Monday, September 15, 2014

"The Earth is Full"

From dust to lush in 20 months!

It seems sometimes these days that all we hear about are the negative impacts humans have on the environment.

But one thing that I think is becoming increasingly clear is that the environment, so called, appears to be at its very best precisely when deliberate human intervention is the greatest.

The idea that the peoples of the ancient world had, as a best case scenario, little to any impact on the environment, or, worst case, precipitated the complete ecological collapse of the places they lived, appears to be more myth than fact.

"Sifting through the evidence," writes author Charles C. Mann, in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, "it is apparent that many though not all Indians were superbly active land managers—they did not live lightly on the land."

"Indians," he writes, "worked on a very large scale, transforming huge swathes of the landscape for their own ends."

The Amazon Rainforest, for example, rather than being the epitome of virgin forest untouched by humankind, is one of the largest gardens in the world.

The soils in the rainforest are notoriously infertile, a strange paradox given the lush, dense vegetation for which the rainforest is known. The natives figured out a way to introduce large quantities of carbon, in the form of charcoal, and other organic matter, including microorganisms, to create what's called Indian dark earth, or terra preta, a type of soil that's virtually infinitely more fertile than the surrounding soils.

We're only now beginning to understand how to make terra preta ourselves.

Apart from Mann's explosion of the "idea that native cultures did not or could not control their environment," in the past year or so I've come across some remarkable examples of humans deliberately improving their environments, sometimes in unexpected, even paradoxical ways.

I'll share some with you for your consideration and, in some cases, viewing pleasure.

Grazing animals gets a bad rap for ruining the land, ruining the water, and, with bovine methane production, increasingly ruining the air. One of these problems, desertification, is rapidly destroying grasslands worldwide.

Yet paradoxically, the work of biologist Allan Savory, and farmers Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, and John Neumeister, of Cattail Creek Lamb, show that proper grazing practices can significantly improve the health of land, even reversing the deleterious effects of desertification. The latter two have their work featured in the documentary films Food, Inc., and Ingredients, respectively. Dr. Savory has a remarkable TED talk you can watch below.

And Jadav Payeng and Shubhendu Sharma have both shown the world in their own ways that the reclamation of land through reforestation is well within the reach of ordinary human beings.

These represent, I suspect, the tip of the proverbial iceberg of what is taking place worldwide, showing that far from being a parasitic species, Homo sapiens is very much intended to be as the Hebrew account of Genesis makes us out to be: gardeners with a stewardship over the earth that doesn't preclude our intensive use of the earth and its resources. So long as we are wise stewards, as one verse of scripture explains, "the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare."

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