Our soft and squishy foundation

Today I was going to write a nice tidy post about soil. Because soil is so tidy, right? But soil ecology, it’s important! It is quite literally the foundation of ecosystems; I trust I don’t have to explain why. And more and more evidence points to the fact that, if you treat your soil well, you get healthier crops, carrying more nutrients, AND you are proceeding in a way that is healthier for the entire ecosystem. Win-win. (Unless you’re a company trying to sell fertilizers or soil amendments or pesti/herbi/fungicides.)

I still want to try and write about that, because it’s important to understand this part of ecological processes, too, AND it’s all connected with all the interconnected problems industrialized agriculture/society has created – but the problem is that in reading one of several articles I’ve saved related to soil, I ran into something that knocked some wires askew in my head with respect to more spiritual aspects of soil, and connections to the land – and I’m not real sure how to proceed with all this soil stuff right now, at least in what would be my typical dry straightforward fact-based way.

First, the thing that threw me out of my groove.

This fucking post. This thing! It wasn’t even the article that originally got me prompted to write about soil, it’s one I had stored away. It’s supposed to be a straightforward article about how important the health of the soil is to human health. And it is. But it has to go and say things like this:

In medical school I was taught that our internal bacteria belong to a private club and that they have nothing to do with the microbes in our external environment. Pathogens such as salmonella or E. coli might pass through, as happens when we suffer from food poisoning or other infections, but their influence was considered to be transient—albeit occasionally devastating. But now that we can sequence the DNA of an entire microbiome, using a technique called metagenomics, we’re beginning to connect the dots and we’re discovering that genetic swaps can take place between our microbiome and the outside world—particularly the places where our food is grown.

You are what you eat; you are the place that you eat. By literally consuming the soil of the place your food is grown, your own intestinal flora change, because they’re swapping genetic material with the soil microbes. The article mentions one example of how this helps people to more easily digest certain local foods, and that the expectation is that if they’ve found one case like that, they expect to find others.

I’ve seen numerous spirit-touched people, especially those with a strong land focus, talk about how “we are the land, we belong to the land,” and I can’t look at this straight-up scientific fact about how a part of our internal landscape gets literally changed by the external landscape without parts of my mind running around screaming and going nonverbal. (Are our gut bacteria “us”? Er, well . . . yes and no? They help us digest food and get nutrients; they are part of us – and we are part of the land – and how do you decide what is “you” and what isn’t? … I think that’s enough theology or whatever for today, my mind can’t hack it.)

I also know of a few spirit workers who have been encouraged (or required) to eat organic food, and/or locally produced food, either because “it’s good for you” or because awareness of where your food comes from is important for your spiritual path. Or because the energy connected with certain foods/sources is important for you. And with this little tidbit about ingesting little bits of soil along with your intended food, I wonder what the spiritual/energetic implications are.

Another thing that’s come up, repeatedly, in contexts related to spiritual connection to the land is having a healthy reciprocal relationship with the land. You know, doing things like making offerings and stuff to the local land spirits, being a good neighbor/resident/steward. And here’s that article again:

I now tell my patients that food grown in well-treated soil might offer distinct advantages when it comes to scoring the best nutrients and building a healthy immune system. Of course, identifying this food can be tricky since USDA Organic certification, while certainly a helpful guide, does not always lead us to the healthiest farms. Many certified organic farms do qualify as ecological, but some large-scale farms with this certification still till deeply and use approved pesticides—both practices that damage soil and the microbes in it. On the other hand, there are farmers who can’t afford organic certification who are implementing the practices of eco-farming, practices that have been shown to produce a rich soil and a thriving microbial population. Since there is no “healthy soil/healthy microbe” label that can steer us toward these farms, my suggestion is to ask this simple question:

“Does the farmer live on the farm?”

Farmers who live on their land and feed their family from it tend to care for their soil as if it were another family member.

There it is. That concept of living with the other-than-human in a kinship sort of relationship, rather than one of dominance or of extraction-of-resources, and it being beneficial. And why is this good? Well, because healthy treatment of the land leads to better health for you, too, even if you’re acting in a purely mundane manner (i.e., not making offerings intentionally to the land wights). There are some very obvious benefits – if you’re NOT spraying poisons on the land, you’re not risking inhaling/ingesting them. But apparently, a more diverse and healthy soil ecology (which you can’t get by spraying poisons or chemical fertilizers around, because it diminishes the health of the soil) increases the nutrients in the food (same article as previous):

. . . using DNA sequencing technology, agronomists at Washington State University have recently established that soil teeming with a wide diversity of life (especially bacteria, fungi, and nematodes) is more likely to produce nutrient-dense food.

