Forty years ago we read Edward Hyams's enlightening classic, Soil and Civilization, which outlined the parallel between soil health and the vitality of history's great societies. Now we're blessed with Out of the Earth, a thorough and thoughtful work by Daniel J. Hillel, a world authority on soil-water relations. A more knowledgeable source of information about the soil would be hard to find. The quiet passion with which Dr. Hillel writes of our relationship to the soil reflects a spiritual commitment to caring for our Earth's most fertile natural resource. For these reasons alone, Out of the Earth is "must reading."
Dr. Hillel's descriptions and analyses of our planet's current soil management issues, steeped in their historical context, are compelling and disheartening. It is a stroke of genius that most chapters in the book are brief, so that readers can easily digest and muse upon the depth of a central message: "the history of humanity has always been a race between learning and disaster," writes the author. This poignant observation is enough to make one laugh to keep from crying. Yet there is room for "conditional optimism."
A George Eliot quote that precedes the book's final chapter sums up the nature of Dr. Hillel's optimism, which can also be ours. "i am not an optimist," she wrote, "but a meliorist." A meliorist is one who believes that societies tend to improve through conscious human effort. This is what we need to avert impending ecological disaster, implies Dr. Hillel, belief followed by action. We find ourselves today on the precipice of environmental realities which, should they come to pass, we may live to regret. Those who remain unconvinced of this should, first of all, read Out of the Earth.
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The contents of this useful resource book include overviews of agricultural systems in seven Southeast Asian nations; reviews of appropriate technology for small-scale rice production, pest management, fish production, animal husbandry, and agroforestry; real farm case studies and model farming systems; methods for collaborating with farmers; and pointers on networking. The book, an outcome of a workshop on Sustainable Agriculture in the Lowlands held in Thailand in 1989, is intended for development workers in rainfed areas of Southeast Asia but is applicable to similar agroecological systems around the world.
Concise yet fundamental pictures of the agricultural production systems in each nation discussed in the resource book are provided. The book explains the underlying principles of low-input, regenerative management of soil and water resources very well. The illustrations of practical pumps, integrated farms, and tools and techniques of low-input production are uncomplicated, with some exceptions. The information about livestock husbandry is quite good. Overall, the information presented in the resource book has been carefully screened and edited. As such, the book is very accessible and readable.
The farm case studies are a welcome inclusion to the resource book, allowing readers an opportunity to understand the perspectives of six farmers whose compelling testimonies bear witness to their courage and creativity. However, women farmers are under-represented in this feature of the resource book. The book's subsequent section on working with farmers summarizes what is valuable, and what are constraints, with respect to effective extension methods. The development and strengthening of community institutions are discussed in detail, as are gender issues. The final section on networking points out the major issues of sharing common institutional interests and information exchange, but could offer more details about the many networks that work well.
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