As Important as Dirt

Finally got around to picking up Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), an exposition on the geopolitical and ecological factors leading to the eventual demise of societies and people throughout history, such as the inhabitants of Easter Island.   Some of Diamond’s ecological claims and explanations have been called into question but, notwithstanding, history is replete with the fall of societies – some of them great – that were unable to resolve problems, whether they be social, physical or environmental, that threatened the very survival of their people.  I’m not yet done with Diamond’s book, so I’ll hold off on any judgment or pronouncements.  But the exercise of looking back in time and understanding what caused societies to fail and eventually disappear into the annals of history is a useful exercise.   Suffice it to say, and stepping back for a moment, reflecting upon the current health of our own society, the cracks in the building blocks upon which our great society was built, including or institutions, traditions, beliefs and understanding of God, family, community,  freedom and liberty are starting to show and some might even argue the foundation is rapidly eroding away.

Speaking of eroding away, Tracy Mehan has a book review on  Stanley Trimble’s new book, Historical Agriculture and Soil Erosion in the Upper Mississippi River Hill Country.  Tracy begins,

The settlers coming into the Hill Country of southwestern Wisconsin in the early 19th century were overwhelmed by the beauty and fecundity of the landscape. Stanley W. Trimble describes it as “a sort of rural paradise, an Arcadia in America” in his monumental history of environmental devastation and renewal, Historical Agriculture and Soil Erosion in the Upper Mississippi Valley Hill Country. Here natives of New England and northern Europe found beautiful valleys with cold, clear, flowing springs with ample brook trout outside the front door of their farm houses. Prairie soils were rich and fertile. All was well for six or seven decades. Things began to change for the worse. The springs eventually dried up but then filled with raging waters with even a moderate rainstorm, bringing with it “torrents of mud, sand, and boulders, all threatening your house and farmstead. Of course, the brook trout are long gone.”

Tracy’s review, on behalf of the Environmental Law Institute, a great organization run by my friend, John Cruden, can be found here, Historical Agriculture etc. in the Upper Miss. River Hill Country Review.   It’s a fascinating tale, and one that reinforces the unique, life-giving work of farmers in tending to and maintaining the health and productivity of their lands.   As Aldeo Leopold once remarked, “The destruction of soil is the most fundamental kind of economic loss which the human race can suffer.”   Yet Leopold understood that soil destruction was more than just economic loss, it represents self-inflicted wounds to a larger living community,

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.

Although we seldom think about the earth under our feet, soils are highly complex, consisting of many dynamic biotic and abiotic processes that must be understood and respected to maintain the health of every living thing to which is attached.   Soil is like the human skin, treat it poorly, and the beauty and life which it sustains will quickly shrivel and die away.