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rows of small plants growing in a garden

Tasting the Soil

On eco-growing, purity, and diversity

Rebecca Bratten Weiss

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  • Charlie

    👍 darn good associations, very well written - passionate even

  • Bob Taylor

    The author writes wonderfully. I wish I could live that way, but injury and chronic illness keep me in an apartment in a very old, formerly Italian immigrant city, with essentially no lawn space. As well as she writes, though, I wish the author would exclude passing musings about white supremacy, sins committed by one community against another a hundred years ago, from what she writes. Yes, we are transformed dirt, and to dirt we shall return, and maybe recognition of that tragic fact should elicit more sadness and lament for the one thing all humans share, a terrible fallibility.

In my garden, I squat and scoop up a handful of soil. Dark brown and crumbling, it looks lifeless except for a few delicate rootlets, maybe a pink worm-end. But in this handful, more living organisms thrive than there are human beings on earth. That’s over seven billion living things, mostly invisible to the naked eye, but busy interacting, living and dying, in the palm of my hand. This is not just dirt. It’s a complex of ecosystems, more diverse than a rain forest. It’s a tiny empire of microbes: bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes.

Old farmers sometimes taste a little soil to ascertain the pH level, and I’m aspiring to be an old farmer someday, so I touch my tongue to the soil in my hand. Is it sweet or sour? Hard to tell: I’m too wary to go beyond a tentative lick. Eating dirt is not considered civilized behavior, and we are trained from an early age to shun the dirt, to set up sharp dividing lines between ourselves and that which might contaminate – physically, and spiritually.

A gardener knows that when it comes to physical purity, it’s hopeless.

A gardener knows that when it comes to physical purity, it’s hopeless. When I wash my hands before making supper, there’s only so clean I can get. Soil particles linger in the creases of my palm, the crescents of my nails. A portion of my microbe empire clings to me wherever I go. And this isn’t unique to those who work in the soil; it’s the human condition. We co-exist intimately with countless microbial life forms, not only on us but in us, a part of us.

While studies on the ratio of human to bacterial cells in the human body present a range of hypotheses, the most conservative estimate I’ve seen is 1:1. Which means, at best, what I call my physical self is half alien. And for the most part, these foreign beings are not invaders or colonizers, but comfortable residents. Beneficial ones, even: recent studies suggest that gardening makes us happier not only because of fresh air and sunlight, but because contact with the soil itself aids in our mental health, specifically through the microorganism mycobacterium vaccae, which has serotonin-producing effects comparable to the effects of drugs like Prozac.

My garden, also, depends on its microbe population, without which soil would just be dirt, dead mass for propping plants in, as conventional agriculture seems to regard it. And with the constant spraying of herbicides and pesticides, the regular compaction and aggressive tillage, this is what conventional agriculture is making the soil: lifeless.

What I do, by contrast, is eco-gardening. This is like organic gardening, but distinct in several ways. Organic growing has become regulated to the extent that growers are often obliged to worry about rigorous guidelines, not all of which take into account ecological impact. Thinking ecologically about my gardening means dwelling less on the letter of the law, more on sustainability and the long-term relationship between grower and garden, garden and ecosystems, ecosystems with the world. Imagine a set of concentric rings rippling outward, rather than a list of regulations.

The debate over organic versus conventional often skips over the crucial importance of local. An organic tomato may be nutritious and pesticide-free, but it may also have traveled hundreds of miles to arrive on your table, leaving a considerable carbon footprint. And it may have passed through several market intermediaries, so the grower gets less and the buyer pays more. And the final product? You get a fruit variety developed for durability, not flavor. It was picked early, under-ripe, so as not to spoil on its journey. And its nutritional value will have been depleted, depending on the length of time between harvest and consumption.

Locally grown food means that bonds of community are formed between the grower and the buyer. You know where your food came from, and whom you are supporting when you buy it. Eating locally creates unity on a biological level, too: when I and my customers are all, in our respective homes, sitting down to meals made from the same produce, from the plants in my garden, the same nutrients from the same organism are becoming a part of our own cellular structure. The plants we eat literally bind us together.

