Ghosts of ancient oceans

I can no longer tell reality from a dream.

The Karoo region of South Africa is a canvas of such arresting hues, textures, languages, ecosystems, elevations, and cultural mixes, that when I close my eyes, the bizarre landscape of imagination pales in comparison.

We began the day on a desolate road that bordered precipices while being a thoroughfare for freely wandering livestock that questioned our understanding of a passing lane. By midday we climbed up a bolder “road” that the Range Rover clawed at for dear life before reaching to a highland meadow 7000 feet above the flatlands. This was Shangri-la, a forbidden place that provided views into antiquity that only poets could fathom. Towering buttes stood sentinel over the ghosts of ancient oceans.

“Must be a good resource for dinosaur fossils?” I asked David the night before. “No”, he replied. “It’s too old.”

Yet, this ancient, endlessly dry and barren expanse was just recently a thriving grassland. Great herds of eland, springbok, impala, and zebra, followed by their predators, lions, leopards, hyena and jackal, ran for as far as the eye could see, like ark flotilla in a sea of amber grass. Abundant springs, and fountains, or fontein, as the settling Dutch called them, dotted the region, creating sapphires of replenishment and inspiring names such as a Venterfontein, Springbokfontein, and Wolwefontein.

Humans created this semi-desert.

Humans can reverse it.

On the way home, a near full moon guided us through the veld. Families of kudu ran before us, their slick brown fur dampening the reflection of the headlight beams, like phantoms, before gracefully leaping over roadside barbed wire, disappearing into the darkness as mysteriously as they emerged.

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First soil samples for carbon testing gathered at HM ranch in Zimbabwe

Hi Soil-Age Friends and Colleagues,

I’m excited to say that the first soil samples for carbon testing have been collected at the ACHM game ranch in Zimbabwe where I’m staying for six weeks. We took samples from the “two tree” site that was fully desertified in 2004 (and for decades prior), and restored thereafter with holistically managed livestock.


Caption: Soil samples drying in the sun. These will be sent to a lab in Harare.


“Two Tree” site, now fully covered in perennial plants (seen here, Heteropogon Contortus, H. contortus.) In 2004, and for decades before, it was a desert. Restored only with holistically managed livestock.


“Two Tree” site as it looks today, completely covered in perennials. The foreground is predominantly Heteropogon Contortus, H. contortus, a mid-succession perennial. Under the mopane tree, along with yours truly, is a patch of Panicum Maximum, P. maximum, a late successional. Savory refers to these plants as indicators of a “climax” ecosystem. Their roots can be 3 meters.


Here’s how the “Two Tree” site looked in 2004 and for decades prior. Even the annuals were unable to grow. The landscape is entirely transformed and gets better every year. As it does, more and more carbon will be sequestered.

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A Climate Message From Zimbabwe

Dear Climate Friends and Colleagues,

Greetings from Zimbabwe. As I write, it is a pleasant morning in the mid 70s. The heat and humidity will rise through day, until it is in the high 80s and borderline miserable. By late afternoon, a thunderstorm will likely come rolling in, just in time to cool things off for dinner, after which a lovely evening will ensue, and, if we’re lucky, we’ll hear the hyenas and lions again, as we have the last two nights.

The lions communicate with a type of yawn-grunt that is audible for several hundreds of yards. These are quite close. Yesterday morning we saw fresh mother and cub prints just outside of the compound, perfectly set in the mud from the previous night’s rain.

I’m here now for the third time in as many years. This will be a six week stay, of which I have four more left. The last two visits in 2011 and 2013, were for six and four weeks respectively – both during the dry seasons, so it is a pleasure for me to be here now during the rains.

I am residing and volunteering at the Africa Center for Holistic Management (ACHM) in the northwest region of the country near Victoria Falls. ACHM is a demonstration site and learning center that trains local villages in the use of sustainable land and livestock management. The practice enables villages to improve their crop and grazing lands, while reversing the desertification that is so prevalent in this region, and in much of the world, including the United States. Their principal funding, from USAID, has been for disaster prevention, to help communities enhance food and water security. It is listed with UN FAO as a Sustainable Pathways Best Practice.

