Tag Archives: soil

Holistic Management 5: Ecosystem Processes

After defining the whole we want to manage and our holistic context, and recognizing the necessity of planning for failure, the next part of holistic management planning is looking at ecosystem processes and the tools we use to manage them.

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Savory’s expertise is focused on land management, and at this point in his book, Holistic Management, he spends some time educating the reader about water and mineral cycles, community dynamics and energy flow as they pertain to the soil.

Ecosystem, however, is defined by Oxford Online Dictionary as “a complex network or interconnected system” of “interacting organisms and their physical environment.” If we’re seeking to manage a family unit, a work team, a business, a job, or any other kind of organization not directly connected to the land (remembering all human activities are ultimately rooted in Planet Earth), ecosystem processes remain an important component to consider.

Community dynamics include the whole community. If we have done an effective job of defining our whole, we’ve already broadly defined our community. In my case, my community context includes the human and animals I live with; those people I work with, who are also my community of friends; my family, because we are always working out of our family context; and the plants and animals we share our 26 acres with. I also include a future team of writing support professionals, such as an editor, agent, and publisher.

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This seems sufficiently complex, but it’s not even half the story, because most of the life around us is invisible to our eyes. We have just spent a year being reminded at every turn how powerful the world of microbes is. Our bodies are inhabited by uncountable microscopic organisms without which we could not live. We teem with viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and every living being we’re in contact with carries a universe of life with them, too.

We are just now beginning to understand how essential these microbes are to our health and the health of the planet. Healthy soil is full of complex microbial life that helps it retain water, cycle minerals, and provide plants with what they need to thrive. Without healthy soil, mineral and water cycles fail and ecosystems collapse.

Community dynamics are hugely complex and often chaotic. We don’t know enough to see the full scope of them, but we can observe the difference between healthy and unhealthy communities. A flock of chickens, an orchard, a garden, a team, a family, a marriage, all reflect their degree of health in obvious ways.

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Energy flow is part of any ecosystem process. For land management, energy flow is obviously driven by sunlight, climate, weather, and the activities of members of the community.

Energy is “strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity (Oxford Online Dictionary). You might notice that definition does not reference money, but the health of our finances has become closely tied to our perceived strength and vitality, as well as our position of power.

Our current political context is a stark example of what happens when the energy flow of money is dammed. Flow implies movement and cycles, an open hand out of which resource is both given and received. When water or mineral cycles are interrupted, the ecosystem suffers. Energy becomes stagnant and the whole system falters. Interconnection breaks down. The system dies, including the organism that withheld energy from everyone else.

This doesn’t occur in natural ecosystems that are not interfered with, but humans do it all the time. It’s the end result of a power-over culture. Some thrive at the expense of the impoverished majority, creating an unsustainable situation that eventually collapses and allows energy to be redistributed.

Any management plan will include us, the planner, as well as other living organisms, and all those living organisms, from a human being to the complex creature we call a cat or a cow to the tiniest soil microbes, need appropriate energy to thrive.

At this point I feel overwhelmed. Some days I can barely take care of myself, let alone anyone or anything else. How can I possibly worry about the soil microbes next to our front steps when I feel too tired or rushed to prepare and eat a good meal? And what does any of it have to do with earning a living through my writing?

Holistic planning is a dance between the tension of the big picture, or holistic context, and discerning where our power lies within that picture. If I prepare and eat a meal that provides good fuel for my physical needs and the needs of the whole community of viruses and bacteria that lives with me, I’m maintaining a good energy flow in my personal ecosystem, which supports my holistic management plan.

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There is no writing if there is no me. Nobody else can write my stories. I’m the only one.

If I choose to implement a compost toilet and/or grey water system, the wastes that my body produces (in collaboration with billions of microbes) as a result of energy flow can then be properly managed and returned to the soil ecosystem, which can break it down and use it to enhance water and mineral cycles and the production of more food for my next meal.

If I feed my cats (which greatly enhance my health and happiness) an appropriate diet that meets their physical energy needs, as well as the needs of their living biomes of viruses and bacteria, and compost the waste and wood pellets from their litter boxes, I’m once again supporting a healthy energy flow. Nothing is wasted. One organism’s excretions feed other organisms in the community.

If we want food sustainability, this is the kind of flow we must commit to. Animals and plants evolved together in order to maintain this kind of a sustainable energy cycle, but human activity has broken that elegant flow. We can repair it, if we’re willing to learn and can muster the political will.

At first glance, community dynamics and energy flow seem to have nothing to do with a business plan, but that only demonstrates how unskilled we are at holistic problem solving. We can’t expect a sustainable and effective plan if we don’t use energy of all kinds effectively and recycle it back into the ecosystem with as little waste as possible. The healthy whole is the last level, not the first.

To be alive is to be part of a community. None of us can escape community dynamics and energy flow. None of us can escape dependence on healthy mineral and water cycles. We are now beginning to experience the consequences of centuries of refusal to consider or take responsibility for ecosystem processes.

As I seek sustainability and security for myself, I must also understand my personal whole as part of a larger whole, which in turn forms part of a larger whole, and so on. I am both the center of my whole and a community member for countless other forms of life. I bear responsibility on two fronts: my own power and needs and choosing a position of power in regard to other members of the community. Will I enhance power for others or undermine it? Will I enhance energy flow or block it? Will I work cooperatively with my community or ignore it?

