Soil and Strife
“I hate it when humans and augmented humans ruin things for no reason. Maybe because I was a thing before I was a person and if I’m not careful I could be a thing again.”
—The Murderbot Diaries 5: Network Effect, Martha Wells
I found myself saying a silent thank-you to the farmer guest on the Building Local Power podcast for her discussion of compost and her early start as a gardener and tiny plot farmer. One of my difficulties with soil this year has been the realization that all the books (like The Soil Will Save Us) and documentaries (like Kiss the Ground) about soil deal almost exclusively with the work of large farmers and landowners.
Somehow, it feels similar to what prompted me to write a book about walking even though I felt like I’d said everything I wanted to on the subject. Nearly everything that was out there felt like it was for people with the luxury of leisure time, for people who wanted to live like Thoreau or wander like Wordsworth, not for stay-at-home parents or people working three jobs to get by or single moms. Surely there is soil-reparation advice for busy moms with two jobs and a small fenced-in garden?
Surely the soil out behind me, the ground I am responsible for, deserves just as much care as several hundred or thousand acres on the plains.
I’ve been reading Kelly Brown Douglas’s small, powerful book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, which tracks some of the origins of white supremacy and white nationalism—and eventually the U.S.’s Stand Your Ground laws—to the Roman general Tacitus’s admiration for Anglo-Saxon social structures (which mutated later into admiration for Anglo-Saxon bloodlines as intertwined with those structures) in the first century CE.
Douglas is also an ordained Episcopal priest, and clearly has a good handle on the kind of rhetoric that sermons demand. Her book is compellingly written and provoking a lot of thought, one sideline of which is mixed with Patrick Wyman’s The Verge: reminders of just how much war the European continent faced for many centuries, pretty much constantly for hundreds of years until the end of World War II. The abuse that continent’s soil has suffered, the blood and suffering it’s absorbed. How the soil itself isn’t exhausted from sorrow and strife is beyond me. Maybe it is, and not enough people are listening.
I might never know what the soil I live on has seen, good as well as bad. Which shouldn’t stop me from honoring it, caring for it, repairing it where possible. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the knapweed and thistles out—and am, as I am every winter, relieved that everything I’ve failed to care for is now covered in snow—but there is something about digging up a clod of stiff, clay soil and seeing it jam-packed with wriggling worms that gives me heart. We’re here, living, the worms say. Doing their work, regardless of the attention I or anyone else gives to the dirt. It makes me want to care, to gentle and coax that soil into . . . what? Some kind of courage.
Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:
A conversation about sleep had me looking up science journalist Rebecca Boyle’s excellent essay 2014 in Aeon about artificial light and increasing disruption of sleep cycles, “The end of night.” “The loss of night-time darkness neglects our shared past, but it might very well cut short our futures too.”
A friend alerted me to a 2019 Indian Country Today report on Yvette Running Horse Collin’s dissertation on the presence of horses in North America in pre-colonial times: “Collin theorizes that because horses were a symbol of status and civilization in Spain during that time, and because conquerors needed to illustrate the Native people as savage and uncivilized to justify their conquest to the Queen of Spain, the truth about the relationship between Native peoples and the horse was purposefully distorted.”
I have to admit I laughed while reading this letter to Outside about moving to a cabin in the Montana woods to write and hating it, but I’m sharing because Blair Braverman’s response is a lovely example of clear-eyed firmness leavened with compassion: “For every insight, ask yourself why. You wish you could watch television instead of watching your wood stove every night. Why? Because you’re bored. Why? Because your rituals aren’t as meaningful as you thought they’d be, and you want a distraction from your own mind. Why? Because being in your mind reminds you that you’re not the person you thought you were. Why? Who did you think you were?”
I was taken enough with ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave on the Smarty Pants podcast talking about her book The Plant Hunter that I went down to the bookstore and ordered it.
Jeremy Lent on the Futures podcast talking about his new book The Web of Meaning gave me a bit of an optimistic uplift when I sorely needed it: “Actually there is a moral compass in life. And that moral compass comes from a deep interconnectedness with all of life. Each of us actually is life.” At some point I’ll actually get to his enormous Patterns of Meaning, which is sitting on my research-not-for-pleasure TBR pile.
This Scotland Outdoors episode about Walking Libraries was just delightful. I love the idea of a walking library! What book might you take on a long walk, or to remind you of places you’ve walked? The Walking Library site has tons of suggestions, from novels to straightforward guide books—I’m tempted by the idea of walking around with one of their Walking Library backpacks, maybe some future less busy year.
Are myths about the Seven Sisters—the Pleides constellation—the world’s oldest story? Australian science professor Ray Norris has been researching myths throughout the Southern Hemisphere, and found that variations on Seven Sisters stories are ubiquitous, and might date back 100,000 years: “‘Lost Pleiad’ stories are found in European, African, Asian, Indonesian, Native American and Aboriginal Australian cultures. Many cultures regard the cluster as having seven stars, but acknowledge only six are normally visible, and then have a story to explain why the seventh is invisible. How come the Australian Aboriginal stories are so similar to the Greek ones?”
This 15-minute documentary about Gaelic songs in Scotland and how they connect culture across generations, When the Song Dies, had me longing for something, and not just Scotland (a place I often feel strangely homesick for). Folk music does that, a reminder that we have deeper connections than most of our daily lives acknowledge.
"A Soiled Life" would be a good title for your next book!
I've had an unanswered question for many years, related to soil health, inspired by Thoreau's comment that the trees take nutrients from the soil and then return with interest when they drop their leaves. The question is this:
If the earth is a battery, storing solar energy through plants in the form of chemical bonds, is the earth charging or discharging? Do our actions, generally but specifically with regards to soil health and agriculture, affect the charge of the earth? Can we deplete the earth's chemical charge, and is that a way to describe soil health? One of the goals of composting is to fill the soil with packets of chemical potential energy in the form of nitrogen compounds.
I'm sure I'm not the first to ask the question, but I haven't seen it, yet. But, I'm quasi-illiterate, so I've likely just not read it, yet.