Friday, July 10, 2009

Tale of Two Soils

The following commentary comes from the Pacific Northwest Inlander and is reprinted with permission by the Inlander and the author.

Despite the city’s talk, mulching can still be a code violation

By Paul K. Haeder

Dirt — or topsoil — is the earth’s epidermis. It’s only about three feet thick. And it’s like an organic breath from goddess Gaia. The creation of all soil is a miraculous process — detritus and leaf litter falling, fungi and microbes by the billions churning up magic. Lichens and fauna chipping away at rock as it crumbles and splits up century after millennium. All those microbes in a tango with carbon and oxygen. The erosive power of water and wind plus tectonic and glacial action breaking apart the toughest granite and conglomerate.

Then the ants and other bugs move in with their syncopated chaos.

The topsoil makers in this process are the earthworms that chomp and digest sterile things into dirt. Yet in the U.S., we are losing good topsoil at 10 times the rate we are replacing it — about 1 percent a year through bad agricultural practices, urbanization and pollution, says University of Washington scientist David Montgomery, author of Dirt. Climate change is doing its part to kill topsoil.

Soil is “in” now, as the current peaking resource that scientists and others are concerned about losing. Just like peak water or peak oil, peak soil puts us at risk on the sustainability resiliency meter. “Globally, it’s pretty clear we’re running out of dirt,” Montgomery says.

Much of the soil and sediment on the South Hill are from the annual winds blowing loess along the bluff — tens of thousands of years of blowing fine silt. The Missoula and Spokane floods also set in motion this process of siltation. While the pines, Douglass firs, lupine and arrow leaf balsam thrive, those homeowners looking for a little patch of heaven in their backyards have to do a lot to replicate the act of creating natural topsoil.

Unfortunately, homeowners who want to follow organic, sustainable practices by making soil with mulch face not only the challenge of dry summers, hardscrabble land, winds and erosion, but also the city’s code enforcers.

Kurt Rathmann and Carrie Lipe live in a modest house along the bluff overlooking Latah Creek and Highway 195, near 12th and Maple. They’ve been collecting yard clippings and landscapers’ mulched tree matter for months in order to build up their backyard for future vegetable gardening dreams.

They started putting down 10 inches of that soil amender — which this region’s dry pine forests create naturally — as a way to control knapweed and raise the fecundity of sandy and erosion-prone soil. The couple followed guidelines proscribed by Spokane Regional Solid Waste System and the Master Composting Program.

Unfortunately, Rathmann and Lipe were slapped with code violation notices, had to make dozens of phone calls, hosted property visits by city code enforcers, and met with neighbors and landscaping and horticulture experts to assess this felonious act of making crummy better.

“As a contribution towards a more sustainable Spokane, mulching and composting in a contextually appropriate manner provide many benefits that are in alignment with city ordinances and policies,” Rathmann says.

We’re talking about weed control, water conservation, soil building and enrichment. Anyone who’s taken a short course on sustainability knows that good soil also reduces ground temperatures in the summer — mitigating some of the so-called urban heat-island effect.

The city’s policy of not allowing neighbors or landscapers to share yard wastes adds to fossil fuel consumption through separate trips driving to and from the solid waste facility. Plus, it adds to SRSWS’s processing and transportation costs.

The benefits of their mulch outweigh the rules the city is enforcing: Threatening residents with a $500-plus-per-day fine for noncompliance is silly.

Some circles believe this city is near the edge of moving into the 21st century in terms of sustainability, community rights and a transition culture. Rathmann and Lipe are people who view their role as property tenders as only one aspect of a larger community vision. They have a desire to help build another link in the community-garden fabric where homegrown crops can be shared.

Their formerly sandy soil was lacking earthworms, but after the 10 inches of mulch was laid out and mixed up, the ground was moist — a nice wildfire buffer — and earthworms were busy amongst the microbes. Pine needles had composted into soil.

As with most things municipal-code related — mired in the bureaucracy of multiple departments — this has become a Byzantine narrative that, in a nutshell, required the gardeners to remove six inches of mulch and sign a pledge to never work the mulch into the soil.

I was asked to show up the day the code enforcer came out to the property. Neighbors and friends were there in support, wondering what the city’s code enforcement would end up doing to Rathmann and Lipe’s dreams.

The enforcer brought a wooden yardstick, a tough veneer and an aloof attitude.

Across the highway, on the opposite bluff, are developments that are a testament to clear cutting, poor planning and future soil erosion problems. In his yard, Rathmann displayed smarts and an inquisitive manner, applying plain old logic as he tried to understand the city’s order to have him haul off so much mulch.

The couple passed the “six-inch yardstick test,” but the entire ordeal — of the city not seeing the sustainability elegance of the couple’s soil-making efforts — has left a bad taste in their mouths.

And it’s not their dirt we’re talking about.

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