Episode #72 Webs of Connection: Rebuilding soil, talking with bees and the magic of fungi with Navona Gallegos
Regenerative Farming – or Agro-ecology – is being widely recognised as one of the best ways to mitigate the climate crisis. But how does it actually work? What can we do with our back gardens, our rooftops, our local verges to make a difference? Navona Gallegos explains the science – and the spirit – of working with the land.
We first spoke with Navona in podcast #55 when she had newly moved onto the land she was starting to farm in New Mexico. In this podcast, she returns to talk about how her work is progressing there – and to talk more deeply about the actual mechanisms we can use to draw carbon down into our soils.
Read more from Navona about her vision below the podcast block…
“Where I am called is to bring more focus on the fungi, as that really is the ‘how’ of soil regeneration, be it agricultural, forest, greening deserts, whatever, and I don’t hear people talking about that enough. We know fungi and their glomalin are what sequester carbon (mitigate climate change, reverse ocean acidification, etc.) and cycle macro and micro nutrients thereby increasing abundance and nutrient content in foods thereby increasing the capacities of those who eat those foods.
Last time I spoke about fungi in relation to the soil food web, but I’d like to really make clear how and why fungi are the keystone to soil health and therefore human health, land health, etc. and how we support them and get out of their way. Fungi are the neural network of the Earth, communicating the state of the environment to plants and giving them the tools to respond. By facilitating plant growth, fungi are also changing climate patterns; there are many examples of how revegetating an arid area brings more rainfall.
And so, I have a vision I’d like to speak on (that is SO possible) of vast stretches of land, even whole continents, once again connected in mycelial webs. I think that is a goal we should set for our species for the next seven generations because if we have that, we have connected ecosystems and watersheds that are clean, abundant, biodiverse, adaptable, and full of so much food, fiber, and fuel for humans and more than humans. Just like disease is broadly described as a breakdown of communication within the body, the destruction of those mycelial networks through tillage and other harmful practices marked the start of the wetiko culture.
The ‘how’ is simple: plant a wide diversity of plants, mostly annuals; bring more wood into systems via mulch and hugel culture and leaving woody debris (and I can go into how that lignin is decomposed by fungi into humic substances, which are the storehouses of the soil for carbon and other nutrients and even DNA information of other types of life forms that is stable for thousands of years as well as cleans contaminated soil by binding contaminants, AND how fungi are the gatekeepers to those stores and information, choosing when to draw on them); use fungal composts (not bacterial dominated); stop disturbing the soil (there are ample resources now for no-till and I can elaborate); rotational grazing with animals to increase plants vigor and diversity; do not pull weeds, rather create a more fungal soil and watch the ‘weeds’ back off on their own (ie, create what we want rather than resist what we don’t want).
As far as the ‘how’ socially/politically, it’s all about changing our thinking and viewing the world as alive. Rather than paving over an empty lot or growing mono-crop grass lawns, let’s create ordinances that promote more ground cover and diversity. This advocacy doesn’t just have to be about making more human food. We need rooftop gardens everywhere possible to mitigate the heat island effect and create positive feedback loops of rainfall and temp. that allow more growth. Mulch your leaves instead of bagging and throwing them away. Everyone can find a way to promote this either in stopping destructive gardening and growing practices or by advocating for community growing spaces or by guerilla hugeling, planting, seed-saving, foraging, and buying locally. Long-lived indigenous cultures all have practices that support fungal networks. One of the main issues I see when I consult on soil building is a psychological clinging to control when the system really needs to just be left alone and supported in simple ways. The more we rewild our minds and our communities, the more we will get away from the perceived need to micro-manage, the more we can hear the voices of the land so our actions are efficient and effective, AND simultaneously build the equivalent of human mycelial networks where we can trade tools and information in an open-source way.
I don’t have a lot of concrete ideas myself around how to build political will. Rather, where I’m at is simply the acknowledgement that we need to change our thinking fundamentally and let go of scarcity/wetiko culture by reconnecting. Fungi are literally the (re)connectors of terrestrial life. My personal path toward reconnection is by changing how we grow food in our gardens and farms so that fungi thrive and imbue us with better nutrition as well as inoculate our guts us with, well, themselves and their voices (heard through our microbiome, cravings, hormonal regulation, etc.).
Personally, the more I do this, the more I am connected to my (new-to-me) land through dreams of when it will rain, when a certain plant will drop seeds, etc. Or I am visited by a honey bee who spends twenty minutes walking on my hand and I am left with the knowledge that they are there, that they need me to plant flowers to them to pollinate. The more time I spend inoculating myself with the flora around me (eating the wild plants, grasses, bark), the more I am able to safely drink the water on this land without filtration, which I couldn’t do when I arrived in Dec. When I do actions like mulching, I am walking the talk of my earth-based spirituality and the land spirits take notice and support.”
Manda: Hey, people, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast, to the place where we believe that another world is still possible and that together we can make it happen. I’m Manda Scott, your host at this place on the web where art meets activism, politics meets philosophy and science meets spirituality, all in the service of Conscious Evolution. And this week, I am delighted to welcome back to the podcast Navona Giorgos. Navona was in podcast number 55 towards the end of last year, which is 2020, and at the end of that podcast we both thought that we had at least one more podcast in us. There was so much richness and depth and practical help that we could give people within the field of really connecting to the Land at a spiritual level and at a practical level so that we can ask of the Land, what do you want of me? And answer in real time, which is what the entire larger Accidental Gods membership programme is all about us learning how to do this. And with Navona we have someone who is actually doing it. So I wanted to come back to her because she had just moved on to the Land when we interviewed her last year and she’s been there for a few months and it’s spring and we wanted to look at how is that going, what’s changing, what’s deepening, what’s different. But we also wanted to mind the depths of Navona’s, extensive learnt scientific experience; this is where science meets spirituality in terms of how all of us can help the Land to regenerate and thereby sequester carbon, bring carbon back from the air in the form of carbon dioxide and embedded in the Land, growing the soil, growing it back to where it used to be, going back to where we need it to be, where we can get much more biodiversity above ground and below ground.
