Growing Topsoil

[The following are two chapters from my book 2% Solutions for the Planet that focus on Keyline Design and the Yeomans Plow, important and innovative tools and practices for improving the health of land]

Is topsoil a renewable resource or a nonrenewable resource, especially in dry or degraded landscapes?

The answer to this question is important because we’re losing topsoil every day—lots of it. Geologically, topsoil is produced by the physical and chemical weathering of rock as plant roots widen cracks made by freezing and thawing action and carbonic acid in raindrops breaks down the pieces into sand, silt, and clay particles (as does the grinding work of glaciers). Just add organic matter—carbon—and voila, topsoil! However, it may take as long as a thousand years to build an inch of biologically active soil through this process, which makes topsoil a nonrenewable resource on human time scales.

Nearly two billion tons of topsoil erode annually from American farms and ranches, primarily due to poor agricultural practices. Most of this soil washes into creeks and lakes and out to sea.

Actually, two billion tons is a big improvement. Twenty-five years ago the amount of topsoil lost annually to erosion was 40 percent higher. The difference is the adoption of a suite of agricultural practices—including the use of cover crops, no-till farming, and regenerative grazing—that reduce the erosive power of rain and wind. The goal of these practices is the conservation of topsoil for the future. In other words, if soil is a nonrenewable resource, the best we can do is slow down its rate of loss.

But what if topsoil was also a renewable resource? What if a farmer or rancher could create an inch of biologically active topsoil in a decade? According to conventional thinking, that can’t be done—not with chemical-based agriculture, anyway.

Fortunately, unconventional thinkers have had other ideas.

Take Charles Darwin. In his final book, published shortly before his death in 1882, the great scientist focused his research on the lowly earthworm and the role it played in the mystery of soil formation. By conducting a variety of experiments in his backyard over many years, Darwin discovered that topsoil can be expanded (deepened) in only a matter of years, largely as a result of the digestive work of earthworms.

This was big news at the time. The idea that soil was biologically alive with critters transforming inert subsoil into rich topsoil by eating and pooping was rather revolutionary. Of course, Darwin had the advantage of living in England, where moist conditions can speed up biological processes. What about drier parts of the world?

Sixty years later, the answer came from another unconventional thinker, on the far side of the world and the other end of the celebrity scale.

Yeomans was a former Fuller Brush salesman in Australia who took a correspondence course in geology and became a mining engineer in charge of large earth-moving projects. In his new job, he carefully studied the way water moved across the land, especially gravity flow. A restless experimenter, Yeomans decided after World War II to trade mining for agriculture and purchased a farm in New South Wales, where he began to test his unconventional ideas of water and land management, including the “keypoint” concept.

A keypoint is the precise spot in a small valley or drainage where water slows down enough to be directed underground via a narrow “Keyline” ditch dug on the point’s contour line. His objective was to get as much water into the soil as possible, thus recharging the plant life, especially if the soil was degraded or compacted.

It wasn’t just intellectual curiosity at work, however. When a prolonged drought hit Australia, contributing to a devastating fire on Yeomans’s farm that killed his brother-in-law, he vowed to drought-proof his property—and by extension, all of Australia! Explaining his goals, Yeomans wrote, “The landman’s job is not so much to conserve soil as it is to develop soil and to make it more fertile than it ever was.”

Yeomans pioneered two paths toward his goal. The first involved a tool. On a visit to Texas, he watched a chisel plow in action and realized that with modifications this plow was ideal for “ripping” keyline contours across farms and ranches. A chisel plow cuts a narrow, deep furrow (8 to 12 inches) without turning over the dirt and is used primarily to loosen rocky or compacted soils.

Yeomans recognized its potential for encouraging water and oxygen infiltration in the soil—keys to “revving up” biological life underground. Healthy soil is chock full of microorganisms (trillions of them) and like all forms of life they need water, oxygen, and food (carbon) to thrive. But if soil becomes compacted, all life underground suffers. To alleviate these conditions, Yeomans designed, tested, and patented what is today known as a Yeomans Plow for exactly this purpose.

Here’s a photo of a Yeoman’s plow:topsoil1

His second innovation was conceptual, what scientists today call “resilience thinking”—how to bounce back ecologically or economically from a surprise or shock. Yeomans developed a whole-systems approach to his farm, insisting that close attention be paid to all parts of the land under management, including proper grazing by livestock. Goal setting, design, testing, and retesting needed to be incorporated into every farming enterprise, he said, and appropriate scales needed to be respected.

The primary ecological objective of all this planning was to increase the regenerative capacity of the land, and to do that people needed be treated as an integral part of any management system. Although Yeomans probably didn’t use the word resilience to describe his goals, it certainly describes his intentions.

These concepts, by the way, are the foundations of the nature-based design process called permaculture, developed by fellow Australians Dave Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the 1970s.

So, do Yeoman’s innovations actually build topsoil?

Yes, says Owen Hablutzel, an expert in whole-systems farming and ranching. The Yeomans Plow is a good tool for fixing a damaged water cycle, Hablutzel told me, by preparing compacted soil for rain. One or two 8-inch-deep rips by the plow below the labile (top) layer of soil jumps up the level of biological activity. The chances are good, he said, that the plow can increase soil carbon as a result.

A Yeomans Plow “rips” a 10-inch-deep furrow in compacted soil, allowing water to feed soil microbes, thus building topsoil. Photo courtesy of Owen Hablutzel

“Among farm and ranch clients, and Keyline projects I’ve known personally in New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, and California,” Hablutzel said, “we have seen increased topsoil and soil organic matter, restored pasture on abused former cropland, reduced soil loss from erosion, reduced or eliminated invasive brush, longer growing seasons, and greatly increased soil moisture, soil life, and overall fertility.”

The Keyline strategy works well in dry country too—perhaps especially in arid lands. That’s because every drop of water is precious, particularly in a drought, and any method that can get more of the wet stuff to the roots of plants, the better.

Despite these successes, however, Yeomans’s ideas remain unconventional for many in agriculture. Partly it’s an image problem (he wasn’t considered a “real” farmer by his peers) and partly it’s a lack of scientific scrutiny to back up claims at this point, a situation that will hopefully change in the near future.

Nevertheless, in this era of rising environmental and social stress, we need more unconventional thinking—and quickly!

Here a pair of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of a farm in southern New Mexico that employed the Keyline design (courtesy of Owen  Hablutzel):topsoil2 topsoil3

Completing the Circle

The poet T. S. Eliot once observed that at the end of our exploring we will “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”—which is an apt description of this moment in history.

More than a century and a half ago, most conservationists were hunters, and the conservation movement began its good work out of a concern for wildlife and the threats birds and other animals faced from human activity. The response in the beginning largely centered on isolated refuges and other types of protected landscapes.

Over the ensuing decades, as various conservation strategies and philosophies rose and fell, the movement never lost its focus on wild animals, especially ones in danger of extinction. What did change over the years, however, was the way wildlife habitat has been managed, especially on private land. A leave-nature-alone, hands-off approach is being replaced by nature-knows-best, hands-on practices, to great effect. The conservation desire is the same, but what we can accomplish on the land is very different.

The Gill family, owners of the Circle Ranch, located near Van Horn, Texas, are a good example.

“We cannot restore biodiversity by destroying biodiversity” is how Christopher Gill sums up an important lesson learned from his family’s efforts to restore wildlife habitat and manage the delicate ecosystem on the Circle, a 32,000-acre slice of high desert in the Sierra Diablo range of west Texas.

In an all-too-familiar story, the Circle endured more than a century of hard use, especially year-round grazing by livestock, which had depleted the ranch’s vegetative vigor, encouraged brush encroachment, provoked widespread erosion, and generally made a mess of wildlife habitat, decreasing biodiversity. When the Gills purchased the ranch in the 1990s, they decided to try to reverse these trends. Like many landowners in Texas, they focused their energy and resources on improving the prospects for game animals.

When they started, the Gill family set three broad goals:

  • Increase the quantity, quality, and diversity of the ranch’s plant community;
  • Increase the numbers of free-ranging wild animals, including mule deer, elk, desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn, quail, dove, and turkey;
  • Increase the ranch’s profitability.

They knew that each goal was interdependent with the others, especially in a state like Texas, which is 98 percent privately owned and relies heavily on market-based incentives such as hunting to encourage conservation work. Unlike other ranches, however, the methods the Gills are using to accomplish these goals are not at all typical.

They employ three primary strategies—planned grazing, Keyline contour plowing, and gully repair and water harvesting—all of which increase life generally on the ranch, in contrast to business-as-usual practices that reduce life, such as overgrazing, trapping, spraying, and poisoning. Life begets life, Gill will tell you, and if you want more wildlife, it’s best to start at the level of soil, grass, and water.

Enter herbivores.

“Our primary habitat management tool is cattle,” Gill said. “Animal impact and grazing timing are key to our efforts to improve habitat for all species of birds and animals.”