As one example of doing it wrong, applying nitrogen fertilizers, instead of truly feeding the soil itself, ends up destroying the ability of nitrogen-fixing bacteria to be as effective as they used to be. And that doesn’t affect the area you directly fertilized, because fertilizer mixes with water and moves around and then congratulations, you’ve also messed up the ecology next to your crops! And made it less likely that plants growing with the affected bacteria can grow well. (And how long will it take those relationships to return to their wild state? Who knows?)

Long-term nitrogen fertilizer use disrupts plant-microbe mutualisms:

When exposed to nitrogen fertilizer over a period of years, nitrogen-fixing bacteria called rhizobia evolve to become less beneficial to legumes — the plants they normally serve, researchers report in a new study. …

“The nitrogen that we apply to agricultural fields doesn’t stay on those fields, and atmospheric nitrogen deposition doesn’t stay by the power plant that generates it,” said University of Illinois plant biology professor Katy Heath , who led the study with Jennifer Lau , of Michigan State University. “So this work is not just about a fertilized soybean field. Worldwide, the nitrogen cycle is off. We’ve changed it fundamentally.”

…researchers isolated rhizobia from the nodules of legumes in fertilized and unfertilized plots. In a greenhouse experiment, they tested how these bacteria influenced legume growth and health. The researchers found that the plants grown with the nitrogen-exposed rhizobia produced 17 to 30 percent less biomass and significantly less chlorophyll than plants grown with rhizobia from the unfertilized plots.

And this one – the one I was originally going to focus on – is also worth reading in its entirety, for a really good overview: The Roots of your Health: the Science of Soil.

It goes over material from US soil microbiologist Elaine Ingham, who for 40 years has been studying soil and helping farmers, gardeners, etc., put her knowledge into practice to build healthier soils.

Put bluntly, Ingham’s message is that if you are interested in health, you have to be interested in soil.

…far from nurturing the soil that feeds us, agriculture often destroys it. Every time the soil is disturbed, or artificial fertilisers and pesticides are applied, soil life is killed and soil structure compromised.

Soil erosion, the leaching of water and nutrients, anaerobic conditions, pests and diseases all follow. The system gradually collapses and eventually the soil – now bereft of soil life – is degraded so much it becomes mere dirt.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction, and farmers then have to devote their energy to dealing with the destructive knock-on effects.

For Ingham, agriculture should be the art of nurturing soil life. It’s essential to understand what makes the life in soil tick – and conversely what destroys it – as well as how to manage soil life so it works to overcome the challenges that producing food presents. Get your soil biology right – ensuring the ‘good guys’ (aerobic micro-organisms) flourish and are in balance – and the rest falls into place.

But Ingham also goes further. She has no time for wasting money on soil tests, pointing out that during her lifetime the number of plant nutrients considered to be essential has increased from 3 to more than 40. Who can say what a plant needs, except the plant itself?

Applying this mineral or that fertiliser, Ingham says, is also a waste of money. Assays of plant tissues reveal that the nutrients present bear no relationship whatsoever to any soluble artificial nutrients applied. A plant requires all nutrients to a greater or lesser extent, and only it knows what it needs and when – the trick is having all those nutrients in a bio-available form in the soil at all times.

It’s a good article, with good summaries of soil ecology and all the processes and organisms that play roles in creating living, healthy soil.

So. There it is. Live well with the land, have a healthy, life-encouraging relationship with the land, instead of a life-destroying relationship, and you, too, have an increased chance for personally healthy outcomes.


About Fjothr Lokakvan

More or less Northern Tradition polytheist.
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3 Responses to Our soft and squishy foundation

  1. Very interesting how new scientific discoveries often confirm what many “uneducated” people have been doing since the dawn of time. Before there were artificial fertilisers, this was the only way to get a good harvest. Both my grandfathers were always adamant their own vegetables were richer in taste and therefore healthier, they were probably right.

    • Yeah. It is frustrating how much knowledge has been dismissed because “only the right ways of learning” lead to “trustworthy” knowledge. I’m all in favor of science finding more precise explanations for how things work, but the way “science” is used to dismiss other forms of knowledge-gathering is a problem.

      It’s not surprising that flavor is better with heirloom crops; a lot of what makes it to big supermarkets has to survive the travel and storage that goes into it, so something flavorful but more easily damaged just isn’t going to be popular with a mass-producer. (I learned this about mangoes, in particular; the most common mangoes in US stores are far from the tastiest, BUT they travel well.) One of those articles I linked in there has a link to a study that was done comparing strawberries grown organically vs. those grown with fertilizers and *icides, and not only did the organic berries win out in terms of nutrition (and one variety in terms of taste), they were also more resistant to certain kinds of fungus after being picked.

  2. Pingback: Our soft and squishy foundation | Rebalancing Acts | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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