And ELOHIM said, “Let the waters under the skies be gathered toward one place, and let the dry land be seen.” And it was thus. And ELOHIM called to the dry land “land,” and to the collection of the waters he called “seas.” And ELOHIM saw that it was good. And ELOHIM said, “Let the land sprout the sprout, a plant seeding seed, a fruit tree making fruit, according to its type, its seed, within it, upon the land.” And it was thus. And the land made the sprout go out, a plant seeding seed according to its type, and a tree making fruit, its seed, within it, according to its type. And ELOHIM saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, a third day.
The Book of Genesis
Chapter 1, verses 9-13: Transparent English Bible
And so it began. A multifunctional life sustaining design to support life forms on our planet. The above scriptural reference is a new translation from the Transparent English Bible released in 2020 by author Dr. James D. Tabor. The translation represents a most literal and accurate rendering of the original Hebraic textual intent.
Later in verse 25 and following, ELOHIM makes “the living thing of the land, according to its type, and the animal according to its type, and every moving thing of the soil according to its type. And ELOHIM saw that it was good.”
“And every moving thing of the soil.” Think about that statement in the light of the creation story. What is soil anyway? Is it equivalent to dirt? In our culture soil gets little respect. Many of the words for this fundamental substance are derogatory. When we want to know the worst about someone, we say “Give me the dirt on this guy.” Dirty movies. Earthy language. We renounce anything soiled, dirty, or muddy. Yet, soil is miraculous.
How much life is in the soil? We all know earthworms are good for our gardens, but what about the other living components of soil? With a few numbers, we can begin to glimpse the abundance. A teaspoon of good pasture soil may contain a billion bacteria, a million fungi, and ten thousand amoebae. But these soil creatures are small. There is still plenty of room for the clay, silt, sand, water, air, humus, and assorted small molecules that make up the rest of the soil. I love the literal translation that portrays the Hebraic description of the waters “swarming a swarm of living life-breathers,” or describing the ground as “teeming with every moving thing of the soil.” Soil is alive and life giving. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.”
Upon retirement to a town in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina, I found a place surrounded with natural beauty, having the rhythm of four distinct seasons, and the presence of organic farms. Many of them. Rich in biodiversity, it is a mecca for those who desire a simpler and more ecologically aware lifestyle. For over a decade I immersed myself in the study of Bio-Ecology and sustainable living.
I credit so much of my education to my friend and mentor, Chuck Marsh, a local environmental activist, bioregional educator, and permaculture designer. Chuck was a free spirit, a spiritual warrior, and a bit of a rascal. But he was a compassionate friend and master teacher as he taught the principles of permaculture design while occasionally quoting Hafiz, the fourteenth century spiritual Persian poet. Chuck was a wise and trusted counselor.
One of the terms so popular in our diverse region is biodynamic farming. Organic farming is well known in the U.S. market, however biodynamic is a fairly unknown concept, although its history spans back nearly nine decades. Biodynamic farming is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture initially developed by Austrian scholar Rudolf Steiner, Ph.D., (1861-1925). It’s an approach that can provide far superior harvests compared to conventional chemical-based agriculture, while simultaneously healing the earth. As with organic farming, the concept of biodynamic emerged in response to the industrialization of agriculture.
After World War I, chemical companies became very crafty repurposing nitrogen that had been used to make bombs as fertilizer, and nerve gas as synthetic pesticides. They had stockpiles of these chemicals and realized they had application on farms. This was around the time of the industrialization of the manufacturing model. The idea was that you wanted to produce the highest output at the lowest cost.
What began to develop was that farmers were beginning to notice that their seeds weren’t germinating. Their animals weren’t as healthy, and the food wasn’t as good. Because of that, they approached Steiner and asked for his perspective on what was happening on their farms. He answered them in what is now referred to as “The Agricultural Course or The Foundations for a Renewal of Agriculture,” a series of lectures he delivered.
Steiner’s view was as simple as it was revolutionary. He said, “You need to stop thinking of your farms as factories and envision them as living organisms; self-contained, self-sustaining, following the cycles of nature, and able to create their own health and vitality out of the living dynamics of the farm.” Seventeen years later, Lord Northbourne coined the term “organic” based on Steiner’s view of the farm as an organism.
The benefits of a soil full of beneficial macro and microorganisms are life giving and the product of a grand design. Soil microbes break down organic matter, recycle nutrients, create humus, and create soil structure which helps retain or drain water, and fixes nitrogen (taking it from the air and making it available to plants). Soil organisms promote plant growth and controls pests and disease. Synthetic fertilizers kill the microbiota in the soil.
Leonardo da Vinci is quoted as saying “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Today, there are university degrees and careers in soil science dealing with soils as a natural resource on the surface of the Earth.
In 1938, The Asheville Citizen, a local newspaper, began running a weekly Monday column called “Excerpts From Sermons Preached Here Sunday.” In it, the paper highlighted homilies from across the city’s churches. I discovered an excerpt from the Reverend Howard Kester’s March 2, 1941 sermon, “The Holy Earth,” delivered at the now defunct Asheville College. Throughout his homily, Kester bemoaned “man’s wanton misuse of the soil of the earth.” This ruin, Kester continued, was emblematic of man’s lost relationship to God. He insisted reconciliation was imperative, declaring: “We have partaken of the bounties of the earth, drawing from it the very substances of continuous life but rarely with any regard to our primary and essential relationship to it as an integral part of a spiritual universe without whose goodness human life could not endure.”
The Genesis creation story reminds us of the miraculous design and nature of planet earth and our responsibility as caretakers to nurture and care for it. There’s a clarion call today for us to move away from the chemistry and toward the biology in the way that we farm. Giving “every moving thing of the soil according to its type” the dignity of performing its function as Toby Hemenway reminds us, “soil is miraculous, it is where the dead are brought back to life.”
Maybe the most fitting summation is best expressed in an old unknown author expression: “Man-despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication, and his many accomplishments-owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”
Earth Day, with its theme, “Invest in Our Planet,” will be celebrated by millions in the US, Canada, and around the world on Friday, April 22, 2022. Healing our life-giving soil is one of the important investments we can make on our journey of restoration.