The Invisible Life of Soil

By Michael Ableman

Twenty-five third-graders are screaming in my orchard. I round them up and have them sit in a circle on the soft leaf mold that makes up the forestlike floor beneath my trees. It is an area on the farm we call the "Cathedral" because of its large enclosed space created by a canopy of grand avocado trees.

The children close their eyes, cup their hands, and -- with a reverence akin to receiving communion -- accept some of the moist, rich topsoil I scoop up from the orchard floor. Some of them look skeptical, or squirm when they encounter an earthworm, but I remind them that this is where their food comes from. I ask them to examine the soil closely and smell deeply. I tell them that one pinch of living soil contains millions of forms of life.

This living soil has been the foundation of my life and work for the last 20 years. I farm a postage-stamp piece of land in the midst of suburban Santa Barbara, just off the freeway, five minutes from the airport. On our 12 acres, we grow 100 different fruits and vegetables in a virtual year-round harvest.

And while we are proud to fill our produce stand or show up at weekly farmers' markets with an abundance of produce, our success or failure is solely tied to the health of our soil. The 30-foot-tall avocado trees, the deep roots of a Daikon radish, the intense flavor of our tomatoes and the sweetness of our peaches can all be traced to our diligence in giving back to the land more than we take from it. So we welcome in truckloads of manure, leaves and stable waste that used to go to the landfill. We compost, we grow cover crops and we mulch. These are some of the ways that we replenish and acknowledge that invisible world that feeds us.

My relationship to the living earth, to the soil, also stimulated my curiosity. How could Chinese peasants maintain fertility on land that had been continuously farmed for 4,000 years, while cropland in this country can deplete in less than a decade? How have the Hopi or the Papago survived in the desert, or Andean communities endured on land so steep that farmers have been known to fall out of their fields?

For ten winters while the farm rested, I traveled thousands of miles in search of answers. I worked with Peruvian farmers preparing a field for potatoes; in Burundi, I shared roasted corn from a common plate with farmers in their huts; and in the markets of Sicily and Provence, I witnessed the incredible abundance the earth will yield. I saw a way of life tied to the soil. Necessity required a sound environmental ethic; survival dictated that the soil be replenished and renewed.

I also visited the vast monoculture fields of California's Central Valley, food factories where mechanization and chemicals have replaced people and have fooled us into believing that soil is merely a medium in which to hold the roots of the crops. I saw cracked earth coated white with salt and mineral residue and watched clouds of topsoil blow away in the wake of a tractor. I began to understand how soil can die and how people can lose their connection to the land.

My travels inevitably took me to fields and orchards of organic and biodynamic farms. They took me to inner-city gardens, to schools and to neighborhoods where the relationship between living soil and a healthy society was being rediscovered. On a community farm in northern California, at a tiny market garden outside of Paris, in a window box in the Bronx, farmers and gardeners are producing something real for themselves through the renewal and power of the soil.

A world exists beneath our feet that teems with activity and life. We pave over it, walk and drive on it, saturate it with toxic materials of all kinds and teach our children to keep their hands washed clean of it. The children sitting in my orchard know better now; they have begun to recognize something, they have been given permission to feel, smell and experience this invisible world. Their recognition of its importance is a small but powerful lesson that links them to people all over the world, across centuries of human life. They have come to my farm to learn about food and how it grows. They will leave with a knowledge of where life begins.

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