But it is also crucial to consider how local events and conditions influence the broader global community. It is impossible for me to draw a circle around my immediate community and say “us only.” Our global connectivity is evident in something so simple as the heirloom crops we grow: peppers from Thailand and Mexico, tomatoes from Russia and Italy, cucumbers from France and Israel. I have access to these seeds because of the labor of growers across the world, in eras long past, and remote cultures. My harvest connects me with people far away and long dead. The only language we share, in most cases, is the language of the garden, the silent communion with earth and all its living things.

In the garden, we don’t fear dirt: we put it in our mouth.

Eco-growing changes the way one thinks, over time. Or at least, it’s changed me. Perhaps my own personal microbes have not only cheered me up, but also cunningly re-tuned me, soothed me into welcoming them as they hitch a ride with me. Either way, after twelve years of eco-gardening, I am not the person I once was, and not simply on a cellular level. My stance towards the world I inhabit has been transformed.

Take “cleanliness.” Usually it implies sterility, which means zapping microscopic life-forms out of existence. This is good for a surgical theatre, not so good for a garden. In the garden, “clean” means something else: free from harmful pollutants, unlikely to disrupt eco-systems. In the garden, we don’t fear dirt: we put it in our mouth.

Perhaps we should not be so afraid of gross matter, of humble soil. The Hellenic philosophical perspective preferred mind over body, disdaining ephemeral bodily existence as base and ignoble, and western culture has been haunted by this fear of the body for centuries. The Gospels, though, show us a different perspective. Consider the story of Jesus healing a blind man by smearing mud on his eyes – mud made of spit, mingled with earth. In the ancient world, many classical thinkers, including Galen and Pliny, believed saliva to be medicinal. Jews of the time regarded the saliva of a legitimate first-born heir, especially, to have healing properties, so in healing with mud made of spit, Jesus is proclaiming himself the Son of God. But in so doing he is also alluding to the creation story in which God forms the first human out of the clay of the earth.

The Genesis story is not the only one depict humans as formed from dust or clay. This myth is repeated throughout different religious and cultural traditions, including the Greek, Egyptian, and Incan. Typically these myths remind us that a return to the earth is our destiny, but they should also remind us that we are connected to and belong to the soil. Our life depends upon it.

While medical discoveries regarding sterility and infection have been radically life-saving, obsession with purity can go too far, divorcing us from our origins in the mud and our place in nature. Too much purity can literally make us sick: recent scientific studies hypothesize that our immune systems need to be exposed to microbes, in order to function properly, and some autoimmune disorders may be connected with excessive cleanliness. We need to be touched with mud to be healed.

There are other instances in the gospels where Jesus, in healing, violates precepts of purity: when the bleeding woman touches the hem of his garment, she is healed, but by touching her, according to Jewish law, he has become unclean. “Unclean” was the litany of the lepers who resided miserably on the margins in Jesus’s time. And though we know from other Gospel stories that Jesus didn’t have to touch them to heal them, still he chose to cure them in this way.

I am fascinated by this idea of uncleanliness as well-being, impurity as healing. And I have come to distrust purity as an ideal. We have to ask: what is it we are viewing as a contaminant? If “cleanliness” means clean, safe air and water, an environment free from chemical pollutants or harmful microorganisms, the pursuit of purity can also be the pursuit of justice. But there is also an obsession with purity that is connected with injustice and violence. Throughout history, the rhetoric of purity has been associated with movements of misogyny, white supremacy, and xenophobia. The “purity of the white race” is to be preserved. The Other, the foreigner, the migrant, is viewed with suspicion.

I think I’d prefer a little mud, thank you.

Unfortunately, a warped ideal of purity creeps even into my world of local food. There is a bad ideal of local which is isolationist and xenophobic, distrustful of outsiders. This has manifested itself recently in various populist movements in Europe and the US, which have – unfortunately – been supported by many growers and farmers. At the same time, ironically, proponents of bad localism continue to grow and enjoy heirloom varieties developed by the ancestors of the same Central American or Middle Eastern immigrants they fear and deride.

