The Whole System
Over the last couple of months the 59 Degrees team has been working flat out! Not only has the growing season finally boomed – which for us means a lot of early mornings and late nights – we’ve also been industriously preparing for our two day 59 Degrees Growing seminar, which took place back in May.
The two days that we spent with the Gardeners from Lövstabruk in Sweden proved to be a very enlightening experience for all of us and it was fantastic to meet so many other individuals who, just like us, are passionate about developing a healthy soil community.
Prior to the seminar, whilst preparing my notes, I read a number of books to brush up on my soil biology, microbiology and chemistry. In doing this, I became aware that I was focusing on smaller and smaller topics of information, and not managing to explain exactly how they fitted into a wider, more relevant, context.
Often, when focusing intently on a specific subject or field, it’s easy to get bogged down with the tiny details and nitty gritty science, so much so that you’re unable to recognise how each component fits together into a larger, intricate structure, and in the case of soil, how it all connects together to create a functional ‘living’ system. Without understanding how these significant nuggets of science fit into systems on a greater, if not global scale, it’s hard to appreciate how relevant they are to us and how they impact our lives on a daily basis. That was the wonderful aspect of delivering 59 Degrees Growing to other passionate growers. Not only were we able to explain some rather nifty and complex concepts of soil chemistry to the group, we were also able to demonstrate how these tiny molecular soil interactions have bearing on a much greater scale, and what’s more, how they could utilise this knowledge to their benefit in order to improve the health of their plants. This type of ‘complete’ thinking enables us to put valuable scientific intelligence to good use to solve problems, including some of the current issues facing modern society.
As a soil scientist, biologist or grower, it’s essential to be able to understand some of these complex systems, because after all, this is the science that can lead us to improved soil health, and therefore improved plant health. Sometimes, however, it is also valuable to take a step back, to look at the bigger picture, as a sort of reminder of where our focus ultimately lies.
What is the big picture?
Soil provides a home for millions of different species and billions of individual organisms, with innumerable chemical and biological processes taking place every second, from the exchange of cations on humic acid complexes through to the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into bio-available ammonium. These complex processes that take place within the soil, not only ensure the suitability of the soil for life to grow, they also filter into global systems, such as the carbon or nitrogen cycle, the recycling of nutrients or the flow of the water cycle. Many of these processes are taken for granted in western societies – presumably because, in general, most of us are removed from the natural environment – however if it wasn’t for the soil, many of these cycles wouldn’t function in the same way and life would not exist as it does today.
Where it all started
To appreciate how vital, and yet delicate these processes are, we first need to travel back in time to 3.6 billion years ago. At that period in the Earth’s history non-living environmental factors entirely controlled life. Early life forms had to adapt to the conditions that the rocks, water and the atmosphere set. Whatever was alive at that point in time was far too sparse to have any sort of effect of its own on the environment that it lived in. Over time however, life on Earth became more and more powerful, so much so that it actually started to alter its own environment, controlling the Earth’s atmosphere and temperature. These organisms created and maintained conditions that were ideal for life to flourish; in essence, the presence of living organisms led to the formation of conditions favourable for more life to establish, and so the planet started to become self-regulated in a sort of planetary homeostasis.
However, all was not plain sailing. If one organism flourished to a point where it could no longer be supported by the environmental conditions that it helped to create, the balance would be tipped and conditions would become unfavourable for that organism – leading to a dramatic decrease in its population and a restoration of the balance once more. As life became more and more diverse, the complexity of the web of interactions between different organisms became greater and conditions became more stable. However, organisms also became more reliant on each other and the web in which they participated in, and as a result, any disturbances to that web had a greater impact on a larger number of organisms.
Although many people appear to deny it, humans are part of this intricate web of interactions and, despite the relative youth of Homo sapiens, we significantly influence it, perhaps more than any other extant species. Humans have adapted to live in so many different climates and have advanced so far that, contrary to almost every other living organism on the planet, most of us don’t have to worry about pure survival anymore. We have flourished on this planet, particularly in the western world, and some populations have developed their way of living to such a point that we’ve almost bypassed natural selection. We’ve sculpted the Earth beyond belief, creating cities and towns for shelter, managing swathes of land for food, diverting water courses, mining for minerals and fossil fuels and modifying animals. There’s almost no place upon this planet that has remained untouched by our hungry hands.
However, we can’t fool the Earth. No matter what we do or what technology we invent, we will always be part of the incredible system that regulates the Earths conditions, and we will never be able to fully remove ourselves from it. This is a particularly scary thought, firstly given the astonishingly rapid growth in our global population, industry and agriculture – leading to greater human disturbance – and secondly in view of just how specific the conditions on this planet must be in order for life to survive.
We have engineered the natural environment to better serve us. But in the process, without fully understanding it, we have also inadvertently piled issue upon issue for us to face, from contamination, health issues and food shortages through to erosion, desertification and increased greenhouse gases. On a global scale, there are many serious issues like these that we need to overcome in order to not only sustain our own species survival, but also that of countless other species on the Earth.
Despite these somewhat gloomy sounding consequences of our race’s existence and, some would say success, they are not irreversible and it’s definitely not too late to tackle them. There are some simple steps that we can take to start to live in balance with our own web of interactions, rather than just disturb it. This is where our little nuggets of science come in.
As we know, the soil provides an interface between the biological and physical worlds, a union between biological processes, chemical cycles and physical effects and an environment where life can grow. If we can ensure that soil is functioning as it should, then we are one step closer to supporting all of the other essential global processes and maintaining the sustainability of our food production for generations to come.
By reading the soil and understanding its needs, we could actually enhance its function, both as a growing medium and as an environment that can mitigate the negative effects that we have on the environment. We’ve started to apply what we know about healthy soils in so called ‘natural’ environments, including all of the glorious microbiology, in our own compost so that we can emulate a healthy soil in developed areas, such as gardens, or agricultural fields. We are trying to imitate nature – because we know that nature is a highly intelligent system that has evolved over millions of years – so that we can give something back to the Earth, rather than just take from it because, after all, we are a big part of nature too and without it, we cannot exist.