Weeds -- Guardians of the Soil

by Joseph A. Cocannouer

12. Sponge Structure versus Dams

PROBABLY no other region of the United States has experienced such evolutionary changes as has the Mississippi Basin. And practically all of these changes have come about since the arrival there of the white man. To the Indian, that vast expanse of territory drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries was second only to the Happy Hunting Ground. And the early explorers agreed. At any rate, they sent word back to their friends and relatives in the original colonies that they had indeed found a paradise on earth: rich land without measure for all who wanted to come.

And they came. The machine-minded white man pillaged the wealth of the Valley: forests went into lumber -- or up in wasteful flames and smoke. In due time the prairie lands and erstwhile forests were pouring forth food crops beyond anything believed possible when the land was first broken.

More decades went by. The day arrived when the Great Basin came to be called the granary of the world. Cities, as if they too were growing from planted seed, sprang into being to process and utilize in various ways the soil's wealth. Major interest began swinging from the production end to the factory part of agriculture. The making of good flour was more important than growing superior wheat.

Even so, during most of this second phase of the Great Basin's history, farming methods were basically sound, save in one vital respect. The inexhaustibility of the soils of the new continent was still taken for granted, as it had been since the landing of the Pilgrims back there in New England. Science entered into farming in a grand way -- above ground. We built our agricultural superstructures efficiently. Livestock was developed to meet every special need; farm machinery by now was coming from the factories in an endless parade, each machine an improvement over its predecessor, and each machine improving the mechanics of farming.

It was during this period, too, that plant scientists performed wonders for the Great Valley. Among these wonders were disease-resistant grains that also gave double yields; fruits that the Pacific Coast alone could excel in; protein-rich forage crops adapted to almost every type of soil and climatic condition. Though little thought was given to land conservation, the land continued to produce bountifully -- and we harvested. We mined our soils to the limit. We ignored Nature's law of return compensation, though even at that period Nature sounded her warning.

And it has been our persistent ignoring of that law of return compensation that has brought us to the third phase of the Basin's history: the period of rapid soil depletion. We are deep in that phase now. Long since have vanished those streams, almost clear even in flood, which were common in pioneer days; no longer do we have unsilted riverbeds. Instead we find ourselves with all rivers and all smaller streams overflowing with soupy-thick water after every moderate rain. Now we have broad stretches of denuded slopes and upland farms with weak and unbalanced surface soils. Much of our once-fertile bottom land is now spread with mediocre soil, and that soil is still pouring down from the poor uplands.

And then there is the harvest! Unbalanced food products are now being gathered from most of the food-producing land in the Basin. Many food specialists and other scientists tell us that such a large percentage of our farms are now turning off unbalanced foods that deficiency diseases, once rare, are more and more lowering the health standard of our nation.

Erosion, the chief cause of land depletion, is still going on, and savagely. Where erosion is not a serious menace, we have mined our soils instead of farming them intelligently. Blindly we have destroyed the original sponge structure. Blindly we have refused to recognize Nature's law of return. Today the Great Valley as a whole presents a superficial picture of opulence and progress; internally, from the standpoint of a stable agriculture, the foundation is tottering.

There is enough sediment resting on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico to build a sizable continent. Where did it come from? Practically all of that sediment came from the farms of the Great Basin. What has not gone on to the Gulf has been deposited in riverbeds, or has gone into building swampy deltas. Our riverbeds, once deep, are shallow. Overflows are inevitable. River-bottom lands, once among the most dependable food-producing areas of our country, are practically valueless in many sections.

The fact that there are areas in the Great Basin where constructive land management is being carried on, does not change the drab picture to any degree. The small amount of improvement that is being accomplished here and there is insignificant compared with what needs to be done.

In traveling across the country one now and then comes to a region where, at first sight, practically all of the land seems to be under improvement. A friend told me about such a situation where he was so impressed by the amount of conservation work being done he decided to go back and make a thorough recheck in order to be sure he hadn't misjudged. He received a shock. Actually, not more than a fourth of the land was being given constructive treatment. He was there during a heavy rain, when he had a chance to see erosion at its worst: neglected pastures almost carried off in chunks, he said; abandoned fields dissolving before his eyes; small, inconspicuous spots tumbling into the deeper gullies -- and vanishing as red water. All of this added up to three times the land under improvement. If such was the case in a progressive area like that -- what must be the picture of our country as a whole!

But the very fact that we can rebuild -- are rebuilding to a degree -- gives reason for considerable encouragement. I have seen some very satisfying illustrations of what can be done in the way of transforming stiff subsoil into a new and highly productive surface soil. I have seen land approaching the original prairie soil in fertility, all rebuilt solely by adhering strictly to Nature's laws of land building: by filling the soil with the right kinds of organic materials and in the right way. I have watched the rain pour down on such land -- on a slope. The rain immediately went into the ground. That soil had its dams -- a tiny dam for each drop of water. It had its sponge structure, which is the only logical reservoir for controlling erosion.

