THEOSOPHY, Vol. 81, No. 7, May, 1993
(Pages 208-212; Size: 12K)

THEOSOPHY AND THE ENVIRONMENT

VI -- THE LAND

[Part 6 of a 16-part series]

The most familiar part of our environment is the land, on which we live, grow our food, and travel. Our land supports majestic forests, beautiful prairies, and abundant flora and fauna. Along with oceans, land even serves the needs of water to be captured, channelled, and retained so that it may be available for plants, animals, and human beings. It is important for the land to be healthy to sustain the wide variety of life that depends on it. How have we influenced the effectiveness of the Earth Element in our life? Have we treated the land, our Earth-Mother, as sacred, as did the American Indians? What are the consequences of exploiting and depleting the land?

Natural and Man-Made Soil Erosion

When rain falls, loose soil particles on even gentle slopes may move with the water to lower elevations under the influence of the earth's gravitational force. Nature has wisely developed techniques to protect soil against such movement, which we call "erosion." The roots of vegetation help to retain soil, as do animal and vegetable deposits on the surface. In addition, the earth has periodic upheavals which create rugged terrain and move material from lower to higher elevations against the leveling force of gravity.

The balancing forces in Nature form cycles of running down, like the "heat death" of astronomical systems, and opposing cycles of creation, which we might call "running up." The second fundamental proposition of Theosophy declares the existence of cycles during which Universes "appear and disappear." These balancing forces are guided by a natural intelligence, which reflects the existence of Universal Intelligence throughout the Cosmos.

The erosion of surface rocks by Fire, Water, and Air eventually benefits vegetation by converting rocks into components of soil. The heat of Fire and variations in temperature cause rocks to crack. Water erodes and moves them, and Air distributes the smaller particles. To aid the evolution of higher plants, the lowly lichen, which grows almost everywhere on earth, secretes chemicals which help to break up rocks more quickly than by simple erosion. The primary coarse soil in time becomes "topsoil" when mixed with organic elements like fallen leaves, decaying plant material, manure, bacteria, molds, and earthworms. Many species thus form symbiotic relationships to survive and help each other -- a reflection of the principles of brotherhood and interdependence in Nature.

Under the earth the reverse of rock erosion takes place. Soft and hard rocks are formed by volcanic action, or by pressure and heat on sediment, or by a combination of the two. The cyclic birth of rocks and their "death" by erosion is like the birth and death cycles in the plant and animal kingdoms. All are part of the three universal processes of creation, preservation, and destruction followed by creation again.

The erosion of topsoil may be caused by wind, which is a major factor in areas of little rainfall and sparse vegetation. The dust bowls of the 1930's in the south-central United States may be remembered by some old-timers. Years of drought led to soil erosion by the wind, the destruction of many farms, and the westward flight of many farmers to greener pastures. Persistent drought has wrought catastrophes throughout history in many parts of the world.

The deltas of the Nile, the Mississippi, and of other great rivers have formed from soil washed away by those mighty streams. A little soil erosion is natural, but much if not most erosion has happened as a result of poor farming practices. Nature's slow work over thousands of years in building topsoil is erased in a short time by human carelessness and ignorance. Although many farmers have learned how to conserve soil, either on their own or with the help of Soil Conservation Services of the state and federal governments, poor farming practices are still common. The farm state of Iowa, for example, has lost one-half of its original topsoil!

Reducing Soil Erosion

According to Dr. Wes Jackson, a knowledgeable and leading agriculturist, the major culprit in soil erosion is the plow, which loosens the soil to make crop cultivation easier. He contends that the plowshare has done more to harm civilization than the sword ("Back to Eden," Atlantic Monthly, November 1989). Farmers have taken the easy way of loosening soil by force rather than by more natural but time-consuming ways. Highly loose soil is a prime target for erosion, especially in wet or windy climates. Masanobu Fukuoka holds similar views on plowing as practiced in Japan and India (see his book, The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy).

