Posts Tagged soil

The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

I’m going to begin this blog post by being brutally honest. The class we spent playing in the dirt did nothing for me. I emerged from that dirt playing session unchanged. If anything, I grew frustrated. When unleashed onto the academic quad for some one-on-one time with dirt, I felt a little lost, even though this was the same dirt I trod on every day on my way to class. To settle my mind, I went to one of my favorite places on campus, the backyard of the Guest House. I sat with my notebook, trying my best to figure out “Who is the soil?” and “How is the land wild?” and “How am I wild?”

A glimpse of a fall night spent behind the Guest House, one of my favorite outdoor spaces.

Maybe it’s because this assignment did not push me out of my comfort zone. For me, lying barefoot on the ground and getting dirt under my nails is an everyday occurrence. Maybe I need to push myself farther to strengthen my relationship with the land. I thought for a while that I should try something radical, like tasting the soil, but then I realized that in a way, I already have soil coursing through my body. The connection that David Suzuki makes in the Made from the Soil chapter in The Sacred Balance is that “earth is the food of life”(92). Of course, we are not ingesting the earth directly, as Suzuki goes on to explain, but we absorb it through our daily subsistence. “Soil continues to be the main source of humankind’s nutrition” (101). Most of the world’s population lives primarily off of grain; therefore, we are dependent on soil to continue assisting us in agriculture. We have entrusted soil to sustain us so we in turn need to sustain it.

I currently have two bottles of Stewart’s Grape Soda bottles sitting on my windowsill. One is filled with grass and was given to me by a friend after we sat outside on afternoon, just talking and running our idle fingers through the grass. The other bottle I filled with dirt. It was while I was filling the bottle that I finally gained the insight I was missing from class last Friday. I was scooping up the dirt and pouring it down the neck of the bottle when I began to notice movement. The sun was low in the sky and I squinted towards the ground to see that all around me, ants were crawling around in this dirt. This dirt was more than what supported me and my built environment. It was even more than the crucial base of agriculture. It was an environment that stretched worldwide, was made up of minuscule parts, and sustained life as small as those ants and as large as me. When I thought of the breadth and scale of all things affected by soil, I realized just how much in my life I owe to it.

While my home now is truly Dickinson College and the Carlisle area, I cannot help but referring back to my house in central New Jersey when people ask me about home. Through my coursework this semester I’ve been running into the topic of home, land, and environment over and over and it’s been leaving me a bit uncertain. Growing up I believed I lived in a rural area, because I lived down the street from horse farms and I had to drive ten miles to the grocery store. It really was not until I came to Dickinson that I realized my home state is really all I know. I don’t have much experience traveling the world or even the country. I’ve never lived anywhere else and my whole family has lived in the same area for multiple generations. When I take a step back and realize that this country is enormous and home to many different environments, once again, scale is a difficult concept for me to grasp. Listening to the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, I hear:

“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me”

The words remind me that I really only know a small portion of the vast country that I live in. Yet, if I move past seeing myself as just as resident of the Eastern United States, I am the same as a silk tree growing in China, or a Meerkat burrowing in South Africa. We are all residences of soil.

In my History of Environment course we examined the concept that modern states make landscapes look like maps rather than maps being made to look like landscapes. With so much focus being on borders, we see our environment through the lenses of defined territory, rather than being simply defined by the soil that covers our land. If we can see beyond boundaries and scale, our connection with the world takes on a whole new meaning, all powered by the basic building block of soil.

Do borders make landscapes even when soil transcends these state-made boundaries?


-Amber McGarvey


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Is it My Land?

“This land is your land, this land is my land

From California to the New York Island

From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and me.” – Woody Gutherie, 1940’s


Whether you believe the earth was created in seven days or that it formed over millions and millions of years, there is one thing that I think we can all know for sure: the Earth and the land is here for us and maintains us. However, although this popular and patriotic folk song from the 1940’s reminds us of this fact, it is clear that all of us have taken its lyrics too seriously and believe that since “this land is my land,” we can treat it and use solely to benefit our needs.


