Tuesday 28th September 2021,
Frontiers Magazine

The Heart of the Land

Elizabeth Woodcock December 3, 2020 Global Issues
clouds stickle tarn

2020 Orkney International Science Festival went online. Like many events this year, technology came to the forefront to connect all of us, all over the world. Technicians and assistants normally taking door tickets or working presentations on PCs to projectors were now on a steep learning curve to synchronize live links, sound and visual of many people to a live, international audience in their living rooms.

We had access to Darwin’s life and how he lived off the fauna, yes, ate the wild animals before studying them. Heard about the connections between neolithic boat builders, standing stones and boat ballast; learnt to make paper; and, what wild food to forage. From beautiful animations to whale songs, it was a rich, diverse medley of delight, wonder and inspiration.

Embracing a New Way

New technology and embracing a new way of working has seen many of us working from home, where our living spaces become public for short spaces of time. During the festival there was one talk which stood out for me and that was on the Kogi People, descendants of an ancient race who were pushed higher into the mountains when the European Conquistadors arrived. They are among the very few indigenous people to survive contact with the western world. Their living space is a mountain in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada where they have chosen to live in isolation, until BBC filmmaker Alan Ereira contacted them.

Heart of the World

Ereira was allowed access to their land and lives and from this made a film in 1990 called From the Heart of the World, because despite their isolation, they have a deep concern with what we are doing to the Earth. Then in 2012, he made a further film with them called Aluna the Movie, in which they sought to share some of their ways of thinking with western scientists.

They believe their mountain is the heart of the world and their task, as elder brother (we are younger, destructive brother), is to look after this heart. Look after the heart, look after the whole of Aluna, The Great Mother. However, this heart is being cut into and their mountain is being disturbed, has been disturbed by younger brother. Disturbed on a local level through grave-digging, which happens on a massive scale as valuable gold figurines are uncovered and taken, and cutting through ancient forests.

The land on the Kogi’s mountain

Both practices disturb the ecosystems of the mountain. A road was built across the lower part of the mountain which severed the fresh water streams that had desalinated the mango groves. This resulted in the mango groves dying due to hypersalination. The Kogi foresaw this because to them the mountain is a living being, The Great Mother, and to cut her across the lower abdomen is going to lead to serious consequences.

Stolen the Clouds

The tundra, or Paramo, at the top of the mountain is the most sacred place for the Kogi because here is the beginning of the mountain’s fertility, where the rivers are born from glacial meltwater and the rains creating streams which flow down through the jungle to return as clouds and precipitation. The whole life of the Sierra depends on this high land, on the clouds above, but it is not green and lush any more, now yellow and perishing. The Paramo is dying out, the land is drying up, and if this area dies, all the land will die below it. The rivers will stop running.

For the Kogi, the world is coming to an end, because ‘we’ are changing the balance of life. They say: “You have stolen the clouds.” Or in science speak, we have disturbed the water and carbon cycles with modern-day practices.


Heart of The Land

As a child, I lived in a village of 200 people whose houses created a ring around the village green. Our neighbour was then an 80-odd-year-old farmer and grandfather, Jack, who would have been born at the turn of the last century. I remember standing by the garden fence listening to his stories, of horses to market, of days on the fells. But the thing that stands out in my memory is Jack gazing into the distance and saying, “The land is losing its heart.” This has stayed with me over my life and I’ve often thought about the Heart of the Land.

It is only in recent years, studying soil and plants, that I’m beginning to understand these complex relationships all about us which connect to this Heart of the Land. Hearty soil is teeming with life, with a rich diversity of microbes, fungi and bacteria, working together in complex relationships breaking down organic matter, recycling nutrients and forming healthy soil structure.

Losing Heart

In his book Earth Matters, Richard D. Bardgett, Professor of Ecology at Manchester University, writes:

Vast areas of the Earth’s land surface are in a state of degradation and unable to support healthy crops.”

He writes of soils ‘at risk’ from activities like farming and urbanization, that “humans are causing not just the extinction of plant and animal species around the globe, but also the extinction of species of soil.” We actually have rare and endangered soils. And we have “new soil… created by …farming, which has completely transformed natural soil.”
And here I think of Jack, a local, he was our indigenous wise man who ‘knew’ the land. Not through tests, or laboratory procedure but by an eye, a feel, a knowing, a connection to the land. Maybe he could sense that the ”continued mismanagement” Bardgett speaks of could “have catastrophic consequences for mankind.”

