Monday, 12 March 2018

Force of nature

I’m seated on the toilet and I think of God. When you’re enthroned and the mass of solids is exiting your body, and then when you are cleaning yourself, the odour of the soil rises along with the aromatics like methane. And there’s something else in there as well: it’s the smell of the seashore at low tide, when you can scent the corruption that is part of the harbour’s natural processes.

The earth is musty and odoriferous. Each tablespoon of earth contains billions of living organisms, and it is the chemical processes that they engage in related to the plant germplasm – the seeds – that then turn into growth, that are the source of all our wealth. Soil organisms supply chemicals such as nitrogen to the plants, which in turn provide things like sugars to the organisms in the soil. There are mycorrhizal fungi – often extracted and sold to restaurants as truffles – that grow very large on the back of this kind of symbiosis.

It is sometimes said that the reason that everything living on Earth exists is because there is a foot-deep coating of topsoil covering it, and because it rains periodically.

Farmers know about the management of chemical profiles in the soil because their prosperity relies on it. The waste you flush away is piped to municipal treatment plants where pathogens are removed, and the resulting biosolids are loaded into trucks and transported to fields in the inland, where special equipment is used to fling it out onto the turned ground, where it reenters the food chain, closing the circle.

Farmers pay money for this and there are companies set up in Australia just to do this. There are currently about 310,000 dry tonnes of biosolids produced annually, which the Australian Water Association, a peak body, says amounts to over half of the biosolids produced in Australia. There are regulations in each state and territory controlling how and where biosolids can be applied to land for fertiliser, but the supply is never enough to satisfy demand and farmers must also buy chemical fertilisers that are made from crude oil and from minerals mined from the earth, to feed the cities that rely on them for food. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are essential for plant growth and therefore for humanity’s physical well-being.

But while farmers belong to a group of people who are among the world’s most dependent on science and its applied branch – technology – they are also among the most socially conservative of people, which is why I always think of God when I am moving my bowels.

In 2013 I was at Scotts Head on the NSW north coast visiting an avocado farmer who had built his operation on sand. Not far from his farm the ocean rolls onto white beaches that are the resort of tourists. Laden with ripening fruit, his trees stood in rows in soil so dark it was evident that he had chemically enhanced it using a variety of substances, including liquid taken from a 44-gallon drum sitting at the back of the orchard next to a shed. The drum contained a soup, with organic material in it including fish bones, that he kept on-hand and accessed when he thought the trees needed a bit of help.

Inside his house I saw a computer set up in one room and a youth – the farmer’s son – was sitting at the screen watching a weather system approaching from the east. He gave the family regular updates about the atmospheric pressure and the wind strength, data based on a vast array of scientific instruments and deriving from powerful computers operated by the government. I knew the family was religious because of a small message that was framed and hanging on a wall or else standing on an incidental table near the front door where I waited.

When I had finished gathering the information I needed for my story, I got back in my car and drove north, heading for Grafton, where I had booked a motel room to stay the night because I planned to visit another interview subject the next day. As I was driving, I noticed the creeks were running very high under the bridges over which my car passed. The rain had been heavy but it wasn’t continuous; now it had stopped but the effluvia threatened the highway’s integrity. I drove on, heading through a forest of huge eucalypts that swayed violently in the rising breeze. There was not another car on the road, going in either direction, so if a branch from one of these trees fell on the car, I thought to myself, there would be no-one to help. I wondered if my phone would even get reception in this remote place. Probably not, I concluded grimly as I gripped the steering wheel.

But I reached Coffs Harbour unscathed and phoned ahead to cancel the booking at the motel in Grafton. Exhausted, I booked into a motel in town where I could recover from the afternoon’s nervous tension. I would still make the interview the next day, but I would just have to drive from here, I thought, instead of from Grafton. The man I was to meet the next day imported a chemical substance used in agriculture and he had lined up a meeting for me with a macadamia farmer in the hills just outside Lismore. The avocado farmer was also a client.

The mercurial natural environment and its vagaries make farmers reliant for their psychic well-being on such traditional notions as God, notions that many city-dwellers like me had abandoned a generation earlier. The unknown and the unpredictable always pressing in on them – like the afternoon cyclone that struck the north coast that day – they must coax production from the soil, and while they use technology with the same ease with which they pull on their boots, many still cleave to the old ways because they need all the help that they can get.

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