Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Earth Surfaces

Snow frozen rock-hard at sunrise
These early April mornings the topmost layer of snow (still ankle-deep or more in many places) is frozen to a hard crust. It’s hard enough to walk on, easily, with only the occasional surprising plunge of foot and leg precipitating a stumble or fall. During the day, sun and warmth do their work; like a retreating glacier, the snowpack gradually gives ground; and by early evening another six feet of last year’s sorry-looking vegetation has been exposed to view. Where snow still lies deep, it has the consistency of a slushie and begs to be kicked.

Standing water still freezing overnight, too
The basic soil type on my home ground is clay. With all the snow melting right now, water stands in temporary pools and lakes in field and orchard, and a miniature river, ephemeral, runs across my meadow. Runoff water is hurrying north to the little no-name creek that will carry it the last stretch west to Lake Michigan, while on the north side of the creek, water rushes south, tumbling down the soggy clay bank. All creeks are running high this spring, and there is still a lot of snow and ice left to melt, besides the usual April rainstorms.

Another thing I think about this time of year is “miniature geography,” as I called it in the past, although I’m now seeing it as miniature, speeded-up, fast-disappearing geology, as well. That second phrase hasn’t quite the same ring, but here are a couple of illustrations of what I'm talking about:

This snowbank built up over months by snowfall and road plow exhibits layering that reminds me of Upper Peninsula sandstone deposits, the banding in the stone along Lake Superior making apparent a laying down of sediment that occurred over vast periods of time. As warm weather and sunshine do their work of revealing the snow layers, they also, along with wind and rain, erode the bank. Sandstone erodes much more slowly, but wind and water are at work there, too.. Over on Karen Casebeer’s blog, you can see ferocious uplift and grinding of ice on Lake Michigan—again, similar to what happened with the earth’s crust long ago. Modern episodes like that, with earth rather than ice, we term disasters. Demonstrations in geology, just outside your door!

In my garden, rhubarb began to poke through a couple of days ago, as did daffodils under the silver maple tree. Soil is much on my mind in the spring.

It must be thirty years, maybe forty, since I first read Plowman’s Folly, by Edward H. Faulkner, a book that had such a profound effect on novelist Louis Bromfield that it changed the course of his life. Like Immanuel Kant when he read David Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature and “awakened from his dogmatic slumbers,” Bromfield reading Faulkner experienced the epiphany of his lifetime and was inspired to return from France to his native Ohio, where, with royalties from his fiction sales, he bought up “wornout” farmland (Malabar Farm, now a state park) and return it to productivity. The methods Bromfield practiced on his land were called then the “New Agriculture.” “No crime is involved in plagiarizing nature’s ways,” wrote Faulkner in his little book, published in 1943 and destined to become a small classic in its field. In fact, he argued, nature’s ways are what farmers should have been following all along.

[I'm letting the foregoing stand as I wrote it, although I mistrusted my memory, and with good reason, as it turns out. Malabar Farm was already in operation when Faulkner's book came out. There was, however, a connection, as you can read here, and Bromfield did think highly of Faulkner's recommendations and practices.]

The importance of organic matter in holding soil moisture and preventing erosion has become well known in the decades that have passed since Faulkner’s book was first published, but I’m finding plenty of new food for thought in his argument, nonetheless. Take the matter of soil compaction. Faulkner’s objection to the moldboard plow is not, as one might assume or I might have misremembered, that it compacts the soil but that, in turning over the soil, it deposits organic surface matter below the surface. Organic matter at that level, he says, will pull moisture down and away from crop roots, while the smooth, bare soil surface the plow leaves, however beautifully friable it appears, will shed moisture, leaving crops thirsty and setting up conditions for erosion.

Is anyone still with me? Did you think soil compaction was a bad thing? Is Faulkner is saying it’s a good thing? Not compaction, but compression:
Compression was the principle upon which the marker worked. [This was a roller he invented for marking rows and spacing to tell him where to put his vegetable transplants.] Where the idea originated, I do not know. Perhaps it was the result of an illustration we used to see in one of our soil texts. The illustration was intended to show the student how a well prepared seedbed should look. The light color of the surface soil indicated that this loose, “well prepared” surface soil had been dried out by wind and sunshine—as is always true—even though the area presented was supposedly ideal for seed growth. Included in the picture was a heel print. The moist condition of this compressed spot, darker in color, proved that capillary water climbed the vertical column of soil immediately under it. The comparatively dry condition of the rest of the soil showed that, in the loose soil, the capillary connection with the deep underground water supply had been broken. Thirty years ago, the picture meant nothing more than a clean-cut photo of an exceptionally well prepared soil in good tilth (according to established standards). Fitted into the new scheme of soil management, it becomes a significant guide to better methods of planting seeds and transplanting plants. [The italics are my added emphasis.]
If there is even one person who reads this far and is fascinated by the claim that compressed soil is better for plants than loose, friable soil, I will be satisfied. If two people are fascinated, I’ll be downright thrilled!

