Why Gardeners Wear Halos


If you are like me, you feel very virtuous as a gardener–even to the point of snarling at your significant other when he suggests that you might occasionally want to put down your shovel and come inside to do a load of laundry. One’s important, the other just a waste of so much mortal life.

But you might not entirely understand WHY you’re so virtuous, except that there is something in all the composting you do and mulching and manuring and feeding wood ash from the fireplace to the lilacs and covering up of bare soil with beautiful plants that feels like stewardship. And when I see my neighbors going at their soil-starvation program full bore with their leaf-blowers and rakes and herbicides and lawn chemicals, I only want to redouble my efforts.

It turns out all that babying of the backyard dirt IS important. Do not miss Charles Mann’s terrific piece in September’s National Geographic about good soil, a natural resource that is disappearing all over the world at an alarming rate. The accompanying slide show is pretty great, too.

Soil is being destroyed in rich countries like ours by farm machinery that compacts it and in poor countries by the removal of trees and grasses that prevent erosion. The good news is that the methods that work to restore soil are shockingly low-tech, all about manipulating the terrain to prevent runoff and adding organic matter of all kinds–as well as perennial plants that send long roots into the soil to aerate it and feed the fascinating microorganisms working down there.

Mann brilliantly concludes that the underlying problem is the same everywhere: political and economic systems that don’t understand soil. I’d only add that that is a function of profound ignorance. Why are my kids learning about the constellations in school–pretty but useless–and not a single thing about the science of the earth that feeds them?


  1. The idea of soil as a living organism (way more than just dirt!) was not one that I ever encountered in my formal schooling. But I agree that it should be taught… seems like an important part of biology and understand food webs, isn’t it?

  2. You are so right. I feel the same way about the earth,Make it better not use it and loose it.
    Wouldn’t it be nice if every one took care of their own little plot like it was a paradise? Soon it would be.

  3. I purchased this issue before a three hour wait at the DMV, and it blew my mind. Soil degradation can happen SO fast, and as the photos and text reveal, soil management (I prefer to think of it as “earth care”) is frighteningly misunderstood everywhere around our world.

    …Michele, your remark about kids learning about constellations instead of dirt is astute. But, that’s a cultural problem we have: we want to explore, expand, acquire more, “reach for the stars”. Can we inspire a paradigm shift? A full focus on what we have? A higher regard for the earth’s power and grace, potential and needs? A renewed respect for all the earth’s blessings already at our fingertips and in need of our care?

  4. Well… As a geologist, I’m certainly in favor of people learning more about the Earth! (the average knowledge level is just above zero)…

    I’ve taught workshops for elementary teachers for years (although, even there, “soil” gets brief coverage…there’s so MUCH to cover in 1 or 2 days!).

    Our whole society is built on what comes from the Earth… Everything we have is either dug up, or grown… and we’re paving it over as fast as we can.

    However…I must put in a good word for Astronomy! It’s not “useless”! An understanding of the world and Universe around us is vital to making intelligent decisions (and THAT lack of knowledge probably explains many of our society’s problems right there!:) We need people with well-rounded educations to run this place!

  5. The National Science Education Standards (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=4962) do include mention of soil in several places in the earth science content standards for various grades, such as:

    * Soils have properties of color and texture, capacity to retain water, and ability to support the growth of many kinds of plants, including those in our food supply.

    * Some resources are basic materials, such as air, water, and soil; some are produced from basic resources, such as food, fuel, and building materials; and some resources are nonmaterial, such as quiet places, beauty, security, and safety.

    * Soil consists of weathered rocks and decomposed organic material from dead plants, animals, and bacteria. Soils are often found in layers, with each having a different chemical composition and texture.

    * Some hazards, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and severe weather, are rapid and spectacular. But there are slow and progressive changes that also result in problems for individuals and societies. For example, change in stream channel position, erosion of bridge foundations, sedimentation in lakes and harbors, coastal erosions, and continuing erosion and wasting of soil and landscapes can all negatively affect society.

    When you include soil ecology — or forest ecology or rangeland ecology or any ecology — you do run up against folks who use (or exploit) these ecosystems for their livelihood, and often resent anyone teaching about the ecology of the system and implying that making a living from exploiting the system could have any harmful effect. If you depend on pulling resources from that system to feed your family and pay your mortgage, it’s a message you don’t want to hear and don’t want your kids hearing. And yet to close your ears to the message is short-sighted.

  6. “…snarling at your significant other when he suggests that you might occasionally want to put down your shovel and come inside to do a load of laundry. One’s important, the other just a waste of so much mortal life.”

    So true, so true!

    My dad gets this magazine. Thanks for the heads up; I’ll be sure to ask for it when he’s done with it.

  7. Karen, I am wrestling with the same question myself. I think my kids’ school needs a garden. I’m just wondering if I can handle another garden in addition to the two I already manage.

  8. YES to your last paragraph, and yes to the comment above that stars aren’t useless to study. BUT I think we all know what you mean–we don’t study or LIVE our places in the world, get to know them. Didn’t Throreau say that all a person needs is a radius of 20 miles and they’d never exhaust their discoveries of world and self? I’ve been researching / writing / tinkering with this subject. We don’t respect or know or accept ourselves physically or emotionally, so we don’t care to know too much lest we get a rude awakening. Same goes for the soil, for place. Body and place are one and tied so closely together that to deny one is the other. Look at how we fertilize lawns and run to the Tylenol, yet never ask of either “is this right, am I treating the core problem here?”

  9. I love the stars and the constellations. Knowing them helps my brain because I really gotta think to name them.
    The picture is so stupid.
    What virtue is there in sacrifice like that?
    Gardening makes me feel good.

  10. I may have learned something about the soil in school, but it was so long ago, that I don’t remember. I learned it living with my parents and how they lived. Although I started life as a suburb dweller, when I was 13, we moved to the outskirts of town to a 6 acre plot – mostly swamp and trees. We had a half acre garden and a huge compost pile. I gathered horse manure from the fields to put in the compost pile. The compost was spread on the garden each spring. I don’t know where my parents got their reverence for the earth – maybe they just wanted a more productive garden – but all that rubbed off. Thanks, Mom and Paul!

  11. Prettymuch everything in the natural world can be related back down to the soil, without even mentioning the handfuls of huge issues in the human world that are related to soil. When kids are walking around on pavement all day, and they aren’t taught about it at school, they’re missing something fundamental about living here.


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