My years of work in the soil have helped me to examine my own conscience for strains of prejudice, ways of thinking that predispose me to violence. The impulse to crush a bug or spider, for instance, just because it is gross, or creeps me out. Why would I think this is okay? The bug and the spider are due the same reverence I accord to a living thing that I find cute or lovable. Even the insects and larvae that damage my crops have mystery, dignity, even holiness, on their own. They have their own places in a larger web of life – even if it is one that has been disrupted, bringing invasive species into habitats where they do not belong.

It is so easy to view living things as having worth only relative to our own needs and preferences, and to develop a dangerous habit of killing them casually, simply because they are inconvenient to us. Gardening guru Eliot Coleman has warned against the dangers of taking a militarist stance against “invaders” in the garden. It is better to take a holistic stance. Why are these bugs or caterpillars here? What do they want? How can I balance this little eco-system so they stop eating my cabbages and cucumbers? Do they have a natural predator I can invite in, by means of careful companion planting?

Every day in my garden I meet new living things, spectacles of wonder, all with their own mysterious inner lives, all of them worthy of love – and all in some way connected with me.

These delicate ecological connections cannot be bisected by fences or boundary lines. Just as what happens in my garden affects me, what happens on my neighbor’s land affects mine. If he sprays herbicides, an imaginary property line won’t stop them from drifting. These boundary lines we draw, dividing up properties and nations, are at best porous. And in many cases entirely imaginary, works of fiction.

Life seen this way may look wild and unruly.

Thinking this way, embracing connection, means learning to welcome diversity: diversity in my soil microbes, crop diversity as opposed to monoculture, diversity in heirloom varietals from across the globe. It is increasingly difficult to imagine that my choices occur in a vacuum, bracketed off from the life forms with which I share my environment. Or that what happens to other lives does not affect me. When John Donne wrote that “no man is an island” he meant this spiritually, but it is true of our global eco-systems, also.

Life seen this way may look wild and unruly. It may be wild and unruly. But it the opposite of primal uncreated chaos. This is order, just an order that eludes domination and containment.

I think sometimes of this striking passage from Thoreau’s Walden:

We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander. We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast. There was a dead horse in the hollow by the path to my house, which compelled me sometimes to go out of my way, especially in the night when the air was heavy, but the assurance it gave me of the strong appetite and inviolable health of Nature was my compensation for this.

We need to witness our own limits transgressed. This is a terrifying concept. So perhaps, in a way, it is understandable that we should want to draw lines of protection around ourselves, to avoid the contamination that destroys. But we need to learn to distinguish between lines of safety, and lines of imprisonment. To distinguish between the purity that heals, and the purity that does violence.

I am not so naive as to suppose that eco-growing alone will help us to make this distinction, but it can be part of a discipline that teaches us better to understand ourselves, our communities, and our responsibilities to one another. It can help us see that, when it comes to the transgressions of nature’s wildness, we have no choice in the matter. Our acts are never isolated. It is impossible to draw a dividing line between my life and that of a bacterium, slug, or larva – and equally impossible to draw a dividing line between “us” at home and “them” out there. “Think globally, act locally” is a popular mantra, but our local acts are also global acts. The luxuries of the developed world are only possible because of our exploitation of the labor and resources of others. Just because the effects of our self-indulgence are not immediately visible on the home turf doesn’t mean they aren’t happening.

Eco-growing can help us develop consciousness and conscience attuned to the reality of our vast inter-connectedness. It can open our hearts in reverence to the countless life-forms we share this earth with. And as we accept and embrace the strange and even the nonhuman, perhaps our humanity may flourish all the more.

hands holding dirt from a garden
Contributed By Rebecca Bratten Weiss Rebecca Bratten Weiss

Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a gardener, editor, and freelance academic residing in rural Ohio, and occasionally lurking in old cities.

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