And for those of you for whom that phrase is new, this is about getting lots and lots of species all living together, because that’s how the world works. It’s only when people come along that we create those monocultures where everything is the same: from your lawn to the serried rows of pine trees in the forest. These are not how the world is designed to work. And Navona’s really been working at the level of the mycorrhizal networks, the fungal networks under the soil that, again, are many, many, many different species relating to many different species of plants.
In our email conversations back and forth, she had created a really glorious vision of us creating the web of these mycobacteria and mycorrhizal fungi across the world down the seven generations. And it so resonated with the podcast we did a couple of weeks ago with the Children’s Fire, about really beginning to live as if we were planning for the next seven generations, because that’s what we need to do. And as we record, Joe Biden in the White House has gathered together his climate summit online and is actually talking sense. So this feels a really hopeful podcast at a really good time. So people of the podcast, please welcome Navona Galiegos. So Navona, welcome back to the Accidental Gods podcast. I gather you’re having quite an exciting spring out there in New Mexico. Tell us about the wind.
Navona: Oh, the wind is so strong. There’s so much force. It’s so alive and moving, so many things and tossing lots of tumbleweeds into our acequia. Luckily, I have a lot of friends here with me on this Land. And so yesterday we spent a while cleaning big knots of tumbleweeds out of the ditch, so that we could irrigate and let the water go down to our neighbours.
Manda: Gosh. And is this, does it have a name, this wind? Is it one of these seasonal ones that is going to turn into something really destructive, or is it just that this happens around this time of year and then it’ll go back to being my image of hot, baking New Mexico?
Navona: No, this is this is normal. Actually, this is typical April weather here.
Manda: And when do you get it really hot, then? You do get it really hot? I didn’t dream that up?
Navona: Yeah, we do. Well, you know, I’m at 6000 feet, so I’m between Taos and Santa Fe, and those places are both higher and 7000 feet. So we’re in the high desert. It gets pretty chilly, and then it gets cold, and then also gets hot. But it depends where you are in the state. So there are places where, like where I used to farm in Tucumcari, in the eastern part of the state, where it would be 110 by two o’clock in the afternoon. And it was just brutal, starting in June.
Navona: Yeah. Up here, a little higher elevation, it’s a little more merciful and it might get into the 90s, but it’s that’s Fahrenheit.
Manda: So I just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future and it starts out with wet bulb heat of 35 degrees centigrade. I have no idea what that is in Fahrenheit. Oh, actually, it must be about over 100. And once the humidity is that high, what happens is it wipes out 20 million people in India. Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but that is the first chapter. So it’s OK. I didn’t spoil too much. I hadn’t really taken on board what happens when you get that much heat with that much humidity, and and sweating doesn’t work to cool you down. And everybody just basically cooks. It is not something we want to head for. So with that in mind, and with the understanding that we need to do as much as we can as soon as we can, you are now a friend of the podcast coming back for the second time, because there seemed to be so much more left to talk about after last time, and specifically along the lines of exactly, practically and logistically, how do we draw carbon out of the sky and into the soil, and build the ecosystems that we want? And that’s the first thing to talk about. And then I really, towards the end, want to listen to you talk about how it’s been as you have begun to connect to the spirit of the Land that you’re with, and how it’s teaching you, because that seemed really profound. But let’s start off with the carbon drawdown. Tell us about that.
Navona: So last time we talked about the soil food web, and all these different players in the soil food web: the bacteria, the protozoa, nematodes, fungi, the insects, the above ground animals, the roots of the plants, all these different parts that are played, and the ‘how’ of it. What I really focus on is the fungi, because they’re the ones who sequester carbon, because plants, as they photosynthesise, they send around 30 percent, in a lot of systems, of the carbon that they draw out of the atmosphere, CO2, into their roots, into fungi, who then sequester that carbon in soil and the structures of soil. So that’s, yeah, that’s the mechanism that we are working with: the living, breathing mechanism that allows us to draw carbon out of the atmosphere, which then draws carbon out of the oceans, mitigating ocean acidification.
Manda: Yeah, and fairly urgent, I think. One of the things that struck me reading Ministry for the Future was the factoid at the beginning that if we burn more than 500 billion – or if we emit more than 500 billion tons of carbon equivalents, then we’re into climate tipping points from which there is no return. And we’re currently burning between 40 and 52 billion tons a year. So, whew, we have a very, very short – and that arithmetic was done two years ago. And as we record, Joe Biden is convening an online virtual conference saying, “This matters, people, and we need to do something.” Which is really heartening. And I’m guessing he knows that data as much as anybody else does. So this is urgent. And at the same time as worrying about carbon, we also have, as you said, ocean acidification, but we’ve also got the vast ecosystems of the health and the vibrancy of our planet that have been eroded over the years and are also reaching a tipping point. So you were talking towards the end of the last podcast about the ways that soil health impacts human health. And particularly one of the things that we didn’t dive into that I would like to is how our gut biome influences our behaviour. And so our association with the soil becomes more than simply see something, grow it and eat it, which may be a bit of an aside, because we haven’t really finished talking about fungi, but I do want to get to that. So pick from whichever direction you want to go. We want to talk a lot about the networks of fungi and what to do and how to do it. Shall we head for that first? Let’s do that, and then we can talk about biomes later. So we’ve got the fungi that are really key to drawing the carbon out of the air and bringing it into the soil. Let’s go over again a bit more about the sense of networks and webs, because that feels like something really important. And not everybody listening will have listened to the last podcast.
