Stories Made of Rivers

Originally posted on

Written by Joanna Pocock

1. Civilisation

The first story I was told about rivers can be summed up like this: there is direct line from the Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur to the Chrysler Building. I was around nine.

2. Civilisation II

Rivers allowed us to grow food, store it, build houses, libraries, museums, cities and empires. I was maybe ten when I heard this one.

3. Cells

In sixth grade, the story shifted from history to science when we memorised that our hearts and brains were 73% water. I have always seen fresh water as precious, magical. I used to believe that water could think. If my brain was mainly water, why not?

Every single living and non-living, visible and non-visible object around us – our computer screens, the retinas in our eyeballs, the dust in the air – all of these rely on fresh water. Our body is a walking river. Water flows from us. The liquid inside us will out eventually.

4. Cycles

In middle school, we were taught about the water cycle: river to rain to snow to mountain glacier to melting ice, back to river. We coloured in those diagrams and added those arrows diligently. But we were not told that this cycle was one of the many ways the earth breathes in and out. Nor were we told that bathing in the River Ganges frees the bather from sin, the outward cleanliness symbolising inner purification. This waterway is fed by the glaciers in the Himalayas, the Mountains of the Gods, and feeds the Indian plains as if descended from the heavens.


Organic or Starve: can Cuba's New Farming Model Provide Food Security?


Originally posted on

Written by Roger Atwood

In the town of Hershey, 40 miles east of Havana, you can see the past and the future of Cuban farming, side by side.

The abandoned hulk of the Camilo Cienfuegos sugar plant, shut along with 70 other cane refineries in 2002, towers over the town. But in the lush hills and grasslands around Hershey, fields of cassava, corn, beans, and vegetables are a sign that there is life after sugar.

Once owned by the famous Pennsylvania chocolate maker, the Cienfuegos plant supplied the sugar that sweetened Hershey’s candy bars. After the 1959 revolution, it was nationalised by Fidel Castro’s government and became property of the state, its sugar shipped to the Soviet Union and allies.

As the world’s largest sugar exporter, Cuba relied on pesticides and fertilisers and heavy mechanisation to produce up to 8.4m tonnes of sugar – its peak harvest, in 1990 – nearly all of it exported to the Communist bloc. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 eliminated Cuba’s preferential market and, coupled with a tightening of the US trade embargo, sent the Cuban economy into an extended coma. The sugar industry muddled along for another decade until the government ordered the closure of 71 of the island’s 156 sugar refineries. Places that had depended on sugar for a century became ghost towns.


Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet


Originally posted on

Written by Jaques Leslie

The last great hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change may lie in a substance so commonplace that we typically ignore it or else walk all over it: the soil beneath our feet.

The earth possesses five major pools of carbon. Of those pools, the atmosphere is already overloaded with the stuff; the oceans are turning acidic as they become saturated with it; the forests are diminishing; and underground fossil fuel reserves are being emptied. That leaves soil as the most likely repository for immense quantities of carbon.


Agriculture and Climate Change: Is Farming Really a Moveable Feast?

Originally posted on Resource Insights

Written by Community Solutions fellow Kurt Cobb 

There is a notion afoot that our agricultural production can simply migrate toward the poles in the face of climate change as areas in lower latitudes overheat and dry up. Few people contemplate what such a move would entail and whether it would actually be feasible.

One assumption behind this falsely reassuring idea is that soil quality is somehow roughly uniform across the planet. But, of course, this is completely false. Soil quality and composition vary widely, often within walking distance on the same farm. Farmers simply moving north (or south in the Southern Hemisphere) in response to climate change will not automatically encounter soil suitable for farming.

We must also consider that lands not previously farmed may very well be forested. Knocking down the trees and clearing the stumps might make such lands arable. But the loss of carbon storage that trees represent would only make climate change worse.

Quite often we think of rural areas as being undeveloped. But nothing could be further from the truth. Agricultural regions have complex networks involving roads, communications and electricity grids, irrigation systems, grain elevators, farm supply and machinery merchants, rail depots, agricultural research stations and field projects, government-sponsored agricultural assistance centers and the specialists attached to them, and entire towns which act as gathering places and service centers for those working in rural communities. All of this would have to be duplicated in newly opened agricultural lands for which pioneering settlers would have to be recruited. These pioneers would have to want to live in previously unsettled or sparsely settled areas with few amenities.

Unlike previous eras when farming was a way of life for most people and owning farmland was seen as a path to self-sufficiency and independence, these new pioneers will be adopting or continuing an occupation that millions are desperately fleeing around the world—in favor of the excitement and opportunities of the city.

