“Oh, the Amazon!” we say, when thinking of eco- systems and climate mitigation. 2020 was our 5th drought in 6 years in Belfast, Maine, with cumula- tive damage to soil fungi, who are now less able to retain moisture when rain does come. I am up in foliage to cut livestock fodder, and see that even the trees are losing health. How can I awaken people
in the Northeast to join with farmers and tend the living earth?
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is sifting new information on the full climate effects of plants and forests, yet this work is complex and slow, and “the window of opportunity, the period when significant change can be made, for limiting climate change within tolerable boundaries, is rapidly narrowing”. “A growing number of studies suggested that many processes important for interactions between land and climate were missing in the [Ecological Systems Models].”
The new science requires policy-makers to do a 180 degree turn from previous understandings, that:
• Atmospheric CO2 is the dominant causal factor of climate change (false). Anthropogenic land surface changes that reduce or remove plant life have had, and continue to have, a greater magnitude of effect
• Solar energy absorbed versus reflected by green leaves and needles primarily becomes heat, such that temperate and boreal forests make a neutral or negative contribution (by preventing reflectivity of bare snow) (false). We now know that plants with sufficient moisture use up to 70% of incoming solar infra-red energy to evaporate water, and transport most of that energy up and away, locked in the chemical bonds of the vapor – sometimes exporting over 400 watts per square meter. Such cooling transpiration of the boreal and temperate (our) forests more than compensates for the conifers’ warming winter green-ness (low albedo) – and other lifeforms may need that bit of carefully-timed winter warming.
• Trees and plants remove water making soil drier (false). Tree roots, with fungal associates, bring deeper moisture up with minerals and nutrients, benefiting top soil and ground plants. Plant-covered soil retains more water after a rain than bare soil, and water vapor from land-based evapotranspiration (evaporation plus transpiration) provides 60% of rain on terrestrial surfaces, rain that is especially important to continental interiors.
• Cooling effects of plants are locally limited (false). New studies are finding a global net of cross-continental evapotranspiration-related climate effects, a unified live system for global climate regulation.
Farming brings us in close contact with ecosystems; we have intuitive confirmation of the new science: Our farms and forests here in the Northeast matter, far above and beyond their carbon sequestration potential. Plants evaporate hundreds of kilograms of water to produce each kilogram of biomass (averaging 0.4 kg. carbon sequestered per 1 kg. biomass); such evaporative cooling has what the IPCC terms direct, biophysical climate effects, simultaneous to the indirect, biogeochemical effects of carbon sequestration.
John Norman, environmental biophysicist and ex- pert on broad remote monitoring of evapotranspira- tion, helped Walter Jehne, Australian soil microbiol- ogist, to compute an estimate of how much increase in plant and forest evapotranspiration is needed to
re-stabilize a livable climate: 11.6 % increase in plant evapotranspiration is needed on all livable land surfaces worldwide, or 23 % increase on just agricultural lands.
The Amazon jungle and every other green place, including right here, that we can protect, restore, moisten, make fertile, stimulate through rotational pruning and grazing, un-pave, shade with trees, cover-crop, or in any way foster soil/plant health and deepen foliage, are all needed.
Walter Jehne asserts that lifeforms (we) need this restoration of plant and tree cover in order to last beyond this decade, regardless of emissions reductions. Already in his Australian homeland farmers are having 4 out of every 5 crops fail.
Here in Maine farmers are immigrating as refugees from Africa and the Mid-East, where ecological and political conditions interact and are worse than here. Our woods and fields still look okay from a distance, excepting constant losses to “development.”
We don’t think very deeply about other ways we are decreasing plant growth and health locally:
• Gravel on winter roads comes from ever-widening pits for each snow storm. (Does anyone remember when snow on roads was rolled to pack it? Or when we all used studded tires or tire chains?) Even our lime and other mineral soil amendments leave a hole somewhere.
• Selling loam before selling real estate gives a double profit (I hope that folks in other states are seeing less of this than I am seeing). Purchase of such loam is an easy fix when we fail to retain the soil we had before (a common mistake when using large equipment).
• Bush-hogging fields once per season does not keep them in green growth, as does farmer attention through intensive grazing or haying, nor does it let trees and bushes move in, to increase leaf surface and evapotranspiration.
• Solar panels emit 90% of incoming infra-red sun energy as heat (pavement offers a similar 80 to
95%). Panels typically run 36F hotter than sur- rounding air.
Sheep can keep solar fields in green growth and enjoy shade and shelter, but evapotranspirational cooling (especially under cement anchors), remains diminished.