Navona: It’s interesting all of the things you bring up, because they’re also interrelated and they all do come back to the fungi. So we are blessed with terrestrial life because of fungi. We were able to, life was able to leave the ocean and come onto land and turn the mineral in rocks into something bioavailable that plants, and animals eventually, could eat because of fungi, because fungi are the master chemists of the Gaia, and they can take nearly any chemical and any molecule and attach it to other molecules in ways that human science can’t even touch, and turn it into something bioavailable. And so we have these webs of nutrient cycling on Earth that look like plants drawing carbon from the atmosphere as they photosynthesise, and creating sugars and carbohydrates that they then feed into their roots. And they’re doing this in a sort of ‘conscious cocreator’ way where they get to choose which specific nutrients they need. And so they will exude the specific sugars and specific carbohydrates that will feed either bacteria or fungi or other organisms that will do some other chemical reaction, magic in the soil, to then feed the plants. So it’s this very interrelated web of the plant roots, which we always want present in the system in order for nutrient cycling to happen, in order to feed the above-ground organisms, including us, or animals that we eat, and the below-ground organisms. There’s just nearly infinite different types of bacteria and fungi that do all sorts of different reactions and digestion and ways of turning the soil into the plants.
Manda: And can I ask, this is a really basic question, and it may be actually that it’s not answerable, but you said they get to choose what it is that they kind of pass around. At what level is that choice made, and do we know the mechanism of it?
Navona: Oh, that’s a good question. Yeah, I mean, I certainly don’t know the mechanism of it. And plant consciousness is fascinating to me, because you can have a plant like a hemp plant, and you can before it starts flowering, you can take a cutting off of it and put it in water, and it’ll grow roots. And then you can grow a whole nother plant, and you can clone all these plants like that. You can also clone fungi like that, too. And so what is that experience of consciousness? I have no idea. Oh, it’s fascinating. But we do know that plants will have different fungi, different bacteria on different parts of their roots. And the bacteria and the fungi will dictate what the ph is even, in different parts of their roots. So they might be associating with some mycorrhizal, which is, mycorrhizal just means a fungus that symbiotically works with plants. And it has to join with a plant root in order to live. So it’ll be connected to some mycorrhizal fungi, fungus on one of its roots, and be cycling certain nutrients and micronutrients like boron, calcium, magnesium on one root, and then on another root it’s connecting with some nitrogen-fixing bacteria, say if it’s a legume, and it’s creating these nodules with nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
Manda: All right. So there’s an awful lot of stuff going on that we we don’t fully understand. How surprising is that? And I remember somebody, and it may have been you, saying that the fungi can go down metres and metres down to the rock layers below the subsoil to get the the mineral atoms that they need, and draw them back up to the surface. Was that you that told me that? Is it true?
Navona: It is true. Yes, definitely. And that mineral is not so far down. They can go, you know, hundreds of feet deep, especially if they’re aided by plant roots that go that far down. And also as long as there’s rock, you know, in any given cubic foot of dirt on the Earth. And I’m saying dirt as opposed to soil, because soil is this living web of all these different organisms, and some of their dead bodies. And it’s made of organic matter as well as mineral. That’s soil. But dirt is just mineral. And that’s what we have in a lot of deserts where there’s very little organic matter in there. But in any given cubic foot of dirt anywhere on the planet, there are all of the earliest… Doctor Elaine Ingham, one of the soil microbiology gurus of our time, says that there are all of the nutrients that plants need. Oh, science says that plants use 42 different nutrients and that list is always growing.
Manda: Yeah. So we haven’t counted it all yet. So at one point, you said that fungi are the neural network of the earth, communicating the state of the environment to plants and giving them the tools to respond. Can you say a little bit more about this neural network and how it works, and how it is and how it was and how it could be, because I guess it’s not in the state of optimum health at the moment.
Navona: So we can think of fungi as sort of the neurons of the earth. They’re connecting, especially the mycorrhizal fungi, are connecting all these different plants. So they connect with a plant root. And this is a consensual relationship where if the plant wants the fungus, if it has reason for this trading relationship, or they trade sugars and carbohydrates for potassium or magnesium or water or whatever that particular fungus can work with. And sometimes it’s multiple things, then they’ll go ahead and say, OK, yeah, let’s do this. And they form this relationship. And side note, if we’re fertilising, then the plant has no reason to make that connexion. So this fungus will not just associate with one plant, but will associate with many plants ideally. And so you start getting these interlocking webs of mycorrhizal fungi, connecting all of the trees in a forest as well as the bushes and the shrubs and the grasses, and these huge webs, and they’re all made of carbon. As these webs of fungi that connect all of the plant roots in a forest grow, and as that happens from sort of a disturbance of your fire, or a volcano or something, where we have little fungi, and then we start getting more and more plant roots, and we start with sort of the weeds, and we start moving with the help of more fungi into grasslands, and then deciduous forests, and then eventually we have these old growth coniferous forests and a lot of places, depending on how much rainfall there is, that sort of the trajectory of ecological succession, and it’s all mediated by more and more fungi. And so we end up with these vast networks of landscape watersheds that are connected by fungi. And they send signals between different plants, so if one plant is getting attacked by some particular insect, then it’ll send a very rapid signal. Like it happens in seconds. Actually, it’s really amazing. It’s a very rapid signal to all the other plants in the network that, OK, there are there are lots of grasshoppers. So you can start making the compounds that make you more bitter, to be less palatable to the grasshoppers. And furthermore, the fungi are the ones who help funnel the nutrients into the plants that help them become more bitter. So it’s really like the brain and the nervous system of an ecosystem.
