The art and science of cultivation
The successful cultivation of the land is the bedrock on which all human settlements, plantations and even Societies are founded. Without cultivation, humanity and - arguably - the bulk of all Type Two life could not survive or thrive.
The art of cultivation is remarkably similar across all human Societies. While there are slight variations to take into account the local climate and conditions, the basic processes involved in establishing and maintaining a cultivation are the same, whether the cultivation is in the sub-arctic or the tropics. These steps are:
- the preparation of the land for cultivation
- sterilisation and associated processes to clear the soil of contaminants
- land sculpting to maximise irrigation and productivity while minimising soil erosion
- preparing the land by fermenting the soil
- first cropping to improve the soil structure
- bringing the land into production, including various crop rotation strategies
- expansion of existing cultivations
- land maintenance strategies, such as strategic abandonment
For most new settlements, the land to be cultivated will be virgin land, in that it has never been cultivated before. The first step in planning a new settlement is to decide where to site the cultivation fields, and then prepare the soil for the rest of the cultivation process.
All Societies seem to have a preference for fields that are near to rivers, but above the level of likely flood plains. There's also a strong preference for sloping sites (of between 5° and 15° from the horizontal) rather than flat sites in the initial stages of establishing the settlement. Rivers are essential for the efficient transport of the soil to and from the central processing plant.
Other key functions include sourcing the main irrigation reservoirs, and rounding up feral goats. The irrigation reservoirs will be the providers of safe water for the settlement, and their preparation and planting will be one of the first tasks undertaken by the pioneer team. Choosing the Type One lifeforms that will grow in the reservoirs depends on local circumstances - while the northernmost areas of Ewlah were able to use species such as brhulreed and davawyrm weed during the Cheidran colonisations, these false plants do not thrive in other areas of the continent, meaning local alternatives had to be found. Brhulreed in particular (or more accurately the germula species that grow in symbiosis with the brhulweed) is very efficient at removing excessive amounts of arsenic from groundwater springs, making the water supply safe both for humans and the crops that will eventually grow in the fields.
Goats are essential to support the pioneer team. A failure to find goats will mean the pioneer team will be dependent on established settlements for all their food. Luckily, Ewlah has an abundant supply of goats, and the larger species can even be put to use in moving soil in the later stages of the operation - a job that otherwise has to be done by people, as no settlement is capable of sustaining horses, buffalo or other large domesticated species in its early stages. Local goats can also supply fresh boucha primed to the local ecology, which is used to ferment Type One food sources (such as the ubiquitous breadweed) into something fit for human consumption, thus supplying most of the nutrients that goat meat and milk are not able to supply. Even so, every pioneer team will need a source of essential vitamins from an already established settlement until they are able to harvest their first crops.
The physical preparation of the land involves clearing the land and ploughing the soil. Land clearance can be done by burning the existing vegetation, though this risks adding contaminants to the soil which will need to be dealt with at the next stage. A better solution is to mechanically render the existing vegetation and plough it into the soil. The soil will probably need several rounds of ploughing and tilling before it is loose and fine enough for effective sterilisation and decontamination.
Sterilisation and decontamination
Once the soil has been broken down and conditioned, it can be removed for sterilisation and decontamination. Sterilisation is a two part process: the first stage is to spread fericides across the soil to kill all Type One lifeforms resident within it. Fericides intefere with the protein making function within Type One lifeform cells and can quickly clear the soil of all Type One life. It is essential to keep the goats and the fericide chemicals separate: while the fericide will not kill the goat, it will destroy the boucha mix in the goats' stomachs and intestines, thus rendering them useless as a long-term food source. Ferricide is also deadly to the new irrigation reservoirs. For this reason, it is normal practice to remove the soil to a central processing area for treatment.
Removing the soil also makes the second stage of treatment - heat sterilisation - a lot easier. A day after fericide has been applied, the soil will be slowly baked at between 150-200°C. This helps break down the dead material without releasing any organic toxins, and also denatures the fericide. Methods of baking vary between Societies, for instance the Istran Society has developed long baking ovens which allow soil to be loaded at one end and recovered at the other in a continual process. Other Societies rely on batch processes, but whichever method is used, the baking stage will be the most energy intensive stage of the entire process. Wind turbines provide much of this energy, supplemented by steam engines or, for sophisticated and large scale pioneer expeditions, river turbines.
