Thetford Author Says Soil Is Key To Addressing Effects of Climate Change

  • On July 1 last summer, Didi Pershouse was in the Adirondacks writing a chapter about observing the effects of rain on soil for her book "Understanding Soil Health and Watershed Function" as a rain storm was causing flooding near her home in Thetford Center, Vt. "And I was thinking, gee, I wish I had some good photographs for this," she said. Buzzell Bridge Road, where Pershouse walks her dog near her home, remains a washed out gully five months later, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Didi Pershouse, photographed at her home in Thetford Center, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017, is the author of "The Ecology of Care" and the facilitators manual "Understanding Soil Health and Watershed Function." A traveling soil educator and activist, she spoke Dec. 5 on a panel at U.N. World Soil Day. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/19/2017 10:00:05 PM

In 2013 the United Nations declared Dec. 5 to be World Soil Day, a recognition of the significance of healthy soil in both improving food security and nutrition, and mitigating the effects of climate change, including drought, flood, soil erosion and sea level rise. This year the U.N. held a conference at its New York headquarters on the theme of “caring for the planet starts from the ground.”

Didi Pershouse, founder of the Center for Sustainable Medicine in Thetford and author of The Ecology of Care, and the downloadable PDF which was released online in August, was one of five panelists invited to speak at this year’s conference.

“It was fun to go to the U.N. to get a sense of what the narrative is on a larger scale,” Pershouse said. The invitation to address the conference came through the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO.

Dec. 5 also marked the launch of the U.N.’s ambitious Global Soil Organic Carbon map, which monitors soil conditions, identifies degraded areas and sets restoration targets internationally.

As part of her research for The Ecology of Care, Pershouse, who was recently elected president of the national Soil Carbon Coalition, investigated the role that soil, which she calls a living sponge, plays in maintaining a vital natural environment.

“Once I understood the importance of soils in community resilience and climate resilience, I basically made a decision in 2013 and 2014 to shift my energy ... to public health through soil health,” Pershouse said in a phone interview.

That includes, she said, understanding the importance of plant cover for soil, rather than tilling soil repeatedly and leaving it bare, which only encourages runoff and drought; realizing that bacterial and fungal organisms can be beneficial; and appreciating the roles that mammal, bird and insect life play in the ecosystem. Minimizing or eliminating chemical and pesticide use can only help improve soil quality, she added.

In the full-length video of the conference, Pershouse notes that “it only takes communities a few days to learn these principles.” This means, she said, that communities, wherever they are, can develop their own best practices for their location.

“Collaborating with the system instead of working against it” is the way forward, Pershouse said.

To illustrate what she meant, Pershouse showed at the conference photographs of five different soil samples which ranged from one utterly without vegetation at one end of the spectrum, to one covered with vegetation and mulch at the other. Water runs off the bare soil while it is absorbed by the sample with a healthy grass or crop cover and root system.

As part of her work nationwide, which includes speaking at conferences, Pershouse is careful how and where she uses the term “climate change.” If she is with a group of people who are resistant to the term, but who are also experiencing flooding, drought, fire or other extreme weather events, she talks specifically about the given weather disaster.

Pershouse has found that if people can look past political labeling, there is some “really interesting interplay between liberals and conservatives” as they work together to alleviate specific dilemmas related to a changing climate.

And, if such conferences can be structured so that “everyone gets to participate the intelligence of the group and individual intelligence really starts to come through, and things would happen that you would never think possible,” she said.

The curriculum she has written in Understanding Soil Health and Watershed Function is aligned with Next Generation Science, Common Core and National Agricultural Education standards for students in high school, but can also be used for adult education, Pershouse said. It is available free-of-charge online, which meets one of her goals to “put together free materials not under the influence of addiction to chemical agriculture.”

The curriculum’s home base is Hartford High School, where students in biology class have created and tested lesson plans, and fieldwork protocols.

Another objective, Pershouse said, is to help shift a long-held paradigm of “killing off everything that doesn’t fit,” whether that’s antibiotics or pesticides, to devising a newer paradigm in which ecosystems and biomes coexist to improve soil health.

For more information on Didi Pershouse go to

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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