‘Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank – or the Company – needs-wants-insists-must have – as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained. You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbed at it long enough, God knows.
The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes, they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.’
(John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939))
This year – over 70 years after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath -, ‘the mathematics’, or what ‘the Bank – or the Company – needs-wants-insists-must have’ has been high on the agendas of governments, businesses and institutions. Huge sums of money have been invested in keeping banks afloat, and much of the cost is being borne by people who can least afford it.
Meanwhile, a UN report published last week describes a quarter of the planet’s land as ‘highly degraded’ and flagged up loss of soil quality as the area for greatest concern. A number of food production systems across the globe, the report says, ‘face the risk of progressive breakdown of their productive capacity under a combination of excessive demographic pressure and unsustainable agriculture use and practices’. The issue of soil erosion and degradation is not new: estimates suggest that around 6 million hectares of land are lost to soil erosion every year – whether this appears in the headlines or not.
In the American Dustbowl of the 1930s, soil erosion and its consequences became visible – the dust storms were hard to ignore, and along with the displacement of people they caused, they found popular expression not only in Steinbeck’s best-seller and its filmed version, but also in Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads. Today, for many of us, the loss and degradation of soil does not – yet – feature strongly on our agendas or lists of concerns.
What I would like to suggest here, though, is that soil is much more worthy of our investments, of our concern and care, than banks. Interestingly, this seems to be a conclusion that increasing numbers of people in Greece are coming to as well, as the search for responses to the economic, social and political crisis is stimulating rising migration from cities to rural areas. Others are reaching a similar conclusion in response to looming energy and ecological crisis (the Soil Association, for example, has been raising awareness of the need for a transition in farming, including the need for many more people to become involved in agriculture). In urban situations, too – notable examples include Detroit and Havana, and, much closer to home, Todmorden – people have been regenerating soil, in attempts to respond to crisis, increase food sovereignty, and promote both social justice and the sustainability of food growing.
Other, perhaps less obvious, drivers behind recent interest in soil – and/or in the gardens that it makes possible – include increasing recognition of the political and therapeutic and dimensions of gardening. Particularly interesting expressions of the latter are ‘defiant gardens’ – human efforts to create gardens in extreme and hostile conditions. Examples include gardening in the trenches in World War 1 and in Jewish ghettos during World War 2, and the efforts of people held at Guantamo Bay to create a garden with plastic spoons, mop handles, and seeds saved from their food. The potential of ecologically sensitive gardening and farming practices, and of the understandings that develop with them, to contribute to peace- and resilience-building also comes across in the work of inspiring organisations, such as the Permaculture Institute of El Salvador and the IDEP Foundation in Indonesia. The sense that attention to soil is a valid and important concern for anyone interested in peace (studies) also comes across in peace thinker Satish Kumar’s recent calls for a ‘new trinity’ of ‘Soil, Soul & Society’.
Not least, an understanding of soil encourages humility. As Wendell Berry – poet, essayist, novelist and farmer – has put it,
‘We cannot speak of topsoil, indeed we cannot know what it is without acknowledging at the outset that we cannot make it. We can care for it (or not), we can even, as we say, ‘build’ it, but we can do so only by assenting to, preserving, and perhaps collaborating in its own processes. … We cannot make topsoil, and we cannot make any substitute for it; we cannot do what it does. … It is making life out of death.’
(Wendell Berry, ‘Two Economies’ (1988))
The kind of humility that might come from a relationship with soil seems an important antidote to the logic of short-term profit, to the certainties implied in ‘the mathematics’, and to the pursuit of dominating power. That, too, seems worth cultivating and investing in.
Berry has defined sustainable agriculture as an agriculture that ‘does not deplete soils or people’. As Berry also suggests, the same definition probably also applies to sustainable culture more broadly. (Agri)culture driven by the demands of banks risks depleting both, undermining people’s dignity and health alongside the degradation of the very basis of life. We cannot, then, afford to ignore banks, companies, and the structural conditions that support their power, but nor can we afford to neglect investing in the patient, practical work that contributes to conserving and building soil – regardless of the headlines.