Those mucous membranes – GentlySerious – Medium

Source: Those mucous membranes – GentlySerious – Medium

Those mucous membranes

Normal Gastric Mucosa

Didi Pershouse points out that there is far more to the “mucous membrane of the soil” than we have captured in these blogs so far. The soil is doing things that most farmers and gardeners are blissfully unaware of.

The need to understand what the soil actually does, the functions it can perform if we allow it to, comes from a raft of urgent problems: globally poor human health, ever worse depletion of minerals and micronutrients in plant crops, the collapse of ecosystem diversity and especially of insect species, desertification of arid regions, violence stemming from massive human migration, and more.

Here is Didi:

By mucous membrane I mean that living soils are a microbially rich space for digestion, respiration, immunity, and regeneration of life.

I also am making reference to the way that mycorrhizal fungi, which play such an integral role in living soils, function as an intelligent membrane for plants — effectively sorting and filtering the proper ratios and balances of nutrients for the entire food chain on land.

Let’s go back to the metaphor of a mucous membrane. In the blog Active gut, Passive brain we explored some of the amazing things that the mucous membranes that line all our internal passageways do for us. There is no way we can even begin to comprehend the complexity of what those membranes keep out of our bodies, what they selectively allow in, and their role in stimulating the production of substances we need to stay healthy. The membranes are intimately involved in generating the substances such as serotonin that our nervous systems use for signalling and that regulate our mental states.

This is so far from being a passive system that simply reacts. It is highly intelligent and can distinguish billions of different substances. It is a system that actively engineers its own environment and regulates the context in which our sophisticated bodies can actually work. There is a stabilisation and compensation going on here that makes the rest of our body regulation systems look a bit effete and specialised. Our point in the previous blog about our passive brains, is that our celebrated flexible and logical thought is largely the creature of our mucous membranes. For a benign example, think of the ability of scents to evoke memories.

Plants, plants

The photosynthesis in plants makes sugars. It also regulates the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere. The plants develop symbiotic relationships with many soil micro-organisms: how could it be otherwise? The plants exchange sugar — which other organisms need for food — for a whole raft of nutrients that the plant needs to grow. In turn, the plants are food for all terrestrial animal, bacterial, and fungal life, one way or another. This whole ecosystem has evolved over hundreds of millions of years to stabilise and regulate itself. It would not exist otherwise.[1]

Plants, being rooted in general, do not move around to find what they need. Instead they have partner organisms that either transport or generate it. Most people know about plants that have symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots. The bacteria take atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into nitrogen compounds the plant can absorb and use. Plants that are relatively high in protein such as beans and peas tend to use this mechanism, protein being a nitrogen compound. Mycorrhizal fungi are symbiotic in a different mode and transport nutrients and water from areas that the plant roots alone can’t access, deeper in the soil or spatially separated, to the plant that needs them.

Just to hammer this home a little, remember that plants communicate with each other. A forest tree will share food with other trees via the mycorrhizal network beneath the ground. An older “mother” tree will preferentially feed her offspring trees. These networks can work over hundreds of metres, and can operate surprisingly quickly. You may remember an experiment feeding carbon dioxide marked with radioactive carbon 14 into a small tree via the air surrounding it, and the radioactivity being detected in adjacent trees within minutes.

Soil microbiologist Walter Jehne reminds us that a cubic meter of healthy soil can contain up to 25,000 kilometers of fungal hyphae. That’s twice the diameter of the Earth.

The ecosystem of plant roots and more micro-organisms than we will ever enumerate can be tightly coupled. This is no mere aggregate of life forms bumping into each other and consuming each other, this is a functional system the way our own mucous membrane is a fantastically sophisticated ecosystem, transporting and filtering nutrients and information.

The animal-plant nexus

We are coming to see via the world health crisis that the human animal has very precise and particular needs for minerals and nutrients. Some like arsenic are pretty toxic, some like iron are completely vital. Didi Pershouse reminds us that most or all minerals/nutrients play a role in physiology even if only needed in a miniscule dosage, and any mineral/nutrient in a large enough dosage will be toxic to our system. This is why we need a series of membranes: the mycorrhizal fungi, to our gut membrane, to our cell membranes, etc, to sort the proper dosage and ratios.

