John Wick and the Marin Carbon Project
By Grace Rogers
It all started with a barn and a core of Nicasio Spirit. And now global is on the horizon.
I would actually need to embark on about 10 dissertation projects to adequately do justice to the Marin Carbon Project that John Wick and his wife, Peggy, have journeyed into, but I will try to touch on the part that was presented to our invaluable Marin Conservation League (MCL) tour on Friday, Oct. 11. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover MCL’s role starting before the advent of the Golden Gate Bridge in protecting Marin’s environmental resources. (Those wanting information on MCL history can contact them directly or visit conservationleague.org.)
The Marin Carbon Project seeks to play a major and pivotal role in reducing global warming through the process of soil carbon sequestration. The project is a collaboration whose members include Nicasio Native Grass Ranch, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Marin Organic, Marin Resource Conservation District, UC Berkeley, UC Cooperative Extension, US Department of Agriculture, and Natural Resources Conservation Service. It has also consulted globally.
Born in Milwaukee, John Wick is a true “Valley soul” having been raised in Woodacre. I have had several wonderful connections with the Wick family starting back when I first joined the San Geronimo Community Presbyterian Church, and his mother’s gentle spirit was evident nearly every Sunday. John’s brother, Bruce, has also been an important Valley presence, amongst other connections providing excellent contracting services for the church’s building projects.
John attended Drake High School and then San Francisco State University. This was probably a transition between education for the importance of being educated to education in the service of curiosity and purpose. One early purpose was the need for space to accommodate computer graphics output, and hence John and Peggy’s move to Nicasio and a piece of land that had a barn big enough.
They basically came to the areas as “leave-it-alone-wilderness enthusiasts” and stopped the cattle grazing expecting native wilderness to again have its day. However, soon the changes they noticed did not resemble their ideal at all but more a chaos of weeds. They began to do what they do so well – ask questions and get educated. While John and Peggy seemed to grasp that our globe is an integrated circuit, they increasingly understood through research and science how they could be a very important part in the health of that integrated circuit. This included John’s study of how human events can, often innocently, start both helpful and damaging outcomes.
A startling example of just such a human event was Thomas Jefferson’s perfection of the plow. It did seem like a good thing for a very long time. However, this began the years of re-arranging topsoil, critically, at a faster rate than had been reached by traditional tilling. This event apparently triggered an increase in atmospheric carbon not found in cores of ice formed at any time previously. A momentous year 1750 turned out to be!
Their quest for knowledge led them to Ph.D. Rangeland Ecologist Jeff Cereque who shared how the combination of grazing management and the application of compost had resulted in an increase in soil carbon. Their curiosity started going global. If the earth is covered by rangeland more than other systems, then perhaps their expanding understanding of rangeland management could actually dramatically increase the flow of carbon into soil globally.
John explained, “Its not about emissions, it is about soil management – soil carbon management.” It is about the carbon cycle. Going back to the chaos of weeds growing on their land, he and Peggy specifically wanted to get rid of the annual pest wooly distaff thistle so that native – think 300-500 years old – perennial grasses could thrive. Our native grasses have dramatically longer roots that lead to carbon sequestration from the air into the soil. Because their roots are longer they can deliver this carbon at a deeper level where its benefits are far stronger. Deep-rooted native plants are both better for our hills and for foraging animals like cattle – and for ourselves.
Simple? Well, both yes and no. “It does matter to a grass plant when it is eaten,” John said. When the cow breaks off the chocolate-to-the-cow top portion of the native perennial grasses on its way to the ruminating process, the grass goes into shock. A grass plant has this in common with most living things – it needs to recover from shock before it can get back to the serious business of its purpose on earth. It also matters if their dung is de-wormer free. Thus management of the cattle to a grazing area is also important. If there are cattle grazing too long in an area, the grass plants do not have adequate time to recover. This starts a complex sequence of events whereby the lower part of the plant is now the only part of the grass available for grazing animals. However, it does not serve their health as well, and perhaps more importantly the plants did not have adequate regenerative opportunities to get that sugar back into that top nutritious part of the plant for when the cow grazes on by. To help study this further, John and Peggy created a series of composted study plots on their land.
Enter cooperative ranching. The nearby Lunny family has a herd free of de-wormers that could benefit from the native grasses that John and Peggy’s study plots had been yielding. This is in no small way because John’s goals for their land need cattle grazing rhythm – not too much and not too little – that mimics our local history of having elk seasonally move through an area. The migrating grazing animal moves through leaving behind a field no longer being trampled and nibbled upon. Then the grasses are left to regenerate that most nutritious and desirable part of itself in readiness for another migration. Just such an arrangement exists between how John and Peggy manage their plots and how the Lunny’s manage their herds.
