[Note: This is the thirty-fifth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 203 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
The Curse of the Soil Molesters
If you are a lucky one, and your high school education provided you with a competent understanding of environmental history, you would probably be bored out of your mind by now, reading my tiresome jabber about stuff that every teen should know. But, if you have been institutionalized for years in a more typical school system, there’s a chance that you’re stumbling through some uncharted territory here. If so, it’s time we had an embarrassing “birds and bees” talk about soil molesters — the naughty things they do in their fields, and how their actions harm the region, the nation, the generations yet to be born, and the long term health of the planet’s ecosystem.
The birds and bees talk I got at age 15 had to do with boys, girls, sex, and reproduction. The primary objective was to help kids avoid unintended and unwanted pregnancies. With regard to my relationship with soil, I never got a similar talk, I had to figure it out on my own. If we want to avoid ignorantly creating unwanted wastelands, the safe and effective prevention is abstinence — never, never, never engage in invasive and abusive forms of intercourse with highly fertile ecosystems. Remember how our wild ancestors lived. Think!
At the dawn of agriculture in Mesoamerica, folks majored in growing corn, beans, and squash. They used techniques that were similar to other regions of the world where plant domestication emerged. Their farm equipment was digging sticks and hoes, so the first places they molested were often along shorelines, rivers, wetlands, and flood plains, where the soils were soft and moist. When the planters first rammed their digging tools into fertile virgin soil, the initial harvests could be impressive. But with every year, when a field was replanted, the nutrients in the soil were a bit more diminished, and the harvest was a bit smaller.
Depending on soil quality, a field could produce decent autumn harvests for up to maybe six years. When “evil spirits” (nutrient depletion) eventually reduced yields, the field was abandoned, and a new one was cleared. The abandoned field might be given a rest for maybe 10 or 20 years, to recharge its soil a bit. Then, it might be cleared again, and returned to production for a while. This cycle might be repeated a few times, sometimes for several generations, but not forever. There is no free lunch. Long term agriculture is a progressive and terminal pathology.
In Mesoamerica, this was called the milpa system, in other regions similar practices were called slash and burn, swidden, or shifting agriculture (milpa means corn field). Milpa is the opposite of wild and free. Big Mama Nature adores healthy soil, and strives to protect it. Where rainfall is generous, she clothes the land with forest. Where rain is more modest, she covers the soil with grassland. Wild and free has three huge benefits.
(1) Protected soil retains moisture better than bare naked soil that is exposed to the sun and wind. Consequently, wetter soil encourages a wetter ecosystem, promoting the existence of springs, streams, ponds, wetlands, and a greater abundance of many forms of life. Magnificent swamps are home to far more biodiversity than deserts. Both forests and wild grasslands send roots deep into the ground, so they can better retrieve nutrients and water, hold the soil in place, and continuously improve soil health and fertility with each passing century.
In the milpa system, the primary crops are annuals, plants that live just one season and then die. Trees and many grassland plants are perennials, plants that have longer lifespans. Annuals have to be replanted every year, after the farmer first pulverizes the soil surface. This disturbance encourages some of the precious carbon stored in the soil to be released into the atmosphere. It also encourages the moisture in the soil to evaporate, which makes annuals more vulnerable to drought.
(2) Protected soil is held in place by the green blanket of vegetation, which prevents it from being blown away by the wind, or washed away by rain or snowmelt. Bare naked sloped land is especially prone to water erosion, which can rip deep gullies into hillsides over time. Earlier, I mentioned the catastrophic erosion in the Yellow River watershed that created gullies 600 feet deep (183 m). Paul Shepard noted that massive erosion in the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers dumped so much soil into the Persian Gulf that 35,000 square miles (90,650 km2) of salt marsh was created.
Once upon a time, on a lovely Sunday in June, Wes Jackson was driving through Mennonite country in Kansas. He stopped to observe a Mennonite’s field, which had recently been planted. During the previous night, a hard rain had dumped up to five inches (12 cm) in some places, a normal event in that region. Mennonites devote extra effort to being good stewards of the land. Compared to industrial agriculture, their methods have lower impact. Looking at the field, Jackson observed that the rain had washed the seeds away, and the ditches were clogged with rich black mud. It was a wipeout.
