Terra sapiens: On Our Beholding to the Soil

After a recent, much needed, early spring rain, I stood in the soggy fenced rectangle of the garden, taking it in. I stirred aimlessly with my boot at some old tomato vines and mulch, and uncovered my first earthworm of the year. In that instant, our worlds collided. And while I’m sure the nightcrawler gave no thought to my part in the encounter, our meeting left me staring into the distance with uncertainty of our relative merit in the grand scheme of things, his and mine.

In light of mankind’s recent failures and insults to nature on many fronts, there are those who would take issue with Shakespeare’s high praise for our species, which the bard described in an earlier time in our history as “the paragon of animals,” and “the quintessence of dust.” The argument might be made that this earthworm in my spring garden has more claim to these titles because it is a species that replenishes the soil, while man has treated it like dirt.

Soil exists only in the unimaginably thin and fragile boundary of inches between the mineral Earth and the air. It is from this organic film that many of the essential building blocks for life chemistry are made available to green plants, and they in turn, powered by the sun, make food–sugars and starches that support first plant and then animal growth, all the way up the food chain.

It is here in the soil, too, that the matter of former life is ultimately recycled to reanimate the new life of earthworms and of men, made available for reuse, one millennium upon the next. This work is accomplished by bacteria and fungi in the essential processes of decomposition and decay. There is alchemy on Earth, as the ancients dreamed, and it happens under our feet every day.

In the end, civilizations have thrived or fallen based on how they cared for their soil. So it’s not comforting in that light to know that the world’s soils over vast areas are now being lost 10 to 20 times faster than they are being replaced. The term that is used by those who tie soil health to mankind’s future is “peak soil.”

Peak soil is the most urgent of all the supply peaks, and humanity must end soil abuse now. If we fail to honor and protect our soils, it will not matter that, by some future miracle of changed priorities, we were moving toward alternative energy for communications and commerce, were cleaning up the oceans and the groundwater, and were creating appropriate technologies and economies that sought to be sustainable. History tells the story: as soils go, so goes the nation. No soil, no food. We can’t sustain societies and civilizations on mineral earth and rock.

We might create alternative fuels; we will not create alternative soils. Its generation is an incredibly slow process of geology, and we have taken it for granted. Da Vinci, 500 years ago, observed in that day that we knew more about celestial bodies than we knew about this substance, and sadly, our ignorance persists: we have not acknowledged the contribution of soil to civilization, even as we watch with indifference as it washes away in our muddy creeks and is stripped from the ground by the winds.

So we have no choice, if we are to survive by the billions, but to move back from the precipice down which our soil disappears far faster than nature can replenish it. If we are to persist on the stage of history, we will stop compacting, eroding, poisoning and mining the life out of the agricultural treasures of the world. We will see the unsustainable folly of spending 10 petrochemical calories for every 1 food calorie that finally makes it to our mouths.

Local food production by methods that build the soil and leave it unspoiled is an act that grants us true homeland security. We owe an enduring debt of gratitude to our gardeners and farmers of Floyd County and Southwest Virginia for the good work they do to provide plates of food that fall far short of the 1500 miles most foods travel between the soil and our tables.

It is worth noting that the words Homo, humus and humble all come from the same roots. I will try to remember this with every seed I plant in May. We are not worms, but neither are we gods. We are large-brained, not-so-humble creatures of the dust. And the degree to which history will confirm homo sapiens to be wise–or not–will be measured ultimately in the way we have tended the soil.  Author’s Annotated sources at diigo

Tending the earth will be at center stage on April 16 at the Land’s Sake: Floyd’s Journey Ahead event. Vendors welcome, students are encouraged to enter the essay and poster contest. Come join your neighbors and the conversation. The event is free, food available.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Wow. A masterpiece of good communication for everyone to understand. I hope it is picked up and disseminated very widely, by your efforts and others.

  2. I agree with Kathy. Enjoy all your ruminations, but this one is particularly fine. Of course it could be that my simple mind just enjoyed the observation that “man has just treated it like dirt.”

  3. Thanks, Kathy. Truly wise observation. I hope more people read this. Like you, I treasure the earth and all it gives to us. I really realize how important it is to nourish our soil.