“Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.”
With these words, the ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes taught us the power of leverage points. It’s a key concept in permaculture design, too. When we deeply understand the system we’re working with—be it a garden, a business, a community, or even a personal relationship—we can spot the places where a small, perfectly located nudge will beget a large response. Plenty of disciplines use leverage points. There’s aikido, where a tiny movement by a master redirects the force of an attacker to send the latter sprawling—or worse. In integrated pest management (IPM), the timely deploying of an insect trap at a vulnerable moment in a pest’s life cycle will snare only the target insect while leaving beneficial bugs. Finding leverage points usually requires keen observation and a deep grasp of the system we’re working with.
The leverage point I want to focus in this and the next few articles is soil. Soil, that thin living skin of the earth, is the foundation of life. When we use or create healthy soil, a broad gamut of benefits bursts forth: Rich soil sequesters carbon and promotes biodiversity both above and below ground. It grows healthy plants—which in turn grow healthy people and animals. Good soil stores water, reduces erosion, prevents runoff, and stores and exchanges nutrients. It does lots more; the benefits go on and on.
I learned the value of good soil the hard way, as a novice permaculturist working a hillside site in Oregon twenty-odd years ago. It had been clearcut and not replanted for years. The thin forest soil had washed downslope, leaving behind lifeless red clay. The previous owners had built a garden and added compost, but they had also dumped countless buckets of ash from their wood stove on the beds for a decade or so. That had cooked the soil into a brutally alkaline stew, and overloaded it with a toxic burden of potassium. (That last word derives from pot ash, named for its abundance in the residue from ceramic kilns. Potassium is a critical nutrient, but in excess it blocks the uptake of several other nutrients.)
Restoring our abused soil taught me a lot, and I’ll detail that story a bit later. After a decade at that site, and ten years of studying, remediating, and rebuilding that depleted soil, we moved north to Portland. Our city lot turned out to be Willamette Valley loam, some of the finest agricultural soil in the world. Plants fairly exploded out of the ground, easily double the size and growth rate of those in our previous place, even after all my restoration efforts. Those combined experiences taught me precisely why farmers value good soil. It’s a lot easier to find it (and preserve it) than to build it.
We’re going to cover a lot of ground—if you’ll pardon the pun—in this series of articles. My approach will be different from the way most books and videos teach about soil. I’ll begin with an overview of what soil is made of, and then zoom out for the cosmically big picture of how the elements in soil—carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, the trace elements, and so forth—are fused together in stellar infernos. That grand story isn’t just an excuse for me to do some cosmic raving. It gives us clues to why these soil constituents are so good at what they do, and we’ll cover that subject next. Once we’ve got all the theory and background, we’ll get practical: how nutrients are held and exchanged in soil and in the critters who live there; words of wisdom and advice from some of the masters of soil science and nutrient-dense gardening; how to tune up your own soil; and finally, my own time-tested method of creating gorgeous garden soil and my recipe for the super, growth-boosting blend of soil amendments that I use to raise lush, nutrient-dense vegetables.
First, what’s in soil? The pie chart below shows the make-up of a typical agricultural soil.
The components of a typical soil. Image credit: University of British Columbia.
In soil, the amount of air, water, and organic matter (which in the chart includes soil organisms as well as dead organic matter) can vary tremendously depending on how the land has been used, when it last rained, the climate, and so forth. But the pie-chart’s numbers are reasonable averages. In these articles I’m going to focus on the organic and mineral parts of soil. “Organic” in this case means that it is or once was a living thing. The word comes from the Greek organikos, meaning “pertaining to an organ of a living being.” From a chemical point of view, organisms (also from the same root) and organic matter are mostly carbon. We’ll need to spend some time on this miraculous element and how it works so we can understand why soil organic matter is so critical to healthy soil and healthy people. The word “mineral” is a catch-all for stuff that originally came from rocks. It includes sand, silt, clay, and the elements that make them up, such as aluminum, calcium, magnesium, and a big chunk of the rest of chemistry’s periodic table. Minerals and carbon are soil’s main active ingredients.
Where do those soil ingredients come from? Carl Sagan famously said that “We are made of star stuff,” and that’s true of soil, too. Just about everything in soil was birthed in stellar furnaces or in the first few micro-moments of the Big Bang. To give proper credit, Sagan was not the first say that we’re built of “star stuff.” A journalist in a 1913 newspaper has priority, having written, “The sun is made of star stuff, and the earth is made of the same material.” In 1918 the astronomer Albert D. Watson applied the phrase to humans, writing, “. . . we come to see that if our bodies are made of star-stuff . . . we are made of universal and divine ingredients.”
