We instinctively search our roots longing for the comfort of activities that ground us. Interaction with plants is a constitutive act. It is part of our personal constitution. If you don’t believe me, look up synonyms for constitution. You will see words like vitality, essence, formation, character. Top of the list in my search for words relating to our constitution? The word nature. It’s in our nature. Sure seems like soil is in our nature. I know it’s in mine. Mycobacterium vaccae is a non-pathogenic bacterium that lives in soil, and has shown considerable promise in health research as it relates to stress and inflammation. The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter and gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with useful microorganisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation. When someone brings me a suffering and failing houseplant the first thing I do is slide it out of the pot and stick my face right in the root area. The visual inspection of the soil and roots and the aroma of the media the plant is growing in often tell us everything we need to know. In life it’s the journey itself, not always the harvest that brings about personal reward and purpose. Starting a plant from seed, turning a compost pile or growing vegetables with hands in the dirt was less an act of true self sufficiency because growing all your own food didn’t seem practical. Instead gardening felt like alchemy. A rediscovered natural process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something naturally extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained. It was about being part of the process, not just consuming. Purpose instead of mere consumption. Doing what should be natural is suddenly novel. To grow and share. That’s what plant people do.
“Good People, most royal greening verdancy, rooted in the sun,
you shine with radiant light.”
-Hildegard von Bingen
The soil. Dirt is as basic and real as gravity. Are you well grounded? If not, for a tree it will become evident in the canopy. For a person it will become evident in your disposition. If things in general are looking up you can often “mask” unresolved problems and get away with it. But when the pressure is on and troubled seasons come along how well you stand and how you react will depend on your roots. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Gravity is as natural and basic as dirt. Soil is a natural resource!
Soil is a mixture of minerals, dead and living organisms, organic material, air, and water. The interaction of these components along with weather conditions and the seasons makes soil one of the earth’s most important natural resources. With soils there is some degree of physical, biological and even chemical weathering that takes place so even though it appears stationary it is technically dynamic. We just don’t think about it because formation usually occurs at very slow rates unless we are physically amending the soil. “Parent” existing soils are limited natural resources. They are considered renewable because they are constantly forming.
Soils are made of layers, or horizons. Put the horizons together, and they form a soil profile. This was very evident to me as I observed the erosion along the Lake Michigan shoreline in 2019 and 2020. The layers are easy to see when exposed. Like a story, each layer tells a tale about the life of a soil. Soil just like people change with age. And just like with plants or animals there are soil classifications and a taxonomy system. A “soil order.” Most people don’t realize this. The soil orders all end in “sol” which is derived from the Latin word “solum” meaning soil or ground.
Some examples are:
- Gelisols are soils that are permanently frozen (contain “permafrost”) or contain evidence of permafrost near the soil surface.
- Histosols are mainly composed of organic material in their upper portion.
- Vertisols are clay-rich soils that contain a type of “expansive” clay that shrinks and swells dramatically. These soils therefore shrink as they dry and swell when they become wet.
- Mollisols are prairie or grassland soils that have a dark-colored surface horizon. They are highly fertile and rich in chemical “bases” such as calcium and magnesium.
- Oxisols are soils of tropical and subtropical regions
I’m having dirty thoughts
There was a run on soil amendments, potting soils and topsoil during the pandemic in the spring of 2020. There was a palpable ostensible desire to put your hands in the dirt. But what makes soil, soil? And aside from the utilitarian foundational components of it being a surface where we place our steps or its ability to support plant life, what was the draw? It is something I call “CAST”. Soil is a supporting “cast” for the drama taking place all around us. Its appeal is foundational. Comforting. There is nothing wrong with having dirty thoughts.
Color. Soil color gives us an indication of how it behaves. Well drained soil tends to be light and bright. Wet soil tends to be dark. The mineral structure of the soil can be surmised by the color.
Aroma. You can develop a sense of the health of the soil by its aroma. It’s easy to identify a soil that is depleted of nutrients or is toxically lacking oxygen by applying some good old fashioned olfaction sense.
Structure. When I make pancakes the batter binds together. It is an arrangement of components. The ingredients and the ratio of each impacts its standing and how they bind together. The components together provide the gravitas to the surroundings.
Texture. Soil is a combination of sand, silt and clay particles, most soils are a combination of the three. That combination tells us a lot of how that soil will behave. Potting soils are often a “soilless” mix designed and manufactured to create an environment suitable to contained habitat. A mix of organic matter like coconut coir or fiber, peat moss, a wetting agent, perlite, vermiculite, and sometimes a slow-release fertilizer. Without sand, silt, or clay involved, the mix technically isn’t soil. Soil “to go” in our “on demand” culture is satisfying nonetheless.
Are you grounded?
On my radio show when people ask me “how are you?” I always say staying grounded. I mean it. The minute you act like you’re something important or special compared to others is the moment you will make a fool of yourself. We are in this together. We are gardeners and cultivators of our time together here on earth. It’s about how you go about your business. Soil is the business side of cultivation, propagation and sustainability. And when you’re grounded my friend you are better equipped to serve, support and contribute to others.