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I Am The Soil’s Daughter

October 1, 2020

For a little while now, I’ve been wanting to write about this subject and contribute my narrative to an ever growing discourse about the Earth. Alas, I find the topic so overwhelming that each time I’ve tried to put pen to paper, I cannot do the subject justice. In recent years, I have noticed the popularity of ‘soil debates’ increase amongst ecological circles; and I find them fascinating! For me, this subject underpins pretty much everything in life. Much of which, I want to write about in the future. And those articles – including rewilding, agriculture, no dig methods, organic gardening and symbiotic relationships between plante & fungi – remain half written in my drafts, bubbling away until they feel right. But if it takes 500 years to form 2-3cm of soil, then I can wait a little longer. There is beauty in patience.

When writing, I personally find it very important to ensure I’m coming from an authentic place. I’m so over reading stuff online that just regurgitates somebody else’s argument in a less astute way. Lack of originality is boring. And yet, I’m aware of my own hypocrisy; in the past, I have absolutely been guilty of doing this. I remember once giving a garden tour, a few years back, and finding myself suddenly embarrassed that I was repeating somebody else’s narrative. When we speak our truth, what we say must come from the heart; and this, in turn, comes through time, experience and observation. Naturally, our opinions are informed by facts – which are often on account of other peoples research. This is why it is important to process these facts through your own lens and interpretation – which is why I often write in the 1st person. Hence, in this blog, if I don’t expand on a particular point, it’s because you can go and google it yourself – where you will find it articulated much better than I ever could. These are just my opinions really.

My background, before moving into gardening, was archaeology. Studying the rise and fall of great empires through a practical approach was fascinating. Alas, unsatisfied with the facts I was given, I often found myself asking “yes, but why?”. There’s an incessant drive inside me that constantly strives for truth; whilst simultaneously hoping (and knowing) I’ll never find it. Because truth, and gaining those definitive answers to my questions – whether good or bad – would bring me no joy. It is in the journey itself that I am both fulfilled, yet longing for more. And so, studying history was good for gauging a general understanding of how things unfolded in the past. ‘How great empires fell’ could be surmised by breaking things down into a timeline of events, but I often felt like the ‘trigger moment’ was off. Last year, I came across this quote which set my mind tick tick ticking away. It said: “a nation that destroys it’s soil, destroys itself “- Franklin D. Roosevelt. To me, this resonated so strongly! Echoing right through the many years of me asking ‘why?’. I’ll say again, I hope to never find the real answers to my questions for as long as I live. However, like Ed Harris in Westworld – for me, the fun in life lies in finding a clue. And this quote is a biggggg clue, which has subsequently led me down a fascinating path!

When we look back to many historically significant periods in the past – Mesopotamia, the French Revolution, Dust Bowl America – their demise, or the catalyst of, can be pinned back to the mistreatment of soil. Either through over-working and irrigating, leading to soil salinization; deforestation causing landslides; and repetitive ploughing causing soil erosion, loss of essential nutrients and destroying mycorrhizal relationships. All of which, left these societies with poor soil and thus, poor harvests. So what about this Western empire we’re living in? Well, developments in the last century mean that there is a new ‘wolf in sheeps clothing’ on the scene – chemicals!

Our health is intrinsically linked with soil health. I can’t emphasise that enough. In order to get the nutrients we need, our crops need to grow in a nutrient rich soil. Yes, fertilisers may produce good crops (for a while) but they essentially encourage the plant to be lazy whilst concurrently bleaching the soil. Fertilisers that are rich in phosphorous and nitrogen, discourage the plant from making those important relationships with mycorrhizae. These symbiotic connections are essential for plant health and nutrition, but if the roots do not form them, they come to rely on the fertilisers for their feed instead. So, see it like this: the more chemicals you use, the more you damage the soil; the more you damage the soil, the more chemicals you will then need to restore the original nutrient levels. I guess you can liken it to chasing the high of recreational drugs. Eventually, you end up taking said substance to feel ‘normal’.

