Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thinking of soil

by Judith D. Schwartz

Earth Day has come and gone, but let’s consider earth: meaning, the sense of the word as a synonym for soil. This is much on my mind right now, not just because I’ve written a book on soil but as I’m in the process of preparing my vegetable garden. Starting a garden is the ultimate exercise in optimism. Along with the investment of time, space, money and energy, you’re casting your lot with the life force, trusting the invisible developments taking place below ground that eventually yield up food. And not simply “food” in the from-the-box, calorie-labeled, flavor-added way we’ve come to accept, but a radish or carrot or beet that is utterly itself, redolent of the earth from which it came. As a gardener, I’ve come to regard the plants I grow not as things, but as processes. And that when I gather the beans, onions and tomatoes in a basket, carry them up to the house and eat them, I’m not just a consumer of food—I’m taking part in the overall process, a process I’ve helped along by not getting in nature’s way.

Before I began to explore soil’s potential role in bringing ecological systems into balance, I considered it incidental, nothing more than a place to put plants. But now I see that it’s a living system. And once you start seeing it that way, food starts to look different too. The more life there is in the soil—worms and beetles that create channels for air and water; networks of fungi that transmit minerals to the plant—the more life there is in our food. As a society, we seem to have forgotten this. Most of our food supply is grown on inert, chemical-laden soil. But I believe that when we make the connection, and place a value on soil as a living system, many things will turn around: our food will be more nutritious, our health will be better, and our landscapes will be more vibrant.

What’s stopping us? The means of transformation is all around us, at our feet.

You can honor Earth Day any day or time: simply go and pick up a handful of earth.

Judith D. Schwartz is the author of the recently released book, Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, published by Chelsea Green Publishing

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