Healing Earth: An Ecologist’s Journey of Innovation and Environmental Stewardship

By John Todd. North Atlantic Books, 2019. 200 pages. $24.95/paperback; $17.99/eBook.

Picture this: a series of clear plastic tanks populated with a great diversity of plant and animal life, with toxic sludge going in one end and drinkable water coming out the other. Or imagine this: a floating raft containing plant life, whose roots reach deep into the water; and a wind- and solar-powered pump that pulls hundreds of gallons of water up from the dead zone of a polluted pond—aerating, cleaning, and bringing the whole pond back to life. Curious? Meet the man who created these “eco-machines” and has demonstrated their effectiveness over the course of many years: John Todd, author of Healing Earth: An Ecologist’s Journey of Innovation and Environmental Stewardship.

Todd is a passionate student of nature. Through observation, his view of New England marine eelgrass, for example, shifted from a tangling nuisance, to useful fertilizer, to a dietary supplement for chickens, to a key to the bounty of inshore waters. He is now studying these shallow water communities with focus and humility, as he gains inspiration for water purification technologies.

Working to design a water purification system for a hillside slum in South Africa—where any hardware would be vulnerable to theft—he looked to repeating natural patterns for inspiration. The shared patterns in the shape of water flow in deltas, the structure of trees, and the human circulatory system led him to a design that mimicked those systems. The whole village was transformed into a treatment complex, beginning with many micro-catchment elements throughout the community, whose little streams flowed steadily down to a larger tree-based, soil-producing “treatment” site at the bottom of the hill.

Using nature as his muse, Todd has imagined an impressive array of more ambitious projects. A prototype for a wind- and solar-powered ocean vessel to clean up oil spills is built around an eco-restorer like the floating raft in the pond. He has designed a process for mountaintop restoration in Appalachia, including detailed plans for successions of plants that build up soil as they provide natural resources and jobs—along with ideas for the human and political succession process that would be necessary to bring about such a major project. He is working with a European group on the re-greening of the Sinai, which has been identified as a “weather crucible that influences climate and weather far beyond its boundaries.”

I would have wished that more of these ideas had a track record, and am left full of questions. Would the ocean restorer actually function as imagined? Can smaller solar- and wind-powered watercraft successfully manage coastal freight transportation? Could this ambitious project to re-green the Sinai—whose vegetation once cooled the region—possibly work? Will the water treatment system in South Africa, planned to do everything so ingeniously and with all natural components, play out as envisioned? Can the kind of succession that works so well in ecosystems, with cleared lands transitioning to mature forests, be replicated in social and political institutions?

Though ideas by themselves are not enough, forward movement does require the ability to imagine something new. And the technologies that Todd imagines are a refreshing change from our historical norm, functioning within a framework of understanding and respect for natural systems, with a commitment to sustainability. His coastal and island transit plan, for example, not only employs solar- and wind-powered craft but takes into consideration the need for local sourcing of construction materials. I love how he created his series of water-cleaning tanks with representatives of all the kingdoms of life, not knowing exactly how they would work together but trusting in their combined intelligence to solve a new problem. And he’s not dreaming alone. He is surrounded by students whom he has taught and inspired, all working with passion and diligence to bring these dreams to reality.

Even as I chafe at the number of projects that are presented in design form only, and wonder at the optimism of his projections, I am very glad to know that John Todd is in this world, dreaming and working away on behalf of our future here on Earth. I commend this book to all Friends who see human beings as learners and community members in this badly assaulted but wonderfully resilient and wise web of life.

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