In the beginning there was soil, a splash of seawater and a sliver of stardust. Or something like that. Certainly in the beginning, whether you’re reading Genesis, or Greek myths about Prometheus, or Mesopotamian creation myths, there will be some reference to humans being formed from clay. Then life was breathed into them and from then on it was dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Whatever words you use, whatever stories you tell, it’s clear that soil is key to human life.

And yet, many of us haven’t paid enough attention to the soil. The word itself can have a negative association. To “sully” or “soil ourselves” can refer to our reputation being tainted, or worse, to losing control over one’s bowels. 

Partridge’s etymological dictionary connects the word first with the Latin solum, the lower part or base of anything, e.g. the bed of the sea, a floor, and the ground itself, and also the Latin sul and the Old French soillier which gives words like stain, bemire and sully. Both those meanings remain with us so that, although we admire the fruits of the earth, we urge children not to get dirty.

Until recently, most of us haven’t paid enough attention to the importance of soil. Just as we look at the stars but fail to see the sky, we look at the ground and see flowers and plants but not the soil. But that’s changing. Many scientists are now writing about the importance of soil, pointing out that life above the ground depends upon the soil and that no plants would grow and no people could live without soil organisms.

Here in B.C., we are learning a lot from internationally renowned UBC scientist Suzanne Simard who, in her new book, Mother Tree, tells us about the understory of the forest, how underground networks of trees and fungi form partnership called mycorrhizas through which they exchange water and various nutrients for carbon-rich sugars. Simard suggests that mycorrhizal communication involves “not just resource transfers, but things like defense signaling and kin recognition.” What we may have thought of as the dirt under our feet turns out to be precious soil that is teeming with life, rich with resources, and full of information.

Leonard Da Vinci always knew that soil was important and he regretted his lack knowledge about it: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” 

Mahatma Gandhi emphasized how important it was for people to pay attention to the soil: “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” 

Thankfully, it turns out that there is much exciting work on soil regeneration currently happening around the world and here in Canada:

I’m writing this post on Mother’s Day, and so I’m sending best wishes to all of the mothers I know and gratitude to all the mothers who brought us here. I’m feeling thankful for Mother Earth – for her soul and her soil. It’s not too late for us to learn from her teachings.


Note: There have been some changes to my blog which sometimes means that the links don’t work. If they aren’t connecting you to the reference, you may have to copy the link and paste it into your browser. Apologies – I’m trying to get this fixed.

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