In a perfect world, the soil in any specific location on this planet would be exactly what it needs to be for the plants that are naturally inclined to grow there, and vice versa. The soil of a deciduous forest is moist, soft, and rich with humus created from the centuries of leaves that have decomposed there. Trillium, fern, violets and mosses thrive in this particular soil beneath the canopy of trees. The native grasses of the great plains, like big bluestem and switchgrass, have root systems that can reach 7-10 feet long, which make them perfectly adapted to the range of soil and moisture conditions of this biome.
However, when it comes to nature, we humans have a habitual tendency to intervene and well, mess things up. We’ve done this with soil in a pretty major way. In the Midwest, we’ve gotten rid of much of the native deep-rooted grasses so well-suited to that land, and we have planted shallow-rooted cereal crops like corn, wheat and soy. These crops require extensive irrigation because of their inferior root systems, and literally tons upon tons of pesticides and herbicides when they’re grown on such a large, uniform scale. The latter two—pesticides and herbicides—essentially kill life. They kill weeds (both the “good” and “bad” ones) they kill bugs (both the “good” and “bad” ones) and they eventually kill the naturally-occurring microorganisms in the soil. Needless to say, we don’t want to be putting this stuff into our soil if our aim is to enrich that soil in order to grow healthy food and encourage a more vibrant ecosystem.
In addition, even more of those native prairie grasslands have been cleared out to make room for the massive feedlots from which much of our meat comes. (From animals that are fed, not incidentally, not the grass and other plants that they would naturally eat, but corn, because it is bountiful and inexpensive…see the eye-opening documentary King Corn for more on this.)
In developed areas where humans reside, like cities, towns, and suburbs, the natural landscape has been systematically steamrolled to make way for houses, buildings, pavement and the most dreadful waste of good land we humans have come up with yet—the lawn. An unblemished, 100% grass lawn is just about the most unreasonable, unattainable, pointless thing mankind has ever attempted to accomplish. Even colonizing the moon would be more practical and acheivable. Where else—outside of the modern lawn and industrial agriculture—do you see a half-acre of absolutely nothing but one plant variety? It’s completely unnatural and contrary to the laws of nature which promote adaptation, evolution, and biodiversity in natural spaces.
But then again, the modern lawn is hardly a natural landscape: First, the grass must be planted (once the preexisting vegetation has been completely cleared away, of course). Then, it must be fed and watered regularly, because it has high demand for both nutrients and for moisture. And on top of that, if you want a picture-perfect, model lawn, there will be the inevitable issue of weed control. Enter the sundry scheisters that will be happy to weed, feed, mow and blow your lawn for you at a nominal price each month. It might cost three times your monthly car insurance, but they’ll promise your yard will be the envy of all your neighbors. These guys will happily kill your soil in short order, and keep feeding, reseeding and chemically weeding your yard straight into biological oblivion.
Even the optimists regarding soil recognize that we’re in a sad state of affairs today. Soil, the very flesh of this living earth, is in many ways sick, thanks to us humans, our big brains, and our reckless ways. The good news is that nature, as a living system, can be incredibly strong and resilient under the right conditions. And one of the primary roles of the organic farmer and gardener is to facilitate the restoration of soil and ecosystem vitality and diversity. The next post in this series will cover the basic components that make for healthy soil, and in subsequent posts, we’ll move on to talk about some of the different practices that you can use to help heal and restore the soil that you grow in, with benefits that will be enjoyed by all of the parties involved—whether human, plant or animal.
If you’d like to learn more about soil and the danger of how we treat it today, be sure to watch Dirt! The Movie (available on Netflix, and probably other places on the web, too). It’s an excellent documentary that explains the problem quite clearly with interviews from experts that come from all the different facets of the soil issue. Here’s the trailer:
*A Note: When I say “we” and “our” throughout this post, I mean it in the most sincere way: we are buying into the current system that degrades the world’s soil through our food purchases and lifestyle choices, and so we are complicitly involved in the large-scale destruction of soil. So, as humans, as citizens, as consumers, as parents, and sons, and daughters, and gardeners, and farmers, let’s pool our influence and put it towards some change. There’s a lot that we can do. 🙂