Earthworms, Charcoal, Flows and Stocks

Earthworms and charcoal are made for each other.

Here’s the thought I had yesterday about gardening in and regenerating an American temperate forest:

Anyone who has been to a party with me has probably heard my invasive species rant (i.e., how the term ‘invasive species’ is almost meaningless, has its roots in a fundamental error in how we think about systems and change, etc.). It was somehow still new to me when someone, in a well-meaning but misguided anti-invasive discussion that I decided to diplomatically stay quiet through brought up our beloved earthworms with the same accusational tone people use for kudzu or Japanese honeysuckle. Earthworms?

Ever since I began gardening, I saw earthworms in the soil as a sign of life, health, vitality. If there were earthworms, the soil had enough for them to eat and enough moisture for them to survive and was in turn being continually improved by their subterranean livelihoods. If I improved soil, more earthworms came; and then the soil continued to improve. Earthworms aerate compacted clay soils and gently mix and move the layers of soil to help communication between them and aid plants and other soil organisms in accessing what they need. Earthworm castings are rightfully seen as gardener’s gold, having not just essential nutrients in abundant available forms, but helpful plant growth hormones. Earthworm vermiculture bins turn kitchen scraps into choice concentrated plant food faster than any method of decomposition I’ve worked with.

All of these benefits are possible because earthworms rapidly break down decaying organic matter – and this, in invasion biology, is the root of the complaint. Earthworms were all over North America before the ice age and remained in the south after it but were wiped out by it in latitudes above 45 degrees. ‘Invasive’ earthworms came over again from Europe and Asia in the 18th century (that recently! …and that long ago) and there was likely nothing that decomposed decaying organic matter as quickly as they did. Both ‘native’ and ‘invasive’ earthworms are migrating north with climate change and the efficient ‘invasive’ earthworms also play a transformative role in southern temperate forests. The entire rate of decay, and therefore the whole process of nutrient cycling in temperate forests, and therefore temperate forests themselves which in one sense are nothing more than these cycles of stocks and flows, would have been very different before the movement of these earthworms came over. Earthworms changed and continue to change the forest dramatically.

What is or was your first response to this knowledge? Are you wondering if we should try to get rid of the earthworm? Or do you feel like I do – fear in your chest that someday corporate-sponsored ecologists will be trying to genetically modify earthworms into sterility to “restore” the dream of an old ecosystem? Do you feel a crying out to stop the spraying, the gene splicing, the rejection of new organisms, of immigrants, in favor of a dream of the old, the idea of Make the New World Forests Great Again like they used to be?

* * *

In Permaculture the Problem is the Solution. 

Earthworms, when viewed as a problem, do this: 

Relative to the conditions temperate forest species lived in before they arrived, they accelerate the breakdown of decaying organic matter, spreading it into the soil and making the nutrients more immediately available.

This is a problem because many of the northern forest ecosystems were more recently adapted to conditions of lots of accumulated decaying organic matter. Nothing broke the forest litter down so rapidly so species would make use of that slow breakdown to gradually feed their root systems, provide a long-lasting mulch, house lots of insect life, and so on. Worse yet, when nutrients are released from the system’s stock or storage of a resource into the flow or movement of a resource and lack enough plant life / root life / soil organic matter to sufficiently take up the flows back into stocks in the form of plant bodies, the nutrient flows leave the system and end up in bodies of water that carry them away, thus impoverishing the forest of essential nutrients. This becomes a ‘spiral of erosion’ in Permaculture terms or a ‘positive feedback loop’ in systems dynamics, leading to less overall and less diverse plant life which then has even less ability to catch the nutrients made available by earthworms, thus leading to more loss of nutrients, and so on – or it can be explained like this:

Earthworms rapidly breakdown organic matter -> plants dependent on slow breakdown and leaf litter die off -> there is less plant life to catch nutrients -> nutrients leach out -> plants die off -> earthworms breakdown the organic matter -> …..

…and so in this scenario, what would being a friend of the earth look like? If you cherish these northern forest ecosystems, what would you do?

* * *

Earthworms, when viewed as a solution:

Relative to the conditions temperate forest species lived in before they arrived, they accelerate the breakdown of decaying organic matter, spreading it into the soil and making the nutrients more immediately available.

This is a solution because it means there is an abundantly available flow of life-essential nutrients. In this time where our top soils have been massively depleted by industrial farming, we have an ally available who can hypercharge the decomposition process, speeding up the release of organic matter for the life around it. This is a condition we work hard to simulate with our compost piles, worm bins, cover crops, and in a sense, tilling (although in tilling’s case, it leads to soil death and nutrient loss since there is nothing to catch the suddenly available flow). If there are plants with roots at all depths and good soil organic matter to catch the rapidly made available nutrients, then we can create what in Permaculture terms is a ‘spiral of abundance’ from this. The spiral, or positive feedback loop, would look like this:

Plants release organic matter to the forest floor -> earthworms create rapid decay and available nutrients and increase soil organic matter -> plants grow more in response to the available nutrients, plant growth hormones, and soil organic matter -> plants release more organic matter to the forest floor -> earthworms create rapid decay….  additionally, through the accelerated plant growth, we get more carbon sequestration in plant bodies and in the soil organic matter, which means we’re taking more carbon out of the atmosphere while increasing our future ability to take even more carbon out of the atmosphere.

