The Call and Times, Column 17 – What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Cycles of Nature

9 02 2015

(February 6, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Cycles of Nature

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” So wrote John Muir, our nation’s first environmentalist, as he gazed across the landscape of the Sierra Nevada, captivated by the intricacy of the ecosystem that lay before him.

Muir had a strong sense of the interconnectedness of everything in that flawless environment, a grand natural symphony whose conductor, he humbly recognized, was the hand of God. Putting aside this spiritual component for a moment, Muir’s words form the basis for a powerful point of view – that literally everything on Earth is intimately connected in perpetual cycles of material, fueled by that giant ball of fire in the sky.

First, a little primer on the science. Everything in the physical Universe consists only of matter and energy – “stuff”, and the way it moves around and interacts. Our Earth is what scientists call a “closed system” – the atmosphere allows energy in and out, but not matter. For this reason, it is eerily accurate to say that you breathe the same air as Julius Caesar, eat the same minerals as the dinosaurs, and drink the same water as the first animals, 543 million years ago.

The surface of the Earth consists of four basic partitions – the lithosphere (solid ground), the hydrosphere (water in all forms), the atmosphere (the gases surrounding the Earth), and the biosphere (life!). Energy and matter are exchanged between these spheres through what are called “biogeochemical cycles”, including the carbon, oxygen, water, nitrogen, and rock cycles.

Without getting into too much detail, it is enough to say that these cycles are exclusively responsible for clean air, unpolluted water, fertile topsoil, and regulated global temperatures. The survival of every living creature relies squarely on these so-called “ecosystem services”, which were conservatively valued at a minimum of US$48 trillion (2014 dollars) by Robert Costanza, in Nature Magazine in 1997.

The web of interconnected natural cycles, the dynamic surface of the Earth, has perfectly formed over the course of billions of years, into today’s incredibly productive, resilient global ecosystem. This system uses the Sun’s constant energy, but continuously recycles the same materials – the same water, carbon, oxygen, and minerals – over and over again. But not only is it capable of sustaining itself and all of life, indefinitely into the future. When its inhabitants live responsibly, it can even increase the amount of productivity, the amount of biomass, the amount of life that it bears, making the future better for our kind in the biosphere than it has been in the past.

So where do we, cultured and preoccupied human beings, fit in? It’s easy to forget the environment in our day-to-day lives, but every single thing that happens outside of our built environment, every breath, every sip of water, and every calorie of food, is a necessary, interdependent component of the grand environmental symphony. In the words of Sir Albert Howard, we should understand “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject.”

Unfortunately, our actions can negatively affect these cycles. By digging up and burning fossil fuel carbon that was no longer meant to be in the atmosphere, we are causing the Earth to trap excess heat and contributing to climate change. By overusing artificial fertilizer, and letting it run off into bodies of water, our agriculture creates algal blooms that deplete the water of oxygen and kill off marine life. By brightly lighting entire cities and entire regions for 24 hours a day, we drown out the nighttime sky…and prevent ourselves from seeing the stars.

Though our species harms the environment with much of what we do, we must remember that there are other, essential ways in which we interact positively, beneficially both for ourselves and the world around us. As we move towards a more environmentally-friendly future, it might be prudent to tune our senses to the Earth’s biogeochemical cycles.

What can we do with this sense of the ebbs and flows of the environment? As farmers, we have the unique and vital responsibility of constructing productive little ecosystems of our own. We have to learn to operate in concert with this grand symphony of the global ecosystem, by 1) farming so that we interact positively with the environment, and 2) imitating nature within our farms, to create renewable cycles of our own.

We’ve already discussed this first point in previous columns. By reducing waste, artificial chemicals, and carbon pollution, we can make our agricultural operations a benefit to nature, rather than a liability.

Bu to the second point, let me bring you a simple example: You grow a garden to feed your family. All sorts of garden wastes and food scraps can be fed to a flock of urban chickens, which will produce eggs and manure. The manure is composted, to improve the garden soil so…you guessed it, you can grow a more productive garden next year. And thus, the cycle loops back on itself, having produced fruits and veggies, eggs, fertile compost, and a better future, free and without pollution or waste – all because we used our human ingenuity to imitate and engage with the pre-existing ecosystem.

There are so many, varied ways to implement this knowledge, to view our urban farms as small parts of the grander dance of energy and material in the environment. We have to remember that it is our welfare, not that of the environment, that rests on a productive use of these cycles. Our lives depend on the labors of this amazing, sacred system; our Mother Earth, who uses a tiny fraction of the Sun’s energy to power the only instance of life in the entire Universe. If that makes you feel small, you’re not alone.

In the beginning of this column, I put aside the divine elements of Muir’s observations and focused on the hard physical science. Lest you mistakenly think my view is cold, what say we take another look through that lens. Some people – I am one of them – stare up at the vast, starry, nighttime sky, and feel the presence of God. But at an even more elemental level, when I walk outside, draw a breath, drink a glass of water, or eat an (organic) meal, I feel that same divine presence, that force that formed a perfect, self-sustaining Earth from cosmic dust 4.5 billion years ago, and continues its restorative maintenance to this day. In one of my favorite books, the writer of Ecclesiastes (1:9) notes, in a voice that is wry yet unmistakably reverent, that “there is nothing new under the Sun”. I take that observation as one of the most amazing things about our humble, vibrant planet – it sustains itself, us, and the rest of life, without the need for anything new but the light of day.

That verse is right – there really is nothing new under the Sun. But as an ecologically-conscious human being, one who takes very seriously the command to honor and protect our Eden, our only home; in short, as an urban farmer, that system is more than enough for me.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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9 02 2015
WORLD ORGANIC NEWS | The Call and Times, Column 17 – What Goes Around, Comes Around: The Cycles of Nature | The Opinionated FarmerWORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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