People & Places

Vermonter’s new book pours ‘Hope for a Thirsty World’

Think global warming is a hopeless problem in the sky? Meet Judith D. Schwartz, a Vermonter who is making a national name for herself reporting on solutions that are surprisingly down-to-earth.

When the former New York freelance writer moved to the state in 1997, she dug into magazine and newspaper assignments about the economy, its ties to the environment and, in 2010, an event featuring Will Raap, founder of the Burlington-based Gardener’s Supply Company.

“He made the very simple statement that more CO2 has gone into the atmosphere from agriculture than from fossil fuels,” she recalls. “That just hit me — that was a big ‘wait a second.’”

Schwartz went on to write an article explaining how factory farming can strip soil of its ability to absorb carbon, water and minerals — and how more natural land management can help fight climate change and resulting floods and droughts.

Judith Schwartz
Bennington author Judith Schwartz with her dog, Tsotsi. Provided photo

Intrigued, Chelsea Green Publishing of White River Junction inquired about a book. The subsequent title — “Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth” — hit stores in 2013, drawing praise from the likes of The New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, author of “Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.”

End of story? For Schwartz, it was just the beginning.

“When I finished that book, it was very clear to me I was not done with this material,” she says. “I started having all these conversations that were giving me more fodder to explore.”

As Schwartz explained her findings to journalists from such outlets as National Public Radio and Slate magazine, they, in turn, were reporting on California’s five-year drought.

“I could not help but note the focus was all on rainfall or snowmelt — no one was talking about what happens on the ground,” she says. “There are places that will always be in a state of drought because the land is degraded and cannot hold on to water. I felt very strongly that needed to be part of the conversation.”

St. Martin’s Press agreed. The New York publishing powerhouse signed Schwartz to write a new book, “Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World,” that chronicles how people are pioneering “new routes to water security with key implications for food access, economic resilience, and climate change.”

“The water cycle interacts with all basic biophysical cycles: the carbon cycle, the energy cycle and the nutrient cycle,” she notes in its introduction. “The better we understand this, and the better we appreciate how water processes relate to alleviating poverty and hunger, reversing desertification, and rebuilding biodiversity, the more equipped we will be to take on the difficulties of our time.”

Scan Schwartz’s biography and you may consider the self-described “suburban-raised writer who could barely tend a houseplant” to be an unlikely messenger on the subject.

Judith Schwartz
Bennington author Judith Schwartz’s books include “Cows Save the Planet” and “Water in Plain Sight.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Born in Nebraska and raised in upstate New York, she came to Vermont with master’s degrees in journalism and counseling psychology she put to use writing books with therapeutic themes. Settling in Bennington, she appreciated the landscape and lifestyle. Then her neighbor — a great-grandnephew of Grandma Moses — pointed to its underpinnings.

“You know, you’ve got great soil down there,” she recalls him saying. “There’s nothing like eating potatoes straight out of the ground.”

Soon Schwartz was planting seeds — and growing uneasy.

“Every day’s news brought upsetting developments — ice caps melting, northeastern bats dying of white-nose syndrome, bee colony collapses,” she recounts in “Cows Save the Planet,” “and I realized I had two choices: erect a mental blockade and ignore it all, or find a way to engage with it.”

Hearing Raap speak at the 2010 Slow Money national gathering at Shelburne Farms, Schwartz was spurred to write an article about wildlife biologist Allan Savory — a proponent of using grazing livestock to help restore the biology and biodiversity of land — for Conservation magazine.

That, in turn, spawned “Cows Save the Planet” and “Water in Plain Sight,” which sprout from the same premise: Most people fighting global warming focus on carbon dioxide and other gases that are filling up the atmosphere and forcing shifts in weather patterns. Yet while carbon in the sky can wreak havoc, carbon in the soil sustains plant and microbial life and soaks up water, making land more resilient to drought, flooding and wildfires.

“While we strive for ‘carbon neutrality’ and scratch our heads over proposed carbon trading schemes, the problem isn’t the amount of carbon per se,” the author writes, “it’s that there’s too much of it in the air rather than in the ground.”

