Holistic Mangement

Need to manage complexity in a holistic way. Need to change how we practice agriculture to restore soil and sequester more carbon in them. Create policies holistically and revolution in institutions.

Addressing complexity is hard. Need to recognize difference between complex and complicated. What we make is complicated; what we manage is complex.

Animals are important to good soil management. Grasslands co-evolved with large grazing animals. Cattle spread out over the land are destructive. That is why conservationists have often seen cattle removal as a key to grassland restoration but taking all the grazing animals off grasslands leads to soil degradation and desertification. The key is doing grazing right. In natural grasslands, grazers move constantly and in tight packs in order to avoid predators. Using this principle, we should use mob grazing. Large number of animals go onto a limited area. They eat most of the plants and trample others. This looks very bad, but the hoofs push seeds into the ground and produce depressions where water can be absorbed. The land quickly recovers when the animals move, and the biotic communities are more robust. The action for the animals, along with their manure, builds the carbon in the soil and makes it absorb more rain. It is a virtuous cycle. Savory makes a distinction between brittle and non-brittle landscapes. The difference the amount AND the timing of the rain. Some places get plenty of rain distributed throughout the year. These are not brittle. Some places get enough rain, but it is seasonal. These can be brittle. Some places don’t get enough rain at all. They are often desert but can be managed.

In non-brittle places, it helps to “rest” the soil, i.e. take animals off and let it be fallow. This is almost exactly the wrong thing to do in brittle environments. Brittle grasslands will degrade if animals are not present for a long time. This is clear in protected parks, which do worse when they are protected.

We are easily fooled by short term observations. When we remove animals from a degraded pasture, the grass gr

ws back strongly. It recovers. And we look at that and think the problem is addressed. But in the longer term, it declines. Experts rarely return to see that, and if they do, they blame other factors. It is counterintuitive to think that putting animals back will cure the problem of overgrazing, but it does help when properly done using holistic principles.

“Holistic Management” is a good book, but it drags a little. You can get the gist of it from Alan Savory’s TED Talk on the same subject. I finished a similar book called “Dirt to Soil” a couple weeks ago. The author of that book applies some of Savory’s principles to his farm in North Dakota.

audible.com   Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment Check out this great listen on Audible.com. Fossil fuels and livestock grazing are often targeted as major culprits behind climate change and…

California water

A lot of detail and some good history, but I didn’t like it. The tone bothered me. The story is told as a narrative of loss. In that it is like many such books and that is certainly a perspective you can take.

But I think narratives of loss miss the important parts. The world is perpetually changing, with some things bursting into existence and other flickering out. You emphasize the comings or the goings and it makes a very different story. Similarly, there is struggle that leads to success or failure. This can be framed as worthless energy spent or a growth. Another theme was what I might call the stolen land idea, which depends on zero sum thinking. This says that if you get, you must take from others. There is sure enough a lot of that.

However, in California’s case we need to take much more account of the creation. There is no such thing as a “natural” resource. There are potentials that depend on human effort, intelligence and innovation to get. California is blessed by nature, but the California we appreciate mostly results from human interaction with that blessed land. It is not just a gift or a lucky throw of the dice.

Another book I read about this was “Water to the Angles” about the construction of the Los Angeles aqueducts. I liked that book better. It was more hopeful. LA is a desert. It is prosperous because of human effort.

Nothing lasts forever and yesterdays solution is often today’s problem. This is something I like, BTW. Having challenges is what makes life interesting. What I don’t like is pessimistic tone. I felt this book had too much of this.

California is a wonderful place. We can easily imagine how it might be better, but we owe a lot to those who made it what it is today.

audible.com   The Dreamt Land Check out this great listen on Audible.com. A vivid, searching journey into California’s capture of water and soil – an epic story of a people’s defiance of nature and the wonders, and ruin, it has wrought “A stunning history of power, arrogance, and greed.” (Kirkus Reviews, starred) M…      

Map of Knowledge

fancied myself a classical scholar for a few years. I spent many hours in libraries. During my grad school years, I literally spent many more time at Memorial Library than I did at home. The idea of finding and preserving the wisdom of the ancients was more than exciting. The idea of scholarly centers had a spiritual significance. I got over that the extreme case, but not completely and I am still very much interested in centers of innovation, which is similar but not the same, as I will explain below.

