In this age of hand sanitizers and germophobia, it is hard to express the critical value of primary decomposers and have people begin to understand these essential characters in the cycle of life that we depend on for survival. One fact that has made a great impression on me is that 85% of all microscopic organisms are either helpful to the human organism or benign. In fact, there are countless organisms living on our skin, in our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and digestive tract. They are a normal part of a healthy body. This means that the millions of dollars that we spend on sanitizers and the reduced efficiency of our sewage treatment plants, that use microorganisms to clean waste from our water, are killing off the majority of critters that cause no harm, just to make sure that we have killed off the fifteen percent of them that are troublesome. Oddly enough, some of the most dangerous microscopic organisms that we know of have developed resistance to both sanitizers and drugs that would normally be prescribed to fight infections by more common bacteria. fungus and viruses. The fact that the life cycles of these “critters” is so short is a plus for them because their ability to adapt is so much faster than organisms that are long lived. There is even a specific bacteria that only lives at the interface of jet fuel and aluminum gas tanks. The fact that it has evolved since the advent of airplanes is a testament to how adaptive nature really is.
When we look out at the garden beds, or the fields and forests at this time of year, it is easy to forget how much life is out there. We may see an occasional bird or rabbit, a few squirrels or other organisms but the vast majority of the biomass out there is microbes. Many years ago, it was commonplace to use lake ice stored in ice houses for cooling. It was thought at the time that freezing killed most bacteria and that the ice was safe. In the 1930’s, it was discovered that freezing cannot kill most pathogenic bacteria. At that time we were still routinely using rivers and lakes as sewage disposal and only luck prevented major public health problems from occurring.
The ancients knew the basic rules of animal husbandry. Their survival depended on understanding how genetics work. although their knowledge was based on larger animals, even microbes obey the same rules. One of the most basic rules is that environmental conditions, (the care and conditions that we give critters) will always trump genetics, but good genetics combined with good care and conditions will always out perform inferior genetics, even under ideal conditions. What this means for a livestock producer is that you can have very healthy animals, but if they have genetic defects or problems, they will not produce as efficiently as livestock that have superior genes. The other part of this reality is that when we ignore the genetic pool of organisms, allowing them to reproduce randomly, greater and greater variation will inevitably come into the herd. This isn’t a bad thing for increasing genetic diversity, but it can reduce production over time.
I hate to use the example of a sacred foodstuff, especially when speaking of the microscopic world, but the principle is the same, even though the scale is all wrong. There is a white corn that native people have grown for centuries. I have seen kernels that have had an intact relationship with humans for their entire history, feeding countless generations of people from Mexico. These kernels are slightly larger than a thumbnail and excellent husbandry has led to greater and greater production because of the intelligent guiding of their genetics. On the other hand, there has been a broken cycle when it comes to the white corn that grows around this part of the world. For many years native people in America were discouraged from practicing native life ways that included the husbandry of their corn. Consequently, any corn that was kept was thought of as special, even if it grew weak and spindly stalks, blew over in strong winds, or only produced ears with kernels on one side. The corn that came down to us over the years had defects that would have been bred out if the people relied on it for their survival. Instead every kernel became treasured and got planted even if it was substandard genetically. Luckily, there has been a renaissance in the native community and they have begun the process of bringing the corn back, increasing the quality through interaction over the course of years. With luck and a bit of education, this sacred food might make a comeback.
When we begin to interact on a deeper level with the earth, we need to use some of the same principles to guide our interaction with the microbes. Like a handful of rich soil added to a compost pile, or worm castings spread on garden beds, the building of a living community of life, teeming with microbes is essential to getting production of healthy plants that produce food for our tables. Understanding the life cycles of these organisms is important to maintaining plant and animal health and increasing production over the course of years and ultimately generations. Once we understand the needs of beneficial organisms, we can begin to assist them in colonizing and growing strong in our soils. Just like people, or any other critter, their needs are simple. The healthy microbes that we want to “cultivate” need air, food, water and shelter. In the case of the first need, soil structure and carbonaceous material in our compost allow air to make it’s way into the living matrix. Food for microbes like compost and mulch are usually the best things for primary decomposers. If you imagine a carrot peeling compared to a microorganism it may seem huge, but what the microbes lack in size, they make up for in number. Billions of them can exist in a single cup of healthy soil. Most composters know that water is crucial to a healthy compost pile. The ideal moisture content is that of a well wrung our sponge. Shelter is provided by mulch. The greatest enemies of most organisms at the bottom of the food chain are dessication and sunlight. Protecting soil from the drying effects of the sun is probably the most important thing you can do for soil health.
Keeping the soil protected has the added benefit of reducing many of the problems that plague the garden. Late season tomato blight is often caused by a bacteria that “jumps” from the soil when droplets of rain spray mud up onto the leaves of the plant. Ill, unhealthy, spindly and undernourished plants also lack the well developed cuticle, a waxy coating on the outer surface of the plants that is difficult for insect pests to chew through. To get the healthiest plants, healthy soils are required. Healthy soils are the result of a complex matrix of decomposing organic material, moisture, and microbes that live out their lives below our ability to see, but as you begin to develop relationships with them, you will begin to see the results of their living among the garden beds and the soils that you care for.
I was talking with a woman the other day and she mentioned how lifeless her garden appears. I assured her that as things settle in for their “long winter’s nap” a nearly infinite number of microbes continue to carve out a life for themselves under the snow. Even though their activity is slowed down by the cold, they are still there, and if they are under cover of a good mulch layer, they are happily biding their time anxiously awaiting their return to full activity when the Spring thaws unlock the frozen ground. As we parted company the woman seemed much happier knowing that there was something going on out there under the snow. We are not alone in our attempts to survive and thrive. As with so many other things, understanding and compassion for those we share the planet with can lead to a much more rewarding and abundant life. Remember that the healthier the 85% of helpful and “inconsequential” microbes are, the less hospitable the environment becomes for the 15% that could possibly harm us. As the environment is colonized by the vast majority of microorganisms that are helpful or benign, there is less and less space available for the pathogenic ones. all of them are in a struggle for survival and encouraging healthy populations in this essential base of the food chain is far superior to trying to kill them all off.