I have just finished reading a fantastic book that goes into the fossil fuel industry called “this changes everything” by Naomi Klein. As some of you may know I work in the environment sector and it is a space that bring both highs and lows. This book, or collection of story’s, pulls out just how tough it can be to work in this sector, made even tougher by the fact that the short term economics behind the destruction of our natural resources really makes almost no sense when you look at the long term economic situation.
Within the pages I found a description of the law of return that I hade never really thought about, even with working in this sector and with how much I am learning about growing food. The quote comes from a farmer who is part of a group looking at how from the moment humans started farming the earth, we have been taking from the earth and not putting back. The quality of the soil and the nutrients in the soil is what makes a good crop. In permaculture and gardening in general it is often said that you don’t feed the plants, you feed the soil. Healthy soil equals health plants.
So the quote from the farmer went like this
“The problem of sustainability is simple enough to state….It requires that the fertility cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay…should turn continuously in place, so that the law of return is kept and nothing is wasted”
In this case what he meant was returning the energy taken from the soil in the growing process. In the wild this cycle happens naturally, plants grow, the are diverse having many different plants in the one area (and you see this in the arid desert to the lush rain forests). And then plants die, feeding back into the soil as they rot and decay. When you farm, you plant the same crop over a patch of soil, then you pull the plants up. Current practices match this cycle by planting different crops in the same soil over different times in the year. Why do we do this, for the simple fact that different plants take and give different nutrients to and from the soil. This is why so many different plants do survive quite nicely in a small patch of soil in nature, in gardening this is called companion planting.
Current farming practices don’t really support this natural cycle, so we have used chemical fertilizers and industrial ways of recreating this natural cycle, as a way of feeding the soil. Different farms and farmers do it in different ways, some good, some bad and I am never going to even pretend that I know much about it, or in how good or bad these different techniques are. However one of the interesting observations made by the author of the book was that as the area where this test farm was went through drought, it was the only farm that had a good crop. They had managed to look after the natural soil condition enough that less water was needed for the plants to thrive. To me this was a really good example of just how powerful the cycle of life and the law of return is.
Image courtesy of amenic181 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net