“The Map of Knowledge” came as kind of an echo from my past both because of the subject and because I found it at a physical bookshop, the new Barnes & Noble near our house. I have been buying mostly at Amazon lately, although I have determined to buy at the physical location more often. Must support what I think is good.

As the title implies, the book maps the movement of centers of scholarship from around AD 500-1500 and describes centers of learning, such as Alexandria, Baghdad, Cordoba, Toledo, Salerno, Palermo & Venice. I was a little surprised that the author left out Constantinople, but the author explained that Constantinople was an imperial capital and a place where lots of texts ended up but was never particularly a center. Beyond that, her narrative sort of depends on the idea of the moving center that preserved the wisdom of the ancients.

Alexandria was the home of the great library. It was partially destroyed when Julius Caesar attacked Alexandria, but restored, but it fell into decline even before the fall of the Roman Empire. The problem was Christianity. We rightly think of Christian monasteries are centers of learning, where monks copied manuscripts to preserve knowledge, but when Christianity was still competing with Paganism, Christian leaders viewed ancient wisdom with less enthusiasm. It was associated with paganism and in fact the great literature WAS pagan. Many of the books were destroyed by a Christian riot in AD 415, where the mob also killed the famous female pagan philosopher Hypatia. The Muslim conquest finished the job. Alexandria stopped be a center of learning.

Bagdad was a true center of learning and they assembled the largest library up to that time. The catchment area was larger than Alexandria’s, since Baghdad pulled in wisdom from the East, from India, as well as from the West. It was at this time that the Hindu-Arabic numbers we use today were developed, along with the widespread use of zero. It was an organized “House of Wisdom.” It was all destroyed when Mongol armies destroyed the city in 1258. The Mongols burned and tossed manuscripts into the river. It was said that the water turned black from the ink, mixing with the red from all the blood. It was probably the worst destruction of knowledge in human history. Many of the texts were lost forever.
Cordoba was a wonderful and diverse place with Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars. In addition to texts, the rulers of Cordoba developed practical arts like the use of water, irrigation and agriculture. The Muslim rulers of Spain brought in seeds and seedlings of arid adapted plants, and semi-arid Spain was one the most productive places in the world. Cordoba’s time in the sun was bright but brief. A coup brought an aggressively narrow minded ruler. He came under the influence of Muslim fundamentalists and destroyed all the texts they could get, except those associated with medicine or mathematics. Some books survived when scholars fled with them to neighboring cities like Seville, Granada, Zaragoza & Toledo.

Toledo became the center translation and transmission to the West. Scholars from Western Europe came to look for old texts and translate them from Greek or more often Arabic.

Salerno and Palermo became centers for learning largely due to the influence of the Normans. The Normans were among the most interesting people in the middle ages. They were the descents of Vikings, given land by the King of France in return for keeping other Vikings out. Most of us know them from William the Conqueror and his 1066 conquest of English, but other branches of the family were active in the Mediterranean. They ruled Sicily and Southern Italy for nearly 200 years and were very open to all sorts of influences.
The last center mentioned in the book is Venice. Venice for a long time was the link between east and west. When the Turks finally conquered the Byzantine Empire, many of the scholars fled to Venice. Of course, the Venetians already had a fair amount of Byzantine stuff both from trade and from their pillaging of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade. The famous bronze horses at San Marco were plundered from Constantinople.
After the development of printing, knowledge was more widely distributed and the centers for learning and copying became less important. Experience of Alexandria, Baghdad & Cordoba indicate that a better strategy is to spread texts out rather than concentrate them in one place where they might be destroyed all at once.

The centers of learning idea beg a question of whether it was always a good idea to preserve the knowledge. I am talking about the science here, not the literature or art. Ancient science was wrong, and its persistence may have held back innovation and progress.

Medieval people had too much respect for authority. Most would accept the anatomy of Galen or the astronomy of Ptolemy w/o checking it themselves. This was a problem even before the fall of the Roman Empire, when the texts were easily available. Science stagnated. When you think you have found the final truth, you stop looking, and people thought they had found the final truth.

Near the end of the book, the author quotes a German scholar called Paracelsus, who in 1527 told his medical students to throw away the old books and instead turn to the “great book of nature,” i.e. look for themselves.

Maybe that goes too far. It would be better to use the old texts skeptically and critically. But when you treat books as precious, a type of dogmatism develops. It is possible to be too respectful.

