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Here Below

September 15, 2009
by Frank Browning
photograph of a tree branch

Pristine Edens of soil may be science’s best tool for radically altering earth.

Several months ago, as winter had begun darkening the afternoon landscape and we were driving along the rolling fields of central France, my friend Christophe said, “There’s something almost erotic about these bare fields.”

“Comment?” I said, as he had made the comment in French, which came out just a bit differently: “Il me semble qu’il y a une presence d’erotisme dans les champs nus.”

An erotic presence in a bare field stripped of its green clothing, of its crops, of its native grasses. I’d never thought of dirt in exactly that way, even growing up on a Kentucky farm in the 1950s. There, in the autumn, after the tobacco had been cut and harvested and the land disked and readied for a winter “cover crop” of rye or clover, the kids and a pile of rocks rode behind the tractor on a sort of flat, wooden tray called a drag that was used to level out the surface, dust filling our nostrils and clogging our eyes. That dirt seemed anything but erotic—though of course, as I came to learn later, it was pregnant with relentlessly heaving, merging, breeding micro-organisms, the viruses, the bacteria, the fungi that are the original stuff of life.

The erotic nether life of naked earth has in recent years become more intensely examined by soil and plant scientists, poets, activists, and historians. Professors Ronald Amundson and Peng Gong at Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources are using a variety of land- and satellite-based maps to locate and categorize soil across North America. What they look for are not merely the nutrients, as traditional agricultural soil scientists do, but the living and breeding organisms that have not yet been turned and cultivated by farming, roads, and housing. Even when the most sensitive farming techniques are used, the fundamental “erotics” of soil—the primordial succession of life that has persisted within it for thousands of millennia—are instantly altered when the tip of the plow first penetrates and rolls the soil over to the hot stare of the sun. Amundson, of course, doesn’t use that sort of language. His is the language of science.

Cultivated soil, he said in a 2003 interview with Breakthroughs magazine, “is like an animal that has been domesticated,” resembling “its wild or native ancestor, but there are enormous and profound changes in its characteristics.” What that means concretely is that the integral organic matter within soil—mostly the rotting plants laid down by the millennia—is broken up, which converts it into ready food for bacteria, fungi, and a host of smaller microbes. That act of consummation by the microbes liberates huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a by-product. The fundamental chemical composition of the earth is irrevocably changed.

Needless to say, all those years I spent in Kentucky being hauled around as added weight on the wooden leveling drag only added to the world’s CO2 burden. Although neither Amundson nor Gong is scientifically concerned with one farming practice or another, they do argue for creating targeted reserves of undisturbed soils before their primordial character is eliminated for all time—as have been most of the Great Plains prairies.

Prairies are where it all began for another of Berkeley’s most interesting thinkers about the dressed and naked earth. Intellectual historian Carolyn Merchant first became fascinated with the dynamics of soil while on a date in Wisconsin. Her companion (and future first husband) tossed a burning match onto the dry grasslands to set them afire. His purpose: to blaze away the non-native weeds and saplings that were crowding out native prairie grass. (Grass—especially prairie grass—regenerates quickly, and indeed in part depends upon lightning-provoked wildfires for periodic regeneration.) That startling experience led Merchant into a lifelong interest in the “native” and the “manipulated” in nature.

As she told this magazine in a 2002 interview, two long and ancient narratives have framed our views of nature. The classic modernist version begins with Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon. In that one—hotly contested among Bacon scholars, by the way—we render the earth more productive and beneficial to mankind by obtaining “mastery” over it through scientific experiment and analysis. Everything from Descartes’s rationalism, to the experimentation of The Royal Society—which led to many of today’s hybrid crops and vegetables—to the bounty of the Green Revolution, to Monsanto’s development of genetically engineered corn is engendered by that story. (And of course its results included the various mold-resistant varieties of tobacco that were planted on the Kentucky fields of my dirt-infested childhood.)

Against all of that stands Mother Nature, the quasi-animist guiding spirit that staggers on in the lush fecundity of Mother Earth. While masters of manipulative science seek to re-order and reformulate the very content and structure of dirt—converting the barren deserts of the Imperial Valley into blooming gardens—the Mother Earth narrative (cf. Mother Earth News, that tribune of post-hippie ecologism) renders the source of all life as under attack from the rapacious knife of science. It is what Berkeley’s Merchant called a declensionist narrative. Since the fall of Eden (or in secular terms, since the Pleistocene Era), Earth has been in a fatal decline and must be left to recover through conservation and benevolent restraint. Her book, The Death of Nature, has been something of a bible for the declensionists.

Merchant described herself as a “recovering declensionist.” She acknowledged the critical role played by scientific tradition—and intervention, even—in the recovery of paradise lost. For purists, the Merchant position may be suspect. Still, as an ecofeminist, she admitted to seeing herself “as part of a movement to restore nature to, in a sense, that original Eden.”

That original Eden would be, then, what?

Wordsworth, the aging Romantic, was as good an exponent as any for the return to an Eden before the Fall when he wrote in his 1816 “Invocation to the Earth”:

“REST, rest, perturbed Earth!
O rest, thou doleful Mother of Mankind!”
A Spirit sang in tones more plaintive than the wind:
“From regions where no evil thing has birth
I come—thy stains to wash away,
Thy cherished fetters to unbind,
And open thy sad eyes upon a milder day …”

Some years ago I had occasion to wander about what many regard as Eden’s original terrain—far from either Tintern Abbey or the flattened tobacco fields of Kentucky, the bare wheat fields of France, or the olive groves of the Transjordan. These were the primal apple forests where, for reasons still unknown, the first edible apples emerged on the lower slopes of the Tien Shan range in southeastern Kazakhstan.

I was there in late August, and the fruit of a thousand, or perhaps ten thousand—the numbers were uncountable—apple trees was ripening. Small, green, and knurled. Bright yellow and oval. Squat, red, and round as Christmas ornaments. Some saplings struggled to find light beneath the cracked and peeling trunks of centuries-old forebears. It was here that the renowned Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, a member of The Royal Society until he was liquidated by Stalin, identified the apple’s center of origin—a judgment confirmed by DNA scanning. I’d gone there preparing a book on apples, their myths and their origins. This area was, and so far remains, precisely one of those places where Berkeley’s Amundon and Gong could well find fertile territory for their work in identifying Earth’s soil. For most of the 20th century it had remained a closed backwater of the Soviet state, only slightly crowded by a scattering of dachas occupied by privileged Communist party apparachiks. That saved the soil.

Now, as capitalist commerce has brought a measure of freedom to former Soviet satellite Kazakhstan, and along with it development of the pristine Tien Shan mountainsides, some of the most militant defenders of this “naked earth” are none other than the gene-manipulating scientists who regard its primal preservation as vital to their research. Among the leaders of that effort is plant pathologist Herbert Aldwinckle, who in 1986 spent a sabbatical year collaborating with his Berkeley colleagues in plant genetics.

Aldwinckle, whom I came to know at Cornell, leads a team of scientists looking to use gene alteration technology to come up with better and more-disease-resistant apples that can be grown free of pesticides. As he told me years ago, the plant geneticists (clear descendants of Roger Bacon’s scientific method) depend more than anyone on conservation of the unaltered earth, for it is in those zones that they find the richest array of genetic diversity.

For my “declensionist” friends who often see science as an intrusion on Eden, Aldwinckle and his ilk pose a paradox. Their interventions would seem to degrade the ideal of Nature in all her naked wonder, but they are also attentive witnesses, even guardians, of the virgin landscape. The foundation of their science depends upon the conservation of those residual Edens that still inhabit the Earth.

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