Soil Culture: Don’t soil your home, make soil your home!

Dr Daro Montag, Falmouth University

The world is in crisis – our home planet is facing a serious predicament. Amongst the environmental disasters we now face, the loss of good soil is amongst the most serious and most neglected. Most serious because without a healthy topsoil our ability to produce food becomes limited;  and most neglected because our culture has successfully distanced us from this fundamental and life giving material.

As Clive points out this was not always the case. The cultivation of the mind and the cultivation of the soil are related by the very word – culture.  The word culture can be used to refer to the development of shared beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and values of a group of people, which are often expressed through the arts. It can also be used to refer to the nurturing of biological materials and the tillage and improvement of the land for the purpose of growing crops.  In the past these two understandings were very much entwined.

For example throughout much of the history of humanity, and certainly since farming became widespread, soil would have been seen as a vital material and, in some cases a sacred one. Although it is hard to ascertain, it is likely that pre-modern cultures revered the planet and its soil. This is perhaps most poetically expressed in biblical stories of the first human, Adam. Although scholars still debate the origins of the name, many believe it is derived from the Hebrew word ‘adamah’, meaning ‘earth’ or ‘soil’. Adam’s co-occupant and mate, Eve, was originally called ‘Hava’, which translates as ‘living’. The original people were, in this biblical account, named after the living soil.

Numerous other cultures similarly embedded the sacredness of soil in their myths and legends. The indigenous peoples of Australia, Africa and America all sanctified and revered the earth. This view is eloquently expressed by Chief Seattle in his dignified reply to the United States government when it sought to acquire native lands: “We are part of the earth and it is part of us… What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of earth…To harm earth is to heap contempt upon its creator”.

But over time this attitude has largely been suppressed by a culture that has forgotten where it came from. Over the centuries our civilisation has made remarkable achievements – many of which have made life indescribably more comfortable for those who can benefit from them. However, these technological advances have had the gradual and insidious affect of distancing us from the soil. Indeed it could be argued that this is actually a major objective of civilisation – to distance us from the harsh and bitter toil of having to work the land with our bare hands, as people before us have had to do throughout history.

The residue of this distancing can be seen in the way our contemporary language talks about soil. A brief dip into an English dictionary serves to illuminate the lowly place of mud in our culture. For example, in addition to defining the noun ’soil’ as the portion of the earth that consists of disintegrated rock and humus, most dictionaries also refer to soil as a verb which generally means ‘to make unclean’, or ‘to cover in excrement’. To soil something is to stain it, and this is equally true of someone’s character as it is of a baby’s nappy. To soil someone’s good name is to morally defile them.

The word ‘mud’ has similar connotations. To say that someone’s ‘name is mud’ is to say that it is tarnished and disgraced. Similarly when someone has become muddled they are mentally confused. The word ‘dirt’ has even more negative connotations. Being dirty is equivalent to being rude in most contemporary contexts, and to call someone ‘dirt’ would imply that they are worthless.

But we distance ourselves from the earth at our peril – because we shall lose our ability to feed ourselves and our animals. Alongside clean water, shelter and security, having sufficient food is a fundamental need – not just a luxury.  With 7 billion people on the planet the loss of fertile soil should be a major concern for everyone, not just farmers.

For those of us who live above the soil, and move around on the surface of the earth, we are probably areocentric. We forget that our many of our homes are made of clay. Even if we are not troglodytes living in underground dwellings, or lucky enough to live in a cob building so typical of the Devon landscape, there are many ways to build with mud. Indeed the bricks that make up the majority of housing in Western countries is simply fired mud.

And, from our areocentric perspective, we have a stronger relationship and feeling for the animals who share our space. When we talk of biodiversity we are generally referring to those species that, like us, live in and through the air space above ground.  But the world is not only home to those who, like us, tunnel through air; the soil also is home to many other species.

In the British countryside there are a number of mammals who find security and warmth, two of those essential needs, in underground dwellings. Badgers, foxes, rabbits and stoats all carve out their homes within the soil where they will spend much of their time. Some animals, such as moles, have devised a way of life that means, under normal conditions, they will never need to venture into the world above the earth’s surface.
(Except perhaps to have a laugh at our predicament.)

On a smaller scale the soil is highly populated –earthworms burrow through the soil and by doing so help to aerate it. Ants construct complex colonies and underground cities where they have designated zones for particular purposes, including the farming of fungus. Centipedes, millipedes and countless other legged and non-leggeds make their homes in soil. (note that if I had said that ‘they make soil their home’ it would have other connotations about their toilet behaviour).

But it is on the microscopic level that the sheer number of soil inhabitants becomes really astounding. It has been estimated that in every teaspoon of healthy soil there are between 5 million and 1 billion individual bacteria. In each acre there may well be a ton of bacteria hard at work keeping the ecosystem in balance.

But, as you well know, that balance is in danger of tipping. In media discussions about the environment there is much talk about non-renewable energies and how we must, quite rightly, develop renewable ones.  There is however, far less awareness or even discussion about the non-renewable medium upon which much of the planet’s food depends. Like oil and coal, soil took millennia to form – it is not a resource that we can use up and easily replace.

When we lose the soil we lose our home – the idea of a special place where we belong. We lose our connection to our past and our ancestors – our family tree becomes uprooted. This loss of rootedness can cause deep psychological disconnection.  By becoming detached from our place we drift and lose our meaning. Instead of being deeply rooted fruitful beings we become human tumbleweed.

Despite this downgrading in the language of soil, the connection between humanity and the earth is not lost in the language used by gardeners; the ‘humus’ that constitutes a healthy soil shares a common root to our word ‘human’. As we degrade and poison the life-giving humus, we are at risk of losing our humility and our humanity. As deserts expand across the globe and reduce the fertile ground on which crops can grow, we endanger our future. As more and more topsoil gets blown away in dust storms, or flushed into the sea, we should remember that we not only lose our ability to sustain ourselves, but we actually lose our very substance. Now, more than ever, we need to rehabilitate the language and renew our appreciation of the mud under our feet.

So there is much to be done if we want to rehabilitate the earth – to make it suitable for our and others continued habitation – and clearly culture has an important role to play in this.

We can do practical things such as buy organic produce and support organic growers. If we have access to a patch of land we can tend it and grow our own crops. If we don’t have a patch of land – there are plenty of abandoned or unused areas of ground, even in cities, waiting for guerrilla gardeners to take them over. We can recycle our organic waste and apply it to the soil when we dig, reduce the compaction caused by heavy machinery, return to more manual forms of agriculture, grow plants that help balance the natural systems, prevent water run-off…the list goes on.

And there are theoretical things we can do that will change our thinking and our attitudes. We need to think of soil as a living entity, not mere dead matter. We need to understand our dependence upon it. Ultimately if we are to protect it we shall need to love it, for as the Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum, said, “In the end, we will protect only what we love”.

These changes in attitudes and practices will be both necessary and complementary. As our thinking changes so will our behaviour. And our changing treatment of the soil will develop our thinking.  This respect and appreciation of soils needs to become second nature – if we are not to lose the life giving properties of this, our first nature.

If we treat the soil as though it was little more than dirt we diminish the land and ultimately ourselves – for we are the land. We come from the earth and are the earth – we are the earth that has over millennia pulled itself together, taken form, learnt to walk talk and think. We are the soil – it is us, our home, our world.

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