Even as more and more people are beginning to see God in the ground and finding a revitalized spirituality there, we are also discovering how fragile and endangered the Earth is. The first time I ever heard someone explain that the soil was in distress was in college. A curmudgeonly professor was lecturing in European history class. The subject was Russia and Communist expansion, and the day’s topic was the Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe. I was duly taking notes when he went off on a tangent about the soil, how important it was, why the Ukraine was so significant, and how similar it was to North America’s Great Plains. The students, mostly from suburban Los Angeles, looked bored.
Then his tone became urgent. “You know those farmlands and eucalyptus groves as you come over the pass in Thousand Oaks, the miles of fields and pastures in Simi Valley?”
A few students paused, now paying attention, registering mental recognition of the scene.
“In another decade or two,” he continued, “that will be houses and condominiums and shopping centers and schools. All the best land will be covered by subdivisions. The eucalyptus will be gone, and the monarch butterflies will lose their migration route. And the farmers and growers will have to go somewhere else, mostly uphill or farther out to the desert to more marginal land. Erosion from storms will be worse. Once the soil is gone, it is gone. You can’t get it back.”
Although I had observed wounded landscapes, it did not occur to me that dirt was threatened on a larger scale. Soil was like air or water, a boundless gift of creation, always present. As a Christian, I was grateful for the land, and I understood that it had been given to us to rule over like kings (our pastor told us this was in the book of Genesis). No matter where my family moved or how far I traveled, the ground was a fact of existence. It was where we planted ourselves, and although we often ignored the soil beneath our feet, there were always people to tend it. Over the years, it has been a dirt patch in a Baltimore backyard; acres of land in the Maryland woods; the mealy, worm-filled country vegetable garden of our next-door neighbors; Arizona’s desert sands, where only cactus or palo verde trees can grow; the rich soils of coastal California covering great rifts below; the hard clay of the Mississippi, with its last stand of old forest in Memphis; and the vast suburbs of northern Virginia comprising Colonial glebes and old plantations. The soil varied, the ground friendly or occasionally infuriating, but I was not aware that it was in crisis, for soil seemed eternal.
Agronomist Wes Jackson calls the idea that soil is limitless and can be used in any way human beings please “the devastating assumption of the modern world.” Jackson insists that “soil is as much a nonrenewable resource as oil” and explains that it took hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of years of geologic and climatic events (mountain uplift, earthquakes, and an Ice Age) to produce the rich soils of Europe and North America. “Once destroyed,” Jackson warns, rather like my professor in the late 1970s, “for all practical purposes in human time, it is destroyed forever.” The Earth’s math is simple: no soil, no food, no us.
Yet soil is being lost at an alarming rate all over the planet. During the last century and a half, the planet has lost half its topsoil. According to a Cornell University study, American soil is disappearing ten times faster than the rate at which it can be replenished; China and India are experiencing erosion rates thirty to forty times faster. In the last forty years alone, about one-third of the world’s formerly productive soil has become unusable, and the planet continues to lose approximately twenty-five million acres a year to erosion. This is an environmental crisis to be sure, but it is a moral and ethical one as well.
Something odd is happening, however, as this disaster is unfolding. At the same time that the Earth is losing its soil, more people than ever are making their way back to the ground. It is as if we are returning to the roots of the crisis, discovering the soil when it needs us most. In the early 2000s, I spent most of my time researching vibrant churches. In the course of that work, I kept running across congregations with gardens – rural churches growing crops for local food banks or homeless shelters or just to raise money to defray the pastor’s salary, suburban churches with lush plots where parishioners swapped seedlings along with neighborhood gossip, urban churches that turned tiny front yards into great community gardens. One Episcopal study found that there are 250 churches or other groups in their denomination alone now operating farms on their land. Across a denominational spectrum, congregations are raising food for charity, to supplement church budgets, to do justice, or just for the fun of it – often turning food deserts into lively centers of local food movements.
