Keystone Biomes

In a recent soil health workshop, one of the teachers, Spencer Smith, reminded us, “There is only one ecosystem. Within that ecosystem, there are multiple biomes.” Spencer is a rancher in northeastern California, near the Nevada border. Despite the harsh and arid climate, his ranch is thriving and profitable because he practices regenerative agriculture and holistic management. (Spencer says, “I think of myself more as an orchestrator rather than a manager.”) Ranches like Spencer’s prove that ranchers and small-hold farmers alike can succeed by interacting with the land in ways that enhance its natural vitality.

Technically, a biome is considered to be a biological community of plants and animals that share a specific climate or location. But they’re not just sitting there. They’re interacting and necessary to each other at all times. (Curiously, there are multiple systems of designation but no overarching agreement for identifying primary global biomes, such as tundra, rainforest, desert, wetland, etc.) A microbiome consists of the organisms that share a biome such as the microbes in soil or those in our own or another animal’s digestive system.

Recently, it occurred to me that the definition of what constitutes a biome ought to be expanded. After all, everything visible depends on multiple internal and external worlds that are invisible. All living things depend on the microscopic world, as do water, air, oceans, climate and soil. Each of these can be thought of as a biome unto itself, and within each there are microbiomes and sub-systems that feed each other. 

Certain insects and animals, such as elephants, beavers, dung beetles, wolves, etc. are known as ‘keystone species’ because so many other species depend on them for habitat, food, photosynthesis, digestion, nutrient absorption and the essential processes necessary to survive and thrive. The recognition that myriad living systems are, in fact, biomes in their own right is useful because Modernity, with its deification of science, seeks dominion by deconstructing all that is inextricably interwoven until each thing is a separate, disconnected, mostly inanimate or inert component without sentience or agency. Context, process and relationship are out the window. Deconstruction rules supreme and the effects of our disregard for Life’s intricacies are relegated to the junk heap of ‘unintended consequences’ or ‘collateral damage’. But in Nature there is no junk heap. There is no such thing as waste or superfluity. Every biome is a keystone biome.

So many things that I hadn’t conceptualized as biomes are, in fact, just that: Of course, there are the obvious ones such as gut biomes, soil biomes, ocean biomes, and freshwater (river and pond) biomes. But I have come to see that there are also sound biomes, time biomes, dream biomes, idea biomes, spirit biomes and biomes comprised of other energy forms such as acupuncture meridians, ley lines, and songlines as well as those made up of concentrations of energetic power in places like Machu Picchu, and biomes that consist of vortices such as the Bermuda Triangle. The biome idea extends into outer space, to include galactic biomes, black hole biomes, dark matter biomes, and so forth. And, remember, there is only one ecosystem, and it includes all of these, to infinity.

Regardless of the conceptual forms we use to label and interact with them, energetic and spirit biomes include the living beings that came before us – the ancestors whose efforts brought us forth, and the unborn who are calling us toward the future. At best, they inspire us to live on their behalf as well as our own. Whether tangible or abstract, the invisible world matters. In fact, it is primary.

I am particularly fascinated by the notion of a sound biome. We seem to have forgotten that living sounds are entities with their own purpose and, often, their own agency. Intonation, frequency, pitch, volume, harmony, harmonics, melody, and other sonic energies interact with at least as much complexity as microbes do. Think wind and thunder. Think whalesong. Think echolocation, subsonic and ultrasonic clicks, booms and pings. Think electromagnetic fields of intention and emotion. I am reminded of what Lyall Watson calls the ‘close relationship between pitch and brightness’ as my mind tries to comprehend the true complexity of inter-and-intra-sensory relationships (see the other piece in this blogpost: Sensory Agility, Part 1). 

So many examples come to mind of the importance of the sound biome. Sound literally structures matter, as when sound vibrations arrange and re-arrange mind-blowing geometric patterns in sand. Our bodies respond to sound, of course - tone of voice, volume, soothing or angry words, lullabies, drumming and chants. The sonic frequency of dawn and dusk birdsong causes improved nutrient uptake in plant leaves and likely also stimulates the roots and microbial life under the soil. Researchers have identified musical forms that match these dawn and dusk birdsong frequencies, with spectacular results. The most effective music includes Indian ragas, Bach and Vivaldi, among others. Indigenous planting songs come to mind. These are neither quaint nor random. They are time-tested expressions of keen and prolonged observation.

