Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World by Judith D. Schwartz
Review by Jennifer Dowdell, Ecological Planner/Designer
Just over a year ago the Paris Agreement was adopted by consensus after intense negotiations between 196 nations at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). In short, the agreement aims to pursue efforts to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. It also calls for “increasing the ability to adapt to adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate change resilience.” Much of the focus is on the global reduction of carbon emissions, as it should be. But we cannot dismiss the importance of water and its intrinsic role in our climate and our planet’s health. In her new book, Water in Plain Sight, Judith Schwartz lays out the argument for the central role water plays in supporting these goals.
Schwartz takes the reader on a global tour of experts who have devoted their lives to alternative natural resource management techniques that focus on water. Many have even found innovative ways to return water to landscapes where it has been lost due to human development. Whether she is in Zimbabwe, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Kenya, or Amish country in Ohio, Schwartz finds that water is at the interface with every part of our existence, from agriculture and industry to our home and neighborhoods.
At the heart of the book, and in the heartland itself, she meets John Kempf, an Amish farmer who is as focused on what is below the surface as what is occurring above, and how we can improve the productivity of the land through permaculture practices. Mycorrhizal fungi are a key component to not only accessing water for plants, “expanding the range of a plant up to several hundred times,” but in solubilizing minerals to enhance a plant’s nutritional levels and the formation of soil aggregates. Mycorrhizal fungi support carbon and nitrogen co-sequestration in the soil that then results in increased water filtration, lower rates of evaporation, and an increased capacity to hold water in the soil.
Furthermore, USDA researchers David Johnson and Hui-Chen Su have developed a composting method with a high fungal to bacteria ratio. In their research they have seen enhanced soil microbial communities in the compost produce “twice as much plant growth as the world’s most prolific terrestrial ecosystems. The synergies between the plants and soil microbial communities in advanced, highly fertile soil could allow for the capture of the equivalent of a year’s anthropogenic CO2 emissions on less than 11 percent of the world’s cropland.” Incredibly, these rather small and almost unseen organisms are pivotal players in the story linking landscape productivity and water management to carbon sequestration.
There are many other themes worth digging into in this book: holistic landscape management and traditional grazing techniques, stormwater management in heavily urbanized areas, tall grassland restoration, forest restoration, and biomimicry for water collection. All yield amazing results.
Schwartz concludes that “climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification are all facets of the same problem: that the world’s carbon, water and energy cycles are out of whack.” She reminds us, however, that we have a chance–through a refinement of our current land management practices–to change things and to begin to find water in many places, “in plain sight.”
I can’t help but think that this book should be required reading for all who are engaged in landscape restoration, design, planning or management work. It is a compelling read, one that transports the reader to a new location with each chapter, bringing these disparate landscapes to life in beautiful, engaging prose. It also gives me incredible hope for what we can do to affect change in a myriad of small but meaningful ways. And it is further reminder of the interconnectedness of all the issues we face in our work.
The processes and the successes outlined by Schwartz have sometimes been decades in the making. To stem the tide of climate change, we must act quickly. At the same time, we must be patient and know that while we might not see the change overnight, by laying a strong and resilient foundation for enhanced and restored ecosystem processes, we are helping to support a stronger future.
Review by Bryan Arvai, Water Resources Engineer
I’ve been captivated lately by the recent influx of information on the interactions between mycorrhizal fungi and trees, so on a recent trip to my local library I picked up a copy of The Hidden Half of Nature by David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle. I had hoped to learn more about these soil interactions to bolster the quality of flora within my work in green infrastructure and my own garden. What I’ve learned from this book has made me rethink my conceptions of both soil ecology and, more surprisingly, the microbial ecology within our own bodies.
Within the framework of their own life stories, David and Anne walk you through how a garden at their new home in Seattle and a cancer diagnosis for Anne led the Professor of Geomorphology (David) and Biologist and Environmental Planner (Anne) to immerse themselves in the history of, and latest research into, the microbial parallels of a healthy soil and a healthy gut.
The book starts off by detailing how Anne (the gardener) combats the poor soil quality within her garden by dumping every type of organic material she can get her hands on into the soil, including my favorite, “Zoo Doo” from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Within a few years, her garden is flourishing and the soil has turned from a hard clay to a rich, deep brown, living soil. They note how the diseases and pests that other gardeners constantly combat never emerged or took hold and the more compost they added to the soil, the more it disappeared. Anne and David then took a step that few of us do. They asked “why?” and as a geomorphologist and biologist, they did their research.
The book then begins to weave lessons and stories from their research on microbial life within soil, the history of agriculture, and our modern-day farming practices into their own story. One of my favorites was the dichotomy of two scientists–Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), who preached the benefits of agrochemical agriculture, and Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), who foresaw the benefits of organic gardening–and the role that the two World Wars played within the progression (or decline) to modern day farming. They also dig into the feedback loops that are so often overlooked, yet essential to the microbial ecosystem, where fertilizers have reduced the symbiotic relationships between microbes and plant, increasing the plants susceptibility to pests and diseases.
About half-way through the book, the story turns to the couple’s experiences after Anne was diagnosed with cancer and how a change in diet shifted their focus from soil ecology to the ecology within our own digestive tract. Once again, the authors mix personal and historical stories, in this case to illuminate our misunderstanding of human health and our body’s interactions with microbes. More often than not, we humans have assumed all microbes are bad and taken a nuclear approach to wiping them all out. Only recently have we come to realize that the vast majority of microbes within our bodies are beneficial and essential to good health. The authors close this section of the book by noting a recent trend in research to attribute many forms of ill health to “dysbiosis,” an imbalance of commensal microbial populations within our bodies (think of this as a breakdown of the symbiotic relationships between our bodies and microbes).
Overall the book is a fascinating read that is part textbook, part narrative and manages to successfully teach the basics of microbial processes and provide the real world implications for the way we view and work with or against microbes. The book continuously makes the case that we have overlooked long-term health for quick increases in crop yields and cures. But there are signs of hope for change. At almost every point where humans have ignored or scoffed at the beneficial aspects of microbes, it was because scientists couldn’t identify the reasons for the benefits they observed. Recently, however, the fields of agriculture and medicine have begun to identify specific mechanisms that result in a healthy soil and gut. Baring a “Semmelweis reflex” (the rejection of new knowledge that contradicts established beliefs or paradigms, as noted in the book so named for a Hungarian physician who was shunned by colleagues for the notion of washing hands and changing their bloody coats while going between one patient to the next) from the agriculture or medical industries, the notion that a healthy microbial ecosystem leads to a healthy soil and gut may begin to take root.