A true soil is one that is so friable and mellow it absorbs rainfall much as a blotter takes up ink. When a soil is properly filled with organic materials -- disintegrated and disintegrating weeds and other herbaceous plants, fallen tree leaves, decaying straw, and so on -- the whole soil mass becomes a huge sponge. Such a soil can drink any except the heaviest rain as fast as it falls. That is why there is little erosion where Nature's virgin soils are still found, unless the land is extremely steep. Even in the latter situations the runoff is normally not great. And all because the land has the essential sponge structure developed through the inculcation of organic materials.

Only through the refiberization of our lands on the slopes can we hope to protect the lowlands. Small frog-pond reservoirs up near the sources of the streams, or near the mouths of the smaller tributaries, should do considerable good; but river embankments and dikes, though necessary in places, are as a rule only temporary expedients. They are just a continuous enlargement of the trough to hold more of the runoff silt. And the runoff will continue to pour down its silt until the runoff is checked before it starts. Raising riverbanks higher and higher and thus lifting the river higher and higher above the bordering lands, may be good engineering -- it is not logical soil conservation.

I cannot help feeling that if the people in our Great Basin were brought to see how serious our soil situation is, they would respond with greater determination than has been the case up to now,. It is true that most folks do not like unpleasant facts; but here is one important fact that directly affects all of us: at our present rate of land waste, there will be little productive soil left on the Great Plains forty years from now. This statement is not a guess; it is backed up by reliable soil surveys, Dams, no matter how colossal, will never stop runoff . And they will not build back what we have already lost.

Only an aroused public can stem the erosion tide! One important way we can help is by getting solidly behind the soil-conservation service of the United States Department of Agriculture, which is doing some excellent work -- although it isn't in all cases building sponge structure as rapidly as might be desired. Erosion and incorrect farming methods are tearing down faster than the conservationists are building. We need more conservationists on the job. We can use more spade work and a little less show and tongue work. We need to take a few lessons from the subtle agents of erosion themselves: ceaseless persistence, and silence. Depend on it, we'll never lick erosion by any other means.

There seems to be no valid reason why every county shouldn't be organized as a unit, with everybody given a chance to become a part of the unit. Where counties are already organized -- as a great many are -- the county organization should be expanded to include everybody who will agree to help build soil, and then given a bit more efficient directing than is the case in some places. Let's get everybody on the job. Then let's make sure that the major issue is putting sponge structure back into the land -- in a practical manner. Let us build sponge structure until every acre in the country drinks the rain as it falls. That'll call for sweat and a lot of it -- but an acre healed will mean an acre gained; possibly several of them.

And every little bit does help! I had a good illustration of this not long ago. A man who had listened to me discuss weed values on several occasions decided to try out weeds on a tiny bit of eroded land that lay behind his house. This area of only a few square rods was peeled and gullied -- about as poor, he told me, as land could be. His original plan was to help weeds get a start on the piece, then thin the weeds and use them as a mother crop for something, I don't recall what, that he aimed to plant with the weeds.

He scratched the surface a bit, then scattered over it some rotted manure that he gathered up from a part of his corral, where an assortment of weeds had grown luxuriantly for several seasons. This manure, of course, contained an abundance of weed seed, and the weeds popped up, he said, like all get out. Then something happened to prevent his getting round to planting his companion crop; the weeds were left to go it alone and without any disturbance.

One day when it was pouring rain, he decided to go down and see whether or not his weeds were holding back the runoff. The man admitted he was skeptical when he left the house, for it was really raining. And he remembered how many years the water had been gushing off that little slope. But when he reached the lower edge of the slope, he found, much to his surprise, that only a small fraction of the water he knew was falling was making it through the weed patch and pouring into the small brook. The weeds had already built up a sponge structure efficient enough to catch and hold the rain.

Fortunately there are many ways by which the sponge structure can be put back into our hungry and depleted soils. The case just described was simple, yet a good one. These sponge-building operations would seem to fall logically under three heads, each more or less demanding its own system of treatment. First, there are those tiny areas which, at first thought, would not appear to amount to much: the eroded nooks and washed spots on most farms, like the one mentioned above; the small garden areas, including town and city gardens. The sum total of these small areas adds up to a much larger acreage than one would at first suspect. While most rardens are fairly well cared for and are not affected seriously by erosion, many gardeners do have the erosion problem, even in town.

