by Sarah West

field soil

One of the more unexpected loves of my life has turned out to be the material I’ve spent my existence walking across. So easy to forget, dismiss or even slander, soil is the universe beneath us, dark and strange, that has everything to do with our daily lives. The nutrients in our food originate from the soil and its actions. The air we breathe and the integrity of our atmosphere are influenced by soil’s role in the carbon cycle. And it is, more often than not, the ground beneath our feet.

On some level, I’ve known these things since high school biology class. Yet, in my few interactions with it, soil seemed purely tactile, indistinguishable from sand in a box—something to move, to shape, to pour water on or bury things in. It wasn’t until I took a course in soil science that I began to glimpse its dynamism, to understand soil as something more than weathered rock. And it wasn’t until I became a gardener that it bared its soul.

Dirt is what gets on your hands in the garden, what splashes onto the sides of the car or tracks into the house on your shoes. Soil is a dance: lifeless minerals animated by electrostatic reactions, architectural aggregates constructed by chemical and biological bonds, microorganisms and invertebrates endlessly consuming and converting plant residue into nutrient-rich organic matter, a million miles of tiny root hairs tunneling and conversing by exchange with the forum of particles that surrounds them. One fingernail-full of soil is more complex than Shakespeare’s entire canon, and its poetry is just as striking.

Soil is slow but never still. Its myriad processes never start or finish, they renew. Like the ocean, its movement is fluid. Indeed, the same forces that influence the ocean’s tides pull at the water table, mimicking that briny ebb and flow the way a sloth mimics a monkey.

Like anything I love, soil has endured itself to me partly because of its vulnerability. So seemingly robust, its nature is surprisingly fragile. The first time I read in a gardening book that soil should not be worked too early in the spring I thought the writer was just being fussy. Now I protect my garden beds with fanaticism, disrupting them only to dig a planting furrow or pull a large weed, adding annual compost as mulch rather than tilling it in. This “no-till” method works well for most home gardens and has transformed my tight clay into yielding clay in just a few years.

In beds too large not to till, I wait. I check the soil when it seems dry enough by grabbing a fistful, pressing it lightly together and tossing it a few inches above my palm: if it drops back onto my hand and stays (roughly) in a sculpted shape, the soil needs more time; if it fractures into pieces, tilling can commence. Those who have not waited know what happens: our clay rich soils do not crumble apart when worked wet, resulting in a field of clods that bake into rocks in summer’s heat.

But something more than the threat of clods holds me back. Beneath its surface, the soil is building itself, creating relationships and networks. Creatures have made their pathways and affiliations. A precise balance has been reached among its living and non-living inhabitants, woven carefully into an invisible but intricate web. Aggressive digging or tilling disconnects these connections, leaves the soil jumbled and aerated. New oxygen introduced into the soil environment speeds up the decomposition of organic matter, stripping the soil more rapidly of its best nutrient and moisture reserve. Holding the soil as something sacred isn’t just fluff, it grows better vegetables. The more complete your soil’s matrix is, the more resilient and nutrient-dense your vegetables.

Who doesn’t gasp at a carrot pulled, fragrant and bright, from dark, fertile earth? Who doesn’t swoon at the smell of rich humus or the fresh, saccharine delicacy of finished compost? Who can resist crumbling velvet soil between their fingers, hailing its galactic spirit? Be generous with your soil and it will feed you. When it flourishes, soil rewards all the senses: with its rich colors, sweet and mineral scents, gritty and buoyant presence in hand and underfoot, its bottomless melody.