Unearthing what might happen when soil microbes, curiosity, and art are stitched together...
The United Nations has declared 2015 to be the International Year of the Soil. As a local Sauk County farmer, I am delighted to see the world's attention directed toward this miraculous substance, the preservation and maintenance of which are among my daily duties. As a trained soil scientist, I can describe the physical, chemical and biological propertis of the soil, but there is far more we DON't understand about how soil biology transforms the once-living back into life's components. Most folks, meanwhile, regard this substrate of terrestrial life merely as something to scrub out of the carpet.
So let the soil speak!
If you look up soil in the dictionary, you'll find that soil evokes all kinds of negative connotations - def. To make dirty, particularly on the surface. To disgrace; tarnish a reputation soiled by scandal. To corrupt; defile. n. noun. The state of being soiled. A stain. Filth, sewage, or refuse.It is no wonder that humans, in general, have treated our soil systems like dirt and something to be corrupted, defiled, and where we dump our garbage. As I contemplate the growing season ahead, I am reminded of my connection to the Earth and how I might reclaim soil and soul love (which one could argue are one in the same 'skin') and marvel at what happens above and below the surface of things along the way.
It all started with digging a hole...
I have dug a lot of holes in my day, over 60,000 for trees and shrubs, countless others for seeds and flowers, and several miles for the soil itself while doing soil survey work in Alaska 'back in the day'. Indeed I might have even wracked up enough miles to have dug to China and back (no joke). I've lost track of the transplants and tubers I tucked into the garden edges, seedballs thrown and willows whipped along the streambanks during the 'restoration education days' of the Pacific Northwest. And let's not forget all the holes dug to not only plant trees but to also build character, my own and for others under my care, this was characteristic of my Colorado backcountry days working in wilderness therapy programs (aka 'hoods in the woods'). I came 'down from the mountains' to the Midwest to root myself back home, in a place I love, Wisconsin, and commenced to plant more trees and shrubs—throw seeds and caution into the wind, and settle into farming—because I thought I knew a thing or two about people, plants, and dirt. Currently, as the soil slowly wakes from mid-winter dormancy, I'm still digging holes. This time being thrown into wakefulness. This required me to dig a little deeper and here's what I'm finding.
Life starts and ends with the soil:
Soil is the mixture of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and myriad organisms that together support life. Soil is considered to be the "skin of the earth" – it's largest, living, breathing organism and collective geologic slate.
What the soil does...
The NRCS (natural resource conservation service), delves into characteristics and virtues of what a healthy soil does. Healthy soil gives us clean air and water, bountiful crops and forests, productive grazing lands, diverse wildlife, and beautiful landscapes. Soil does all this by performing five essential functions:
Sustains plant and animal life
Filters and buffers potential pollutants
Provides physical stability and support
What the NRCS doesn't say is the five essential functions, that I think soil performs for the human heart:
A sense of stability and structure and yet freedom to move and grow within this structure. (soil has air space too!)
Humble...things take time to build—in the case of soil many years. Sometimes you have to be o.k. With realizing that through your own struggles and failures, you are only helping pave the way for others to thrive.
Expansiveness—if 1 teaspoon of soil is teeming with more than 100,000 microorganisms, fungi and bacteria, than imagine what might happen when we open an extra chamber of our hearts to compassion for hundreds of thousands of people—even if we can never see or know them?
Meditative, slowing down, pausing to reflect and engage in meaningful work and conversation through.
Soil love = soul love.
Getting at the heart of the matter?
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization highlights soil's links to many different areas of sustainable development – poverty reduction, hunger eradication, economic growth and environmental protection. Promoting the sustainable management of soils can contribute to healthy soils and thus to the effort of eradicating hunger and food insecurity and to stable ecosystems.
As a farmer, scientist, and educator, I rely on research, data, and technique to help guide me in sustainable land management and stewardship of soil resources. Yet science and technique only get you so far. To grow food sustainably, you also need a bit love, for the Earth, for yourself and your community. For example, science helps inform me of the dangers of UV rays on my skin. Because I love my life and want to take care of my body, I follow through with this information and use sunscreen, wear light clothing, tend to my own skin. So if the soil is the 'skin of the Earth' and food comes from the soil, from the Earth, and we are what we eat, don't we want to love that part of ourselves that is life-giving and makes us want to love life.
“When in drought, be honest,” Mark Twain
Part of why I farm is practical and another part is heartfelt. And when challenge arise on the farm whether practical, personal, or cultural, I go outside and get grounded in dirt. I believe we are shaped by the soil and it plays a role in influencing our relationship with the land and each other.
If you look at any farmers hands, veteran or beginner, you will note they are well marked and mapped—many months and years of scars and successes traced in and among the knuckles. There's also bits of permanent 'dirt' etched under the fingernails—an understanding of being 'soiled' of constantly having to 'wring your hands' only to find that the 'soil stains', never leave you. Things have a way of sorting out, like sand, silt, and clay.
I'm in my front yard, digging another hole to uproot and transplant a few asters and butterflyweed. When you start to dig, the engagement between soil and shovel can be further leveraged through your heart and hands. The reason is practical: manual taskwork (especially during group conversation) often enables slower, deeper, more reflective exchanges to take place. (Indeed, many people doodle precisely because it increases their aural engagement and associative abilities). The same is true of digging—you enter the 'zone' and a rhythm takes over. A bit of imagination never hurt as it can be a scary thing to stare into dark and shapeless hole. Your mind starts to visualize a home for the young seedling, you realize you are not alone, but aided by millions of microbes, hundreds of athropods, all the elements, seen and unseen that makes life happen. Additional reasons are more symbolic. That the soil/earth, as archtype, as female-associated hardly needs mentioning.
Ok so what's a farmer to do after all this digging?
This year, we're digging another hole and and I hope you'll com play along the way to unearth what's going on below the surface of things.
Rob and I, along with artist Leslee Nelson, are inviting farmers and other interested parties to create a “soil quilt” while sharing stories with the public along the way. Participants are invited to bury a piece of fabric to let soil microbes “paint” it. The fabric will be exhumed and stitched together during three public quilt-making and story sharing events between July – September 2015. Upon completion, the quilt and stories will be displayed at a public reception during Fermentation Fest in Wisconsin or a local venue in South Central Wisconsin.
Moreover, when digging holes, stitching fabric is combined with conversation the archetypal association of the quilting- bee is brought into the subject matter with the bee often dismissed as small talk or gossip, even though these universal modes of human dicourse have come to be regarded by modern behavioral science as critical tools which allow us to comprehend the motives of those unfamiliar to us, make meaning out of what might otherwise seem repetitive and trivial human narratives, and more successfully understand the nature of power-relations. That we might now play with a similar forum to extemporize on mere “dirt” seems appropriate at a time when science is only beginning to apprehend the complexity and importance of what takes place in the soil. So let the soil and our hearts speak!
As a result, I hope I can get at the heart and soil in terms of what it means to build resilient food systems and a healthy rural economy. And so from the soil, to my hands and through my heart, I invite you to come play in the dirt with me this season.
Find Soil Types and Maps for your region: http://minerals.usgs.gov/soilsurvey.html
or use Web Soil Survey link: http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/HomePage.htm
Soil Biology and Soil Health– Natural Resources Conservation Service: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health/
Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN: http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/
International Union of Soil Scientists: http://www.iuss.org