In the absence of agricultural man (who’s been around for a mere 10,000 years or so), nature has labored for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years to create the topsoil that fosters and maintains all terrestrial life. On average, it takes hundreds to a thousand years for nature to make an inch of life-supporting topsoil.
We humans (Homo sapiens oblivious oblivious) can (and have, over and over again) ruin a region’s soil in less than a lifetime. Such is the story told by David R. Montgomery in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007, 2008 and 2010). There have been a handful of other careful observers and brilliant writers who have attempted to warn us of this well-worn folly, to no avail. Though it is our life-blood, we have no problem pouring it out and watching it wash away.
Few humans realize that erosion is both good and bad. It’s a matter of rate. In nature, everywhere on land, the processes of soil formation are exactly balanced by the processes of soil removal. Were it not so, there would be no topsoil mantle, and without vegetation to hold it in place, any accumulated soil would quickly be blown or washed away, except in the flattest places, where it may stay in place.
Once vegetation took over in clothing the land, which is its seeming imperative everywhere, except on the highest mountain tops, volcano slopes and exposed areas of bedrock, it was invariably the agency of humans, creating conditions for erosion, that undid this slow making-and-taking equilibrium in short order. True, there have always been severe windstorms and torrential rains and floods that carried away some soil and deposited bottomland sediment, but these tended to get balanced out and stabilized.
On the whole, people have no concept of the extensive devastation our kind has provoked over the centuries. And it continues to go on at a frightening rate, not only in foreign countries, but right here. Few even begin to grasp the extent of man-caused soil loss and what wounds, in tragedies and in population declines and migrations, have been inflicted from ignorance, carelessness and stupid disregard for misuse of the land.
This is a story of population growth, deforestation, plowing up of steep slopes and fragile prairie lands, followed up by fertility exhaustion, declining food production, often starvation and abandonment of formerly productive landscapes, ad nauseum. The sickening thing is that it gets repeated by people who know what the consequences are going to be, but are too short-sighted or selfish to care. This is the real meaning of careless; or else it’s inexcusable stupidity.
Somewhere I have stashed away an unfinished article or essay prompted years ago by the back-to-back severe floodings of the Chehalis that wiped out many farms and carried away thousands of tons of topsoil in their brown waters. I titled it “Slip-Sliding Away”. Maybe I’ll get it out and finish what I had to say, as if anyone listens.
An astute observer once remarked that hope springs eternal in the hearts of idiots. Rhetoric is a word now being thrown around a lot by people who have no idea what it’s supposed to mean, which is using artificial eloquence. I would say it means disguised insincerity or all talk and no action. That’s generally what we get in discussions about conserving vital resources. And when the discussion is sincere, it usually amounts to wasting one’s breath. But like those hopeful idiots, I’ll give it one more try.
We modern-day Americans like to think we know so much more than our grandparents’ generation. But do we really, or are we only relearning what’s been known, by a different route? I submit for your consideration (and reconsideration) the following quoted material from pages 853-4 of Rodale’s 1960 The Complete Book of Composting:
Here Rodale quotes from a Dr. E. P. Dark, writing in the Medical Journal of Australia (date not given).
“Mile high, those gloomy curtains of dust