The Garden Church of San Pedro, California, is pushing beyond growing food. The new congregation has a vision of church as a “living sanctuary” based in the earth itself. As its mission statement says: “The Garden Church is reimagining church as an interconnected organism, worshipping, loving and serving together as we transform a plot of land into a vibrant urban garden” where people encounter “the Divine in community, scripture, nature, and the life of useful service.” The congregation has purchased an abused piece of land in a poor neighborhood and is working to renew the soil and plant a garden. The garden will also be the church – there are no plans for a conventional building. Instead, vegetable beds will surround an outdoor Communion table; a greenhouse will serve as worship space during the rainy season. Church leaders are called “cultivators,” and participants meet in both gardening and theology groups, learning soil and scripture as a pair. A leader of the church says that the church will be “a community where the church is in the garden, and the garden is the work of the church.”
Congregational gardens, however, are just a small part of a changing attitude toward food and the land. In my suburban neighborhood, only ten miles from downtown Washington, D.C., there are gardens in front yards and behind fences, and neighbors trade stories about growing conditions as well as vegetables from a good harvest. Folks talk of getting chickens and whether that would increase the local fox problem. A widely anticipated event is the yearly seedling sale at the Unitarian Church, because everyone knows that its soil has been well cared for and grows particularly hardy local plants.
The National Garden Association reports that one in three households are now growing food, a rise of 17 percent from 2008 to 2013. The largest increase has been in urban gardening (up 29 percent) and among young adults, with more than thirteen million people under thirty taking to the soil. The passion for gardening spreads across all education and income levels, and it includes people who live in rural, suburban, and urban areas.
And it is not just hobbyists. Cities are moving ahead in the work of renewing land and neighborhoods through local farming. Chicago has initiated a major urban farming program, complete with agricultural training, aimed at reclaiming devastated city neighborhoods and addressing the problem of food deserts. Citizens around Waterloo, Ontario, have created a regional food charter to develop a local food system, strengthen community development, provide access to healthy food, address issues of climate change, and promote integrated farming and food policies. Detroit is turning blighted and abandoned blocks into urban farms, providing both healthy local food and jobs.
Launching a garden or an urban farm is not easy. About five years ago, not knowing that we were at the edge of a trend, my family tried to establish a backyard garden. Novice that I was, I thought this was a matter of digging some holes, planting seeds, and watering the plot once in a while. The first year, everything died. We discovered we have bad soil, front and back. Full of roots, our ground is hard and lifeless. Years ago, it was at the end of a land where teenagers used to park and drink. We frequently dig up broken beer bottles and odd bits of glass and trash. So the second year we worked the soil, trying to coax it back to life. The garden did better, establishing itself well, until a summer drought and a tomato fungus did it in. The third and fourth years, I turned to growing herbs in containers and met with more success. Last year, we built raised beds, filling them with organic soil and all sorts of naturally composted additions. The garden finally produced abundant tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, and beans. Now I love to sit by the beds, poking around in the moist dirt looking for worms. I have learned to care for it, this small patch of land that we are working to restore. The real work of gardening is in the dirt.
Both my history professor and Wes Jackson correctly claim that the soil is not limitless. Like oil, soil comes from a long process that includes the Earth’s carbon cycle. Most soils contain carbon, an essential element of life. Built into the planet is a cycle of creation, energy, and transformation of carbon that took many millions of years to form the ground as we know it. But the carbon cycle that makes the dirt is now dangerously out of balance. There is now too much carbon in the air and not enough in the soil, wreaking havoc on once regular weather systems. The shift in rain is causing soil to either wash away or dry up, making it unable to sustain the trees and plants that naturally balance the carbon dioxide between earth and air. And this is what the history professor and Wes Jackson referred to when speaking of limited soil: the long process that created the ground beneath us. We don’t have millions of years to get it back.
Lucky for us there is also a shorter cycle of soil renewal: photosynthesis. This is the cycle by which our plants grow and through which sunlight produces plant sugars, which in turn feed colonies of microorganisms in the plant’s roots; those billions of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa burrow about, forage, eat, and die, creating humus, the mealy layer of topsoil one sees in the best gardens. Through surprisingly simple practices, such as composting, land management, organic and natural farming methods, introducing earthworms, and sowing forage grasses for livestock, we can hasten the production of soil in this short-term cycle. By increasing carbon compounds in the ground, the soil is made richer, able to absorb and hold more moisture, and is less apt to erode. Some scientists believe that we can certainly slow, and in some cases perhaps reverse, soil erosion in these ways. If we attend to this more immediate carbon cycle, we cannot get back what we have lost, but we can create more usable, healthy, and protective topsoil. In effect, we can gain ground. And in gaining ground, we might also be able to mitigate some effects of global warming.