As with most “wildlifers,” as Gill put it, the family had originally decided not to run cattle on the ranch, believing that livestock and wildlife competed for resources. However, after implementing a planned cattle-grazing program, not only did Gill see a positive ecological result in the form of increased plant vigor and biodiversity, he also saw the advantage of thinking holistically—to see systems as integrated wholes, not as a bunch of specialized or disconnected parts.

Wildlife and cattle are linked together by the water, mineral, carbon, and sunlight cycles that make land healthy for both. Habitat can be improved when cattle are used as proxies for wild grazers, mimicking their concentrated numbers, constant movement, and long periods of absence. For Gill, planned grazing is about getting animals to the right place at the right time for the right reason and with the right behavior.

“My conclusion is that cattle offer us a tool that cannot be replicated by machines, chemicals, or fire in terms of the treatment’s physiological outcomes,” Gill said.

It was profitable too. According to Gill, the Circle Ranch netted $50,000 from its cattle operation in 2013. Any combination of machines, poisons, chemicals, and fire to treat the 20,000 acres that were grazed would have cost at least $30 an acre. So, instead of spending $600,000, the Gill family made $50,000 and also netted an ecological outcome that could not have been created by the more technological practices. Add hunting fees into the economic mix and you have a recipe for a profitable enterprise.

Another practice getting great results at the Circle is Keyline contour plowing, particularly in areas where the tool of animal impact has not worked as quickly as hoped. Using a Yeomans plow to slice deep, narrow furrows placed on contour by laser transit allows water to gently infiltrate the soil with minimal damage to plants and minimal subsoil disturbance. This encourages plants to reestablish themselves and grow abundantly, and the concurrent root expansion converts subsoil to topsoil.

These new and reinvigorated plants can then be maintained by planned livestock grazing. It’s a specific tool for a specific place, Gill said, and combined with other management tools it’s successfully helping the family achieve their holistic goals. However, there are jobs that cows and plows can’t do, such as repair eroded washes, gullies, and roadbeds, many of which have become open wounds on the ranch, Gill said, “eating whole valleys.”

Next up were gully repair and water harvesting.

Implementing methods pioneered by restoration specialist Bill Zeedyk, who encourages landowners to “think like a creek,” the Gills have built a variety of structures across the Circle that redirect water flow, slow down flood events, and “re-wet” sweet spots that had dried up due to falling water tables. They have also redesigned ranch roads in order to harvest water falling upslope, redistributing it downslope to grow more grass rather than have it trapped in roadside ditches and shunted away.

Of course, it has to rain. As Gill noted, it would be unrealistic to expect planned grazing, Keyline plowing, gully repair, or any other range practice to work in the absence of rain. However, since it will rain sooner or later, the challenge is to make sure that the water cycle is as effective as possible. For example, if ten inches of rain falls on a plot of land and eight inches runs off due to degraded or bare soils, the effective rainfall is two inches.

On the other hand, if only six inches of rain falls in a drought year and 80 percent of it is soaked up by healthy land, the effective rainfall is doubled to four inches. That’s a huge difference in dry country like west Texas.

Gill calls a less effective water cycle brought on by poor land management a “human-caused drought.” When combined with a natural drought, the result can be devastating to all life. In contrast, he also calls the practices employed on the Circle “drought busters.” More effective water means more grass, which means more wildlife, which means more biodiversity in general. However, don’t expect miracles, Gill warned, and don’t be in a hurry.If a landowner is willing to be patient, he says, persistence will be rewarded, as it has been for the Gill family. The Circle, once broken, is nearly whole again.

Which brings us back to the place where we started.

Photo of the Circle Ranch with Keyline (courtesy of Chris Gill):circle2

For more information about Keyline design on the Circle Ranch, watch this video by Chris Gill:

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2% Solutions for the Planet

Since we live in an era of big problems, we tend to spend our time thinking of big solutions. Thinking big, however, can have a paralyzing effect on taking action.

In my new book Two Percent Solutions for the Planet, I take readers on a journey around the world where low-cost, easy-to-implement solutions are regenerating the planet now, rather than in some distant future.

Two Percent Solutions for the Planet profiles fifty innovative practices that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production, and increase both water quality and quantity. Why “two percent? It is an illustrative number meant to stimulate our imaginations. It refers to: the amount of new carbon in the soil needed to reap a wide variety of ecological and economic benefits; the percentage of the nation’s population who are farmers and ranchers; and the low financial cost (in terms of GDP) needed to get this work done.

Big solutions, in other words, can be accomplished for small costs. They are solutions that are regenerative over the long haul, meaning they replete rather than deplete people, animals, plants, soil and other natural resources. See:

From the Prologue:

We live in an era of seemingly intractable challenges: increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, rising food demands from a human population that is projected to expand from seven to nine billion people by 2050, and dwindling supplies of fresh water, to name just three. What to do? So far, our response to these big problems has been to consider “big” solutions, including complex technologies, arm-twisting treaties, untested geoengineering strategies, and new layers of regulation, all of which have the net effect of increasing complexity (and anxiety) in our lives. And most of these big solutions come with big costs, both financial and social, especially for those least able to bear them.

Which raised a question in my mind a few years ago: Why not consider low-cost, low-tech, nature-based solutions instead?

I knew this was possible based on my experience with the Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico–based nonprofit that I cofounded in 1997 with a cattle rancher and a fellow conservationist. Our original goal was to find common ground between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists, and others around progressive livestock grazing practices that were good for both the land and its inhabitants. Over time our work increasingly focused on building economic and ecological resilience in the West, with a special emphasis on ecological restoration, local food production, and bridging urban-rural divides.

Through Quivira, I had met many innovative people who had been hard at work for decades field-testing and implementing a wide variety of regenerative land management practices, proving them to be practical, profitable, and effective. These practices, such as planned grazing by livestock and the ecological restoration of creeks, are principally low-tech, involving photosynthesis, water, plants, animals, and thoughtful stewardship rather than big-ticket technologies. I knew they improved land health, produced food, and repaired broken water cycles. What I didn’t know was how they might address the rising challenge of greenhouse gas buildup in our atmosphere.

This changed in 2009 when a Worldwatch Institute report, “Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use,” landed on my desk. Its authors argued that the potential for removal of CO2 from the atmosphere through plant photosynthesis and related land-based carbon sequestration activities was both large and largely overlooked. Strategies they listed included enriching soil carbon, no-till farming with perennials, employing climate-friendly livestock practices, conserving natural habitat, and restoring degraded watersheds and rangelands.

That sounded like the work of the Quivira Coalition!

Exploring further, I discovered that many other regenerative practices also sequester CO2 in soils and plants as well as address food and water problems. The link, I learned, was carbon. It’s the soil beneath our feet, the plants that grow, the land we walk, the wildlife we watch, the livestock we raise, the food we eat, the energy we use, and the air we breathe. Carbon is the essential element of life. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, and stores biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up. A healthy carbon cycle, I realized, had a wide range of positive benefits for every living thing on the planet.

However, I also discovered that carbon sequestration in soils and the climate change mitigation potential of these regenerative and resilient practices was nearly unknown to the general public, much less to decision makers and others in leadership positions. Even within progressive ranching, farming, and conservation communities, the multiple economic and ecological gains that come from increasing carbon in soils were largely overlooked. The story of carbon needed to be told, I saw, leading me to write Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country, which makes the case that if we can draw increasing amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and store it safely in the soil we can go a long way toward solving many of the challenges that now confront us.

There wasn’t enough space in Grass, Soil, Hope for many of the hopeful stories of regenerative practices that I had discovered along the way. What to do with all these wonderful solutions? After giving it some thought and consulting with my colleagues at the Quivira Coalition, I decided to begin writing them up as short case studies — ultimately resulting in this book: Two Percent Solutions for the Planet.

The goal of this book is to present informative snapshots of regenerative practices in a format that can be widely read and shared. It is not a comprehensive accounting by any means. I picked 50 topics that I consider to be a diverse representation of the regenerative world. There are other solutions already at work, and new ones are being developed even as you read this. I encourage you to seek them out. In the meantime, I hope this book will help you connect the dots between these diverse, pragmatic, and hopeful practices.

Here’s an example – a fibershed:

rebecca Copy of fibershed3

Local Clothes: a regenerative practice that wears well

Of all the human needs we strive to make sustainable, the one we consistently overlook is the one closest to our skin—our clothes.

It’s an oversight we need to address, because almost everything we wear is drenched in fossil fuels, including the synthetic fibers that make up the majority of the raw material in clothes and the dyes that make them colorful. So, if behaving sustainably means procuring our food from a local foodshed and our water from a nearby watershed, why don’t we try to procure what we wear from a local “fibershed”?