Even if such rural migrations were subsidized (or forced—gasp!), they would take time, probably decades. All the while climate change would be bearing down on crop yields around the world. Would such a grand development project make up for ongoing declines in existing farmland production?

This is just one "solution" offered to us by what I will call the "adaptationists." The trouble is there can be no assurance that their solutions will actually work. A better approach would be to prevent further climate change as much as we are able (knowing that the lags in the Earth's climate system will make more change inevitable for the next several decades). The schemes being offered these days include emergency measures such as throwing sulfates into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight and constructing large mirrors between the Earth and the Sun to do the same.

The trouble with these approaches is they are all untried, and we have only the smallest inkling of their unintended consequences. Could we end up with a situation that is worse than otherwise would have been the case?

It is important to remember that when it comes to Earth systems, it is impossible to do just one thing. Whenever we do something, we affect the entire system, and we, as limited beings, cannot understand all the possible consequences ahead of time. We think we are acting on objects, and it turns out that we are acting on networks.

Networks have a way of pushing back at attempts to upend them. But frequently we cannot even see the networks we are affecting until they begin to react to our prodding, often in unforeseen and dangerous ways.

We do not know exactly how our agricultural networks will react as they are forced to change in response to the climate chaos we have unleashed. But we can take a much more humble stance by acknowledging that we cannot confidently predict that simply moving our current system toward the poles will allow us to produce all that we are going to need.

We may be faced with adopting systemic changes that include new ways of growing, more people in more places engaged in growing, changing what we grow and eat, and growing much more of what we eat closer to where it is eaten. Some of these changes are already taking place. But they will likely deepen and widen as climate change bears down more and more on our agricultural systems worldwide.


A Shift, And An Opportunity, At Agraria

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Written by Community Solutions Executive Director Susan Jennings

Dear Friend—

This year will go down in our organizational and in international history as one of surprise and shift. Organizationally, there is nothing more surprising than the fact that we are currently packing our offices in preparation for our move into a renovated workshop on Agraria, our recently-acquired 128-acre farm on the outskirts of Yellow Springs.

At the root of the swirl of planning and activity surrounding Agraria is a shift in organizational focus. By far the largest project in our 77-year history, Agraria is allowing a grounding and expansion of our community education and outreach. Already we have engaged with dozens of neighbors, farmers, and students in a visioning of the possibilities for Agraria, including:

·         Research and education around soil and water health and biodiversity

·         Restoration of Jacoby Creek and its banks in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy

·         Support of the regional food system through farmland rentals, production of soil amendments, and a native plant nursery

·         Partnerships with Central State University, Antioch College, and Yellow Springs and other regional school districts

Agraria provides a synchronistic platform for the integration of our organizational focus areas of resilient communities, regenerative land use, community economics, energy democracy, and being the change.  You can read on our interactive map about our long-term vision for Agraria.  

Agraria is both a mirror and an outgrowth of two larger, international paradigm shifts.

The first shift is an increasing recognition of the regeneration of soil as an important climate tool, with carbon sequestration in soil integral to the two latest international climate agreements.  Cutting-edge research suggests that regenerative land use could account for 37 percent of the solution to climate change.   Farmers and environmental organizations are at the heart of soil research and action; the Rodale Institute recently unveiled a Regenerative Agriculture certification.

Our hope is that Agraria can serve as a pilot and a model for land use practices that regenerate soil and sequester carbon.  We have been travelling to other farms, including Polyface, The Land Institute and The Arbor Day Foundation, to explore our options, and have also been attending national meetings around land use, cover crops, and soil regeneration. We will share what we are learning at our March 9th Regenerating Landscapes symposium, as well as in our first issue of The Journal of Agraria, due out this spring.

The second shift is the development of community leadership that is effecting important change.  While the local to global movement is decades old, the failure of many of our larger systems to respond constructively to environmental, societal, and economic crises has galvanized action across the planet.

We heard about many of these movements (including Via Campesina, Mondragon Cooperatives, and Mutual Aid Networks) at our inspiring October conference on The Economics of HappinessWe are also seeing community leadership first hand with the purchase and development of Agraria, with friends and neighbors assisting both financially and with trail building, skill sharing, and citizen science.  You can continue the conversation at our December 21st Gratitude Walk and Open House at Agraria as well as in next year’s educational events.

We are grateful for the support and encouragement we have received for what we view as a community asset and resource for building regional self-reliance. We invite you to join us as a financial partner-- matching our organizational leap with a special pledge—by becoming an inaugural Steward of the Soil and committing $1000 a year for three years. Combined with our business and investment strategy as well as a capital campaign, these yearly gifts will help to put us on a solid financial footing for the long term.