Anyway, the book is worth reading and it got me thinking.

amazon.com   The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found

Forest visit #2 June

Alex & I went down to the farms. Unfortunately, my cutter did not work. I tried all the mechanical skills at my disposal, i.e. I made sure there was gas and that nothing was obviously loose, and failed, so we had to spray instead of cut. That is easier physically, but less immediately satisfying. I also cannot use it everywhere. Don’t want to make my bald cypress or white oaks collateral damage, for example.

We also got to “inspect” more, and the pictures are from that.

The first picture is one of our big white oaks. I have been thinking about oak regeneration. I decided that I do not need to plant oaks. All I need do is identify patches and favor them. I started to do that by cutting the gum, poplar and red maples to allow the oaks more space and light.

When I was up at Aldo Leopold Foundation, I led a discussion on his essay “Axe in Hand,” and I have thought about it every time I make choices as the above. Leopold wrote – “I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”

Next picture is our open pine forests at Brodnax. Alex is in the middle for perspective. He is standing among the unattractively named dog fennel. I am not much fond of dog fennel. It is not pollinated by pollinators and it does not smell good. But it does grow fast and six feet high in a couple months.

I heard bobwhite quail the whole time I was on the Freeman place. I really don’t care that much about bobwhite per se, although I do enjoy hearing them. I care about bobwhite as an indicator species. Their abundance indicates the our land management is working.
The two pictures on the left show the open pine on Brodnax. Top is last year at this time. Bottom this year.  Next shows more of the open pine on Freeman. The last picture is a flowery slope on Brodnax. We plan ted pollinator habitat various places on the farms. We planted none of what you see in the picture. All you really need to do it burn it. The seeds and roots persist in the soil and given the opening, they burst out.

We did not stop at Diamond Grove today.

June forest visits

Fire encourages flowers in the fields. I notice that our Freeman place has fewer flowers than it did the season after the fire. We have plenty of wildflowers, as you can see in my pictures, but some of the patches are those we planted for pollinators. Left alone, the fields come to be dominated by brambles and sumac. These are fine in themselves, but they form monocultures.

We will burn this winter in Freeman. I hope it will be fun.

I left home at about 4:30am, so I got to Freeman in the early (ish) morning. Lots of birds and I heard bobwhite quail all over the place. I am not managing FOR quail, but I consider quail a marker species for the type of environment I am working to (re) establish, so I am glad to see and hear them.

What I want is a patchwork diversity. We have thick mostly hardwood forest in the stream management zones. We have maybe 40 bald cypress in some of the damp lands and I planted 200 more anyplace my feet got wet. We are making pine savanna over the bulk of the Freeman and Brodnax places.

There is the story of the pond covered by lily pads. It seems to happen overnight. It happens in a month, but nobody notices at all until day 28. This is how exponential factors work, and this is how the Diamond Grove is going. “Suddenly” the canopies are close and the woods are dark.

Diamond Grove is ready to thin this winter. We had canopy close a couple years ago and now it is too dark, as you can see in the picture. This thick monoculture is a legitimate way of forest management, but I am not very fond of it. Diamond Grove features five wildlife/pollinator plots. My friends in the hunt club planted pollinator habitat last year, as you can see in the pictures.

An interesting permutation on Diamond Grove is that the roads are covered with lespedeza. Lespedeza (this variety called Chinese bunch clover) was introduced by government scientists in the 1950s. These days, some people say it is invasive and want to extirpate it. I don’t know about that. Lespedeza grows where other things will not, on the forest road, for example. Quail are fond of lespedeza. It is just right for the baby quail to hide under. Lespedeza is a nitrogen fixer and it does an excellent job of holding soil. I am glad to have it on my road, but I did not plant it. The story is that one of hunt club guys was moving the brush on the road right after he came back from mowing a field of lespedeza. The seems and stems came off and rooted. As I said, I am glad to have it. Nothing else has ever been able to stabilize that road. Not native? Who the heck cares? It fills a proper niche. Given time, it will be “native.”

"Working" by Robert Caro

Robert Caro has been criticized for writing this book, not for anything in or about the book itself, but rather because critics don’t want him to divert his time and energy from finishing his series on Lyndon Johnson. His final volume is in the works and has been for many years. Caro’s books on Johnson are nothing short of superb. But he is getting older. The Grim Reaper may be unimpressed by the need for a few more years to finish his life’s work. Maybe Caro is thinking along these lines, at least metaphorically. It must be frightening to be so close to finishing something so monumental. There will be no coda.

