I’m writing this from under a starry sky after the fall of an autumnal day, right in the middle of England. I’ve reliably heard that the furthest place from any coastline is only 10 miles up the road. It is a pretty perfect place to get curious about the subterranean world below our every step. I’m about to unashamedly wax lyrical about soil and do my best to bring together a symphony of mechanisms, myth, poetry, cyclical nature, science and some enchanting tales about humans who are ushering back soil microbes into their role as regenerators. I’ll close with a few words on what it looks like to be part of the global reimagining of compost, who knows what will happen in between!
I’ll try to get straight to it though: We need to engage our minds to produce better actions and outcomes than synthetic nutrition and mass destruction. The first mind shift that must occur is to engage with soil as a living entity.
One function of soil is literally to grow itself, so it becomes true that the ecological role of soil is to function as a living structure. ‘For something to be healthy, it must first be alive’
(a simple truth from Rattan Lal, a soil scientist worth a deeper read). This entails respiring, reproducing, metabolising, adapting and establishing community, soil does all of this, all of the time. The byproduct of this is that we are able to harvest crops that sustain our energetic requirements, so we too can respire, reproduce and so on.
LIKE WE NEED OUR DIETS TO VE DIVERSE AND COMPLEX IN NUTRITION FOR US TO THRIVE, SO TOO THE DIET OF THE SOIL NEEDS TO BE DIVERSE AND COMPLEX, TO BE FUNCTIONING OPTIMALLY. AS YOU MIGHT NOW HAVE GATHERED THAT CERTAINLY DOESN'T LOOK LIKE SYNTHESIZED NITRATE.
“The provenance of synthetic fertilisers is warfare” A good place to start in dismantling how we currently interact with our soils is looking back to the advent of chemical soil additions. Around the turn of the century, the world relied on nitrates from Peru and Chile, to fertilise the monocultures of the time. Two German chemists, Bosch and Haber set to work to end Germany’s dependence on external nitrates and by 1944 the ‘Haber-Bosch’ factory at Leuna occupied three square miles employing 35,000 workers. Whilst on one hand their invention deemed them the scientists who saved the world from mass starvation, on the other their invention was used to make explosives that killed millions during the two world wars.
The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager tells this extraordinary story and outlines how these men changed the way we grow food in fundamental ways.
“Farming is to cultivate, cultivate, cultivate” - Albert Howard How does the hand of the gardener, grower or farmer facilitate the growth of soil and ensure it’s receiving an optimal diet? Here’s where plants become a tool rather than a crop. Without the contribution of plants, soil is just decomposed rock particles: sand, silt, clay. It may be an old mantra for some, ‘to grow healthy plants, we need to first feed the soil’, yet it’s worth revisiting often. Plants initiate a whole cycle of both soil growth and subsequent plant growth. The engine room of this unbroken cycle are microbes, providing the nutrients needed for the plant life, and so the end becomes the beginning.
Jeff Lowenfels, author of Teaming with Microbes describes this beautifully: “Soil bacteria and fungi are like bags of fertiliser, retaining in their bodies nitrogen and other nutrients they gain from plant roots. Plants contribute the carbon, the sugars, the energy that serves as a fuel source to develop microbe populations that build organic matter and mineralize nutrients and make them available to plants”. This is the ecological weaving of roles and the true interdependence of soil, plants roots and microbes. Frankly it leaves very little left for the busy human to do, but we need to keep asking the question, ‘What creates healthy soils?’ and we need to be prepared for an answer that involves deep collaboration with microbes, a lack of dependency on bought chemical products and a more intimate bond with our soil and body.
Just as the modern light bulb has interrupted our circadian rhythm, so too, chemical soil additions have disturbed the functioning of microbes.
“Complex relationships we can only dream of”
As the climate has fluctuated so has the soil and so have the plants. What this means is that each seed, each leaf, each bloom, each tuber, each stalk has co-evolved with the living soil. Kay Baxter of Koanga Institute in New Zealand, a formidable gardener in all senses of the word, speaks of this as ‘communication’. What we have then in our native seeds is a whole line of communication between plant and soil. The soil to seed connection can be echoed by our ancient culture of seed swapping. “We exchange seeds with communities with which we collaborate” is a quote I have saved in one of my numerous notebooks that continues to resonate.
“Subterranean Psyche” There are ancient agricultural and horticultural practices we can follow in order to really build soil health, but there is also a psyche that needs tending to. A splash of discomfort and a little more awe of the unfamiliar, might just enable us to tend to the landscapes of life humming beneath us that seem dark and unknown in equal measure. An analogy I find stark and rewarding, is how unfamiliar we are with the night, how so many inventions try to keep us comfortably in the light, away from facing the darkness, and yet each time I seek to confront the night and be immersed in it’s mystery, there is so much reward. The scent, the stars, the call of a bird, the run of a deer, the movement of clouds, the promise of another morning’s rise, such freeing solitude.
Our soils have, so far, had the ability to willingly construct our built landscapes, determine our socio-political dynamics and what flavour we reap from our harvests. It’s about time we paid some respect to soil, after so long of depletion and desecration.