With gratitude for your support, and with best wishes for a hopeful turn of the year,

Susan Jennings

Executive Director

The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web


Originally posted on

Written by Robert Macfarlane

Epping Forest is a heavily regulated place. First designated as a royal hunting ground by Henry II in the twelfth century, with severe penalties imposed on commoners for poaching, it has since 1878 been managed by the City of London Corporation, which governs behavior within its bounds using forty-eight bylaws. The forest is today almost completely contained within the M25, the notorious orbital motorway that encircles outer London. Minor roads crisscross it, and it is rarely more than four kilometres wide. Several of its hundred or so lakes and ponds are former blast holes of the V1 “doodlebug” rockets flung at London in 1944. Yet the miraculous fact of Epping’s existence remains: almost six thousand acres of trees, heath, pasture, and waterways, just outside the city limits, its grassland still grazed by the cattle of local commoners, and adders still basking in its glades. Despite its mixed-amenity use—from golf to mountain biking—it retains a greenwood magic.

Earlier this summer I spent two days there, wandering and talking with a young plant scientist named Merlin Sheldrake. Sheldrake is an expert in mycorrhizal fungi, and as such he is part of a research revolution that is changing the way we think about forests. For centuries, fungi were widely held to be harmful to plants, parasites that cause disease and dysfunction. More recently, it has become understood that certain kinds of common fungi exist in subtle symbiosis with plants, bringing about not infection but connection. These fungi send out gossamer-fine fungal tubes called hyphae, which infiltrate the soil and weave into the tips of plant roots at a cellular level. Roots and fungi combine to form what is called a mycorrhiza: itself a growing-together of the Greek words for fungus (mykós) and root (riza). In this way, individual plants are joined to one another by an underground hyphal network: a dazzlingly complex and collaborative structure that has become known as the Wood Wide Web.


Huge carbon sink in soil minerals: New avenue for offsetting rising greenhouse gases

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Originally posted on

Written by Eric Sorensen

A Washington State University researcher has discovered that vast amounts of carbon can be stored by soil minerals more than a foot below the surface. The finding could help offset the rising greenhouse-gas emissions helping warm the Earth's climate.

Marc Kramer, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry at WSU Vancouver, reports his finding in one of two related papers demonstrating how the right management practices can help trap much of the carbon dioxide that is rapidly warming the planet.


Middle School Students Present "Into the Wild" at Agraria

Written by Community Solutions Staff Member David Diamond

Written by Community Solutions Staff Member David Diamond

McKinney Middle School seventh-graders culminated their months-long “Into the Wild” project with a presentation and public exhibition on October 26 in the historic barn at Agraria, the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions’ farm and center for regenerative agriculture. Much of the students’ research and inspiration came from a three-day camping trip with faculty and parents down the Little Miami bike trail. The students biked 53 miles, camped out for two nights, researched local history, and canoed and waded in the Little Miami River to study macroinvertebrates.

Kate Lohmeyer, health and physical education teacher for grades 7-12, was part of the teacher leadership team for the interdisciplinary project. All the participating teachers were “in some way, avid participants in the outdoors, either focused on exercise or just being in nature,” said Lohmeyer.  “We thought it would be great to share that with the kids. It turned into this wonderful experience.” Under the direction of science teacher Rebecca Eastman, students also studied macroinvertebrates in Jacoby Creek on Agraria. Holding the exhibition night in Agraria’s barn “was a great way to culminate the experience for our students,” said Lohmeyer.

“It was thrilling to see families enjoying each other at the Agraria presentations, and also to share in Jacoby Creek research that intersected with students’ ‘Into the Wild’ inquiries,” said Susan Jennings, Executive Director of Community Solutions. Since buying Agraria last March, located just outside Yellow Springs, the local non-profit organization has seen the location’s enormous potential for experiential education. Plans for Agraria include installation of a school garden and construction of a bike path from the high school to Agraria for use by both students and community members. “We’re excited and honored to partner with the Yellow Springs Schools on cutting-edge agricultural curricula for Agraria,” said Jennings. “Their Project Based Learning experience and leadership will help us to develop programs that also benefit students from Xenia, Springfield, and Dayton.”

Lohmeyer also sees many opportunities for schools—not just in the barn, but throughout the 128 acres of Agraria farmland. “There’s a push from all levels, K-12, to try to do things outside,” she said. “The more Community Solutions can collaborate, the more people will want to take advantage of that space. I know people are looking forward to it.” 

Help support education at Agraria by donating to Community Solutions on Giving Tuesday, November 28!