"Soil fertility is the condition which results from the operation of Nature's round, from the orderly revolution of the wheel of life, from the adoption and faithful execution of the first principle of agriculture -- there must always be a perfect balance between the processes of growth and the processes of decay. The consequences of this condition are a living soil, abundant crops of good quality, and live stock which possess the bloom of health" (Sir Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, 1940, p. 38).Perfect balance. That sounds like an awfully high expectation, and one requiring a weighing hand significantly above my pay grade. Whether it's diet and exercise, meat and vegetables, work and play, public life and private time, or simple waking and sleeping, "perfect balance" doesn't seem to be my natural effluence. Like biscuits and gravy, the proportions never seem to come out even.
Still, Howard's maxim is worthy contemplation. I have always thought of decay as one of life's little negatives -- the inexorable descent of organic matter (like bananas, lettuce, and people) into rot beyond which is simply garbage. Or grave. It's what I would have described as the "loss" of spoilage, and the race to enjoy before it happens. But of course Sir Howard's characterization is more accurate. Writing before the post-war capitulation of agriculture to the chemical industry, he recognized that healthy living has a circular dimension undergirding the glitzier linear one. Decay is simply the credit side of nature's ledger, covering the fruitful debits. Trees withdraw nutrients from the soil through their roots and then return it in the leaves they drop. Animals extract from the earth by grazing, and replenish the earth by... Well, you get the idea. Take out; put back. The symmetry, he's arguing, is essential.
And I understand. I'm familiar with the issue of expense outpacing income -- of taking out more than is put back in. We find all kinds of ways to circumvent the consequences, but the balance sheet remains. I'm coming more and more to believe that anhydrous ammonia, sprayed as "fertilizer" by the tons on our farmland, is the credit card of "modern" agriculture on which we only ever pay the minimum balance. Our essential indebtedness is unaffected -- in fact it is quietly but exponentially compounded -- but "look, Ma, at all the great new stuff I've bought!" As with our crowded houses, our fields are full of great looking stuff that we can't really afford.
We are taking out more than we are putting in -- buying more than we are paying for -- but we don't see it because Earth's bill doesn't soberly confront us monthly in the mail. And we convince ourselves that we are solvent.
But the soil is not deluded. If it is to feed us, Howard concludes, we'd best pay better attention to feeding it. It is the "please" and "thank you" of the ecosystem; washing the dishes after enjoying the dinner.
I suppose I'm learning about composting just in time.