Intelligent farmers can reduce soil erosion even when plowing. Contour planting along land of equal elevation makes it more difficult for soil to go downhill. Terracing the land on steep and shallow slopes is a practice that reduces the downhill flow of wet soil. Other sensible practices are resting part of the land periodically, planting grasses or legumes on alternate strips, rotating the crops (some crops subject soil to erosion more than others), and using cover crops, which are planted among relatively open crops to help retain the soil.

Natural ways to loosen soil make use of earthworms and certain deep-rooted weeds; the weeds eventually give way to other plants after preparing the way. Prairie plants do not need loose soil to thrive; they use their strong roots to obtain needed nourishment, as do weeds. The plowing of whole fields loosens more soil than is needed for planting crops. In addition, heavy farm machinery sometimes has the undesirable effect of packing soil over which it travels repeatedly.

Toxic Wastes, Pesticides, and Herbicides

Besides the loss of soil by erosion, land is gradually being poisoned with toxic wastes, pesticides, and herbicides. Garbage dumps often contain toxic wastes which eventually contaminate both the earth and underground water. Toxic waste sites are often poorly chosen and poorly operated. Some highly publicized waste sites in the past are: Love Canal (New York), Times Beach (Missouri), Swartz Creek (Michigan), and Stringfellow Acid Pits (California, now in litigation in the courts).

The cost of cleaning up toxic waste dumps everywhere is high. An article in the Los Angeles Times for Dec. 10, 1991 ("U.S. Waste Cleanup Bill Put at $750 Billion"), indicates that the cost could be as high as 1.7 trillion dollars. In 1980 a Superfund was created to aid the cleanup process. Congress appropriated 10 billion dollars, of which only 4.8 billion had been spent at the end of 1991. With state and federal budget shortfalls, the cleanup terms were largely determined by the polluters. However, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) finally decided to conduct all Superfund risk assessments itself ("EPA Stops Letting Polluters Set Cleanup Terms," Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1990).

Some remarkable new methods promise to reduce the cost and work of toxic waste cleanup. The Los Angeles Times for July 3, 1990, reports on one such process, which can break up toxins like dioxin into mostly harmless components, encapsulating harmful substances like heavy metals and asbestos in glass ("Entombing Waste in Glass"). All this may be done without digging up the soil! Biological processes are being used to clean up oil spills on oceans and land with oil-eating bacteria. Unfortunately, there is usually a time lag between research and its implementation.

Pesticides and herbicides are commonly used on agricultural land and for garden plants and lawns. The runoff water from contaminated land washes great quantities of chemicals into rivers and oceans as well as into the water table under the land. Many of the chemicals are toxic to both plants and animals. Fish and other food sources are affected, placing human life at risk. Wes Jackson in New Roots for Agriculture, p. 28, mentions a book by the late U.C. Berkeley professor, Dr. Robert van den Bosch, The Pesticide Conspiracy. Advocating integrated pest management (IPM), Dr. van den Bosch writes:

Pesticides are a hazard to human health and to the general environment. It should be obvious to any perceptive person that if we want to reduce the hazard, we must junk the chemical strategy. ... IPM is an ecologically based pest control strategy which relies heavily upon natural mortality factors.
Farmers are aware of the effect of agricultural chemicals on themselves and their families, and the politicians in farm states now dare to address such problems. (Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1990, "Low Chemical Agriculture Gaining Favor in Midwest.")

Natural methods of pest control make use of predator insects and birds, microorganisms, companion plants that repel many insects, crop rotation, healthier varieties that are more resistant to pests, parasites, and bug vacuums. The cost of using such methods is often no higher than the cost of chemicals for similar crop yields. In general, organic produce is safer, more nutritious, and contains more trace elements needed by the physical and possibly the astral body. In a later article we will look at the future of agriculture and food.


COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:
This living flowing land
is all there is, forever

We are it
it sings through us--

We could live on this Earth
without clothes or tools!

        --GARY SNYDER, From
        "By Frazier Creek Falls"


Next article:
THEOSOPHY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
VII -- WATER
[Part 7 of a 16-part series]

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