The Stories Soil Tell

One of the books I was fortunate to read this summer was Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. As the title suggests, the book followed this historical evolution of agriculture, and in parallel, the rise and fall of the myriad new agrarian societies that popped up all over the globe. The book is exhaustive in details of how, and why, soil erosion and environmental degradation has been an underlying factor, and sometimes even a driving force, in the collapse of civilizations. Traced back to the Egyptians, Romans, ancient Chinese, and South American civilizations, erosion is a barely noticeable poison. Almost invisible to the casual observer, erosion has almost never been a prominent enough issue to take the focus of a society, falling behind more immediate issues such as feeding growing populations, paying off debts, and maximizing profits. As erosion slowly eats away the ground, the collapse is not immediate. It is unlikely that the farmers of any civilization looked at their soil and thought “Ah, here, behold the ruin of our people”. And yet, hundreds to thousands of years in the future, we look back, examine their soil, and behold the ruin of many people.

This is not to say that erosion was going by unnoticed – even such legendary thinkers as Plato and Aristotle made concerns of soil conservation, and predicted its role in undoing their own societies. Yet have we learned anything from their mistakes?

Haiti is a living example of a society caught on the precipice of this collapse. The government has been unstable for some time, and the population has grown to push thousands of people onto extremely steep slopes. Sediment clogs the estuaries and deltas. The process is so well known, one might predict with a great degree of certainty the future of Haiti, if the importance of soil conservation is not made an immediate nation concern, for reasons of longevity, stability, security, and general well being.

Bare slopes in southern Haiti.

And of course, what is one of the best ways to prevent erosion? Planting trees. It is, in this sense, a hugely patriotic act for a farmer to choose to leave a tree standing, and to plant a new one, as many farmers we know do.

For us in the US – we are not without our own history, and contemporary struggle, with erosion. Fortunately, no-till farming, organic methods, and agroforestry promise viable alternatives to the conventional practices that have wrecked many a field. In the midst of our own power and rise, it is difficult to see where, and when, we will reach the precipice of irreversible erosion. Perhaps we have already begun our slow descent, tumbling acceleration.

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