Reflections on “The Living Soil”

This was an invaluable course, in which we were able to build our own compost piles with carefully selected recipes of ingredients. As our piles heated up and the microbiology began to grow in our piles we were given the opportunity to observe the life forms in our pile through microscopes.

Course overview

“The Living Soil course presents a journey into the soil beneath our feet – the true ‘Last Frontier’ – so close, yet so poorly understood.  We will delve into the world of the belowground and learn what all those billions of creatures are doing down there.  Precisely because people did not understand healthy soil, “modern” chemical agriculture slowly but surely destroyed the very basis of healthy crop production.  You will learn how and why modern agriculture fell into the trap of chemical dependency, and how to grow bumper crops that contain nutrients in the forms, amounts and balances that humans require. This course will teach you which organisms are needed in soil for different plant species and in different climates, and how to see them for yourself and monitor their presence. You’ll also learn how to easily grow your own soil biota and put them back into soil to replenish and revitalize gardens, agricultural fields, orchards, vineyards or your own back yard.”

The following is a reflection on that process and a partial snapshot at where my mind and heart are at coming into block 10 and “Deep Ecology.”

Originally posted by me on “Abundance Grows:”

On Monday, May 23rd we filpped our pile, as it had been hot in the range of 140-155 for 5 days. As we flipped the pile we observed lots of actinobacteria, which indicated that the inner part of the pile needed to be aerated and flipped. We also found several dry spots so we added ample water. The day after the pile was flipped the temperature had dropped well below composting range, hovering around 100F. All things considered, the most likely factor in the dramatic temperature decrease was the cold water we added when we flipped it. Normally, after a compost is flipped it is expected to drop about 15F, whereas we saw a decrease of around 40 degrees. Flipping the compost was educational as usual, since we were observing new things in our pile and practicing the order of layering and reordering the top, sides, bottom, and middle. It was exciting to uncover a white fuzzy fungal growth (not actinobacteria) growing around the end of a twig in the center of the pile.

All was going well until the rains came. Tuesday was a beautiful day and our naked, uncovered pile enjoyed the aeration and sun rays; on Wednesday morning our pile was under water. Little did we know, a severe thunder storm swept over Fairfield Wednesday morning for several hours between 2:30-5:00am and dropped ample inches of rain along with whipping winds and attitude. In essence, our pile got supersaturated; so much rain had fallen on our unsuspecting naked pile that when we checked the moisture in the morning before class it was at 100% saturation in 2 of 3 spots. Interestingly, however, was that our pile’s average temperature rose 18F from the day before, from 100F to 118F; this tells us that when we flipped and added another layer with high N2 material, we provided lots of party food for our microorganisms to “throw down” despite the heavy rain.

Now at the end of week 3 temperatures have raised about 130F but our pile is beginning to smell a bit funky indicating some anaerobic, and hopefully it won’t get too anaerobic over the weekend. Oh boy, how fragile is this process! Before taking this class composting was so much simpler (because I wasn’t truly composting!!) but now it is so much more fun. I appreciate the elements more now than I did in April, not only because the warm weather is allowing me to do thai-chi/chi-gung outside finally, but because of how influential they are in the precarious process of building soil health through compost. Compost, compost, compost -one major takeaway from the experience of building a pile is the understanding of how and why good compost is so necessary as a first step toward rebuilding our soils and repairing the environment around over-tilled, compacted, lifeless ag. fields. At times, monitoring the piles seemed to be almost incessant. I appreciate my group more now that I experienced how much easier it was to have many hands making light work and sharing the responsibility of monitoring and observing temps and moisture. I will leave this class with a strong inclination toward the principle of starting “close to home” with a small scale bio-intensive focus. After playing with the recipe and seeing how delicate the thermal composting process is it would be foolish to attempt to create bigger piles unless I had the support of other people.

It was interesting to observe the attitudes of others throughout the composting process, especially my group members. For the most part, everyone was enthusiastic and excited about the process and it showed most when it came time to flip the pile, since we almost always flipped it together as a whole group; it seemed like all of us wanted to be there, and I felt a general unspoken consensus about how important this activity is -not only for its hands-on learning value, but for the broader value of developing knowledge that is profoundly useful in our collective journey to be part of the ecological solution to our society’s environmental problems.

I never imagined how intimate I could get with soil microorganisms. I feel like we’ve been living together for the past month, and now I realize that we’ve been living together for my whole life. The network of fungi underground blows my mind, and realizing the correlation between the design of the internet in our noosphere and the design of the fungi in the soilsphere brings my respect for fungi up to the max-level. When we walk [on healthy ground] we are felt by a network of life-forms that can sense all of our movements. My experience of being in the forest will never be the same; I don’t know if I’ll ever-again forget to notice the foundation of all that springs up into view. Thank you, soil. I think I’m falling in love with a new-found part of mySelf (in the Cosmic sense). It feels like I’ve just discovered a great elder whom I never truly met. This elder is so supportive, and I feel empowered by the knowledge that I’ve gained through discovering the great resource of the soil and how to build it with life.

With this knowledge, there is a great opportunity for humans to repair our clumsy, ignorant damage; I feel like I’ve been shown a huge piece to the sustainability puzzle. I understand now that the power of compost and compost tea goes far beyond agriculture -since the whole food system impacts human life, economy, society and ecosystems in fundamental ways. The inorganic chemical system of agriculture is becoming obsolete, and I credit Dr. Elaine Ingham for playing the role of a major pioneer species accelerating the succession and evolution of agriculture and society.



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