Legacy Of The Land

On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Legacy Of The Land


If you are not making many mistakes, you are not being very creative.  Now, that is a stinging indictment…to the reader, whomever that is, and from the writer…whomever that was.  That person was a young entrepreneur who was brash and confident enough to make those comments in an interview for Time Magazine only a few short months ago. It does not matter what the subject was, his comments relate in some ways to all of us, about most anything we can think of.  As the most intelligent creatures on earth, we humans are also the most creative, especially when it comes to altering the natural environment in which we live. Yet, we have also been stupid at times about how we have destroyed and despoiled major parts of the landscape that sustains us.  Lucky for us that we are able to improve and change things.
This chronicle is more than a seminal musing about subjects that interest the Footloose Forester.  Indeed, he intends to file it in his personal journal devoted to stories “On the mental road….again!”  But rather than a singular story about a single idea, it is likely bound to become a wide-ranging discussion about some thoughts that are fanciful. Having emanated directly from a dream, some of the vague dream ideas are also buoyed with chosen facts and tidbits of a priori knowledge that are associated with real places and actual circumstances. Thus, this chronicle may later be archived in the Footloose Forester journal labeled “On the mental road…again!” ….under the category of Inspiration.  But until it shapes up with enough substance and story content, it is unclear whether or not anybody can divine this chronicle as a non-fiction entry based on past events; or as a short novel with real people and places inserted to properly color it as historical fiction.  As usual, it begins with a draft that will be updated and corrected, as needed.
To begin with, the Footloose Forester will refer to a published document wherein the author refers to the land as being apolitical. That is to say, the land responds to biological and ecological influences but does not willingly respond to political decisions made by human beings who manipulate the land base. One or more reviewers of the article that mentioned the land as being apolitical objected to the use of the sub-title Land is Apolitical, but the author of the article prevailed and the piece was published in the Journal of Forestry in 1990.  Ref: Pellek, R. Journal of Forestry 1990, Vol.88 No.9, pp. 15-19.
Although the terrestrial land base responds naturally to the dictates of biology and is altered by environmental influences; how that land is altered is part of the suite of environmental factors that impinge upon all entities in the ecosystem.  When man appears on the scene, however; he brings with him the ability to change the environment in ways that do not occur in the natural world. Of course, there are those who would argue that man himself is part of the natural world, thus any changes in the landscape are natural consequences of the influence of one species of organisms—man.  And although anthropologists may rightly point out that locusts can devour natural stands of vegetation; or that elephants can and do knock over standing trees to feed themselves; man alone has dominated the architecture of the land ever since he decided to pursue a sedentary life style.
It may be argued that the earliest hunting/gathering aspects of environmental interactions of man with his environment may have been minimal in forest and jungle for thousands of years, partly because the ecosystems in which he interacted and altered in minor ways were able to recover on their own.  And while the population of humans was small, the effects of the perturbations of man were also small.  Most of the flora and fauna resources he depended upon were renewable, thus for centuries there seemed to be little effect on the land base and upon the plants and animals that occupied them.
Agriculture changed all that.  As an artificial system using the land resources for purposes chosen by humans alone, the introduction of agriculture some 5000 years ago gradually changed the physiognomy of the forest; but almost immediately altered the architecture of the land where agriculture was concentrated.  Man thus chose to impose a political decision on how to use the resources at his disposal.  He shaped the land to his liking and grew things there that might never have grown there on their own.  The land may have been apolitical, but the masters of the land were not.
Man’s ingenuity is both a blessing and a curse.  He was able to feed his hunger and expand his personal universe while exploiting the natural resources such as sunlight, water, fur-bearing animals, plants, and woody fibers; all to meet his own needs and desires.  It was when he exploited those resources beyond their intrinsic ability to recover or to replenish themselves that degradation of those resources began to take place.
History shows that past civilizations have been self-eclipsing; at various times, and for various reasons. While it is purely a matter of speculation how much of past wars and pestilence have ravaged disparate civilizations, it is clear that degradation of the environment has been a verifiable indicator of that history of the decline of civilizations. There are a few examples that are grounded in fact; while other, apparently bio-physical feature changes in the local environments are still subject to unverifiable speculation. The decline of the Khmer Civilization is one of those examples. 
The magnificent temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia comprise the largest religious complex in the world. It flourished until about 1100 A.D. when, for reasons not well known or understood, the complex was abandoned.  Human decision-making factors notwithstanding, one of the environmental considerations has to do with the morphological and chemical characteristics of the soil that was the agricultural base of production of food for its inhabitants. The Footloose Forester speculates that the productive capacity of the land base, itself, became less and less able to sustain the population base with adequate food. 
Clues to the degradation of the productive capacity of the land have to do with the physical, morphological and chemical characteristics of the soils in the region. Some tropical soils known as latosols are rich in iron, aluminum, and silicates.  As long as such soils remain buried under the surface of the ground and are protected by the upper canopy of forest trees and the intermediate canopies of shrubs and grasses immediately above them, they retain their chemical balance and hydrostatic bonding in a steady-state of dynamic continuity, in each of the individual horizons of their profiles. Soil moisture, as one of the measurable parameters in determining soil productivity potential, is also a function of its volume within the soil profile.  In the more-or-less undisturbed steady state of climax vegetation during the eons before agriculture and the perturbations by man, there was no overall tipping point in environmental changes, as regards the soil characteristics of the latosols. All that changed when intensive agriculture was introduced into the tropical soils where the Khmer civilization thrived.


