Water In Plain Sight by Judith D. Schwartz – Book Review

water in plain sight

Water in Plain Sight

I read much of this book while sitting under a gorgeous acacia tree in Maasai land, Kenya. The temperature under the tree was pleasant and it protected my lily white December skin from blistering in the harsh sun that was beating down. This accentuated the point made very clearly in Water in plain sight; we need trees to live successfully on planet earth. We were in Kenya to visit Dalmas Tiampati to better understand the issues faced by the Maasai tribe which include; desertification, water shortages and the breakdown of the pastoralist communities. The book turned out to be the perfect read for this wonderful experience.

‘Water in plain sight’ is one of the best books I have read in some time, and I’ve read a lot of good books! What’s wonderful about Judith is that she’s a writer, not a scientist. I have nothing against Scientists, I just don’t understand what they’re saying! Judith’s language is clear and the complex concepts she covers are easy to grasp.

Judith may not be a scientist but she has a deep understanding of her topic having been on the scene for years researching, visiting and campaigning with the leading minds in soil science and regenerative agriculture.

The ‘top take away’ from this book is this:

Drought is thought of as a result of what does or doesn’t come down from the sky. That’s not the issue. What predicts drought is the condition of the soil and how well it ‘holds’ onto any precipitation.

The scientific concepts and evidence in the book are presented through the tales of experiences Judith has had whilst researching the book.

Although I have a good understanding of soil health and holistic management, I found some real ‘fall off your seat’ revelations in this book that changed my view of climate change so profoundly I have subsequently bored many people with them since my return!

Sorry, you’re next.

Most people think of climate change as a consequence of increased greenhouse gases caused by fossil fuels and burping cows – among a few other things! We’ve been told this has led to our changing weather patterns and devastating droughts.

The changes in weather caused the desert, right? Well, maybe it’s not that simple.

Anyone that studies modern soil science or understands holistic planned grazing knows that much of our increased atmospheric CO2 burden is caused by the way we manage land. Changes in grazing patterns and the mass reduction of wild herbivores in the seasonal rainfall areas of the world has caused the healthy grassland ecosystems to degrade toward unproductive desert. All of the ‘locked up’ carbon is released as gas as the deep soil organic matter gradually breaks down. Some scientists think we may have lost up to half of our original soil Carbon stock since the dawn of agriculture; nothing to be proud of I’d say.

But, I wasn’t aware of how influential forest are to the seasonal rainfall many of these ecosystems need to survive.

In water in plain sight, Judith covers the ‘Biotic pump theory’ which is, just that, a theory, but one that makes a heck of a lot of sense if you understand soil and nature. It was first introduced by Russian physicists Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva in 2007 and has been furthered by the Brazilian Scientist Antonio Nobre (see his fantastic Ted talk below), among others, who have been studying the effects of deforesting the amazon.

Here’s the theory in a nutshell: We’ve known for some time that forests – through the process of transpiration – create their own rainfall. One large tree in a rainforest can suck up 1000 litres of moisture a day and spit it out into the atmosphere above. When this cloud of moisture rises it needs to hit particles to form droplets and fall down as rain. Trees produce particles from their leaves that are perfectly suited to stimulating this ‘bioprecipitation’ process. In the meantime, it has cooled the forest environment like a giant air conditioning unit. The temperatures on rural land are as much as 20 Degrees cooler under forest than exposed cropland areas, a large rainforest tree having the same cooling effect as two air conditioning units yet with no energy requirement other than solar power! This efficient cooling system supports deep carbon-rich soils, enormous biomass and more wildlife than any other habitat on earth.

But what’s news to me is that when the rain falls back down to earth, a vacuum is created that draws in air from the surrounding areas. In the case of huge rainforests – such as the Amazon or the one that used to cover North Africa – the biomass was so enormous that it may have caused entire weather systems to be drawn in from the coasts, carrying with it water from the sea!

On its journey from coast to forest, all this lovely weather will pass over huge distances and ‘service’ many communities and habitats along the way. But, if the biomass is reduced – through deforestation – to somewhere between 30-50% of a fully functioning pristine rainforest ecosystem then: slam, the pump shuts down. Very quickly your reliable rainfall turns to seasonal rainfall which in turn can’t sustain the thirsty habitats and down the spiral to desertification we go. Pretty scary considering the current rate of Amazon deforestation!

I find this INCREDIBLY terrifying yet encouraging at the same time. If forests can carry atmospheric moisture deep into continents then we know how to fix some of our world’s most serious issues. This could lead to a regreening of our planet as a way of locking down vast amounts of Carbon and resetting our disrupted global weather patterns. Pretty cool I think you’ll agree.

Clearly, more work needs to be done on this, and I hope this book helps the idea get into the hands of people in a position to do just that. Planting trees in desert simply doesn’t work, but we do know how to turn desert back into productive grassland through holistic planned grazing and holistic management, so from here taking the next step to helping suitable areas succeed to forest seems at least possible. Holistic planned grazing helps lock up huge amounts of carbon, increases food security in large parts of the world and is helping land become more resilient to rainfall fluctuations all the while.

Another inspiring character who features in water in plain sight is the Rancher Alajandro Carrillo who manages the Sierras Las Damas ranch in the Chihuahuan desert.

Alajandro and his fellow ranchers saw their land turn to desert under the ‘conventional’ set stocking cattle grazing regime they had inherited. Thankfully due to Holistic Management and planned grazing they’ve managed to ‘succeed unconventionally,’ their ranch is now an oasis of healthy grassland supporting people, huge herds of cattle and a breath-taking array of wildlife.

Take a look at their system in action.

These are just a couple of examples of a whole bundle of fascinating scientific discoveries, empowering success stories and encouraging concepts covered in the book.

I contemplated these stories as I looked out over the African sunset, the elegant acacia trees making a picture perfect silhouette against the fiery red sky. The smell of charcoal pits drifted in and out, a gentle but poignant reminder of how vulnerable our landscape is to even localised deforestation.

water in plain sight

Within a couple of years, large areas of rural Africa’s remaining Savannah trees will have steadily been burned for charcoal – farmers get the equivalent of about £60 for a mature acacia tree. The exposed land will suffer blistering temperatures, reduced capacity to feed people or provide water. The cattle will die and whole communities will add to burgeoning city populations where they’ll have to fight for jobs and food grown from ever diminishing areas of degraded farmland.

Is this an inevitable consequence 0f ‘climate change’ or the result of management?

Reducing Carbon emissions and finding sustainable technological solutions to climate change is important, but, perhaps we need to focus more on management we can influence to make us more resilient.

Our thousands of years of ‘civilisation’ have taught us nothing about how to sustain life on our planet; the only home we have. Nature doesn’t need us, she’ll do just fine on her own once we’re gone! We need to learn from her now, not blindly continue ‘mining’ until all the natural resources are diminished.

Thankfully there’s a growing movement of people who understand that the only way our species will survive is if we regrow our ecological bank account and live off the ‘interest.’ I believe it can be done, but we need to spread the word and sell this ‘biological revolution’ fast. ‘Water in plain sight’ does this exceptionally well, and, I for one, think it is a book EVERYONE should read.

Well done Judith.

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  1. fabulous and inspiring stuff

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