O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
-from ‘This Compost’, by Walt Whitman
I visited the same field twice. The first time, to watch it being ploughed, and then again a few days later. By the second visit, the soil had baked solid. The clods did not crumble in my hands, but like shale on the beach, could be broken open with enough force, almost snapped. The clay was concreted with small, crushed stones, like muddy granite. Although, if it had been raining over the past few days, the field would be impassably muddy.
I was suspicious of this field when I came to watch the ploughing. The tractor seemed to make a mockery of physical exertion, heaving a foot’s depth of heavy soil as easily as a child scratches the sand with a stick. But despite such an obscene movement of soil, no birds followed to scavenge in the furrows. The farmer seems to have followed all the advice on responsible ploughing, going across the gradient to reduce surface run-off an nutrient leaching, incorporating last season’s stubble to increase the humus content of the soil, and yet the earth is almost dead.
I dug through the crust with my hands, grit becoming painfully engrained under my fingernails. The soil is a dense greyish sediment. After ten minutes of scratching I failed to find a single worm, although when I repeated the experiment closer to the hedge, under the shelter of an overhanging sycamore tree, I finally found one, yellowish and unresponsive. No wonder no birds followed the plough.
Yet as I left the field on the path along the hedge, rubbing my hands together to clear off some of the mud and encourage the blood to circulate, I was surrounded by life. A field mouse was practising acrobatics as it reached for brambles and the seeds of the invasive Japanese knotweed. Blackbirds caused a disproportionate amount of noise and bother foraging in the undergrowth. Ivy flowers were throthing with bees and flies. Despite the threshing they have received by ultra-efficient hedge-cutting, these field boundaries have much more in the way of life in them than the fields. A buzzard called to a rival or a mate in a standard tree at the corner of the field as it quarters its territory. Another speck, high up, almost beyond my sight, is watching me, or the field mouse, as it wheels.
Soil erosion can sometimes be great enough to change the landscape even to the naked eye. Steps form along the boundaries of enclosures, which remain long after the boundaries themselves have been removed. But generally the effects are almost invisible. However with more accurate measuring geologists and soil scientists are able to quantify what any farmer could tell you, that soil erosion increased hugely in the second half of the twentieth century. Even a rambler could tell you that most erosion occurs when the land is prepared for Autumn-sown crops, which have boomed as demand for cereals has increased.
Archaeologists have been able to trace evidence of soil erosion in Britain back to the very first farmers. As soon as Mesolithic man began to clear the woods that covered much of the archipelago 5000 years ago, the soil’s natural ecology changed, and rain began to wash it away. Of course, this was mostly localised and caused very little damage. But as Neolithic man became more sedentary, and then in the Bronze Age and the Iron Age ploughs became more powerful, soil erosion began to increase. In the Roman times, population pressures forced more land to be cleared, and the first Winter wheat was sown. The population crashed in the Dark Ages, and the healing effect on the soil in this period can be traced where a layer of once worked topsoil is buried underneath new compost. It was not until the fifteenth century that the population reached the same level as that of the Romans. The ubiquitous ridge and furrow system extended through much of England, converting grazing into arable land, and woodland was cleared to much the same extent at which it would remain until the 1960s. This was a period of high soil erosion, and rivers were reported to run red-brown with silt in the literature of the time. But as the Black Death caused a second great population crash, and the climate took a cooler turn, much of the medieval arable land reverted to pasture, much of it remaining so ever since. As the period of enclosures got under way, renewed population pressure accompanied a revolution in agricultural technology. Ploughs were improved, as they always had been, but more importantly crop rotation was introduced. Land had been manured since the Roman times, but until this time the primary method of improving land that had lost its fertility was to simply leave it fallow for a few years. Unless it quickly became infested with weeds, this bare land was open to the rain, and eroded quickly when waterlogged in Winter or in Summer thunderstorms. Now crop rotations included a year of leguminous growth, which renitrogenated the soil and helped preserve the soil structure. As well as increasing output, this improvement dramatically reduced the frequency of soil erosion. It was not until quick-releasing artificial fertilizers took off in the twentieth century that this process of crop rotation was superseded, hailing an era of much more intensive agriculture, and a much greater rate of soil erosion.
What this brief history teaches me, is that although our modern industrialisation of agriculture is, as usual, to blame for the this latest and most severe rise in soil erosion, it is not simply a story of modern equals bad. Victorian land improvements were usually (to put it mildly) over-zealous, insensitive to local custom and disrespectful of local knowledge. Especially in Scotland, ‘improvement’ often meant clearances, and the population was forcibly displaced in favour of more profitable sheep. Similar profit-driven acts of dispossession occurred all over the country. And yet for the first time, the serious application of scientific theory onto farming did bring some improvement for the soil. It shows me that there is hope for a method of farming that produces a sustainable high yield whilst leaving a small footprint, and that rational, scientific study can help us achieve it.
