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#34 Save our soils
A heartfelt congratulations to Rijksmuseum Amsterdam on being the first major museum to get a 5-star sustainability score on their building. The museum is the first of its size to get the maximum rating for an existing building. And it’s not just the building that scores well. The museum’s beautiful gardens, educational program, circular procurement, and reuse of materials also contribute to sustainability. It is another win for a museum that seems to be doing almost everything right after the Rijks Studio website launch nearly a decade ago. I still hope one day a talented reporter will write the book about their ongoing transformation and leadership.
If I were to win the lottery now, my dream is to buy a few acres of old farmland and a rickety farmhouse not too far from Amsterdam. I’d also buy an old Landrover Defender, which would give me away as a city boy, but hey… I love how these cars get better when they’re muddy, unlike our always-muddy family car.
Wilding tells the story of the Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex. The estate has a long, rich, and well-documented history. However, after a few decades of modern intensive farming, it was on the verge of financial bankruptcy. In terms of biodiversity and soil quality, it had already busted. At the turn of the century, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell decide to allow nature to return to the 3,500 acres of land. With minimum intervention, they let nature take its course. The book describes what happens next and places this in a broader context of thinking and action about biodiversity and conservation.
The book is a must-read. It shows nature’s resilience and wisdom and the incredible ability of animals, plants, fungi, and other living organisms to improve our earth. It is also a cautionary tale of our many misunderstandings of the natural world and our inability to trust nature to know what’s best.
As a Dutchman, I was pleased to learn the role experiments in our country played in this story. Notably, the Oostvaardersplassen and my favorite part of the country, the dunes of North Holland.
Wilding highlights how a more biodiverse, healthy, and sustainable world demands a mind-shift of almost all of us. The book reminded me of a lecture by ecologist and philosopher Matthijs Schouten I attended years ago. His thesis was that while people think they like to be in nature, they really want cultivated nature. Real, wild nature drives people insane. In genuinely wild nature, we lose all sense of time and place. It is why hikers can get lost and die just a hundred meters from the path in rain forests and other genuinely wild nature.
At Knepp and the Oostvaardersplassen, this means that while people like the theory of ‘wild nature,’ they protest when wild animals die as part of a natural cycle. Wildflowers are fine, but when one type of plant takes over acre after acre, it is not. Even when the plant is beneficial to many species of butterflies and other insects.
Because most of us have grown up in a world where humans dominate nature and the landscape, we no longer remember what a pre-industrial agriculture landscape looks like. And we have definitely forgotten how nature contributed to the ongoing wellbeing and quality of the landscape. Listening to Soil: The Dirty Climate Solution — a podcast of How to Save a Planet — and watching Kiss the Ground — a 2020 documentary available on Netflix — I was shocked to see how the choices we made a century ago have locked us into a system that depletes the soil, destroys the climate and devastates biodiversity.
The message in Kiss the Ground is as simple as it is saddening: “Unless we find a way to save our soils, we have 60 harvests left.”
We had surprisingly good weather the past week in the Netherlands, so I prepared the 25 square meters that are currently my land for the season ahead. Inspired by the book, podcast, and documentary, I forewent adding fertilizer to the ground. Instead, I didn’t remove last season’s remains to build a hummus layer. Also, I will keep my interventions this year to a minimum. I hope to add a large herbivore later in the season.
Talking about large herbivores, I couldn’t help but feel like one this week when I plowed through our local forest for the annual trail race. The Diemerbos is an old swamp forest, and parts of the 9-kilometer run go through ankle-deep water and mud. I’m curious if a couple of hundred runners are a replacement for aurochs. I definitely could have done with an apex predator on my tail for a better time!
If you’re a runner and work in museums, Mike Murawski set up a Museum Runners Club on Strava this week. Join, if you dare! (I’m currently in the second to last position, so I think I’m in no place to brag.)
That’s it for today. As always, thanks a lot for reading and joining in the conversation. Book recommendations are always appreciated, as are suggestions to make the most out of my tiny garden or chances to win the lottery — any lottery. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, make sure to let me know, and we’ll run through the Diemerbos together. Bring your trail running shoes; you’ll need them!
Until next week, take care!