Notes on soil

On reciprocity, care and a reimagined relationship. Republished from my newsletter: Regenerative Futures Berlin

This past weekend I went to a workshop with the Open Soil Atlas, a pilot project to create open-source data on soil health around Berlin. At the workshop, we learned how to test the soil and record the data so that we can collectively map the level of degeneration in the city. Despite a few decades of ‘sustainable development’ we’re only slowly beginning to pay attention to the role of the soil in the future of our climate. In Thomashöhe Park the ground was carpeted with hardy dandelions and grass but underneath the earth was mainly silt — not a worm in sight.

Soil is the foundation of a functioning ecosystem; it filters water, recycles nutrients and stores carbon. One handful of healthy soil contains thousands of different microorganisms. When I studied Permaculture Design, the course leaders joked that they never wanted to hear us calling it ‘dirt’. Language is important, and a big challenge of creating a more regenerative future is to understand how the narrative lenses we use to see the world shapes our collective reality. In the history of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism, the story of human beings and soil is one of ownership and extraction. In the 17th Century prominent scientist Sir Francis Bacon wrote how nature must be made the “slave of man”. He spoke of the secrets “locked in nature’s bosom” and “laid up in the womb of nature,” and said she would have to be “forcibly penetrated in order to make her give them up.”* Even in the era of sexual consent, #MeToo and an increasing awareness of present-day colonial dynamics, we continue to enable this assault on nature today through the extraction of resources.

The association between women and the earth is age old, from ancient goddess worshipping cultures that personified the earth as a woman, to the fact that the optimal PH for fertile soil is slightly acidic — like the human vagina. Brazilian Journalist Maria Clara Parente once wrote that “Mother Earth seems to have been pushed aside once again, in this story of stray children who continue to forget where they come from and where they always return — to the mother’s moist and deep care. The soil.” To think of soil means to think in cycles, whether that be the seasons of the year or the rotation of nutrients from the bedrock to the topsoil through the decomposition of organic matter.

Perhaps because of this connection, soil is often used in place of ‘land’ or ‘ground’ to evoke a sense of love, home or protection — wars are fought on soil, not dirt. Underneath the soles of our feet and layers of concrete, soil tells it’s own story too. Hundred-year-old compost heaps have been found in excavations of ancient settlements across Europe and in parts of Berlin the soil is contaminated with explosives and kerosene. I was recently amazed to read that Roman coins are still regularly discovered in the mud next to the River Thames, refreshed daily through the tidal pull of the river.

In Braiding Sweetgrass Robin Wall Kimmerer explains that in some Native languages, the term for plants translates to “those who take care of us”. From this perspective, plants are a gift to us from the soil, but this relationship is broken when we focus only on ‘using’ and ‘taking’. I have a friend who works as a community organiser in South London. Her job is to meet with stakeholders in the local community — churches, schools, mosques — and ask them “who are you, and what do you dream of?” so that she can support them to run political campaigns. Often, she says, the response she gets from the white British people she meets with is more like “who are you, and what do you want?” In the Indigenous perspective outlined by Kimmerer the relationship between humans and the earth is collaborative and reciprocal. In the West, solutions to climate change are often coded with a patriarchal-colonial way of thinking because this worldview is baked deep into our psychology and social systems. Last month at Biden’s Earth Day Summit world leaders discussed the ’30 by 30' plan to designate 30% of the Earth’s surface as ‘protected from human exploitation‘ by 2030. This plan has created concerns amongst NGOs and Indigenous rights groups about people in the Global South being evicted from their land in the name of conservation, despite the fact that nature is healthier on the more than quarter of the world’s lands that Indigenous people manage or own. This is why any and all affective responses to the climate crisis must also be inherently anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal.

It is a failure in imagination to assume that the human relationship to the land must be exploitative. “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate, but when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond,” says Robin Wall Kimmerer, again. Last year I sat with a friend as she cried in my arms about the “unending pain” of the world during a psychedelic trip. I, too, have experienced grief about the treatment of nature and climate change in the peaks of a trip. “But there’s so much space here for all this pain,” said my friend through her tears, awestruck at the vastness of the Universe. “Yes, there’s space enough for all the pain” I replied. When you feel that the earth loves you in return it transforms into a sacred bond.

From mushrooms sprouting on contaminated wasteland and dandelions thriving on city streets to an embryo growing in its mother’s womb, life has its own plan and its own intelligence. The regenerative capacity of the earth is forever unfolding, and part of the challenge of the next decades will be to awaken to the lessons of the past and work with this natural capacity rather than imposing techno fixes over it. Contaminated soil holds the history of the last centuries. The process of regenerating urban areas by restoring fertility and productivity to the soil won’t just heal the ecosystem and improve the overall quality of life for a growing urban population, it could just set us on a new path for the future.

*Quoted from the book Regenerative Leadership by Laura Storm and Giles Hutchinson.

The Open Soil Atlas is an initiative of the Feld Food Forest. OSA will be running soil analysis workshops in Berlin all summer, follow Feld Food Forest on Instagram to find out about upcoming events.

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Tarn Rodgers Johns

I am a Berlin-based writer, editor and creator exploring how to create a thriving, just future worth living for. www.tarnrodgersjohns.com