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Terra Sapiens: On Our Beholding to the Soil

by Fred First

After a recent and welcomed early spring rain, I stood in the soggy garden and stirred aimlessly with my boot at some old tomato vines and mulch. I unearthed my first earthworm of the year. In that instant, two 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 an earlier time, Shakespeare heaped praise on man as “the paragon of animals” and the “quintessence of dust.” If he came be to life to give out awards in our time, considering the poor job we’ve done with that dust of which we are made, he might just give the prize to my earthworm—a species that replenishes the soil, while man has treated it like dirt. But soil is as precious as it is common.

Soil exists only in the unimaginably thin and fragile boundary of inches between the mineral Earth and the air. It is out of this organic film that many of the essential building blocks for life chemistry are made available to green plants, and here, too, that the matter of former life is ultimately recycled to reanimate the new life of earthworms and of men. This disassembly 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 fizzled based on how they cared for their soil. So it’s not comforting in that light to know that the soils of our world over vast areas are now being lost 10 to 20 times faster than they are being replaced. The recent term that is used by those who tie soil health to mankind’s future is “peak soil.”

Peak soil is recognized as the most urgent of all the supply peaks, and humanity must end soil abuse now. If our soils become exhausted or eroded, 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 yet 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, said that we know more about celestial bodies than we know 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 down muddy creeks and is stripped from bare 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 humankind is 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 wake up, and 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 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.

Tending the earth will be at center stage on April 16 at the Land’s Sake: Floyd’s Journey Ahead event. []

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