Our Living Soil

“When you thrust a shovel into the soil or tear off a piece of coral, you are, godlike, cutting through an entire world.” Edward O. Wilson

Good soil is alive, a small pail of soil has more microscopic organisms than there are people on earth. http://www.sustainable-gardening.com/inputs-tools/soil-fertilizers/great-soil For the gardener the most magical of these tiny organisms is mycelium—fungus.

paula-flynn-iowa-state-universityFungal mycellium is a web. It is called “the neurological network of nature”. It is believed that behaves like a “sentient membrane” channeling information about nutrients and disease across a garden, across a prairie, across miles of forestland. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets. I’ll say it again and again, it is clear humans do not have a corner on the sentience market. Stamets’ book is a rocking good read, and in addition to his theories on the communication skills of underground mycellium, the book contains a thorough description of the many forms of fungus that appear above ground: mushrooms, the poisonous, the hallucinogenic, the edible.

Two things are necessary to encourage mycellium in the garden where it protects plants from disease and helps them take up nutrients. The first is a practice of no-till gardening, the second is adding as much organic matter to the garden as you can get your hands on.

No-till gardening is far from an accepted practice. I am pretty sure that the spade, the rototiller, the plow break up the mycelium networks that protect plants from disease and assist plants in the uptake of nutrients. Edward H. Faulkner shocked the farm and garden world in his 1943 book, Plowman’s Folly, arguing, in his charming sort of grumpy writing style, that “no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.”

It seems logical that friable, loose earth would allow roots to spread evenly and to proliferate, and short term, this is indeed the case. But in the long term, tillage has a disastrous effect on fungi as it physically breaks up the mycellium network.  http://www.soilquality.org.au/factsheets/soil-bacteria-and-fungi-nsw

I have dutifully plant my garden to avoid disturbing the mycelium. But gardening is not all smooth sailing. I recently planted garlic in a 4×8 foot raised bed making small holes for each clove. My guardian dogs, given access to the garden for the benefits of their predator scent, have now converted this little area to a kind of dog lounge with their big paws, digging as deep as a foot within the cedar planks that surround the “garden” bed. dogs-in-gardenI explained to the dogs that they had torn up my mycelium that helps decompose organic matter; that the mycelium improves soil structure and has a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, called mycorrhizae. I went on to tell them that many kinds of plants require mycorrhizae in order to absorb the nutrients they need for healthy growth. These relationships between fungi and plant roots have developed over MILLIONS of years. The dogs were indifferent to all this science and very proud of their new doggie lounge.

Setbacks aside (the dear dogs are up all night these days driving away foxes, coyotes, cats, raccoons, skunks and heaven knows what else; all born in the spring and present now in my little canyon in great numbers) it is the time of year to add organic matter to the garden so it can decompose over the winter and the hot summer days ahead. This can also be called ‘making compost’. I. I layer the summer waste: melon vines, tomato greenery and grapevine leaves with cow and sheep manure, hay and soil from the stock pen. This creates a little mound about 2 feet tall and 3 feet across. Next September, I’ll rake it out and have a lovely planting space for my 2017 winter garden. Composting always sounds complicated, huge piles, turned by a tractor, measured by a giant thermometer. Or expensive, purchased at nearby nurseries. But it can just be making a layer cake of what’s on hand and being patient. The mycelium love my little garden layer cakes of organic materials. I can tell since small mushrooms (nonedible) tell me so by sprouting up all over the place.

Who adopted who? Cycles, circles, life just goes round and round

 

This is in part a tribute to our ram, Rojo, perhaps a eulogy is a better word. He had a kind of grandeur with his huge horns and yellow eyes, and he was the smartest animal on my little farm.

 rojoThe word sheep is associated with being a mindless follower. And stupid. Like so many things, this turns out to have been wrong and work at the University of Cambridge reveals that sheep have intelligence equal to monkeys, rodents and score higher than humans in some tests. Living with sheep for the past six years, I am not surprised scientists find sheep capable of advanced learning, are able to map out their surroundings and can, perhaps plan ahead.