I’ll leave you with the notion that soil has a history as old and as grand as our entire universe. In the next installment, I’ll describe the hellishly hot origins of soil elements and the special qualities that make them the basic building blocks of life and health.
This soil series should be a fun, educational, and useful journey. If you have friends who might like to come along with us, please send them the link for subscribing to our newsletter. Here’s the link for the newsletter mailing list: http://eepurl.com/bv-apD .
Nate Holdsworth says
Toby! Can’t wait for class tomorrow! One of my mentors and favorite people right now Justin Maltry the Environmental programs director for Seattle Tilth says “Humans are nothing more than temporariliy animated Humus” I like that better than star stuff, it feels like a more earth based abstraction, and honestly, I beleive we need to spend less time thinking about the stars and more time thinking about the dirt, language directs thought, or so I beleive, and to this end, I try to focus on language and the analogies I use etc… I thought you would enjoy that quote. The healthier our soil, the healthier our bodies!
Clover and Chamomile Toby,
Nate Holdsworth Seattle Tilth permaculture class 2016
Elizabeth Goodman says
Thank you for this! I’m loving the connection(s) between the stars and the soil – the macro and the micro – it puts things in perspective and reminds us of our humble humanity among the humus. Harhar. 😉
Steve Hart says
Great subject Toby. I will try to offer snippets along the way. I am in fact working closely with New Zealand’s leading soil scientist at present, advising to farms. Very entertaining to say the least. Have you had
a look through the work of Glen Atkinson http://www.bdmax.co.nz ? I assume you also have Graeme Sait’s book Nutrition Rules which is a compilation of interviews from many of the leaders in the industry at present. Best regards Steve Hart
Erich J. Knight says
Geosin, discovered in 2012, the molecule which gives soil that earthy smell, stimulates the vagus nerve down to the stomach’s micobiome, our stomach’s wee-beasties send a message back to the brain to release neurotransmitters which make us happy. Just smelling soil makes us Happy.
Soil Biology is our only way to rapidly and massively draw down CO2 from the air to offset our ongoing and past carbon emissions, It Can safely and naturally restore the hydrological cycles by increasing biogenic aerosols and cloud albedo that can readily cool the planet by the 3 watts/m2 needed to offset the now locked in greenhouse warming effects and avoid the Storms of Our Grandchildren.
The French have lead the way recognizing Soil Carbons’ value and committing to build Soil Carbon by 0.40% annually. Putting them on the road to Carbon Negativity before any industrialized country. 25 nations have signed on to 4p1000. 100 of the 196 countries in Paris submitted plans to reduce CO2 via agriculture, forestry and replacing soil carbon into their programmes.
A combination of Best Management Practices, (BMPs), for Agriculture, Grazing & Forestry with bioenergy systems which build soil carbon can deliver the giga-tons of carbon necessary into the soil sink bank.
Ag BMPs; 1 GtC, New Forest & BMPs; 1 GtC
Pyrolitic Bioenergy, Cooking Stoves; nearly 1/2 GtC
Industrial Pyrolitic Bioenergy; 2 GtC
Holistic Grazing; 2+ GtC
Over 6 GtC,
So soils & biota can do more than half the 10 GtC reduction job, feeding carbon to life instead of death.
Carbon Sequestration Cascade;
Each Black Carbon gram (biochar & humus) can increase Water Retention by 8 grams, and can support 10 grams of Green Carbon, which each can feed up to 10 more grams of fungal mycelium White Carbon growth
Carbon has been fundamental to life since the birth of our planet. It’s the source of all wealth and the conduit of all joy. Carbon cycles among and between billions of interconnected earthlings, whose fates teeter on the element’s return trip to the soil. Only the generous reciprocity inherent to life macrocycles can restore abundance and harmony to the planet of the living. May we celebrate a happy Intended Anthropocene, anointed in water & Soil rather than Oil and Blood.
Soil-C Farming of Oz
“The Cat’s Cradle”
Improving Agricultural Productivity and Economic Viability through Improved Understanding of Natural Systems
Clean Biomass cooking is no small thing.
The World Bank Study;
Biochar Systems for Smallholders in Developing Countries:
Leveraging Current Knowledge and Exploring Future Potential for Climate-Smart Agriculture
has very exacting analysis of biomass usage & sources, energy & emissions.