The erosion of the life-giving invisible world has been literal, and relentless: For 9,000 years, since the beginning of agriculture administered by a patriarchy, human-caused deforestation has sent millennia of topsoil into wetlands, rivers and oceans. This, in turn, has depleted Earth’s arable land of its microbial capacity to feed the plants, animals and people that depend on it. Nowadays, in the so-called developed world, after three generations of industrial agriculture, auto-immune diseases, cancer and mental illness are at an all-time high, especially in children.

A plant’s ability to photosynthesize is only as robust as the microbial world surrounding its roots. In the words of soil expert Jill Clapperton, PhD., “Above-ground diversity mirrors below-ground diversity.” This is as true of diverse cultures and races as it is of diverse plant and animal populations. Diversity is Nature’s extravagant default modality. It is our insurance policy. When the soil is depleted, so, too, is the microbial vitality and nutrient density of the plants and animals that depend on it, including ourselves. As Spencer Smith told us, “There are countless people whose only way to get grounded is through their food. Millions of people live in cities where there is no soil.”


Our diminished capacity to access and absorb nutrients makes us prone to disease, distorted perceptions, violence and mental instability. The diminution of soil health is juxtaposed to violence in a horrendous inverse proportionality: As soil health has diminished, the human propensity to invent and deploy more complex and deadly weapons has increased. (I am working on a project in the West Bank to see whether soil restoration is an effective peacebuilding ‘acupuncture point’ that can help reverse this trend. Stay tuned.)

Pragmatically, these insights call us into relationship with the multiple biomes within and around us and constitute an imperative to restore our relational reach by cultivating our sensory amplitude. This will take time, likely several generations of intense restorative focus, maybe 500 years or more. If we dial back to the beginning of deforestation, we’re talking 7,000 - 9,000 years. The heartbroken Earth-lovers among us, myself included, howl that this is too long, that we have only a few decades of viability remaining at best. But true transformation cannot be rushed.

John Paul Lederach, considered to be the father of modern day peacebuilding, says that it takes about as long to get out of a conflict as it took to get in. In that case, five hundred years is just the beginning. I imagine that’s how long it will take for us to return to ourselves and to the Earth’s embrace, for the trees to trust us, for the wind and the ice and the animals to believe us. This is what Lewis Hyde calls ‘the labor of gratitude’ in his extraordinary book, The Gift. Though this is a plausible first step in repairing our tattered relationship with the Earth, five hundred years of upheaval is a very long time for humans. 

I remember the words of a rabbi one Passover. He was speaking of Moses and the 40-year trek of the Israelites through the desert. “There is only the long way,” he told us. “No shortcuts.” I am grateful for this wisdom. It has become one of my mantras. Only the long way. No shortcuts. Five hundred – or maybe five thousand, years on our way to unwinding the spiral of millennia that we humans have been enslaving the Wild and each other. How does a millennial time span reshape our lives? How does it bend each individual life to respond to instantaneous synapses, chemical reactions, bacterial and microbial telegraphy while simultaneously diluting the now until it leaves barely a homeopathic trace in Deep Time? Contrary to what we have been told, Time is not money. It is the sensory experience of the rhythms of Life. Like Moses, like Martin Luther King, like the Earth Herself, we must practice the art of the impossible. It may take five hundred years or more to learn how. 

The internal tides of the Earth are in a continuous call-and-response dialogue with the great pulse of the living planet. Water in the soil, and the soil itself, rise and fall twice daily with the moon and the tides. Somehow, I never knew this, and I find it wondrous. I look out the window at my garden and at the sea and imagine them rising and falling together in a tandem inhale-exhale as my own internal waters rise and fall in the same rhythmic pulse, and it is thrilling – a much-needed reassurance that we are not only of the Earth, we are the Earth. In her book, Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller says, “The way we treat land, and the ghosts of our land, is the way we will treat everything, including ourselves.” 

When we learn to see these over-arching relationships and possibilities, we cannot un-see them. In the words of Ursula K. LeGuin, “… once you have seen the larger pattern, you cannot go back to seeing the part as the whole.” We do not know what might be possible if we align fully with the Earth and Her processes, if we devote ourselves to full regeneration of our innate capacities, by which I mean nothing less than the intricate, exquisite, limitless, pre-modern attunement of humans and Earth. Even in her beleaguered state, the Earth will not only recognize this expression of our sincerity, She will be nourished by it and respond in kind, as She always has.