The quick answer is that we can’t, because those locally made clothes don’t exist. Not yet, anyway. However, Rebecca Burgess, executive director of the California-based Fibershed, and her partners are on it. If they have their way, someday we will be able to buy clothes made locally from natural fibers created by sustainable grazing and farming practices and spun in nearby mills powered by renewable energy, all part of a robust, low-carbon, climate-friendly regional economy. And that’s just the beginning! Burgess envisions these fibersheds as the foundation for an international system of textile supply chains, designed to regenerate the natural systems on which they depend while creating a vibrant and lasting textile culture.

If that sounds utopian, well, consider the alternative: our current industrial system for producing clothes. Take water pollution, for example. According to the World Bank, textile manufacturing is the second largest source of freshwater pollution in the world (principally from dyeing) and accounts for 20 percent of all water contamination. Synthetic fibers, which make their way to the sea via sewer lines from industrial laundry operations, are a huge source of pollution in the world’s oceans.

Those are just two of the environmental costs. Don’t forget the low wages, terrible working conditions, and human rights abuses that are pervasive in the garment industry, including persistent slavery and child labor. The toll can be deadly. The collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh in 2013 (despite warnings) killed 1,200 workers and injured more than 2,500 in the deadliest garment-manufacturing incident in history.

Burgess is quick to point out that the clothing industry is aware of these issues and that some larger corporations have begun to adopt eco-friendly practices, including the use of organic natural fibers. However, the goal of Fibershed is to go way beyond correcting deficiencies in the current system and create instead a radically new model, one inspired by time-honored traditions from around the planet.

The roots of the project go back to 2009, when Burgess decided to create and wear a prototype wardrobe made from fibers, dyes, and labor sourced within a 150-mile radius of San Francisco. To accomplish this goal, she pulled together a team of innovative agriculturalists and artisans to build the wardrobe by hand (because the manufacturing equipment had been lost decades ago). The team worked toward four specific objectives: produce no toxic dye waste; use no pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modified organisms; significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the wardrobe in comparison to conventionally produced clothes; and incubate a regional community of artisans and farmers that would collaborate and grow in number over time.

The prototype demonstration was a success on all levels, sparking widespread interest not only in the word fibershed (which Burgess coined) but in the concept behind it as well. To push the concept forward, in 2011 Burgess founded the Fibershed Marketplace to explore the possibility of creating a cooperative to help fiber farmers and artisans stay in business together. Then in 2012, she founded the nonprofit Fibershed in order to educate the public, including policymakers and entrepreneurs, on the benefits of producing local clothes using regenerative practices.

Call it “thinking like a fibershed!”

Which raises a question: How is a fibershed defined exactly? According to Fibershed’s website a fibershed is “a geographical region that provides the basic resources required for a human’s first form of shelter (aka clothing).” However, don’t get it confused with a watershed, warns Burgess, because a fibershed must necessarily cross multiple topographic boundaries to work ecologically and economically. Right now, that means stretching the definition of “local” way out—at least until sustainable fiber production takes off.

Another way to define a fibershed is to describe what’s in one. The map (below) presents an idealized vision. It includes a solar-powered wool mill; a greywater dye garden; grazing sheep; industrial hemp, flax and nettle cultivation; small-scale cotton-spinning equipment; a greenhouse; children visiting the field where their jeans are grown; a recycling mill; rooftop gardens for food, fiber, and dye plants; sewing pods; a knitting frame; and weaving studios.

It’s a utopian vision that’s very much grounded in reality.

For example, over three million pounds of wool are produced in California every year—more than anywhere else in the nation—of which 99 percent is shipped out of state, mostly to China. Much of this wool is wear-next-to-the-skin quality, which means that the raw material for the establishment of numerous fibersheds is already at hand. In fact, artisanal fiber operations have sprung to life in at least eighteen communities around the state since 2012, selling largely to upper-end markets. It’s small, Burgess says, but it’s a start.

A key component of the Fibershed’s work is its soil-to-soil concept, which aims to help ranchers and farmers build topsoil through a compost-application process that sequesters carbon dioxide on their land while reducing the product’s carbon footprint. [graph] “A typical wool garment produced overseas has a net carbon footprint of 33 kilograms in CO2 equivalents,” said Burgess. “The Fibershed approach reduces that and can, in fact, sequester nearly 38 kilograms in CO2 equivalents per garment.”

It’s all bundled together in an idea called the California Wool Mill Project, which pulls together a broad array of regenerative solutions. The summary from the Project’s feasibility study (available at, which was conducted to assess the potentials of producing cloth in a vertically integrated supply chain using 100 percent California-grown wool fiber, states that the goal of the Project is to create a technical road map for an ecologically sensitive closed-loop mill design utilizing renewable energy, full water recycling, and composting systems. Furthermore, the products from the mill were analyzed and shown to have a high potential for net-carbon benefit.

“The suggested model outlines the potential for a multi-stakeholder coop that would close the financial loop between profits and the producer community,” wrote the authors, “furthering the positive economic impact for our ranching and farming communities.”

In other words, we all live in a fibershed—we just don’t know it yet!

Copy of fibershed2

Rebecca Burgess will be a speaker that the Quivira Coalition’s annual conference, which takes place November 11-13, 2015, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For more information

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An Unprecedented Future

I can see The Age of Consequences from my home.

We live on a former ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico, that is now a subdivision with more than two thousand houses. Due to its proximity to a center of colonial Spanish, Mexican, and American administrations, as well as the Santa Fe Trail, the land where live has hosted a variety of livestock for nearly 400 years. In the 1950s, the owner of the 13,000-acre ranch invested in new wells, dirt tanks, roads and a ranch house complex, complete with a swimming pool, in an effort to create a prosperous cattle operation on the property. This effort continued for two decades, right up to the day the ranch was sold to a real estate company, who had a different definition of prosperity in mind.

Of all the artifacts left over from the ranch’s heyday, the one that I’ve watched closely over the years are the old dirt roads.

When we moved to the subdivision in 2003, the former ranch roads were still in decent shape, especially in the greenbelts where houses were excluded. Mostly two-tracks, the roads were easy to follow. As my wife and I walked our dogs and chatted side-by-side, we could pick out features of the ranch as we strolled, including dirt tanks for cattle and evidence of tree-cutting from days long gone. There was a timelessness at play in these parts of the old ranch, a feeling that despite the crop of houses, the land in between hadn’t changed much over the decades – a feeling that history would endure somehow.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

Today, the ranch roads are essentially gone, washed away or eroded into ditches by a series of catastrophic rainstorms over the last five years. In the summer of 2011, five inches of rain fell in a single afternoon – in a land that is lucky to get ten inches all year. Chased from an outdoor basketball game that afternoon, I watched the deluge from the shelter of the community center. As soon as it ended, I hurried to a nearby greenbelt and our favorite ranch road, fearful that it had been transformed.

It had. As if by magic, two-foot headcuts (dry waterfalls) had appeared in the old road where none had existed before – and by “before” I mean all of the 20th century and probably much longer. There had been big storms in the past, of course, but to our trained eyes destruction on this scale was not visible – until now. Subsequent deluges, including a monster two summers ago, have unraveled what was left of the old road altogether. We still go for pleasant walks on it with our dogs, but now we walk in single file on a trail that is a challenge to navigate in places. I doubt many people today would recognize it as a former road. What once endured disappeared in only a handful of years.

It’s the Age of Consequences in our backyards.

I’m certain there are many similar stories from many other backyards around the nation and the world. Call it what you will – weather weirdness, climate disruption, global warming – what’s happening is something new under the sun. As our ranch road continues to teach us, what we considered ‘normal’ will continue to erode, one storm at a time, until we can’t recognize it any longer. Change happens, of course, but there’s something about this change that looks and feels very different. There’s a way to describe it – which I’ll explain by way of another backyard story.


Some years ago, Craig Allen, an old friend and colleague, stopped by the office to catch up. He’s a forest ecologist stationed at Bandelier National Monument, in northern New Mexico, and his career is representative of the transition conservation science has undergone, as well as its likely future trajectory.

When I first met Craig, more than twenty years ago, his focus was on ecological change at landscape scales in the Jemez Mountains, in which Bandelier is nestled. His approach was a systems one; he studied the interlocking variables of ecological function, historical use, and plant and animal community dynamics in order to understand more clearly the condition of the forest. And what he discovered was worrisome. Specifically, he worried about forest “thickening” due to decades of fire suppression, overgrazing, and other human activities.

In 1998, Craig summarized his concern in an article for the Quivira Coalition titled “Where Have All the Grasslands Gone?” His research revealed that open, grassy areas in the Jemez Mountains were shrinking, due to tree encroachment, at the alarming rate of 1 percent per year. What was missing was fire.

“Most forests, woodlands, and grasslands in northern New Mexico evolved with frequent, low-intensity fires,” he wrote. “The removal of the natural process of fire by human suppression has disrupted these ecosystems in many ways [these areas] need to be restored to more open conditions to protect both ecological values and human communities.”

