Ed. note: This week in our curated series The Dirt on Soil, we take a more philosophical turn with a thoughtful musing on the deeper meaning of soil from one of our regular contributors, Eliza Daley.
We need more geology in school. Or perhaps ecology. Probably both. If we are to survive, we need to understand who and what we are, and for that we need to understand this world that made us. We are earthly beings. We are small parts of a small planet on an average star in the outer reaches of a galactic backwater somewhere in the vastness of the universe. We are small parts that have not been around for long, nor is there any reason to expect that we will continue for more than a few million years — most of our close cousin species are already extinct, after all. We are small parts that do not live long enough to have much impact. Yes, even all this mess we’ve made of our planet — while naming ourselves “the intelligent species” — will not last long. If there are geologists in the future capable of reading the rocks, they will be hard-pressed to even find the layers that contained humans.
A centimeter layer of rock most often represents thousands of years of deposition, perhaps millions of years when deposited in regions of high topography. (Some thick layers can be laid down in hours though these are more often igneous than sedimentary.) All that we’ve done, from our birth in Africa to our global ending, will likely comprise a layer of stratigraphy that is thinner than your smallest toe. To be sure, that layer will have ludicrously irrational geochemistry, laced as it will be with plastics and concentrated poisons. If there are mass spectrometers in the future (not likely, but humor me), geologists will spend careers trying to understand how this particularly toxic time period came about. They may invoke extraterrestrial impacts — because any thinking being will find the true story of our abiotic idiocy hard to accept.
But as we are terrestrial beings, that centimeter layer of humanity will not long persist even in the optimum conditions that allow sedimentary rock to form. Erosion by wind and water will break it down and carry it to the sea where it will be deposited in layers that eventually will be subducted into the Earth’s mantle and recycled into new crustal rocks. Indeed, this whole planet is recycled matter, coalesced from the detritus of an extinguished star system. This is how time works on matter. This changeful recycling is the essence of time. There is very little persistence and none will last into perpetuity. Not even this universe…
There certainly is no master of time or materials, though we like to think we are both. We are a juvenile species, with grandiose delusions of selfhood. Like all infants, we believe we are the center of the story, if not the center of the entirety of existence. Many of us never come to maturity. And collectively we are all ensnared in the infantile systems that we have built to sing our own praises and feed our own pleasures. We believe ourselves great, as infants do; and we fervently believe the stories that we tell ourselves. Of our big brains. Of our language. Of our cleverness. Of our inventiveness. Of our powers and abilities to subdue others. We absolutely amaze ourselves. And this inward gaze, this fascination with us, keeps us from seeing what is actually real. We are masters of none — because there are no masters — and we do not learn this. That we have made this word, master, a word that has no reality, is telling. That we have invested it with such pomp and circumstance, such firm certitude, is perhaps the central tragedy of our story.
I think much on this in the spring as I am digging my hands into the soil, planting seeds, seeding my hopes for harvest. The standard story of the garden is one of dominance in my culture. All the tools and routines are rooted in wresting nutrition from some outside Other that we name Nature. (Putting ourselves above that Other, all Other, in our own self-imposed hierarchies, of course.) But my experience with the garden belies that story. Oh, I could, just like common agriculturists, rip apart the soil structure with engines and sharp metal, dump poisonous pest control and (absurdly named) fertilizer on the dirt, plant seeds genetically modified to respond to these toxic conditions, and expect some harvest. But the garden never thrives when I assert control — because I do not have control. There is no control at all. When one part of a system overreaches, all the parts are adversely affected. And of course, when so much effort is expended in killing life, what life can survive?
Yet that is the common story of the garden, a story of poison, a story of mutilation, a story of toxic dominance. This is why our food systems are failing. They were never designed to foster life. They are designed to kill. And this is not how the garden of this planet Earth works.
