It started out as Rondi Lightmark’s New Year’s resolution. Rondi is the person on Vashon who does the greeting cards of dogs in cars (since 2006, she says). She broadcast an email saying that she would send $20 to the first 15 people who would watch a particular Ted Talk (ted.com) and answer three simple questions that would indicate that they understood the concept. The talk was by Alan Savory, a former Zimbabwean wildlife manager and now an advocate for a concept called “Holistic Planned Grazing.” His idea was that wild ungulate (hooved) herbivores, predators, and grasslands coevolved to create the healthy grassland ecosystems that once covered 2/3 of the globe.
In the talk, Savory explains that the world’s grasslands began to fail as humans domesticated herbivores and provided protections from predators. The result was that the animals stayed in one place, overgrazed, and degraded ecosystems so that much of the formerly lush grassland in arid climates became deserts. You can see the results of this in the Middle East, Central China, Africa, India and much of the Great Plains of the US. People have long believed that the way to restore the damage was to take herbivores off the land to allow it to recover. What mystified all the experts was that the land became even more degraded without herbivores.
Savory theorized that natural predators kept the herbivores herded tightly together and moving, which kept them from overgrazing. During the process, the grass was chewed off so it wouldn’t shade itself out, the ground surface was broken up by hooves and fertilized by urine and manure. This “disturbing and fertilizing” caused the grass to regrow vigorously. This is how millions of herbivores created soils 12-20 feet deep in our arid Great Plains over tens of thousands of years.
The big kicker that makes this discovery so important right now, is that the soil created on these grasslands, in addition to holding water, creating lush wildlife habitat, and resilience to both floods and drought, is capable of sequestering massive amounts of CO2. Soil scientists are saying that restoring the millions of acres that are degraded around the world could actually draw enough CO2 out of the atmosphere, through the process of photosynthesis, to begin to reverse climate change! This is a tremendously hopeful prospect when most climate news is so very dark.
I was aware of Savory through reading Joel Salatin, who applies Savory’s ideas on his own farm in Virginia and is a celebrity among readers of Mother Earth News. It so happened that my friend, Sheila Brown, also received Rondi’s email. When the two of us found ourselves at our weekly Zen session without a master, we instead went to the Roasterie for a conversation and coffee. We quickly realized that we both had responded enthusiastically to Rondi’s offer. Neither of us wanted the $20 but we both thought it was extremely important to promote this knowledge.
Thus, since January, Rondi, Sheila, and I have been meeting, educating ourselves, sharing with others, and trying to figure out how best to present the idea that large herbivores could in fact be apex species in the regeneration of our planet’s wildlife habitats, playing a major role, along with our ending fossil fuel use, in the mitigation of the climate crisis itself. A big obstacle to acceptance of this idea is the deeply entrenched belief that the animals themselves are the problem. However, scientists now know it is not livestock, but how they are managed, that degraded our grasslands.
Our project evolved into realizing that the crucial element in restoring the grasslands, and all cultivated land as well, is the regeneration of the soil. Farmers and ranchers all over the world are realizing soil is actually a living organism, a system of mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria that best performs in its diverse natural state. In practical terms, this means no tilling, never allowing the soil to be exposed (continuous cover cropping and mulching), rotating crops, maximizing plant diversity, and allowing herbivores to graze to stimulate the regenerative process. By doing these five things, farmers greatly improve yields and restore water tables and ecosystems, while reducing or eliminating fertilizer, insecticide, and herbicide inputs. This means more profits and prosperity for farmers.
Since we started studying and sharing in small groups, there has concurrently being a veritable explosion of articles and books being written about regenerative agriculture. Our original, most fervent wish that these ideas get attention is been realized in spades.
Now, since January, our original study group is evolving into a grand local effort that has already garnered the support of more than 40 islanders. Rondi calls it “The Whole Vashon Project,” and the vision is to tap into the creativity on the island to bring the challenge of the climate crisis to the forefront of our daily lives. The hope is to make this work meaningful, compelling, and joyful to all, perhaps to even become an example to other communities around the world. As we harness and focus our energy toward doing all that we can to transform ourselves and our environment, we will also be showing our children that we are trying to secure a more stable climate for them.
The Chamber of Commerce is in support of the vision, and the Vashon-Maury Land Trust has become the fiscal sponsor for donations. A website and Facebook page will be launched very soon. Keep your eyes open for our invitation to synchronize and focus our efforts!
Responding to the climate crisis has so far been a struggle to wrap our minds around how to stop or minimize the harm our choices and actions have created — not very motivating although absolutely necessary. But having the payoff of restoring and regenerating the planet is so much more compelling. Sheila coined this slogan: “Stop the Hurt, Start the Healing.” I think that really encapsulates our job.