I had to laugh at a ‘test’ administered by a Professor Jenny Morton: sheep were shown yellow and blue buckets to find out how long it would take them to learn that food would always be in the same colored bucket. It took the sheep seven tries, the same number of times it took monkeys and humans to solve the same problem. When the color of the food buckets was switched around, the sheep quickly adapted. And when color and shape were introduced together, the sheep quickly learned color was irrelevant and shape was the key to the location of the food. Professor Morton wrote: “This is a really sophisticated rule change and is generally something that humans take some time to learn. Mice and rats can’t do it at all. Marmosets take longer than the sheep did to learn while Rhesus monkeys are quicker.” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8335465/Sheep-are-far-smarter-than-previously-thought.html All of this is a citified way of saying what shepards have probably known for hundreds of years.

Not that Rojo did not have his faults. He had that clunky sheep shape, especially with his winter wool—and skinny legs. But he could move like lightening. I was on the ground twice before I knew what had hit me. Once, when I was nudging some small chickens away who were pecking my multicolored socks and another when I was carrying a bucket of food. I don’t think he ever used full power, just a ‘pop’. A half grown calf knocked me over in the barn one day, quite by accident, and I imagined the calf and Rojo saying to each other, “These things go down easy!” I have walked many steps to go around the pasture where the ram was grazing and armed my guests with a stick in case Rojo took it into his head to charge them. But the wobbliest new born lamb could safely walk right up to him and get a gentle sniff of acknowledgment.

One would want to theorize he was a bit wild, not really domesticated. But he, in fact, exhibited the neonatal earmarks of domestication; a shortened snout, permanent growth of his horns and the juvenile habit of begging for food. Scientist Stephen Budiansky’s controversial book The Covenant of the Wild, Why Animals Chose Domestication proposes that domestic animals picked us and not the other way around. This bends my mind. Sheep have been domesticated for as long as 6000 years, following humans, eating the leftovers from human fields and then exchanging human protection for lambs and wool and fertilizer. Perhaps a deal with the devil given the current practice of factory farming. Genetic changes are documented that control the dramatic physical and behavioral changes in domestic animals versus wild animals. Id p. x of preface.

It didn’t take wolves long to start following the big garbage trail left behind by humans. Ten thousand years later their dog descendants are a great evolutionary success story with their begging ways, soft ears, short snouts. We revere and respect the wild wolf. But in the United States there are perhaps 12,000 left, over half of which are in Alaska. There are 70 to 80 million dogs. For now, at least, dogs seems to have bet right. And who is in thrall to who? Anyone who has rushed home to let the dog out knows. I know as well, when on a freezing cold day in January I am breaking the ice so my stock can drink or taking the frost covers off the more fragile plants in my garden instead of curling up under my covers with my coffee. Yes, plants are a part of this story.

Michael Pollan in his wonderful book, The Botany of Desire theorizes that domestic plants actively sought out humans to care for them. Pollan writes, “Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog. I think it was the tasty-sounding “buttery yellow flesh” that did it. This was a trivial, semiconscious event; it never occurred to me that our catalog encounter was of any evolutionary consequence whatsoever. Yet evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalog on a particular January evening counts as one of them. “Evolution: tiny steps leading to survival. Bargains made; deals sealed.

We all know that flowers change colors and shapes to attract bees for the work of pollination. The apple trees and the bees engage in this coevolutionary bargain, food for the bee hive and a system of transport for the apple genes. Domestic plants spent thousands of years evolving ways to heal us, cloth us, intoxicate us and feed us. And the attraction is not all practical; the perfect beauty of flowers is a compelling draw to humans. I cut down spinach bothering a rose bush just last week because of the perfect color and form of the rose. Pollan says, Plants are so unlike people that it’s very difficult for us to appreciate fully their complexity and sophistication. Yet plants have been evolving much, much longer than we have, have been inventing new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say that one of us is the more “advanced” really depends on how you define that term, on what “advances” you value. Id Botany of Desire, PollanWe learned to make tools, to walk and talk. Plants invented photosynthesis and a large array of chemical compounds, some of which serve humans. And we serve them in return as anyone who gardens or farms is well aware.

This circle of service, the master/servant relationship is natural. Nature embodied. Who is master and who is servant is interesting. I know my Broccoli thinks I serve it; Rojo certainly thought he was the master. I will pick up my dear old ram in a few weeks from the abattoir (naturally the French word just sounds better than the American word, processing plant). He was lame, his teeth falling out, he was in pain but I’ll bring him home cut up for food for the dogs. If this upsets anyone, I’ll be happy to research the ingredients in modern dog food and I guarantee, they will not be very nice. What the dogs will be served out is a regal creature, so productive: 14 lambs, his last shearing made the wool rug for my son and his fiance’s wedding present and the green grass now growing in what was rocky hard ground is due to Rojo’s part in the marvelous ancient herbivore-pasture marriage.

