Thursday, April 2, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 36

[Note: This is the thirty-sixth 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.] 

Aztec Erosion

M. Lourdes González-Arqueros and team studied soil erosion in the Teotihuacán Valley, northeast of Mexico City.  Mexico’s soils have taken a beating over the centuries, and the blame is commonly directed to the settlers from the Old World who arrived in the 1500s.  They imported many destructive practices, pathogens, and hooved locusts (goats and sheep).  Research done by the study concluded that the indigenous people were already reputable soil molesters when the white folks arrived.  They analyzed erosion patterns during three different periods of time:

(1) In the Teotihuacán period (A.D. 1-650), forests still grew on summits, hill slopes, and foot slopes.  This restricted some soil erosion.  Organic corn was grown by no-tillage methods (picks and spades) on the lower ground. 

(2) In the Aztec period (1325-1521), forest area in the valley was drastically reduced as population increased, and agriculture expanded up the hillsides.  During this period, much of the landscape was devoted to agriculture.  When sloped land is deforested, increased erosion is an expected consequence.  In the Aztec period, rates of soil loss were much higher, compared to rates in both the earlier Teotihuacán period, and the later modern period.

(3) In the modern period (after 1970), forest area has recovered a bit.  A large portion of cropland is now planted with prickly pear, a perennial plant that is fast growing, rapidly rooting, and usually has deep roots.  Soil destruction was lower than during the Aztec period, but the study did not give modern practices the Sustainable Agriculture™ seal of approval.  Too many people continue living too hard.

The team concluded that land use and soil management were prime factors in the erosion, more so than precipitation and topography.  I wish their study hadn’t skipped around the years between 1521 and 1970.  Anyway, before the Spaniards, the land was gradually being beaten to death.  Then, the colonists launched a full scale war on forests, while flocks of their imported sheep and goats prevented forest recovery, and their overgrazing accelerated erosion. 

Then, around the 1960s, the Green Revolution rolled in, with mechanization, water mining, synthetic fertilizers, hybrid seeds, and trainloads of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides.  Around the world, population continues soaring, while staggering amounts of soil run away from home.  In the modern mindset, unborn generations, ecosystems, and the atmosphere are seen as disposable — cosmic litter, like plastic water bottles or cigarette butts.  Our education system is completely lost in a soft, warm, foggy dream world of full blown dementia (perpetual growth, electric cars, voyages to Mars). 

Oh!  Speaking of Mars, he was the Roman god of war in his glory days.  Earlier in his career, he was a deity of virility, fertility, springtime, and a guardian of agriculture.  Farmers hated nature, because wildness refused to behave like an obedient servant.  It was hard work clearing forests, stripping away the wild vegetation, exterminating the wildlife, and pulverizing the soil.

Nature was a mortal enemy of the Roman Empire, because it was a persistent threat to their food supply.  Trees, brush, grass, and critters constantly invaded the wheat fields.  Every day, Big Mama Nature worked hard to restore health to badly injured ecosystems.  She used all her tricks to rubbish the hideous fields — droughts, deluges, hail storms, frosts, heat waves, howling winds, wildfires, locusts, blights, birds, deer, boars, and on and on.

She also used pandemics.  One of my ancestral homes was in Gran, Hadeland, Norway.  The Black Death hammered the population, many farms were abandoned, and joyful forests reclaimed their fields.  My kin told me that one day, many years ago, a lad was hunting in the woods.  He shot an arrow, and it struck a bell.  He was surprised to discover an old church concealed in the dense forest.  Nobody among the living knew anything about the mysterious church, or the community it had served before the plague.

Mixtec Erosion

The Mixtec culture of southern Mexico is ancient.  Their homeland is mostly located in the state of Oaxaca which, long ago, was one of the most advanced regions in the Americas.  The Mixtec people managed to avoid being absorbed by the Aztec empire, and their writings are much older than those of the Aztecs or Incas.  Some believe that the Mixtecs were the ones who originally conjured domesticated corn out of wild teosinte.

In the good old days, prior to agriculture, their homeland was largely forest.  Today, regions of the treeless highlands have become a desert that not even thorns can grow in.  Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, and a third of its people have moved away.  Photographer Matt Black happened to meet some Mixtecs in California, where they were accumulating vast fortunes by doing backbreaking farm labor for $40 a day.  They chose this path because their homeland had become a disaster area.  Many of them are illiterate, and most speak only their native language, Mixteco.

In 2011, Black got curious about them and decided to visit their homeland, Mixtecapan (the place of the Cloud People), one of the world’s oldest farming cultures.  Wow!  Some places have lost up to 16 feet (5 m) of topsoil.  A number of villages are half-deserted, and some of their fields have eroded to bare bedrock.  More than a million acres are so severely damaged that the U.N. now calls the region one of the most heavily eroded landscapes in the world.

Most stunning of all, Black described the disintegrating village of Santiago Mitlatongo.  One day, a cliff above town fell apart, dumping stones as large as houses on the village below.  Whole cornfields disappeared into sinkholes.  Homes sank into the ground and vanished.  Eventually, the whole village broke away from the surrounding land, like a calving iceberg — homes, fields, churches, stores — an area of about two square miles (5 km2) was in motion.  Writing in 2012, Black noted that it was still sliding, a few feet per day, a half mile (804 m) away from its original location. 

Corn Blight

H. Arnold Bruns wrote about a serious corn blight that hit the U.S. in 1970-71.  The southern corn leaf blight (SCLB) destroyed 15 percent of the corn crop.  It was enabled by innovative plant breeding that focused on maximizing yield ($$) by designing highly productive hybrid seeds that had very little genetic diversity.  These hybrids reliably generated big money for farmers, who eagerly bought the magic seeds.

On the downside, when conditions were optimal, up to 85 percent of the corn in a field was highly vulnerable to SCLB fungus.  The winter and spring of 1970 were wetter than usual, providing ideal conditions for disaster.  Some farmers lost 80 to 100 percent of their crop.  In the Corn Belt, some clusters of counties had average losses of 35 to 50 percent.  Across all of the state of Mississippi, losses were 30 to 40 percent.  This inspired big fear.  Would the entire U.S. crop be lost?  What would we use to feed livestock and poultry?  No more whiskey?  Gulp!

Before 1930, almost all corn was allowed to pollinate naturally, which resulted in high genetic diversity that reduced the possibility of catastrophic blights.  Then came the hybrids which, in theory, were more vulnerable to crop failure, but they almost always provided far higher yields and profits.  Today, in the major corn growing nations, 97 percent of the corn planted is hybrids.

The amount of food energy lost because of the SCLB blight was greater than the lost food due to the potato blight of Ireland in the 1840s, during which the Brits made little effort to feed the starving.  The message of both blights is that there is great danger in growing monocultures of extremely uniform crop plants.

Today, Brun worries that the new GMO fad is busy creating ideal conditions for bigger and better disasters — billions of herbicide resistant seeds having dangerous genetic uniformity.  What could possibly go wrong?  Right now, a blight is working hard to drive a stake into the heart of the banana industry — and winning.  The entire crop is genetically identical clones.

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