As many of you probably know by now, I have a keen interest in land restoration. God has created an amazingly vital, diverse, beautiful and resilient natural world for us to enjoy and learn from, and I want to assist, even if in a small way, to support that natural world to heal and thrive. And there is much healing to do, especially on land like mine that has been severely overgrazed and is now highly eroded and barren.
Before I get to our subject of humus, let me comment about the cause of the devastated condition of my land and soil, and why it is so lacking in life-giving humus. Much of the damage inflicted upon my forty-acre property I have essentially caused myself. For 40 years I have contributed to a great deal of environmental damage as well as to the suffering and killing of animals simply by eating meat.
Yes, I know, we don’t want to imagine that eating meat could possibly be out of harmony with nature or out of harmony with how God would want us to live. This is a huge subject, but for the purpose of this article, let me explain how I essentially destroyed the land I now live on.
Our collective demand for meat is responsible for determining political policies that allow fragile, arid ecosystems like my land in northern Arizona to be exposed to uncontrolled grazing without any consideration for the welfare of our natural lands or even what that might mean for future generations of humans. Arid lands like this are highly susceptible to the overgrazing, erosion, and loss of diversity, water and vitality that occurs when cattle are allowed to graze without restriction. Arizona has an open range policy which means that livestock can roam freely, without restriction; if an owner wants to protect their land, they are responsible for fencing the cattle out.
At least I have the power to choose more loving options in my own life and for land I now have stewardship of. I can eat a vegan diet and do what I can to help restore this land. Every day I have the opportunity to look out upon my land and feel the pain in my heart that the land has been so devastated by unloving choices. I still want to blame others for this, but slowly the truth works its way into my soul—I did this.
Jesus has shared that his personal impact upon land from eating meat (among many other damaging effects) would amount to at least the 40 acres he and Mary live on. He sees the ecological restoration of his property as part of his repentance process for having contributed to this kind of destruction. I didn’t consciously choose degraded land to assist in my repentance process, like he did, but I think it is an interesting synchronicity that I landed on 40 acres that now have the opportunity to repair damage I caused.
Please watch Cowspiracy for insights into the impact of cattle upon our earth. The movie Earthlings can give you some ideas of the harm done to animals. You can also read my friend Courtney Pool’s article on veganism if you want more information on eating vegan and how it relates to our relationship with God. Jesus talks about some of the damage caused by eating animal products at the 2:24:40 mark of the audio: 20091205 Spirit Relationships – Law Of Attraction (you can right click this audio link to download it).
I have always been interested in nature, soils, plants and ecosystems. In college, I majored in Agricultural Education, studied permaculture, and gardened for many years, but there is always more to learn. What great fortune (the Law of Attraction!) that my local community college offers many informative classes in gardening taught by a woman who lives just down the arroyo from my home. In the fall semester she taught a wonderful series of classes called Living Soils, and for one of the classes, she arranged for us to have a very special guest speaker, a man named Michael Martin Meléndrez, to come and speak to us about soils, humus, and land restoration.
As a result of Michael’s visit, I have written two articles that capture what I learned from him. This article focuses on the subject of soil humus (which Michael calls carbon matrix). The second article, Loving the Soil – Part 2: Using Organic Matter Intelligently, is about the use of organic matter in soil building and land restoration.
Michael Meléndrez is the preeminent pioneering expert on rehabilitating soils in the world—the kind of person who makes or breaks an international soils conference. He just happens to live in nearby New Mexico and is good friends with the teacher of my soils class. In October, Michael, his assistant Anna and his daughter Amanda stopped by on their way through Arizona from New Mexico to present at a conference (on oak trees) in California. What an honor it was for our class to have his special attention for several hours—even beyond normal class time. I recorded the event on video and have included the formal part of his presentation at the end of this article. [I apologize, but the video had to be removed due to proprietary issues.]
One of Michael Meléndrez’s greatest contributions to soil science is that he made some revolutionary discoveries about soil humus. Many of us know that the presence of and creation of soil humus is the key to rich, dark, healthy, stable, nutrient-dense and water-efficient soil because it makes nutrients and water available to plants and holds them in supply until needed. These are really important capabilities especially in arid or depleted environments. But it turns out that there is a lot more to humus than I previously realized.
In 2008, National Geographic Magazine published an article about the seemingly miraculous soils in the Amazon: “Superdirt Made Lost Amazon Cities Possible” (http://carbon-negative.us/docs/AmazonSuperdirt.pdf). The article was about some very special soils called Terra Preta or “Dark Earth” where the ancient Amazonians had grown their crops for thousands of years, yet the soils did not decline in quality. Scientists believed that the longevity of the soils had to do with the rich and stable humus found in the area, but how that humus could remain vital and not be depleted for thousands of years of production was not known. Some postulated that it was the use of biochar that allowed these soils to remain so fertile for so long.
Michael Meléndrez found that it was not biochar responsible for this highly productive and stable soil, but rather how the ancients were working with the humus, feeding it and spreading it, that created this long-lasting rich soil. Michael discovered the science behind this successful cultivation of humus. It turns out that humus, which he calls carbon matrix, is a very active molecule that is electrically charged. It intelligently interacts with the soil and environment around it. Not only is it incredibly stable, but when treated correctly, can grow and replicate itself very rapidly.
Previous to Michael’s work, science had believed that it took as much as a thousand years for nature to create an inch of true humus-rich soil, and that was assuming there was an ecosystem already in place to provide the plant roots, organic matter and moisture for it to develop. Gardeners can also create humus-rich composts and soils if they follow careful protocols and make sure all the necessary components are continuously maintained. But these are all time and energy intensive systems.
