Controlling Erosion

How to prevent erosion, including controlling erosion, how it happens, fighting erosion with plants, vegetation, conquering the splatter, and gullies.


| March/April 1986



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As you can see, a gully is really the result of erosion — not the cause. Yet once the gully gets established, it brings about many severe problems.


ILLUSTRATION: MICHAEL HARNEY

A visitor from outer space might have a good laugh at how we handle — or don't handle — erosion. Our homes have locks on the door, latches on the window, and insurance policies in the dresser drawer, and we support a huge police and prison system — largely to protect a few cameras, watches, and other gewgaws. Meanwhile, outside our windows, every rainstorm carries away thousands of tons of valuable topsoil upon which we depend for our very survival. Our scale of values is pathetically confused, when you stop to think about it. With modern assembly-line methods, we could replace a stolen stereo in a few hours. Yet it takes nature almost a thousand years to rebuild one inch of topsoil.

Controlling Erosion

Some people, especially farmers, have a fatalistic attitude toward erosion. Land erodes, they feel, just as people grow old, automobiles sputter and stall, and apple trees eventually give out. But land is not like that. It does not have to erode. In fact, a healthy land adds humus and builds up its fertility every year. Individual plants and animals die, giving up their lives to help build a healthy, vital, growing soil for future generations of plants and animals. This nourishing of the soil is what makes death meaningful and even beautiful. Think about that for a moment, and don't accept erosion as a "fact of life."

Another conceptual trap you can fall into is the "Grand Canyon argument." Erosion built the Grand Canyon, so the argument goes, implying that erosion is a natural process that should not be interfered with. But erosion is "natural" only in desert-like areas where there is too little rainfall to maintain a thick growth of vegetation. When the rain does come, it is often in raging torrents that wash away the sparsely vegetated soil and create the dramatic canyons and badlands of the American West. Elsewhere, however, erosion is unnatural, the result of man's misuse of the land.

I have an almost missionary zeal whenever I think of erosion control. But there is one thing I should not gloss over. Fighting erosion is a hard, heavy battle; and, as with any other worthwhile battle, there's a good chance that you will lose. Water erosion is a strong, persistent enemy. It's a fascinating enemy too: crafty, treacherous, sneaky, unforgiving, unforgetting, mindless, and merciless. Supposedly you can make a pact with the devil, but not with erosion.

In this article there are instructions for building check dams, contour trenches, and wattles. Follow these instructions and you'll have good reason to expect success. Most of the time. But there is also a good chance that an exceptionally heavy rain, exceptionally unstable soil, or a minor fault in construction will allow the water to wash your structure right away. When that happens, what are you left with? If you and whoever works with you did not enjoy the experience of working together, you are left with nothing. Less than nothing! But if the experience of building and planting was warm, cooperative, compassionate, and friendly, the project was a success whether the check dams hold or not.

As an engineering venture, you should build your structures as if they were going to last forever. Perhaps they will. But as a spiritual venture you should treat the whole thing as if success or failure of the structures is totally irrelevant. Make sure the process is human and loving, have fun, and open your eyes to the here and now. Saving soil is important, but not at the expense of losing a group of kids or a group of friends.





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