I was sorry to miss Peter Donovan’s bus.

Peter is an educator who has been driving around Americafor the past nine months in an old yellow school bus enrolling farms and ranches in his Soil Carbon Challenge which will give a $10,000 prize to the landowner who can transform the most atmospheric CO2 into soil carbon over a period of time.

That might sounds somewhat academic, but it’s not. As I’ve begun to explain in this blog, building topsoil, and thus sequestering more CO2, is terribly important for all sorts of good reasons. The challenge is trying to explain and communicate its importance to audiences, especially landowners. Which is where the $10,000 award comes in – and the yellow bus.

Since leaving his home in eastern Oregonlast July, Peter has driven his bus as far afield as North Dakota, Vermont, North Carolina, and Texas. You can see his route on his web site: www.soilcarboncoalition.org. He has enrolled sixty ranches so far in the Challenge. Mostly, that means taking a soil sample on the ranch in order to create a baseline measurement of its carbon content. When he returns in five years or so to take another measurement, he’ll have a self-referential number which he can then compare to other ranches. The ranch that has done the best job of elevating the carbon content of their soil wins the $10,000 (which he hasn’t raised yet).

Peter also runs one or two-day workshops, focused on the carbon cycle. He believes soil carbon is being managed haphazardly and accidently, to the detriment of life all over the planet. Every decision we make involving the soil surface, he likes to say, impacts the carbon cycle. Most people don’t think ‘below the surface’ of the soil (much less out-of-the-box), preferring to manage only what’s above ground. If they manage what’s ‘up top’ poorly – as is too often the case – then the below-ground management will be poor as well. Peter is trying to change that.

Needlesstosay, Peter’s tour in his yellow bus has been a voyage of discovery – his own pilgrimage – and he’s heartened by the success of the Challenge to date. People have been receptive to his ‘evangelical’ message about carbon, biology, life, and the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Here is Peter’s philosophy in his own words, from an essay on his web site titled Unscrambling the Egg:

“It is often said that you can’t unscramble an egg. An egg has a wholeness or integrity, a poised arrangement of membranes and layers. You cannot reverse the breaking, mixing, and cooking, even with the most advanced technology and equipment.       

“But a hen can. Feed her a scrambled egg or two, and she can lay a new, whole egg. It may not be instant, but expensive technology is not required. If the egg is fertile, it can become a new hen, who can unscramble more eggs, and so on.   It’s important to remember the relationship here, and who has the power. The hen wants to eat it, and produce a new egg, for reasons that are hers, not ours. Like all the biosphere’s organisms, she is self-motivated. Trying to force her may cause problems for both her and us. If we want the egg unscrambled, we invite her.

“We’ve got a scrambled egg situation on a global scale: biodiversity loss, extensive land degradation, water shortages, acidifying oceans, and too much heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere. But we’ve framed it in such a way that the hen isn’t even in the picture.

“But she may be quietly edging into the picture…

“The biosphere is the sum of all the living and the dead. It doesn’t just sit there looking pretty, wild, or vulnerable. It does work, a lot of it… The pattern and process of this work is the carbon cycle. Carbon is life and food, and cycles from atmosphere to plants and back. The dead can become soil. On land alone, the biosphere moves 10 times the carbon, and does 10 times the work, of all fossil fuel burning. The hub of the terrestrial carbon cycle, containing more carbon than atmosphere and forests combined, is soil organic matter….”

I’ll stop there. You get his drift. I like his point that life is a force that can be used to create more life, and thus solve problems. Let a hen be a hen, in other words.

I didn’t get to see Peter’s bus because he took the train to Santa Fe, bringing his piano tuning equipment along. Our piano needed a serious tuning. Peter is a man of passions, and one is music. After he finished the tuning, he played Bach and Chopin and Beethoven. The house filled with sweet sounds, and for a moment I could forget the talk of life and death, of cycles, rewards, and possibilities.

Since monitoring is largely about numbers (data), I asked Peter if he believes that facts can change people’s minds – because in my experience, it often seems to drive people farther into their superstitions.

“I don’t believe that facts alone will alter people’s beliefs or behaviors,” he responded, “or at least not in predictable directions. The reason that I am doing soil carbon baselines is not that data will change people’s minds. It’s that data on soil carbon change may provide support, be a platform, for shifting people’s ideas of what is possible, in specific situations and locations. This is about beliefs and imagination, not mere facts. It’s not a blueprint for what people should do.”

I agree. I wonder if a better approach might be via music, and hens, and a yellow school bus. We need to pause in our busy lives and reflect on small things that are nourishing and make us happy. I do, anyway.

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