Fall Gardening, the sentience of animals and the destruction of our planet

What marvelous things plants are. In the hierachy of my mind, after my children and a few close friends, plants are at the top. Of course, my 300-year old Oak tree is at the top of my plant heirachy and today the bottom, is my Malabar Spinach malabar-spinach–doing its best to kill my favorite climbing rose as I write this. It is very enthusiastic and wants the rich ground the rose uses. This spinach is immune to any disease as far as I know and amazingly healthy food for humans; it self seeds, requires no care and is absolutely beautiful. Why do I prefer the rose? I have no idea.

Plants are so varied and change so much in any calendar year, that any list of preferred plants shifts dramatically with each passing month. In early December I think fondly of cauliflower as I roast it for dinner. Now? Not so much. Many plants change in chemistry when attacked by a pest emitting a taste or scent to ward off enemies. Although I have planted three kinds of cauliflower, they all just sit there and let the caterpillars of the white fly eat their leaves. I don’t mean just a few holes, I mean nothing is left, nothing. So I use my battery of help for the wretched creatures because of the previously mentioned December love in the kitchen: cayenne sprinkled on the leaves, garlic spray, dish soap spray– three different organic sprays (and that is an entire post for the future). I am told to ‘pick off the caterpillars’; but, of course, they are not to be found (by me at least) until they strip a plant, turn into a white fly and proceed the the next generation. The kale and brussel sprouts are no better at defense. They are like a really bad football team.

These beautiful beets  have some magic that repels disease and insects, humans have only the dimmest understanding of these plant abilities. img_0598

It’s like fingernails on a blackboard for me to hear my dear Vegan and Vegetarian friends take pride in not eating animals, as a moral choice, and instead eat plants. Like plants have no soul, like plants are not sentient beings. Like plants are comparable to the plastic wrap they use or other disposable things in such abundance in our world. More than 150 acres of rainforests are lost every minute of every day, and 78 million acres lost every year! More than 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, and much more is severely threatened as the destruction continues. It is estimated that the Amazon alone is vanishing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year.http://rain-tree.com/facts.htm.

And the rainforest destruction is not to make pastures for domesticated animals to graze upon. There is plenty of pasture on the planet, much of it is not in very good shape, but it’s there. Unfortunately, our corporate culture finds feedlots a much more profitable way to raise animals. Big Agriculture wants new land to cultivate for grains, fruits, vegetables, palm oil and other oils. All this ‘food’ is more ‘moral’ somehow since it does not kill animals. Yet the expansion of ‘farmland’ does kill animals. Among a host of other ecological aberrations, this has induced what has been called ‘the sixth great extinction’ (Kolbert, 2014). Over the last 40 years we have destroyed over 50% of Earth’s vertebrae wildlife. (mammals, birds, reptilians, amphibians, and fish) (WWF, 2014).

I love animals, I think they should be nurtured and cared for and protected, especially in the wild. I just don’t think they are better than plants. I have animals. My family and friends always ask about the cow, the sheep, the dogs, the chickens. Never about spinach. Or the sunflowers now in their October bloom. This Maxmillian sunflower img_0091is a great bully of a plant shouldering its companions aside but is covered in this photo with honey bees.

I only wanted the animals to help improve the soil here and they have done a wonderful job. Our beautiful hill country was plowed and the topsoil ran off in the drenching rains that come up from the Gulf of Mexico. The rocky clay that remains is full of nutrients and when loosened makes a fine soil. My herbivores do what herbivores do on pasture, loosen and improve it. Think of the buffalo and our great American grasses in the 19th century sitting on top of 2 to 4 feet of rich topsoil in some places.

Perhaps this little farm is more like a puzzle; a place where hierarchy is meaningless since every piece, however small is necessary. My 300 year old Live Oak told me to buy this place many years ago and has provided unlimited mental energy and emotional support to me; but even this grand old tree needs the living soil with its microbes and tiny, even invisible creatures that make life possible.