This fall I will be completing my new feature length documentary, Symphony of the Soil. Along with this exploration of soil, I am creating several short films, Sonatas of the Soil, each of which goes deeply into one soil-related topic like dry farming grapes, as is depicted in Portrait of a Winemaker: John Williams of Frogs’ Leap. Yes, I have become a soil freak or soil geek or soil lover or all three. How did this happen?
Several years ago I made the film The Future of Food that helped kick start the food movement. I spent years travelling around the country and the world showing the film and speaking about food and agriculture. That film was very well received and had a positive impact on a lot of people’s lives, so I decided to make another film in the same realm, a film about soil. Knowing little about soil before I committed to the project, I soon realized how incredibly complex soil is. How could I make a film that does justice to this fascinating substance, which is in fact a living organism? After all, if you just look at soil, there seems to be no action, no action at all. But if you are in the know, you marvel at what has gone into creating that soil, what is going on in it, the billions of organisms and dynamics we are only beginning to discover, and what happens because of soil, like the recycling of life.
The way I now understand soil, if I were holding some soil in my hand and said, “This is soil,” it would be like holding seawater in my hand and saying “This is the ocean.” I have spent the past few years wrestling with, crystallizing, distilling complexity. The study of soil involves chemistry, physics, anthropology, geology and geography, but most importantly, biology—the study of life—because soil is the essence of life. Soil is about transformation. Without soil, there would be no human race. In fact, the word “human” comes from the same root as the word “humus,” a component of soil. Soil is one of the true miracles of this planet. And we treat it like dirt.
Early in my research, an accomplished soil scientist told me that she didn’t think of soil as an agricultural medium, even though she has published many books and papers on agricultural soils. As I got up to speed on what soil really encompasses, I came to the realization that soil is a vast realm, and food and farming are only a part of that realm. I came to see soil as a protagonist of our planetary story. I became protective of it and broke myself of the habit of thinking soil/agriculture, soil/ agriculture, of thinking of soil and immediately jumping to “How can we use this? What can we get out of this?” The real questions became “How can we appreciate soil? How can we let it live?”
In much of what passes for agriculture today, soil has become an inert medium that chemicals are poured into and dollars are pulled out of. In fact, the chemicals that are poured into it can deform and kill the life in the soil and it’s the life in the soil that creates fertility. The classic, sensible axiom that healthy soil creates healthy plants that create healthy people has been lost in the vast fields of today’s industrial agriculture.
A year ago I was invited to go to China to show my films. One of our hosts was an esteemed scientist who told me that only about 10% of China’s soil is usable for farming or grazing. By contrast, over 40% of the soil in the United States is made up of the planet’s most productive soil types—the “molisols” found on prairie grasslands and fertile forest “alfisols.” This scientist also told me that the reality of so little good soil has shaped Chinese culture and character: they are more collective-minded, more careful, more conservative because they have to be. They have to pull together to be able to feed themselves. They have a similar situation with their water resources.
In America, on the other hand, we have lived as if we are so rich in resources that we can abuse our soil without consequences. We think we can let topsoil blow away and that there will always be more, somehow, somewhere. We Ameri-cans think of ourselves as highly individualistic. We like “doing our own thing.” If we have a problem with wanting too much and wasting too much, we can blame our good soil for that. With so much abundance, we have had little need of being careful. But, China has been around for thousands of years, and our modern US society about 300. Our soils have now become profoundly stressed and degraded. If we keep farming the way we are currently, we will be out of topsoil in 30 years. We need to reconsider what has become our national character, our “natural” tendencies. We don’t like limits, but we are running up against them. Rather than slipping into arrogant denial, we need to learn to thrive within limits, to take that as our challenge.
How do we create a healthy relationship with soil? We have to look to nature and see how she does it. Modern science offers us a way to explore this natural world. Today, because of advances in technology—electron microscopes, satellites and various tools for measuring—we know a lot more about soil. Soil science is now cutting edge and profoundly relevant in researching everything from climate change to nutrition.
We now know that soil is a complex ecosystem. Soil is a community, and we are all part of the soil community. From the smallest microorganisms to insects to prairie dogs to bison to humans, we are all taking from and giving back to the soil; it’s an incredibly dynamic process. Soil is the matrix and web of life. And it’s all about relationships. Burrowing animals churn up the soil to let air and water in, to let roots grow. Without them soil can become compact and dried out. Without grazing animals, prairies would become forests. Prairies support grasses and their deep roots that die and replenish the prairie soils, which is why those soils have the highest fertility of all soils. By contrast, tropical soils tend to be shallow and relatively infertile because all the life is held in the dense forest plants. Soil is also a mysterious ecosystem. 90% of the microorganisms in soil have not been identified, much less understood as to how they function.