In the weathered rock which forms some of the raw material that soil will be generated from, these minerals are quite randomly distributed: lead ore here, barren quartz rock there, aluminium-rich bauxite there.[2] There is some specialisation of plants to different conditions of course, but there is also an amazing ability to regularise and stablise this heterogeneous environment. Over time, plants and their symbiotic organisms will colonise an environment and make it safe for a richer and richer ecosystem. That’s just how life works.

So, the soil ecosystem regulates the mineral content of plants. And it regulates it in such a way that animals can receive the nourishment that they in turn need. Of course, the animals are also providing services to the plants: pruning them, fertilising them, providing microbes that the soil needs. Just as symbiotic micro-organisms make the world habitable for plants, so plants make the world habitable for animals, insects, and wildlife in general.

We can see this up close in a cow pat. If the cow in question has been grazing on properly diverse plants and has not been overly drugged-up by a vet, then its cowpat is colonised immediately by insects. I think the distinctive fauna that is largely missing in your average cowpat are dung beetles and purple emperor butterfly larvae. We might also note that there are seven enzymes in the cowpat that are highly beneficial to hens while they consume the grubs and worms that can otherwise be parasitic and cause health problems in the cow.

The cow gets the right minerals and nutrients from diverse plants. The ecosystem we can observe associated with that tells us fairly straightforwardly whether things are healthy. Enough diversity and it all works. Conversely if it all smells bad and the pasture has a limited number of species, trouble is being generated. Even if you eat a lot of beef, which I highly recommend, the stabilisation mechanisms are not working properly. If you really want to get it wrong, put the cows in a shed and feed them grain that has been grown as a monoculture with artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

Like any complex system with many circular causation loops that act to stabilise the overall system, you can undermine it in lots of ways, and you won’t know what you have done. We have rehearsed before about tilling the soil being an obvious disruption. And about growing monocultures being nuts. Using biocides is obviously just treating symptoms of what you have already done wrong and making it worse.[3] Plant breeding and genetic modification can be unhelpful. Worming the animals and using antibiotics on them is going to cause a raft of damage.

Basically, do you want this fantastically sophisticated system to support human health or do you not? The same quote again from Didi Pershouse:

By mucous membrane I mean that living soils are a microbially rich space for digestion, respiration, immunity, and regeneration of life.

I also am making reference to the way that mycorrhizal fungi, which play such an integral role in living soils, function as an intelligent membrane for plants — effectively sorting and filtering the proper ratios and balances of nutrients for the entire food chain on land.

These are the things that need to take place in all their wild diversity and crazy interconnectivity for health to be sustained. And to return to my opening set of problems that might be as much about desertification, drought, and forced human migration as it might be about the metabolism of the human body being compromised.

The regeneration of life

Picking up Didi’s final point: life leads to more life. Life will regenerate. The lower down the chain we are, the more quickly life will regenerate. I think there are slimes that eat radioactivity inside the destroyed reactors at Chernobyl. There is no limit to what life can do.

But we are a highly specialised outgrowth of life that depends on more complex interactions that we will ever comprehend. It seems we don’t have to disturb very much to start to suffer. The vast majority, seven eighths, of people in the US have compromised metabolisms.Their bodies no longer work properly. And we have lots of ideas what might be wrong but the general truth that the support for their health has been damaged, possibly irreparably, is not being engaged with.

The regenerative agriculture that some farmers now practice says that if you rebuild a healthy ecosystem, then the crops that issue from the system are going to support human health in a way that even organic produce cannot. This is like looking at that cowpat and the chickens. It makes sense.

We have pointed out previously that “mucous membrane of the soil” is more than a metaphor. Some of the organisms in our gut and on our skin are the same organisms as in the soil doing a related job. Our physical and mental health improves when we handle soil and ingest small amounts.[4] We talked about Zach Bush and the extracts of ancient soil that he uses to restore communication between gut microbiota.

Turn that logic inside out and say that whoever thought we could wreck the soil with impunity when we share its mechanisms so intimately was truly mad.

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[1] This would be the ‘viable’ part of the viable systems model. Ivo Velitchkov gave a talk on Requisite Inefficiency, the seeming waste in a system that is necessary for its continued existence.

[2] A hat tip to one of our readers who thought that we don’t spend enough time talking about erosion as a source of soil…

[3] All problems are created by solutions…

[4] You’ll eat a peck of dirt before you die, said my grandmother. Modern usage is as though that’s a bad thing…