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Water (Earth Primer #7)

(RER Ambiente: Erosion on a hillside in Emilia-Romagna.)

(Earth Primer #6)

During rainstorms, soil gets soaked by water, which it then retains within its most minute pores, acting as a reservoir. To achieve their ends, which include bringing nutrients all the way up to the leaves, the roots of plants draw water out, little by little, from these small tubes. Because water from the earth contains the mineral sustenance that plants feed on—it provides the delivery service. So, that is its first function: storing a mineral-rich reserve of water in its capillaries, to make it available when needed. For plants, but also for all other living organisms.

Whenever farmland isn’t taken care of (and at present it usually isn’t, since the only goal is immediate income), water runs over the surface of the earth, rather than soaking in, carrying away the most fertile upper layers and unexpectedly swelling streams. Any incline is enough, even where you might not notice it—no need to imagine steep slopes. Even on minor gradients, runnels rush down breathlessly towards torrents and rivers, causing sudden floods that can be catastrophic, especially now that violent, intense rains are becoming more frequent. Thus, the soil also serves to deliver water to the rivers at a disciplined, protracted pace, to avoid flooding.

Water is then restored to the atmosphere, from the soil through evaporation, and from the leaves of plants, through transpiration. It gets stamped “return to sender.” In sum, earth absorbs water, bottling it up and conserving it, then releasing it to the air (and to plants that in their turn relinquish it to the air), where sooner or later it will be used to form clouds. How well it does all this depends on its condition. Healthy soil with high amounts of organic matter absorbs more water, keeps it longer, and releases it more gradually. In short, soil is central to the water cycle and influences it in ways that differ depending on what shape the soil is in, which in most cases is determined largely by what we do.

Excessive water—amounts that cannot be contained—brings the harmful substances used in agriculture to hillsides and rivers. Within its warehouses, which are never very large, soil can manage to confiscate only a part of the chemical fertilizers. Especially when it comes to nitrogen, the most important element. All the rest ends up in the watery depths. And pesticides and other pollutants that aren’t retained by the organic matter and minerals of the soil also run off to pollute elsewhere. Ecotoxicologists celebrate the capacity of the earth to retain harmful substances and act as a filter, so that the test results for well water and rivers are less threatening. They don’t think about the fact that the earth itself remains poisoned.

Too much water is harmful to all crops, except rice. Much of the flatlands in Italy, including large zones of Po River valley, couldn’t be used for farming because they were soaked in water. In many muddy plains, the convex depressions in the fields and the drainage channels weren’t sufficient for getting rid of excess water. Over the course of a couple centuries, at a time when there was no machinery for doing this work, an impressive amount of labor went into reclaiming these areas through networks of canals. Much of the cleared land, now colonized by industrial agriculture, used to be marsh and swamplands. Now they’re speeding off, at a hundred miles an hour, thanks to the canals and drainage pumps that get rid of surplus water.

Coming to terms with water was a prerequisite, even for farming the Alpine or Appenine foothills: you have to keep water from running down over topsoil and causing disasters. For that reason, Italians became real artists in refining technical systems for managing the hillsides. We can still see such systems depicted in countless Renaissance paintings, and they were imitated all across Europe. Unlike other regions of Europe with less severe morphology and a steadier climate, Italian farmlands had to be stewarded and defended. Mechanized agriculture swept away the entirety of these harmonious, enlightened custodial structures (regulation would be the technical term), instead allowing the formation of streams that sterilize or devastate the terrain. The destruction happened in no time at all. They thought only about yields—everything, instantly—at any cost, not about safeguarding the soil, not about the future.

In other words, the water cycle—which is our name for it—is locked into the soil, a thin little layer of nothing. But that cycle isn’t purely a question of hydraulics, as those arcing arrows on the hydrological charts encourage us to assume. The earth isn’t simply a holding tank with input funnels and output faucets: everything actually depends on the activities of its inhabitants, and on its organic matter, which depends on them, and which gives them life. Earthworms in particular are essential in forming aggregates of soil that augment its capacity for gathering rainwater and developing the networks of nearly vertical tunnels that drain it into the depths. Here too life is a factor, along with the entire complex of interrelations it consists of.

Even the roots of cultivated crops, just like those of trees, extend from the plants themselves by means of a very dense network of fungal filaments, the mycorrhizae; only a few years ago we knew nothing about this. To be exact, we didn’t even suspect that they existed. These kilometers-long networks of capillaries are much more efficient in extracting water and minerals, networks that are themselves the environment for bacteria, which in turn host viruses, and so on and so forth. Thus water and life are inextricably tied together. For us to understand anything, our brains need to separate and compartmentalize, to trust in various specialists (in this case hydrologists and micologists), but the earth is a tangle, full of connections and compensations, in continuous development. And syntheses.


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

(Earth Primer #8)


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