We are soil. Soil is us. Earth, water, air and fire…we are all these elements, but as many creation stories tell, we have been made from the earth on which we stand, and we will return to it. The elements all around us are present in our bodies, reminding us of our relations to all living beings and substances. Thousands of years of earth’s evolution have made the soil, as a thin blanket that provides the sustenance for all life. This thin blanket, unique to each place, is then covered in a quilt of green, adapted to its particular ecosystem. This month we celebrate the miracle of soil that provides the ground of being.
We are in the new moon of June, which is the last of the three spring cycles. Beings have awoken,
growth has activated and visibly emerged in bursting buds, and now, leaves, grasses, flowers and small seedlings are all unfurling then blossoming in the height of exuberant creativity. The sun is waxing toward the solstice and so energy is at its maximum for the year. Things are lively and fast-moving now, in their youthfulness, bursting with heart breaking beauty and elegance of motion. It can be a time when we think about tapping life-regenerating sources.
Many cultures called ‘civilized’, have taught that getting ‘dirty’ constitutes menial labour. Elites maintain their distance from dirt and manual labour, hiring others for these jobs. Urban people are noticeable by their trendy, clean clothes and pristine shoes. In our industrial mindset of unending growth and production, we have eroded the soil, poured toxins of every form into it, and have paved over some of the best soils in the world. For some, soil is equivalent to slavery on plantations, the oppression of peasants in feudal-type systems, or the very hard life of pioneer ancestors. Yet, the ecosystem of healthy soil is vital to life. It is vital for our healing from this way of life and all the abuses of people and living beings.
Soil is sacred. As Martin Prechtel (2012) says, ‘The land owns us, we do not own the land.’ The land makes us human. If the relationship we have with soil is sacred, we find a profound respect is engendered. We stoop, kneel, sweat, and harvest in relation to the soil, as an honoring of the life-
giving energies around us and the ‘cities of plants’. The structure of and the work in the garden should ‘please the plants and the Holy that is present there’. To this end, shrines have long resided in gardens.
While current society focusses on growth, sacred gardening recognizes the importance of decay as essential for further creativity and productivity. Little temples or shrines would be built by compost heaps, just as they are for the human dead, honoring the form that is dissolving and the miraculous new form being born as soil.
Life is remade in compost heaps and thus they must be revered and made beautiful, like the beauty of the dead nourishing the living. The disassembly and digestion of compost heaps is a metaphor for how we can bravely heat, break down and digest the failures and hard events in our lives, remaking them into something beautiful that can serve life once again. Nutrients become available for regenerating life, a cycle that our societies need to emulate.
We can also turn to science to understand some of the wonder of soil. Soil is 45% minerals from sand, silt and clay. It is 5% organic matter or dead plant and animal bodies which becomes humus, emerging from the composting elements. The other two elements of soil are water and gases including oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The porosity of the soil enables movement between the air, water, and microorganisms that make nutrients available to the roots of plant beings. The darker the soil, the more organic matter. The level of soil fertility is determined by the presence and ratio of: nitrogen for green growth; phosphorous for flowering, seed development and energy enabled through photosynthesis; and potassium for cell walls, disease resistance and ripening. Soil has a balance of acidity or alkalinity, some plants preferring a slight tilt to one side or the other. One teaspoon of healthy soil has 5 billion bacteria, 20 million fungi, and 1 million protozoa. One acre of soil can contain up to 4 tonnes of soil life. One rye plant in good soil can grow up to 3 miles of roots in a day, which is why it is used as a cover crop. So many miracles we know so little about.
As Wendell Berry says: ‘We owe our existence to the six inches of topsoil covering the Earth and the fact that it rains.’ The health of soil has been lovingly fostered by many Peoples, many who refuse to move unless forced, as so many generations have lovingly tended the fertility of soil. By 2004, chemical and industrial farming led to a loss of anywhere from 15-30% of our topsoil. By 2015, it is now estimated by Stanford researchers, that 1% of topsoil is lost every year and that almost every continent has 75% degraded soils. They worry that there may not be enough topsoil to feed the world’s population by 2050.
To the contrary, Thomas Berry suggests: ‘To work with the soil is to participate in one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. All the creative forces of the universe are present.’ David Suzuki asserts: ‘The soil is the microcosm where all the relationships of the larger world are played out.’ It is where we can once again touch the ground of our being. It is where we can practice living into a relational way of being.
This process of soil creation has occurred for millennia in the Wild. As the Coast Salish believe, one part of us is Wild and one part of us is Human. The two must be held in balance. When we leave some Wild around the perimeter of our gardens, we are preserving the Wild in ourselves as well.
Shrines to Soil
During this moon, honor the soil around you - both soil that you cooperate with and soil that is Wild. Begin this by starting an offering way of life. Give gifts to the soil and the unfurling beings emerging from soil fertility, living your relationships with the larger world in this echoing way. This can be a gift of tobacco, a drilled bead, a prayer stick or any other item of beauty made or fostered by your hands that itself will decay. Build a shrine and give a gift to your compost heap…remembering the importance of the Wild, of decay and of regeneration. Think of all the ways you have been compost for the lives around you, nourishing them, and how you have digested hard things to once again make brave beauty in the world.