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Biosphere & Beyond

Dark Night of the Soil: Restoring the Human-Humus Relationship

This article was originally published on EFTE-Applied Research and Education

“Imagine a conference not on the Future of the Humanities in the Capitalist Restructuring University, but instead on the Power of the Humusities for a Habitable Multispecies Muddle! …human beings are with and of the earth, and the biotic and abiotic powers of this earth are the main story. However, the doings of the situated, actual human beings matter. It matters which ways of living and dying we cast our lot rather than others. It matters not just to human beings, but also to those many critters across taxa which and whom we have subjected to exterminations, extinctions, genocides, and prospects of futurelessness.”

Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

Much of our soil is becoming mere dirt. And if you care about climate change, you need to care about the crucial role that land degradation is playing in global warming, and the crucial role that soil restoration will and does already play in creating real climate solutions.

Healthy soil teems with life beneath our feet. Being land-dwellers, we tend to focus on what’s aboveground. When we observe plants, we’re typically only seeing 30 percent of the overall biomass of that plant! Besides root structures, all sorts of bacteria, organisms, and detritus interact in complex ways in soil. Within a cubic meter of healthy earth, you may find fungal hyphae twice the diameter of the earth! For those who do not know, hyphae are thread-like tubular structures, a mass of which make up the mycelium, which is the true body of a fungus. Hyphae digest externally (by releasing chemicals and enzymes into soil and nearby plant tissues) and form connections that transfer nutrients into itself as well as the nearby plants. The complex subterranean world was designed by nature intelligently; our interference in its wellbeing has had devastating fallout including desertification and global warming.

The number one culprit in degrading and eroding soil is big agriculture. Practices like tilling, no use of cover crops, and heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides all strip nutrients and microbes and destroy what Walter Jehne, Australian climate scientist and soil microbiologist, calls the “soil sponge,” full of fungal hyphae helping to create a porous living material that can sequester carbon. Sue Van Hook, mycologist, naturalist, teacher and healer, explains in this interview with Mushroom Revival that carbon is like the skeleton of the sponge and can hold up to 8x its weight in water. This massively increases the longevity of soil and the ability to continue growing in times of drought. Spores from fungi that grow in soil also trap water vapor, and Walter Jehne notes in this excellent interview how water vapor plays a key role in hydrology and the cooling of the planet. 

Walter Jehne illustrating the soil sponge, largely made by fungi and carbon who make space for voids and space in the soil structure, in which water and roots can proliferate. Jehne also explains how the increased surface area of minerals in a soil sponge like this increases biofertility.

He further explains that, “For the last 8,000 years of ‘human civilization,’ we’ve been very effective at clearing and burning [productive] land, cultivating those soils and building industrial systems. We’ve oxidized the carbon and destroyed the biological cycles that underpin the health of those landscapes. We’ve done that with 5 billion hectares of land, turning 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface into desert and wasteland. As we oxidize the carbon, by definition, those soils can’t infiltrate, retain, or make available water from rain. Invariably, they go to desert. That’s been the history of man on this planet.”

In brief, sequestering carbon in soil has the potential to reverse climate change by firstly drawing down the oxidized atmospheric carbon into the ground where it is stable and beneficial, and by rebalancing the water cycles of planet earth.

OK— so how does humus play into this?

You may be thinking it has something to do with compost? Topsoil? Organic matter? Well, sort of. Let’s start with organic matter. When it decomposes, all kinds of molecules are broken down (protein, sugars, amino acids, etc.) by bacteria/fungi/other organisms in the soil. Eventually usable stuff that’s been broken down as much as is possible is available to plants. Then there’s leftover molecules largely made up of carbon, and this absorbent material that we’ve historically called “humus” is very stable and can persist in soil for hundreds of years. 

Humus is hard to define. In fact, Erhard Jennig writes that “humus is not a real substance, but rather a process.”  The seemingly simple and common definition of humus as “black-brown matter in the topsoil produced by the putrefaction of vegetable and animal matter” does not capture the complexity of formation processes that take place following decomposition processes, which includes binding together with inorganic compounds like fine clay particles. More recent research into soil microbiology by Jehne reveals that “humus” may have more to do with what is secreted by plant roots than we previously realized. 

We can agree that compost is good, and adding organic matter especially to areas in which you frequently harvest seems especially good. But Jehne says that most soil carbon comes from plants’ root exudates. “Nature created soil by growing plants and making sure that potentially up to 60 or 70 percent of the biomass produced can be fixed into stable soil carbon. Currently though, little of it is.” Importantly, fungi are the necessary agents that mediate conversion of these root exudates into humates or glomalin (stable soil carbon). Glomalin is produced from leftover chitin from cell walls of fungi and acts like a glue or bedsprings within our soil sponge. 