Manda: Yeah. And when we plough, or we fertilise, or both, we break up this nervous system and then we stop the relationship reforming if we put fertiliser on, because the plants no longer have the incentive to build the symbiotic relationships. Is that right.
Manda: Oh, so it’s pretty disastrous. OK, so let’s assume that in our hunter-gatherer past 10000 plus years ago, forager-hunter past, whatever, these webs existed as neural webs across the planet. And for most of the agrarian revolution, we were not that efficient and we were using organic fertilisers, if at all. So it’s only really in the last 50, 60, 70 years that we’ve had the capacity to use fossil fuels, to till the Land so we can create huge tractors with huge ploughs, and we’ve had fossil fuel based fertilisers to spread across the land to completely destroy these neural networks. Given that that’s where we are, how do we get back? First of all, why do we want to get back to having neural networks that are around? I think that’s fairly self-evident, but let’s spell it out, and then how do we do it?
Navona: Well, the ‘why’, I like to draw an analogy with our own experience. So if we are disconnected from ourselves, that’s a state of disease, really. You know, one way of defining disease is a part of the body that’s not communicating with the rest of the body, especially with cancers, for example. And so once we start disconnecting ecosystems, we just completely hobble them. And so plants become less vigorous, can’t respond to climactic conditions, can’t support as many animals who lose biodiversity. And there’s so many things. So soil created by fungi can hold so much more water than dirt. So if we have living soil, we have this living, breathing sponge that can hold water, and release water at the right times and tempos that the plants need. Same with all the other nutrient fluxes that are going on. So once we start losing our topsoil, it’s just this really profound cascading effect of huge water loss, erosion, loss, nutrient loss, biodiversity loss. And it’s similar to in our own bodies: if we start to become disconnected from our different parts or, you know, and so if we want to get psychological about it, if we become disconnected from different parts of our selves, like our emotions, whatnot, then there’s just the sort of confused scarcity state where we can’t really react or plan for the future. Yeah, we can just sort of scramble to react to what’s going on right here. Yeah. So we have this experience with our species, right. With humans that we started tilling the soil and we started breaking up these fungal networks. And that was the same time in our history that we started doing hierarchy and conquest and you might say experiencing trauma in new ways. And passing along intergenerational trauma.
Navona: So I see this piece of allowing the fungi to do their job and to come back in the same way that we can, we are really called right now sort of, as above, so below to integrate all of our own parts back in. And it has a lot to do with resting, and leaving it alone, and letting go of the need for production. And that can sound a little challenging when we’re looking at all of the scarcity in the world right now, and our perceived scarcity, at least. And, you know, the need to feed so many humans all over the world. And that’s really, again, more of like a connectivity problem, right? Just like the building the soil is a connectivity issue. So the ‘how’ of it, the ‘how’ is that the fungi are there. The spores are in the soil, and they want to come back. And they’re always, the whole ecosystem is always trying to come back. Like if you leave a lot vacant, then you get weeds. And those are the first responders in an ecosystem who come in and start cycling nutrients, start getting some carbon into the system. And then as they start to fall down because they’re annuals and they get eaten, and turned into manure, then we start to get more fungi, and then the whole system of succession starts moving again. And so a big part of it that we can do is really to let it alone. But that takes a long time. And so we’re also called to A, just really understand what these systems are, and B, to help speed them up. So some of the ways that we can do that are to make fungally rich composts.
Manda: Yes. How do we do that? Because I’m really getting into making compost on the land here, but I don’t know how to make it fungally rich.
Navona: I think we talked about the Johnson-Su Bioreactor last time we chatted. And that’s, I’m curious how yours is doing.
Manda: Well, I don’t I don’t have one yet, but also I got the impression from you last time I’ve been lecturing Faith, Navona says that we’re only creating bacteria by doing this. We’re not creating fungi. Because what we have got here is a rotating, a big 250 litre throughput, rotating composter where I turn a handle, and four days later, the stuff I put in one end falls at the other end. And then I put it in a maturing bin and then we put that on the Land, and it’s just gorgeous. So we’ve got a mixture of household food, horse dung, horse manure, chicken, chicken dung, chicken manure, and the kind of shavings that they’re on is most of the throughput at the moment. But that’s because it’s been going through the winter and we’re waiting to have more plant material to put into it. And in the spring, in the summer and the autumn. But I don’t know. I have no idea how it’s going other than it looks nice now.
Navona: Well, if we’re trying to make fungally rich soils or compost, then it’s very simple because we just have to feed the fungi, right? And so the question is, what do the fungi eat? And they can decompose pretty much anything. But what they really thrive on is lignin. So wood, woody materials. One of the things I suggest for folks out here, if they don’t want to actually go to all of the work of making a compost, is just to mix their food scraps with woodchips and then spread that. And I’ve actually grown incredible, incredible hemp plants just by doing that in a backyard.