Then, Jackson went to inspect a prairie not far away. It was not damaged at all. In fact, it had been invigorated by the refreshing rain, and none of its soil had run away. Prairies can absorb 14 times more moisture than tilled cropland. Forests and prairies can be fairly eternal, but cropland has an expiration date. Sooner or later, the soil is depleted, and the cropland becomes wasteland. This can take many generations, it’s not an immediate house-on-fire threat, so it’s easy to pretend that all is good. But the damage caused is cumulative and almost always irreparable.
Richard Manning noted that a healthy wild prairie can absorb 5 to 7 inches (13-18 cm) of rain in an hour with no runoff. A field of corn or soybeans can absorb 0.5 to 1.5 inches (1.3-3.8 cm) in an hour, and the excess water runs off almost as fast as from a parking lot. This difference explains the catastrophic 2008 floods in the U.S., following several days of generous rainfall.
(3) Protected soil is often an ongoing miracle of continuous improvement. Several thousand years ago, as the glaciers melted, Iowa’s soil was exposed to warm sunbeams for the first time in ages. Vegetation recovered and, with each passing century, the happy prairie created an ever growing layer of tremendously fertile black topsoil. Before settlers arrived in the nineteenth century, the soil was remarkably deep in places. Because the sod layer was so healthy, thick, and rugged, native people with corn seeds could not rip it open with digging sticks or hoes — much to the delight of the prairie, and Big Mama.
The Iowa Association of Naturalists became freaked out by soil erosion in Iowa. In 1999, the state was losing 240 million tons of its “black gold” every year. This incredible treasure of soil had been created over thousands of years by a thriving tallgrass prairie. Half of it had been lost since 1848, as the settlers launched a full-scale war on the soil, armed with the insanely destructive steel moldboard plows manufactured by a demon-possessed madman named John Deere.
Jared Diamond once visited Iowa, and observed a church in corn country that was more than 100 years old. He said that the churchyard was like a table, a plateau elevated ten feet (3 m) above the surrounding fields, which had been savagely molested by the radicalized fanatics of the Deere cult.
Geologist Walter Youngquist noted that half of Iowa’s topsoil had been flushed down the Mississippi River, and dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. On some Iowa hills, streaks of the ancient tan and gray marine clays, which had long been buried under the black gold, were beginning to see the light of day once again. He wrote, “The great enemy of soil and, therefore, civilization, is civilization itself as we know it — the human-induced accelerated rate of erosion.” From a human timescale, topsoil is a finite nonrenewable resource. Destroying it is foolish.
The Danse Macabre
The emergence of plant domestication in both the Old World and the Americas typically triggered a devastating chain reaction of consequences — increased food production, deforestation, soil destruction, ballooning population, technological innovation, social stratification, bloody warfare, patriarchy, empire building, civilization, megalomania, ridiculous decadence, collapse, and ruins. Then, if anything was left of the ecosystem, folks dusted themselves off, regrouped, and repeated the same mistakes, again and again, until the land was absolutely and permanently wrecked.
The transition to domestication, in multiple regions, was an extreme shift away from maybe two million years of the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life. Our wild ancestors rocked the boat far, far less. They were lucky to enjoy a very long era of wild, free, and happy — the calm before the storm (or the wellbeing before the epidemic).
William McNeill wrote that both plants and animals can become hosts to diseases. Some microparasites simply enjoy an ongoing free ride on their hosts, snatching some nutrients, but not too many. Others seriously weaken their hosts and kill them. McNeill imagined that, in addition to plants and animals, there was a third category of hosts — ecosystems. Over time, some human societies became foolishly clever, and mutated into macroparasite (large predator) roles, attacking and degrading healthy ecosystems. McNeill thought that the relationship between these rogue societies and the family of life came to resemble “an acute epidemic disease.”
When agriculture escaped from Pandora’s Box of powerful evils, it created something like a devastating infection in the family of life. This reminded me of a meme from the era of bubonic plague epidemics: the dance of death. Everyone was sick and dying, especially the priests, who visited the sick. Why didn’t God even protect his own special agents? Hello? Many lost their faith.
Johannes Nohl reported that during plague years, a number of communities in Europe engaged in country dances, in order to dispel depression. In 1424, a Scottish lad named Maccaber arrived in Paris. Folks believed he had supernatural powers. He initiated an ecclesiastic procession, the Maccaber Dance (Danse Macabre) — the Dance of Death. Every day, for months, crowds of men and women danced in the cemetery. Folks wore scary masks to drive away the evil spirits.
