Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country

Reviewed by Julie Rawson

This is such a delightful book. Courtney White takes a very serious subject, climate change, and addresses this massive topic in an always upbeat manner with a very light touch. He took a trip around the world to visit a number of exemplary farmers, ranchers, wild life experts, ecologists, business people and scientists who are demonstrating successful models for bringing carbon back out of the atmosphere and into the soil to build stable humus. And that premise (that we can bring atmospheric CO2 levels down to climactically safe levels) is the reason for the “Hope” in the title.

As an introduction to himself and his past he gives a nice thumbnail sketch of how he changed from an environmental activist in the 90’s when it was the general practice to fight to leave the environment alone, to a supporter of sometimes aggressive methods to hasten environmental reparation through careful attention to practices that can help natural systems repair themselves.

This is a book about good news – good news for how each one of us can be part of the solution to bring carbon back into the soil – or as he puts it, “being on the map.” His premise going into the book included some givens.
1. Carbon is key – it is the essential element of life. A highly efficient carbon cycle captures, stores, releases, and recaptures biochemical energy.
2. We don’t have to invent anything – we already know how to graze livestock sustainably, grow organic food, create a local food system, fix creeks, produce local renewable energy, improve water cycles, grow grass on bare soil, coexist with wildlife, and build resilience into our land and our lives.
3. It is mostly low-tech – sunlight, green plants, animals, rocks, shovels, hiking shoes, windmills, compost and creeks.
4. We are all on the map – “whether you live in a city, go to school, graze cattle, enjoy wildlife, grow vegetables, bike, fish, count grasses, draw, make music, restore creeks, or eat food.” Says White.

With inspiring titles like “Essence”, “Abundance”, “Coexistence”, “Resilience”, “Affluence”, “Emergence”, and “Convergence”, White introduces us to the wide variety of environmentally friendly practices that promote carbon sequestration or humus building. The chapter on Essence includes an analysis of the carbon cycle explained by Christine Jones.
1. Photosynthesis is the process by which sunlight energy is transferred into biochemical energy in the form of simple carbon–based sugars.
2. Resynthesis involves a complex sequence of chemical reactions whereby glucose is synthesized into complex long-chain carbon compounds like starches, proteins, organic acids, waxes, and oils.
3. Exudation is the system by which 30-40% of the carbon created by photosynthesis can be sent out through the plant roots to feed the microbes that live in the root zone and through whose digestion of minerals in the soil, roots can grow strong and prolific. The amount of increase in organic carbon is governed by the volume of plant roots per unit of soil and their rate of growth.
4. Humification is the creation of humus through intensive digestion of organic matter (including dead root matter) by the fungal portion of the soil food web. Left to do their work, the fungi, higher on the soil food chain than bacteria, will create stable carbon-based substances that can stay in the soil for hundreds of years.

Jones speaks of the “carbon market” in the soil that takes place between plant roots, colonies of bacteria, and networks of mycorrhizal fungi which establish symbiotic relationships between fungi and the roots of plants. The fungi are the middlemen in the marketplace, brokering liquid carbon from plant roots for mineral nutrition from bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, and others.

Chapter One ended with a case study of the JX Ranch in eastern New Mexico. Tom and Mimi Sidewell heal the carbon cycle “for a living”. They bought a run down ranch and demonstrated how to “earn a profit by restoring the land to health and stewarding it sustainably” according to White. Here are some tenets and practices that they used. They divided the ranch into 16 pastures. They installed a water system in each section of pasture. They then purchased cattle that can do well on dry land pasture.

A major tenet of grazing using this mob-stocking approach, popularized by Allan Savory, is to give the land plenty of recovery time. Missouri rancher Greg Judy suggests that a pasture should be grazed in a 60-30-10 ratio. This includes eating 60% of the vegetation, trampling 30% and leaving 10% standing.

The Sidewells began clearing out the juniper and mesquite trees with bulldozers, allowing sunlight for the native grasses to come back. As grass returned to this rundown ranch – an interesting result of animals’ hooves breaking up the capped topsoil allowing seed to soil contact – the Sidewells lengthened the period of rest between grazings. They were able to increase the overall livestock capacity by 25% in 6 years — from 1 cow per 50 acres to 1 cow per 36 acres. Over a ten year period the Sidewells watched the native grasses reestablish themselves, and observed an increase in both grass species and pounds of meat produced per acre on the ranch.

This book is practically based for either the large or small grower, and there are plenty of highlighted soil heroes from the Northeast, including Dorn Cox from NH, Eric Toensmeier, Jonathon Bates, Courtney Hennessey and John Stoddard from Massachusetts, and Annie Novak and Severine von Tscharner Fleming from New York.

I could go on for days sharing the great stories of pioneers and innovators that Courtney White highlights from around the world. But I encourage you to merely purchase this book because it is jam-packed with contact names, inspirational stories, and adequate explanations of the how-to in all the chapters for you to get ideas for how to make it happen on your own place. I will hold onto this book and refer to it regularly in both my roles as Education Director of NOFA/Mass and as farmer at Many Hands Organic Farm.

I end with the quote by Wendell Berry that inspired Annie Novak to start the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn: “In a country once forested, the young woodland remembers the old, a dream dreaming of an old holy book, an old set of instructions. And the soil under the grass is dreaming of a young forest. And under the pavement the soil is dreaming of grass.”

There is very much cause for hope!

Cows Save the Planet and other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth: Unmaking the Deserts, Rethinking Climate Change,