“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Today I attended an excellent class on soil: it is always good to listen and follow a teacher who knows his subject, but even better when he is passionate about what he is showing us.
Soil is one of those topics I have been fascinated with all my life: according to mom, I used to crawl following Pipa (our dog) and would eat and bath myself in dirt. Years later I would spend hours playing with mud and worms at my cousins’ backyard: making swales and building miniature bridges, always fascinated with soil’s texture and its incredible inhabitants.
Soil, as it turns out, it is also where life starts: there is an incredibly wonderful chemical-physical-biological cycle that takes up rocks and gases, live and dead organisms and transforms all in what we call “soil”…which in turn, “feeds” all back giving life to plants and creating an entire habitat for millions of micro (and not so micro) organisms from insects to fungi to bacteria.
This post has no answers…it is more of an inner journey that (it is my hope) will help you as it is helping me: the rethinking of how we manage zone 00…and the wild out there, through the exploration of our physical and inner soils.
I don’t like to be still: I travel a lot (by bus and train, or just walking): I travel when I run DM and FA courses but also when I attend to courses myself.
Travelling allows me to read and reflect: it is my time to reconnect with my “inner soil”, a sacred space where many questions are asked and exploration never ends.
Soil is not stable: particles are being moved and transformed by wind, water, microorganisms and even plants: ancient rock becomes topsoil; nitrogen (necessary for all forms of life on Earth) is transformed and cycled…plants seem to “die” and reborn with every change of season, millions of microorganisms come and go…soil travels through plants and animals before doing so through my body and I find peace knowing that my body will become part of that magical process when my time comes…
In Permaculture we design thinking on zones: zone 0 being the house to zone 5 being the wilderness. Zones are not static and may change depending on where and how you live; the idea is that you design your space and systems from the center (where you spend more time, need more and would require most of your attention and energy) and extend through different zones until the place or system you use to learn and observe but wouldn’t touch (or the one that would need you the least)
Some permaculturists also consider “zone 00”; this is you, your body and soul, your emotions and relationships, your own behavioural patterns and how you live your life.
When one starts the process of becoming self-reliant (the goal of Permaculture) one needs to start with 00…there is no point on trying to regenerate entire forests or building edible gardens if our own inner soil is bare and uncared for.
I like to see soil as zone 00: the place where all starts and ends…
If you visit any natural soil you’ll see plants thriving and an entire ecosystem that nobody waters or fertilizes: there is no weeding, no pesticide application and unless an imbalance is occurring, it is generally healthy: each element has different functions and, in turn, its needs are being supplied by a variety of other elements, all from the same system.
Although stable for our short-sighted eyes and short lives, those places are also subjects to decay, chaos and collapse as change is inevitable and has always happened in the Universe (yep, we are not the first nor the only ones: before us, many other species came and went extinct, our planet went through many transformations and it will probably continue doing so until our sun dies)
History of the soil
The “playing” with the soil started when humankind created the first agricultural systems and settled down: before this (~10,000 years ago) we were happy hunting animals for food, clothing and shelter and gathering all kinds of fruits, roots and leaves. Our diet was varied and we were all fit: those who weren’t would die young. We would take only what we need and leave the rest in peace, giving plants and animals enough space and time to regenerate: the soil was untouched and we were part of Nature not only spiritually, but in a very physical way: if you messed with nature or community, you would be dead; no hunter-gatherer would survive by herself and killing the entire herd or taking all fruits from a tree would be suicidal.
Our unsustainable ways started with agriculture: fertilizers, mulching and soil amendments all started because we were taking all the nutrients from the soil by growing the same crops year after year in the same place. By doing so, we were also changing the ecosystems around, changing the paths of rivers and behaviour of the rain, polluting with waste and cutting trees to grow our food. This created the need for irrigation and pest management and even we became sicker and unfit: we started eating less variety and became sedentary and our sharing with domesticated animals brought us diseases unheard before.
Agriculture and the sedentary lifestyle also brought other things: our numbers grew and we started using more and more land and resources, destroying more soil and ecosystems in our path. They also brought things unheard of in hunter-gatherer cultures: science, philosophy, more sophisticated arts, writing, higher technology and the possibility of caring for those who would otherwise not survive…
At what point all this (“good” and “bad”) became unsustainable?
Our inner soil
I have studied enough sociology and anthropology to know that deifying any culture or society is wrong; however, it seems to be true that hunter-gatherer societies are, in general, less violent, healthier, fitter and less prone to famine and epidemics than the sedentary counterparts; they are also more egalitarian: http://hraf.yale.edu/resources/faculty/explaining-human-culture/hunter-gatherers-foragers-2/
Are our bi-polarism, our artificial division of body-soul and our constant longing a result of being detached from the natural world and the community where we belong? Have we detached ourselves from our “natural soil”?
What are our inner/social equivalents for artificial irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides?
Nobody knows what the future holds: we are, like it or not, in transition. Either we transform our ways or our ways will be transformed: some of us may still have the window open to choose how we would live this transition and whether we become agents of transformation and regeneration, opening the doors to a more just and sustainable future…
Deciduous trees shed their leaves every season; woody plants groom and protect their buds while the winter passes; life is continuously evolving and changing through a myriad of processes …can we human beings do the same and through shedding of clutter, unnecessary baggage and unhealthy patterns transform our ways so the next season we flourish and seed?
How can we care for our soils in ways that resemble those of natural ecosystems? How can we care for our communities so we acknowledge we are another ecosystem? And how can we care for ourselves so we honour the sacred and interdependent in us?
“Is it all worth it? If we do our best to heal the Earth and make our place in her a sustainable one, is there a good chance that we will succeed?…to my mind that’s the wrong question. Even if we could answer it – and we can never know anything about the future for certain, it would beg the question How do I want to live my life? So my answer to the question..is that I want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem”. ~Patrick Whitefield ‘Earth Care Manual’