Sunday Nature Call, uke 46: Black Gold

Sunday Nature Call, uke 46: Black Gold; Or, Wealth that Lasts

Cooler now in Oslo, many mornings the paths greet my feet with a subtle layer of ice. I am learning to walk more purposely here, always be ready to fall. Snow has alluded Norway, much to the disappointment of Ola and Kari Nordmann. Late autumn is a resentful time in Norway: cold, dark, and damp. At least with snow a person can hit the trails. Snow amplifies the light from both sun and stars and make the nights less foreboding. I’m rooting for snow.

New birds:

none (19)

Black Gold: Or, Wealth that Lasts

There is a universe beneath our feet. Underfoot is a world unexplored and largely uncharted, our Moon has fewer secrets. The mystery has a simple name: soil. If you eat, then you rely on soil for your life. As typical of human behavior, we disregard or dismiss the truly important things. We have even tied the word soil with a disparaging verb, “you soiled your shirt, now it’s ruined!” How do other languages treat soil?

The oil production that made Norway rich has a date of expiration. Estimates for the cessation of functional hydrocarbon exportation suggest the year 2030, maybe 2040. The specific year or even decade of extinction isn’t important. What is important is that the oil industry will end and likely within the lifetime of many Norwegians. Then what?

Oil fields are supposed to be used up. The word “exploitation” is used purposely and fittingly. And after the oil ends Norwegians will still need to eat. It is impossible for Norway to feed itself, and a pipe dream to think so. But Norway must use the land it does have to feed as many people as it can. The old soils will be tasked with the serious and timeless work to produce food for people and livestock. Will the soil be able?

Iowa Topsoil monuments: Depths 1850-2000. Photo, Christopher Gannon

Iowa Topsoil monuments: Depths 1850-2000. Photo, Christopher Gannon

The settlers who traveled to the prairies of the American Midwest came for the soil, the abundant, fertile, and almost free soil. Scenery was not on their list of wants or needs. And in the course of a couple of generations, those hardworking migrants and immigrants turned an ocean of grass into an ocean of grains. They fed themselves, a region, and a world. That remarkable productivity came from the soil.

In retrospect is it no surprise the settlers, and especially their progeny went beyond using the soil for production to exploiting the soil for production. Industrial tools were handmaidens to the belief that this way of life, this way of farming could go on forever. But Mother Nature teaches harsh lessons to the myopic.

The vast oyster beds in New York Harbor died and threatened to starve a city. The epic White Pineries of the western Great Lake States were leveled in 40 years by hand tools. Passenger Pigeons were an inexhaustible source of meat until they were no more. I could go on.

The droughts of the 1930’s manifest the Dust Bowl, thee example of soil mistreatment. But I think soil is actually about the future. Sure, it is made up of ancient materials by ancient means but what soil does is provide a future…as long as you treat it kindly.

Farms near Lunner, Oppland

Farmland near Lunner, Oppland

I have seen a lot of the farmland that exists in Norway, much of it reminds me of my western Wisconsin boyhood. I was told by a teacher in Gran (Oppland Fylke) that she has visited almost every American state, but not Wisconsin. I asked her why, it seemed like an impossible statement to me and my question must have come across as hurt and desperate. “Oh,” she replied, I think sensing my surprise, “I do want to visit Wisconsin, but I have seen the pictures and it looks too much like here.”

The fields of Norway that produced potatoes, rye, and oats have transformed. From my arrival in August, the cereal gains were already ripening, they were all teaming with life. Now, those same fields are ugly open sores to my eyes.

fields near Vestby, Østfold

fields near Vestby, Østfold

An American farmer in the Midwest with any sense of pride or decently would retill his fields following the fall harvest; of course he did, “Everybody does it.” But why, from where was that practice born? In Norway they retill the fields. I suspect they do as well in Sweden, and Germany, and France. I suspect fall field work was just another cultural migrant.

No-till, low-till, and cover crops are some of the practices that have caught on in America to staunch the loss of our topsoil. A harvested cornfield that winks with green before the snow falls is a beautiful thing. Cropland on the prairie that announces spring with fall planted shoots is a triumph of longitudinal thinking. I haven’t seen any such practice here. Of course it’s possible I have missed it, someone tell me where it is.

I used to think a field of well-turned earth was a sign of a job well done. It was a testament to mechanical prowess. It was a monument for the winter that, “man is here, acknowledge his capabilities,” Now I see pain. The integral skin the soil needs is gone, how it must suffer. Imagine if it could scream.

Rob Hogg TweetIn Iowa people like Senator Rob Hogg and Columnist Todd Dorman have been stalwarts for soil. The Aldo Leopold Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University does research and education on the need to protect the world beneath our feet. To me it seems so clear an imperative.

Dorman columnYet, in Iowa we are betraying the gift of soil. We are still exploiting the soil, our laws continue to treat soil like dirt. For example, something as simple as requiring developers to put back at least some of the topsoil they scrape away as they prepare sites for home and commercial building has been a political bridge too far. It seems impossible but it’s true.

When will the soil of Iowa lose its viability, 2030, 2040? There will be no oil to turn to for Iowans. When the Norwegians are forced to rely on their soils for survival will they be able?

Vapor tries to rise from a Royal field at Bygdøy (Filtered photograph).

Vapor tries to rise from a Royal field at Bygdøy (Filtered photograph).

Looking ahead, looking up, and keeping my pencil sharp. -jlh

2 responses

  1. This is a very interesting read! Although my parents didn’t farm, both my maternal and paternal grandparents were farmers, as were the generations before them. My Grandpa Olson was especially keen on taking great care to not overuse his land, animals or equipment and always seemed so wise in his respect for all. It comes as no surprise for me to proclaim that I don’t really understand how things work on our big farm. I’ve always figured it best to keep my nose out of the day-to-day decisions, but have often wondered what my grandfathers (and your Grandpa Lawrence) would think about the way we do things now.


    1. What an interesting back-in-time interview that would be. I think they would be amazed my the machinery and technology but they would be shocked about the pace of the “business.” But machinery and pace go together. I bet they would be pretty proud though of how everyone’s hard work has turned out.


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