Since the 1970s we have lost one third of the earth’s topsoil due to ploughing which creates bare land and higher risk of erosion. Ploughing destroys the soil’s structure, while releasing carbon and water into the atmosphere. And we have been told, even by politician Michael Gove, that we have possibly 40 years left of harvest using these techniques.

bare earth

Nature abhors bare ground, it is like a wound which needs to be covered. When it is covered by plants, water leaves the soil slowly by transpiration, as ground cover moderates the release. Plants and trees create humidity which in turn feeds into the water cycle, to create clouds which can produce rain. 60% of rainfall is a result of evaporation from the ocean, but 40% comes from the transpiration of plants and trees.

Do you remember studying the water cycle at school? I know when I walk near trees I feel their coolness on a hot day and their warmth and lack of ice on a cold one. My daughter becomes sick of me when I say, “Look, there’s no ice under the tree.” They regulate temperate, as they regulate water. Bare ground releases vast amounts of heat in the day and freezes in the winter. Bare ground isn’t natural. Nature would never let land be bare. It is healing plants like docks and dandelions, thistles and bracken that grow abundantly to begin re-nourishing depleted landscapes.

birch wood
river top of blencathra

Ancient Knowledge

The lower mountain where the Kogi live is covered with luscious vegetation. It has not been depleted or overworked, but neither is it wild. It has been lived ‘with’ for many many generations, as many plants found there have been tended and planted by their ancestors, while their paths and stone stairways through the forests allow water and roots to move through and over. They live alongside life, sustainably. Mary Reynolds, author, gardener and conversationalist writes in her book The Garden Awakening about this type of land guardianship:

Forest gardening is by no means a new idea; it is simply a new name to describe what ancient cultures have practised for thousands of years throughout the world.”

There are actually very few ‘wild’ spaces, most have been moulded by human activity as

The inhabitants had identified plant species that bore food, or had medicinal or other practical uses, and encouraged these species to grow. Those that responded well to human intervention thrived in greater numbers, while others died out. The overall effect was that the landscape became even more diverse and abundant than it had been before.”

The land on the Kogi’s mountain is a place where the plants and trees were tended by the inhabitants with dedication, care and responsibility and by “tending the forest in this way, they created ‘black earth’ soils, which are among the most fertile in the world … and … supported large populations before the Europeans arrived.” The Europeans, or younger brother, did not understand forest gardening or the “dedicated effort to support the land to develop strength, maturity and independence.” (Mary Reynolds, The Garden Awakening)

Reynolds continues that

by emulating natural woodlands, we can grow a diversity of plants such as fruit and nut trees, interplanted with smaller trees, shrubs, berries, herbaceous plants, ground cover and vines. This is a method of planting that weaves plants into a sustainable network of beneficial relationships …”

I am privileged to work on a piece of land that was farmed and has now been planted with 12,000 native, deciduous trees, with the goal of a self-sufficient garden, including producing fuel year after year.

It would seem we once ‘knew’ how to live alongside or live sustainably. So what happened? Farming used to be mixed, with animals, crops and vegetables, based on crop rotation and fallow or resting periods. Most recently, chemicals developed in the Second World War by German scientists were taken and used in farming. The enemies became the bugs and diseases that could damage crops. The application of chemically-produced nitrogen as fertilizer created higher yields while pesticides killed well ‘pests’ but both also damaged the microorganisms in the soil, ‘killing’ the teeming life and heart of the land. Farming changed from understanding natural processes to throwing chemicals on the land to grow food. And these chemicals are everywhere, in the soil, water and food we eat.

Old wisdom, new techniques: The Science of Soil

The Kogi and Jack understood that the ground we walk on, the place we inhabit, is an intricately linked living organism. But the science of soil is a very recently explored area. One of the first soil studies carried out and widely published in the 1980s was by Elaine Ingham. a microbiologist and soil biology researcher. It is from her work that now many, many people are turning to understand soil and why it is so precious.

In the introduction of the regenerative farming film Kiss The Ground we are told that

This is the story of a simple solution, the way to heal our planet. The solution is right under our feet. It’s as old as dirt. We call it soil, earth or ground.”

You see, modern agriculture was not designed to help the soil, but to give us fast food. It was designed to produce high yields and quick, after the food scarcity of the war years. But it took away the heart. So we need a change in approach, towards regeneration and sustainability because when soil is tended with care, commitment and knowledge, it can sequester carbon, replenish fresh water supplies and feed many in a healthy way. We need to farm like nature, emulating the relationships in nature. For all the challenges we face, nature has a solution, and nature would never leave the land bare.

plastic monoculture

A New Way

Today we have a social and cultural problem that many farmers do not know how the soil works, and are intent on using techniques which have evolved in the last 75 years. Gabe Brown, an American regenerative farmer, writes in his book Dirt to Soil:

Our lives depend on soil. This knowledge is so ingrained in me now that it’s hard for me to believe how many soil-destroying practices I followed when I first started farming. I didn’t know better.”

