Keen observers of nature know that everything exists in relationship with everything else. The cycle of life includes the constant cycling of nutrients from one form to another. As a tree draws nutrients from the soil, it adds water, carbon dioxide and solar energy to produce new growth. Nutrients are returned to the earth as leaves drop or ultimately, when the entire tree falls to the ground.
This simple example excludes the complex interactions with other species, but serves to illustrate the basic natural cycle.
I recall hiking through the lush and beautiful Hoh rain forest on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula a few years ago. Occasionally, I would come across perfectly straight lines of younger trees. I was curious about the way they seemed to sprout from the ground on only two sides, forming a long, straight tunnel that stretched sequentially through their bases.
I learned that when a mature tree is blown down it clears a path for sunlight to reach the ground. Then it begins to decay, becoming a perfect place for new trees to sprout, in a line of course. This is called a nurse tree. As the nurse tree decays and returns to the soil or is taken up into the new trees, the original trunk disappears, often leaving a tunnel that eventually disappears.
Learning about nurse trees helped me understand how the nutrient cycle works and why it is so important to a healthy community. It was not difficult to imagine what would happen if, for some reason, the return flow of nutrients was disrupted. At the very least it would fundamentally alter the balance of the ecosystem. At worst, it could lead to the collapse of the entire forest.
Now, instead of a forest, imagine our society. We grow food in remote locations, usually with the aid of chemicals and fertilizers made from fossil fuels. Processing and consumption creates more waste but very little of the nutrient value is returned to the earth in a beneficial way. We have created a linear system of nutrient flows that has broken the natural cycle.
Until recently, this has been viewed as a “benefit” in our modern society. As fuel costs rise and ecosystem health declines, it is increasingly clear that natural cycles provide tremendous value to society. They must be respected, protected and nurtured.
There are many things we can do to achieve this.
Organic farming is one of the most direct means of respecting the Earth and reversing the nutrient depletion caused by industrial farming methods. Organic farmers avoid chemicals, return many natural nutrients to the soil and rotate crops to protect against depletion. Purchasing organic food is a healthy choice that supports the rebuilding of our nutrient cycle and the formation of a permanently sustainable food supply.
A key component of any organic garden, large or small, is composting. This is a process that takes raw plant material from the kitchen, yard or field and rapidly turns it into nutrient rich, organic compost, sometimes called black gold. It is a natural cycle that we can all do at home. There are lots of ways to create compost, from small compact units that work in the kitchen to large outdoor bins that can handle tons of material at a time.
My composting system is small, compact, simple and effective. It is an Envirocycle manufactured by Envirolet (www.envirolet.com). It sits in the backyard, near the door for easy access. Composting occurs in a round plastic drum and is very unobtrusive. The base contains rollers so the drum is easy to turn, mixing the contents. We add vegetable food scraps, garden trimmings and other similar materials through a door on the drum. The process is very simple and just requires a little water once in a while to keep things moist. Excess water in this system drains into the base and becomes “compost tea,” an excellent nutritional liquid that can be diluted and used as fertilizer for plants.
This simple process removes valuable nutrients from our waste stream and converts them into usable fertilizer that builds the soil. We have helped close the gap and restore at least part of the natural cycle.
There are human communities in the Far East that have farmed the same land for thousands of years. They understand the value of natural cycles and their society is so finely tuned that even the slightest disruption is considered inappropriate. We can learn much from these practices and from indigenous people around the world, many of whom have been around for thousands of years.
Whether you live in a home or an apartment, there are composting systems that will work for you. When used to enhance local organic vegetable gardens, we move away from the carbon-intensive model of industrial food production and toward a more natural way of living.
Regular composting is like creating virtual nurse trees that foster new life, promote good health and help restore the natural cycles that are currently missing. Black gold is just another shade of green living.
Steve Rypka is a green living consultant and president of GreenDream Enterprises, specializing in renewable energy, green building, alternative transportation and lifestyle choices for both residential and commercial clients. The company is committed to helping people live lighter on the planet. Rypka can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information relating to this column is posted at www.greendream.biz.