Putting solar panels on roofs, which are already heat emissive, reduces negative impact. Biomass harvest of woodlands leaves less mulch, less wildlife cover, more bare soil and hotter temperatures than logging that leaves branch wood to rot. Selective harvest of farm woodlots can leave more climate-resilient continuous-cover and multi-aged growth, with sig- nificant cooling effects.
Pollarding (drastically pruning then resting) woodlands for livestock fodder and branchwood adds storm resilience to tree forms, and canopy recovery is quicker than from log harvest. This pruning en- courages evapotranspiring browsable and grazable layers beneath; such increased foliage height diver- sity is often measured as a biodiversity indicator.
Heavily logged areas behind my farm seem to keep small rainstorms away; large areas of gravel, solar panels, bare soil, clearcut woodland, or other heat-emissive dryness can cause a high pressure ‘heat- dome’ effect which stops moist air from entering.
My goats initially led me to pollard edge trees, then woodlands. Pollarding makes trees greener, leafier, and tastier (versus coppiced trees, which use more antifeedant browse defenses). An archeological sign of similar Neolithic tree-based animal husbandry is the absence of soil erosion. This is a labor-intensive but climate-positive (and healthy!) way to eat.
Orchards, agroforestry, and silvopasture similarly benefit climate and soil. “Carbon farming” strategies that reduce bare soil, improve soil moisture retention, and integrate woody plants all increase plant evapotranspiration along with soil carbon. Farmers can intercrop vegetables with different heights and root habits, under-seed to overlap establishment of a cover-crop, and seed a new crop into previously crimped or tarped cover crops (crimping can be done with two people and a board that you step on with handles added).
We can retain hedgerows, tree lines and other messy edges, or go even further to add pollarded trees (with small moving shadows) into every field for soil and moisture benefit, as was done all over Europe for centuries. Grape arbors, by the way, used to be live pollarded trees.
Humans like open vistas, and our language reflects this bias: we “clear” a forest, or undergrowth, versus “remove” or “kill” it. Yet “overgrown” (another biased word) plant life may be our route back to environmental stability. Linaeus created our Latin plant classification system in Sweden in the 1700s; his list of plant species in a hay meadow included many trees and bushes, because these were pruned for fodder rather than removed, and were considered a primary source of fertility. Even “invasive” plants often participate positively in biodiverse communities; observation is important to our interactions with plants, as with our animals.
My goats started training me in 2010 (well, that’s when I noticed) by pointing their noses up toward aromatic white cedar trees. Now they have me with ropes in 60 foot high red maples, for a winter staple of blossom buds, twigs and bark. Our cow Tulip, newer here, has finally learned the command “Watch Out!,” and foregoes the sweet buds briefly to avoid the falling tree limb.
The trees re-sprout, rejuvenated. The roots die back, offering matter to the soil, then regrow; this has been called “pioneer” fertilization. The root turn- over improves soil resilience to both water-logging and drought.
Livestock poop leafy soil contributions, and I drink leafy milk, making my small contribution of MOFGA Fair-Grounds-style humanure, which cycles back to trees – we humans are becoming too numerous of a livestock group to be withholding soil-circle participation. We have lost 50% of the world’s topsoil since 1950, and currently “soil is be- ing lost from agricultural areas 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil formation”.
Our linear food system displaces consumers’ wastes away from the farm, and most local organic produc- ers (myself included) then receive fertility from some other farm. The disconnect between people and the environments from which we eat also de- prives us of a direct feedback loop of our impact, nor are we close enough nor involved enough to respond to the needs of other life-forms upon which we depend. I the farmer can only do so much, while providing for 11 milk-drinking families. The Circle of Life is not just conceptual – it is vital. Our attendance is now needed.
Also we must consider how much more land can be roofed, covered with solar panels, or gravel and tar for our cars, or even trampled by our feet. We can at least plant trees to shade our hot roofs and gravel yards in hope that we will achieve sufficient regreening for the trees to grow beyond 2030. We can also creatively divert water that runs off these less-than-ideal surfaces, for plants, livestock, and wildlife (including human children) to enjoy.
Light-heartedness is helpful when faced with the heavy work of something so challenging as weather out of kilter and the retreat of plant life on a planet. The new information requires us to re-think and re-design our culture, agriculture, and plant-scapes. Assertive clarity of mind is needed, to support policy-makers’ shifts toward global changes. Fresh perspective from young people, and experiencefrom old people will help us choose real tasks mean- ingfully (plus let’s pause and listen to our livestock).
Shana, of 3 Streams Farm, studies and practices pollarding of trees to feed livestock, and gets vicari- ous pleasure from their munching year-round. She has taken on climate concerns for the sake of her local ecosystem, studying and writing on long goat (and sometimes cow) wanders.