In recent weeks in class, we’ve had a substantial amount of discussion about soil. We spent time meditating (face down!) in the soil and considering what soil is and where it comes from. We’ve discussed articles by Vandana Shiva and David Suzuki, which expressed the importance of soil and gave a scientific analysis of what soil is specifically. In the mean time, I’ve considered what soil means to me and my personal relationship with soil.
Soil. Dirt. Land. Earth. Ground. Sediment. Terra firma. What’s the difference between these terms? What separates soil from the rest of these terms and elevates the way that we view soil compared to the way we think about dirt?
I see soil as a living structure that supports a substantial amount of life on this earth. It’s where we grow our food and build our houses. It’s unfortunately also where we dump our waste and we allow it to erode and deplete it of nutrients. When we discussed soil in class, we described it as fertile, nourishing, organic, tangible, productive, and live. I also consider soil a natural, self maintaining system. It is continuously replenished with broken down sediment and nutrients, and could be a renewable resource if we use it in a sustainable manner and at a rate that it can continue to replenish itself.
Through reading, we learned the cultural and scientific importance of soil to our everyday lives. Vandana Shiva’s book Soil Not Oil stresses the importance of the role of soil in our society, particularly when it comes to the impending ecological crisis. We continue to pollute and degrade our soil, yet we need it to keep up with food production and consumption. Shiva also stresses that there is no substitute for soil, meaning once we have depleted it, we have no natural source for growing our food. In The Sacred Balance, David Suzuki explains where soil comes from, how it forms, the organisms that comprise it, and the structure of soil horizons. This reflects that soil is a living, complex structure full of microorganisms that form even smaller structures within the earth.
Through meditation, we had the opportunity to consider our personal relationship with the soil. We spent 20 minutes looking at the soil and examining it with our eyes and hands. I considered where the soil comes from, what it is made of, and what the soil has seen. The soil is everything that has come before me, living and non-living. It is plants, rocks, animals, ancestors, water, time, history, and movement. The soil supports trees, plants, insects, water and nutrient cycles, animals, and especially people. It grows our (humankind) food, supports our buildings and roads, and fosters that plants that produce our oxygen. I am part from the soil and part of the soil. I take food and minerals from the soil and its processes and I in turn, through gardening and agriculture , nourish it with water and nutrients to continue the cycle that my body has with the soil. One day my body will become part of the soil, but the cycle will continue as I join the other beings that make up the soil and do for others what the soil has done for me. Most days, I do not recognize the soil and its residents (such as plants and insects), but I realize what our soil does for us.
Along with considering my personal relationship to the soil, I consider the mindset that soil creates for me. I often associate the soil with time I spent playing in the dirt as a child or time I spent working with soil at the Dickinson College Farm. As a child, I found soil liberating and, much to the dismay of my parents, took pride in covering myself with dirt while playing outside. When I worked at the farm, I found soil very comfortable. I loved the way it felt in my hands, the way it smelled, and the way that I felt after a day of planting in freshly tilled soil. And similarly to when I was a child, I took pride in leaving work with my hands and knees unrecognizable from being covered in soil while working. The dirt stains on my clothing that never seemed to wash out served as a badge that represented my affection for and relationship with the soil.
While people most likely carry many varying views on what soil is or what their relationship to soil is, soil cannot go unrecognized. Soil is what holds our roots and roots us to the earth.