I soiled myself

No, I didn’t poo my pants. (I don’t think this kind of opening line is standard blogging practice but who cares :))

I just got down and dirty this weekend (no, not that kind either): started a compost pile, dug grass out of a garden bed, weeded the yard and enjoyed getting my hands all dirty with lovely, earthy soil.

If there is one thing that we humans should for the world then that is to build healthy soil.

Soil is one of the most precious resources on this planet, along with fresh air and fresh water. When someone says “resources” people normally think of oil or gold or coal. We think of those kinds of resources that we need to feed the demands of our modern society. Without the coal that fires the power plant I probably wouldn’t be on the internet right now writing this blog post. On my left hand is my beautiful white gold wedding ring that my darling Pete put on my finger – it is very precious to me. The computer casing and synthetic materials around me were most likely made from oil which is such an important building block for all the things we have in our lives.

But none of that would matter for very long if I didn’t have good air in my lungs, water in my cells and the food in my stomach. And I gotta tell you, that chocolate croissant this morning was loooovely. Without healthy soil that grew the wheat for the pastry and the cacao beans for the chocolate I would have been one grumpy hangry cow.

Admittedly though, when I bought the aforementioned chocolate croissant I did not bow down to the earth and thank the soil for growing my food. We just don’t think about it. It’s something we take for granted. And it would be nice if it was something we, or our children and their children, didn’t have to worry about.

Look around you right now. Which of the things around you wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for soil? The coffee you’re sipping? Coffee beans come from a plant. Cuppa tea? Same thing. Munching on a bacon and egg toastie, feeling all smart because bacon (unfortunately) doesn’t grow on trees? Pigs need food though. No food around you? Are any of the clothes you wear made from cotton? Yupp, grows in soil. *sigh* “you made your point, Svenja!” The air you just breathed in? Produced by plants growing in soil. (Sorry, I just had to get one more in.)

It is so important.

If you read my post on Bokashi composting you know how much I love improving the dirt in my backyard one bucket at a time.

There are lots of different types of soils out there and they all need different things – some might be sandy, some clay like, some are water-repellent, some are quite acidic, some are more alkaline. Different plants like different kinds of soil. Some thrive in free-draining sandy soils, others need constant moisture and cark it if they dry out. Some get most of their nutrients in alkaline soil, others need pH neutral soil to get what they need.

There is no single one-fixes-all solution for every possible location-plant-soil-climate combination. But, saying that, you can’t really go wrong with compost. Compost is such a good soil amendment – it adds rotten organic matter which brings a range of nutrients, it acts like a sponge and holds water, it adds life in the form of millions of beneficial micro-organisms, and, well, it smells and looks awesome. “Rotten stuff smelling awesome? Yeah sure you crazy greenie…” Seriously, have you ever stuck your nose in a handful of good compost? Not foul things that rotted away in the bottom of your bin but organic matter that decomposed just as nature intended? Lovely smell. One of those nice smells, like the first rain on dusty ground, a book, a freshly brewed cup of coffee, a baby. Maybe they should make that as perfume. “Oh what are you wearing today? It smells lovely!” – “Baby. It’s the new scent of the brand that I normally wear. You know? The nice Compost one.” … Not a market niche, you reckon? Ah well, I’ll stick to my day job then.

So why do we need to even think about building soil? Surely nature, who’s been handling this soil business for a few billion years now is quite capable of continuing to handle it? Yeah she would if it wasn’t for this super intelligent species homo sapiens having figured out how to

  • deforest whole mountain sides for agriculture, pastures or mining. Problem: erosion and mud slides taking all the invaluable top soil with it.
  • monoculturing massive fields for more efficient food production. Problem: the plant species depletes the soil of the specific group of nutrients it needs most. Nature doesn’t normally grow just one plant species by itself; there’s usually a whole community of different species all of which have different requirements and have evolved to complement each other’s needs. Just imagine how monotone life would be if every single person in a city just liked the one food, say fish & chips. Nothing wrong with a bit of fish & chips but not only would the nearby fish stock be depleted quite rapidly, but we all would end up terribly bored (and fat probably). And if there was ever a pest or disease affecting the fish we would have no resilience and would perish. Same with plants, that’s why diversity is important.
  • build amazing human habitats (cities) with clever building materials, such as concrete, asphalt, bricks and bitumen. Problem: this covers up any existing soil and makes it awfully hard for plants to take foot. Trees keep on trying to grow their roots, the footpath gets all bumpy, then council has to come in and repair it. Moreover rain can’t soak in the ground but runs off and creates flooding in heavy rain events. Nature just doesn’t cover massive areas with hard impermeable stuff. The only place on earth would be Antarctica, and, well, it’s not the most life-friendly place. Only tough nuts, like penguins, survive there.
  • create amazing things by throwing together different elements. Very useful mixtures resulting in things like fertilizer, fuel or cleaning agents. Problem: we humans are a messy lot and, since accidents and mistakes happen, we spill stuff. Those kind of chemistry-cocktails never existed in nature until we created them within the last say couple of hundred years. The soil and its inhabitants have no idea how to break it down or deal with it. The mixtures are more often than not harmful, especially in large quantities, and can kill the vibrant community of micro-organisms that make the soil work. We basically poison the ground with our very useful inventions.

Yes, nature still is very good at building soil. But nature has a hard time doing so if one of its inhabiting species keeps on using and abusing the land in grand scale to sustain exponential growth and to satisfy crazy demands.

Let’s not go back to our pre-industrial lifestyle (I love the internet and blogging too much) and let’s also not go back to pre-agricultural times because I don’t think we could feed our 7 billion strong population with a hunter/gatherer lifestyle (though Pete always says it’s easy to eat paleo. Throw a chocolate bar in the garden, gather it back up and, tadaaa you’re a paleo hunter/gatherer! … Yeah maybe not, Pete.)

Instead let’s find a way where we can sustain our species and our needs whilst also enriching our environment. Building soil wherever we are is a good starting point.

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