An Agricultural Classic: Topsoil & Civilization


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of book reviews of previously published and out-of-print works of particular interest to Star Phoenix Base. These reviews will be filed under the appropriate subjects, and also in a separate “Retro Reviews” category to create a valuable archive of information about historical ideas, predictions, and opinions relating to the future of the Earth.

by Val Germann

TOPSOIL & CIVILIZATION; By Vernon Gill Carter and Tom Dale; University of Oklahoma Press (1955 & 1974), 292pp.; out of print.

This astonishing book is long out of print and seems to have attained collectible status on the Amazon Books website. Checking there the other day, in hopes of finding some inexpensive copies I could recommend to my readers here at Star Phoenix Base, I found only three copies available, all at a very high price. This is most unfortunate because Topsoil & Civilization speaks to our time most forcefully, most forcefully indeed.

The heart of the book is a country by country survey of the Earth, documenting the planet-wide destruction of soils and soil productivity, which makes for chapter after chapter of very sad reading indeed. The impetus for this research was the U.S. dust bowl of the 1930s, an ecological disaster that saw whole states get up and blow away. Author Carter was an official of the National Wildlife Federation and Tom Dale worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. They both saw, up close and personal, the results of bad agricultural practices and poor land management, neither of which have since disappeared from the world scene.

That is, the poster child for destructive agriculture these days has to be that marvel of “development,” China. The dust storms there are so bad now that the plumes can reach all the way across the Pacific and yellow the sunsets over the American midwest. In the capital city of Bejing the residents have to wear masks for weeks on end, to protect themselves from the dust. That’s what “progress” can mean if your top people do not take care of the nation’s land.

So, as you can see, the work of authors Carter and Dale is right “up to the minute” in its relevance to Anno Domini 2006. And speaking of AD, or CE, let’s begin a more detailed discussion of this book with the ancient city of Antioch, in Syria, where St. Paul first preached the Gospel and the title “Christian” was first used.

Antioch was at that time the third largest city in the entire Roman world, behind only Alexandria (in Egypt) and Rome itself. As late as 360 CE, Antioch boasted 200,000 inhabitants, “not including children and slaves,” according to the Christian bishop St. John Chrysostom.

The city was fed by a hinterland of more than 200 square miles and was a trade center through its nearby port, Seleucia, on the Mediterranean fifteen miles away down the Orontes river. Antioch’s main street was more than four miles in length and had ornate covered walkways on both sides, lighted at night.

The city had running water supplied to many of its houses, along with indoor plumbing. For several hundred years it was a jewel of Western Civilization, surviving even a massive earthquake in 115 CE. But it could not survive the destruction of its hinterland and was to become lost to history for more than a millennium, before being dug up again in the 19th century.

So, what happened to the hinterland of Antioch, to the two hundred square miles that supported, in luxury, so large a population for so long? Below is a quote from the 1810 diary of one of the first Europeans to visit the area since ancient times, John Burckhardt. He is writing about the Plains of Antioch and the ruins of some of the area’s ancient towns:

The neighbourbood of these towns, at least for five miles round, presents nothing but an uneven plain, thickly covered with barren rocks, which rise to the height of two or three feet above the surface. A few herbs grow in the fissures of the rocks, which are scarcely sufficient to keep from starving half a dozen horses, the property of the present miserable inhabitants.

This was an area that had sustained more than 200 towns and villages, in style, at the same time it was supplying grain, meat and wine to Antioch. And therein lies the tale: the land was over-exploited, mined, and little by little lost its ability to provide sustenance. In the late 1930s, following the Dust Bowl in our Great Plains, U.S. agriculture officials visited the place and the authors of Topsoil & Civilization report what they found:

“An area of about a million acres exhibits soil erosion at its worst. Here are the ruins of villages and market towns resting on a skeleton rock of limestone hills, from which 3 to 6 feet of soil have been swept off.”

That “swept off” soil was blown by the wind or washed down stream, down to Antioch itself and to its harbor. Carter and Dale reported that the archeologists who rediscovered Antioch were working more than 20 feet below ground level, and a similar situation existed at the site of Seleucia, by then miles from the sea and under many feet of detritus. They both were dead cities — and had been for more than a thousand years.

A few days ago I wrote here on Star Phoenix Base about the loss of topsoil in Missouri, about a plot of unbroken prairie I had seen thirty years ago. That plot was elevated more than a foot above the surrounding eroded terrain. Yes, it’s happening here, today, just as it happened in ancient Syria. And we are on the verge of creating our own “dead city,” the city of New Orleans, being slowly killed by bad land management as surely as was Antioch.

Thanks to the channelization of the Mississippi River the alluvial products of the Big Muddy (washed in part from Missouri farms) shoot straight out into the Gulf of Mexico, for hundreds of miles, underwater, and no longer build up the delta upon which New Orleans rests. As a result the city is slowly sinking and one day, before too long, it will be destroyed, as it almost was in 2005 by hurricane Katrina.

We humans interfere massively with Mother Nature only at our peril and the ruins of a thousand great cities should have long ago taught us a lesson.

But that lesson has yet to be learned, even today, despite the dire warnings of the Dust Bowl and books like Topsoil & Civilization. Today, most Americans have “agriculture and the food supply” down near the bottom of their “to worry about” list, just above “dieting to lose weight.” Hardly anyone in The Land of the Free is worried about topsoil and agricultural production, not with corn at $2.40 per bushel. Who cares? But ancient Antioch, too, was flush with food, even as its land was being exploited to the greatest degree. In fact, the one was the direct result of the other!

Last weekend your humble servant drove for many miles though some of the best agricultural land in the world. Before the Great Depression wiped them out, my grandfather’s brothers turned loose one of the first mechanical corn pickers to see a Missouri field, in the Missouri River valley of southern Carroll County. That land yielded, in the early 1930s and without much in the way of “off-farm inputs,” nearly one hundred bushels per acre of corn, an unheard of amount at that time. It had been in production for about 50 years and had been plowed using horses.

Today, that ground requires massive amounts of fertilizer, derived from natural gas, to produce its corn. And a horse-drawn plow today could no more dent that compacted ground than it could fly. Take away the fertilizer, the machines, and the fossil fuels that run them, and the beautiful Missouri River Valley might well turn to desert, a well-rained-on desert, ruined by the plow.

And if it did turn to desert it would not be anything new, not at all. No, this would be the almost inevitable result of mankind’s mistreatment of the land, an abuse that has been going on worldwide and for thousands of years, as was outlined decades ago and in horrifying detail by authors Carter and Dale.

Try to get a copy of Topsoil & Civilization. Read it. We still have time to avoid the fate that has befallen the cities and regions described in its pages. But we don’t have much time, not with petroleum, mechanized agriculture and anhydrous ammonia all hard at work. No, we don’t have much time left at all.


About Val

I am a long-time teacher of science and astronomy with a strong interest in resource conservation and the environment.
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