I’ve shared a passage from The Ground Beneath Us by Paul Bogard a couple times so you won’t be surprised to know that now I have finished the book I really loved it. Less hard science and more social science, Bogard goes in search of what the ground we live and depend on says about who we are. From cities to farms, from Civil War battlefields to concentration camps, from fracking operations to the last vestiges of wilderness, Bogard looks at what we hold sacred and what we destroy.
I learned some fascinating things. Like Manhattan used to be hilly with creeks and wetlands but it was flattened and filled in in order to create a grid upon which to build. The grid is so perfect that there is a twice a year event called “Manhattanhenge” in which the sun sets perfectly aligned with the east-west streets.
You know the Aztec capital city Tenochtitlán? It was built on islands in Lake Texcoco and the Spaniards conquered and destroyed it. I think most of us know this. What I didn’t know is that Lake Texcoco was filled in over the decades and Mexico City is now built on top of it. There have been so many wells sunk into the lake bed for drinking water that Mexico City is sinking. A century ago there were nine steps that led up to a statue built on hard sediment called The Angel of Independence. Now there are twenty-three steps.
One of the greatest contributors to carbon emissions is large-scale agriculture. The industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels to run tractors and other machinery, to get product to market, and to fertilize the fields. The way food is grown these days not only causes significant annual losses in the amount of topsoil we have, but has also ruined the soil that remains. And it isn’t like there is someplace we can go to get more topsoil. When it is gone, it’s gone for good (depending on geography and other factors, it takes between 500 and 1,000+ years to form an inch of topsoil). A recent soil study estimates that on average, the world has about 60 remaining harvests before the remaining topsoil will no longer support growing food.
There is so much carbon locked up in arctic permafrost that as the planet warms and the permafrost melts and releases that carbon, within a couple decades its carbon emissions will exceed current U.S. emissions. Most climate change projections do not include carbon from melting permafrost and because of this scientists fear that estimates of how long we have to take action to keep warming limited to 2C is too optimistic.
In the Santa Marta mountains on the southern end of the Sierra Nevada range live an indigenous people called the Arhuaco. They believe they are spiritually responsible to maintain the entire Earth’s ecological balance. They believe they live at the heart of the world and all of nature is sacred and imbued with higher significance. If only the rest of the world believed the same thing.
While things look bad for Earth, there is still plenty of hope and possibility. Bogard spoke to Miles Stilman, a Lake Forest University biologist and asked him, in the face of all the negative things his work in the Amazon and Africa continually reveals, how does he stay so positive? Stilman says that the way he looks at things is that we are causing a bottleneck. Eventually we will squeeze through to the other side and things will get better, the earth will begin to cool, human population will drop, human consumption will decrease, the economy will decarbonize. The question is, how tight will the bottleneck get and what do we want to help get through to the other side? The actions we take now matter because they will determine how narrow the bottleneck gets. We are talking very long-term here with the bottleneck closing in around 2100 and the other side being around 2300. But just because you and I won’t be here, doesn’t give us the luxury or right to not care.
Bogard, who I gathered from a few references he made in the book, lives, or used to live, somewhere pretty close to my Minneapolis neighborhood. He comes across as a kind, compassionate and curious person, the sort you’d love to spend some time talking to and have as a friend. After all of his researches and travels he concludes:
while the paved and hallowed are often so because of decision made before we came along. the choice between hell or sacred is ours to make. Much of what I have seen tells me that by not making this choice — or not even being aware of it —we contribute to our world’s slow drift toward a time of real hell. And if that’s what we want, let’s be honest. But if we want instead a world where our existence is based on the truth of knowing the connections that keep us alive — the bonds between us and others, between us and the natural world — then let us choose now. Let us walk out our door, look down, and find the sacred underfoot, wherever we are. Let us look to the ground, and know we are once and always home.
The Ground Beneath Us is a well written, enjoyable, and thought-provoking book. It also has the best endnotes I have ever come across. Instead of numbers or specific cites to keywords, each chapter’s notes are a narrative of their own in which Bogard includes not only citations but additional stories, anecdotes and asides, stuff he wanted to share but couldn’t fit into the text itself. They are really delightful. Beware however, you might find yourself like me, adding a whole bunch of books to your TBR list. But then that is all part of the joy of reading and learning, isn’t it?