|Photo Borrowed from Author Kristin Ohlson's Website|
If you’re reading this newsletter, you already know many of the benefits of organic farming. You intuit that organic practices make tastier food, encourage biodiversity, and promote clean air and water. What you may not be aware of is that soil is connected to climate change, that land mismanagement contributes to 30 percent of the carbon emissions that enter the atmosphere, or that certain farming and land use practices may even reverse global warming. Striking the perfect chord of reality and optimism, Kristin Ohlson’s 2014 book, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet, explores just that.
In college, I chose Botany 101 to fulfill a five-credit science requirement. I like plants and I wanted to learn more about them, but the class was a disappointment. We covered the biology and chemistry of photosynthesis, and we grew plants in milk containers and exposed them to different kinds of light. Sadly, I don’t remember anything else. What I really wanted from that class was something like Ohlson’s book: an exploration of the complexity of the soil and its connections to all of life. The book begins with a discussion of carbon farming and goes into the science of soil and photosynthesis. Ohlson effectively presents complicated scientific ideas in a digestible way, and she seamlessly shifts from details to the big picture. With her engaging writing style, Ohlson takes us to visit scientists, farmers and ranchers from Zimbabwe to North Dakota to Western Australia, as well as urban landscape managers in New York, Portland and Boston.
Healthy soil prevents droughts and floods, purifies water, grows healthy food and sequesters carbon. Soil is a collection of fungi, worms, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, earthworms, beetles, voles and more. How many microorganisms are in a cup of healthy soil? “More than all the humans who have ever lived,” Ohlson writes.
Working together, those living things create healthy soil. “Weirdly, we’ve all been schooled in the notion that plants are takers, removing nutrients from the soil and leaving it poorer,” Ohlson writes. “But when plants are allowed to work with their partners in the soil, they’re givers. They feed carbon exudates to the community of bacteria and fungi to keep them thrumming with life and pulling mineral nutrients from the bedrock as well as from particles of sand, silt, and clay….When the predator soil organisms eat the bacteria and fungi, all those nutrients are released near the plant. There’s always enough, unless human or some other force messes up the system.”
|Mulch and cover crops can be an alternative |
means to amend and protect soil integrity
As I read this book, again and again I marveled at the interconnectedness of all living things. In 2015, Robert Waldinger gave a TED Talk about the 75-year Harvard study on human happiness. Waldinger is the fourth director of this study which began with 724 men in 1938. Using questionnaires, medical records, blood tests, brain scans, interviews and more, the study continues today with 60 of the remaining men, and has expanded to include wives and some 2,000 children of the original participants. So what has the Harvard study uncovered about the secrets to human happiness? People who are more connected to family, friends and community live longer, Waldinger says. “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” This was also the idea that stood out to me most in Ohlson’s excellent book. The key to health is relationships, whether human or microbial. Our future depends on our ability to nurture relationships, and we need to nurture them everywhere.