“Working,” however, is a great book just by itself. Caro talks a lot about how and why he writes and fills in lots of interesting information about Johnson and Robert Moses, the subject of his first great book, “The Power Broker.” Caro says that he found his purpose when studying Moses. His purpose is NOT biography. Biography is the means to the end of understanding power, and in Johnson and Moses he shows how that works.

Power does not always corrupt, according to Caro, but it always reveals. Johnson & Moses were great men in what they achieved. They were also selfish, cruel and ruthless, as well as often petty, although it is sometimes hard to know whether that pettiness was just that or a technique of power.

Johnson, for example, has especially soft chairs installed for guests in his office. The guest would sink way down, and Johnson could enjoy a higher position. It was also awkward to get out of those chairs, which put the guest in embarrassing situations. In his swimming pool at the Johnson Ranch, Johnson would stand just at the deep end. He was a tall man taller than most of his guests. The shorter guests would have to gulp for air or tread water, while Johnson could stand above them in majesty.

A key to Johnson, Caro says, was his inferiority complex. Johnson grew up very poor, the kind of poverty that really does not exist anymore in the USA. As a young man, he had a job on the road crews. Since he was big and strong, he would pull a kind of plow along the dirt roads, the kind of work that could be assigned to horses or mules. He never forgot that. I will not repeat the details that are in Caro’s other books.

Enlightening for me was when Caro discussed his interview style and method of working. Caro advises in-depth work, get to know the people well. He actually moved to the Texas hill country to get to know Johnson’s people and country. He says that you a researcher cannot be afraid to ask the same questions over and over. Answers vary. And it might be useful to get them into different settings. He describes how he got Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston Johnson, to open up by taking him to the Johnson house and having him sit at the family table. The memories came back, and he was more open.

Caro has no outside pressure to do his work, which is good and bad. He needs to self-discipline, so each day he dresses in a tie and blazer to go to his office for work. He has a quota of words, i.e. he does not wait for inspiration. He still writes much of his work with pencil or pen. Putting on paper, he says, is an adjunct to thought.
This book is sure worth reading, especially if you have read Caro’s other work. I just hope he gets that last volume of the years of Lyndon Johnson done before he himself goes off to glory.

audible.com   Working Check out this great listen on Audible.com. From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker and the Years of Lyndon Johnson series: an unprecedented gathering of vivid, candid, deeply revealing recollections about his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books. For…..     Like

My strangest year

My craziest year – Story Worth for this week.
My strangest year was the academic year 1978-9. It was a kind of transition zone for me. My longtime girl friend dumped me. I was becoming disenchanted with studying ancient history. I didn’t have much money. My previous verities were just not working for me. Greatest of all weirdness, however, came from a quirk in my housing structure.

Semi homeless
Some five acquaintances and I had a joint lease on a big house on Johnson Street in Madison, Wisconsin. I didn’t have a room there at all. In winter, I slept on the couch. In summer, I slept on the back porch (it as screened in and pleasant). None of us had enough money for the full rent. My portion was $65, as I recall.

Unreliable hippie girls
The problem came when two of our housemates, Jean and Sybil, decided to leave Wisconsin. They were “hippie girls” (yes, Madison still had residual populations of that now extinct species well into the 1980s) and they decided – abruptly – that Wisconsin got too cold in the winter, so they lit out for warmer climes. I think they headed for Florida with a couple guys who promised to take care of them, and I suppose they did.

Their quick departure put us in a quandary, since they left w/o paying their current shares of the rent nor making provisions for the future. (Hippie girls were like that – interesting at first but a real pain later.) Our task became finding a couple of new house mates with both the money and will to pay their fair share. This was harder because it was into the school year. Madison was a college town and our housing was oriented to that. Those w/o a place to live after the school year started were trouble or troubled.

There was a reason they had no place and that reason was rarely good.

Deadbeats & weirdos
We went through a series of deadbeats and weirdos. Some stayed just long enough not to pay the rent and then left in a hurry. I got the impression that this kind of cheating is what they did. Today, I suppose, we would call them homeless. I don’t recall all their names. We were naïve in taking on possible borders. It was a learning opportunity, but not pleasant. Let me give the stories of some of those I do recall.

