Book of the Week: Grass, the Forgiveness of Nature

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This week’s Book of the Week feature is Grass, the Forgiveness of Natureby Charles Walters.

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From Chapter 6: Holistic Management Resources

In Holistic Resource Management (HRM) ranching, carbon dioxide does not escape into the air. It quickly gets reabsorbed.

Texas A&M has added to the knowledge of this subject. On perennial grasses, some of the roots die off every year. It was a revelation that had not occurred to the investigators even though the source of carbon dioxide remained unanswered.

Rhodesian biologist Allan Savory left the land of his birth and settled in Albuquerque, where he immersed himself in the business of counseling ranchers how to manage cattle on fragile soils. The insight he brought was African, developed by the animals, much as the bison once developed a system for maintenance of America’s vast grasslands.

Three things were essential to the holistic model. This meant that every former government operating resource, whatever, needed to apply three benchmark considerations and more.

First, they had to determine the whole of what was being managed. This cancelled out the idea that one had simply to manage a ranch or a cow pasture or a forest. The whole had to involve the human element. For the cattle operation it meant involvement of the entire family, even an extended family.

The land units require their own analysis. The finances have to be involved in the consideration. Failure to consider the whole always results in a breakdown. The whole that parades through the mind is always a part of a greater whole, this on up to the universe itself.

The second essential requirement is the human element associated with a goal. It means a signal failure when the goal is incomplete. American agriculture seems to have a common goal — abundant production. Allan Savory would call such a goal a non-goal. It, he says, leads to trouble. The American record seems to bear him out. Production has been prodigious, but the damage to the environment has been brutal to families, to land, to rural life, to the total environment.

The goal should be quality of life, production that will sustain that quality of life gained from beef, timber, grass, and the conversion of solid revenue into opaque production. The educational aspects of that life are a requirement.

The last element of the HRM goal sequence is a landscape description. This description pertains to 1,000 years from the present based on production and quality of life sustained from that land.

Thus a philosophy presents itself as a keystone element in the HRM model. I asked Savory what he meant. “When the landscape description is devised, we do it in terms of a general description of what the land will look like specifically in terms of four functions: How nutrients cycle, how water cycles, how the successional process functions, and what it would look like idealistically on that land and how energy flow occurs. What sort of energy flow do we need on that land? When we have this comprehensive goal — and we have to have one for every farm — we move into the third potential model, namely how to achieve the objective.”

Now the thought model becomes engaged. Savory stresses that this cannot be done on computers. Holism makes the point that many things are not quantifiable. Human values cannot be reduced to an electronic blip on a screen. As a consequence, having a whole and a goal selected cannot be governed with the interdisciplinary approach.

One goal is to stop desertification in its tracks.

HRM people make the case that fully half of the farm exodus could have been stopped over the past several decades simply by invoking the HRM model. The mechanism is grass, livestock, short course instruction, in short, the model André Voisin, the author of Soil, Grass & Cancer, has been credited for at least one leg of the HRM model. When Allan Savory came to the United States, he brought along other elements of the HRM thinking, much of which had still to be fleshed out. Savory was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He has described himself as a fanatical conservationist or environmentalist. Like Jeremy Rifkin, he believed all cattle should be removed from the land. He would have nothing to do with them because obviously they were raping the land. He tried to solve the problem from a wildlife perspective. He found that there were many situations that could not be solved with the game alone. In the course of working with that problem, he nailed down no less than three discoveries.

1. There were two types of environment with totally different decay processes. For any environment to flourish you have to have birth, death, and consistent turnover. With any population, the decay process is as important as the life process.

“We had assumed that the decay process was essentially the same on all ranges and watersheds.” Savory finally admitted, “they were not.”

That is why he came up with the terms brittle and non-brittle. These are not to be confused with fragile. In fact, it has nothing to do with fragility at all.

Savory calls non-brittle areas of the world such as the eastern part of the United States, Europe, New Zealand, and tropical Africa, due extension of this concept to all appropriate parts of planet earth. The decay process in these areas is largely biological. It is rapid. It tends to take place from the base, from near the soil on, say, a dead tree or grass plant.