laterite bricks, cut from the soil

One type of latosolic soil known to occur in the Khmer community around Angkor Wat contains a mineral composition known as phinthite. When naturally hydrated in undisturbed profile, plinthite is heavy, pasty and has a clay-like texture; but when it is excavated and left on the surface of the soil and exposed to the drying effects of the sun, it bakes dry.  And the drying is irreversible. The ancient Khmers took advantage of the irreversible nature of dried phinthite to build the walls and religious temples of Angkor Wat and other structures, as their community grew. On the other hand, the irreversible drying of phinthite for building materials left the surficial soils altered to a point that infiltration of rainwater into the lower depths of the profiles was impeded or altogether prevented.  Plant roots could not get sufficient moisture and could not develop properly. Crop yields suffered accordingly.  
The hardened phinthite is sometimes known as laterite, a building material that is readily available from commercial sources, but only after the curing stages. Some large expanses of naturally occurring laterite do occur in the soil throughout the world but are confined to climates showing distinct monsoonal patterns of alternate wet-dry cycles.  Geologic maps show various regions in the world where those conditions occur. That includes the flat lowlands of Cambodia where Angkor Wat is located and where a distinct wet-dry yearly cycle of rainfall qualifies it as monsoonal in nature. 
Chemically speaking, when phinthite alters into laterite, there are changes in the sesqioxide ratios of iron and aluminum; and in strengthening of the chemical bonds in the soil micelles.  Whereas sub-surface phinthite can be deformed like wet potter’s clay, the resulting laterite cannot be deformed in the same matter.  Although it can be wetted under intense rainfall, it retains its shape. Thus, the temples of Angkor Wat have remained intact for nearly a thousand years; built from materials taken from the ground…a notable legacy of the land.
Other areas of the world have phinthetic soils and the craftsmen of those regions also excavate it to use in construction of foundations, walls, and homes.  The Footloose Forester observed a phinthite quarrying operation on the eastern slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, replete with the block drying phase; and has witnessed phinthite extraction in Viet Nam, only a hundred miles or so downstream from Angkor Wat.

In addition to the quarrying of phinthite for construction, in some countries of the tropics it is not uncommon to see fine clay being extracted from the ground and dried into bricks for subsequent use in building construction.  The Footloose Forester recalls seeing mud bricks being prepared in Uganda, in Burundi, in Viet Nam; and elsewhere.  Adobe buildings are constructed with dried clay, although not necessarily with pre-formed bricks of clay.
The surficial soils associated with clay deposits do not harden to the point whereby they cannot be re-wetted; but, on the other hand, the surficial soils associated with extraction of phinthite crust over to a hardness that is virtually impenetrable to water.  Thus, the affected hectarage is forever lost to the most productive use as agricultural land. It was perhaps for that main reason, inter alia, that the sprawling area of at least 12,000 hectares that came to be known as Long Binh Army Base during the war in Viet Nam of 1965-75 was given over to US military forces for use as a cantonment. It had already gone out of productive use as agricultural land due to the extent of the laterization process. Thus it was that imprudent removal of the surface soil for extraction of phinthite resulted in a cessation of its soil productivity potential.  It was a trade-off in land use.  Nonetheless, the perturbation of the land base at Long Binh is also a part of the legacy of the land.             
Another visible legacy of past land use has to do with abandoned land that supports low-value shrubs and grasses. Countless hectares of scrub and degraded forest can be found in many countries, despite high population bases and a paucity of productive agricultural or arable land.  In the northwestern part of Haiti, thousands of hectares of low-value scrub persist where more productive use could be made of the land.  In this case, it is not a matter of limiting features of soil morphology, but a lack of infrastructural development whereby the existing vegetation could be replaced with plantation trees or some kind of commercially important fruit orchards.  In the case of Haiti, the replacement operations would not be outlandishly expensive and the prospects for rejuvenating the land base are reasonably good. 
Likewise, rejuvenating the low-value grassland that covers much of the SW peninsula of Haiti could be accomplished with some creative thinking and, of course, sufficient financial resources. The expansive region formerly supported the growing of Vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizaniodes) whose roots are used in the manufacture of perfume. However, the harvesting of roots of Vetiver to make perfume has also destroyed the natural soil profile where it was grown, rendering the land otherwise unproductive and leaving a bittersweet legacy on the land, itself. 


 Vetiver Grass

The drastic alteration of the soil characteristics in both Cambodia and in Haiti are but two examples of the distinctive legacies of land units that have been written by mankind—through his wanton exploitation for selfish reasons.  And there are many, many more examples in other countries where the exploitation of natural resources have led to unsustainable and declining land quality or outright abandonment. The expansive wastelands of SE Asia choked with elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum) come to mind. Although elephant grass, also known as Napier Grass, is important in the dairy industry as a major feedstock, it is also an invasive species that can quickly take over abandoned land.


Elephant Grass

On the other hand, in much of Europe there is a healthy resilience of forests, fields, and steppes that has evolved through the creative land management solutions of man; and time-tested over centuries. When we die the final words in the last chapter in our personal legacy will have been written; but the multi-faceted legacy of the ever-living land is awaiting the artistry of mankind to enhance it with colorful new finery. 

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