We had Marcus. Marcus did not go to school. He was a waiter at one of the gay clubs in Madison. Evidently popular with the regular patrons, he made big money in tips, sometimes hundreds of dollars. He paid the first month’s rent in cash. Next month, he seemed strapped on any day we asked him. I knew that he worked on Fridays and had lots of cash from his tips, so the next Saturday I got up early and waited. When he came out, I told him that I knew he had the cash and promised unspecified bad things would happen to him if he did not give it to me. He did, but moved out the next Tuesday, citing a hostile home environment. He actually asked for a refund of the unused part of his rent. I had already paid the landlord and told him no. He didn’t push it.

Marcus always looked good, but he lived like a pig. When we went to clean out his room, we saw he had old food around the room and that he didn’t bother with sheets on the mattress and it really stuck. I had to go to class, so I did. My roommate, Tom, said he would clean it up. When I got back from classes, I found Tom and his friends smoking pot. This was not unusual. Tom was a pothead and so were his friends. They criticized my “redneck” ways of not partaking, but on that day, I think I saved their lives.

There was a lot of smoke in the room, but more smoke than even all their pot could create. I inquired, and in true Cheech & Chong fashion Tom replied, “I don’t know, man. It’s been like that for like an hour, man.” I saw that the smoke was coming out of the former Marcus room. When I opened the door, the rush of fresh air caused the mattress to burst into flames. I got some water from the sink and doused the flames. In those pre-Febreze days, Tom wanted to de- stink Marcus’ mattress and put incense on it. It had burned into to mattress and smoldered. I believe that had I not returned when I did, the house would have burned down. Tom and his friends would have done nothing until they died, probably saying something like “Oh wow, man, sure is getting hot.”

We had to get rid of the burned mattress, but fortunately found another, better one that someone had put on the curb for pickup. You just need to cruise for furniture.

We replaced Marcus with Dirk, who was well and truly crazy, later certified so. Dirk used to talk to himself – and answer back. Once I heard him tell a joke, laugh and then tell himself to shut up because that wasn’t funny. When I went to look in on him, nobody was there but him. I had no psychological training, but I thought that was weird.

Dirk was very handsome, evidently attractive to women. They seemed to like his brooding personality/personalities. He used to bring women home with him. Mostly they were okay. The one time not was when he brought “Dirty Helen.” We didn’t know her, but we knew of her. She was not the kind you want around the house, hanging around like a fart in a phone booth, as we said. The next morning, Dirk went somewhere and left Helen. When we tried to kick her out, she claimed that Dirk said she could stay. We got rid of her when one of my housemates took her down to the local bar, the Caribou, bought her a beer and made himself scarce. She never showed up again and when Dirk came home, he did not inquire about her.

Dirk stayed with us until he had an incident in a bar, where he evidently attacked a group of larger & more numerous guys for no reason anybody could figure out. Maybe he thought there were more of him. Anyway, those guys did not beat him up too badly, but his mother came from California to get him. He moved back there. Maybe he fit in better in California. His mother was nice. She paid his rent for the next month, but we still had to find replacements.

We finally ended up with two mostly normal people who stayed with us until the end of the lease. It is funny that I do not recall their names. I am much better with the crazy ones. Come to think on it, the guy was called Alex. Don’t remember the woman’s name. They were not a couple. Both paid their rent and didn’t make trouble, so it was okay.

Biker chick
The woman was a “biker chick,” at least part time. She had a steady job and would go every day well dressed, but evenings and weekends the bikers would come around. Some were scary looking, but they were nice guys when you got to know them. They had their own bar on Williamson Street. It featured an ominous warning telling you not to come in unless you were a member of the CC Riders. I used to go in if I was with her or some of the other guys. Beer was inexpensive, but you had to drink Budweiser, as I recall. I have never been much attracted to that lifestyle, but it is very welcoming if you are in the in-group. I can see why some people like it.

I looked up the place on Internet to check my memory. It is still there under new ownership. Evidently the CC Riders today are all upstanding citizens, sponsoring kids’ charities.

Knowing lots of people
That year was also remarkable for the vast number of people I knew. I was lonely that year and my “home” was uninviting, so I spent a lot of time out. I am not a naturally gregarious person, but I guess I can be. I just recall that I knew everybody around my place and in the Madison student union. My grades went to hell, nothing like my really bad undergraduate grades, but well off the straight A averages I got in my first years. I just lost the drive to excel.