Most of planet Earth qualifies as a brittle environment. Here the opposite is true. The decay process is slow in the extreme. It may take several years and tends to be from the top of the plants down, via the physical wearing of chemical oxidizing materials. The significance of this, notes Savory, becomes great when the decay process is slow — from the top down. Major watersheds rely on grass for stability.

2. Grass grows from basal growth points close to the soil surface. Grass requires light. If light is blocked by a slow decay process, the plants tend to weaken, kill themselves, grow further apart! The discovery was simple once it had been made. 

3. Another discovery related to the environment was equally apparent. If you rested the land, a successional process would take place. In the non-brittle environment of the world, this was true, Savory observed. Non-brittle acres that are rested invite successional processes that move even in the most extraordinary situations of deep slopes. The brittle environments of the planet serve up a different picture. On smooth surfaces the decay process is initiated with extreme difficulty. Very often there is an algae or lichen phase level that stays on for years, even centuries. Very steep slopes cancel out even that level. The great canyons of the west provide a good example. Some of these areas have been rested for thousands of years, yet they still actively erode. The slope is simply too steep for such a brittle environment.

Rainfall is not the sole answer. The total miscellany of that climate comes closer to defining brittle and non-brittle. “We used to say that the arid and semi-arid areas were the areas that were deteriorating more, but this was making no sense to me in Africa because some of the areas I was working in had 50 to 80 inches of rainfall and they had slow chemical decay processes and very bad deterioration taking place in conventional agricultural practices,” Savory explains.

Certain conclusions flow naturally from these observations. Low rainfall on the non-brittle end of the scale and also in the brittle, but what really governs is the distribution of atmospheric moisture throughout the year. Otherwise “we find that in a non-brittle environment if the rainfall is low, the distribution of atmospheric moisture is favorable for the buildup and sustaining of microorganism populations. On the brittle end of the scale, the distribution of atmospheric moisture is such that though there may be high amounts of moisture at times, there are brittle weeks in parts of the year and atmospheric moisture is low.” As a consequence, most biological populations are drastically reduced. At the end of such a year, the decay process is slow.

These grasslands often endured drought, and yet they achieved climax crops in the wake of herd traffic, fertilization and tillage.

The bison swept over those grasslands as tight herds, grazing, and dropping urine and manure. They were on the move while they obeyed their instincts to increase and multiply. Always, they moved on before all the forage was consumed. Usually, they would eat one-third or slightly more of the available grass. A lot of green leaf surface remained as the herd moved on. The manure gifted to the soil was broken down as a consequence of traffic and compact grazing. Stomped into the soil and broken down and soaked in, these materials released carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is heavier than air. It stays in the canopy of the plant to a remarkable degree. The stomata on a plant leaf quickly drink in the carbon dioxide as nourishment. Once satisfied, these pores close. When they open they do not need to stay open very long in the presence of a carbon dioxide flush.

Plants transpire into the air at least 99 percent of the water taken from the soil, the agency of that transpiration being the open stomata. When the presence of an ample supply of carbon dioxide gives the plant its fill, the stomata close and loss of water from the soil are rationed. That is why one farmer will experience drought while at the same time a neighbor has no drought. With a decay system operative, the steady release of carbon dioxide closes down excess transpiration, hence a soil that endures a shortfall of rain and still produces a crop retains its moisture, and contributes little when dust clouds form.

Greenhouse growers discovered this connection decades ago. They noted that photosynthesis would shut down by 10:30 a.m., when carbon dioxide ran out. Clandestine marijuana growers who often maintain production facilities in basements, attics and warehouses know they have to fertilize the air.

The problem with piping in carbon dioxide is often a disturbing balance with other nutrients. The plant cannot utilize excess carbon dioxide if the mineral support is not available. When the buffalo dropped all that manure and stomped it into the ground later, soil microbes and roots — even dung beetles — were being fed in abundance.

The lesson became obvious to those who observed and connected with what Allan Savory was saying. Cows grazing intensively in a paddock deposit a lot of manure. A lot of carbon dioxide is given off while the manure is still on the ground.

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About the Author:

Charles Walters founded Acres U.S.A. and completed more than a dozen books as he edited the Acres U.S.A. magazine, while co-authoring several more. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

More By Charles Walters:

Browse the Charles Walters Collection for all of his titles and works.

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