Also for Onion farmers in Senegal and Peanut farmers in Vietnam.
A simple extrapolation made from the Kenya cook stove study, assuming 250M
TLUDs, (Top-Lite Up Draft) Cook Stoves for the roughly 1 billion folks world wide now using open burning.
A TLUD per Household of 4, producing 0.52 tons char/Household/yr, X 250M = 130 Mt Char/yr
Showing sequestration of 130 Million tons of Biochar per year, could be achieved just from cooking.
In terms of CO2e, these 250M Households reduce 825M Tons of CO2e annually.
The cascading pulmonary health benefits for woman & children is the very thick icing on this nearly 1/2 GtC Soil Carbon Cake.
Erich J. Knight says
A Carbon-Based Religion
Carl Sagan’s human connection to stardust leaves out a critical stage. We are stardust, bu only stardust transformed by life. Every time I look at an SEMs of Char, it strikes me, the perfect preservation of the base structures of life, a fractal vision, how life creates the greatest surface area with the least amount of material. The preservation of this structure, for return to the lowest order of life, seems almost a religious act. A perfect cradle to cradle recycling, biotic carbon should never be combusted and destroyed, be revered, as life is revered, be returned to the cradle of terrestrial life the Soil
Reading the Japanese work on adding char in animal feed, I thought of posting the Vatican, to lobby for a re-formulation of communion wafers. Communion is what I feel when I sequester carbon in soils. This feeling lead me to compose this paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer: [Our Carbon Who Art in Heaven]
In this Carbon based religion Burning is not the consequence OF Sin, Burning is the Sin.
1) About a central figure responsible for life, carbon.
2) Stewardship; living today in a way that protects the system for posterity.
3) About something in the heavens that need to manifest on Earth
4) The Golden Rule: Account external costs so they are not done unto others.
The Terra Preta Prayer
Our Carbon who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name
By kingdom come, thy will be done, IN the Earth to make it Heaven.
It will give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our atmospheric trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against the Kyoto protocols
And lead us not into fossil fuel temptation, but deliver us from it’s evil
low as we walk through the valley of the shadow of Global Warming,
I will feel no evil, your Bio-fuels and fertile microbes will comfort me,
For thine is the fungal kingdom,
and the microbe power,
and the Sequestration Glory,
For ever and ever (well at least 2000 years)
Soil Carbon Commandments:
1) Thou shalt not have any other Molecule before Me
2) Thou shall not make wrongful use of the name of Biochar, It will not acquit anyone who mis-charactorizes it’s name
3) Observe the Fallow days and keep them, as Sustainability commands thou
4) Honor your Micro Flora & Fauna , as the Soil Carbon commands you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that High Soil Carbon has given you.
5) Thou shall not murder the Soil Food Web
6) Neither shall thou adulterate the Soils with Toxicity
7) Neither shall thou steal Biomass from the Soil Food Web
8) Neither shall thou bear false witness against your neighbors Biochar, or about Thy own
9) Neither shall thou covet your neighbor’s Fertility
10) Neither shall thou desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or Pyrolysis Reactor, or farm implements, or anything that belongs to your neighbor, as thou may Create thy Own
Soil Carbon Dream
I have a dream that one day we live in a nation where progress will not be judged by the production yields of our fields, but by the color of their soils and by the Carbon content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, a suite of earth sensing satellites will level the playing field, giving every farmer a full account of carbon he sequesters. That Soil Carbon is given as the final arbiter, the common currency, accountant and Judge of Stewardship on our lands.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made forest, the rough soils will be made fertile, and the crooked Carbon Marketeers will be made straight, and the glory of Soil Sequestration shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see a Mutually assured Sustainability.
This is our hope.
My apologies to Dr. King, but I think he would understand my passion
Sheri Cline says
Book recommendation: Start with the Soil by Grace Gershuny
Erich J. Knight says
Sorry for the misspelling; That’s; GEOSMIN,
compost as Prozac.
Please see; “The Civilization of Soils” , my recent US Biochar Initiative presentation
Lukas Martinelli says
Learning of soil via the macroscope into the dynamic nutrient cycling via microbial communities is such a refreshing perspective from the traditional agronomic soil science courses.
This series has provided an essential bridge between disciplines to celebrate the soil as common ground, a life-inducing collaborative pathway of sorts.