2015 is the United Nations International Year of Soils. It is a year to highlight and celebrate the fundamental role that soil plays in sustaining life on our planet and providing our food, fibre, fuel and much more. The International Year of Soils also presents an opportunity to focus on long-term solutions to the many challenges that soils face. In its natural form, soil teems with billions of living organisms, most invisible to the naked eye. It is full of life. The benefits soil brings us are humbling yet often go unnoticed. That may help explain the poor treatment it often receives. As a potent expression of the Earth element, soil represents life, regeneration and reconciliation. There is a lot we can learn from it, if we take the time.
The emphasis during the International Year of Soils has been on regenerative landscape management with a focus on the production of food, fibre and fuel. In Australia, ‘Soils for Life’ plays a valuable role educating people about the critical importance of soil health and integrated land and water management to human well-being. The recently launched program ‘The Soil Story’ has developed a range of material to teach people about the regeneration of soil and its potential to store carbon. The program reminds us that the health of our planet and the health of our soil are one in the same. The Chinese-American John D. Lui uses documentaries to spread stories about the restoration of degraded systems and its importance for local communities. The transformation of the loess plateau in China, which has been farmed for thousands of years, is a powerful example. The development of fertile living soils through the accumulation of organic matter is a lynch-pin of the approach John advocates.
Soil teaches us about the connection that indigenous people and many others have to their land. One of the most compelling stories and images I associate with soil is that of the Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring local red soil into the hand of Vincent Lingiari in 1975. This gesture symbolised the handing back of land to the traditional owners, the Gurindji people, after a long campaign for land rights. As Gough Whitlam poured the soil, he said “I put into your hands part of the earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.” Wangari Maathai, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has empowered Kenyan women through tree planting and getting their hands in the dirt. In her book ‘Replenishing the Earth‘ she believes that creating a greater awareness of our responsibility to the planet lies in encompassing traditional spiritual values, drawing inspiration from many faiths. When you delve deeper, our connection to soil goes beyond the mere physical.
The title of this post comes from a chapter that caught my eye in the book ‘Japanese Images of Nature’. In the chapter the author, John Knight, writes about the natural farming system developed by Masanobu Fukuoka. Fukuoka was a plant physiologist who pioneered a method of farming based on the philosophy of natural living. Several of his books have been translated into English including the influential ‘The One Straw Revolution.’ The four key practical points of Fukuoka’s method are no tillage, no fertilizer, no pesticides and no weeding. John writes that the central principle of natural farming is captured by the Japanese expression tsuchizukuri, ‘soil making’. The soil is seen as a teacher that requires a long-term commitment to patient, observant learning.
Closer to home, Bill Mollison (a tried and true Tasmanian) is considered ‘the father of permaculture’. Permaculture is a design system based on ecological principles that yields food, fibre and energy for the provision of local needs. From small beginnings it has grown into a world-wide movement. The permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture. Creating healthy, life-filled soil is a central part of this vision. Bill founded the first Permaculture Institute and developed a training system of training the trainer that has taught thousands of people. Not surprisingly, many similarities have been drawn between the natural farming system developed by Fukuoka and Permaculture. Working independently, by learning through protracted and thoughtful observation, they developed similar solutions to the question, “How can people live on this planet sustainably and in harmony with nature.” When Bill and Fukuoka finally met in the 1980’s it would have been inspirational for them both.
Groups and individuals around the world are working on ways to maintain and regenerate soils – from back-yard gardens to landscape-scale restoration. They will continue to do so after the International Year of Soils ends. Soils are of the earth, an element that has many expressions. In their natural state they are full of life and generate life. Soils have a lot to teach us about living lightly on our planet.