In the next phase of his career, Craig ‘walked the talk’ of forest restoration by implementing innovative experiments at Bandelier, becoming an enthusiastic advocate of adaptive management in the process. As a result of this fieldwork, Craig joined a chorus of forest ecologists advocating proactive policies and practices aimed at returning ecosystems to health in the Southwest, principally by restoring natural fire cycles.

Today, Craig is focused on the threat posed to forests by global warming. He thinks the dangers have the potential to be catastrophic not only for trees but also for the animal communities that depend on them, including us. His goal is resilience – figuring out ways to keep a forest healthy in the face of a changing climate. His research, however, says things don’t look rosy under Business-as-Usual scenarios. “The possibility exists,” he told me that day in my office, “that a 5 degree Celsius warming of the planet could wipe out entire plant communities, including the forests.”

But it was something that Craig said at the end of our meeting that brought home the Age of Consequences for me.

He had been asked to speak to a gathering of federal land managers about the climate crisis. They were looking for options and advice on how to meet that challenge. “What they told me,” Craig said, “was that nothing in their education or experience had prepared them for what was coming down the road in terms of climate. Their training was for a stable climate, they said, not one that was changing. They literally had no idea what to do. They were facing an unprecedented future for which they were not prepared.”

The words stuck in my mind: an unprecedented future.

For most of his career, Craig focused on a traditional goal of the conservation movement: fighting scarcity. Unhealthy forests, disappearing meadows, eroding topsoils, too few “cool” natural fires, too many “hot” catastrophic fires, and not enough grass are all indicators of scarcity at work – the scarcity of properly functioning ecosystems. His restoration work aimed at reversing such declines, at replacing scarcity with health and abundance.

Today, however, Craig is working beyond scarcity. He is confronting the specter of loss. Craig and his colleagues predict that the pine forests of New Mexico, as a result of repeated fires, will likely transition to shrublands over the next century. Hotter and drier conditions under climate change are already feeding record fire seasons across the West and Alaska. When trees burn up and seedlings can’t get established as a consequence of repeated scorching, forests die. In a recent interview for the New York Times, Craig said “The future in a lot of places is looking shrubbier.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your perspective, I suppose. If you love forests and the plants and animals they shelter, you probably consider this news to be sad. If you love shrublands, this might be good news. Either way, the transition is underway. In the Age of Consequences, the unprecedented future has arrived.

Here’s a shrubland biome from a popular video game (I couldn’t resist):2v75KYc

Walking the ranch roads where we live over the last few years and thinking about forests and the bigger picture, I’ve come up with five principles (small p) for living in the Age of Consequences that I’d like to share. They’re solely my opinions – use them or not as you like:

1) Stop living in denial. The previous era is over and gone. We live now in a period of transition between what was and what will be. Exactly what our unprecedented future has in store for us isn’t clear yet, but what is clear is that our actions today will greatly influence tomorrow. We can’t implement those actions, however, if we continue to live in the past – which we’re still doing, big time. Simply acknowledging that we live in new era (whatever you want to call it) is a critical first step to slipping the bonds of denial.

2) Solutions exist. Because we live in an era of big problems, we tend to spend our time thinking of big solutions. Thinking big, however, can have a paralyzing effect on taking action. Let’s concentrate on the wide variety of low-cost, practical solutions available right now, not in some distant future. There are many innovative practices, for example, that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production, and increase water quality and quantity. Pick one that motivates you and support it in any way that you can.

3) Explore and share. Despite the daily cascade of dire predictions, sobering studies, and gloomy headlines, it’s still a beautiful, diverse, amazing world. Go see as much as of it as you can, starting in your own backyard. Share what you find with others. In particular, seek out Age of Consequences stories and explain them to the world. Share research, create art, give a lecture, write a book, post a photo, call a friend – whatever you like to do, big or small, to communicate what it means to be alive today.

4) Focus on the little normals. These are things that have persisted over the millennia: such as the way water moves across the land, or the love a parent feels for a child. We need food to live. We like to work and enjoy relaxing, as we always have. We need a sense of community, we like to belong. We like to live in proximity to other people. We feel a deep affection for animals. We are moved by spiritual concerns. All of these things persist in the Age of Consequences and can form the foundation for our actions.

5) Don’t despair. I did. I got over it by concentrating on the four principles described above. Despair is an eddy in the river of life – don’t let it catch you. Force yourself back into the flow of the water, move on, go places, hug people, sing a song.

A beautiful world awaits.river2-blog480

More on Craig Allen:

You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

My web site:


The Second Decade

We live in what sustainability pioneer Wes Jackson calls “the most important moment in human history.” The various challenges confronting us are like a bright warning light shining in the dashboard of a speeding vehicle called Civilization, accompanied by an insistent and annoying buzzing sound, requiring immediate attention. I call this moment the Age of Consequences – a time when the worrying consequences of our hard partying over the past sixty years have begun to bite, raising difficult and anguished questions.

How do you explain to your children, for example, what we’ve done to the planet – to their planet? How do you explain to them not only our actions but our inaction as well? It’s not enough simply to say that adults behave in complex, confusing, and often contradictory ways because children today can see the warning light in Civilization’s dashboard for themselves. When they point, what do we say?

As a parent and as an author, this anguished question created a strong desire to document the sequence of events that I was witnessing as well as attempt to explain our behavior as a society. So, in 2008 I began to blend news headlines with narrative and observation, travel and research into chronological installments, crossing my fingers.

Meanwhile, my work with the Quivira Coalition revealed answers to various Age of Consequences concerns, including many ‘low-tech’ solutions involving sunlight, soil, plants and animals. Practices include holistic grazing, edible backyard forests, biochar, weed-eating livestock, rooftop farms, rainwater harvesting, animal power, bees, bears, wildlife corridors, and more. We saw it as connected – soil, grass, water, food, people – all working in nature’s image of health and regeneration.

By 2012, I viewed these anguished questions and hopeful answers as two sides of the same coin and explored both in detail in three books: Grass, Soil Hope (2014), the Age of Consequences (2015) and 2% Solutions for the Planet (2015). Their common message is a simple one: hopeful answers exist to our problems if we’re willing to work together and try new ideas (and some old ones). While there’s much to worry about, there’s also a lot that we can do together at the grassroots – beginning literally with the grass and the roots.

While writing these books, however, a loose end kept nagging at me. As a student of history (and a former archaeologist), I wondered when did the Age of Consequences actually begin? For a long time, I pushed the question aside, thinking it an academic issue. What did it matter, after all, when a particular period or era began? The buzzing warning light in the dashboard was all that mattered, not when it popped on the first time. The issue was turning the alarm off – fixing what ailed the speeding vehicle and getting on with life.

I don’t believe that anymore. That’s because the dashboard alarm is louder than ever, with no sign of stopping anytime soon. Now that my ears are officially ringing, I wanted to know how long has this annoying buzzing been going on?

I’ve settled on an answer: the Age of Consequences began on August 29th, 2005 – the day Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. I’ve considered this date before, but it wasn’t until the news coverage of the tragedy’s tenth anniversary that I realized how significant the date had become in the larger picture. The reason is simple: as we enter the second decade of what is likely to be a calamitous period of time, it’s safe to say the Age of Consequences is here to stay.

I’ll try to explain what that means, at least for me. 126301main_Katrina_082805_516

On August 29th, 2005, I was in St. Louis, Missouri, attending a Conference on Cooperative Conservation organized by the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. I was not a fan of the Bush administration, to put it mildly, and I suspected the three-day event would be mostly political theater despite its goal to “broaden cooperative conservation with state, tribal, and local governments, communities, private for profit and non-profit organizations, and private citizens.” Out West at the time, the administration had a notable reputation for non-cooperation on environmental issues on public lands, unless you considered bending over backward for the oil-and-gas industry to be cooperation.

Still, I viewed the event as a sign of progress. For years, collaborative conservation had been treated as a kind of leprosy by major players involved in natural resource disputes in the West. In 1995, the Chairman of the Sierra Club, Michel McCloskey, famously attacked the emerging movement in a memo to the group’s Board of Directors. “A new dogma is emerging as a challenge to us,” he warned. “It embodies the proposition that the best way for the public to determine how to manage its interest in the environment is through collaboration among stakeholders, not through normal governmental processes. Further, it proposes to do this at the community level through a consensus process.”

At the other end of the spectrum, groups advocating for the “wise use” of natural resources also staunchly opposed locally-based efforts, fearful of disempowerment by the collaborative process as much as environmentalists did. Continued brawling was the preferred option by both sides. Some of us sought a middle path, however, and began calling this burgeoning cooperative effort the ‘radical center.’

I eagerly signed up when I cofounded the Quivira Coalition in 1997 with a rancher and a fellow conservationist. We endured a flurry of slings-and-arrows from both sides during the first few years but prevailed and were pleased to watch the movement grow and expand energetically. By 2005, it was even politically palatable to the Bush White House!