Over the last couple weeks in our Ecofeminism class, we have been focusing on analyzing and breaking down the relationship between our bodies and the land that we live on. In order to do this, we have been reading and discussing several books that not only bring up a great variety of issues concerning the land around us and our own bodies but also raise a lot of important questions and offer solutions to these issues. We began with Sandra Steingraber’s powerful book Living Downstream (2010) which is a very personal and honest yet extremely in-depth analysis of cancers and their direct and indirect relationships to the environment. In this book, Steingraber introduces her readers to a multitude of case studies, which stand as evidence of the effects that the population’s handling and manipulation of the environment around us can have on our bodies’ well being. From Steingraber’s book we transitioned to Soil not Oil by Vandana Shiva, which although different in its approach, provides a framework that we can use to change our relationship to the environment in order to slow down and maybe even stop the environmental crises developing around us. Unlike Steingraber’s book, Shiva focuses on the big picture, immediately urging us that “we will either make a democratic transition from oil to soil or we will perish.” (p. 7) According to Shiva, our Earth as we know it is in the middle of three major crises; a climate crisis in which global warming is a threat to our survival, an energy crisis where reaching peak oil (the end of cheap oil) will dismantle our structures of industrialization and globalization and last but not definitely not least the food crisis, in which our population’s food sources are being squandered by the first two crises.

After reading both of these books, I find it impossible to ignore the breathtaking number of issues that our handling of the environment has caused and will continue to cause if we do not take action. Prior to taking this class, I was aware of some of these issues and how they can affect our lives on earth. However, I cannot lie and say that I tried to do anything with the information I knew or even tried to become more informed. The truth is that I have always been one of those people that although is easily persuaded in accepting that there are issues at hand in our environment, I let myself become consumed in sadness and completely convince myself that there is just nothing I can do about any of it.


What difference can I make? Yes I can recycle things here and there or choose to not drive a car but in the big picture, what difference does that really make? It’s not like my sole actions are going to single-handedly solve these three crises. Yes I know that if we all think this way then we will be even worse off, but can we truly make enough of a difference if we all pitch in?


Until I took this class, my answers to all of these questions would have be straight-up “No.” Yes, I did know deep down that I was wrong, but I felt too defeated and distraught to accept it and I chose to live in denial. I’m ashamed admit know that I chose to ignore, just like I’m sure many other people do when they listen to “This Land is My Land” and get lost in its catchy tune. However, after reading both Steingraber’s and Shiva’s books, I can say that it is time to snap out of it and stop being a coward. In Soil not Oil, Shiva introduces the idea of pseudo-solutions, solutions that seem to solve the issues at hand but may actually add to those issues over time, and actual real solutions that do address the three crises. Although she argues that we must collectively come up and implement real solutions that will have us moving towards reaching “Earth Democracy,” an active and complete transformation of our lifestyle and structures to one centered around soil, I believe that taking some action over no action is an important first step. With the urgency of the crises developing around us, I do agree with Shiva that we should focus on creating real solutions over superficial ones but I also believe that arriving to those solutions will take actions that will result in trial and error. In other words, I am now willing to participate in creating some changes than in ignoring the problem as a whole.

I do not want to claim that I have suddenly been reborn an outspoken environmental activist, but am very grateful to both of these women for truly convincing me that I do have a responsibility in changing our lifestyles because I am connected to the land. Maybe I had never understood this before having grown up in New York City, where having Central Park with its abundant trees is somewhat of a miracle, but I’m tired of making excuses.  However, I have felt disconnected to the land in big part because I haven’t really been surrounded by it. The only place where I have truly felt any sort of connection is in Colombia, where my parents are from. It is because of this distance between my body and the actual land that I am so grateful for reading these two books, which in a very small way have not only interested me in pursuing more connection with the land but in actually recognizing that it and its population needs help fast.

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“And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’ if this land’s still made for you and me..”

Not the best view, but this is a picture of me on the steps to our cottage from my Grandmother's garden.Ever since I could kneel, I have helped my Grandmother weed and plant flowers in her garden outside of our summer cottage in Block Island, Rhode Island. My Grandmother has been working on the garden for over twenty years. My Grandma knows more about that garden more than I know about anything. She has figured out what deer do not eat, what time all of the plants and flowers grow during the year, and exactly where to plant each plant and flower according to the shade. My Grandma’s garden is her sacred place. I have not significantly contributed to her garden, but I have always loved helping my Grandma weed, kneeling next to her on her light green foam pad. She always wears a huge floppy straw hat and digs into the soil like it was the thing she was put on earth to do. It is not just playing with dirt for her or for me; I connect with her in that soil.

I have always felt connected to the environment and the land. I am from urban Baltimore, so I did not grow up around a lot of trees and wildlife, but most of the best times of my life have been in or around the Gunpowder River, which is about 30 minutes from my townhouse in the city. One of my only clear memories from Pre-School is going to the river and standing on a huge rock, looking down at my Mom and my baby brother in the grass. I spent all day jumping off of that rock into the cool running water and digging my hands in the dirt on the bank, digging for whatever I could to build castles and anything I could imagine.

The Gunpowder River.

I have always valued land and its complexities. What is land? It’s everything we live, breathe, eat, and sleep on. I do not understand how people say that they do not have a connection to the land. IT IS LIFE. We are born on land, our food comes from land, and we live (for the most part) on land, and do almost everything ON LAND. Everyone has a connection to land because it is where we exist as human beings.

