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Erosion (Earth Primer #4)

(Countryside in Algeria, photo by Giacomo Sartori)

(Earth Primer #3)

Cultivated soil is very fragile—just a bit of water running over the surface is capable of stripping away its thin upper layers, which are the most rich and fertile. The soil is then deposited at the base of the slopes, where the water slows, or poured into creeks or rivers that will carry it to the sea. In either case (and both often happen simultaneously), it is a permanent loss. And if the water streams down violently, it tears away all the best soil, opening up rivulets and deep ravines, eating up a stunning amount of earth, annihilating the labor of thousands of years through which the soil had been formed from stone. Steep slopes are not needed; water builds up energy from even minimal height differences, imperceptible to the human eye.

Since farming began, in order to grow our crops, we have gotten rid of natural vegetation that was efficiently protecting the earth. There weren’t many alternatives. Once the fields were sown, the soil was then left bare for long periods, often precisely during periods where the rains were heaviest. Winter, in temperate zones. Even plants that have begun to grow, however, don’t protect the soil well, especially while they are still small. Since farming began, it has clashed with its tendency to expand a natural process that originally had positive effects—bringing substances and their related nutrients to the coastal areas of the seas. A useful service for fish and other organisms.

During the last handful of decades, erosion has been a generalized scourge, because industrial agriculture has expanded the size of its fields, grouping them together and eliminating the hedgerows and other vegetation that divide and serve as barriers between them. This was done without worrying about the consequences, even though there was already solid scientific evidence on this score: the sole aim was simply to make the work of agricultural machinery easier and more profitable, while ignoring the damage and the signs showing that attention to this matter was urgent. It’s very simple: the longer the field, the more water gains speed and destructive energy.

What comes to mind for me are the gigantic canyons carved by water into the cultivated hills of Northern Algeria. There what is left is a stony landscape, stripped of vegetation; it makes one think of photos from the surface of Mars—the result of a succession of unknown cataclysms. Of these incisions, a network remains, cavities carved out by the water’s fury. It all happened in just a few decades. The colonialists arrived, with their science and technical expertise, their tractors, and their arrogance. They flattened small hillocks, made from them nice-looking, regularly sized plots of land, which they planted with wheat. The yield per acre was excellent, the future seemed bright. Then in no time the water washed it all away, driving out both men and agriculture along with the soil. Out of the human-wrought devastation expires a vapor of enigma, eluding sense and logic. Men cause the damage, yet when this becomes too severe and beyond repair, they leave.

More often it becomes a question of removals drawn out over years, continuous but not visibly catastrophic. In certain aspects, this is even worse, without the monition that calls for wisdom. Driving by in our cars we see green fields, which the drug of chemical fertilizers manage to keep lush, and we believe that all is well. Even the farmers often believe this too. But it isn’t so: a little at a time all the earth accumulates in the lowest lying lands, and most importantly it disappears, with waters that journey to the sea.

In most cases the severity of this process isn’t visible to the naked eye, especially for laypeople. Nothing spectacular, nothing to post online, nothing to make us shudder, in fact everything appears to be prospering through technology. When by chance a deeper wound does occur, the machines quickly cover it over, hiding it. Which is another reason we let it happen, and each year the fields have a bit more of their surfaces planed away.

The life expectation for cultivated soils on even slight slopes is thus most often reduced to the measure given to human beings. In the best cases double, often willingly less: thanks to our intervention, the temporal cycles of geology and climate, which belong to the earth, conform instead to human time. It is difficult to say just how long its life expectancy was initially, since climate itself is also a factor, but at long as erosion remains minimal, it is compensated for by the deepening soils in bottom lands, which is associated with the slow degradation of the original mineral materials.

This is perhaps the principal damage caused by agricultural practices which many consider very efficient, and it is happening on every continent. The surface area of cultivatable land—already greatly cut back by the uncontrolled metastasis of cities and infrastructure—has been and is continuing to be reduced. And what is left has a drastically reduced capacity. Unlike other forms of harm, this is perennial: very little can be done to repair it. Which means that, in the future, there will be less utilizable land area, and it will be less good.

Some parts of the world are now more careful and try to apply preventative measure, especially in leaving the soil bare between one crop and the next, sowing, for example, plants only intended to protect it. Science today has more exact knowledge, and many adequate expedients are well known. Large investment, industrialized farming, however, is not accustomed to analyzing the harm it creates; a blind and deaf Colossus, it has been taught to always go straight ahead. It has no connection with the earth, is incapable of listening to its language, and pays attention to no one. It goes wherever yield per acre leads it, swollen with chemical fertilizers and immediate financial advantage.

But let’s be clear about this, what’s needed is relatively little. Often it’s enough to simply reduce the size of the land parcels, especially in the direction where slopes are steepest, or else to intercept in some fashion the running water, in order to calm matters down. There are multiple solutions. All the more because in the West farmers receive substantial public money, and thus conditions could be imposed. No one, though, wants or can permit even a minimal rise in the costs of production: the so-called law of economic schizophrenia, which doesn’t take into consideration environmental costs, which pretends not to see them, and which strangles the most important circle, the producers.

In arid regions, it is instead the wind that strips off the best part of the earth, where water is lacking to do the damage. The results, however, are substantially the same: wind is as capable a thief as angry water. The difference is that the earth which is removed becomes dust that can travel who knows where, even distances of hundreds and thousands of miles. In the worst cases winds leave behind only piles of rock, the sterile strata.

Just to be clear: this is that fine form of dust we know about in Italy, because it dirties our cars. In that case it comes from the Sahara and represents, in a manner of speaking, the natural, beneficial version of this phenomenon. In fact those flying particles are fundamental in fertilizing our seas, including the Mediterranean; they bring in particular iron, of which the sea has very little. Home delivery of a much needed resource, one could argue. And even the forests of the Amazon get foraged in this manner, and here from the element’s basket of plenty the true gift is phosphorus.

The problem is that, with farming, the zones subject to such removals are expanded: many fields in arid areas, or those relatively aridm become deserts that the winds scarify. Especially when the soils have lost organic matter, which binds together its particles, defending them, and they are not protected from farming. This created a catastrophe during the thirties in Oklahoma, and in nearby states, that Dust Bowl which caused desperation and death. Now it is happening again on a lesser scale, but over a much larger surface, in many regions of the world. Even in Europe, and not only in its South. As is always the case, human actions amplify and multiply existing mechanisms within nature, causing them to be more aggressive and harmful, or indeed ubiquitous. We do not invent anything, not even our forms of ruin.

Giacomo Sartori is a novelist, poet, dramatist, and agronomist. His most recent novel in English, Bug (Restless Books, 2020), was translated by Frederika Randall. His novel I Am God (Restless Books, 2019), also translated by Randall, won the 2020 Italian Prose in Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.

Translated by Jim Hicks




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