My experience with my hands in the soil is much different. I can’t ignore the simple fact that all my efforts to control what I don’t want around me are, at best, ongoing, if not outright futile. I am not in charge. This is a relationship of accord and compromise. In the garden, I am encountering life, entangled within it, enmeshed and embraced in it. I am a small part of this strange and magical system of transformation that is turning sunlight into future life. And when I assert control, things are broken and die…
This is why terraforming Mars or the Moon won’t work. This is why vertical “farming” doesn’t work. Because we believe that we are in control, that we know what we are doing, that we know how it all “works”. We believe we are assembling a machine when we garden. We believe that just throwing the components together in close proximity will engender the magic of life, that we can create a living system from the inert parts, that tossing enough resources and energy into some assemblage, just like a machine, is what makes life. (We even believe this of our own bodies…) But we do not create life; we enable death with our tools and tinkering. Without help from millions of Others, we can’t even create a teaspoon of living soil.
In fact, we don’t seem to realize that this living soil is the necessary foundation of a garden. Soil is not dirt. It is not a pile of fine-ground rock and biological detritus. It is not even a home for mycelium and microorganisms, annelids and insects, roots and burrowing chordates. It is the sum of all those things living together. Actually, it is more than the sum; it is the magical emergence of life. From this community and in these intimate ties and bonds comes a system that does far more than the sum of its parts. Put a seed in inert potting dirt, give it sun and water, and it will probably germinate. It may even grow to maturity. But it will not thrive. Very likely it will not reproduce itself, which is the whole point of growing a seed. Just like our own children, that seed will not thrive in isolation. It needs community. It needs nutrients, but it also needs fungi and bacteria and animals of all sizes to be able to take up those nutrients in a plant’s usable form. It needs the nurturing care of other creatures even within its own cells in order to feed itself and obtain water. It needs warnings and information from other beings about dangers and potential advantages. It needs the senses of others mixed with its own to know when and how and what to do at every stage of its being. And this nurturing, sensory matrix is soil. The community of life. The ground state of existence on this planet.
For now, we must name this magic because we do not understand its mechanics. Perhaps soil is magic in the sense that our mechanics will never encompass and explain it. So how could we synthesize it? We can’t make what we can’t understand. That we think we can make life using the mechanical tools of our current agriculture reveals the breadth of our ignorance — and the depth of our potential for failure. When we garden, we humans do not produce food. We collaborate with the soil, with the water, with the air, with the sunlight, and with a whole host of plant and animal species; and miraculously this collaboration produces stuff that we can eat. Well, perhaps it is not so miraculous. We evolved within this collaboration after all. We are created by it and exist because of it. We are a part of it and it is the whole of us.
If by magic we mean that we do not understand completely then, yes, this entangled way of being is magic — though it is also common, mundane and utterly ordinary life. The collaboration of millions of different ways of beings in every handful of soil is necessary to the garden. This perpetual interaction is the garden. It may be that we used to know this. After all, there are all those stories of a garden of food that happened without dominating toil. But we have fallen from that grace in painfully material terms. We have spent millennia — and particularly the last five centuries — vainly trying to rip ourselves out of this web of nurturing abundance to place ourselves at the isolated apex. To be in control of what created and sustains us. To believe our immaterial mind-selves and tinkering hands can dominate the matter of webbed reality in which those hands and selves are embedded. Magic, indeed…
If we all knew more of how this world actually worked, if we were taught from childhood to see essential relationship and cooperation, if we knew our place and humbly embraced it, we would be happier beings. We would definitely not be engaged in this destructive mission to control Others. We would sink our hands into the soil and send down the roots that we have severed through our delusional stories. We would know that this is our home because this is where we were created and all of this is necessary to our thriving. And we would accept that we will probably never know what all of this entails. Because it is magic, you know…
So I think we need more geology and ecology in school. Maybe much less of the story of our selves. Probably nothing of the mechanics of domination and control. We need to learn about the whole Earth. Since we are, after all, Earthlings. And when we know that we will be magically rooted in this soil… magically, finally, at home.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022
Teaser photo credit: By HolgerK at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3810176