Manda: Can I ask a quick question? Do you not end up with a thousand rats as well? With food, and wood chips?
Navona: You know, I remember you mentioning that!
Manda: It’s my obsession!
Navona: Well, it’s interesting. It actually makes me think about just the differences in the places we are because I don’t. Yeah, but I have dogs around, and there are snakes, and there are birds. So, yeah, might just be a different situation ecologically.
Manda: We don’t have an issue here, but where I was at college, where they had a really lovely composting system and it was, the whole place was vegetarian / vegan, but the food scraps were managed basically by putting them in composting bins made from pallets, wooden pallets. So lots of variation, but perfect, perfect home. And you lift, if you weren’t careful, you would lift the lid off and there would be many, many generations of very happy rats, very charming and lovely, but not great when you lift the lid off and they all come out. So it was quite a, you know, a long lasting experience. So we’re putting a lot of wood wood because the fungi like the lignin. And they, so they can decompose wood, so we can have solid wood? Or chips? What’s best?
Navona: Yeah, chips go faster just because they have more surface area. But solid wood is fine, too. And fungi are the only organisms that can decompose wood on Land except for one type of bacteria called actinobacteria. We have a lot of that in our compost piles here. If they get a little too dry for the fungi… and they’re OK, actinobacteria are fine. They decompose things and create some nutrients, but they inhibit fungal growth. So if you reach into your compost pile and you get this little poof of white, it’s almost like ash, then you know that you have actinobacteria. And actinobacteria are usually found in this sort of shell circle, in the compost, and if you go deeper in, then you’re probably anaerobic inside of that, you’re getting a little too hot, maybe a little too dry, and it needs a turn.
Manda: What’s the ideal temperature?
Navona: So when we’re composting, we again, we’re just trying to make the cosiest, most nourishing environment for the fungi, right? So we want to feed them what they want to eat, which is lignin, and a diversity of lignin, because we always want a diversity of fungi. And a diversity of fungi brings a diversity of bacteria and nematodes, protozoa, everything else. Fungi is really the keystone in the in the soil. All of the parts matter a lot, including the animal, the sort of macro fauna parts. But we can’t have any of it without the fungi. And if we have the fungi, then the rest of it sort of takes care of itself. So we also want it to be aerobic, right? So there are some anaerobic fungi, especially yeasts, and those aren’t really who we’re selecting for in soil, because we want the aerobic fungi. Those are the ones that partner with the plant roots, the ones that do the decomposition and create all these medicines, especially the the mushroom medicines that we might be looking for. Those are all aerobic organisms. So when a compost pile heats up to anywhere between 130 and 170 Fahrenheit, then if it’s between that temperature range for more than three days, it starts to become anaerobic. Which is to say that the reason it’s heating up is because there’s all this metabolism going on, all this, you know, the fungi and bacteria, especially because the bacteria have these fast life cycles, like they live fast and die young, and they reproduce a lot.
Manda: The James Dean of the plant world, yay!
Navona: They are, the fungi are slower growing, you know, and so you can have like thousands of bacterial generations during a couple of fungal generations, which is sort of this interesting analogy for what we’re doing here, trying to slow down and look into the future a little bit more. But anyway, so in the centre of a compost pile, as it’s heating up, there is all this metabolising going on, all this digesting, and it takes oxygen. But if it goes on at that temperature for more than three days, then they have used up the oxygen in that centre. So those aerobic organisms die off or go into stasis, and then the anaerobics step in and start doing their job. But we don’t really need or want anaerobes in our compost, in our soils. They don’t do any of the functions that the aerobes do of sequestering carbon and holding water and all these things. So that’s when we turn the compost. OK, so one extreme is that it gets too dense, and it gets too hot and anaerobic. Or the other extreme is that it’s too dry, and the metabolism can’t quite kick up and start moving. So we want to make sure that it’s about 60 percent wet. So if you grab a handful of the compost and squeeze it, that you get a drop or two of water coming out, not a river of water flowing out, but just a drop or two if you really squeeze it. And if you don’t get any water, then, you know, you want to add a little bit.
Manda: And how long do you let it sit for before you put it out on the Land?
Navona: Well, so there are some different composting techniques, right? So what I was just describing is a thermophilic compost. So a compost that you let heat up and you turn it once it’s done about three days at that hot stage, and you turn it and then it’ll come back to that hot stage again and then you turn it again. And that happens maybe four or five times, and then you let it sit for a couple of months. And that allows more organisms to arrive, because every time you turn it, you’re breaking up some of the fungal mycelium. And you’re also, this is kind of cute, actually. You’re kind of scaring away the nematodes and the protozoa, the little things that swim. So they flee. You can see this if you’re looking at your compost samples, like they’ll be there if you leave the compost alone for a few days, and then you turn it, and they all take off and go back into the dirt or whatever is around. And then you let it sit for a couple of months and they come back, which is adorable. The best compost that I’ve found for bringing fungi into the soil, and I’m happy to say I finally built a couple, is the Johnson-Su bioreactor. So the Johnson- Su is excellent because it’s a static compost. You make this big cylinder and you can find directions online.
Manda: Yep, I’ll put them in the show notes.
Navona: It has these tubes that you take out of it. And so there’s a nice surface area to volume ratio that allows it to be aerobic, but you don’t have to turn it. And so the fungi can really do their thing without disturbance. And the prozo and the nematodes can also come in, and you can put earthworms in it, and you let that sit for a year, a whole year. And after that, it’s such gold. David Johnson has been applying it to rangelands out here where it’s just so dead, it’s just bare dirt, and finding just so much regeneration coming from that. And so if you inoculate with some of this fungal compost and then also add some mulch on top, it’s tremendous.
