Mud, mud glorious mud

SHE WAS COMING towards us with a broad smile, proffering a plate of golden round buns. She said they were meat pies, as if to explain to the army of muddied helpers – young and old, from all backgrounds – that they were good to eat. 'Piroshky,' I called to my team of friends and volunteers as we crowded around 'Nataschka from Wynnum'. Soon this delicious gift of fragrant, still-warm Russian meat dumplings was gone. We paused, greedily eyeing the nearly empty plate, but Nataschka just laughed and pointed to her husband, standing in the middle of the road we know as The Corso with a trolley of plastic boxes filled with more piroshky.

One friend held back. Chris asked if there were any vegetarian piroshky, but Nataschka had none. This wasn't a new dilemma for Chris, as she had taken a vegetarian pledge forty years ago – so, sadly, her volunteering effort went unrewarded. My dietary resolve was nowhere near as robust, and I accepted sandwiches and barbecued sausages wrapped in blankets of bread as well as the delicious Russian offerings.

My pledge, my mission, is to explain to others by word and example that of all the foods which aren't naturally part of the human diet, cereals top the list – that we are and always will be hunter-gatherers, by anthropological description and dietary evolution. But how do you say no to these piroshky, or the freshly grilled sausages, or the BLT sandwich, when you are tired and hungry? How do you hold to a principle of the mind saying No! when your hungry body craves the closest refuelling? That is the dilemma. It becomes exquisite in its longing when faced with Nataschka's piroshky, or the smell of freshly baked bread, or the light crisp pastry now missing beneath my tarte au citron.

It was 14 January 2011. We were at my house on Brisbane's Corso, Fairfield, a riverfront esplanade just 500 metres downstream from where the Brisbane River first broke its banks in 'the flood that was never going to happen'. I was in the midst of an army of friends and volunteers who had come to sort and wash furniture and things; to gurney, move and shovel tonnes of fine sticky mud from my house and garden terraces back into the river.

Moving the mud back to the river that had couriered it some sixty kilometres from the fertile 'vegetable bowl' that is the Lockyer Valley presented another problem, a huge problem. We were throwing away valuable fertile soil – in a country that Mary White long ago identified as having the shallowest of topsoils – and dumping it in a river already too shallow. I joked about losing my vegetable garden's unofficial organic status and the likelihood of becoming the unwilling producer of GM canola.

Jokes aside, this shovelling and fire-hosing of millions of tonnes of topsoil into a river already seriously compromised under deluge conditions will make a bad situation much worse. But the really wicked problem is not the changes to the river: it is the loss of soil. This soil is valuable – fertile soil is the most valuable commodity on the planet, and it underpins life. Around early primordial water soups, algae and cyanobacteria-rich crusts formed over the tiny, weathered rock particles fixing nitrogen for mycorrhizal bacteria, creating a home for microscopic fungi and then lichens, starting the cycle of life on Earth.

Just as the answer to the trick question 'What is the largest organ in the human body?' is not the lungs or liver but skin, so soil is the earth's epidermis, drawn from ancient rocks and mixed with organic detritus over billions of years to deliver the algae, seaweeds, grasses, trees and shrubs that sustain all creatures. It is this new dawning on the human consciousness – that soil isn't an inanimate object, a convenient carpet protecting us from stubbing our toes on sharp rocks – that has to be factored into all our future decisions of environmental management. Our soil, our earth is alive – or rather, it needs to live if the rest of us are to live.

As EO Wilson, an emeritus professor of ecology at Harvard University, explains, 'Together with the bacteria and other living micro-organisms swimming and settled around the mineral grains of the soil, the ground dwellers are the heart of life on Earth...the entire ground habitat is alive...Earth is the only planet we know that has a biosphere. This thin, membranous layer of life is our only home. It alone is able to maintain the exact environment we ourselves need to stay alive. Most of the organisms of the biosphere, and the vast number of its species, can be found at the surface or just below it. Through their bodies pass the cycles of chemical reactions upon which all life depends.'

