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  • Stephen Shafer

This splendid book combines botany...

The Forgiveness of Nature: the Story of Grass, by author Graham Harvey.

Reviewed by Stephen Shafer, TNF Summer 2022

This splendid book combines botany, soil science, sports, social anthropology, history of warfare (economic and military), agro-history, and livestock-rearing. Sidelights—these are not tangents—include, for example, the sex life of grasses, the downsizing of the auroch into the cow, a history of the lawnmower, and a chronicle of the guano boom. The author is not a stylist like Henry Beston or Aldo Leopold, yet has a poet’s mind, a historian’s curiosity and a scholar’s thoroughness. Published twenty years ago, the book is thoroughly relevant to today’s keen and growing interest in regenerative agriculture as one way to mitigate climate change and restore soil health.

A dominant theme of regenerative agriculture is that sequestering carbon in agricultural soils enhances the workings of microbial life in them to restore vitality and resilience while drawing excess carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. To realize its potential for healing the planet, releases of atmospheric pollutants (CH4, NO2) from agriculture must be severely reined in and releases of CO2 from all sources must be brought to near-zero by 2040.

Sequestering carbon in soil is done almost entirely through growing plants in that soil, grasses being the most widespread and adaptable for the task. Through the forgiveness of nature, this process heals soils damaged by loss of their organic matter to wind and water, losses that are inadequately “replaced” by synthesized nitrogen fertilizers and exogenous minerals.

The book starts with a hymn of praise to grass as a source of joy, a symbol of greening and regrowth, an interface between large land creatures and the soil that sustains us/them. The earth’s soils were begun by fungi and lichens breaking down rock and mixing the detritus with their organic matter. Grass, working with soil biota, amplified and accelerated the process of soil-building. We cannot imagine human life having developed and continued on our planet Earth without its cover of grass over the huge proportion of the non-frozen land surface too dry to sustain forests and jungles. In Chapter 7, Harvey describes how prairie grasses grew the rich soils of the Great Plains; he understates the importance of soil fungi and fauna interacting with grassroots and with the roots of plants besides grasses in that process but justly puts grass front and center as a food source and soil-keeper.

So sure was I in the readability and quality of every page of this book that I drew four random numbers between 1 and 338: 197, 159, 294, 237. Page 197 treats the harm of the enclosure acts in Tudor England. Page 159 describes the social and pastoral life on sheilings, and summer pastures in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Page 294 laments the decline of large urban parks, due to the automobile. Page 237 deals with the spread of British cattle breeds to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. Each of these pages is a story worth reading in itself, beautifully told.

A special note goes to the discussion of the Clifton Park System developed by Robert Elliott in the 1880s. Harvey writes “While the farming depression was reaching its nadir toward the end of the nineteenth century, a former Indian tea planter now farming on the edge of the Cheviot Hills of Roxburghshire came up with a sure-fire remedy. He urged British farmers to reject the chemical fertilizers and imported animal feeds that were being thrust at them by brash commercial companies. On a poor Scottish hillside, he had proved it was possible to make profits during lean times by rebuilding soil fertility. This was best done not by buying expensive chemicals, but by laying down good turf.” (“Chemical” in this context is not what it means to us now, namely nitrogen fertilizers synthesized through the Haber-Bosch process; “chemical” in the late nineteenth century meant, I think, a bone from cemeteries and abattoirs that had been treated with sulfuric acid to make superphosphate. The “imported animal feeds” were oilcake and maize.)

I especially liked the life and career stories of R. George Stapledon and Sir Albert Howard. These men, like Elliott, realized (not heeded by many) that humankind should nurture soil. I’d never heard of Stapledon or Elliott until reading this book. Most people these days, if aware, see air and water as precious resources but don’t realize that soil is as precious and as much in jeopardy as the other two. Grass (with forbs and legumes), walked on by livestock, is key to re-building and conserving that resource.

I’ve read, and own, at least eight other books treating regenerative agriculture, including Growing a Revolution (Montgomery), Dirt to Soil (Brown), Kiss the Ground (Tickell), Resilient Agriculture (Lengnick), A Pastoral Song (Rebanks), The Soil Will Save Us (Ohlsen), Call of the Reed Warbler (Massy) and Holistic Management (Savory). Of all these really good books, my own favorite is Massy’s, 50% or more longer than any of the others. For an introduction to regenerative agriculture, or even to agriculture itself, central to the human story, I would put first The Forgiveness of Nature.

It may seem odd to review a book that’s out of print. There are used copies available from sellers in the US, Britain and Australia ranging in price (not counting shipping) from $2 to $68. WorldCat shows it in about 45 libraries in the USA (including Bard College), nearly all of which participate in interlibrary loans. Go find it!

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