Web Crawling: Exploring The Underground

  • Community   Sunday, July 10, 2022   Sheila Clarke

Last month our country recognized National Indigenous Day. That can lead in many directions, through ancient history, recent history, to the present. The Indigenous stories see us as a part of Nature, part of a great web, wider than the eye can see and bigger than the mind can imagine, in which all living things are connected.  

The connectedness and the health of that web is what sustains the planet and what sustains us all. Each part of the web depends on every other part; humans are one of the millions and trillions of life forms in that web. This bi-monthly column will explore that web. The journey will weave through one part of the web and another, will pause to look at one way and another we can improve the health of the web, and will perhaps give us tools to meet the greatest threat the web has ever faced, global warming. 

Where else to begin but at the bottom?

Twenty-three years ago, when I first arrived in Stratford, I planted a hay mix on the verge --  alfalfa, birds’ foot trefoil, and clover -- to remind me of the beloved Bruce County farm I had left behind. Within a year or two, I had to pull it out; it was expanding way too eagerly into the garden. For the next twenty years I never saw a trace of it.

This year the growing conditions were perfect for the seeds I missed. I now have a bumper crop of hay plants mingling with wild flowers on the verge; it will once again be disinvited! Scientists tell us that once garlic mustard has run its course in our forests, the native plant seeds will sprout again -- they’re just resting. 

But that’s not all that’s in the soil. It’s a factory system for turning anything organic into fertilizer for plants, staffed by approximately a million workers/square meter. Beneath the surface are a host of organisms -- multiple creatures that are sometimes microscopic, and always very small. They actually do create fertilizer – the same materials we buy for our fields and gardens: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N,P and K). They might be called the small version of nature’s vacuum cleaners -- sort of the way we think of buzzards and crows, only mostly for plant matter. Every plant that dies in the garden, every dead leaf, every small living creature, every grass cutting, can turn into fertilizer when it goes through the underground factory!  

That garden that was being invaded by hay seeds has been organic for some 22 years now. Every spring there are still a few dead leaves and stalks left over from the summer/fall before, that haven’t been broken down by the winter. I leave them be, especially the stalks, as they can hold insects that have overwintered in them, even some butterfly chrysalises. Magic happens when spring starts. By the time the garden is in bloom, that dead plant material has all disappeared! It has gone into the soil, into the factory, along with the other plants from last year, where it is turned into N,P and K for my plants. Magic. 

Treated soil is less likely to have the full factory; the workers are somewhat fragile. Organic farmers, for example, need at least three years to turn a treated field into an organic one for the factory to slowly repopulate the area and begin full fertilizer production.   

The workers appreciate diversity above, since that is what nature provides.  Diverse growth above the factory also nourishes the many creatures that depend on growth above ground: butterflies, birds, tiny flies and wasps that are pollinators along with bees and bumblebees, dragonflies, ladybugs, butterfly caterpillars -- the list goes on forever. And of course they too will go into the factory when their time comes, to make the soil above rich with nutrients for new plants.

Welcome to the web, the vast web of Earth, that connects in so many surprising ways. 

Sheila Clarke is an ecologist by default, a retired educator by vocation, and an advocate for the environment, of our community and of our planet.  She has a BSc Zoology from the University of Illinois, and a host of courses beyond, in disciplines that inform ecology, the science of how everything living fits together in nature. Her particular interests are native plant ecosystems, public transportation, the preservation of wetlands and endangered species, and global warming.  In another life, Sheila was part of a first “ecology” course in university.  At that time, the course was called Human Ecology, an approach that has changed.  She is a member of CFUW Stratford, Stratford Climate Momentum, and the Perth County Sustainability Hub.