It is only through scientific study that we are coming to understand how complex the soil is, how it resembles a living organism much more closely than an inert medium for growing crops in. Small creatures like worms, centipedes, and nematodes condition the soil, and make it possible for micro-organisms, bacteria and protozoa to break down organic matter further into a state that plants can reabsorb it. The application of fertilizers and pesticides disrupts this natural process, making the plants reliant on the chemicals that were designed to supplement their growth. This results in even greater quantities of chemicals being required to maintain a constant yield. The soil’s inveterate population also helps to maintain a soil structure that is more resilient to soil erosion, and one in which the creatures themselves can work more efficiently.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a farmer called James Stevens from West Penwith started to keep a diary. It is a simple but extraordinary glimpse into late Victorian farming practices in Cornwall. Stevens never recorded his thoughts or feelings about events, and entries are usually no more than one or two lines long. There are many similarities with current difficulties in farming, anxiety about who will run the farm when Stevens gets old, new farming technology, and a concern for the amount of people leaving Cornwall. Stevens’ brother left for America when he was a young man, and the two never saw each other again. Stevens worked hard for his living, and did well for himself, moving from Zennor to a bigger farm in Sancreed, where he farmed cattle, but also grew fodder crops such as mangolds to feed the cows in winter, and to keep the land more healthy through crop rotation. Pigs, milk and eggs also contributed to keeping the farm going. His was a type of farming that relied on diversity, if one venture fails, the other make up for the loss. I drove over the Sancreed to see the place Stevens worked, and to see what the soil is like now.
When Stevens moved to Sancreed, taking his household furniture on the back of a cart and driving his animals on foot in a process that took three days, he moved into a recently converted pub. Now there is no sign that the house was ever a pub or a farmhouse, and looks every inch the up-market country dwelling you might see in Country Life magazine. In a small grove between two of Stevens’ fields is one of the many holy wells that are scattered all over the peninsular. I take the path signposted beside the house towards the well. Now, a placard informs me that the well is cared for by the Cornwall Ancient Sites Protection Network. In James’ time, no such network existed, and the holy water was not only used to baptise the farmer’s daughter, but during the Summer was piped into a trough that the cows drank out of. When he was challenged about this by an officious visitor, Stevens was reported to have replied “I can think of few sights as pleasing to my creator as a well-watered herd of cows”. When I turn the final corner through the hedges and embankments to get to the grove, I wonder what he would have made of the sight now. A hawthorn tree stands over the well, every twig garlanded with a token from a visitor. Polyester ribbons, shell necklaces, Buddhist flags, keyrings, Christmas decorations, a pendant from Marie Curie Cancer Care, pipe cleaners, a train seat reservation for the 1550 from Taunton to Penzance.
The well itself is down some steps, in a small, man-made cave. It is very quiet. Not even the neighbouring farmer’s tractor or the angry geese harassing it can be heard down here. Even on this unimportant day in early December, someone has been here before me and lit a tea light. The greens in the well put the faded purple and yellow ribbons on the hawthorn tree to shame. From the dull khaki from where visitors tread on moss, to a glowing emerald fluorescence in the cracks and corners, which I can hardly believe is natural.
As far as I can see, the fields are covered in grass for cattle. The soil is a rich 70% cocoa chocolate where the moles have disturbed it, slowly double-digging beneath the turf. Now the cows are in their barns over winter, being fed hay or silage from local fields, and cereals from further off, so the fields have not been churned up in the wet months. I take a handful of soil excavated by the mole. It is light, crumbles like compost, and smells clean. It leaves barely a trace on my hands after running through my fingers. I don’t want to touch the soil by the field entrances, where the passage of hooves has trodden the it into mud, and nothing has grown. It is sticky and smells of piss.
On the other side of the village are the Penwith Moors, and on the closest hill is the Sancreed Beacon. The moors have not been farmed for thousands of years. Although some cattle have traditionally been grazed on them, the only digging to have gone on here is a brief dalliance in tin mining, which didn’t come to much. Mine shafts are still marked on the map, and danger signs around the entrance to the moor make them seem terrific, but in reality they are now little more than hollows in the ground.
Low gorse, bracken, heather and grass. It is hard to find the soil, let alone dig into to. The tangle of plants seems to get thicker and thicker, until it seems to mat together. If I tear a hole through this, the young peat is little more than half-rotten leaves and interwoven roots. I tear a clump out. Looking closely, it is teaming with insects, eggs, woodlice and larvae. It would be difficult to focus a microscope on such a metropolis of minuscule life. I sit on the beacon with my handful of soil. Far away to the East, beyond St Michael’s Mount, I can glimpse the wink of the Lizard lighthouse. In every other direction the crazy-paving of ancient field systems stretches to the horizon. The soil blows away off my open hand. It is practically dry, and smells like moss. It is a red-brown like the shade beneath bracken in Winter. Close-by, a wren is flitting across the low scrub, and a buzzard wheels overhead.