…and so in this scenario, what would being a friend of the earth look like? If you cherish these northern forest ecosystems, what would you do?

* * *

Which of these two stories are true? Do earthworms lead to a net nutrient loss from the system and eventual forest collapse or a super-abundant accumulation of forest life and thriving nutrient-rich soil and forest?

* * *

It is true that many of our industry-abused forests and fields already do not have the ability to keep the nutrients they have within the system. Rains flooding the nutrients freed up by mass-die off of soil life in a newly tilled field, high-grading of the healthiest trees from a forest or cyclical clear cuts that turn forests temporarily to deserts that leach nutrients for lack of roots to hold them, pine monocultures that destroy forest ecology, forests struggling to adapt to climate change – our ecosystems are already suffering. Earthworms, as part of a system that already cannot absorb its nutrient flows, increase the speed of these nutrient flows. In this context, the additional nutrient flows can be a problem.

In the absence of earthworms, we would still be facing the problem of nutrient leaks from the system. As with all invasion biology thinking, we are perpetuating a perception error with tragic consequences when we blame a species that cannot speak for itself rather than question the industrial growth economy’s continual extraction and abuse of these systems as a whole. Remove earthworms and the process will still occur. The forest is kept out of balance by our constant over-exploitation of it and insistence on maintaining it in life-deprived monocultures, clear cuts, and false ideas of restored wilderness based on an unrealistic idea of what the forests once were. In most American ecosystems, the context itself is one of damage, fragility, and loss.

As Permaculturists, our true hearts’ work is the tending of the wild – the wild in the forest, the wild in the field, the wild in ourselves. What does it mean to tend the wild in this case? How do earthworms fit into this sacred work?

Catch and Store Energy

Given the reality that our industry-wounded forests are struggling to keep the nutrients they have and that the earthworm is making even more nutrients that cannot be caught available, how do we work with this reality to regenerate the wild and provide for ourselves and all beings?

Most of my friends will be sick of hearing this answer by now, but:  CHARCOAL!!!!  yep, of course I am once again going there. But hear me out –

Forest-made charcoal is ideally suited to turn the earthworm into a net gain for the entire forest ecosystem.

In forest ecosystems where earthworms create an unusable abundance of nutrient flows, trees mostly continue to thrive because of their ability to pull up nutrients from the deep levels of soil. Trees then create woody biomass in abundance. Woody biomass, as part of good forest tending practices (especially including coppice agroforestry), can be selectively thinned for charcoal production.

Charcoal added to the soil is the perfect stock. Charcoal has a remarkable ability to take up nutrients. Its slow breakdown makes it a long-term buffer or battery for excess flows. In times of excess nutrient flows, charcoal-rich soil, along with soil organisms and plant roots at many depths, can hold the nutrients. They then became available for slow release over time during times of relative nutrient scarcity.

When forests are too depleted of life and diversity to have sufficient root networks to uptake the overabundance of nutrient flows made available by earthworm rapid decay, charcoal can be the battery to catch-and-store these flows.

As a result, charcoal in the soil can accumulate what is needed to turn a spiral of erosion into a spiral of abundance. The herbaceous plants of the forest floor that need those earthworm-freed resources to stick around long enough for them to use can access them, in partnership with symbiotic mycelial networks, from charcoal.

A human-implemented small-scale charcoal-earthworm tending strategy has the potential to hypercharge the growth of life-supporting soil organic matter while keeping the vital flows from leaving the system.

This could be the basis in our Piedmont region and others of an accelerated regeneration for our top soil and ecosystems that would not be available without the ‘invasive’ and other earthworms.

Now when I see an earthworm, my wonder is increased: this being that was not here offers an opportunity for more rapid regeneration of our soils and therefore all life than we would have without it. The difference between the spiral of abundance and the spiral of erosion here is once again loving and skillful human intervention. To find the way to the right intervention, we must again learn to drop enemy mind, problem mind, bad species mind. We must again learn to see the radiant dance of stillness and movement, stock and flow, that all plant animal and fungal life trace the shape of.

* * *

Bill Mollison reminds us: a tree is an explosion. The ecstatic branching magic of a tree’s yearning is the story of nutrients racing out from a center towards the sky and the center of the earth. Everything alive is a dynamic explosion of material and energetic gradients. The seed of a tree falling on the forest floor is like an answer to the prayer of the patient accumulated nutrients, hoping to discharge themselves up down and out through space and time to express the joy in having gathered together, having something to offer, having life.

Therefore, another way to think of humans tending the wild – we are slow explosions learning to slow down other slow explosions.

Professional explosion slower. This will be my new title on the business card I give to officious squirrels questioning my credentials.

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