December 10th, 2011
Leaves of Grass
If you are what you eat then we are, overwhelmingly, grass. Wheat, rice, barley, oats, corn… we might eat almost anything, but we’re specialists in grass. Now here’s the strange thing. We don’t just like any grasses. We prefer a small group of grasses that live less than a year and are also specialists — in disaster.
The majority of our food crops are annuals. That means that they sprout, grow and die all in one year. It would seem impossible, especially if you’ve crossed the midwest and its sea of wheat, corn and soy, but annuals, in the big picture, as a percentage of all species in the plant kingdom, are rare.
Now, if you’re like me, that just seems intuitively wrong. Even if you discount the synthetic landscape of the American Lawn, grass still seems to be everywhere, from the edge of the road, to the cracks in your driveway, to that vacant lot down the street. But it’s not because we’re planting it, even accidentally. No, we just go together, like the Wicked Witch and her flying monkeys.
In the natural world, disasters abound. Forest fires, landslides, droughts, floods, volcanoes, disease, all of these can lay waste to the respectable, committed, long-term plant communities. The role of an annual grass is to be the opportunist, the first to recolonize the ravaged landscape. If nature was a movie, grass would be the live-fast, die-young punks who colonize the post-disaster city, giggling as they loot the McMansions. Eventually, the forces of order will push them out, but not before they’ve taken a substantial share of the wealth.
That wealth exists in the soil in the form of fertility, and it’s the product of decades, sometimes millennia, of work by established perennial communities. A forest, woodland or perennial grassland, like the original prairies that covered the midwest, all endure because they don’t take out what they don’t replace, the nutrients cycling and the rainfall captured. When some disaster disrupts this kind of community, a complete ecosystem, populated by a great richness of plants and the animals, a diversity of life, is replaced with something much more singleminded — the annuals. They grow fast by mining the accumulated riches in the soil, and they pack those nutrients into their seeds. It is as though they threw all their loot into a gunny sack, ready to move on to the next thing. This is a trait that endeared them to our equally mobile ancestors.
That’s what triggered the really big disaster, the one bigger than all the rest, humankind.
About 6,000 years ago, as the foundations of the western diet were being domesticated in central asia, there was a culture of farmers who’ve come to be known by the names of their favorite crop and favorite animal — the Wheat-Beef People. They were farmers, but they weren’t the stay at home type. They couldn’t be, because their culture was based on a plant that quickly used up fertility in the perennial grasslands they plowed up, meaning that they had to keep moving, to find fresh grasslands to plow up. Problem was, those grasslands were the territory of other people, non-farmers. Solution was, kill ‘em.
It took the Wheat-Beef People three centuries to farm and fight clear across Europe, only stopping when they got to the Atlantic. It might be more accurate to refer to that as an extended pause, considering that their descendants eventually crossed that ocean and did the same thing in the new world, waging war on the indigenous hunter-gatherers and eventually creating the vast sea of monoculture crops that now dominates the American midwest.
So there’s a very uncomfortable parallel between the darker episodes of our history and the plant that history is built upon. Even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we are, by nature, disruptive. We build cities, build roads, mine resources and, above all, we farm. And what is a farm but an artificial disaster? We break apart the soil, eliminate the existing ecosystem and let the annual grasses take over the joint.
It’s easy to see why this appeals to the farmer. He or she works hard, and he or she wants a return on that labor. As long as there’s virgin prairie over the horizon and a few billion less of us, it could make sense. But what worked for a neolithic farmer causes real problems in the hands (and machines) of his 21st Century counterpart.
The earth has what’s called Primary Productivity — that is, the basic energy harvested from the sun which is converted to plant matter, which supports all life. This the total pie and there are 62,305 vertebrates sitting down for their own slice. Problem is, one species got there first, and scarfed down a quarter of that pie before anyone else got a chance. No prizes for guessing which one.
