The Soil is Alive

When you think about soil, do you see it as 'dead' or 'alive'?

Digging In
Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Themes and Terms
Catalyzing Connections
Decoding Questions
  • Description: What do you see/hear/feel while watching the video?
  • Personal Connection: How can you connect Dianne’s and Fernando’s experiences to your personal experience or stories in your family?
  • Common Themes: What are the social issues/themes that emerge from our personal stories? Is there a common issue that is shared among us?
  • Social Analysis: How did this come to be? What are the historical and social processes that created this situation?
  • Planning for Action: What can be done? How does this inspire me to change my actions?
Specific Questions
  • In what ways is the soil alive?
  • What does Dianne think is wrong with the conventional approaches to agriculture?
  • What are the possible solutions to this problem?
Hands-On Activities

Try this hands-on experiment: bring in a pot of soil, and have everyone put their hands in the soil. What do you feel? What do you understand about what is in the soil? When you were growing up, how did you think about “soil”?

Take some soil in a container. Add Hydrogen Peroxide. Observe the reaction. This is one way to test the soil; if it creates a lot of bubbles, you know that it is really alive.

In her 1990 article, “Culture and Agriculture”, Joyce Nelson traces the evolution of our popular understanding of soil as dirt, suggesting that the introduction of agro-chemicals through the Green Revolution in the first half of the 20th century had to convince farmers that chemicals were ‘clean’ while soil and natural compost like manure was ‘dirty’. How do these notions of what is ‘clean’ and what is ‘dirty’ permeate our dominant perceptions of food?

Intergenerational and Intercultural Dialogue

This video is an intergenerational and intercultural conversation between a 73-year-old rural Canadian woman and a 42-year-old Mexican urban professional farmer.

In 2001, Fernando Garcia sought out opportunities to learn from organic farmers in Ontario, and became an intern with Dianne Kretschmar. For four months he immersed himself in the daily activity of Grenville Farm. For Dianne, the relationship with Fernando was magical:

“There was quite a difference in our ages, like huge, I could be his mother, but we were like soul mates. We just hit it off, and that is a marvelous experience.”

– Dianne Krestchmar

What made it possible for Fernando and Dianne to form such a close relationship? What did they learn from each other? What might be the differences between their agricultural practices in rural Ontario and urban Mexico?

Dianne suggests that “Indigenous peoples must have had practices that maintained healthy soils because they produced good crops for generation after generation after generation.” In our Legacies exchange, Dianne told us:

” I’m a university-educated, science-educated…it’s important for me to learn how Indigenous people understand the natural world – Ryan, Fulvio, and Fernando have been teaching me; scientists in the west need to switch our brain a bit, and when we switch our brain, we’ll accept different ways of thinking, ways more in harmony with nature.”

– Dianne Krestchmar

Listen to this video clip of Tuscarora knowledge keeper Rick Hill on a Haudenosaunee view of the soil. . What perspective does Rick Hill offer us as he describes the way he has learned to understand Mother Earth? How does his perspective relate to the cultural perspectives in your community or in your area?

Listen to Sm’hayetsk Teresa Ryan, of the Urban Forestry Department at the University of British Columbia, speaking at BIoneers 2017. She describes her collaborative research with Suzanne Simard, and focuses on fungal networks from the perspective of Indigenous scientific knowledges.

At 20 minutes, she claims that the so-called new understanding of fungal networks has denied the Indigenous knowledge of these relationships over millennia. Why do you think this happens? How does she distinguish between western and Indigenous cosmovisions or world views? Do you think these world views are compatible? What does she mean by “reciprocity” of different life forms?

Individual and Collective Action

Dianne, an organic farmer with over thirty years experience, admits that she still has a lot to learn, and is fascinated by the work of Suzanne Simard, a scientist who has proved using carbon isotopes that the birch and douglas fir have a symbiotic relationship through fungus. So, Dianne concludes, “fungus is the internet of the forest and of the garden.” Listen to Simard’s TED talk. Discuss what barriers there might be to our understanding of this symbiotic relationship.