Because, think about it—does anyone want to go to the trouble of double-digging if the practice is deleterious rather than beneficial? We’ve been told that soil has to be loose, has to be aerated, and here’s Faulkner saying, Hey! Nature doesn’t do it that way! Do not disturb! Or, at least, disturb the soil as little as possible, and after you’ve disturbed it, try to restore it, as much as possible, to its undisturbed state.

I’m thinking Aristotle here and the Golden Mean. Soil too loose to hold moisture can’t be good, but neither can soil compacted into rock. “Builder’s clay” is what Faulkner had to begin with in the yard of one new family house, and that took a long siege of amendments, physical and organic. Too compressed or not compressed enough are bad. What we want is the “just right” middle position. Yes, Goldilocks comes to mind, too.

Not all cultivation is plowing, and here’s a site that will help make various tillage distinctions clear for the uninitiated (nonfarmer).

The question of tillage and cultivation has not yet been settled, even among organic farmers, partly because no-till practices often involve heavy use of chemical herbicides. An article published not long ago in AcresUSA (November 2013, Vol. 43, no. 11), which is a factor in unwanted soil compaction.
Many farmers bought into no-till methods as a way to “save money.” What the abandonment of tillage saves in the beginning, though, can be offset by declining fertility. Long-term use of no-till methods, especially when heavy machinery wheels are used at planting and harvest times, can lead to a state of brick-like compaction. It is unlike anything anything in nature, except perhaps as a result of certain catastrophes such as meteorite strikes [emphasis added]. 
 Salts, whether naturally present in the soil or added as part of the fertilizer regime, provide an active bonding agent to stick the soil together. This, you see, is the age-old formula for making mortar. – Jeffery Goss, “Tillage Under Attack?”
Faulkner, it should be noted, was not an advocate of herbicides and even thought fertilizer unnecessary, if proper tillage and planting practices were followed. He did admit, however, that his own “research” was not controlled enough to deserve the name and that long-term studies needed to be done. Here’s a 2014 site I found with a lot of recent research on the subject. Time for me to stop blogging now and go read the studies....

But first a couple of reminders --

Reminder: A book that makes clear the relationship of soil health to every human being's health, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, by Daphne Miller, M.D., is still being featured at Dog Ears Books.

Reminder: Poets Night Out in Traverse City is Sunday, April 27. And this is National Poetry Month, so I'll be getting to poetry with my next blog post.


Karen Casebeer said...

Thank you, Pamela, for your on- target assessment of the current conditions outdoors and geologically. The snow situation in my backyard is the most difficult to deal with. I've taken a couple falls due to the deep snow giving out underneath my feet, and luckily, I was not injured. But I feel the most empathy for Oakley, my 10 year old, 65 pound Golden Retriever. As she searches for a fresh area of the backyard to "do her business," she continually falls through the deep snow up to her belly. I cannot wait for the snow to be gone, a sentiment probably shared by most of us up north folks. Thanks too for the mention of my blog. Karen

P. J. Grath said...

You're welcome, Karen.

Besides the sandstone-like banding, I've seen pillars remaining where surrounding snow has melted away -- and sometimes a precariously balancing "rock" of snow left behind -- sights that remind me of the Dakota Badlands.

Dawn said...

I used to think the same way about the cut away snow banks on the sides of the roads when I lived in the UP...that the layers of sand and snow looked much like the earth and were a history of the past winter. I did not know that compacted soil was better? Really??

P. J. Grath said...

We have to be careful about language here and be wary of what passes for knowledge at one time or another. It seems safe to say that "compacted" soil is never good for growing crops, but Faulkner may--need to check more recent, controlled research--be right about "compressed" soil vs. soil that's too loose. Latter would dry out very quickly, which is where the rule of heavy mulch comes in.

I wonder how many more people see the history of the earth in the disappearing snow of spring. Glad you do, too, Dawn!