John and MCP’s efforts are demonstrating that the earth’s carbon cycle is central to soil health. Carbon, I had not realized, is far more complex than just the word itself, which I have been exposed to since elementary school. There is a fixed amount of carbon on Earth. This carbon is in one of five carbon pools at any moment, and is transformed as it moves between these pools. In the ocean carbon pool, the hydrosphere, it is carbonic acid. In the air carbon pool, the atmosphere, it is the familiar carbon dioxide. It is in all living things, the biosphere, where carbon is in the form of carbohydrates, which comes from plants through photosynthesis as they transform atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. Then, some of this carbon enters the topsoil carbon pool, the pedosphere, as carbon in one of three carbon fractions.
Carbon is in the cells of all living matter – that means you and me as well as broccoli. This gets more complex than the scope of this article, and I refer you to the article on John in the April 25, 2013 edition of the West Marin Citizen. The important thing here is that there are soil carbon fractions that in the carbon cycle are critical for the health of the foraging animals and retain the most water. To quote John, “Soil that is carbon-rich holds more water, which promotes more plant growth, which pulls more carbon into the soil, which holds more water…” Well you get the idea!
After time, biosphere carbon enters the bottom-most carbon pool, the lithosphere. This is where we find such inedible treasures as diamonds – oh, and natural gas, crude oil and coal. But that ideal topsoil carbon pool, the pedosphere, however, is at just the right depth for our native grasses, and the plow that has, as it turns out, been disrupting this carbon cycle since 1750.
Reversing the cycle
John’s research supports that with this approach to surface area management – including avoided emissions from diverting waste from landfills – we can pull 68 tons of air-borne carbon per hectare (10,000 square meters) back into the soil over 30 years and thus realistically reverse global warming. Also integral in John’s carbon management explorations is understanding that composting rangeland just one time can start a cycle of increasing carbon sequestration without additional composting for at least 30 years, perhaps even 100! Current indications are that John’s carbon cycle land management techniques can yield up to 50 percent more forage and hold approximately 26,000 liters of water per hectare per year. This starts happening, now, within a year of application.
John and MCP’s research substantiates that this level of managing the carbon cycle is just the kind of event to reverse the disruption of the cycle inadvertently started by Thomas Jefferson’s plow. In other words, his efforts, and those of his many colleagues, to reverse global warming support that it is indeed possible and needn’t take centuries to accomplish. John and Peggy have been very thorough and careful in their research and dedication to this work along with some of the best minds in the field(s) of our earth’s health and its ability to continue to sustain us and interdependent life forms.
I particularly loved John’s description of cows, an animal that as a girl I was particularly taken with when I would confidentially enter their fields and gaze into their amazingly gentle eyes. Like children, they love and respond to boundaries and can be taught to eat their “spinach,” in this case wooly distaff, and which in a form edible to cows packs in more nutrition than alfalfa. Just train them to recognize and experience it as food, and they go for it in a big way. Don’t want to fence them in? Then define an invisible boundary by having a cattle horse walk rings around them and voila, they are “placed.”
It was curiosity and research that led to an idea about dealing with the wooly distaff plant – originally from Syria – and can become a thorny thistle menace to foraging animals. That idea was to “use it to death.” This is also another example of John’s approach to connect ethics with practicality to come up with a win-win solution. The base of their flower tastes a bit like an artichoke and can be eaten by people – John and Peggy have served them as appetizers. Once cattle recognize them as food they can prevent those 1500 seeds per annual plant from sprouting again with the next rain.
Disrupting the cycle
One last thing that I will address concerns the management of general waste, compost, and human waste. The health of our environment, from what plants ingest to what we eat, is impacted by how and what we ask this same environment to absorb. For instance, our pharmaceuticals, plastics, and chemicals can get into the cycle variously from us directly, giving it to animals, washing things down the drain, or spraying on fields; and they can all disrupt the effectiveness of the carbon cycle. Startling examples are elements in the coal tar dye used to make our jeans blue, chromium and cobalt. Kudos to Levi Strauss; they are working with the Fibershed Project whose natural indigo dyes are a safe source for blue pigments.
It brought to my mind how a seemingly innocent purchase could be affecting my own health. Thus in the interest of large-scale composting if there are too many problematic compounds getting in the compost we could be actually be doing more harm than good. And finally, the technology for composting and processing human waste into safe – yes they have the technology to verify this contained in a Fig Newton-sized, handheld chip – and sweet smelling compost that is free of dangerous pathogens is very much right here in the works, including 20 pilot homes in Bolinas.
Many questions remain and the thorough investigative process continues.
My hat is off to John and Peggy! They are doing it right starting with commitments of health to themselves, their land, their community and their world. And for those who know the 4-H Pledge, this is it! They are embracing careful research and consulting with a wide range of recognized specialists, many of whom just happen to be in the Bay Area. And it all started with a barn – along with their curiosity and their legacies of compassion for all living things on earth.
Acknowledgement: My appreciation to John Wick for his contributions in the content and review of this article.
Published November 2013