Dianne is a curious and humble farmer who recognizes what we don’t know and is willing to try different approaches. Her son Dan introduced her to Japanese paper pot planting. She is also experimenting using Heliotropic fungus spawn with new wood chips, a practice of Hungarian farmers, to create mycelium, which she will apply to the pathways in her garden. In this short video clip, you can hear her explain the process of creating mycelium that she is experimenting with.

Continuing the Conversation
Continuing the Conversation
Gilberto Aboites

Gilberto Aboites is director and research professor of the Socioeconomic Research Center at the Autonomous University of Coahuila in Saltillo, Mexico. His research and publications focus on poverty and marginalization, peasant rights, food security, and intellectual property rights.

The vision of the soil is of something alive, not a dead element, or just a layer of dirt. Seeds, too, are seen as alive, representing a spirit, as with maíz, or the culture of corn. This form of agriculture sustains life – at the personal, family and group level – if you work with nature and integrate yourself into nature. It’s the opposite of modern agriculture which is mainly about producing quantity.

Just like the farmers in the video, the Nahuat in Teotítlan, prior to European colonization in Mexico, transplanted seedlings with roots into floating gardens called chinampas. This system of growing created very rich soil; if you put your hand in a chinampa, it was so hot that you could feel it decomposing.

Digging Deeper
Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
Books & Articles

When you think about ‘soil’, do you imagine it as ‘dirt’ or as a universe of millions of micro-organisms interacting with each other? In other words, do you see it as ‘dead’ or ‘alive’?

To activate Spanish subtitles, click on the CC icon.

This video invites us into a conversation between Dianne Kretschmar, a 73-year-old organic farmer two hours north of Toronto, and Fernando Garcia, a 42-year-old Mexican organic agricultural consultant based in Guadalajara, Mexico. In 2001, Fernando had completed an agronomy degree and worked for the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, but had learned nothing about organic agriculture, so came to Ontario for a summer to work with Dianne. For Dianne, the relationship with Fernando was magical: “There was quite a difference in our ages, like huge, I could be his mother, but we were soul mates.”

As part of the Earth to Tables Legacies Exchange, we brought Fernando back to Grenville Farm in 2016. They reconnected easily as they shared some of the same questions about the problem of ‘over-cultivation’ and their lack of understanding of the soil. As Dianne concluded “What I realized is that both conventional and organic farmers, through excess cultivation, have destroyed the fungal component of the soil.” In this video, she describes their common awakening as ‘morphic resonance’, or a convergence of ideas where everyone’s saying “Oh, oh, we have to change what we’re doing.”

Fulvio teaches his son Bryan about medicinal uses of wild carrot at an organic farm in Ontario, Canada

Western and Indigenous sciences are coming together around this deeper understanding of the soil, of the fungal networks transmitting information as the internet of the soil, communicating between plants and trees deep beneath the surface. Dianne suggests shifting from a growing system based on cultivation to preparing seed beds of cover crops, and planting into the cover; this will keep living roots in the soil and maintain its water-holding capacity. She recognizes that Indigenous practices probably are built on this understanding of the soil as alive.

To generate an intercultural conversation, we asked project advisor and Tuscarora knowledge-keeper Rick Hill to offer a Haudenosaunee perspective of the soil. This Rick speaking in an excerpt from that video:

“When you think about the earth, the soil, it’s nothing more than everything that lived before – all the plants, the birds, the animals, the trees, the bushes, and people, my ancestors put into the ground. They become the soil, they give life to the soil. This is why our people say there’s a spirit in everything, there’s a spirit in the ground, in the stone, in the tree, a spirit in the animals. Because it’s that spirit that makes the Earth come alive.”

The accompanying facilitator’s guide can be used to catalyze deeper conversations about the issues of over-cultivation, soil structure, fungal networks, and morphic resonance.