Perhaps Aldo Leopold was bang on when he proposed the creation of ‘a land ethic’ in A Sand County Almanac. Ethics direct all members of a community to treat one another with respect. A Land Ethic, Leopold wrote, “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include not only humans, but also soils, waters, plants, and animals.”
What we see in the soil-plant interface, affectionately known as the rhizosphere is a weaving of all these elements, in the few millimeters around where the plant roots grow into the soil. This is the area where soil microorganisms play their part, feeding off ‘root exudates’ that are secreted from the root tip, as the plant moves sugars from the leaf down into the subterranean layer of life. This fuel allows the microbial community to thrive and to create a larger microbial mass, a more complex soil structure and a greater ability to transport and release minerals where they are most needed, at the root tip (you can think of this as the mouth of the plant). These interactions are at the very heart of carbon sequestration, this play between microbes and roots causes the surrounding soil structure to hold stable forms of carbon. Here we have it, an ancient ability to affect our collective future, just by disturbing soil less and allowing the microscopic forms of life existing within soil to do their night and day job. I’ll segway into the revolutionary day jobs of some miraculous humans I’ve been able to meet, because they are the ones asking and answering this question of ‘What creates healthy soils?’ each and every day.
If you are luckily enough to meet one of these ever-busy growers and farmers with ancient-new practices, you will see emanating from them the sheer force of possibility, it might look like a sparkle of the eye, or a decidedly energetic step, or it might be a serene gathering of humility they store within like a sailor on-shore, holding the stories of storms and the reality of being faced with death that only forms a more capable, curious and candid captain.
These farmers are ever present heroes, facilitating the renewal of our beloved landscape, food more packed with vital immune boosting minerals and products more durable than plastic. I spent some time that was perhaps always destined to be longer than I had planned at Navdanya Farm, who’s living mother is Vandana Shiva. I went with a hazy vision of a dissertation but deep down was probably just eloping with my love for land and adventure. Vandana is most definitely a woman you can’t write an article about soil without mentioning and I am so grateful for my time there. From northeastern India to Cornwall, recently I went with regenerative farmers Tim and Clare Williams to visit Melilot Farm near Saltash. Melilot is headed up by Dan Cox and a team of enchantingly skilled growers and chefs. As we walked up the field, the floor beneath us was covered with clover, carrot, chamomile and more, a bespoke cover crop to feed the soil and the gut biomes of the sheep who graze there together. Then Dan and Clare showed us a handful of ‘crosnes’, a dainty looking rhizome, resembling a soil shell, freshly unearthed - a moment that encapsulated an elegant demonstration of farming with microbes in mind. Witnessing these moments, an accelerated pulse flows through my body - it is a total gift. The way we feel in landscapes is a huge testament to their health.
“Reimagining compost” Now I turn to a dedication to my current bosses, Bridget Elworthy and Henrietta Courtauld of The Land Gardeners, who are blazing an exquisitely generous, collaborative, in-depth trail of compost creation. I’ll borrow a quote by Miranda Brooks to describe them: “Teamwork and vision, needed to fuel their enterprise, is something I admire in these two”.
It is an art to amass a team and create a culture of willingness to continually learn beyond what we already know and to do it with charm, joy and a deep rooted welcoming nature. They are paving the way for a movement towards simply giving soil microbes what they need, air and food, and doing so by creating a compost beyond the quality that most people have ever encountered. Simultaneously working towards a system of enabling farmers to utilise their already existing inputs and new-found resources with economic ease, all for the betterment and optimised health of this earth. 2020 and the COVID 19 Pandemic has shown oh so clearly that air is our number one limiting factor for survival, a breath of air is sometimes all that is needed.
“Just as you won’t thrive for long without air, this is also true for most plants and many beneficial soil microbes, along with forests, soil is the planet’s lungs, drawing air in and out in a daily rhythm” (Nicole Masters).
Our health and soil health are one and almost entirely the same, there is a tantalising sensation of closeness and continual co-regeneration, if we decide to acknowledge it. The wonderful Jesse Smith of Casitas Farm says, “regeneration comes from a place of understanding what it is that sustains you”. If it’s not air and microbes, then let me know what it is!
Thomas Hager The Alchemy of Air Nicole Masters For The Love of Soil - https://www.integritysoils.co.nz/ Rattan Lal - https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=jZu9BWsAAAAJ&hl=en Jeff Lowenfels Teaming with Microbes Kay Baxter Koanga Institute - https://www.koanga.org.nz/ Albert Howard An Agricultural Testament Aldo Leopold A Sand County Almanac Vandana Shiva Navdanya Farm - https://www.navdanya.org/site/ The Erth Farmers Tim and Clare Williams - https://erth.farm/ Melilot Farm Dan Cox - @melilot.farm The Land Gardeners @thelandgardeners - http://www.thelandgardeners.com/ Jesse Smith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIGb6YF2uRM Graeme Sait Nutrition Farming - https://www.nutri-tech.com.au/home