One of the interesting things I’ve learned about soil is that it’s not just what we think of as “earth.” Soil is 50% solid matter, made up mostly of minerals, 25% air and 25% water—no matter how dry it seems. 1.5% to 15% of the solid matter is what is known as “soil organic matter.” Most of that is comprised of dead microorganisms and a very small percentage of it is alive. I see soil as being made up of all the elements—earth, air, water and the microorganisms are the fire—the force that drives life as it cycles through the soil.
In a healthy organic system, nematodes can eat 10,000 bacteria a day and break apart the nutrients, including nitrogen, in those bacteria and then poop them out so they are available to be taken up by plants. This is referred to as the “poop loop” and it functions as a nitrogen bank. Mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship with plants—the plants give them carbohydrates and they reach out with hyphae, branching filaments tinier than plant roots, and find minerals to take back to the plant. This is how plants get the phosphorous they need to grow. Bacteria also feed on plant exudates, carbohydrates, and then build up around the plant, acting like a castle wall protecting the plant from diseases. These are examples of mutualism that only happen when soil is alive and functioning as a healthy system. Putting pesticides, chemical nitrogen and toxins into this system deforms or kills the microbial life and the result is diminished fertility, diminished resistance to disease. Plants diminished in this way become dependent on external chemical inputs to feed and protect them.
Sir Albert Howard’s work has influenced organic and sustainable farmers since he began speaking and writing in the early 20th century. One of his best-known practices, which he learned from peasant farmers in India, now known as Sir Albert Howard’s Law of Return, advises us to return to the soil what we take from it, as nature does. This means that organic matter and nutrients must be returned to the soil to feed and replenish it. Since farming by definition takes produce from the fields, farmers must find ways to give nutrients and organic matter back to the soil. Composting, cover crops and crop rotation are ways to do this. These practices which give back to the soil are in direct opposition to “mining” the soil, the “gut it and get out” mentality that ultimately produces barren land.
At the Jepson Prairie Organics facility in Vacaville, they create organic compost from San Francisco’s green and restaurant food waste. It is an amazing process and the end result is compost that even organic farmers can apply to their crops. We should be doing exactly this everywhere in this country. Our soils are starving for carbon and nutrients, and recycling our “clean” wastes can help restore the soil. Composting is a form of giving back to the soil, of mimicking what nature does when a leaf falls from a tree and decomposes back into the soil under that tree to feed it. I have filmed composting on four continents, and its increasingly popularity may be a saving grace to our planet’s soils.
In complete contrast to the work they are doing at Jepson Prairie Organics and other true composting facilities like it, is the repellent public policy that allows sewage sludge to be put on farmland. The way things are working now in our waste treatment systems, the cleaner the water, the more toxic the sludge. While humans have for eons returned human waste, liquid and night soil, to land, the reality is different now because of the amount of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals now in that waste. Industrial wastes, heavy metals and a long ugly list of chemicals now end up in sewage sludge, which has been politely renamed “biosolids,” and can be labeled “organic” because it contains carbon. This use of the term organic was grandfathered in before the USDA Organic Standards were defined. Companies and municipalities, including San Francisco, then mix the sludge with wood chips, label it “compost,” and sell it. Unsuspecting buyers think they are getting actual chemicalfree, transformed green and food waste, but they are not. In my opinion this is a scandal and should be the cause of a real public outcry because some of this stuff is being put on school gardens—given away for free!
Since we humans are members of the soil community, we too must learn that if we want our community, in the largest sense, to thrive, we must give back. And just as we have been taking from the soil and not giving back, our society has mirrored this tendency, and become one in which taking and not giving back has become the norm. If we treated our soil right, perhaps that would somehow change our whole society and change the way we relate to each other so we could create healthier, living communities.
Soil is indeed the protagonist of our planetary story. Halfway through making this film, I realized I was making a film about the underworld, about death and regeneration. Our bones and muscles, our bodies, are made up of nutrients we get from plants or animals that they got from the soil. We rise up out of the soil, and we return to it when we die. These elements are then recycled by soil back into life. And if you don’t have regeneration, the cycling of life into death and back into life, you just have degradation and death.
The good news is that soil is pretty forgiving. If we change the way we treat soil, we could solve so many of our problems in just a few years. Soil lovers unite! The planet we save will be our own!
Written by Deborah Koons Garcia
Deborah Koons Garcia has lived on the same watershed in Mill Valley for 35 years. She has been seeking out organic food since she became a vegetarian in 1970. She now eats wild salmon, too.