The notion of a dance of death is sort of a fitting description for how ecosystems were impacted by the emergence and expansion of agriculture. Let’s sketch out a generic pattern for how agriculture triggered its own whirlwind of evil spirits. The horror began with clearing and planting in soft moist soils. This led to more food, more people, and tired soil. This led communities to gradually expand the size of the milpa, until it reached the limits of prime locations to deflower. Then, planting began to move up slopes. If forests covered the slopes, as they often did, the tree people were chopped down. This led to more food, more people, more soil depletion, and more erosion and gullying.
As communities expanded their realms, at some point they were likely to bump into other communities, and generate some friction and sparks. The survival of each settlement required folks to protect their stores of corn and beans — precious treasures that opponents were eager to swipe or destroy. Consequently, many Native Americans surrounded their communities with tall and sturdy wooden palisades. Dean Snow wrote that corn spread into Iroquois country around 1350 to 1400. Population grew, villages got larger, longhouses got longer, and most villages had double or triple palisades. This defensive strategy was similar to the Old World practice of building fortifications, moats, and walled cities.
In the conflict game, the cardinal rule is strength in numbers. At first, a village might be managed by a tribal chief. Then, multiple villages would unite, and live under the protection of a warlord. Later, these alliances merged together into kingdoms or empires. Communities that prepared for conflict were more likely to survive than communities that attempted to avoid the mother of conflict via family planning — reproductive taboos. By and by, civilizations appeared, and initiated full-scale warfare on ecosystems.
Big shots in lofty power centers got very big headed and heavy handed. Their minds floated in a giddy dream world, soaring with grandiose infantile visions of full dose megalomania. One day, in an online encyclopedia, I was looking at a discussion of pre-Columbian (before 1492) civilizations in the New World. I was suddenly walloped by a mind expanding dope slap. SMACK!
My eyes scanned a series of photos of ancient Mesoamerican ruins. They were strangely similar in many ways — huge pyramids, elevated temple platforms, sculptures, palaces, streets, and plazas. It was spooky how these New World images resembled the ruins created by the early civilizations in the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean basin. Civilizations around the world, totally isolated from each other, clearly exhibited symptoms of the same acute disease — the curse of cleverness, domination, patriarchy, and self-glorification.
Why were so many people forced to spend their lives engaged in monumental construction projects that survived centuries longer than the brief explosion of decadence and egomania that created them? What could be more ridiculous? Well, (blush!) today’s industrial civilization has succeeded in boosting human foolishness and mindless destruction to levels never before believed to be possible. No generation has created more and bigger ruins than the voracious mob alive today.
Beginning around 1200 B.C., a series of New World civilizations appeared here and there, aggressively devoured their resource base, enjoyed a giddy orgasm of debauchery, and then plummeted into oblivion. The parade included the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, Toltecs, Oaxacans Incas, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and so on. This pattern of growth and collapse was also the norm in many regions of the Old World — Uruk, Babylon, Phoenicia, etc. Like fireflies, they blink on for a moment, then off. In unsustainable cultures, what goes up must come down, no exceptions.
Old World civilizations were fuelled by junior grade propellants like wheat, barley, and rice. New World civilizations were turbocharged by two highly potent propellants: corn and potatoes. Clive Ponting noted that in A.D. 600, wheat powered Rome was home to 50,000. At that time, in the Valley of Mexico, corn powered Teotihuacán was home to 100,000 (others say 150,000). It is located about 18 miles (30 km) northeast of Mexico City.
The Old World had many powerful things that Mesoamerica did not — livestock, horses, wheels, ships, and advanced metallurgy. Maybe the Romans were handicapped by their inferior food, or by the persistent barbarian attacks, or by the waves of infectious diseases nurtured by animal domestication, or by their soils depleted by several centuries of wheat farming, or by their lead pipe water distribution system.
In 600, hungry dirty Europeans were struggling to survive in what we now call the Dark Ages, while Teotihuacán was a state of the art masterpiece of monumental architecture (look at online images). There was the Street of the Dead, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon. Aztecs ominously referred to Teotihuacán as “the place where men became gods.” The society was destroyed in about 650, and everything flammable was burned. By 900, it was an abandoned ghost town.
Much later, in 1521, when Spaniards arrived, the Aztec civilization of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of about 200,000 (some say 250,000), which was five times larger than London. The invaders were amazed to see a big city in which the streets were not stinky and slippery with deep horse shit. Aztecs are also known as the Mexica.