I started to question whether there was much of a future in the study of classical Greek & Latin. I had a steady part-time job at a bookstore on State Street and I read a lot outside my specialty. I am convinced that job helped me pass the FS test, since I read the back covers of so many books. I knew the summary of the great literature, even if I did not read all, most or even very much of the substance.

By the end of the period, I thought that I needed a new experience, so I saved money and worked a second job to get enough money to go to Germany, where I hitchhiked around for a month, but that is a different story, which I have told elsewhere. When I got back, I had decided to move on from ancient history. I did not have a good plan and that transition is also another story.

Walkable Cities

Walkable cities are more pleasant even for those who do not walk much. These cities are cleaner, safer and more sustainable than others, since the factors that make it walkable are very often just good.

Why don’t we have these cities more often?

Maybe the biggest reason is that cities are planned in pieces. Traffic engineers want to make the roads convenient and safe for cars, so they develop roads that move cars faster and more efficiently through cities. Pedestrians, houses, trees and stores are things that get in the way of traffic. By making the cities easy for people to get in and out, they are essentially draining the life blood from the city. The car is hard on the life of a city. The traffic engineers do their job well, but their piece is not the only one. Another piece are architects. They like special or beautiful buildings. Beautiful buildings are good, but the life of the city depends on the places between them. This they often ignore.

Density is an important factor for walkability and transit. All transit trips begin and end with a walk. If people cannot walk to and from, they must drive. Density does not always mean very tall buildings. In fact, smaller cities often cannot support high rises. But the density much be closer and maybe average 4-6 stories. A simpler fix is to allow more people in given areas. This might include so-called “tiny houses” and grandma or mother-in-law apartments. These allow homeowners to share living space. What is holding this back are zoning laws.

The author talks about “prospect and refuge”. Our species grew up on the savanna and we have a natural propensity to like those sorts of landscapes. Prospect refers to being able to see far. We want open space so that we can see danger coming or opportunity available. This is the open, grassy prospect. Refuge is that place we can go for safety – trees to climb or rock outcroppings to hide. Most people like a combination of open and closed spaces. We want “defensible space. This is why we dislike large empty squares of long straight highways.

There are some paradoxes of planning.  For example, laws forcing better gas mileage tend NOT to save gas because people drive more when they get better gas mileage.  Worse, it encourages sprawl.  Driving an efficient car matter less than driving less in general.
We can make our cities more inviting by keeping this in mind. People like colonnades, porches and overhangs. Cities that have these kinds of things on the edges of the streets attract walking. Defensible space is important too. No matter how wide the sidewalk, we don’t like to be near the fast passing cars. This can be remedied by allowing on street parking or by planting trees.

Trees are the street amenity that all pedestrians like. It is less popular with traffic engineers. For them, a tree is a dangerous hard barrier that might cause injury if a car gets out of control. Of course, it is ironic that they prefer soft pedestrians to hard trees.
Trees are safer than non-tree lined streets. Sure, if you run into a tree it is hard, but the presence of the trees calms traffic. People drive slower in tree-lined places. They change behavior. Drivers respond to wide open spaces and they drive faster. So, if you goal is rapid driving, by all means clear the space. But that is not the usual goal in a pleasant city.
Our cities are shaped by choices, many of them not made consciously in context. The cities we most love are often not the ones we choose to build, as we focus on simple efficiency. The car is the enemy of the pleasant city and its benefactor. We have to decide when and where we want them, not just default to everywhere.

audible.com   Walkable City Check out this great listen on Audible.com. Jeff Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. And he has boiled it down to one key factor: walkability. The very idea of a modern metropolis evokes visions of bustling sidewalks, vital mass transit, and a vibrant, pedestria…..

Dirt to Soil

Soil is a living community, not just a pile of dirt. The best insight from this book is that plants and fungi are developing in the soils, and it is useful to think of the microbes as livestock. They have to be fed and kept healthy.

Unfortunately, some of the things we do to increase productivity can harm the life of the soil. More on that later, but first a little more on healthy soil.

Healthy soil does everything better. It is more fertile, absorbs and holds water better, erodes less easily and holds more carbon. The last aspect is salient these days. Good soils can be 7-9% carbon. Most of our soils today less than 2%. Soils alone cannot solve the problem of climate change, but there is a lot of capacity for carbon storage in soils. The big positive in this equation is that adding carbon to soil is just plain good for many other reasons.