Michael, on the other hand, has discovered how to jump-start the process of creating and maintaining the active carbon matrix/humus complex by developing an inoculant that can be added to any soil. Once the carbon matrix/humus complex is established in soils, it becomes an intelligent, interactive soil manager. It helps to regulate moisture, oxygen and minerals, helping to create optimal conditions for plants.
Michael founded a company called Soil Secrets through which he offers his unique carbon matrix/humus inoculant, called Terra Pro, to the public. He also offers a number of other essential soil-building inoculants and supplements that greatly benefit the health of soils and crops, such as specialized bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi.
Beneficial bacteria are well-known in their ability to associate with the roots of plants in the legume family to help fix the all-important nitrogen in soils. But bacteria actually play many important rolls. They can take minerals that are present in soils but unavailable to plants (due to the form of the mineral) and transform them into solutions that plants can absorb. Specialized bacteria can also help break down toxic chemicals in soils. Having the right bacteria available for a particular location and plant population can make all the difference between life and death of that ecosystem.
Fungi too play many beneficial roles in soil building, mostly to break down woody plant material and turn it into quality soil and food for other organisms (including people who love to eat mushrooms!). One type of fungi in particular is gaining recognition in agriculture and land restoration circles: mycorrhizal fungi. These are specialized fungi that create mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationships with host plants and trees by attaching themselves to the roots of the host. They greatly enhance a plants ability to access food and water because these fungi form vast scavenging networks in the soil (typically increasing the absorptive surface area 10x that of a plant’s own roots) and can move those resources to plants and trees in need through connections of mycelial webs that run for thousands of miles within the soil. My favorite book on this fascinating subject is: Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets. I read Paul’s book and listen to Michael discuss his research and I wonder at the sublime creativity, intelligence and care of our Creator.
I have listened to lectures by other top soil scientists who are also having success in rejuvenating soils and restoring healthy ecosystems. But these scientists use systems that require extensive training programs, on-site consultations, data collection and analysis, complicated methodology, and the resulting high price tags that go with all that work. These systems do work, but they are not as elegant and efficient as Michael’s because they analyze, measure and add isolated components of the soil in an attempt to balance them out as a whole instead of maximizing the use of interactive organisms and structures like carbon matrix which can do the management for us. Like so many things in life, once we understand more deeply how God’s creations work – like the dynamic soil humus/carbon matrix – we can collaborate with them for much greater efficiency.
The discovery of how to replicate soil humus molecules is something that could benefit the whole world if it was shared freely. Unfortunately, in our current fear-based economy, that knowledge is considered proprietary information and kept secret for the sake of profit, even if, as in Michael’s case, the profit is modest and appears to just keep the company afloat. If we lived in a loving world, where all of our essential needs were met, and where people shared information and skills freely and joyfully, it would be a different story. I have mentioned before about Jesus’s suggestion that a gifting economy is the only truly loving economic system. Someday, perhaps human beings will evolve to that point, but it is certainly not the case now. I believe the issue is a matter of faith. We currently put our faith in money, greed, and survival, whereas if we put faith in love—the loving development of our souls, following our loving passions, caring for the environment, and sharing all knowledge, we would always have a better outcome in the long run. Unfortunately, we earthlings are very focused on the here and now, and rarely consider long-term gains.
But back to soils. Even though the technology of creating soil humus is not shared freely at this time, at least it is available. I am glad I am aware of it and can use it on my property.
Here is a snapshot of the soil-building products offered by Michael’s company, Soil Secrets:
These products are helpful tools, but they will not heal soil by themselves. Other essential life elements must be available for the beneficial organisms and carbon matrix (humus) to interact with: moisture, air (oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide), organic matter, and plant roots (and sunlight for the plants). When all these components are brought together and available consistently (without being stressed by the use of poisons or inappropriate agricultural practices), then nature’s intelligence can really take over, to continue expanding and growing its wonderful systems.
Personally, I want to help nature as much and as efficiently as I can in restoring land to a healthy system. Now that I understand more how the Soil Secret products work, and how efficient they are, I plant to incorporate them more into my land restoration program.
Another aspect I really like about Michael’s products is that they do not require – nor do they even recommend – the use of animal or bird manures to feed soils. For a vegan like me, that is great news. Almost every other soil-healing or soil-producing method requires some form of animal-based manure. Michael’s assistant, Anna, explained that not only are manures not necessary, but they often contain numerous toxins and pathogens that are dangerous to the soil and all the plants, trees, animals and people who rely on that soil. Animal manures often also contain stress hormones that will also negatively affect other living things. Manures combined with carbon sources can also cause excess heat which can actually burn off nutrients and send carbon into the atmosphere as CO2, which we don’t want.
On the other hand, all the nutrients needed that are normally obtained from manure can be obtained from quality worm castings from worms that are fed quality vegetation. Not only are worm castings free of toxins and pathogens, there are no known human pathogens that can survive the digestive system of an earth worm! The common red wriggler compost worms (Eisenia fetida) actually eliminates pathogens from the soil. Awesome.
When I moved from California to Arizona in 2016, I brought with me a small bucket of red wiggler compost worms with me. They were from my mom’s outdoor worm bin that she has kept active for many years – some very healthy specimens bringing a bit of California soil biota with them. I kept them in the bucket and fed them food scraps and paper for several weeks until I found my property. Now they are everywhere in my garden as well as other areas I have mulched.
In the second half of this 2-part series, Loving the Soil – Part 2: Using Organic Matter Intelligently, I give special attention to the use of organic matter in soil restoration, because, other than the insights into the carbon matrix/humus complex, this is where I learned the most from Michael’s presentation.