The Ecology of Souls and Soils

Disturbance always happens before change.

Warm earth.

         Tumultuous clouds.

 The tingling atmospheric tension in the moments between drops of water leaving the clouds and sploshing on vegetation and soil.

 Those moments when static electricity causes hair to stand on end and skin to tingle and you know you are alive.

“For the country life has pleasures the townsfolk never know”.

(From Clancy of the Overflow, with apology to Banjo Paterson.) 

The intoxicating aroma of actinobacteria rising from the ground when the first drops of rain land on warm earth is known as petrichor and here, in Australia, many of us living in rural areas become quite excited when our nostrils are filled with this heady sensation. I have grown up and lived in rural Victoria for the first 12 years of my life and the remainder in the Riverina and Central West of NSW. Some think this excitement is due to our ancient ancestors living in arid, semi-arid and temperate climates and the reliance they had on rain.

Our lives depend on knowing from the deepest point of our being so we may survive, thrive and flourish. These are not accidental outcomes; the culture, practices and knowledge have been tested and shared, passed down through multiple generations to the people living now - many who choose to ignore or do not have access to Mother Earth.

Modernity has wiped its nose at the traditions, practices, knowledge and First Peoples who carefully and mindfully tend/ed our Earth; the willful ignorance and forced severance manifests in a myriad of social and physical ills.  Souls and soils ought never be torn asunder.

   ‘Aboriginal people come literally to love the soil, and we sit or recline on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. The feeling of our relationship to the earth is so strong that we feel parts of the land which belong to our Dreaming, are like parts of our body.

   We even describe them in terms of parts of our body. It is good for the skin to touch the Earth, to walk with bare feet upon the sacred earth. The birds that fly in the air come to rest upon the earth and it is the final abiding place of all things that live and grow.

    The soil is soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing. That is why Aboriginals sit on the earth instead of hoisting themselves up and away from its life-giving forces. For us to sit or lie on the ground is to be enabled to think more deeply and to feel more keenly; we can see more clearly into the mysteries of life and come closer to kinship to other lives around us.

   Aboriginal people are proud of our mother earth and the beauty which she gives us every waking day; the beauty of sunrise, the singing of birds, the aroma of flowers in bloom, the colour of the mountains, the cleansing smell of rain, the learning of wisdom from our native animals.”

Anne Pattel-Gray (1991) ‘Through Aboriginal Eyes: The Cry From the Wilderness’

The hegemony of the neo-liberal market economy has side-lined, ridiculed, marginalized and exploited the common-wealth of generations of learned skills. Debasing Nature as primitive and simple, to be broken into minute simplistic components destroys the mystery of life-forces.

Soil is a living entity and, like all living things needs food, water and shelter. Organic matter is essential to provide all three – storage of rainfall, food and shelter for the trillions of soil biota. Soils need to co-exist with living plants ALL the timeplus the addition of organic compost, mulch and manures for on-going renewal.

Dr Greg Bender

Formerly known as the commons - water, land, forests, oceans, clean air and access to all the above – are now known as resources; commodified and own-able to the most powerful. Globalisation has benefitted a minority of people on the Earth with the majority having had to relocate from rural areas into hideously over-crowded, identity-destroying urban densities, a vicious separation of souls from their homeland soils.

“A deregulated financial economy gave us the financial crisis;

a deregulated food economy has given us a food crisis;

a deregulated mining economy has turned every

 mineral-rich area into a war zone”.

Dr Vandana Shiva (2012) ‘Making peace with the Earth’ 

Even only a century ago, the majority of the world’s people had some access to Nature – a space and realm without human built environment – to connect with the Earth through the soles of the feet and fingertips; to have all ten senses soothed and stimulated resulting in a state of peace and tranquility. Forests are complex ecosystems and have been intrinsic to many First Peoples and, when challenged by a ‘forester’ as to the value of their forest, the women of Garwhal who maintained the conditions for renewability replied -

“What do the forests bear?

Soil, water and pure air.

Soil, water and pure air

Sustain the Earth and all she bears.

The women of Garwhal, India in the Chipko campaign to save their forests (1977)

A tragic outcome of Cartesian domination has been the notion ‘if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist’ which still influences reductionist science in 2017. In the past five years, Western ‘scientists’ have discovered that soils contain billions of as yet un-named species;  “but, as yet, we are not sure what their purpose is.”

The mania to identify and name a species prior to actually knowing its individual role, much less the synergistic and symbiotic relationships it has with one or a million other species seems to be of lesser importance than actually locating that one single critter. The arrogance of modern  ‘scientists’ to claim discoveries of soil life is akin to harping that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ a large land-mass in the Pacific ocean; Aboriginal Australians always have been here as have soil populations.

Traditional knowledge has always had respect for the ‘invisible’ forces populating (healthy functioning) soils knowing that if they are not cared for, there won’t be food for everyone next year or, the decades after.

We walk on earth,

We look after……

Like rainbow sitting on top.

But something underneath,

Under the ground…..

We don’t know….

You don’t know.

We like this earth to stay,

Because he was staying for ever and ever.