The earth, however, is taking a beating from factory farming and development. The United States is losing topsoil 10 times faster than it is being restored. In China and India, the rate of reduction is 40 times.

What to do? Schwartz’s books chronicle “regenerative agriculture” projects that not only fortify land from the current effects of climate change but also offset about one-third of the human-generated carbon emissions annually absorbed in the atmosphere.

The author sums up her thinking in “Cows Save the Planet.”

Cattle, like all grazing creatures, can, if appropriately managed, help build soil. When moved in large herds according to a planned schedule, livestock will nibble plants just enough to stimulate plant and root growth, trample the ground in a way that breaks apart caked earth to allow dormant seeds to germinate and water to seep in, and leave dung and urine to fertilize the soil with organic matter (aka carbon). The result is a wide variety of grasses and other deep-rooted plants and rich, aerated soil that acts like a great big sponge so as to minimize runoff and erosion.

And in “Water in Plain Sight.”

My goal in this book has been to draw attention to the way water functions in the environment, to bring concepts like infiltration, transpiration and condensation into our discussions of water problems and solutions. Doing so, I believe, broadens our repertoire of strategies with which to provide clean water to everyone on the planet. And to show that regenerating landscapes can revive water sources: this is where we’ll find our water — in plain sight.

Schwartz’s new 256-page hardcover also addresses current headlines about drought.

“When everyone thinks of the politics of water, they think you get some, I get some and we fight over the rest,” she says in an interview. “Yet sometimes the way we talk about our environmental challenges limits our imagination and interferes with our ability to see solutions. Climate change is a manifestation of distorted carbon, water and energy cycles. Once we look at it that way, there’s so much we can do.”

Traveling across Vermont as well as to California, Ohio, Texas, Mexico, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Schwartz discovered techniques for retaining water ranging from planting cover crops to help rainfall permeate the ground to reforesting clear-cuts so land can produce its own precipitation to allowing beavers to build dams and create ponds to restore wetlands and ease runoff.

What may sound unconventional is drawing mainstream interest. Scientific American magazine just ran a book excerpt while Nature exclaims the work to be “stellar” and “inspiring.” Vermont supporters, for their part, are campaigning for regenerative agriculture legislation, while the author is scheduled to testify Tuesday at a hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on the Interior and read Thursday at Phoenix Books in Burlington.

“Many of the people who are making decisions that have environmental consequences don’t have experiences working on the land — a lot barely get out of a three-piece suit or four-walled environment,” she says. “This is an interesting opportunity.”

One that Schwartz’s new book aims to nurture.

“Writing this allowed me so many fabulous adventures to meet so many fabulous people who are making connections between climate, water, soil and biodiversity. I think of them as my teachers. They give me so much hope.”

Mill Pond, North Bennington
The waterfalls at Mill Pond in North Bennington. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
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Kevin O'Connor

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  • Great book review, Kevin. An important topic that is often overlooked. The Green Economy group (aka Ecovation Hub) here in the Connecticut River Watershed and Southern VT has an action team focused on creating jobs and opportunities in the fields of agroforestry, sustainable/regenerative agriculture and permaculture. Perhaps we should have Ms. Schwartz over to talk.

  • John McClaughry

    Good for Schwartz! Scientific cattle management can indeed improve rangelands. But if she’s worried about climate change, she needs to confront the fact that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said (in 2007) that 18 percent of the human-caused greenhouse effect is produced by cattle emitting methane.Of course 18 percent of practically nothing is practically nothing, so maybe she can overlook it.

    • John, what if your interpretation of global climate science is wrong?

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Schwartz is a friend and neighbor. Some of us have PFOA in our wells. I hope she, and others, will use their talent to shed light on this important water issue. We don’t have time for another book. This issue needs attention ASAP.

    Municipal water lines need to be extended. The politics of water has been an issue in Bennington for decades.

  • christopher hamilton

    Fascinating article. Good journalism, again.