Bringing Sexy Back Down to Earth

For all the seduction surrounding food these days, the earth that gives us such a bounty gets remarkably short shrift. Sure, small farmers are basking in all sorts of glory if you know where to look, and terroir has always been a sexy topic among certain connoisseurs. But how do we rally the troops, as we’ve started to around glaciers in the Arctic or forests in the Amazon, and convince the masses that soil is important, really important? What will persuade us to pay attention to the quality of our soil as the element of our kosmos that offers up nutrition, flavor, and ultimately oxygen for us all but is often referenced by its pejorative nickname, dirt? This recent National Geographic article and the accompanying photographs did a pretty good job at illuminating soil (though I expect as much from them). But the author describes unsexy subjects such as this in terms of MEGO: my eyes glaze over. It’s true. What could possibly make soil, as a subject, sexy? If there’s anything out there that does it for you, I want to know about it.

While I continue to mull this task over, a lifetime’s work of a self-proclaimed ethnopedologist (one who studies the cultural dimensions of soil, I didn’t make it up), I want to share with you some of my favorite characters who’ve grabbed my attention and thrown it back to earth. Believe it or not, they aren’t chefs and farmers glamorizing vegetables and the ecologies that yield them (though a remarkable job of calling attention to agriculture these foodies do). They also aren’t scientists who write persuasively about the demise of our soils around the globe. Here instead are a photographer, an historian, and a Buddhist gardener who all have a creative way of reminding us how valuable our soil is. I call upon their work whenever I’m forgetting.

One of my favorite modern photographers is one who has taken planes into the sky and lingered over fields of toxic waste. And Los Angeles sprawl. And cozied up to canisters of human remains. Mostly I like the toxic waste series, for its vibrant aerial depiction of abandoned strip mines, evaporated lake beds--sites in the western United States where culture and nature collide and erupt into gaseous form. The photographer, David Maisel (whose work I will refrain from unethically posting on my blog and instead send you to his website here), spoke to a seminar I was taking around this time last year on his interest in images that blur aesthetics and ethics. His photographs are undeniably compelling, most would say beautiful, though his subjects are often places where the earth’s surface has been contaminated and degraded beyond habitation, or cultivation. Can, or rather should, the toxic be depicted as beautiful? Does the beauty of his images obscure the fact that these are indelible scars of human action and inaction on the land, or does it jumble the all-too-persistent dichotomy in which nature=good and people=evil? Maisel claimed not to have an explicit environmental message in mind when he shot these series, but it’s hard not to imbue them with your own.

A more recent find was the book Dust by Carolyn Steedman, also suggested for a class, on the history of, and created by, the archive. It’s an irreverent treatise on why historians do what they do, which is create a present out of a past that is mostly empty until they come to find it and piece it together. Steedman speaks her piece through the perils of book dust (which used to pass along anthrax spores to unsuspecting archive-dwellers) and the pleasures of tearing apart a narrative constructed outside of the archive, as such is the 19th century’s Middlemarch. But towards the end, when few passages had yet been deserving of ink underlining and stars in the margins, I was roused by this:

‘This is what Dust is about: this is what Dust is, what it means and what it is. It is not about rubbish, nor about the discarded; it is not about a surplus, left over from something else; it is not about Waste. Indeed, Dust is the opposite thing to Waste, or at least, the opposite principle to Waste. It is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone. Nothing can be destroyed.’

She, of course, is referring to the concept of the narrative, of the inscription of history. But the soil is also a record of history, and can be read both scientifically and culturally to understand our history and the planet’s. This, I think, is what ethnopedologists do. And soil too is Dust, the opposite of Waste, at least until it becomes degraded to the point of no restoration and hung framed in a photography gallery.

purple+plantWendy Johnson has a book called Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate and I must warn you, if you read it, she might have you convinced that moving into a Zen monastery is the best way to spend the rest of your life. She’s no proselytizer, but she does have a way with words that renders the mundane transcendental. Johnson was the master gardener at Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin County for many years and she weaves accounts of her daily routine at GGZC with dharma (‘the way’ as practiced through Buddhism) passed along from her Zen teachers. Toiling closer to the land that produces our food than the others I’ve mentioned here, the humility surrounding her knowledge of gardening’s produce makes me feel ever boastful of my cooking endeavors; her wisdom falls from her prose in pieces that I want to snatch and keep on my nightstand, like the seashells I’ve swiped from the sea. Because it’s getting late and I must return to reading about soil fertility and undernutrition in Rwanda, I leave you with only this brief quote of hers. For the moment, it’s keeping my eyes from glazing over, even more so than coffee.

‘Composed of clouds of countless, invisible microorganisms digesting the land and running it through their intestines, soil is feces, and within the body of soil, all beings garden.’