Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

Topsoil and Civilization

This should be a view across the lake to the Kettle Range

In a lot of ways, August was a rerun of July. The sky is gray with smoke, the sun sets and rises as a bright red ball. We check every day for new fires and what is going on with the old ones. We are about to break a 1917 record for days over 90 degrees, 39 that has not been broken for 100 years.

Baco Noir behind bird netting.

All of this heat is bringing the grape crop to ripeness very soon. We will be cutting back on days at the Farmer’s Market to just Wednesdays and not Saturdays. The market was especially good over Labor Day with tourists and our new display of ribbons won for wine at the Northeast Washington Fair. They included Grand Champion and Judges Choice for our Old Vine

Ribbons from the Fair

Lucie Kuhlmann. Our new line of mini-bottles has been popular but they do become “just one more thing” in preparing for each market day.

The visitors keep on coming especially if you include some for wine tastings and others for work projects. We had a fun evening on August 14th delivering wine to friends in a houseboat in the bay below us. Our neighbors got together at Bradbury Beach with visiting children and grandchildren including our daughter April with our grandson, James.

Old friend Jim Kline and new friend Katrina Yost Cometa.

Progress was also made when Cheryl flew to Seattle and returned with a gift car from my father (Thanks Dad!). It is the only car we have that was made in this century. Our 1984 VW Van has all of its major issues fixed. We even washed it! Then ash fell on everything. The crushing pad now has a greenhouse cover and is ready to receive grapes. So at the homestead level, things are groovy.

2000 Corolla

But earlier this month, on the advice of my old schoolmate, Mike Klungness, I downloaded and have been reading Topsoil and Civilization, a book written in 1950 by Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter. I have often wondered why histories of the world don’t include accounts of farming and changes in agriculture. You have all of these armies and emperors besting each other, marvelous cities being built, destroyed and rebuilt etc. but no food mentioned. This book changes all of that and pretty much dismisses accounts of anything but agriculture. The continuing theme of the book as it accounts the rise and fall of one civilization after another is “civilized man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints.”

The scenario is consistent. Civilizations don’t last more than 70 generations. Agriculture is necessary to provide food for the “civilized” class of artisans, armies, priests, construction workers and architects who build cities and empires. Fertile plains provide the initial bounty and irrigation is often key to increasing it. As the population expands, it demands more than the plains can provide. What turns into a fatal mistake is cutting down the forests and cultivating the hillsides. Animals only compound the problem. The organic matter and silt erode into the streams and fill the irrigation canals. Even when cleaned – mostly by slaves- the irrigation canals become sunken water ways between mounds of silt.

Facing depleted fields, cultures either capture more land or trade for more food. Initially they could rebound from losses to foreign invaders by relying on their own resources. But once over-extended, any loss of trade or control of other lands leads to a downward spiral of weakness, disease and starvation. The book points out how virtually every country in the Mediterranean and Middle East once supported populations many times the size of the present day. The cedars of Lebanon, are represented today by 18 small groves surrounded by barren hillsides.

375 Cedars of Lebanon, some 400 years old

Mechanization and agrochemicals have only hastened the loss of native nutrients, ground water and organic matter that should be trapping carbon. Although the book pre-dates awareness of ecology and greenhouse gasses, the intractable destruction of topsoil, the source of healthy food, is clearly spelled out as the biggest threat to mankind’s long-term survival. We have become more aware of this threat and done some more conservation in the

Modern Agriculture

last 67 years, but chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides coupled with the constant mechanical disruption of the soil and extraction of organic matter (food and feed) to cities or feed lots hours or days away will not heal the soil and is destroying the oceans. There is a huge “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi where there should be a thriving ecology.

So “progress”, more jobs, bigger houses, faster cars, more stuff… begins to look like regress in light of this perspective. No politician is eager to promise more manual labor, smaller buildings, less meat to eat and more modest recreation. Most are reluctant to even talk about the stranglehold that agribusiness has on our future. Like so many less-than-global civilizations before us, we seem incapable of seeing our folly before it is too late.

Regeneration is possible

There is a movement that addresses these issues, Regeneration International, Most of today’s news, fires, floods, North Korea, Nazis, the wall… seem like transient problems with deeper roots that reach down to the soil itself.

One Response to Topsoil and Civilization

  1. Well said Joe, and pretty much how the book impacted me several years ago. We can see it happening before our very eyes, only now it is not just the distruction of the soil, but the air and the water, and the balance that is so essential to our existence. I am glad there are people like you that are clinging to older wiser ways of living. I try to lower my carbon impact, but it isn’t easy. We just saw An Inconvenient SEquel:Truth to Power. Not pleasant but important! In 1983 James Burke did a series on PBS about global warming, and predicted pretty close to exactly what happened, especially about how hard it was to get the nations to cooperate on controling carbon emissions:


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