It can be overwhelming to think of the crisis of the land, but we can do something about this. By tending the soil, we imitate the creative process in Genesis. We can “breathe” new life into the ground. This reconnects us with both soil and life, opening us up to new ways of experiencing God with us in the world.
Soil itself is alive. Although plagued with poor health, disregarded through bad practices, and threatened even with death, might the possibility of resurrection be right under our feet? As more Americans work community and home gardens, we are learning that the ground itself is a micro-universe upon which all carbon-based life forms – like us – depend. With the increase in the number of people learning to grow their own food, surely there is a corresponding shift in our understanding of soil and the life of the Earth. In a surprising way, we can all create Eden, a world teeming with life.
As Fred Bahnson, founder of a community garden in North Carolina, says of the land he and his friends restored: “The soil here was deeper than in the rest of the garden, the color and consistency of chocolate sponge cake. There is an entire ecosystem in a handful of soil: bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms. Through their breeding and dying such creatures vivify the world.” Here is one of the most profound of all religious themes: death and resurrection. Bahnson, a writer and permaculture gardener, spent a year traveling to faith-based farms around the United States, from abbeys to communes to a Jewish retreat center. His pilgrimage taught him about farming and soil, but even more about God and the garden. “Soil is a portal to another world,” he insists, the world as God intends it to be.
Although farmers have always known that our life and destiny are tied to the health of the soil, much of that wisdom had been lost as technology-driven, single-crop, large-scale farming replaced more intimate connections with the land. Indeed, in recent centuries, farming emerged as a mechanical process of food production rather than a mutual relationship with the Earth. Attending to soil is the heart of an emerging awareness referred to as “neo-agrarianism,” or soil farming. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created extensive education and programming on soils, tracking national soil health and teaching dynamic soil management to new generations of farmers attuned to “the movement of farming nature’s way.”
For millennia, the ancients looked to the heavens, to the light of millions of stars above, to find God. Although the stars still move us to wonder, contemporary people are learning that the soil beneath our feet is as mysterious, complex, and awe-inspiring as gazing into the night sky. “I was stunned by what I learned about life in the soil,” says journalist Kristin Ohlson, “that when we stand on the surface of the Earth, we’re atop a vast underground kingdom of microorganisms without which life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Trillions of microorganisms, even in my own smallish backyard, like a great dark sea swarming with tiny creatures.”
Bahnson calls the soil a sacrament. Even the most secular writers understand that the ground calls forth an ethical, moral, and spiritual response. We are powerfully connected to the ground, and the soil is intimately related to how we understand and celebrate God. The late Irish Roman Catholic priest and philosopher, John O’Donohue, called the land, “the firstborn of creation,” and the “condition of the possibility of everything.” The Earth itself, he insisted, holds the memory of the beginning of all things, the memory of God. When Sallie McFague offers the metaphor of “body” to describe the relationship between God and the world, she is reminding us of both scientific truth and a sacred mystery. “What if,” she asks, “we saw the Earth as part of the body of God, not as separate from God (who dwells elsewhere), but as the visible reality of the invisible God?”
What if, indeed? I suspect that if we did, we would be both more responsible toward the soil and more aware of God-with-us.
An atheist friend of mine is fond of saying, “I just don’t believe that God is an old man sitting on the throne in Heaven.” Me neither. Nor do the millions of people who still trust in God, yet reject this particular conception of God. McFague calls it the “transcendent sky-God tradition.” Instead of seeing God as distinct and distant from the world, we are acquiring a new awareness that the universe itself is God’s body, a complex and diverse interdependent organism, animated by God’s breath, the spirit of creation. We are with God and God is with us because – and some people may find this shocking – we are in God and God is in us. Maybe the far-off Heavenly Father is finally retiring, replaced by a far more down-to-earth presence, a presence named in Hebrew and Christian scriptures as both love and spirit. I once heard poet Wendell Berry remark, “The idea of Heaven doesn’t take religion very far,” because the distance makes for too great an abstraction. “Love,” as the very being of God, he continued, “has to wear a face.” And that “face” is “our neighborhood, our neighbors and other creatures, the Earth and its inhabitants.
Despite this powerful vision of Earth and the beauty of the ground, religion has not often been a friend of the soil.