I accepted an invitation to attend the Conference mostly to rub elbows with fellow radical centrists from across the country. Ultimately, more than 1200 people participated, representing a wide diversity of cooperative projects, with most of the real work being done in the halls at breaks or over lunch, as normal. There was a wonderful energy in the air as all of us celebrated the movement’s coming-of-age moment.

Halfway through the conference, however, a shadow passed overhead – literally.

News of Katrina’s strike on New Orleans swept through the event. Although we had no idea of the extent of the damage, the images on television were deeply troubling. But what really hit home for me were the menacing clouds that appeared over St. Louis the next day – remnants of the hurricane itself, broken like shards of gray glass, spreading slowly and ominously over the city.

I took a walk in their shadow, sensing that something bigger and deeper had drifted in. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but there was something different about those clouds and the hurricane that produced them, something different about its intensity, its destructiveness, and its meaning. It felt portentous, like the turn of a big wheel, or the striking of a giant chime.

On September 6th, author and activist Bill McKibben confirmed my feeling with a short essay he wrote as a response to the calamity engulfing New Orleans. “The picture of the sodden Superdome with its peeling roof,” he wrote, “will dominate our politics in the coming decades of this century: America befuddled about how to cope with a planet suddenly turned unstable and unpredictable.”

The scandalous lack of planning that led to the collapse of the city’s levees, McKibben wrote, was nothing compared to the scandalous lack of planning that has kept Americans from even beginning to address global warming and face a future that will see frequent recurrences of this kind of calamity. It’s what happens, he said, when increasing amounts of heat are trapped in the atmosphere, expressed as more wind, more rain, more heat, more melt, on and on. Over the last century, changes in human societies sped up to an almost unimaginable level, stressing every part of our civilization. In this century, we’re going to see the natural world change at the same kind of rate.

The hurricane signaled the start of a new world, McKibben proclaimed.

“Our rulers have insisted by both word and deed that the laws of physics and chemistry do not apply to us,” he wrote. “That delusion will now start to vanish. Katrina marks Year One of our new calendar, the start of an age in which the physical world has flipped from sure and secure to volatile and unhinged. New Orleans doesn’t look like the America we’ve lived in. But it very much resembles the planet we will inhabit the rest of our lives.”

Welcome to the Age of Consequences.

Ten years later, I wish I could say that McKibben’s prophesy was off the mark, that his words, written in the heat and passion of an unfolding crisis, were overblown or just plain wrong. I can’t. Quite the opposite – not only has the buzzing of the original warning light become louder and more insistent, other alarms have gone off, filling Civilization’s dashboard with anxious noise. A decade on, the anguished question has become: what do we do now?

I’ve been giving this question some thought and arrived at five broad principles, which I’ll outline in next post as food for thought. positive1

You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

My web site:


Little Normals

Off and on over the years, whenever I could catch a break from the daily routine, I would indulge myself by musing on a question that had no real utility: is this normal?

By that I mean can life in 21st century be considered normal by any stretch of the historical imagination? Are the nature and scale of our present national economies, for example, or their social and ecological consequences, normal? In other words, do they fall within some range of variation for “normal” human activity? For many political and business leaders, of course, the industrialization and globalization of our economy fits a pattern of ‘Progress’ that’s been in place since the Civil War and thus appears to be perfectly natural. But I wonder: is this pattern normal or is it an exception?

What about the size of the human population globally or its exponential rate of expansion – are they normal? What about our rates of consumption and waste, as well as our complete disregard of natural limitations? What about species extinction? Or global warming? Or how fat we’ve become? Is this normal or an anomaly? Or have we accepted these conditions as the “new” normal even though we understand them to be exceptional? If so, what does that mean for us or the planet in the long run?

Luckily, the grind of the day job doesn’t allow me to muse on this topic for very long, or else I might start drinking heavily. That’s because I suspect that the answer to my question is not a happy one: this isn’t normal. Not by a long shot.

Take energy, for instance. The extraordinary infusion of energy calories in the form of cheap fossil fuel over the past 150 years, and the incalculable effect it has had on the project of civilization, is certainly not normal. It is, in fact, quite unprecedented – as are the consequences, both positive and negative, of this motherlode of oil riches.

Of course, all this energy has created an exceptional condition of prosperity and convenience that we don’t mind one bit. Life has steadily improved for nearly all Americans since the close of World War II, and most want it to stay that way. Besides, it feels normal now. That’s because sixty years of energy wealth, like any gold strike, has a way of creating its own sense of normality – fooling us into believing that this particular vein, unlike every other motherlode in history, will not run dry.

But there have been developments recently that have lifted this entire question of “normal” out of the realm of indulgent speculation and placed it squarely in the real world of practical “dos and don’ts.”

Take forests. As the current mega-wildfire season demonstrates, current concepts of forest management, which are often based on a forest’s historical range of variability – a cycle of ecological ‘boom and bust’ over decades that is considered to be normal – are no longer adequate. As a consequence, managers can no longer rely on past forest conditions to provide targets for the future. All bets are off.

Certainty in forest management has been replaced with uncertainty. This means we must manage our forests in new and creative ways. These management approaches include: flexibility in decision-making, a willingness to take risks, the capacity to reassess conditions frequently, the ability to change course quickly as conditions change, actions that emphasize ecological processes rather than structure and composition, and an expanded land management toolbox (not to mention money to pay for all of the above).

The goal of these approaches is to create conditions that allow forests to retain as much of their original ‘shape’ ecologically as possible. This ability to ‘bounce back’ after a shock or surprise – to keep one’s shape – is called resilience. A wildfire (of the non-catastrophic variety) is a good example of a shock to a forest system and a good test of a forest’s ability to bounce back to health. Promoting resilience is the most commonly recommended option for foresters dealing with the uncertainty caused by climate-change.

The second example involves water moving across landscapes and the concept of stationarity. This is the idea that systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of ecological and climatological variability. Stationarity means normal, in other words, which makes it the core premise on which water-resource engineering training and practice are based. Before you can build a dam or plan to tap a river for irrigation, for example, you need to know how much water a particular watershed could deliver and when – which means rain, which means climate, which means predictability. Planning requires stationarity.

But it no longer exists according to experts.

Stationarity is dead because global warming has altered the amount and timing of precipitation, rates of evapotranspiration, and rates of discharge of rivers. This means, as with forest conditions, the past expectations of the natural range of variability no longer apply to the water cycle. And there’s no way to turn back the clock. Even with aggressive mitigation, continued warming is very likely, given the residence time of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the thermal inertia of the Earth system.

We are at sea, in other words, regarding the future of our forests and water supply.FOREST-FIRE-SMOKE

In the wake of Katrina ten years ago, I began employing the metaphor of a hurricane to describe our global predicament. It stands for the combined forces of change that are rapidly bearing down upon us – global warming, energy depletion, food security, water scarcity – all of which I’ve logrolled into something I’ve called the Age of Consequences.

As I’ve written before, we need to do two things: work to lower the hurricane’s wind speed as much as possible (reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for instance) while simultaneously beefing up our defenses on shore. We don’t know precisely when or where the hurricane will strike, or how much destruction it will actually cause, but we do know that landfall is inevitable and so we must do everything in our power to prepare – such as build up local food systems.

But this “no more normal” business has added a big wrinkle to the picture.

Now I wonder: perhaps a hurricane is the wrong image. After all, hurricanes move along and eventually clear out, right? And after the rain and wind have stopped, doesn’t a community try to ‘return to normal’ as soon as possible? Once the sun comes out we get busy picking up the pieces of our homes and lives and begin the long process of getting back to way the way things were before the storm struck.

But what if the storm never stopped? Or perhaps more importantly, what if, under climate change, we weren’t exactly sure which ‘normal’ to return to?

This is where resilience comes in.

In ecology, there is a principle called the Adaptive Cycle in which a system (forest, swamp, desert, etc) passes through a sequence of phases over time, including rapid growth, maturation, breakdown, reorganization, and rapid growth again. The critical moment is breakdown, such as what a fire – or beetle infestation – does to a forest. After the ecological disturbance has ended there follows a period of recovery and reorganization, followed by growth and maturation, such as new trees after a fire for example, and so on.

Resilience is the ability of a community to hold its shape after a breakdown. When communities aren’t resilient, they can cross ecological thresholds into a new state, such as when a forest becomes a grassland after a particularly intense fire. There are social thresholds too, such as the demise of so many farming towns in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl. Or what prolonged drought did to many prehistoric villages in the Southwest.

What, then, are the differences between communities that are resilient and those which are not? I think a place to start is with what I call the little normals. These are things that have been remarkably persistent over the millennia: such as the way water moves across the land, or the love a parent feels for a child. The metabolism of a grass plant hasn’t changed significantly in millions of years; it needs rain and minerals, of course, to thrive, but otherwise it functions normally – as it always has. It is the same for human communities too.