To grow vegetables we need at least forty centimetres of living soil. To grow drought– and flood-resistant perennial pastures we need about one metre of soil, and to grow most fruit, nut and forest trees we need many metres of it. Recent calculations estimate that it takes a century to replace thirty millimetres of carbon-rich soil. This puts this fabric of life into the seriously endangered, non-renewable category. When we changed some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago from a purely hunter-gatherer diet to a largely cereal-based one, we changed the face of the planet. The steppes, open woodlands, grasslands, savannahs, prairies were flattened, artificially watered and the soils chemically adjusted under the all-powerful machine that is modern agriculture. This all started before we realised that our soil was a living thing, that the planet's skin needed care and protection just as our own does. We didn't know; we took it for granted and treated it like dirt – something beneath our feet and our contempt.

Now only about 3 per cent of the planet's surface is covered with fertile soil, the result of modern cereal agriculture, which flattens landscapes, removes viable ecosystems and destroys soil chemistry in its global march. The supply of fertile soil has peaked and is now being run down at an alarming rate. We are now in the age of peak soil – and nothing is scarier, for not only is the fertility of soil seriously compromised but, by altering local ecosystems, these farmland soils lose their grip on life.

What we saw in January 2011 was a massive water-driven movement of soil. Tonnes of farming soils no longer kept in place by deep-rooted trees and perennial grasses were being hydraulically shunted to a city that could no longer make use of it. In the momentous floods of the past, the floodwaters swept over soils held in place by trees, shrubs and native grasses.

The difference with this flood was the mud. I lived on the river in 1974 and there was nowhere near the same amount then. The Lockyer Valley, upstream from Brisbane, is one of Australia's key vegetable– and salad-producing regions and, over the past thirty years, more and more of this region has been converted to food horticulture. What chance does a short, soft-rooted lettuce or sweet corn plant have against a wall of water?


BACK AT THE CORSO, watching tonnes of fertile soil being washed into the river or scraped off roads and parklands into trucks heading who knows where, we realised that the problem was how to return it to its previous role of food production. Were I and my neighbours up and down the Brisbane, Bremer and Lockyer riverine zones not here, if there were no suburb called Fairfield – named for its fair fields – if there were no Brisbane, then all that happened in January would have been a massive natural act of soil redistribution, and not soil waste. Now, rather than The Corso looking almost as good as new (after that amazing effort of volunteers, and state and council services), it would be a field covered with an extra twenty to thirty centimetres of very rich alluvium. The landscape would be dark brown with this layer of drying mud, and it would be dotted here and there with green shards: the first shoots of grasses and trees breaking through the cracks. Seeds from the Lockyer Valley and the upper reaches of the river system would come alive and change the local flora, which in turn would attract new fauna. In time, Fairfield would have become more fertile and even fairer, like the farmland it was when it fed the early settlement of Brisbane its meat, dairy and vegetables.

But we got in the way. Should we bring back river dredging? If we do, how do we breathe life into this reclaimed soil? This modern-day mud isn't as glorious as the old-fashioned stuff that Flanders and Swann sang about in their ode to the hippo and the pig. Now it carries a hidden, somewhat toxic legacy of agricultural chemicals mixed with industrial waste and topped off with sewage overflow. This ex-farm soil will need rest and recuperation before it can get back to the job it does best.

So, do we create even bigger dumpsites where these soils are gradually layered with both green and organic waste in a speeded-up facsimile of that original, deep-time soil-producing process? Do we strengthen the resolve of local councils not to let people build on food-producing soil? (Those rich volcanic soils of Redlands through to Sunnybank could have supplied Brisbane with most of its fruits and vegetable needs to this day.) Or do we save the fertile soils across the planet by changing our food choices from the contemporary diet, reliant on soil-destroying cereals, back to our original (and more nourishing) hunter-gatherer one?

The problem of peak soil is of such magnitude that anything which helps keep our soils alive and well and in place or restored must be pursued. For me, that means reducing the cereal-based foods in my diet. For a long time I have been a foodie, an ex-caterer and chef proud of her home-made bread, light-as-a-feather puff pastry, flaky croissants and sweet crisp pâte sablée pastry, posing an exquisite dilemma: how to say no to some of my favourite foods? But the spectre of peak soil is so much greater; there isn't really a dilemma, although I do weaken, just a little...every now and then...especially when offered delicious piroshky in the middle of a natural disaster.

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