Re-valuing Biological Diversity

Module Progress:

In this module, we highlight an important article on soil and biological diversity to build on the last module:

Excerpt 1: “Living Soil and Sustainability Education: Linking Pedagogy and Pedology”

by Dilafruz R. Williams and Jonathan D. Brown | from Portland State University

1.Valuing Biocultural Diversity

Soil teaches us that diversity is the essence of life. A single handful of living soil contains many organisms including bacteria, fungi, protozoa,nematodes, arthropods, and all sorts of decaying biomass. Many of the organisms are a mystery and as of yet unknown to scientists. In this light, intriguing questions emerge: How much life is right this moment occurring underneath our feet each day of which we are woefully unaware? How many unknown microorganisms do we disrupt with each step forward, not to mention through industrial activities such as excavation, field plowing, and bull dozing? E.O. Wilson (1994) and others (Kellert, 2005; Maffi,2007) have raised awareness of threats to biological diversity and have pointed out that due to the rate of encroachment by development many species will be lost before they are even found.

Accompanying the reduction of biological diversity is a parallel diminishment of cultural diversity as indigenous peoples are assimilated (often forcibly) into dominant mainstream cultures. As in ecosystem dynamics, often the loss of cultural diversity can trigger a cascading loss of biological diversity, as when medicinal plants known only orally are uprooted as weeds in the wake of language assimilation (Maffi, 2007). Because the dominant language often lacks terms for certain endemic plants or experiences, the loss of language can be as devastating to ecosystems as the intrusion of the bulldozer. With this in mind, the question becomes: how can reverence for soil act as a pathway toward better understanding and balancing biocultural diversity?

Throughout history, soils have defined human societies (Landa & Feller, 2010). Soils are not merely physical places; they are also places of consciousness for indigenous communities (Cajete, 2001, p. 623). Soil diversity is based on climate, related flora and fauna, and human interactions; conversely, soil fertility defines human populations and their food sources. Colors, textures, porosity, inorganic and organic elements of soils result from and interact with the diversity of human cultures. Agrobiodiversity is as much about agricultural and biological diversity as it is about soil and cultural diversity. As Parajuli (2001, p. 584) observes: “naturally diverse regions are also culturally diverse.” To this we add, culture also plays a significant role in enhancing the diversity of pedons (units of soil). Soil diversity and human diversity co-evolve in their interaction with particular places. In order to conserve soil diversity and life, it is therefore imperative to conserve cultural diversity.

Sustainability education, then, must teach about and be embedded in honoring diversity—particularly soil, linguistic and biocultural diversity. As Maffi (2007) explains: Biocultural diversity comprises the diversity of life in all of its manifestations: biological, cultural, and linguistic, which are interrelated (and possibly co-evolved) within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system. …The diversity of life is made up not only of the diversity of plants and animal species, habitats, and ecosystems found on the planet, but also of the diversity of human cultures and languages (p. 269).

 These diversities interact with and affect one another in complex ways; they do not exist in separate and parallel realms, explains Maffi (2007). Furthermore, according to her, it is through mutual adaptation between the environment and humans at the local level—defined by place—that the links among these diversities have developed in a co-evolutionary manner. Living soil, being key to land’s memory and cultural memory, must also be counted in the equation of diversity as value since culture, agriculture, and cultivating the land are all connected in significant ways. Diversity is not only a value of life, it is life.

As a starting point, we offer our earlier articulated understanding of soil as more than merely biological, but as a living entity and macro-context for a diverse human-biotic community. Within this view a teaspoon of soil holds in equal measure cultural memory as biological diversity. Homogenization of human cultures, then, also inevitably results in the biotic homogenization of soil. As a corollary, homogenization of soil leads to the homogenization of cultures. These twin phenomena can be seen in the relentless progression toward fewer and fewer cultivars of major staple crops, such as wheat, rice and corn as well as in the narrowing of the modern diet (Nabhan, 2002). Those varieties best suited to unique soil, climate and cultural conditions have now been or are being subsumed by the corporatization and homogenization of agriculture (Shiva, 1993). We need to learn humility to realize that there is no “technological substitute” for soil (Shiva, 2008).

Beyond the norms of standardization, sustainability requires the flourishing of differences in children and young adults. Engaging children in soil tillage brings them into close contact with biocultural diversity. Often in our experiences in learning gardens we have heard the outpouring of stories relating cultural experiences with soil, food, and place (Anderson, 2009), and have also witnessed students engaging with living soil as a dynamic entity.

Through the growing of food, soil becomes an active interlocutor between culture and ecology (Anderson, 2009; Klindienst, 2007). It is hard to know where one stops and the other begins: they are intertwined like the tendrils of pole beans climbing upon corn in a traditional Three Sisters garden. We can observe and learn from hopeful couplings of culture and ecology, as in the examples of many indigenous communities who found and maintained satisfactory ecological balance points, often mediated by cultural understandings of interconnection and responsible membership in the local soil community (Gadgil & Guha, 1992). For instance, the traditional practice of interplanting corn, squash and beans—known as the Three Sisters—ensures sufficient soil fertility for growing healthy corn. In a Three Sisters garden, sister bean fixes atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, which feeds sister corn, which supports climbing bean, while sister squash sprawls over the soil and acts as a living mulch to hold in soil moisture for all. In fields grown to corn alone, nitrogen is quickly exhausted, and must be subsequently imported in the form of manure, or, today, synthetic ammonia. The Three Sisters garden provides a model of ecologically mindful interplanting that is healthful for both planet and people: soil fertility and complete nutrition are parallel harvests. Within the framework of pedology, then, is the necessity to link human culture to living soil. Such a conception of humanity as part of the soil community—not apart from it—holds promise for moving toward sustainability pedagogy.