We still need food to live. We like to work and enjoy relaxing, as we always have. We need a sense of community, we like to belong, we prefer marriage and the family-scale household over anarchic social arrangements. We like to live in proximity to other people. We feel a deep affection for animals. We are moved by spiritual concerns.

These are examples of little normals that I think remain largely unfazed by the changing nature of the big normals. Global warming is a big normal with big consequences, but it doesn’t alter our need to be loved, to care for other creatures, or to be remembered. The global supply of oil may soon peak and decline, causing all sorts of rearrangements in our daily routines, but it won’t change our need to eat, to play, or make music. Expanding population pressures and diminishing food stocks mean increased suffering globally, but they don’t mean we stop laughing.

Resilience means seeking out the little normals – the constants in human nature, including the behaviors, institutions, and durable scales, that have stood the test of time – and reengaging with them meaningfully.

We know the storm is coming, and in many places it has already arrived. We know that there is no more normal from here forward in the big picture – and that things will be different at a variety of scales. The question now is how to keep our shape – how to avoid a catastrophic breakdown that pushes us over important thresholds from which a return is not very likely. The answer, it seems to me, lies among the little normals of our lives.

Like this one:IMG_3092

You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

My web site:


Nature’s Cafe

[Another chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet. See:]

Few questions have generated more books, articles, studies, lectures, fads, arguments, or confusion in recent years than this one: What should we eat if we want to be healthy?

We have been told to eat meat, to not eat meat, to eat only white meat, to eat mostly plants, to eat organic, to eat natural, to eat what our grandparents ate, to not eat genetically modified food, to skip carbs, to load up on carbs, eat less, eat more, to go vegan, go paleo, go South Beach, go Mediterranean, and on and on. It seems like a new set of instructions comes out every week, so it’s no wonder that people feel bewildered.

Personally, I had settled on two simple answers: 1) If you are going to eat meat, eat only grassfed. 2) Eat more fruits and veggies, just like mom said, preferably from a local organic farm.

Recent research, however, indicates we should be asking a further question: Which fruits and vegetables? Specifically, which varieties should we be eating? New science says there are huge nutritional differences within types of fruits and vegetables. An apple is not an apple is not an apple, in other words. Some varieties will keep the doctor away, but some will make your doctor cringe with concern. That’s because many popular apple varieties are badly deficient in nutrients and highly loaded with sugar. The nutrient content of the Jonathan Gold apple, as an example, is much lower than a less-widely available variety called Heritage.

For Jo Robinson, a pioneering journalist who was one of the first to broadcast the good news about the health benefits of grassfed beef, the answer to the question about what to eat is scientifically clear:

Eat on the wild side.

By “wild” she doesn’t mean the kind of wild experienced by farmers two or three generations ago either, but the really wild—as in plants that were first cultivated four hundred generations ago.

Here’s a photo of what Robinson describes as the most nutritious potatoes she knows – Purple Peruvian, French fingerling, and Ozette:Copy of eating2

Her thesis, which she explains in her book Eating on the Wild Side, is this: the energetic campaign by humans over the centuries to make wild plants more productive, attractive, appetizing, and easier to harvest has significantly diminished the quantity and quality of their nutrients, many of which are essential to our health. These changes are so big that the fruits and vegetables we eat today are essentially modern creations.

“Compared with wild fruits and vegetables,” Robinson writes, “most of our man-made varieties are markedly lower in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.… Most native plants are also higher in protein and fiber and much lower in sugar than the ones we’ve devised.”

There’s another huge difference: wild plants are much higher in phytonutrients, which are bio-based compounds that protect plants from insects, disease, damaging ultraviolet light, and browsing animals. According to Robinson, more than eight thousand phytonutrients have been discovered by researchers so far, and each wild plant produces several hundred. Many of these are potent antioxidants, which fight free radicals in our bodies, responsible for damaging our eyesight, turning cells cancerous, and increasing our risk of obesity and diabetes. Phytonutrients have also been shown to reduce the risk of infection, lower blood pressure, speed up weight loss, protect the aging brain, lower “bad” cholesterol, and boost immunity.

“We will not experience optimum health until we recover a wealth of nutrients that we have squandered over ten thousand years of agriculture,” Robinson writes, “not just the last one hundred or two hundred years.”

This is a reason why this area of research is so hot today—and big business. The supplement market has exploded with phytonutrients, including pills, energy bars, juice drinks, and powders. However, Robinson says we don’t need to give money to the pharmaceutical industry to get phytonutrients back into our bodies. Instead, we can shop “with a list,” as she describes it, at our local grocery store and farmers market for fruits and vegetables that resemble their wild ancestors as closely as possible. Better yet, we can grow these varieties in a garden of our own.

Call it eating at Natures Café.

The original menu at the café was dominated by plants that were tough, bitter, dry, astringent, seedy, and mostly sugarless. It’s little wonder that as the agricultural revolution began to take off ten thousand years ago, early farmers worked hard to cultivate plants that were sweeter, more tender, starchy, and oily. Cultivated dates, figs, and olives were early additions to the menu. In short order, we added a long list of cereal grains, including wheat in the Old World, corn in the New World, rice in Asia, millet and sorghum in Africa.

Over time, thousands of new café items were introduced to customers, many becoming highly popular, such as coffee, farm-raised meat, and anything containing sugar. With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of food science, the menu changed dramatically once more, as did our health. As we loaded up on sweets, starch, and feedlot beef, our well-being declined proportionally.

We didn’t just lose phytonutrients in the process, Robinson says, our food has been de-flavored as well, ironically enough. That’s because the food industry selects for ease of transport and storage, uniform appearance, and high productivity (including resistance to pesticides), all of which have had a negative impact on our food’s flavor.

Here is a photo of grafitti cauliflower, which has twice as many antioxidants as other varieties:Copy of eating1

In her book, Robinson details how we can fight back by selecting fruits and vegetables that are high in phytonutrients and other good-for-our-health qualities (describing what experts call a low-glycemic diet). She offers a basic food rule: shop by color. Fruits and vegetables that are red, orange, purple, dark green, and yellow are among the richest in phytonutrients. But there are exceptions, and not all colors are equal (think apples), which is why you’ll need to shop with a list. Here are a few quick examples:

Lettuce: go as dark green as possible; corn: blue, red, or deep yellow; potatoes: purple or French fingerlings; tomatoes: cherry, grape, and currant; crucifers: purple broccoli; red cabbage; orange, green, or purple cauliflower; and any type of kale; beans: black, brown, or red (canned beans preserve nutrients well); lentils: all varieties; berries: blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, cranberries, and raspberries; grapes: red, purple, and black (Concord grapes pass the test); stone fruits: choose the most ripe, shop for color, eat the skins, and go for the Bing.

I would only add that if you are an organic farmer, consider planting these crop varieties as well. Chefs and customers at Nature’s Café need these ingredients in order to prepare their meals, but they can’t eat them if no one plants them.

Here’s how Robinson answers the vexing question of what to eat to stay healthy:

“We can reduce our risk of disease by avoiding refined food and choosing high-phytonutrient, high-fiber fruits and vegetables that can restore a host of lost nutrients to our diet,” she writes.

Put it together and we can have the best of all worlds.

“We can get additional health benefits by ramping up our physical activity so it comes closer to our long-ago ancestors,” she concludes. “We can choose grassfed meat, which is similar to wild game meat. And we can combine this with the best of twenty-first-century medicine and can once again be healthy.”

The answer is easy: eat at Nature’s Café—every chance you get!

To Learn More

Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health by Jo Robinson. Little, Brown, and Co., New York, 2013.

The Eating on the Wild Side fruits and vegetable shopping list is available on Robinson’s website:

Meet The Beetles

[This is a chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

One of nature’s most important and overlooked carbon farmers is also an ancient symbol of regeneration and renewal: the scarab.

It’s a beetle, a member of the family Scarabaeidae, which includes more than 30,000 different species, part of the order Coleoptera, which encompasses 400,000 species of beetles (out of the 4 to 8 million still to be classified), constituting roughly 25 per cent of all known animal species on the planet. That’s a lot of beetles! Too many to keep in mind, so you’re forgiven if you hadn’t given them much thought. There’s one type, however, that definitely deserves our attention: the dung beetle.

It certainly caught the attention of the ancient Egyptians, who elevated the lowly dung beetle to the status of a god—and for good reason. Dung beetles united three sacred elements of their culture: sun, soil, and cattle. Scarabs fly to the dung patties created by cattle and disassemble them within hours, usually by rolling the manure into brood balls—where the beetles lay their offspring—and then burying the balls below ground in tunnels and chambers where the nutrients nourish soil microbes.

The ancient Egyptians knew this activity was critical to maintaining the health and fertility of the soil on which their civilization depended, which may be why they revered the dung beetle on a level with Osiris, the god of the underworld.Copy of beetles1

Alas, the scarab is not so revered today. In fact, dung beetle populations were nearly hammered into oblivion in the mid-twentieth century by the pesticides and insecticides of industrial agriculture. Only in recent years has their benefit to nature and agricultural ecosystems been rediscovered, including the role they can play sequestering atmospheric carbon in soil. It’s also been estimated that dung beetles can save farmers billions of dollars every year. How?