Manda: So we can talk about composting for a long, long time. But let’s move on to: you have a vision of a mycelial web stretching down the generations. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Navona: I do, yeah. Thank you. So if we do these things to help the fungi come back, and / or get out of the fungi’s way, so if we stop applying fertilisers, we stop overgrazing. The problem with overgrazing is that it destroys plants and plant roots. And so the fungi have less to associate with, and less biomass to work with. If we stop tilling, if we apply fungal inoculations, if we allow the earth to be covered in plant biomass, if we introduce more diversity by planting lots of different species of plants, lots of classes of plants, trees and legumes and grasses, then we’re helping the fungi to come back to a state that our ancestors would have recognised. Which is these huge connected webs of mycelium, especially mycorrhizal mycelium, that connect plants across hundreds, thousands of miles. So I really see this vision for the next seven generations for our species that we absolutely should make it a priority to create and nurture these fungal networks that can stretch across conceivably whole continents, and if we have the interconnectivity, then the type of intelligence is pretty hard to fathom. If we can understand that they’re sending signals about climate and nutrients and disturbances, yeah, just all the different experiences that plants are having, and that those signals can be sent within seconds across hundreds of feet. So then we scale that up to, you know, hundreds of miles, and we can have incredibly resilient ecosystems like we once had.
Speaker2: And that includes humans being part of those ecosystems, and all the benefits that we get from from living in those resilient ecosystems that can draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and hold water, and also clean up our soils, because the structures that the fungi make in soils, these humic substances, can bind all sorts of things through these incredibly complex carbon based structures that fungi will put vitamin A or a magnesium or any piece of petrochemical into. And it binds it up, so that it’s not washing away into our water, and it’s available when the fungi need it. And these structures are complex, and built in these lattices where other organisms like bacteria can actually get into them. So the fungi can decide whether they’re single celled hypha, which are the little strands that make mycelium. They can decide to literally reach into these humic substances and pull out the the vitamin A, or the boron or the cobalt or whatever we need, and they can also put in some toxin that they don’t want cycling through the system.
Navona: Yeah. So we have this nearly infinite capacity to clean our soils, and to have tremendous abundance, if we just allow the fungi to do what they really want to do.
Manda: Ok, so most people listening don’t have huge amounts of Land, but it seems to me that this has to be something that everybody gets involved with, everybody signs up to, everybody understands the need for. So what could people do who maybe just have a small garden or access to a local park? What can they do to begin to help to create this vision that you have?
Navona: So if we bring diversity, right, so if you have a lawn, if you want to start planting different flowers, different shrubs and trees, the more diverse plant system we have, then the faster soil is built because all those plants are able to make different specific nutrients, and different little packets of carbohydrates and whatnot that feed different organisms. And so if we have a more diverse system above ground, we have a more diverse system below ground, and that keeps feeding back in this positive feedback loop. So if we have yards, then we definitely want to be supporting the fungi by not tilling, actually not weeding, which is a tough one for a lot of people to swallow. But every time you pull a plant out of the earth, the root zone is where all the magic happens, right? So just right along the roots, there are like these highways where fungi and bacteria are just eating up all of the carbon in the form of sugars and carbohydrates. The plants are making and that’s where most of the structure is. And so if you put up a plant out by the roots, then that destroys that structure. It’s kind of like driving a bulldozer through a house and it all kind of collapses on itself. So you may not want weeds there, but the weeds are there because the soil doesn’t have enough fungi. Weeds thrive in a more, quote unquote weeds, which, you know, how do we define weeds? But typically when we’re talking about weeds, we’re talking about plants that are the early succession species. So they’re like the dandelions and the mallows…
Manda: Thistles? Big fields of thistles, I see. But if they leave them, if people are brave and just leave them, then as if I’m understanding the nature of succession species, they will be replaced by something else.
Navona: Yes, exactly. And so we can go ahead and chop and drop. So chop them right at the base and just let them fall on the earth and decompose. And that’s feeding fungi. Or also, we want to be eating most of those plants, because they’re the ones who can thrive in the system that they’re clearly thriving in. And so they’re more nutrient dense than the broccoli or the arugula right next to them. And I tend to think that we’re also getting some sort of wisdom from the Land as well, if we’re eating the plants that are thriving there.
Speaker1: I want to know how you eat the thistles! The only thing I know eats thistles is donkeys. Maybe everybody just needs a donkey. And they seem to actually prefer thistles over everything else.
Navona: No, thistles I cook, or tincture them.
Manda: Oh, but you cook them or you tincture them. I think that’s great, because we kind of got to nettles. I’m pretty good with nettle tea, and turning nettle into a vegetable, but I haven’t got to the thistles yet. Or the docks.
Navona: So yeah, if we’re just managing our backyards, then just yeah, chopping and dropping, and just sort of understanding what this food web is and why we don’t fertilise, or you don’t till or turn the soil, that sort of thing, helps a lot. And then encouraging diversity of plants helps a lot. And also, yeah, I think it’s really wonderful to eat from our environment. And if we have areas where, you know, like rooftops and cities and places where maybe we can’t grow the most delicious food, but we can still green them at all, then that really helps to change our microclimate. So, yeah, even if they’re not plants that we can eat, there’s still evapotranspirating, and moving water into the atmosphere and allowing more rain to fall in certain areas and mitigating the heat island effect. So just basically greening our world more is big. And also, yeah, the way that we manage our parks. So maybe you don’t have a piece of land that you can set up a garden and sort of be with for years, but you’re more inclined to work with humans. We so, so, so need to stop spraying pesticides in public places. And I mean, that would be huge. Yeah. If all of the parks and cities and yeah, just all of the the green spaces could be fungal rich rather than fertilised with petrochemicals and, you know, managed with pesticides, and that would help that connectivity as well.
