Living for the Long Haul: How do people who try to live sustainably relate to the earth?
For those of us striving to live sustainably, learning new methods and approaches can be challenging and even fun.
Alternatively, changing ingrained habits and behaviors is rarely easy and, in some cases, requires that we restructure how we view ourselves and the world around us. As we begin to think about our relationship to the earth, it helps to first examine our basic beliefs about the earth before we begin to embrace and apply more sustainable practices.
I (Doug) grew up on a small farm here in northern Minnesota with the belief that our land was personal property to be used, as we saw “fit,” to make a living. Although I appreciated the beauty of nature, I gave little thought about how my lifestyle affected our 280 acres let alone the impact it had on the larger world. We cleared the land, drained marshes and swamps, and planted fields regardless of the effect we were having on the soil or plant and animal life around us.
Over the years, many farming practices have become even more harmful to the environment. In the 1950s, we farmed small plots of land, rotated crops to maintain soil fertility and used natural organic fertilizers. Today's farming practices tend to intensively grow a single crop year after year, which results in excessive tillage of the land; planting genetically modified seed requires the application of large amounts of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides; and irrigation is also required in many places.
Each of these practices leads to problems for the environment, including: loss of soil organic matter; soil erosion; killing of soil organisms; leaching of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides into streams, lakes and drinking water; depletion of underground water supplies; and species die-off due to loss of habitat and use of harmful chemicals.
Most dramatically, we see these effects as worldwide loss of pollinators and “dead zones” at many river mouths.
Perhaps my first introduction to a new way of viewing the earth was when I first looked at a drop of pond scum under a microscope (an experience I shared with my grandchild in later years). There were literally thousands of different creatures scurrying about performing their daily tasks.
Soil is even more complex in that it has a three-dimensional structure. Undisturbed soil consists of a network of billions of beneficial organisms, including bacteria and fungi, nematodes, arthropods and insects, and, of course, earthworms. Collectively they form a thriving, nutrient-rich, mutually beneficial ecosystem. This complex ecosystem helps soil particles bind together to improve aeration, trap water and promote drainage when needed.
In recent years, the concept of sustainable agriculture has been gaining momentum here in Minnesota and elsewhere. Groups like the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota are applying and teaching sustainable practices to the business of farming. Even those of us who are not farmers can apply some of the concepts of sustainable farming with our gardening, landscaping and lawncare.
These concepts include no-till gardening methods, composting household and yard waste, reducing lawn maintenance by planting flowering and berry-producing trees and perennial flowers as food for birds and pollinator species and eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides in caring for lawns and gardens.
As we turn our attention from soil to the planet itself, we realize the earth is also a web of complex dynamic systems of which we are a small part and where a single change has ripple effects throughout the ecosystem. We are just beginning to understand these complex interactions and how changes we make, impact these ecosystems.
All this information and experience has led some of us to view our role in the world differently. We stand in awe of the wonderful diverse complexity of the earth, accepting that we do not understand the delicate balance of its design and, thus, are not fully able to predict the effects our interventions will have on the earth.
Even though we understand that utilizing some of the earth’s resources is essential to our survival, we know we need to do so with respect, responsibility, long-range thinking and balance. Acting sustainably rejects any act that is destructive to the earth, wasteful of its natural resources or denigrates its natural beauty.
The earth is our home and we must take care of it, not only for ourselves, but for our families, future generations and all life on this planet.
Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann own Balsam Moon in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.