Author Didi Pershouse Discusses “Climate, Water, Soil and Hope”

Sustainable Woodstock is teaming up with BALE and Barnard food activists to host a presentation by Didi Pershouse on the multiple benefits of healthy soil next Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at Barnard Town Hall.

Representing the Soil Carbon Coalition, Pershouse has been touring holistically managed farms and ranches to monitor changes in soil health (and its impact on water flows), teaching at agricultural research stations in northern Alberta, and learning from “carbon farmers” in Saskatchewan, Colorado, Kansas, and Vermont.

“When we talk about soil carbon,” she says, “we are really talking about soil life. The carbon-based microorganisms in the soil, if they have good plant cover and are undisturbed, naturally work as a community to form a sponge that will hold water and solubilize nutrients to make them available to plants and to everything that eats the plants.”

Pershouse, who has practiced acupuncture for more than twenty years at her Center for Sustainable Medicine in Thetford, is trying to connect the dots between human health, the microbiome, soil carbon, and the climate. Recently, she has been thinking that “it’s really not about sustainability, it’s about relationships.”

In her new book The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money…and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities, Pershouse proposes “a shift from what I call a ‘sterile’ model of care that kills off what we don’t want, to a ‘fertile’ model of care, that supports the work of communities on every level–from the microbiome of our guts, to soil microorganisms and their role in climate change, to human communities.”

During the “dust bowl” of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that “a nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself,” and Congress established the Soil Conservation Service. But, says Pershouse, the increasing use of chemicals in agriculture changed its approach. “The natural ecology of soils was no longer the focus. The focus was on products, not processes. This has huge parallels to what happened in medicine during that same period: Profits and products were the driving force behind the destruction of our inner and outer landscapes.”

Pershouse aims to show that by working with the intelligence of complex self-organizing systems we can reorient ourselves toward collaboration with nature. Her work demonstrates that soil restoration can help to draw down atmospheric carbon while also addressing water issues like flooding, drought, runoff, and shortages.

She is also working with scientists, teachers, and students to develop a hands-on educational program that provides a whole-systems view of landscape function. Several schools in the Upper Valley, including Hartford, Rivendell and Mascoma Valley high schools, are participating in the project.

Students are emerging as leaders in this work. After just two weeks of involvement in the program, two of them gave a presentation to an international audience at the “Restoring Water Cycles to Reverse Global Warming” conference at Tufts University. “You wouldn’t believe how excited the scientists and soil health leaders were to hear two students explaining some of the key concepts they had been trying to get across,” Pershouse says.

The non-profit Soil Carbon Coalition is measuring increases in soil carbon, water infiltration rates, biodiversity, and plant cover at nearly 300 sites around North America. Its Soil Carbon Challenge is an international competition to see how quickly innovative land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into productive water-holding soil carbon.

The organization is hoping to raise $100,000 in the next year for trainings and learning materials to grow local leadership in the soil restoration movement. See soilcarboncoalition.org/learning-resources for details.

Pershouse’s talk is not just for farmers; the vital connections between soil, food, health, and climate should be of interest to all of us.

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