There are many innovative elements of this program, including utilization of livestock as a restorative force. This is done by grouping individual village family livestock holdings into a larger collection which is then managed as a proxy for wild ruminant herds, replicating impacts that are essential for grassland ecosystems. Managing livestock in this way is a departure from convention, in which small family holdings, of approximately five to ten animals each, wonder haphazardly over a confined area, overgrazing a select few plants. Under the new approach, in a typical village where this is practiced, twenty or more families will contribute to a “village herd.” This collective herd will then be managed by the participating families, with emphasis on well timed and frequent moves. The group-derived grazing plan will benefit the animals and the pastures they enter, taking care never to reenter an area until plants are recovered, and particularly, taking account of different wet and dry season recovery periods. The innovation is disruptive, because it challenges age-old village patterns and customs. Livestock are a prized family asset, and to manage collectively in this way is at first a radical and difficult idea to accept. Typically, however, after only a single growing season, the benefits become apparent, and the idea spreads. In less than a year since my last visit, one village’s collective herd nearly doubled.

The relevance of this program to climate change, and hence my involvement, stems from the fact that grasslands are the largest ecosystem on the planet and one of our greatest potential sinks for atmospheric carbon. Restoration of soils worldwide is our best hope for rapid, stable, safe, and long lasting drawdown of CO2. Unless vast areas of prairie and savanna are returned to former vitality with deep-rooted perennial plants that assist fungal networks in creating long lasting organic carbon compounds in the soil, we are never going to get anywhere close to reversing the warming calamity that is quickly barreling down upon us, if such avoidance is even still possible. The beauty of the methodology practiced here, is that it turns 1 billion livestock liabilities into assets. It does this without added technology or investment – simply a change of management, and simultaneously addresses numerous other ecological and human livelihood issues. As grasslands recover, water tables are replenished, biodiversity is enhanced, tolerance to drought is strengthened, and carbon is captured. Additionally, through increased vegetative cover, evaporative cooling increases and localized warming is diminished. Not to mention, of course, sustainable, and healthy food production capacities are enhanced. Finally, for those concerned with methane, the building of deep aerated soil creates habitat for methane loving bacteria, called methanotrophs, that, in a healthy prairie or savanna ecosystem, metabolize methane in a balance with its availability, where methane is a natural product of cellulose digestion.

Livestock, managed in this manner, as restorative agents, living entirely through the products of solar energy (i.e. grass), and fully divorced from any deleterious tentacles of the conventional Western approach, are actually carbon and methane negative. By restoring the grassland ecosystem, and thus building soil, they will start a process of biological climate recovery that though numerous positive feedback loops, will drawdown carbon and methane far in excess of amounts created by the animals themselves. This drawdown will continue for as long as soil is being built and land is being recovered.

The exact drawdown capacity for carbon in soil is of course uncertain, but no one familiar with the science thinks is it either small or non-essential for addressing global warming. Estimates of carbon lost from soils range from 150 gigatons in the industrial era, to 550 gigatons since the dawn of agriculture. The estimated storage of carbon in world soils today is approximately 2400 gigatons. As a comparison, the carbon in all vegetative matter (plants and trees) is only approximately 550 gigatons, and in the atmosphere, approximately 800 gigatons. Thus, the carbon in soils is nearly twice that of all the carbon in plants, trees, and the atmosphere combined. The amount of carbon that is in excess in the atmosphere, and causing global warming, is about 200 gigatons, less than one tenth of the carbon currently in soils, and less than one half of the carbon estimated to have been lost by soil since the dawn of agriculture. So, there is no scenario in which soil restoration is not a major opportunity for large scale and long lasting carbon drawdown, nor, do many believe, is there is a scenario in which we avoid disaster without focusing on this component of the climate fight.

Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal writes beautifully about this in a piece from 2011. Note, the word “pedosphere”, refers to soil.

“Recarbonizing the pedosphere with a C sink capacity of > 2 billion tons C/yr for 25–50 years can have a strong impact on the global carbon cycle. Increasing the C pool of the pedosphere by 10% over the 21st century (+250 billion tons) can create a drawdown of 110 ppm of atmospheric CO2 abundance. This cost-effective and natural process of mitigating climate change has also numerous co-benefits including improvements in quantity and quality of water resources, increase in biodiversity, restoration of degraded soils and ecosystems, and advancement of global food security.” (emphasis added)

And continuing,

“As agronomic productivity splutters, as food production lags behind the demands, as hunger and malnutrition adversely affect human health and wellbeing, as soils degrade and desertify, as natural waters pollute and contaminate, as climate warms and species disappear, as the environment deteriorates and jeopardizes the ecosystems services, there will be a growing realization among scientists and policy makers that taking soils for granted has been the root cause of the downward spiral.” (emphasis added)

I am delighted to be volunteering here in Zimbabwe, helping to address the root causes of desertification and a major factor in global warming, as Lal explains, by reversing the loss of soil carbon and helping in it’s rebuilding. Seeing land restored and water tables replenished, and visiting with communities whose livelihoods are now substantially improved is a deeply moving experience that all should know.

In 2011, I hosted a 350 Day of Mobilization that Bill McKibben highlighted in an essay for Huffington Post. I hope to do many more such actions and look forward to working with you all on this important element of the climate solution. To help mobilize this effort, a new group called Biodiversity for a Livable Climate (BLC) has been formed, and an Google group called Soil-Age furthers the discussion. You are all encouraged to check these out. In November of the past year, BLC, in collaboration with Somerville Climate Action, hosted an event called Hope for a Livable Climate. This event included Precious Phiri, who is a Zimbabwean from a community engaged with the ACHM program. She speaks to how the program works and the impact on land and families. I follow with a discussion on climate. The event is kicked off by Vermont environmental writer, Judith Schwartz. The presentations are on YouTube.

I will be posting more notices about this topic and these actions and welcome all collaboration and discussion with you. Immediately on the horizon is a potluck event, the info for which is posted below. I will also resend that as an announcement.

For those who are interested, I informally blog about my experiences and observations in Zimbabwe at Hut With A View.

Best regards from Zimbabwe,

– Seth


TOPIC: “Challenges in Restoring the Earth: The Story of a Chilean Village.”

WHEN: Sunday, March 16, 2014, 5 p.m.

WHERE: Helen Snively’s house in Cambridge, 1 Fayette Park, near Central Square, 617-547-1326. On-street parking available.

Hi All –

Please join us on Sunday, March 16th at 5 p.m. at Helen Snively’s house in Cambridge. Aviva Argote and Rob Riman will lead us in an in-depth discussion of their recent trip to Chile with a group of Harvard students working on an ongoing community environmental restoration project. From the perspective of Holistic Management there is much that can be done, but there are also obstacles – cultural, economic, and political. The issues are representative of those we face worldwide in trying to restore biodiversity and address global warming. Please join us in a fascinating and creative conversation!

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Lions, Dung Beetles and Thunder

Lions, Dung Beetles and Thunder

The sound of lion seems to come from the earth, from some place where stones are forged, and a from a time when stars and the blackness had not yet divorced.

Heard it twice tonight. Not more than 100 yards off, but who can tell? Low frequency sound travels like a sly snake, hugging the surface of the ground for the right opportunity to leap into your ear, or really, your heart, because you feel it, and it hurries your pulse, and reminds you of the rhythm that proceeds you, and will continue long after your pendulum halts it’s steady swing.