We don’t want to lose him,

We say ‘Sacred, leave him.”

Bill Neidje, Kakadu Man (1995)

Terroir is the term used to describe intimate provenance, most usually associated with wines, however its application to other contexts is pertinent. The same vine rootstock can be planted on opposite sides of a hill and the end wines can be completely different due to altitude, daylight hours, frost and chill hours, and moisture from rain, fog and dew. However, the main component creating terroir is the soil – its biological populations, mineral deposits, levels of organic matter, inclination and structure.

Similarly, humans share the same genetic makeup but, according to their location and living conditions, can express very different characteristics, especially at molecular levels. As with plants, humans also are influenced by their terroir, and most especially in the foods eaten.  With the globalization of food, provenance is usually unknown as there is no requirement for full disclosure of the source/s of ingredients thanks to the power and lobbying of multi-national food manufacturing companies.

In addition there is the inclusion of novel ingredients and this is particularly problematic for people living in cities and relying solely on supermarkets for all their foods. These corporations are not interested in human health and wellbeing; it is profit which influences the choices they make as to which products will be stocked and, the cheaper the better. High standards are not the highest priority.

As a result, the rise in non-communicable illnesses and diseases are unprecedented yet there are common themes and patterns to the situation.  Whether anorexic or obese, malnutrition is now mainstream in western society. Low nutrient density in manufactured foods leave bodies starving but, coupled with complete ignorance about human physiology, information on what to eat is gleaned by consumers from the most frequently shown advertisements for ‘food’ which is a far cry from nutrition. 

Why is soil biology so important?

Microbiomes in the human gut and microbiomes around plant roots

(basically their ‘guts’ outwards) significantly improve health.

This is an example of parallel evolution.

Microbiomes in guts and roots suppress diseases.

Probiotics stimulate plant and animal defence ssytems and

out-compete disease-causing microbes. Root genes in plants

are switched on by soil bacteria to establish defence responses.

Seeds may harbor a reservoir of probiotics for their seedlngs.

Plant root exudates can stimulate particular microbes from which

they need support and suppress those they do not want.

All this is done in partnership with soil biota.

Dr Greg Bender

The terroir of many city people is easily identified by their intake of hyper-addictive foods based on salt, sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils which, in turn, are the causes of four of the most prevalent non-communicable diseases viz cancers, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes and strokes.

Turn back to the days where a take-away was a piece of sun-warmed fruit from a tree, or a berry from under the leaves of a low-growing bush. If it was an animal, it, too, had lived in the same area and possibly even ate some of the same plants.  The crossover of microbial biomes between humans and their food occurred on a daily basis making true the saying you are what you ate, then absorbed.

Dr Vandana Shiva writes that the lack of biodiversity is the cause of poverty. She bases this on the removal of people from their traditional homelands where, over multiple generations, knowledge was learned and stored through continuous observation and relationship with place. Complex ecosystems in the forms of forests, grasslands, wetlands and jungles have been cleared to plant one cash crop – palm oil cotton, soy beans, sugar cane, cereals and many more. The poverty results as the traditional people used to harvest all they needed – foods, medicines, building materials, fibres, seeds and more from this location. Once they no longer have access, they become impoverished and then need money to buy what they used to mindfully acquire from their land. However, moving to a city without money provides instant poverty.

Plants are the mainstay of ALL life on Earth.

Industrialised agricultural practices deliberately eradicate biodiversity in the belief that a crop must not have any competition for light, water or nutrients so every other living entity is killed. In Australia, this is dubbed ‘innovative farming.’ The reliance on synthetic fertilisers and killercides on greater areas of land are systematically and deliberately destroying the very elements required to mitigate changing climates, and extreme weather events. The sanctioned extinction of many plant, insect, spider and mammal species, the severe man-made desertification of once species-diverse grasslands and the exodus of people from rural areas are the manifestations of poverty in ‘the lucky country’.

A reversal of these destructive practices is possible, and necessary by changing thinking and beliefs. Being an efficient productive farmer is not at odds with increasing biodiversity both below and above the ground.

Synthetic Nitrogen can be replaced simply by enabling nitrogen-fixing bacteria to remove nitrogen from the atmosphere, at no cost. 

Organic matter can supply not only N, P and K but all 13 essential nutrients for plants. Soil biota feeds off organic matter to break it into soluble forms then absorbed by plant roots and is particularly important to unlock dormant phosphorous.

Gut and root bacteria produce vitamins including riboflavin and B12. Root bacteria produce hormones which regulate plant growth similarly to human gut bacteria which provides 80% of emotional connection to the brain.

Dr Greg Bender

‘Every human has four endowments: self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom; the power to choose, to respond, to change.’

Stephen Covey

DoIng something differently to how it has been done before requires imagination, vision and courage. The courage is required to dare to be different and follow gut instinct.  From the compost trials designed by and managed by Australian Soil Management, startling and rapid changes are possible; both in restoring the conditions for desired species to recur, and increasing the nutrients soil biota require to express full potential in an otherwise starved environment.

Learning ecological literacy provides new opportunities to think differently, challenge belief systems and, in the process, souls become more connected with soils – for life.