Establishing a good sponge in garden soils not only assures water absorption, but it also enhances soil balance and guarantees quality produce. To fill the soil with barnyard manure or well-built compost or green manure of any sort; to fiberize the lower soils with deep-diving weeds is always good business.

Then there are those discarded or semi-discarded areas that now spread across our country: abandoned farms or parts of farms; denuded forest land; rocky sections;. countless sloping acres which as they now stand are next to worthless. A large percentage of the wild pastures falls into this class. Someone has said that if we could stop erosion from these eye-sore areas, our erosion problem would be well on its way to solution.

Apparently about the only way we have of getting such land covered with holding vegetation is for state and national governments to take over completely. It seems impossible for farmers to take personal interest in such projects, with the exception of a pasture now and then. Most farmers figure that they have all they can do to look after the land that must fill their breadbaskets. Maybe a cooperative scheme between government and farmer can be worked out that will get the job done. Certain city and town organizations might well get in some constructive licks here -- for erosion is very decidedly a menace to all of us. Going to the country and helping farmers to build sponge structure could hardly be called philanthropy. Anything that any of us can do to get our unused land covered with vegetation will be stabilizing our own future as well as that of the other fellow. And the fine part about it is that this work could practically all be done without technical skill. All it needs is progressive leadership.

The third and, of course, the most urgent need right now is the building up of our food-producing soils. We should be pouring into this land green manures, barnyard manures -- every type of organic material that will decay in a reasonable time. The method of getting this stuff into the soil and getting it at work will vary with almost every locality. No set rule can be given that will apply to all sections -- except that the materials should be poured into the land as fast as conditions will permit, and that we should keep pouring them in until the sponge is there, much as it was when the land was broken up.

In most of our soils it will require enormous amounts of the right kinds of materials before there will be any noticeable betterment of conditions. It will be wise to keep that in mind. There must be many crops of lush legumes, the latter inoculated in most instances. The green stuff should be thoroughly broken up and then wilted before being turned under. That will hasten their transformation into fiber. Green manure will need to be grown on the land every possible season of the year, even though that may at times mean the sacrifice of some other crop. Lime will often be necessary and rock phosphate advisable -- but high-powered stimulants will not help build sponge structure except where the land is so poor it needs a quick perk-up to start things off. We need the help of the active soil life in maintaining our sponge, and stimulants are likely to kill or drive out that life.

So much for our surface soil. It will take something more to care for our subsoils completely, and those deeper soils need fiber also. We need to establish as large a sponge volume in the soil as we can. To do that we will need to employ our deep-diving weeds. Too much is at stake for us to permit weed superstition to rule our actions. The weed roots will build little dams down in the deeper soils -- millions of little dams placed exactly where they should be. A regular weed crop in a well-planned rotation will convince anyone of that -- if he is willing to be convinced.

If the cost of just one colossal dam could be used to build sponge structure in the areas where the erosion menace is worst! We should bombard our senators and congressmen with demands that the huge dams be postponed -- save possibly in the Far West, where irrigation water is vital and the silt in the feeding streams no serious menace -- until we get the sponge structure job well under way. Let's work for more support for the conservation division of the USDA. This support should be something more than what the government is able to do financially, however. We have no moral right to expect the government to bear the whole burden. We have a lot to do individually in every community. We need to get out and reveal the old American spirit that seems to be vanishing from our blood. Our forefathers were builders, even if they did shoot off at the wrong tangent here and there. Again let us manifest that building spirit; let us all become soil builders, even if some of our individual parts may be only a few square yards!

Then let's give our farm youth a chance to carry on sponge-building projects; offer worthwhile prizes. Rebuilding a piece of sloping land may not be as simple or as thrilling as growing and finishing a prize-winning steer or hog, but rare is the farm lad who would not be willing and ready to take on the job if his leaders were ready to direct him. Every dollar spent in this manner would accomplish more than every hundred spent in building large silt-holding reservoirs.

There is no argument against dams and reservoirs at the right time and in the right place. Irrigation water in many parts is vitally essential, and hydroelectric power has become indispensable to all of us. Of course, it is a bit difficult to reconcile oneself to the valuable acreage buried beneath some of the large reservoirs -- with our uplands depleted as they are. But runoff is a danger which great dams do not prevent -- even though the dams may be built where little cultivated land is lost. And stopping wasteful runoff is our number one agricultural problem. We must stop that runoff before it starts, by putting the sponge back into our soils. Naturally, it will take a much longer time to fill a reservoir when the soil sponge is returned, but when full the reservoir will contain water and not one-time farms.

En fin: the good farms buried by the lake will not loom so large in importance -- if we first rebuild our food-producing uplands before we build our dams.

Next: 13. Here and Yon

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