Soil 2017: Notes Towards the Theory and Practice of Nurture Capital

review by Jack Kittredge

Woody, studied practitioner of the bon mot, starts this compendium saying “I’m sad as hell and I’m not going to fake it anymore”. What follows, which he terms “a call to farms”, is a booklet of poetic free association/verse and snippets about history, literature, economics, popular culture, natural science, agriculture, contemporary politics and virtually everything else which enters Woody’s wide-ranging mind.

Tasch’s strength is that he conflates diverse ideas from these various streams, many of which turn up topics (soil, microbes, carbon, health, simplicity, life) with which most readers of this journal are quite familiar. This sometimes illuminates truths not contained in any of the individual citations but that are visible for a moment in the flash of something reflected.

Woody’s weakness, however, is a desire to capture and imprison these truths. After a short discussion about economic theory and the earth’s carrying capacity, he ventures: “There is nothing vexing about a small, diversified, organic farm.”

That may be true for the occasional visitor or the poetic visionary, but for most of the small, diversified organic farmers I know there is plenty vexing about it – mud, heat, cold, weeds, rain, sweat, no relief and, most vexing of all, trying to make a living.

MC Escher Day and NightMany readers will enjoy this book, especially literate folks who might appreciate more than a few of his disparate references. One set I especially liked connected the thinking of Wendell Berry with the figure/ground images of M. C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist popular in the middle of the last century. Escher’s creative tiling of artistic space with shapes that are both foreground and background at once suggested to Tasch this Wendell Berry passage from The Gift of Good Land:

“The farmer has put plants and animals into a relationship of mutual dependence…that involves solutions to problems of fertility, soil husbandry, economics, sanitation – a whole complex of problems whose proper solutions add up to health: the health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmers, of farm family and farm community, all involved in the same inter-nested, interlocking pattern…”

Nice connection, Woody!

I also liked the Happy Planet Index Tasch cites, introduced in 2006 by the New Economics Foundation. Its calculations are only four:

Wellbeing: How satisfied the residents of each country say they feel with life overall, on a scale from 0 to 10, based on data collected as part of the Gallup World Poll.

Life Expectancy: The average number of years a person is expected to live in each country based on data collected by the United Nations.

Inequality of Outcomes: The inequalities between people within a country, in terms of wellbeing and life expectancy, based on the distribution in each country’s life expectancy and wellbeing data, expressed as a percentage.

Ecological Footprint: The average impact that each resident of a country places on the environment, based on data prepared by the Global Footprint Network, expressed as hectares per person.

The first three are multiplied, and then divided by the fourth, as shown in the above equation illustration.

The index does not rate personal happiness, but rather the efficiency with which the planet supports human happiness in different places. Rated on the Happy Planet Index, the US scores 20.7 out of 100, ranking 108th out of 140 countries measured. Costa Rica leads the list with a score of 44.7.

In the last part of this book Woody gets directly to the crux of his message, slow money investing. He details individuals who are doing worthwhile things and have created economic ventures (Anne and Jack Lazor of Vermont’s Butterworks Yogurt are featured, for instance). Ways to invest “Nurture Capital” are encouraged, something that Tasch suggests may be simply a more feminine approach to investing, taking into account the whole, including justice and fairness, and being content with small solutions.

As someone who has tried to do exactly this with very limited resources – Julie and I have lent small amounts over the years to a seed coop, an organic food processing start-up, and a local young dairy farm family – I can testify to the satisfactions of such an approach.

That is what Woody is talking about.

I should close with one of my favorite of his bon mots:
“We are all earthworms. The modern economy is a plow.”