walking dead

You know the Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who: Big-eared elephant hears a voice call out from a speck of dirt, discovers a whole city of Whos living on the speck; small-eared jungle critters don’t believe Horton; fight breaks out threatening to destroy Whoville; desperate Whos yell all at once; jungle critters hear their cry; Whoville is saved.

I’ve discovered a real-life Horton: mycologist—a.k.a. mushroom geek—Paul Stamets. He’s had his ear to the soil for decades, and he says the darndest things about what’s in there. (And the amount of stuff in there is almost unbelieveable: every fistfull of healthy soil contains at least 7.5 billion living Whos.)

According to Stamets, “Forty percent of the biomass of soil is fungal.” Fungus is, I think, also known as mycelium (the stringy mother of mushrooms), and Mr. Stamets says it can save the world. He’s serious, and after a very short time listening to him talk, I’m all in. If you don’t believe me, click here.

“It is estimated that there may be anything from 700,000 to 5 million species of fungi in the world. Even using the most widely cited estimate of 1.5 million, this makes fungi more than six times as diverse as flowering plants. Yet only about 100,000 species have so far been described,” he says. “Mycelium is earth’s natural internet. Mycorrhizal fungi give plants the ability to fight off disease. Plants do not grow well without inoculation with mycorrhizal fungi. Fungi are the grand recyclers of the planet and the vanguard species in habitat restoration.” He goes on like this for a long time (especially if you dawdle on YouTube and continue to click the Stamets links).

This is news to me. I mean, I’ve known that soil is made up of dirty brown stuff and other elements like carbon and phosphorus and nitrogen, and is full of bugs, worms and bacteria, but it turns out the most important soil resident is a hyperactive, fungal, alien life form that plants can’t do without, and most varieties of which we have yet to identify, much less understand. Many small-eared captains of U.S. chemical agriculture handicap this underworld life with the brute force of 130 million pounds of pesticides and herbicides every year.

Which brings me to another Horton.

Henry A. Wallace, United States Secretary of Agriculture from 1933-1940 (think, dust bowl and FDR), wrote about soil in language that sounds more like today’s tree-huggers than it does a mid-century Republican bureaucrat. (Wallace was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s three republican cabinet appointees.)

Here are a few lines from his foreword to the 1938 USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, Soils and Men:

THE EARTH is the mother of us all—plants, animals, and men. The phosphorus and calcium of the earth build our skeletons and nervous systems. Everything else our bodies need except air and sun comes from the earth.

Nature treats the earth kindly. Man treats her harshly. He overplows the cropland, overgrazes the pastureland, and overcuts the timberland. He destroys millions of acres completely. He pours fertility year after year into the cities, which in turn pour what they do not use down the sewers into the rivers and the ocean. …

The social lesson of soil waste is that no man has the right to destroy soil even if he does own it in fee simple. The soil requires a duty of man which we have been slow to recognize.

During our country’s first darkest hour of soil abuse, when we could no longer ignore our guilt in the matter, here was this powerful man* in Washington who understood fertile soil to be the most valuable possession of our maturing country. Writing in what amounted to the nation’s foremost agricultural bible, he said that we were screwing it up with rapacious agriculture.

We had hacked the American plains and zapped its ancient grassy biome—the soil’s very life. Which is to say, our very mother, according to Wallace. He warned us 77 years ago to take it easy on Mom or go the way of the Romans.

I hate to say it, but I don’t think we listened very closely, although it’s easy to believe we did. Just witness the acres of brightly-boxed foods in every big-box grocery store from coast to coast. Sure looks like agriculture is working just fine. It is producing a lot of pretty, cheap food, that’s for sure.

Since Wallace wrote his scold during the depths of the Depression, a lot of biotechnology has sprouted to save us from ourselves. Science has become our great hope, with good reason. It has provided a lot of of us with a life of plenty. Whenever we’ve faced a big problem, we’ve turned to science to solve it: polio, A-bomb, man on the moon, breadbasket to the world, and on and on.

The profit motive is the flipside of our great hope. Someone, somewhere will solve the big problem, because that solution offers such rich reward to the solver.

But I see a great riddle in this, especially when it comes to agriculture: How do we tinker with the science-plenty-profit continuum in order that our soil—and all its countless Whos—always gets the biggest share of the riches?

Where do I go for that answer?

What if I listen to my newfound Hortons and try something new this year?

On the most spectacular spring day I can find, when the sun has warmed my winter-battered heart, and a breeze lifts its delicious annual aroma of thawed soil, I’ll walk far out into a farm field and lay down, even if I don’t “own it in fee simple.” I’ll just lie there on my back, close my eyes and wait. As the rattling arms of the sprayer bear down, I won’t move. I will let its generous rains soak me. I’ll breathe in that funny taste of poison.

After it’s gone, I’ll roll over to face the earth and whisper through cupped hands as if into my mother’s ear. I’ll ask her if she can hear me, and whether she’s feeling better, richer.

I will feel dumb, but I’ll have to wait for my answer—even after I grow very tired and hungry—until I’m sure she has nothing left to say.



*As circumstances worked out, Wallace missed the presidency of our country by a mere 82 days when he was replaced by Harry Truman as vice president just that near to FDR’s death.