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Humus Part 3: Couldn't Stand The Weather?

Dave Wilber


I'll never forget the first time that I saw Stevie Ray Vaughn play. I can't. Because way before I ever saw him, I heard him. A friend who was a friend of a friend who was a roadie for The Police swore up and down that he could get us backstage at the small club where SRV was playing. He didn't quite have that kind of pull, but we did get to hang around a back door during the sound check if we promised not to hassle anyone, namely Vaughn. stevie-ray-vaughan.jpgWhat I heard was akin to four musical jet engines. At the time he was playing through four cranked old Fender amps and as soon as his fingers touched the strings... it was like that jet took off and did aerobatics at his control of perfect tone. Later as we made our way up front at the actual show, I got to see him in total loss of control looks, guitar thrashed, strings about a mile above the fretboard, sounding as precision as anything I have ever heard since. It made me understand that most things that are truly great have an element of just about off the rails.


For me, watching a soil go through the second stage of Humus development, called anabolization is like watching and listening to SRV. It's nearly out of control, but yet when right. Perfection. The Soil Plasma that I talked about before is transformed into something amazing, useful and stable as it joins an entire orchestra of tiny clay particulates. The resulting music allows air, water and mineral nutrients to be held in the soil.


We toss the word "held" around a lot when talking about soil. But the amazing thing about this joining is that it is held in such a way that it is used, provides energy and doesn't go away because the process is sustainable. There's another word that can grow tiresome, "Sustainable" because to me, when you start to talk about Sustainability and you can't speak legibly about Humus development then you might as well plug into those 4 Fenders with a duck. You won't make a single sound that will change the world.


Tilth: a word that leads to Tillage. But for the sake of definition this word refers to a soil having ideal structure, resistant to compaction and yet nutrient rich. Eddie Van Halen, a great guitar player himself had a descriptive for his sound that is on par with Tilth to soil. He called it, "The Brown Sound". Pages can be written on the tech of getting that sound, but in the end, it was a sound that was perfection. Leading to influence most of today's guitar technology by virtue of getting really high and making a group of interesting gear work. A near accident. Good Tilth is the same. It's a near accident when it happens, but once it happens, it carries the band, the concert, the album sales and inevitably the whole culture.



Think of really good swiss cheese reduced to a really small scale. Now think of each of those holes (pores) having an inner surface coated with soil plasma. The greater the porosity (note that I didn't say the larger the pores, but am talking about having lots of them, like filling the stadium) of the soil the more capacity it has to accumulate and hold air, water and nutrients. And at the same time, protect them from being washed away like a fire hose doing crowd control at Ozz Fest.


A loss of porosity and all of those inner surfaces represents major catastrophe. No one comes the show. It manifests in the particles coming together like concrete. Just like concrete, there is a lost of ability to retain and give air, water, and nutrients. Tickets sold. No one comes. Brown Sound or not. Death. Promoter mad. No studio time. Groupies leaving the rock show and looking for the Duran Duran concert. Deathcab. No cutie.


See, here's the problem with anabolization leading to Humus development. Too many in the soil fertility universe think that getting to soil nirvana means you have to become the equivalent of an agronomic Deadhead. It's like you have to join the culture, say you love the music (even if you don't), get a bus, make sure it breaks down and get really upset about The Man, man. And so instead of some biological sense making we get this crazy hippie vs. hipster thing. Organic vs. Conventional. John or Paul. Stupid choices that you dont have to make. And I swear to Sting, if I hear that this sorta thing is OK for us Californians, Im going to subject that person to my singing Barbara Streisand songs.


When a turfhead begins to take on a more biological approach it shouldn't be to join a culture. And when it happens, it is usually because deep inside their inner selves, turfgrass managers know something is wrong. They know there needs to be a change. Soils that are compacted, nearing the concrete stage, without structure often show soil tests that are the same. Limited. I'm going to get to reading the music of the soil test soon, but time and time again, a broken system will show in bad soil tests. The problem is that so many people don't know good from bad. When we get all biological and natural and all that kind of thing, the wonderful side effect is that we see it in the soils and the soil tests and often the conventional inputs are left behind.


Conventional thinking around conventional inputting is like selling a zillion single hits and running away. Where is KC and the Sunshine Band now? Exactly (and I don't care about the wedding you danced at last summer where some DJ "got down tonight"). From an agronomic standpoint, I wish I had a buck for every conversation about the latest "new thing" while the tried and true and often overlooked are just that. Overlooked. Not cool anymore. "Beatles? Really", says the Britney Spears fan. The notion that larger amounts of nutrients will continue to show up from large amounts of inputs is just plain incorrect. It doesn't work that way. Remember the Rancid soil?


Via the steps of Humus development, Catabolism and Anabolization, the result is biological activity is enriched by the activity of microbes. That activity means that biological matter is converted and nutrients become part of soil plasma that accumulates in the pores of soil. That soil aggregates, gains tilth and nutrients are plant available and possibly even sustainable. Thats how it works and there are no shortcuts.



I'll never get to hear Stevie Ray's guitar rig again. His life, unlike his music wasn't sustainable at all. When I imagine him not seeking the thrill, the high, the buzz and being around to light up those amps, I get incredibly sad. And to me, I relate that very thing to the culture of instant gratification, single hits, make it green at all costs and nothing sustainable. The Man would like you to believe that you have to join some kind of cult to make that happen and it just isn't true. And for sure, there are many different methods pleasing to the biological system. Just as there are many different sounds that are pleasing to the ears.


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