customers. The farmers are now no more than mere cogs in an enormous machine, a standing reserve, just as their crops are a standing reserve, to be ordered when needed. It is we who force this ridiculous situation because we expect, will accept, just this type of vegetable; if it is malformed, too small, the wrong colour or if there is some insect damage, then we will not buy it. We demand a pristine product, untouched, unmarked by nature, there can be no natural differences and, so, in our demands we force the farmers to destroy nature in order to grow the products we want, for only by doing that can we eat our perfect veg.
Where is happiness? Is the farmer happy? The consumer? Strangely, with all the improvements of technology over the last 50 years in the West, tests of ‘quality of life’ show no differences now to then. Yet, during the same period, we have destroyed half the arable soils and deserts grow bigger daily! We might all have a dishwasher and a microwave oven now, but we no longer have tropical rain forests! We might have satellite TV and our kids’ a PlayStation, but we no longer have fish in the sea. Indeed, we have so very much of what we want, when we want; now we all can watch, each evening, another TV programme, as another part of the world dies.
We’re killing the world, watching it die, but are we aware that we are dying along with the Earth?
The one thing we never expected in our material magnificence, our right to use the world as we wish (for did not God give to Noah the right to ‘use’ the earth?), is that all these commodities come from elsewhere (what we like to call developing nations!), our extractive techniques strip these other places clean, just as with bees and their honey and, by taking it all, we destroy the very thing that produces what we want. We do not see it, yet it is right there before us. We do not pay heed and yet, do we imagine that as we kill nature we can continue to survive.
We have been living for so long under the understanding that somehow humanity is divorced from nature, that somehow we are separate. But the growing revelation of global climate change, of ecological crisis, species extinction, only now allows us to see just what is happening. Can we wake to the reality of the interconnectedness of everything in time? Can we see that if we kill the world we kill ourselves?
What is only now beginning to be felt, the revelation toward which this book pays homage, is that for the first time there is the intimation of the very real possibility of irrevocable loss. This new possibility, the potentiality that now infects our every action, has opened us up to the world as never before. There is now, in the infinite wonder of the world, the ceaselss profligacy of life, the revelation that we might soon end it all, here on this planet. In the possibility of death we are drawn into the wonder of life as never before. We begin to feel the value of everything, each and every single thing, just as it is, perfect; living without a why. What we lose in the penitential movements of humanity to correct the destruction we practice every day, in the recriminations, invective, maledictions and violence used against those we see as perpetrating this destruction, is that, for all our faults, for all our manifest stupidities, the perfection of the Earth is not just this flower, that tiger, this tree and that fish, but us, all of us, all humans too.
So what is this that I am writing right now, what is it that these words speak as if for the first time? Whatever meaning we have extracted from the world, however much knowledge we have accumulated, we have still not come into contact with the Earth. Compared to the single and incontrovertible fact that there is nothing for us to do, all knowledge is mankinds empty boast.
I bend my knee before the Earth, not because I have found some new God, but because in this world is always already that for which we have vainly been searching. It exists nowhere else, not in some putative heaven, some perfect world of Ideas beyond this fallen world, not upon some other planet circling another sun, at no time and in no other place than right here and now. I bend my knee to the Earth because it is my home and my home is my dwelling and in dwelling I fully exist as myself, as everything.