What we dismiss as dirt – common and plain – is actually quite unique, complex, variable, and vital. Soil is composed of decomposed blade, leaf, stone, root, bone, carcass, carapace, and flower – millions of tiny components that express the geology, biology, and land use history of that place. A spoonful of soil from any one location will be different from a spoonful of soil from any other location. Soil samples taken from the same place will change over time, too. Living within that mixture of debris and detritus is a universe of micro-organisms as variable as their environments, so many tiny species that we have counted but a slim fraction of them. A spade of rich garden soil may harbor more species than the entire Amazon Basin nurtures above ground. The bacteria in an acre of soil can outweigh a cow or two grazing above them.
Soil is not a thing, but a living process as the chemicals, nutrients, enzymes, bacteria, microbes and so on interact with one another and reconfigure over time. Soil, of course, becomes food if you add seeds, sunlight, and water. As important as that is, food is just one of soil’s blessings. Working together, the soil’s tiny creatures break down organic matter, store and recycle nutrients vital to plant growth, renew soil fertility, filter and purify water, degrade and detoxify pollutants, and control plant pests and pathogens. Without these fundamental ecological services, forests would wither and die, food webs would collapse, plants could not pull carbon from the atmosphere, and life on earth would eventually cease.
Our bodily communion with the physical world around us means that we carry the salt of the seas and the power of a star in our blood, but also perchlorate, lead, and dioxins because what goes into the soil can be incorporated into your cells. The boundaries we assign to “things” like uranium and kidneys are temporary, even arbitrary.
It is easy to dismiss process and relationship while embedded in a materialistic/reductionist culture that tells us that soil is not a living community, not the very ground of your being and not the genesis of your own flesh and blood, but merely a medium that props up trees and plants – a “dirty” and lowly thing not worthy of regard, let alone reverence.
Stones turn to dust, dust becomes soil, soil becomes food, food becomes you, and you sit on a stone and think about how very different you are from a rock. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, until we are conscious of what we are, we will not change what we do.