But what is also mind-boggling to me about the use of chemicals, is that in agriculture and horticulture it is pretty much the norm. And, personally, I would genuinely question whether the people spraying these chemicals even know why they’re doing it. Getting your PA1/6 is somewhat of a CV tick box exercise in gardening. Granted, not all things sprayed onto the plants are synthetic – some organic invigorators can be wonderful – however, a vast majority are. Glyphosate (aka Roundup) is the worlds most common weedkiller. Yet there are years of research which correlate its’ chemical composition with cancers and other illnesses amongst humans. We spray these herbicides in our gardens, on our fields, on our farms – covering our crops, harming our wildlife and working their way into our water system. And that’s before we even consider the damage it is doing to the microorganisms in our soil. Did you know that within an aggregate the size of a shovel, you probably have more microorganisms in there than there are people on the planet? So we should consider that these chemicals which kill microbes in the soil, can kill the microbes inside us too. Yet on a daily basis, we see people reaching for chemical alternatives to natural remedies – medication, contraception, diet supplements. These are seen as solutions to our problems, when I guarantee that 9/10 people (including me!) don’t even know what they’re taking. I once watched this programme about fertility, which discussed how exposure to certain chemicals (in particular, a case study on DBCP spraying in agriculture) causes infertility in men. It went on to say that as a general generational trend, the fertility level of men nowadays is half of what their grandfathers generation was. Somewhat correlating with the timeline of these synthetics being introduced on a vast scale.

Since before I was born, there has been a dedicated movement in horticulture towards organic gardening. But what do we mean by this? ‘Organic’ goes way beyond simply opting out of using fertilisers on your plants and crops. It’s about supporting wildlife, using IPM, managing water systems, companion planting and understanding relationships that exist within the soil. I firmly believe that so much ‘organic’ knowledge has been lost in our generation. I’m talking oral histories from ancestors, traditional practices, rituals – all part of one natural rhythm that has been overlooked and cast aside, in favour of quicker temporary results. We’re the ‘now’ generation and have done more damage to the beautiful Earth in 50 years, than has been done in her entire lifetime. And we disregard, not just the Earth, but the peoples too; the people who have cared for her, long before we came to take from her. Native, aborigine, folk – all pushed into teeny tiny corners of the world to be held as a novelty or a pest. And with them, the most essential knowledge and respect for understanding our world. As in the story of Sky Woman: she fell to this Earth, bringing with her the seeds of fertility to make the land bloom. And it is our sacred duty to protect this for future generations, or else history shall claim another fallen empire and arrogance will not save us.

Just quickly returning to the importance of mycorrhiza, there is another common practice that is detrimental to this process: rotivating. In agriculture, tilling is simply part of a cyclical routine to prepare the ground for sowing. Now I, a young woman who is still very much learning, do not profess to know about farming. And I do not intend to tell farmers how they should or should not operate their growing, when I appreciate it is their livelihood. However, I can’t help but feel there has to be an alternative. Granted, civilisation has become ‘more’ sophisticated since humans learnt to harness the power of the plough, and population has boomed. But, the constant disruption of natural rhythms in the sacred soil causes upset. A vast majority of plants require help from other kingdoms to thrive – think pollinators. The fungi kingdom has become expert at this, with recent research suggesting that plants can communicate, extract and exchange nutrient through the networks of mycelium. And yet, when we constantly plough or rotivate the soil, we damage & destroy these networks. Furthermore, the loosening of the surface soil often leads to soil erosion, exposing deeper layers of less fertile ground. On average, we lose 2cm of soil per year – which, to remind you, can take up to 500 years to recover. I imagine that this is the preface for the ever-growing popularity of Charles Dowdings ‘no dig’ method.

I see a lot of people promoting the importance of making your own compost. This is, indeed, a very valuable practice in order to create a more sustainable system. Food waste, when rotted down and spread on the land, helps to retain moisture; as well as giving the nutrients a little top up. Compost, however, is no substitute for soil. They aren’t the same thing and we must remember that soil is sacred. By definition, it is formed through CL.O.R.P.T (climate, organism, relief, parent material and time). It is not just organic matter, which has decomposed for a year in your compost bin. Saving our soil is a universal priority – and necessity – if we are to protect our planet for future generations.

I am not an absolutist, by any means. I’m the first person to change my mind if somebody presents me with a more convincing argument (backed up with facts, of course); but this, to me, seems pretty clear cut. It can be difficult, at the best of times, to disentangle these subjects from each other; and this article is, by no means, the final product of what I want to say on the subject. For that, it would take a book. However, I am grateful for a mind and a career that allow me to explore these subjects in depth; both, through practical exploration and theoretical debate. If we want to save our planet & stand any chance of putting the breaks on climate change, we must access the huge carbon stores in our soil! And the only way we can do that? Protect it!

Thank you to the Aries full moon for giving me the final push of energy to finish this post. #Blessed, truly.

Edit: After reading my blog, a friend from the instagram gardening community told me to watch ‘Kiss the Ground’ on Netflix. I was absolutely blown away! And I have to say – the documentary makes very similar points, articulated in a much better way haha – so my advice would be… go watch Kiss the Ground!

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