Typically, the soil around the central processing area will be the first soil to be processed, this minimises the prospect of recontaminating the soil with Type One lifeforms before the fermenting stage.
Removing the soil makes land sculpting easier. The essence of land sculpting is to shape the fields in such a way as to minimise soil erosion. Building walls is the simplest way of doing this, and much effort will be put into making sure the walls are strong and sturdy. For shallow sloping lands, walls can be built across the slope to provide barriers to soil runoff into the rivers, while in steeper areas full-scale terracing will take place.
Terracing is considered to be a better option as it allows the irrigation and drainage channels to be better controlled, but it requires considerably more work to build the terraces than it does to build shallow-slope walls - for this reason terracing is often left until the settlement is established and ready to expand.
Similar to the walls or terracing, solidly built irrigation channels and drainage channels can last for hundreds of orbits with only minimal maintenance, and are much easier to put in place when the soil is removed.
Failing to get the land sculpting right can lead to the eventual failure of the whole settlement. If the topology of the area proves to be difficult to sculpt, then the pioneer crew will usually abandon the work and look for a better area to cultivate - indeed a pioneer crew may reach this stage of the process three or four times in different areas before going on to the next stage of the cultivation process.
Fermenting the soil
While much of the activity surrounding the establishment of a new settlement can be considered to be hard manual labour and perseverence, fermenting the soil remains an artform: no Society has yet come up with a foolproof method for establishing Type Two life in soil in a mechanical process. Instead, the job is left to soil brewers, a class of people considered by many to have almost magical abilities - though in fact their skills are built up through decades of learning, close observation of the soil under their care and an obsessive attention to detail.
An experienced soil brewer will tell you that no two batches of soil are the same. The skill of the soil brewer is to introduce the bacteria, microflora and microfauna to the soil in a sustainable way without allowing the soil to sour. The process can take between 20 and 50 days, dependent on the soil chemistry and local conditions, and will include both anaerobic and aerobic stages. Much of the fermentation takes place in a slurry of soil and distilled water kept in massive tanks, with after-conditioning taking place in raised soil beds in cloches sealed from the outside environment.
The first batches of soil are the most critical - once a viable population has been established in the soil then that soil can be used to seed other soils without the need for a full fermentation. However, because soil from different parts of the settlement area can have different chemical signatures (and thus different initial starting conditions), the full brewing process will often take place more than once.
While soil chemistry has an effect on the final product, a skilled soil brewer is able to produce a range of soils suitable for different groups of crops. Decisions on the types of foods to be produced by the settlement thus need to be taken before the fermentation process begins, as it is a lot harder to adapt a soil's chemical properties and biota once it has been placed back into the fields or terraces.
The last stage of the fermenting process does take place in the fields. Aeration of the soil in the early stages of establishing the settlement has to rely on Type One lifeforms - at least until Type Two soil megafauna populations (nematodes, worms, burrowing insects and the like) have established themselves and stabilised. This means carefully seeding the soil with appropriate Type One lifeforms that can support themselves in the soil and perform the work required while not competing with the growing Type Two soil populations.
Once the soil is back in place in the newly sculpted landscape, it has to be planted. This first crop invariably involves some form of nitrogen fixing crop, for instance pea, clover, soy or lentil. This crop is allowed to sprout and grow for 60-90 days before being plowed back into the soil. The fields are then sown with a second crop of either a different nitrogen fixing crop (which again gets ploughed in before it is mature) or, if the first growth was particularly good, a celebration crop.
For the Cheidran Societies the celebration crop is often cabbage, wheat or corn; the Telik Society is more extravagant, planting plantain or banana. The Vreski Society goes for dryfield rice (rice paddies need much more maturing before they can successfully grow wetfield rice), while the Balhe Society prefers mountain sorghum or sweet brassica. Istran Society also prefers its first crop to be some sort of grass - either bamboo, sugar cane or wheat (depending on climate).
The first cropping is highly ceremonial, and its harvest is surrounded by much ritual and celebration. Often, this is the only time that that particular crop will be grown in the settlement (and the soil brewer will usually be driven crazy by the need to nurture a crop in a field of unsuitable soil). But only once the first crop is out of the way can the pioneer team get down to the serious business of productive farming.
The easiest way for a settlement to fail is to over-populate it during its establishment phase. For this reason, the pioneer team will normally restrict access to the plantation for the first 5 to 10 orbits after the first cropping. After that time the settlement will be opened to new settlers in accordance with the Society's norms.