This balance between self and others is the dynamic tension of life. Holistic management planning and decision making put it center stage. Complex systems are by their nature dynamic, nonlinear, and both regaining lost balance and maintaining it require resilience and presence, a commitment to living more mindfully and with a wider awareness of the life around us in all its forms.

We can no longer afford to benefit ourselves at the cost of others.

Going with the flow — acknowledging ecosystem processes. My daily crime.

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Meditations From the Garden

I tried hard this week to come up with a way to write about racism and hate in general, but I just couldn’t get a creative, thoughtful grasp on it. No wonder. Hatred is not creative, unless in a negative sense. How many ways can I hurt or murder someone because of my judgement about their worth? Not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.

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I’ve been sitting out on the front porch in the sun, relishing the breeze, watching the thumb-sized bumblebees plunder the lupine and the hummingbirds zoom around the feeder after a couple of hours of mulching, weeding, watering, trimming and planting. I haven’t been reading or writing, just drinking a large glass of mint and lemon iced tea and feeling happy, absorbing the peace and beauty of this day, enjoying the wind chimes and the sun on my skin.

Alongside the driveway we have a lupine bed. It wasn’t planned. It started, years ago, with one plant that now has become countless plants. There’s also echinacea, several kinds of wildflowers, and this year we put in pink poppies, two cleomes, lilies, sunflowers, and a starflower.

As it wasn’t a formally planned bed, the first clump of lupine went into a hole in the ground and grasses and other native growth mingle with the flowers. I’m building a border out of dead wood from our downed trees. The flowers have self-seeded and the bed sprawls, in no particular shape, most of it with undefined boundaries.

Yesterday, my partner and I were looking closely at the lupine, which is in full bloom.

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I have learned, since I came to Maine, about holistic gardening and land management, and I’ve understood that effective gardening is not creating a concentration camp for plants. Nature is an effective gardener, and a bed like ours, organic, dynamic and without any kind of fertilizer, pesticide or other chemicals, demonstrates the diversity necessary for the health of the whole system.

As we looked closely, we found a cluster of juvenile Japanese beetles on a low, sheltered leaf, and another cluster of tiny ticks. Obviously, the bed is a good nursery. A variety of bees were present. We saw a lacewing, an excellent predator, and aphids. Yellow jackets zoomed around, along with dragonflies (another welcome predator). Immature grasshoppers were plentiful, and spiders. Several kinds of butterflies floated above the flowers.

We didn’t see slugs, ants, praying mantises, caterpillars, earwigs or ladybugs, but they’re probably all present, along with mice, shrews and perhaps a mole.

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The lupine and some of the grasses are now quite tall and thick. Other, later-blooming plants like echinacea are coming along, but not as high yet. As the lupine fade and lose height, the echinacea will come into its own. The bed is filled with wild low-growing plants, too, like clover, basil, grasses, dandelions, chamomile and violets. With any luck, there’s a grass snake or two under all that growth, and maybe a toad or a lizard in the cool, damp shade.

Milkweed grows there. When it blooms it will feed the endangered Monarch butterflies.

We don’t water the lupine bed, aside from giving the new seedlings a little drink when it hasn’t rained in a few days. We don’t cultivate, weed, or really mess with it in any way. The logs I’m using for a border are to help my partner when he’s mowing and keep the self-sowing lupine in check. Now and then we use our sharp little hand scythe to keep the tall grasses from overshadowing the seedlings.

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Mostly, though, we just enjoy it. It’s perfect. It doesn’t need much help from us. I’m very aware that the life we are able to see, both plant and animal, is dwarfed by the life in the soil, which is full of bacteria and other microorganisms, including viruses. The bed is at the foot of a tall maple stub that was more than 200 years old when it fell a couple of years ago. I would not, for any amount of money, rototill or otherwise disturb the soil, the roots of the dead tree or the layers and layers of leaves and other vegetable matter.

I will never rototill again. The best way to build soil is to build soil with layers of organic matter, all kinds of organic matter from all kinds of animals and plants. Rototilling disrupts microorganisms, mycelium and roots binding the soil together.

Diversity is balance. Diversity invites symbiosis, “a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.” (Oxford online Dictionary) A diverse garden is a healthy garden in which predator and prey are balanced. Diversity includes a variety of colors and textures, growing patterns and flowering times, nutritional needs and abilities. Diversity means that what we deliberately plant is just as important as native plants, otherwise known as weeds. Diversity supports the food web and the web of life.

What a concept, right? What lovely, elegant wisdom. I could never, in a million years, come up with such a complex, thriving garden as one lupine plant has created over several years at the base of a dead maple tree.

A healthy garden is filled with life and death; natural cycles and seasons; growth, blossom and decay that seeds and feeds the next cycle.

What a garden is not filled with is hatred, politics or pretence. There are no riots. There is no outrage. If one population gets out of control, either the host plant dies or the predators increase until balance is once again achieved. This life-death cycle is not personal. Viruses, insects, trees and dandelions don’t hate. They’re too busy living and reproducing or, in the case of viruses, replicating and looking for hosts.

A garden is honest, true to itself.

Dirt under my fingernails. Mosquito and black fly bites. Grubby knees. Wonder. Peace. Gratitude. Reverence for diversity. My daily crimes.

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