Thursday, November 11, 2010

Walking the Walk: The Large and the Small

On December 21st, at 13 minutes past midnight, the full moon will slowly move into the shadow of the earth and be totally eclipsed. This silent event, one of two lunar eclipses in 2010, happens to coincide with the winter solstice, the end of the old, and the beginning of the true new year.
Events like this were so highly important to ancient cultures, such as those in Great Briton, that enormous stone monuments were constructed to mark their passing. Whatever explanation they may have had for the movements of the sun and moon, the ancients had good reason to consider the solstice a day worth noting. Winter might still have it's grip on the landscape, but with longer days coming, movement toward spring had begun. Nature was turning in her sleep.
In school, we were taught how the earth's tipped axis creates the seasons, but the deeper importance of the solar cycle seems to have lost it's impact on our culture. With 24-7-365 access to everything, does it matter? In a word, yes. Because all life on the surface of the planet is inextricably bound to this annual pattern, the reality is that without the cold and darkness of winter, the light and heat of summer, the movements of wind and water, the growth, fruiting, and decay of plants and animals --without this cycle of birth, death and rebirth, none of us would be here. Thankfully, we are here, and with modern knowledge, we have an opportunity to find our proper place in the system that sustains us.
As humans, at the top of the food chain, we sometimes get the idea that because of our self-declared position, we are therefore important. Clever? Yes. Important? That depends on a point of view. In simple terms, life on land, as we know it, could not exist without the countless trillions of soil building microbes that make it possible for larger, green plants to flourish. From their estimated beginnings some three billion years ago, these organisms, with a unique ability to draw usable nitrogen directly from the air, are the very foundation of the plant and animal kingdoms that we currently inhabit.
Since they first appeared, these talented microbes, and those that work with them, or depend directly on their abilities, have grown into a soil building community of inconceivable complexity and numbers. Studies have shown that in the first few inches of a healthy soil, one square yard may contain as many as ten trillion (10,000,000,000) individuals. And that's before we get to the rungs of the evolutionary ladder that have beings you can actually see with the unaided eye. In North America, on an acre of rich, forest floor, the numbers could approach 50 quadrillion (50,000,000,000,000,000). As a comparison, the human population of the entire world stands at just under seven billion. Are we important? It depends. We have a place for sure, but it might not be as lofty as we once thought.
As gardeners, being aware of the large and the small, the solar cycle and soil builders, is a way to tap into a relatively simple and effective system. It tells us what to do, and when. Late fall and winter, at the end of the growth cycle, is a time of decomposition; breaking down in preparation for re-growth. In keeping with the season, my young friends and I have been focused on creating compost. We build the structures, and let the microbes and fungi turn garden waste, straw, seaweed, manure, and grass clippings into next season's plant food. Yes, it's effort to move the straw bales, gather the materials and set everything up, but by far, the most important job is done by the millions, and billions, and trillions of our invisible friends that take care of the dirty work. We give them what they want, and they return the favor.
The large and the small, with us somewhere in between; it's a well-balanced system that has been perfecting itself for a long, long time.
Our goal as organic, or natural gardeners, is to work with this system, to learn what we can, and to use that knowledge helping to maintain the natural balance, and so to enhance our own cultural well being.

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