What is humus, and what does it have to do with our humanity? If you ask Bruno Follador, a young Brazilian agriculturalist who works with soil and composting for organic and biodynamic farms, he would answer, everything.
I caught up with him recently up at the Nature Institute in Harlemville, NY where he is currently Scholar in Residence. Follador is researching the role of humus in good soil management. To him, agriculture is not just about growing nutritious food- “Agri-culture is the realm where culture meets nature, where humanity has the possibility of engaging in co-creative process with the living earth.” It is about being in a relationship with the Earth and with our selves, and the creation of humus on our farms and gardens is a crucial element in keeping this a healthy relationship.
Humus is a particular form of transformed organic matter that can be created after animal manure or food scraps or plant weeds have been put through a process of biological, physical and chemical transformation in the compost pile. In biodynamic farming, good humus is considered vital to the health of the soil. Follador maintains that by offering conscious thought to the act of composting we can create a personal relationship with the soil and nature, creating humus that informs and nurtures our humanity, as well.
Only 31 years old, Follador’s ideas are already making a big impact in communities around the world. Creating healthy humus - through composting - is a process that takes time, he says. “Although there are certain principals that need to be followed, e.g. proper carbon to nitrogen ratio, moisture and oxygen content, etc., there is no single recipe; one must rather pay attention and actively engage with the material and develop a personal relationship with it.”
Large industrial composting operations employ computerized management techniques and create a finished product in 2 months. Follador warns, “To force our will power onto Nature, thinking that we can speed things up or fix any problem with ingenious technology - through genetically modified seeds, pesticides and better machinery - - can bring, and already has brought, disastrous social and ecological consequences.”
On the other side, he also cautions against leaving a compost pile unattended, which he says can lead to the production of poisonous substances, including water runoff and leachate that can pollute and contaminate surface and groundwater.
Instead, he offers a new paradigm: “To work with compost is to humbly accept an invitation to rethink our relationship with the Earth and ourselves while actively engaging in a process of composition”.
It’s interesting to note that to compost means to bring things together, to compose something out of decaying material. Hearing his explanation, I liken it to that of the role of the orchestral conductor, who must be completely attuned to each section as it performs and interacts with the others, to create a sound more beautiful than the sum of the parts.
Follador says understanding that each farm is its own living being; always unfolding, always-in process is necessary to inform the process for the farmer. The different needs and conditions of microclimate, individual plants, animals and people on a farm call for sensitivity and subtle nuances of action along the way.
Follador maintains that as a result of this thinking, both the farmer and the compost will simultaneously undergo metamorphosis and transformation, resulting in humus or ‘humanity’ more in concert with nature. He also points out that humus and humanity have the same etymological root.
For Bruno Follador, our future on this planet depends on our becoming conscious and aware that beyond the biological lies an environmental and spiritual integrity, which is vital to the fabric of our humanity.
Follador will be teaching a series of seminars in May at the Nature Institute.
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To Your Health!