Saturday, June 2, 2007

Can Microbes Save Planet Earth?

Temperatures have already hit 90 degrees here in the District of Columbia. You have to get up at the crack of dawn if you want to get anything done.

It's a peaceful time of day, especially on the weekend. Anyone with any sense is still asleep. But this is when I like to come out and turn the compost pile.

I have three simple wire bins side-by-side. Throughout the year, I fill them with shredded leaves from the fall and grass clippings from the spring and summer and kitchen scraps year 'round. The pile I started earlier in the spring will probably be ready to use by fall, so I've started a new pile.

Gardening for food comes down to the soil. It must be a healthy soil to raise healthy vegetables. And the best thing for building a healthy soil is compost. Gardeners call it "black gold."

As I turn the compost, I see all kinds of small creatures scurrying for cover. These are the decomposer, without whom our planet would be piled high with dead plant and animal debris. From microscopic bacteria and fungi, protozoa and nematodes, to larger mites and spiders, sow bugs and earthworms, there is a whole world in a handful of soil, billions of living souls we hardly ever pay any attention to.

Yet without them, life as we know it would cease to exist.

It's a bug-eat-bug world down there, and what they're all after is the nitrogen and other nutrients that plants and animals graciously return to the soil when they die. You might say the decomposers are involved in a giant recycling operation, which eventually results in good things for us to eat.

We know lots more about these creatures than we used to. Darwin was far ahead of his time. When he wasn't contemplating his theory of evolution, he had his face in the soil, studying earthworms. Darwin's friends thought he was crazy. There was nothing worth knowing about soil--so they said. But Darwin was convinced that earthworms moved mountains. He was convinced that every bit of soil on the planet had passed through an earthworm at one time or another, and been made richer in the process.

We know that Darwin was pretty much correct. Now that we have powerful microscopes and advanced chemistry, we can say with good authority what most of these microbes are doing down there and why they are such a vital link in the chain of life. Funny, though--the more we know, the less we use that knowledge. Mankind is only beginning to relearn the value of compost in the food chain, that we don't really need artificial fertilizers and pesticides to feed ourselves. That artificial fertilizers and pesticides are killing our soil and poisoning the planet.

We just need to make better use of microbes, who perform the same tasks, only better.

A countryman of Darwin's was Adam Smith, who spent his time contemplating markets and proclaiming that free markets were pretty much the solution to all man's ills. Prosperity stretched out over the horizon, and seemingly forever, if only we surrendered our common wants and needs to an "unseen hand" that would guide us all into a land of riches.

I wonder if Adam Smith ever had an inkling that his market theory would eventually run into global warming and pollution on a planetary scale. I wonder if he were here now, would he stop to consider the microbes at his feet?


WashingtonGardener said...

I have 4 severely neglected, open-mesh compost bins. I HATE turning them - maybe gets done once or twice a year. Though your comments have made me think it might be an adventure to do so more often.

Ed Bruske said...

As far as turning, it all depends on how quickly you want your compost done. It can be a soothing, meditative exercise if you are in the mood.