When we talked about soil in class, I realized that land is even more complex than I thought. Soil holds millions of organisms, creatures, and resources that humans unquestionably need to survive. Soil is a system- just like humans are! Our culture exploits land like it exploits women. We weed, for example, because it “looks better.” Land and soil is manipulated and altered for asthetics or for maximum profits that will have consequences. The land is treated like a non-living object for our benefit, when in fact land holds more living things than any humans do.

I have also, however, definitely been ignorant to land. For example, I know that I eat the food that comes from farmers that reshape land and exploit it for more profit. Steingraber writes “… I worry that, over the past half century, a focus on producing two commodity crops in gargantuan quantities has resulted in a drastic simplification of Illinois’ agricultural system” (153). Steingraber uses this one example out of countless ways that that farmers and people ignorantly abuse soil like it is endless. Abuse of the land will only stretch so far before there are consequences. The realization that our resources, including land, are worth more than money needs to be made. I have no idea what it will take to make people start taking action. We discussed in class, for example, that the food crisis might come to people’s attention when certain foods start disappearing, like seafood. As a Marylander, I LOVE Blue Crabs more than almost anything, but without them consumers might actually begin to realize that they need to know about their food, where it comes from, and how it effects the environment as a whole.

Before this class, I had a genuine, meaningful connection to land, but I did not understand that I was exploiting it, probably on a daily basis. Now, I know that land is even more important than I thought and that I need to learn about what I am doing to both help and hurt the land around me. I need to do my best to figure out what I can do to preserve the earth’s resources the best that I can. I need to raise awareness and tell people what they can to preserve the land that is essential in every human life.

I chose this political cartoon to show how land is often seen as something that can be conquered and nothing more.

This land is not made for you and me- it is made for you, me, and every other system within it. This land is not made for us to thoughtlessly plow and destroy as humans have exploited it in the past. This land is a living organism that should be protected, or this land will not always be.

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Enjoying Complexity

As I live my daily life, I do not often think about what the land provides for me or how important and complex the land is beneath my feet.  When I thought about the beauty of the earth before this course, I had a picture of a romanticized fantasy.  For instance, I love watching Planet Earth and the beautiful images they captured on film.  However, this experience of the earth is through a television screen – I am not actually touching the land as we did during class.  I feel like I have grown up with an appreciation for food (from the art of preparing it, to the act of enjoying what I made), yet I am still ignorant.  My food growing knowledge is limited to volunteering at the college farm and my mother’s small garden, much like my restricted view of nature through a TV screen.  In general, I do not grow my own food – it is packaged and shipped to my nearest market.  By not hunting and growing food for ourselves (ourselves, meaning the majority of the people living in “developed” nations), we have lost that true connection with the land, and thus the true appreciation and understanding of its complexities.

When I lay on the ground, observing the soil from that level, I started to re-learn to appreciate nature for its complexity – I was physically seeing the extent of the grass system and witnessing the intricacy of the soil.  What we value in life, like food and beautiful landscapes, originate from the soil.  This realization gives me a sense of awe towards the earth’s system – something that appears so simple can be the base of all life.  The association of dirt and soil with negative conations comes from an uneven balance of knowledge about the earth.  The beauty of soil comes from what it can support, what it is composed of, how it is made – not what can we get from the soil.

The complexity of the earth’s systems is much like the complexity of the human body.  Once I let go of the social constructed views of a body (male or female) that cloud my eyes, I can see the beauty of its complexity.  I think about the digestive system (as we read and discussed from The Sacred Balance by David Suzuki) and how my hormones and emotions effect my every moment…. And more interestingly, how most of these simple complexities are shared globally 🙂 I love to be reminded that I am not only connected to the land, but also to the people around me.

I may have known or understood these concepts in the back of my mind, but bringing them to the forefront of my mind affects my daily thoughts.  Soil and my connections with it and the land is not just something to wash off at the end of the day – it is the source of all life (inanimate and animate – including mine!), it is growth, it is fertile, it is productive, it is nourishing, it is home – every day of my life.

Sunset at the Dickinson College Farm (Courtesy of Alex Smith)

Rebecca Yahiel

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My Roots in the Soil

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.

Soil, supporting the vegtative life on this planet and therefore supporting the human life on this planet. Photo source:

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.

An image of the layers, or horizons, within soil. This demonstrates the structure of soil that David Suzuki discusses. Photo source:

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.

I challenge you to grab a handful of soil every once in a while and take a good look. You might enjoy playing in the dirt, too! Photo source:

Katelyn Repash

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