Manda: And monocultures often as well. But yeah, we spoke to Katrina Blair, whom, you know, I know, a couple of weeks ago, and she was talking about her capacity to persuade the local council to turn all of their local parks organic. And it took a lot of time and it took a lot of advocacy, but it sounds like it was a really worthwhile thing. So that’s something that people can do. You know, they live in the middle of a city. There’s always public parks. And if we could persuade them not to be monocultures, exactly as you say, not to be sprayed with an inch of their lives and not to be fertilised, they, too, would become wilder. So tell me a little bit more about how things have been on your Land, because I know you’re connecting to it more deeply and that that’s changing the ways that you’re able to be on the Land. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Navona: I had this download a couple of months ago that I need to start drinking my water. So I live by a river, and I have a shallow well. And when I first started drinking the water from the well, it was upsetting my stomach. And so I started filtering it. And yeah, I just got this dream state download that I am going to be able to talk with the Land more clearly if I’m drinking the water. And what that means to me, or sort of what my rational brain does with that, is that if I’m inoculating myself with the same organisms that are abundant on this Land, especially the the invisible organisms, that I’ll be, just, I’ll be able to hear their voices. Because they do speak through us, right? They inoculate our microbiomes, the organisms that are on the plants we eat inoculate our microbiomes. And that dictates so much about our cravings, whether we’re craving fibre or sugar, and we actually make serotonin in our stomachs.
So our state of mind, if we’re getting micronutrients, which in this pretty degraded ecosystem I am that comes from the weeds and the quote unquote invasive Siberian elms that are going to seed right now. And they’re so, it’s so abundant. And you can eat these delicious, sweet seeds that so many landscapers around are always trying to cut down, but they’re just hugely abundant and delicious. Yeah. For eating those nutrient-dense foods then are getting the micronutrients like magnesium that help with hormonal regulation, with neural transmission, all these different functions in our body that we’re just starting to learn about in nutrition and human health.
So, yeah, so I’ve started to introduce the water into my life again, and it’s been remarkably gentle and easy. And when I felt some upset, some stomach upset, I just go down to the river and I sing, and I meditate, and I get into this really open dream state, and it works out. And a disclaimer, I guess I’m not trying to give health advice, but this is what’s worked for me. And what I found is yeah, indeed. I felt so much more connected with the Land, and it’s just become really easy. So, you know, I have plants that are, there is this one really lovely house plant that makes clones of itself that I have in a window. And that was the first one that I dreamt of that told me, oh, hey, I’m going to start dropping my clones, so maybe you should go catch them. And indeed, I went and checked and yeah, all these little clones were littered around it. And so I planted them and, yeah, and just starting to get more of an intuitive sense of what’s starting to bloom here, what’s good to eat, what wants to be planted where. And also it’s become a lot easier with other animals that are here on the Land.
Manda: In what way?
Navona: Yeah, we’re not having so many issues with mice getting into compost and getting into things. It seems to be this easier sort of symbiosis going on. And I think that must have to do with raptors coming in, or some other animals being involved. Also, just with the more, I hate to call them domestic, that seems like an insult. But like the more domestic animals we’re working with, it’s just been really smooth. Yeah. So like, the ducks and the chickens, we’ll let them out and they’ll run around, and then we no longer have to like, run after them and catch them. But it’s like this much easier just sort of communication of like, hey, it’s time to come in and, you know, come in. And obviously that’s also just a factor of like time and repetition. But yeah, just feeling this Land in a way that is, just sort of beyond language, and beyond rationale. And I think it really comes from, yeah, just chewing on bark, and trying different plants, and yeah, allowing ourselves to really become part of the Land, literally, physically, by merging our microbiome with the soil microbiome here.
Manda: How many of you are living on the land now?
Navona: Right now there are three of us. Yeah. Someone else is going to join us in a little bit. Today we actually have a work day. I forgot that I scheduled this for a day that we have a bunch of volunteers here, so they’re all out there working away in the wind without me.
Manda: It was when you, yeah, you said something about numbers of people. And I thought, gosh, that’s increased a lot. You mentioned something in our previous conversations about the bees. Can you tell us a little bit about your connexion with the bees? Because that sounded really interesting, and awe inspiring, actually.
Navona: I had this really delightful moment a month or so ago? I’m not sure. But yeah, a bumblebee visited me, a honeybee. And I was really surprised, because I didn’t think that they would be here. But, yeah, this really delightful moment of just sitting quietly and this bee landing on me and just crawling all over my hands, and sort of burrowing into my sweater and being very gentle and looking at me. And it just sounded to me like this communication from the Land like, hey, there are bumblebees here, there are honeybees, and we’re here, and we’re hungry. You know, the bee was looking all over for something, you know? And I thought, oh, that’s interesting that it’s getting into my sweater, getting under my nails rather than flying around to flowers. And I looked around, well, there really aren’t that many flowers. Yeah, it felt like this invite to know that they were there, and to plant a lot of diverse, drought-tolerant flowers that they can work with.
Manda: And have you done that?