He farmed initially in the way he had been taught but he saw his land degrade, dry up and profits fall. He now works a diverse farm with a multitude of crops and animals, having re-educated himself and seeing nature as his best teacher. But he is a pioneer and the post-war methods are still being practised. I tend the gardens on a regenerative farm in Cumbria, but their farming neighbours don’t consider them a farm any more because they don’t plough or keep sheep. Instead they raise 100% grass-fed beef, letting the grass grow which means the cows feed outside all year round. The herd is moved as a group, fertilizing the land and allowing for pasture regrowth, which cares for the soil. This technique is mimicking native herbivores who would move across a landscape in a herd, never resting in one place for long. Leaving their waste and moving on.

Carbon in everything

Everything runs by carbon, us and the soil microbes (by the way cow dung is teeming with microbes). Carbon is the driving engine and runs the whole system. I learnt about the carbon cycle at school but never really related that to real life. We breathe out carbon dioxide and plants take it in during photosynthesis. Carbon is their fuel which they leak out, about 40 per cent, via their root systems to feed soil micro-organisms, fungi and bacteria. The soil micro-organisms return the favour by giving plants the nutrients they take from the deeper earth and bedrock. These micro-organisms also make a carbon glue which creates soil habitat and structure, controlling air and water flow.

Why is all this talk about carbon important? Why is it important that we have hearty land, land that is covered with a diversity of plants and trees while the soil is teeming with life? Because whatever is in the soil comes to us, and, healthy soil sinks carbon. If the soil is denuded of microbial activity due to chemicals and ploughing, the plants cannot make a reciprocal relationship of feeding them carbon to receive nutrients, because they are simply not there. The soil is, really, dead, a wrapped in plastic monoculture.

So if we are eating food from intensively farmed land, or eating animals from intensively farmed crops, we are not receiving the nutrients or microbes we need to feed us and the microbes in our guts. As Dr Zach Bush says,

You are the carbon you eat. So make sure that that carbon is clean.”

Dr Bush is a physician looking at the role of soil and water ecosystems in human genomics, immunity, and gut/brain health. You are also the microbes you eat, and we are more bacteria and microbe than human. Our health, our food, depends on the health of the soil, where carbon is part of everything, a basic building block of life.

Professor Bardgett concludes that:

Attitudes to soil need to change. Soil needs to be considered as an investment to be protected and cared for, as part of the support network for human life … It is a precious resource. And if it not treated with respect, it will be gone for good … without soil there will be no future life.”

The good news is from those who are educating themselves about soil, turning to forest gardening and regenerative agriculture, is that attitudes are changing. Younger brother just might be growing up and as Nelson Mandela said,

It always seems impossible until it is done.”

He is someone who knew about hard work and perseverance. You might be thinking, what can I do as I don’t own a large piece of land? If you have a garden you can explore the no-dig, organic, sustainable approach which also sees you making your own compost.

The problems we face are fixable where indigenous and modern knowledge can be brought together to repair damaged landscapes. Author Mac Macartney in his book Finding Earth Finding Soul writes:

It is very hard to make way for the new … Leaders everywhere are being called to see anew, and for a while most will fail. Others less encumbered with the assumptions of the past are stepping forward … whose dedication is not centred on themselves, or the pursuit of growth or profit, but rather the certain conviction of service; to our Earth, our non-human relatives, and all humanity.”

We can respond to the Kogi, and we can bring back the clouds.

If you are a farmer or know/knew a farmer who talked of the heart of the land, I’d love to hear about it, as I’d like to explore this further. Please do get in touch.

 If you want to learn more about regenerative farming see Kiss the Ground, read Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil and check out Allan Savory.

Elizabeth’s talk in the 2020 Orkney International Science Festival, The Way Back Home, can be seen on the Festival’s YouTube channel.

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About The Author

Elizabeth Woodcock

Elizabeth Woodcock is an RHS horticulturalist with training in regenerative agriculture and permaculture, a garden organic master composter, Lake District National Park walk leader, and is training as a mountain leader. She has been a journalist, science communicator, writer, and adventurer of many high, and low, places. She lives in Cumbria with her daughter, dog and chickens.