These facts illuminate why common agricultural practices that rely on constant soil disturbance through clearing and harvesting end up making the humus process nearly impossible. The humus process generally requires undisturbed land, which is why you’ll find the richest stores of that authentic black topsoil in untouched forests. We need to revise what “commonplace” growing practices are these days—let’s choose practices that support the humus process and the formation of a strong soil sponge that sequesters carbon, retains moisture, and creates nutrient-rich food for everyone. 

Fungal hyphae, an important part of the soil sponge and the humus process. Photo by Jerzy Opioła [CC BY-SA]

What You Can Do

Every bit of carbon that we can re-sequester into soil matters. In reality, restoring the human-humus relationship—restoring our “soil sponge” and recognizing the sacredness of living soil itself— is much more about land management practice than adding awesome compost or other soil amendments.

Van Hook and Jehne note or imply the following basic land management tasks that will restore the soil sponge. Many of these are obviously applicable to farm management, but they can also be adapted for personal backyard growing practices.

  • Don’t till! Tilling breaks up important fungal hyphae, disturbs other processes, exposes soil to radiation, and oxidizes carbon.
  • Use cover crops and groundcover.  Keeping soil covered at all times with plants reduces carbon dioxide off-gassing, provides food and relationships for beneficial fungi, attracts biodiversity and potential pollinators, increases fertility and aeration, and decreases the likelihood of heat domes and runoff. 
  • Diversify crops. Mixed species provide better benefits for everyone below ground as well as aboveground. 
  • Implement appropriate grazing practices, especially in grasslands. Think of grazing animals as “mobile biodigesters” (term coined by Jehne) who help return unharvested vegetation to the earth rather than having it burn. The hooves of these herbivores also break up soil, they help spread seeds, and waste adds fertility. Appropriate grazing means livestock are moved regularly so nothing is overeaten. Atmospheric science has shown that herbivore-maintained grasslands produce an abundance of the kinds of ions needed to break up methane ions, another harmful greenhouse gas.
  • Oppose fracking however you can—the methane exposed from that far outweighs any methane from other sources.
  • Stop using biocides, which whether organic or not, kill life outright in our soils.
  • Plant crops with deep roots like bluestem prairie grass, which pump carbon downwards into the soil.
  • Support regrowth of forests—including urban forests—however you can.
  • Aim to create perennial gardens and food forests rather than gardens full of annual plants. 
Wild Ginger was one of various groundcover plants EFTE Eco-landscaping installed in a woodland reclamation project. Photo by Sherrilyn Billger.

As it goes in this “multispecies muddle,” our human health is directly tied to soil health. Nutrient density depends on fungi converting organic matter into available minerals, and nutrient density and quality of food grown (possibly even the presence of beneficial microbes) affects our gut health. And as we now know, many illnesses can be tied to gut imbalance. Oh, and not to mention the obvious hard truth: loss of productive soil ultimately leads to not only less nutritious food but less food period…many civilizations “plowed themselves out of business,” so to speak. But of course, we only need to worry about food security if we can first secure the habitability of this planet (i.e. mitigating climate change): habitability not only for us humans, but for all our critter friends whose homes and lives are intertwined with our own.

I hope that alongside the abovementioned practices, more humans will feel an inner perspective and awareness shift. The ground beneath our feet is incredibly complex, intelligent, responsive, and alive. We have historically demanded of the ground so much, dominating it with our shovels and machines and flames. What will happen when we recognize that which we stand upon and that which feeds us as sacred and sentient? What if, along with our revision of physical actions and care-taking, we infuse our everyday awareness with deeper sensing and gratitude for the cycles of the underworld?

For visual/auditory learners interested in hearing more details from Walter Jehne and his feasible solutions for literally saving the world, check out this full lecture video. 

A shorter visual illustration of the soil sponge can be found here

Categories
Biosphere & Beyond Somatics & Hypnotherapy

Kinky Roots: What Tree Transplanting and Trauma Can Teach Us

This article was originally published on EFTE-Applied Research and Education

One of Eating for the Ecosystem’s values is “plants are people too;” but lately, I’ve been thinking of it also as “people are plants, too.” Just like people, plants deserve love, care, and understanding of how they like to be treated and what their needs are in times of transition. Just like plants, the roots young humans develop given their environmental conditions have long-term impacts on wellbeing.

The other day as we were installing viburnums and Mountain laurel at a woodland site, we found that the plants from the nursery were extremely pot-bound with badly kinked roots and root flare buried too deep under the soil. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for nursery conditions to lead to this type of growth. Like people, the plants develop in a way that reflects circumstance, context, environment. Any number of factors such as soil quality, container size, sunlight, watering habits, etc. can affect the roots of a baby plant. What happens when it’s time for a young container-bound plant to move to a new earthen home? As with humans, we know the world is larger than the home we grow up in, but we may find that as we start to fill out into possibility and fertile expanses of soil, perhaps there are some girdled roots, so to speak, getting in the way of healthy growth.