The story starts with a fly—the horn fly in particular.

Most people don’t realize that manure (dung) is a coveted resource in nature, fought over by many creatures, including the pests and parasites that literally “bug” cattle and other livestock. This includes the horn fly (Haematobia irritans—or blood-loving irritant) which arrived on American shores from Europe in 1887. The flies lay their eggs in cow pats and the larvae are incubated there (for as little as five days) until they transform themselves into new adult flies and emerge to begin their torment. Among other maladies, their persistent biting can cause infections in cattle.

A century ago, however, horn flies were not the scourge they became for a simple reason: dung beetles eliminated the manure before the eggs could hatch. A bevy of beetles can bury a field of fresh manure patties in a matter of hours—no dung, no flies!

This natural balance changed dramatically after World War II when farms, rangelands, and animals began to be sprayed with various synthetic compounds in the name of pest and parasite “control.” Not coincidently, dung beetle populations dropped dramatically (being a “pest” after all), leaving a lot of poop sitting on the ground. Horn fly populations exploded.

Flies can also serve as vectors for a variety of serious diseases that infect humans, including typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery, and tuberculosis. One cow patty can house as many as 450 different insect species and one pair of flies can parent as many as 1.5 million new pairs in as little as 14 weeks. Flies can quickly develop resistance to insecticides as well. For all of these reasons, in the early 1970s a handful of researchers and cattle ranchers decided to reject the application of ever-more chemicals and opted to bring back the sacred scarab instead.

Lead by US government entomologist Truman Fincher, an energetic effort began to establish viable populations of two species of dung beetle, one imported from Europe (Onthophagus taurus) and one from Africa (Onthophagus gazella), the latter via Australia where livestock producers were experiencing similar problems. In Africa, research had shown that an elephant dung pile supported 48,000 beetles, who buried the dung underground within hours.

One beneficiary of this work was Texas rancher Walt Davis, an early pioneer of high-density, short-duration cattle grazing, which he found to be ideal for the cultivation of dung beetles that trailed his herd of cattle like camp followers trailing an army of soldiers. When he quit using chemicals on his ranch in 1974, the scarab moved in.

“Those beetles really got to work,” Davis said in an interview in Dung Beetles and a Cowman’s Profits by Charles Walters. “In a paddock just vacated by a herd…in 48 hours there was no manure. It was gone!”

It was another example of returning to nature’s way of doing things, in this case dung removal.Copy of beetles2

According to Fincher, few people realized the significance of the dung beetles to ecosystems. Beetles are nature’s sanitation crew, he insisted. Their quick burial of dung hastens its decomposition, prevents the loss of nutrients, aerates the soil, and increases the depth of soil containing organic material. That sounds like a recipe for building soil and sequestering carbon.

Not only do dung beetles transport carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus underground when they remove manure, feeding the microbes a rich diet of organic food, their tunnels increase porosity in the soil, which means more water and oxygen reach the microbes as well, revving up their tiny engines. This increases storage of carbon in the soil, with important positive implications for watershed health, plant growth, food production, pollution abatement, and climate change. And all done for free—by nature!

In his book, Charles Walters points out that Onthophagus gazella was released precisely as the natural food and organic agriculture movements began to pick up steam in the US, reflecting a desire for nontoxic approaches to food production that continues to this day. “The mere existence of dung beetles,” wrote Walters, “is a greater guardian of the organic red-meat supply than all the inspection certificates and agencies of verification can account for.”

Then there’s the comic sight of beetles flying to fresh dung as if directed by radar. “No one can say that dung beetles are good flyers,” wrote Walters. “When their encased wings are uncovered like some secret weapon in a military silo, they rise up almost helicopter style, then lumber along like an early Wright Brothers plane.”

Alas, industrial agriculture and its allies were not so amused. The news that their chemicals were killing critters deemed essential to the health of rangelands was not welcome. Infamously, Truman Fincher was forced into early retirement by the US government at the behest of Industry, according to Fincher himself. His research was put on hold and his laboratory samples destroyed.

The lowly dung beetle has struggled to regain its proper place in the ecosystem ever since. Fortunately, it’s making a comeback, thanks in part to rising interest in regenerative agriculture.

Hopefully, one day the scarab will return to its former lofty status!

To Learn More: Dung Beetles and a Cowman’s Profits by Charles Walters. Acres USA, Austin, TX, 2008.

Here is an informative TED talk on the dance of the dung beetle:

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Beyond Resilience

[This is a chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet to be published by Chelsea Green in October. See:]

Managing New Normals

Restoring land to health means trying to return it to something like normal ecological conditions. But what if the definition of normal changes in the meantime?

An ecosystem’s capacity to absorb a shock, such as a drought, flood, or forest fire, and then bounce back as quickly as possible is called resilience. Since it’s a critical part of ecosystem health, ecologists have made a big effort to understand what constitutes “normal” conditions in order to help a system be as resilient as possible, especially if the shock has been caused by humans, such as overgrazing by cattle. But what if a system’s definition of normal changes? What if a region’s annual precipitation dropped by half—and stayed there? Or when the rains did fall, they came as unusually large flood events or at the wrong time of year? What does resilience mean in this context?

It’s not an abstract question. Under climate change, scientists tell us, we’ll be experiencing all manner of new normals. For restoration purposes, this means we need to search the management toolbox for practices that go beyond short-term resilience and allow an ecosystem to endure long-term deviations from normal conditions.

What would those practices be? Mike Reardon has an idea.

Since the late 1990s, Reardon has used a wide variety of land restoration tools on his family’s 6500-acre Cañon Bonita Ranch, located in northeastern New Mexico. These tools include tree removal, brush clearing, prescribed fire, planned grazing, erosion control, riparian restoration, water harvesting, dam building, and ranch road repair—all in service of restoring ecological health to the land after decades of mismanagement by previous landowners. Reardon’s overall goal is to support a multitude of diverse wildlife on the property and his work has been highly effective in this regard. Today, however, he faces a new challenge: How do you maintain forward progress when prolonged drought limits the use of certain tools?

In 1997, an expert with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service told Reardon that there were “too many trees” on his ranch. This was news to Reardon, who lives in Albuquerque and readily admits to being a novice about land health when he began managing the ranch. Too many piñon and juniper trees, the expert said, meant a reduced amount of open, grassy habitat for wildlife. In the past, nature corrected this situation with periodic, lightning-sparked wildfires that would thin out the trees, allowing the land to bounce back with perennial grasses. However, a century of fire suppression by landowners and cooperating agencies across the region, coupled with poor livestock management, eventually eliminated the land’s grass cover, resulting in widespread tree encroachment.

To reverse this situation, Reardon focused first on reducing the density of piñon and juniper trees on the ranch. His original tools were handheld loppers and a chainsaw. Then came a spin trimmer, a front-end loader, and a Bobcat skid-steer. Next, Reardon hired a professional woodcutting crew from Mexico. To date, nearly three thousand acres have been cleared on the ranch, though some stands of trees were left for wildlife.

Next, during the years when grass (and rain) was abundant, Reardon alternated the use of two other tools to further reinvigorate the grasslands: prescribed fire and planned grazing. With the assistance of neighbors and fire experts, Reardon has completed two controlled burns, ten years apart, which effectively suppressed tree seedlings. Reardon also employed the tool of high-density, short-duration grazing by cattle during the vegetative dormant season (December through March). This “living fire” recycles old grass into cattle manure, which helps to build grass cover.

Here’s a photo of the abundant and diverse grasses that returned to the Cañon Bonita ranch (that’s Mike Reardon on the left):Copy of normals1

All three tools worked. Grass came back with a flourish, teaching Reardon an important lesson.

“I learned that bare ground was enemy number one,” Reardon said, “so I do everything I can to get grass to grow. And not just any grass, I want perennials and I want as much diversity as possible.”

The next job for the resilience toolbox was water. In order to create more surface water for wildlife to drink, as well as grow a year-round supply of nutritious food, twelve earthen dams and four metal tanks (with windmills) were repaired, modified, or constructed across the ranch. He also implemented a five-phase wetland and riparian restoration project that employed many of the innovative practices pioneered by specialists Bill Zeedyk and Craig Sponholtz.

They designed and implemented treatments for a two-mile stretch of Cañon Bonito Creek, which ran through the center of the ranch. Their goals were to decrease stream bank erosion and downcutting and to raise the water table. They also wanted to reconnect the creek to its floodplain in order to re-wet adjoining wet meadows and increase the amount of live water. They also hoped to increase forage species, including wetland vegetation, and increase cover for wildlife. There was even a plan to harvest water from ranch roads using a variety of techniques, including redesigned road crossings and water-harvesting rock structures in canyon side channels.