"Lion", I say to the night watchmen. He gets up and we both walk to the wide open entry in the stone walled, thatched roof cafeteria. Looking outward, the guard points and says, "He is on that side." What "that side" means in anyone’s guess. It is an expression they use in Zimbabwe. "Are you coming to this side? He is on that side." It can mean anything from a few yards to many kilometers. Based on the sound, I think the lion is at the turnoff, about 75 yards up the road. We listen intently, but only hear the calming abrasion of crickets seeking courtship, the buzz of dung beetles scenting tonight’s carbonaceous bounty, and a far off thunder, the lion of the ether, heralding the gift of moisture.

There is always something.

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Seth Itzkan sent you a video: “Rain in Zimbabwe”

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The Maize and the Maze

The Maize and the Maze

At 5:15 AM the stomach growls and that two-day-old undercooked and partially eaten ear of maize is calling my name – each kernel a vice. "How do you like us now," they taunt. At first I thought that it’s al dente and chewy state made it unswallowable, and I good-naturedly teased the staff about it. I did my best to consume half, but vowed to save the rest in a plastic bag for later, it’s husks still intact.

I’m glad I did. Two days later, with it sitting unspoiled on my desk, I realize the brilliance of not "over cooking". If it had been boiled to the satisfaction of modern pallets, it would not have lasted this long. In hot climates without refrigeration, cooking maize to a point of softness is foolish. It won’t last through the day, and certainly not into the next. Here I am now, cherishing the fact that it was not overdone and enjoying the maw-ability and sweetness in a way previously unimaginable. Why anyone would need to cook it any further or add butter and salt is beyond imagination. Of course, in it’s partially cooked state, it requires more energy to digest, which makes it less fattening while still providing plenty of readily available carbohydrates. This is nature’s candy, formed of soil, water, sunlight, and, umm, sequestered atmospheric CO2. I am, at this moment, greatly appreciating the burst of energy provided by that biological alchemy, and, I imagine, indirectly, so are you.

The "maze" part of this rumination is figuring out where to go from here: Cook Less. Save the Climate.


One Amalgamation

A moment ago I heard what I thought was a bird inside the bungalow. Ha! It was only the dragon fly (I know previously I said firefly). It’s amazing how loud the wings are when they scuff against the stone wall in the creature’s frantic attempt to escape. They sound like plastic. And so the sounds and metaphors go round and round. We are all one poem, one benzene ring, one amalgamation.


Uvuke N’jani

Clouds. Breeze. Kinki the cat. "Pet me." she says, "but don’t lift." Relentless pigeons, sawing time into units, and the distant clamor of cooks, behind stone walls, under thatched roofs, preparing English style breakfast in an African wilderness,

"Uvuke n’jani, N’do," I say to the chef.

"Good morning, Seth," N’do replies.

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Flying Hands & Yes, There is Rain

Flying Hands – 2/25/14

The world’s two most beautiful creatures, a giant moth and a giant firefly, are sharing my bungalow with me tonight. They are like flying hands.

How can I not want to be part of this?

I am honored to share earth with such gossamer wonders. Who could not want, at death, to return to the soil to be part of the smorgasbord of life that gives flight to fluttering marvels?


Yes, There is Rain – 2/27

Amazing grace.

Lightning takes center stage and thunder applauds. Droplets of life, like liquid manna, find their way from God’s sprinkler to the thirsty soil.

"Hip, hip, hooray," says Nature, but vey iz mir, it is not enough. Never enough. It’s been a decade since there was an above average rain, and averages don’t mean anything anymore. The global system is skewed and skewing, like a sinking ship that continues to pitch.

Still, there is more grass than last year. The rain they do get is ever more effective as the grazing plan works its wonder, healing what was an anemic ecosystem. The herd size is now larger as well, revealing once again the counter-intuitive outcomes of ruminants properly managed – even as the rain diminishes, animal numbers and grass cover increases.

This is the true manna, a gift of abundance when living in balance. Without factoring for restorative grazing – where livestock move with the density and frequency of wild herds – thus replicating their ecological role – the reams of rangeland studies that isolate variables in a reductionist model, are essentially meaningless. They reveal nothing about how grasslands are capable of responding to rain, nor their true potential for mitigating global warming.

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