I LOVE soil. I love dirt. The smell of good, clean soil has been among my top five favorite smells in the world ever since I was a child. One of the most exciting experiences of my adulthood has been to start learning more about, and contributing to, the wondrous goings-on of that universe of micro-organisms right under our feet. When we moved into our current house a year and a half ago, I decided that if I left no other legacy for the next tenant, I would try to improve the soil of this little urban lot. What followed were my first experiments in sheet mulching — some more successful than others — worm and bin composting, planting permaculture all-star plants such as comfrey and introducing that amazing mobile fertilizer entity known as the chicken.
Inspired by the documentary Dirt! The Movie, I recently finally started reading Teaming with Microbes, which has been on my to-read list for a long time. What I like about the book is that it not only explains basic soil science, but also practical methods that any gardener can apply to restore and support the soil food web. Now I’m learning a whole new vocabulary and will soon be talking bacteria and fungi, protozoa and nematodes and mycorrhizae… Just you wait.
In the meantime, let me share with you a couple of neat little facts that, to me, underline our interconnectedness, as humanity, to the soil.
The words for ‘human’ and ‘humus’ apparently share the same root:
The Latin humanus is probably related to homo (gen. hominis) ‘man,’ and to humus ‘earth,’ on notion of ‘earthly beings,’ as opposed to the gods (cf. Hebrew adam ‘man,’ from adamah ‘ground’).
— Online Etymology Dictionary
We are earthly beings. We come from the soil.
And so it is that Noah – of Noah’s ark fame – is described as “a man of the soil” (Genesis 9:20). When I read that I thought: there can be no finer title to aspire for in the world. Maybe some day, a few decades from now, when I’ve become a master composter and can just take one look at a garden patch and know what it needs, I might be able to call myself “a woman of the soil.” Also, let’s not forget that Noah was the one who saved life on earth from the flood. Is there perhaps a connection between one’s intimacy with the soil, with one’s understanding of it, and the ability to act as a steward of life-forms in times of disaster?
Which leads me to my last point — to the “why” of it. Why does stewardship of the soil matter, why is it fundamentally connected to our fate as humanity even today? Apart from the fact that fertile, healthy soil allows us to grow more food (thus helping to feed a projected global population of nine billion in a few decades) there is another reason. Restoring degraded soils so that those soils can sequester more carbon from the atmosphere – through practices such as no-till farming, crop rotation, and nutrient management – can stabilize the atmospheric CO2 levels, thus potentially slowing down climate change. What this means is that every millimeter of humus content you add to the soil in your lifetime matters. It’s time to reclaim the humus in the humanus, and make friends with worms, fungi, and the magical alchemy of the soil.