I’ve written a bit about soil before – and I expect will be doing more in the future, both because it is a critical part of ecosystems and because this year was declared by the UN the “International Year of Soils,” which will probably be additional reason for people who write the things I end up reading to keep writing more about soil.
So soil ecology has a number of components, including small invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria, which all help break down larger materials into very small materials that can be taken in by plants (and fungi) and help feed the “base” of a food web. (Sunlight, of course, also helps feed this base.)
I read a cool article this past week talking specifically about bacteria, and about some similarities between what bacteria in soil do and what bacteria in the human gut do, and how it is important that we think of bacteria as beneficial to us, not just sources of ill health. I mean, we literally depend on our gut bacteria to help us digest food – like the bacteria in soil, they help break down materials into forms our intestines can absorb to support our health and growth. And, the more we learn about soil ecology, and the more we learn about our own internal ecology, the more we are coming to understand how crucial these different bacteria are to our overall health, both on the personal scale and on a much broader ecological scale (from “Good, good, good, good bacteria“:
Instead of bacteria being our deadly foe, it turns out the vast majority are really our best friends – and our oldest. According to the Human Microbiome Project, our ‘live-in’ molecules – the single cell organisms including bacteria and fungi that are neither plant nor animal but in a category of their own – have evolved symbiotically with us and our pre-historic ancestors since time began. Like the best of relationships, we are inter-dependent. We provide energy via food to our single-cell friends: in return they perform a myriad of life-giving activities.
As it is in our gut, so it is in the soil. The idea articulated by SFT director Patrick Holden that healthy topsoil thrives because of microbial activity – functioning in a similar way to human digestion – illustrates the interconnectedness of everything. In the dark of topsoil, microscopic microbes perform vital tasks to maintain the health of soil life. Meanwhile, in the dark of our digestive system, trillions of tiny microbes are likewise busy keeping our bodies healthy.
The role of beneficial bacteria is multi-functional. A key role of both soil and gut bacteria is digestion. These beneficial bacteria break down nutrients into digestible forms that can be assimilated by the plant’s roots, or the gut lining in our intestines, enabling both plants and humans to thrive. As well as bacteria being an essential component of digestion, beneficial bacteria also help to repel disease and are a key component of a healthy immune system.
What you put into the system, whether it is the food you ingest or the material spread on the earth, influences the health and species of bacteria living there, which then affects the overall system. If you’ve ever had the unpleasant experience of a yeast infection following taking antibiotics to control a dangerous bacterial infection, you’ve experienced what happens when the beneficial microorganisms in your personal ecology had their numbers reduced too far. Conversely, perhaps you eat a lot of yogurt, or other fermented foods, to help boost your overall health by supplying your gut bacteria with foods they like to flourish.
The article also makes a good point about how modern industrial culture breaks many of the links we ought to have between us and soil bacteria: an obsessive focus on being “clean,” with dirt seen as dangerous, and with a lot of lifestyles, especially in more urban places, that give many people few ways to literally get their hands in the soil and get direct access to beneficial bacteria. This lack of connection makes it harder for many people to understand how interconnected all part of the industrialized human life still is to the land, and how important it is to stop feeding the land things that don’t ultimately support its ongoing health and ability to feed us.
There is a huge, HUGE amount we do not understand yet about either soil ecology or the ecology of our own bodies, and how these systems really function, but I’m really excited to see what else we’ll be learning, especially in terms of what we can do to improve those relationships. It’s relatively easy to get people to care about forests, or gardening, or charismatic animal species, but it’s probably more of a stretch to get people to really care about the relationships we have with microorganisms, especially to think of them as relationships of mutual support, rather than a really practical, intellectual, “well it’s good for my health/the health of the land” kind of approach.
From an animistic perspective, I am now wondering if it is possible to reach out in some fashion and communicate with one’s gut bacteria, or some group(s) of them; I’ve had some experiences trying to connect with other, more primitive parts of my body-mind, but that was still approaching the human level, rather than the other living elements of my system. (That’s been really interesting, and has seemed to be a really powerful method to deal with some of the deep-seated emotional things I’ve been dealing with.)
I haven’t yet found people writing about a great deal about soil in spiritual contexts – I’ve seen people write about land spirits, of course, and elemental spirits, including various earth-related spirits, but the latter seem to always be phrased as gnomes, or dragons, and they’ve always seemed to me to be related to other aspects of earth/earthiness/subterranean nature, rather than the world of the soil microorganisms. Or sometimes the “earth” category gets connected to work like grounding yourself, and nothing to do with any spirits-of-the-earth. I haven’t (yet) tried reaching out to any such beings, though one of the Powers in my life seems to have some strong connections with the soil, through connections with the processes of decay (I haven’t had a lot of conversations about this topic, but I’ve wondered for quite a while just why She is present, period, and this is the closest guess I have at this point).
So, along with the scientific understandings sure to come, I am also looking forward to seeing more in this series of pieces on “Dirt Sorcery.” (The first of which is a beautifully-written piece about connections to the land.)