The key to successful crop production is crop rotation. The list of staple crops grown across Kalieda is long, but each settlement will only grow those crops most suitable to its local climate. In addition to a nitrogen fixing crop, there will also be root crops, leaf crops and cereal crops. These are rotated between fields over the course of three or four growing seasons, with the intention of maintaining the soil - both nutritionally and structurally.
Keeping the soil sweet is an overriding concern at this stage. Sweet soil has an active and balanced micro-ecology of bacteria, protozoans, yeasts, fungi, worms and insects which interact and control each other. The over-proliferation of any one of these (particularly bacterial species) can lead to a field's soil becoming sour. There will be a number of population explosions and collapses in the first few growing seasons to keep the soil brewers busy, but with careful handling and appropriate remedial action they don't necessarily have to lead to severe souring and the eventual death of the soil. When the soil in a field does sour and die, it will need to be quarantined, sterilised and re-brewed.
Expanding the cultivation
Once the settlement is established, the community will look to expand the cultivation area. This is an ongoing, but slow process as the community has to carry out the steps associated with new cultivation without the benefit of experienced pioneers on hand to control the process. Even so, a settlement of 2,000 or so people would be looking to open 2-3 new fields every orbit.
Whereas pioneer crews have a preference for cultivating gentle slopes, settlements are more likely to terrace steeper slopes for cultivation. The soil for the terraces will often come from otherwise uncultivatable flood plains next to the river banks (river flooding of cultivated fields is practically guaranteed to sour the soil), meaning that the land sculpting work and fermenting the soil for the new terraces do not need to take place at the same time, or even in the same orbit.
A good sign of a thriving settlement is the production of prestige crops - herbs, spices, berries, soft fruits and decorative flowers. A successful settlement will also have a healthy population of bees for pollinating these crops, something that is generally neglected by the pioneers. Also, as the settlement establishes itself, more crops will be grown for non-human consumption, in particular hay and grasses for cattle, horses and other pack animals. Chickens will make an early appearance among the dwellings and outhouses. As the quality of the animal and bird stock grows, the dependence on goats will lessen: goats are considered to be a famine food by most people, to be eaten only as a last resort.
Alongside an expanding settlement will come an expanding population of vermin - despite all attempts to keep them out rats, mice, flies and other undesirable animals will soon find a home in the fields and buildings of the settlement. Controlling the vermin population is essential for the long-term wellbeing of the settlement, a task often carried out by dogs, cats and small hawks; cats are only kept as pets in the largest settlements and towns.
Successful settlements can eventually expand to a point where they merge with their neighbours to form plantations. Plantations differ from settlements as they are big enough to allow a division of labour to grow between those involved in the production of food and those involved in other human activities: administration and politics; crafts and manufacturing; arts and entertainment. How this division occurs is dependent on the Society - for instance Balhe Society encourages individual choice whereas Bathtel Society is more family-centric and Vreski Society, in the days of the Empire, divided labour along the lines of caste and tribe. However the labour is divided, the city is the aim and the culmination of all Societies, of all human endeavour, but no city can survive without a well structured, and well performing cultivation base to support it.
Land maintenance and strategic abandonment
It is a sad fact that all fields eventually sour, though if properly prepared in the first place, and carefully maintained, a field can be productive for 50-60 orbits - or three generations.
When an old field begins to show signs that its productive life is coming to an end, the settlement has to make a choice about whether to sterilise and ferment the soil, or abandon it. Abandonment is often a valid choice as settlements have a tendency to migrate over time: new fields are prepared upriver as the oldest fields downriver are abandoned.
A third choice is strategic abandonment. This is not the same as just abandoning the field. Rather, the soil is re-fermented, but after the celebration crop and a few orbits of production the field is planted with trees and left largely to its own devices. The woods created in this way are a haven for all kinds of Type Two life, while also being able to contribute to the wellbeing of the settlement through the production of timber and various edible fungi.
Strategically abandoned woods are often the most durable cultivation of all. A number of such areas have been discovered over the past few hundred orbits during the colonisation of Ewlah, pointing to previous episodes when humanity has lived on this continent - even though we have no records of who those people were or where they went. All that is left behind to mark their time on this planet are the woods - small oases of Type Two life - they abandoned.