Manda: Hey, so by this time next year, you might have a lot more honeybees. That would be nice. When we were at college, I really got into kind of wild beekeeping with the designs of hives that you can make that are designed to go eight feet up, that you never touch, that they’re there basically to be a place where the bees can have an undisturbed place. Because we always put the hives on the ground. And that’s not the ideal place for bees to have their hives. So it’ll really interesting to see what happens on the land that you’re allowing. Because it sounds like you’re growing crops, but you’re not growing monocultures, you’re growing food and medicine and magic, but you’re doing it in a way where you and the Land are working in symbiosis together, cooperatively. And I would really love to come back in a year’s time and see where that taken you. In the meantime, as we’re heading towards the top of the hour, is there anything else that you wanted to say this time around?
Navona: There isn’t anything specific, like any factoid that I want to share, I think right now just where I’m at in my life is really appreciating connectivity more, and how this Land has sort of brought me in and allowed me to be more connected when I allow myself to eat from it, drink from it. I’m also seeing how we’re building community, and how the people who have come to this land so far, myself included, were really called here by the Land. I thought I’d be here alone for a little while, but it’s been a pretty quick succession of more humans being called here and rooting here. And now we’re getting to look at how we house everyone. So we’re going to start building strawbale and cob structures, and getting into natural building.
Manda: And how does that feel for you? Because that’s quite a change, from imagining you’ve got this place with solitude, which is quite a precious thing. And then, now you have community.
Navona: It feels like this big learning for me. Because I wanted to be here alone, because of this sort of feeling of, oh, if I’m alone, then I have this sort of sheltered space where I can do my work in the world, and also my inner work. And what this Land is teaching me right now is that it’s a call for me to do my work in the world and my outer work in connexion with others, which is what the fungi are all about. They’re connecting all of the plants and the bacteria and all the organisms, right? Right now I’m working with a couple other women, which it doesn’t necessarily need to be women, but it just so happens a couple other women who are into regenerative everything, and permaculture, and starting a collective where we consult and we help apply these techniques, and just seeing that we can do so much more together than separately. And yeah, and then also with the inner work, just seeing the space of oh, OK, well, I can do this inner work and be vulnerable around people, and that’s so much more potent than doing it by myself.
Manda: Also so much more vulnerable and risky and courageous. Well done.
Navona: Thanks. It’s it’s been quite a journey since moving here in December. Yeah. It feels like there’s this this beautiful momentum and yeah, and just appreciating how this spot where we’re building soil and letting it be, sort of this place of innoculation where we’re cultivating the soil fungi and our Johnson-Su bioreactors, and in our fields, and also the ideas and of the community building experiment, and how that connects with other groups that are doing similar things around here and how we can all support each other.
Manda: And share your words with the world through the podcast, for which I’m enormously grateful. Thank you. Really, thank you.
Navona: Thank you so much.
Manda: You wrote something at the end of… I just want to read out this bit, because it seems really to summarise everything that you said, which was: “When I actions like mulching, I’m walking the talk of my earth-based spirituality, and the Land spirits take notice, and support.” And that feels really important that we honour that sense of the Land connecting with you as you connect with the Land. Is that how you meant it when you wrote it?
Navona: It is. Thank you. Yeah. Thank you for for bringing that in. It’s been really amazing to me. It’s like every day that I spend working away in the sun and the wind and mulching and getting a little dehydrated, and figuring out how to do it better, and how we can load the trailer better, and all these things, it just becomes easier and easier. It’s like once we start mulching, and once we start seeding and inoculating, then all the other little pieces and synchronicities come in. And the people who need to be here show up, whether it’s just friends dropping in and visiting, and helping clean the acequoia with all of the tumbleweeds, like yesterday, was really adorable. Yeah, a couple of friends just dropped in and were like, we need to clean this acequoia, so we all get pitchforks. And it was just perfect timing. And yeah, it’s really been transformative for me to see how much bigger all of this work is than myself, and my personality, and my logical mind, though I love the logic and I love the science. And, you know, I love using microscopes, and looking at the soil, and analysing it, but then also just appreciating how much bigger it is, and how little we know and how there are these greater movements working through the Gaia right now, and that if we just take the space to really allow them to to send us in whatever direction they need us to go in, just how rewarding and how easy it becomes.
Manda: Brilliant. So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Navona for leaving volunteers and coming indoors, away from the wind, to talk about her connexion with her Land, and her water, and the bees, and the beautiful depth of where she is growing into in this new project, and offering guidance, I think, a guiding light, I would even say, to anyone, wherever you are in the world, whether you have Land or not, you have influence over the people who do manage the Land. We talked to Kat a couple of weeks ago about how she was helping persuade her local councils to manage all of their parks and verges in an organic fashion. And here in Shropshire, we have the rural Shropshire Verges Project, R.S.V.P., which is exactly that, persuading the councils to stop paying contractors to mow them and spray them and sterilise them so they look like people’s lawns. Because we don’t even want our lawns to look like lawns anymore. We don’t want those monocultures of half-inch grass. We want lawns to be vibrant, flowering meadows full of life and full of that diversity that Navona has been talking about. So I hope you are as inspired as I was. And we will be back next week as ever with another conversation and as ever, thank you to Caro C for the sound production and the music at the head and foot. Thank you to Faith for the website and the tech that keeps the membership programme going. And thank you to you for listening. If you want to support us, come along and join the membership, be part of the solution, or throw some money at the Patreon page. Or just tell all of your friends, because if we’re going to make a difference, it’s because people hear us and respond and take agency and go out into the world and make a difference. So if you know of anybody else who wants to be part of the generative dance of the world, please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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