Sad street plants installed still potbound with rootball in bad condition (photo by Sherrilyn Billger)

A good handful of landscapers out there would probably just install the plant as is, thinking it looked fine at first glance. And it’s true, in *some* cases perhaps the resilient plant would do fine, but in other cases the roots would continue to girdle and end up leading to sickness or short life. Before beginning work in the field of gardening and eco-landscaping, I didn’t know that, like people, sometimes you need to dig around a little bit to find out what’s really going on with the roots and growth patterns of a plant, and that this is a crucial step when transplanting a young shrub or tree.

As we examined the rootballs of the viburnums, we had to dig and scrape and work with the material to discover where the healthy roots were that we needed to keep and where the kinky roots were that would inhibit the plant from up-taking nutrients and living sustainably. This process reminded me of therapeutic frameworks and healing work. Through therapeutic and mindful practices, humans often find that within themselves, there are kinked roots (usually formed when developmental needs weren’t met or through childhood trauma, or perhaps stemming from generations-long familial trauma) amidst strong, healthy, resilient roots. We may have been planted in a new situation after childhood or experienced trauma and/or transition at various later stages of life and found that, perhaps surprisingly, some of our coping mechanisms can actually get in the way of living our healthiest possible lives.

I recently attended a workshop on the Hakomi Method of Mindful Somatic Psychotherapy. Fascinatingly, we learned with hands-on experience how someone with developmental trauma who hears a potentially nourishing phrase will often have some somatic response indicating that they are not quite able to uptake that nourishment. For example, this is a potentially nourishing phrase: “Your heart deserves to be taken care of.” Folks who are able to absorb this statement will report pleasant somatic feelings, or “that feels good,” or perhaps don’t feel much somatically at all. Folks whose life experience has been traumatic in some way relating to this phrase may report different kinds of pangs, pains, or swooshes of sensation in different parts of their body, perhaps connected with emotion. The body is not able to uptake the nourishment, and now the client and therapist can both see more clearly where the girdled or problematic roots may be.

Girdled Amelanchier stump. This tree was most certainly having a hard time properly taking in nutrients and healthfully growing (photo by Sherrilyn Billger)

Potbound roots should be redirected outwards or cut before planting

Although with humans it isn’t always so straightforward or possible to detangle or cut away the kinky roots when being transplanted, with plants it is something we can certainly do. Researchers have said that it is possible to cut away up to 90% of kinked roots at planting time and still have the plant thrive. The most important thing is to find the root flare at the base of the plant, make sure it is level with the top of the soil, and to get as many of the roots as possible to expand outwards rather than circling in on itself. This is a beautiful metaphor for humans as well: sometimes we need a little assistance getting organized inside and getting prepared to expand outwards.

Experience shows that plants with a significant amount of problematic roots removed during transplanting may look less beautiful in the first year, but in the long run will look more beautiful and will live longer than trees who were planted with rootball still potbound and girdled. This makes me think metaphorically of a larger scope of humanity. It feels to me that our society is in a big time of transition (maybe we always are, more or less)— that we’ve exposed a lot of kinky roots at our core. I think we’re still digging around and getting a feel for the shape of the rootball and the extent of the girdling. Yet, there is a sense of urgency. It’s time to cut away the problematic roots. I’m referring broadly to histories and persisting realities of racial, gender-based, and other types of oppression and violence, white supremacist and colonizer frameworks, human-first/domineering non-relational systems, and more. It may not appear to be a “beautiful” process for everyone, at first, as we snip such roots, but it’s crucial for a healthier and more just future. I wonder where our healthy collective roots are–how can we locate those and help them get stronger? To me, this often is the work of artists, myth-relayers, storytellers, and more: creative documents can help us examine where our kinky roots have sickened ourselves and where our strongest roots could grow us into uniquely graceful, robust, or resilient beings.

If you can keep following my societal metaphor here, or even the personal therapeutic metaphor, consider that there may be times we are dealing with an older, well-established tree rather than a young tree at planting time. Older trees, for a number of reasons, including but not exclusive to the poor initial planting and root conditions, may have sick roots or get sick in other ways. One technique arborists use to ease this is to do radial trenching. In addition to cutting away obvious and easy to locate girdled roots, we can dig holes between root flares to add nourishing organic matter and to aerate the soil. Like with older individuals or with habituated societal patterns, we can certainly still work to cut away the unhealthy and knotted roots. At the same time, we can infuse the context and individuals with nourishment, love, and support. We want to give them the best chance possible to thrive. Maybe plants and people are not so different, after all: we all need a healthy environment where we can safely grow to our fullest potential, and sometimes, when conditions weren’t perfect, we need a little extra -or maybe a lot of- TLC at various stages of life to help us revivify.

Cutting out obvious girdled roots and adding compost between root flares as part of a radial trenching technique. (Still from a video by Courtney Paoli)
Some wounds scar for a lifetime. Somehow this rope is embedded into the bark of a Holly tree. It is likely disturbing flow of nourishment, yet the resilient plant grows on. Please take care of your young ones– whether plant, human, or otherwise–and take care of each other. (Photo by Victoria Moyer)