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Goodbye Columbus

Forest gardening is about as close as any strategy comes to addressing all of the most pressing needs of humans in one great sweep. Climate change, peak oil, poverty, extinction, and civil strife — all are rooted in the ground, and in most cases, those roots belong to trees.

Our nine-day EdibleForest Garden Design Intensive with David Jacke started last Friday with 23 participants from Canada, Honduras, Haiti/Albania, Tennessee, Alabama, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Iowa, and Florida.

In our 2010 book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change (New Society Publishers), we described the relationship between the two main styles of agriculture that existed at the start of the Columbian Encounter (1492) and the two distinct types of civilization each tended to produce.

A.Eisenstaedt, Oklahoma Farmer 1942, Time & Life Pictures/Getty ImagesA.Eisenstaedt, Oklahoma Farmer 1942, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In the Eastern Hemisphere humans marked the dawn of agriculture by their discovery of two great inventions: irrigation and the plow. Those began, we think, in the richest lowland river valleys — the Tigris and Euphrates; Nile delta; and Yellow River and radiated outwards. Because annual flooding erases boundaries, the ancients invented surveying instruments and sophisticated ownership systems for property.

Too much of any good thing is bad, we know. In this case fertile points of origin were plowed and irrigated until they salted into deserts. Capitalism, socialism, militarism and theocracy were attempts to adapt to the boom and bust cycles of that kind of agriculture, and to predations that pair with property, food stores, and aggregations of artificial markers for wealth. Abundance and scarcity; scarcity and abundance — these beget hoarding; snatch-and-run; entrenchment and defense.

In the Western Hemisphere (although we admit to speaking in broad generalizations and quickly acknowledge that examples of opposites appear on both sides of the oceans) a second strategy dominated. Daniel Quinn (author Ishmael and its sequels) has termed this the “Leaver” culture. It is characterized by discovery of cooperative strategies that compliment, rather than compete, with nature and the directions she appears to be following. Natives of the Americas developed highly complex cultivated ecologies. Prairies were managed by fire for buffalo and elk. Forests were managed for deer, beaver and large fowl. While some food preservation was practiced, and many domesticated cultivars were grown (notably maize, potatoes, beans, and squash), much of the Western diet came from seasonal forage, even in city-state cultures like Incan Peru and Mayan Mesoamerica.

In the Americas, field and forest management strategies were typically soil building, game conserving and water protecting. To the East, urban commerce and military conquest tended towards exploitation, mining, and resource extinction.

In the Americas, soil nutrients were consumed at or close to their places of origin and the residues returned back to resume the cycle again. In the East, an “export economy” arose almost immediately, with Sumer, Ur, Babylon, Egypt, Macedonia, Greece and Rome, and trade routes carried vital soil nutrients to great distances where they filled sewers to be carried off into oceans. While both cultures recognized at a deep level that maintaining a positive balance with nature was absolutely essential to survival, one of them failed to recognize that many seemingly wonderful social inventions were antithetical to that goal.

When the two styles finally met, it was catastrophic almost beyond reckoning. The Europeans, armed with gunpowder brought West by trade with China on the Silk Road, and with Andalusian war horses bred by the Moors to escape Medieval Maximum warming in the Middle East, having been starved out of Europe, now flooded into North and South America with the intent to subdue and conquer all in their path. Estimates of the genocide of Native Americans range from 30 to 99.9 percent, far greater than the Black Plague or any other historic scourge. As we wrote in The Biochar Solution:


After the passing of the plagues, and the brutal conquest that ensued, those Native Americans who remained were reduced to a state of extreme poverty. Before European contact, the people of Amazonia cultivated or managed at least 138 of the 257 plant species cultivated in the Western Hemisphere. Two centuries later, they were reduced to farming only a handful.

Anthropologist Charles C. Mann says, “The pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams — entire ways of life — hissed away like steam.”

When the civilizations of the Americas perished, with them perished the agricultural sciences gained from millennia of field trials. Countless valuable domestic cultivars, unable to self-propagate, went extinct. Where great shining cities had stood, vines and moss covered the façades; trees broke through the paving stones and engulfed buildings. Rain rotted away the roof timbers, and insects ate the parchment of scientific and literary manuscripts, leaving but a few to the bonfires of the conquerors.

So great was the burst of vegetation over open fields and mounded cities in the Western Hemisphere that the carbon drawn from the air to feed this greening upset atmospheric chemistry. Analysis of the soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-contact population centers and sparsely populated surrounding regions reveals that the reforestation of land following the collapse drew so much carbon out of the atmosphere so rapidly that Europe literally froze.

That period of global cooling, which was most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, is known as the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age ended the Medieval Warming Period that corresponded to the time when the Amazon was not jungle, but tall white cities with many miles of wharf-front, wide causeways extending inland, and highly cultivated societies.

What we hope to do with these Edible Forest Design workshops, beyond improving the resiliency of our tiny rural community amidst a perfect storm of energetic decline, climate change, and ecological collapse, is to propagate a new meme. It really isn’t all that new, actually. It’s mostly just forgotten.

We are proposing a return to the cultivated ecologies that existed in the Americas before the Columbian Encounter. We are pushing back now. For the past 500 years we here in the West have tried that Eastern agricultural model. Now we would like for the Eastern Hemisphere to give ours a try.

When we tried the one based on irrigation and the plow, we turned the Great Plains into a Dust Bowl. Franklin Roosevelt, may his name be praised, reversed that by sending the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant hundreds of miles of “tree alleys” North-South across the plains. His jobs program was long on ecological restoration, and lest we forget, it worked. Spectacularly.

Now we need to do that again, only on a grander scale. We need to use it to grow a food supply by agroforestry, and to sequester gigatons of carbon in the bargain. Who’s up for it? Will you join us?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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