​In the Northern Hemisphere, at this verdant time of year it can be all to easy to forget about the soil beneath our feet. In fact the only time we see bare soil at this time of year is when it is freshly disturbed; within weeks, though, this softly broken earth will be flourishing with fresh leaves as nature paints a green blanket over the fertile soil. This is one of the wonders that I’d like to talk about here – that bare soil usually doesn’t stay bare for too long. You see soil is very much alive and the life within it has evolved to be buried.

If we took a heaped teaspoon of fresh topsoil and peered at it incredibly closely we’d notice that there were all manners of tiny critters in there – little beetles, mites and wiggly wormy things… If we upped the magnification substantially, we’d also discover that the single spoonful of soil contained around between three and five billion bacteria, up to two million fungal organisms and half a million algae and up to five thousand nematodes… And we wouldn’t have even truly looked at the fully extent of microbes in there yet – it’s estimated that there could be as many as fifty billion in each teaspoon of soil.Many of these tiny living beings are badly affected (cooked) by ultraviolet radiation and so really aren’t that fond of the sunlight.  

Most of these tiny beings feed on other tiny beings and on decaying organic matter in the soil. (My inner bard at this point tells me that We could even suggest that the soil life is quite well paralleled with vampire and zombie legends, if they were tweaked a little bit that is…. If we were to say conjure up an image of a vampire so terrified of sunlight that it conspired, along with all of it’s darkness loving kin, to encourage other forms of life that it could both hide behind and consume.It would also seem that this is not so far from the truth either… If we took out all of the microbes and tiny beings in our soil, say by over application of chemical fertilizers and ploughing to expose them to sunlight, we end up with a dustbowl. Dustbowls are not conducive to life at all.If we were to take a look outside when next we walk alongside a ploughes and chemically fed field, we might notice that the soil level inside the field can be inches lower than that of the surrounding areas… That shows just how much of the soil is made up of living beings.

 In an attempt to make this a little more personal, I’m going to suggest that we are soil making organism – yes, that’s right, Night Soil. Our faeces consists of as much as 90% bacteria – all that life within us, of us an yet not ‘us’ if we think in a way that defines ‘us’ as merely being the individual mind that so many of us identify with. Our own toilet will testify to the fact that ‘we’ are far more than just ‘us’. We really are connected to the Earth in so many ways, and complex life upon the Earth relies on simple life – relies on those tiny beings that dwell in the soil.          

  When we work with Earth, there is often a tendency to think of a Strong, Nourishing and Motherly element, all mountains, caves, jagged crystal and metal ores. While those qualities are true, they are also relative. The Earth may well be Strong and Nourishing… but we are pushing our luck with the Motherly part, sooner or later, every mother disciplines their children.

If, as I’ve said above, complex life (humans, edible plants, dogs and squirrels to name a few) relies on the existence of conspiring ‘simple’ life (bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa) then it’s in our interest to look after that simple life. More than 90% of all this simple life lives within the top six inches of the soil. If we make that relative and compare it to a medium sized orange, then that top layer – the layer of life – is thinner than the shine on the surface of the peel o the orange. And to throw in further figures 1.2 billion hectares of the World’s agricultural land is considered to be suffering with moderate to severe soil degradation. It’s estimated that the vast majority of agricultural lands have, even with intensive chemical feeding, less than 100 growing seasons of production left in them.

 Production which has already begun to decline.But the good news is that soil can be rebuilt and can recover – there are many smart people out there working on it now. It could even be suggested that every time you buy organic, or pop something in to your compost, you are helping to build soil. 

And you can use a mulch to keep it covered and dig less to ease oxidation and you’ll be helping even more.

The element of Earth has a gentle and vulnerable side, that side is the soil. Without the grace of vulnerability, the strong could never nurture. We must understand vulnerability to understand need. The Earth sees ours and feeds us, shelters us, nourishes us from birth to death. Let’s return the favour and try to nourish our Earth too – it’s the only one we have.
*** text originally  from an article  submitted in September 2014  to Touchstone – the magazine of OBOD  (www.druidry.org )  –  and printed in October(?) of that same  year ****

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