We can add carbon to soil directly by mixing in biochar and organic materials, but this is not the most interesting part of what the author says. He talks about carbon being released by plants in a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi and mycorrhizae. The discovery of mycorrhizae is relatively recent and not all the relationships are well understood. I don’t know how much he is talking science and how much he is talking about his own experience, so the details might differ, but the general concept is sound and very interesting. The plants are essentially feeding the fungi and the fungi help feed the plants. In the process, they build soils and sequester carbon.

We can disturb these relationships with herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizer. Let me start with the caveat that the author does not oppose the use of all agricultural chemicals but says that we should use less and use them in more targeted ways. It is easy to understand how pesticides and herbicides would have negative impacts, but what about fertilizer? Artificial fertilizers impact the soil community by letting plants “cheat” on growing. They no longer need to draw so much from the mycorrhizal environment, causing the mycorrhizae to decline or die.

The main thrust of his book, however, involves five principles.

Limited disturbance. Limit mechanical, chemical, and physical disturbance of soil. – Tilling disturbs the structure of the soil. It cuts the roots and the mycorrhizae, makes it dry out faster and creates strata, where a hard layer is under the soils that prevents water infiltration.

Armoring the soil is one way to be resilient. The armor is the residue from a previous cover crop and a cash grain crop is growing through the armor. There should be little bare ground. This was one of the causes of the dust bowl. When soil is exposed, it washes or blows away. The author makes an interesting, almost poetic analogy. He says that what plants do is harvest sunshine. When there are no plants, all that is wasted and even becomes negative in drying.

Diversity. Different species of plants and animals occupy different ecological niches. A diverse community can support more total life and that life may be complementary. A diverse community is also more resilient against diseases, pests and stress in general. I drought will affect different communities differently.

Living roots. Keep living roots in soil as long as possible. This is related to the tilling above. Living roots help maintain soil integrity.

Integrated animals. This is a key point. We should probably eat less meat, since that is better for the environment, but eating no meat is bad for the environment. We need livestock to maintain healthy soils. Grassland ecosystems require grazing animals. There are better and worse ways to do this. Over grazing can destroy grasslands, but no grazing also destroys them. Best is “mob grazing” where large numbers of animals are put on the same place for a short time. They eat most of the grass and trample a lot more of it. You would think this is bad, but it puts the carbon into the soil and allows for better regeneration. The author is a fan of Alan Savory. I have written about him before.

Working in any natural system requires constant effort and constant learning. The author is someone like that. I learned a lot from the book and I also enjoyed a lot. I listened to the audio book on my way to and from a conference about clean water in Charlottesville. It was appropriate listening and complemented insights from the conference.  

Pete Buttigieg

Met Pete Buttigieg today. I read his book and was impressed by his intellect.

I am not impressed when politicians present detailed plans. Everybody should know that the detailed plans will always fail, as the conditions presidents face will be different from those they imagine. What I liked about Buttigieg is that instead of detailed plans, he talks about the intellectual process that we reach goals. It might seems a subtle difference, but it is important. During his brief talk today, he said that the best thing we can do is envision the future we want and then work to figure out how to get there. He didn’t say it, but I think it implied the iterative approach that is best for addressing complex problems.

He didn’t engage in that anger you too often hear on the campaign trail. He was critical of the “current president” but specifically showed respect for those who voted for him. He said that the election was not the cause but the result of frustration. Some people voted for a candidate that they did not love because they wanted change.

Asked about foreign policy, he supported our network of alliances, adding that American values are important in the world and that we had the responsibility to advocate for them in our deeds and our words.

I literally got an elevator speech with Pete. After the talk, there was the usual milling around and I thought I there was nothing more for me to see, so I went to the elevator. Just about the time it arrive, Buttigieg and his entourage showed up. I offered to take the next one, but he invited me in. I told him that I had read his book. He said that he wrote to book to show the kind of guy he was, rather than just a long political advert. I said that I was impressed, but it might be that he is too intellectual to play well with much of the electorate. He responded that problems were nuanced and required nuanced solutions. I agree. He said that he got along alright with the people in Indiana and thought that people could understand the complexity if properly presented.

Seemed a good guy. Let’s see how it does.

My first picture is the standard photo with the candidate. Next is the Capitol. It was very pleasant day. Extraordinarily fresh for middle June. Last is part of the green roof at the building where we met.