Reardon also implemented a detailed monitoring program on the ranch in order to see how changes were progressing. This included vegetation and bare-ground monitoring, moisture data collection, wildlife population surveys, and photographic documentation, including sixty photo points along Cañon Bonito creek alone.

The message of the monitoring data was clear: conditions were improving. Under Reardon’s management, the ranch progressed from a monoculture of blue grama grass to hosting a diversity of more than 55 different grass species. Dry springs began to flow again and wildlife populations shot up by a factor of ten. Despite a drying trend that began in 2002, deer, elk, and wild turkey populations continued to rise and things seemed to be returning to normal. It looked like Reardon had succeeded in rebuilding resilience on the ranch.

Except—the definition of normal was changing. The drought, for example, went on and on—and still goes on.

Today, year-round water in the Cañon Bonito creek is rare, though there is still a steady trickle in the spring area. A relict population of ponderosa pines is dying, along with piñon and juniper trees. Small populations of perennial grasses, previously restored, are now dying as well. And wildlife populations are in decline—wild turkey populations have dropped by 75 percent. As for the land management toolbox—persistent drought means that prescribed fire is off the table and grazing by cattle is limited to selected areas of the ranch.

Reardon has learned the hard way that getting “beyond resilience” is easier said than done.

On the good news front, there is still plenty of ground cover holding the soil in place, capturing “airmail topsoil,” as Reardon puts it, during local dust storms, as well as any raindrop that falls from the sky. The wetland and riparian restoration work have kept the ground moist where otherwise it might have gone dry. It also helps to dissipate the destructive forces of unusually big flood events, such as one the ranch endured on September 2013, when nearly five inches fell in a matter of hours. Thanks to all the vegetation that had grown along the stream banks, the effects of that flood were not nearly as devastating as they would have been otherwise.

Here’s a photo of the new normal of big flood events on the ranch:Copy of normals3

For Reardon, the whole experience points to important lessons learned for the new normals of hotter, drier conditions and chaotic moisture events.

“Use your time effectively,” he said, “focus on sweet spots, have a plan, pull together a diverse group of supporters and professionals, be willing to listen and learn, trust the data, be willing to admit mistakes, be proactive, become land literate, and get ready for the next storm—dust, rain, snow, whatever Mother Nature brings. It will rain again!”

Sage words as we move deeper into the twenty-first century!

More Courtney:

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The Mystrey of the Missing Carbon

It’s a whodunit with huge consequences for life on Earth.

Somehow, a whole lot of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has gone missing and it’s becoming a scientific detective story to figure out where it went and why. The Principle Investigator into this mystery is NASA, which launched a satellite called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) on July 2nd, 2014, into an orbit around the Earth in hopes of cracking the case.

OCO-2 is designed to precisely measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, in particular the amounts that are “inhaled and exhaled” annually by living things on the planet. This ‘breathing’ pattern was first discovered by Dr. Charles Keeling and is captured beautifully in the famous Keeling Curve (see: The cause of the breathing pattern is the relationship between sources (emitters) and sinks (absorbers) of CO2. Carbon sources include: fossil fuel combustion, forest fires, decaying organic matter, and the biowaste created by micoorganisms. Carbon sinks include: green plants, oceans, rocks, and soil. The planet ‘breathes in’ when the sinks are working at maximum efficiency (ie summer, when plants are greenest) and ‘breathes out’ when they are not (winter). This breathing becomes a discernable pattern (the Keeling Curve) because there are more deciduous trees, which drop their leaves in the fall, in the northern hemisphere than in the southern.

This breathing is part of the great carbon cycle, by which carbon molecules travel from source to sink to source to sink, round and round. It’s nature’s way of keeping carbon in balance, especially if there’s been a natural disruption. If too many volcanoes go off in a short amount of time, for instance, CO2 levels can rise to very high levels. Or if plants die off as the result of an ice age, levels can fall dramatically. In all cases, when these imbalances occur, the sinks and sources work to restore an equilibrium and get the planet breathing ‘normally’ again – a process, by the way, that takes thousands or millions of years.

Unfortunately, humans have been provoking an asthma attack on Earth since the Industrial Revolution, principally by digging up and burning 300-million-year old carbon in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. In terms of quantity and speed, it’s a source of CO2 that the planet has never experienced before, which means sinks have never had to work this hard in so short a period of time to soak up all this new carbon – the oceans especially – which is where the mystery come in.

Of the billions of tons of CO2 that are currently being pumped into the atmosphere every year as a consequence of human activity (up by a factor of three since the 1950s), approximately 50% stays there, causing global warming. The other 50% is being soaked up by the plant’s sinks, scientists say, with oceans accounting for 27%. That means 23% is going into the land sink, principally green plants, but no one knows precisely where! This is important because encouraging a particular sink to become even more efficient could soak up additional CO2 and help combat climate change.

So where is the missing 23% of the CO2 that we are pumping into the atmosphere going? The authors of most of the articles that I read assume its being taken up by new vegetation, trees specifically. That’s because more plants = more photosynthesis = more soaking up of CO2, which gets stored as biomass in the tree or plant. That’s great news, except for one thing: scientists can’t find a corresponding amount of new trees and plants! The main suspects are the Amazon and the boreal forests of North America and northern Europe, but scientists haven’t been able to correlate new growth in either ecosystem with all that missing carbon. It is presumed that OCO-2 will identify the specific forested culprit.

But what if we’ve got the wrong suspect in mind?

An obvious answer, to me anyway, is soil. There is a great deal of scientific evidence that biologically-rich soil covered with green and growing plants can sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon via photosynthesis. However, none of the articles I read about the missing 23% mentions the soil. A good example is a fascinating article in National Geographic titled ‘The Case of the Missing Carbon’ (

The author writes that that ability of trees and plants to “put on weight” accounts for the missing carbon. However, he notes, even when this ‘extra weight’ is tallied, there is still 1.5 billion tons of carbon missing! Could it be the soil? The author doesn’t say – because he doesn’t mention soil as a sink at all.

This is a common oversight, unfortunately. When it comes to carbon sinks and the role they can play in combating climate change (remember, 50% of the new CO2 being manufactured today is being absorbed by planetary sinks), the focus is almost always on trees and shrubs. Like Cinderella, soils aren’t invited to the party. This is a crime because it’s been well established that soils have the potential capacity to soak up large amounts of CO2. I suspect this ‘mystery’ isn’t a mystery at all – all that ‘missing’ carbon is being stored in soils!

Hopefully, OCO-2 will corroborate my hunch. If it does, then perhaps we can take a big step towards recognizing the potential of soil to assist in the fight against climate.

Here’s a photo of the usual suspect: forest1

 There’s another culprit in this mystery: the U.S Congress.

In recent years, in response to rising concerns about the Earth’s geophysical environment and the impact humans are having on it (and vice versa), NASA launched a series of satellites into orbit to precisely measure various conditions on the planet. Five of these satellites fly in a tight cluster called the A-Train (after a popular swing-era tune), one of which is OCO-2. In addition to carbon dioxide levels, the A-Train records data about airborne pollutants, water vapor, clouds, vegetation, and much more. The goal is to create a synchronous ‘snapshot’ of a specific part of the Earth from multiple perspectives, which will help us humans guide our decisions and actions (hopefully).

Congress, however, wants to dismantle the A-Train. In May, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology voted to gut NASA’s budget for its earth science programs by roughly 25%. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), an avowed skeptic of global warming science, said that NASA should be focusing on space, not Earth. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden shot back by saying the budget cuts would “set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts and storm events.”

The Committee’s proposed cuts boggle the mind – but not more than their hypocritical reasoning, if you can call it reasoning at all. Here’s an illustration: Smith wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he said “Instead of letting political ideology or climate ‘religion’ guide government policy, we should focus on good science. The facts alone should determine what climate policy options the U.S. considers.”

Except – if you eliminate the satellites, you have no data! How can decisions be based on the facts without any facts? I’m not naïve enough, of course, to know what’s really going on here, but it staggers the mind nonetheless. It’s one thing to dispute the data or conclusions based on facts, but it’s another to block the fact-gathering itself. Here’s Smith again: “We don’t know enough yet to make decisions that are going to hurt our economy or hurt the American people. Let’s continue to gather the facts, make sure the science is correct.”

Incredible. Call it The Case of the Missing Data. The criminal is Congress and the murder victims are future generations of Americans.

I don’t know the answer to this mystery other than hope for more democracy. We know what to do about carbon – stop burning it and start storing it – but I don’t know what to do about a political ideology that not only rejects scientific conclusions but actually blocks their formulation. Vote ‘em out of office, I suppose, and pray that their replacements are more willing to gather data and accept scientific consensus. But figuring that out is beyond my pay grade.

In the meantime, I’ll keep rooting for NASA’s A-train! Here’s an illustration: a-train(arch)_new

Courtney White:

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