In an effort to recycle soil nutrients, the Aztecs fertilized their fields with human poop. Imagine how much poop 200,000 people can plop every day. Imagine continuously moving that poop out to the cornfields — without the benefit of wheeled carts or (nonhuman) beasts of burden. Despite challenges, their population was soaring to new heights — until Old World diseases rumbled into town like a mega-death steamroller.
Several of the Spanish invaders wrote down accounts of what they observed, including the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice. Prisoners were taken to the top of the temple-pyramid, where they were cut open, their beating heart removed and offered to the sun, and their corpse kicked down the steps. Several Spaniards estimated that the number of folks sacrificed was maybe 20,000 per year. On one especially sacred occasion in 1487, according to Aztec sources, the dedication of the main pyramid in Tenochtitlán was even bloodier, possibly more than 80,000.
Michael Harner focused his attention on the human sacrifices. What was their purpose? He noted that scholars tended to consider the practice shocking, but sacrifices were not unique to Mesoamerica. Old World cultures had their own tradition of bloody mass murders that were inspired by periodic outbursts of holy hysteria and rabid intolerance.
Harner contemplated the notion that there was more to the rituals than good old fashioned religion. Long before the rise of the Aztec culture, the deer in central Mexico had been hunted to scarcity. Tenochtitlán was built on a manmade island on the western shore of Lake Texcoco. The lake was too shallow and salty for fish to live in, so the meat department majored in domesticated turkeys and hairless dogs (Chihuahuas).
In the Andes, the Incas also performed sacrifices, but on a much smaller scale. Their meat department was more generous, including llamas, alpacas, and guinea pigs. Because long distance travel was extremely difficult, the people of the Andes didn’t acquire turkeys or Chihuahuas from Mexico, but they did get corn. On the other end, Mesoamerica did not acquire llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, or potatoes from the Andes.
While it’s possible to be fairly well nourished on a diet majoring in corn and beans, it takes some luck. Both have to be consumed during the same meal, in adequate portions, in order to assemble essential proteins. Adding some meat to their diet could help compensate their protein requirements.
John Reader noted that fat is essential for the absorption, transport, and storage of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Growing children especially need two types of fat. Arctic folks can enjoy excellent health on a diet of blubber and raw meat, but Aborigines would abandon a kangaroo that had too little fat.
Reader noted that we need to consume 40 to 50 nutrients, including carbs, fat, protein, 14 vitamins, and 15 minerals. The building blocks of proteins are 22 types of amino acids. From the food we eat, we can assemble 12 types of amino acids. We cannot assemble the other 10 types, they must be consumed readymade. These are called “essential” amino acids. All 10 are present in plant foods, but not in the ideal proportions. When our diet is missing just one essential amino acid, protein assembly ceases.
It is possible to get by on a combo of cereals and beans, but this option was not practical until the era of agriculture. For non-farmers, meat is an essential component of a healthy diet. Different types of animal foods provide proteins, but we need to reassemble them into forms that our bodies need. Reader said that the one and only animal food that provides the exact mix of required proteins readymade is human meat. Full scale cannibal cultures are impossible, because the rate of consumption would far exceed the rate of reproduction.
Harner proposed the theory that the Aztec sacrifices had two roles, one was religious, and the other was about reducing malnutrition. Aztecs often raided their neighbors, and brought back prisoners. They did not annex their land, but they left behind survivors to breed replacements that could be captured during future raids. Prisoners who were not eaten on the battlefield were taken back home, where they were kept in sturdy wooden cages, in which they were fattened up for an upcoming sacrifice.
Bernal Díaz was a Spaniard who was an eyewitness to sacrifices. He wrote: “Moreover every day they sacrificed before our eyes three, four, or five Indians, whose hearts were offered to those idols and whose blood was plastered on the walls. The feet, arms, and legs of their victims were cut off and eaten, just as we eat beef from the butcher’s in our country.”
In the sacrifice process, the heads were also removed. In Tenochtitlán, their skulls were displayed on a rack near the temple. Two soldiers were assigned the job of estimating the number of skulls on the rack. They concluded about 136,000 skulls (not including the ones on the towers). Sacrifices were also normal events in other Aztec cities.
As school children, we were taught that civilization was an outstanding achievement, a great leap forward. We also learned that our wild ancestors, who had far less eco-impact, were primitive, stupid, and pitiable. Their lives were “nasty, brutish, and short.”