A big patch of industrial monoculture isn’t nature, it’s a factory for producing a single product. (Although some of those monocultures are so large that, in Germany, they now have become the habitat of communities of wild boars. Wild radioactive boars, but that’s another story.) Monoculture farming doesn’t leave any room for any other species (“weeds”) or any other animals (“pests”). And that’s tough if you’re a non-human looking for your share of that primary productivity, without which, you’re dead. So, in short, we need to go back to nursery school and learn to share.
It would also be helpful to enlarge our understanding of sharing to include the future. Sustainability is a word overused to the point of unsustainability. But what it means at its most fundamental is that what works today will work tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow and so on without stopping. What that translates to is that sustainability means learning to share with the future.
Humans have a hard time with this. It’s even enshrined in basic economic theory where it’s called the “discount rate.” It means that the same thing in the future just isn’t worth as much as it is now. Of course, people actually living in the future, like your children, might find this to be a rather short-sighted and offensive point of view, especially when it’s attached to the kinds of things that make their survival possible.
The good news is that, if we can get past our psychological sharing issues, the real, physical sharing is possible. Just because we’re the heirs of the Wheat-Beef people (or their counterparts, the Rice People and the Maize People) doesn’t mean we have to go on living like stone-agers. We’ve filled up all the arable land on the planet, which means that it’s probably time to start looking for something new.
That something new has been going on for thousands of years in the tropics, but only recently has it been brought to life in the temperate zones. It goes by a variety of names — silvopasture, alley cropping, forest gardens — but they’re all variants of the same basic understanding. If a forest can maintain itself for millennia, then why can’t we grow our food in the same, non-catastrophic, way?
Martin Crawford, an Englishman who was once an organic farmer, decided instead to create a forest garden. What this meant first and foremost was discarding annual plants. That means also discarding just about everything that we’re familiar with. But recall that humanity has about 80,000 more foods in its historical larder than the dozen or so that we mostly get by on now.
Crawford created a five acre forest where every level, from the trees on high, to the vines climbing them, to the berry bushes and the herbs on the forest floor, was not only edible, but were integrated into the imitation of a real, functional forest. It took a lot of experimentation and dead ends. But now, 16 years later, the garden is mature. It produces enough food to feed a family of five. And it takes him 20 days of labor per year to maintain. Let’s assume that those are long, 12-hour days. That’s a one-hour-a-day work week to feed your family. With three weeks off every year.
This gives me pause.
The rap on farming is, of course, “it’s all very nice that all you young folks want to go back to the land, but I don’t think that you genuinely comprehend how hard this is.” Now I’ve double-dug a bio-intensive vegetable bed and I’ve shifted a truckload of compost with a shovel and I can tell you without a shred of doubt, that I lost on the calories spent/calories earned equation there.
But what if we look at in this way. Of course it’s a lot of work. Why? Because we’ve inherited a tradition of farming that means the farmer takes it on her or himself to be an Olympian force of nature, wreaking total destruction on his land, and then struggling to bring it back to life — over and over and over. No wonder it’s tiring.
There’s one other thing to know about the annuals that we depend upon to feed ourselves. That we have reshaped the globe for. They’re fragile.
Perennials with deep root systems and layers of symbiosis between the different plants can withstand erratic climate conditions. They’re tough, resilient. Annuals aren’t. Their response to too much rain, too little rain, too much cold, too much heat — is to shrivel up and die. They don’t like extremes, and even when they don’t drop dead, their productivity plummets as temperature increases.
In the world and the climate that our civilization has grown up in, this has been a reasonable trade-off. True, there are the occasional famines, but for the most part, it’s worked. But the climate that shaped us is already gone, adapting to its new chemical reality. That leaves us, the disruptive animal, and our sidekick, the disruptive plant, to ponder our next moves. Only, of course, the annual grasses aren’t going to do a whole lot of pondering. They will either adapt or die. That may be a small lesson for those of us on the other end of the fork.