The Nature of Soil

Do we adequately understand and appreciate one of our most basic natural resources—the soil that sustains life itself?

Deborah Koons Garcia is a filmmaker whose productions range from fiction to educational and documentary films, though for the past decade her focus has been on the latter. Her 2012 documentary, Symphony of the Soil, was five years in the making and examines the miraculous nature of soil as well as our relationship with it: “Soil is a complex living organism, the foundation of life on earth. Yet most people are soil-blind and ‘treat soil like dirt.’”

In this interview with Vision publisher David Hulme, the film’s writer-producer-director talks about soil as a fundamental natural resource that must be better understood in order to be properly valued and protected.


DH You made the documentary Symphony of the Soil in response to what you see as a serious problem with the public’s perception of this vital resource. Would you elaborate?

DKG Well, soil is important, yet most people are soil-blind. They don’t see it, and they don’t realize how important our relationship with the soil is; and because they don’t see it and understand it, our relationship with it tends to be abusive and extractive.

Once you study and understand soil, you realize it’s actually an organism. Knowing what I know, I couldn’t just pick up a piece and say, “This is soil.” It would be like picking up a drop of the ocean and saying, “This is the ocean.” It’s so complex. Soil really drives the life on our planet. But because of the way we’re farming and the way we’re living, we’re taking and taking and taking and not giving back, to the point where the soil can’t sustain itself. It will collapse, and we will find ourselves really scrambling to figure out how we’re going to feed ourselves, among other things.

DH What are you hoping to achieve with this project?

DKG Well, I’d like to have people become soil conscious and be encouraged to treat soil just a little bit better in some way, whether it’s choosing to eat in a way that allows farmers who do treat the soil well to thrive, or whether it’s not using pesticides in their backyard, or just appreciating nature—how complex it is, or how long it takes for a forest to develop. And given that appreciation, we would want to protect it, to have a connection. We live in a digital world where we are really disconnected from nature. We don’t even go outside. It’s all through the screen, and we’re losing the ability to connect with nature. You see it, but it doesn’t mean anything because you’re in another realm. There is no sense of “I’m part of this” or “Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t this amazing?” So I wanted to teach people about soil (there are a lot of top soil scientists in the film), but also allow them to understand it and therefore appreciate it.

We live in a digital world, where we are really disconnected from nature. We don’t even go outside. It’s all through the screen, and we’re losing the ability to connect with nature. You see it, but it doesn’t mean anything, because you’re in another realm.”

Deborah Koons Garcia

DH You say soil is not just agricultural. What do you want people to understand by that?

DKG When I first decided I would make a film on soil, I didn’t really know anything about it. And then I bought several soil textbooks and befriended soil scientists. One of them, who is one of the top soil scientists in the world, said, “I don’t think of soil as an agricultural medium.” As I studied, I realized that in thinking of soil as primarily agricultural, the question becomes “What can we get out of it? What’s in it for me?” It becomes a one-sided relationship, and what we need to think about is how to give back.

Then you read about all the harm that agriculture has done to the soil. Wendell Berry has said that the plow has done more damage to this planet than the sword. We need to have a much lighter footprint as we think about how we are going to grow food.

But I also think about the idea of preserving unique environments, such as not taking a beautiful meadow and plowing it, turning it into something other than what it was. If you take an incredible biologically diverse place and turn it into a monoculture, you have to use synthetic inputs and management techniques to make it work. Nature is not a monoculture. But a lot of people don’t think of soil as part of nature. They think it’s something to throw seeds into and get stuff out of. So I’ve tried to change that by showing the complexity of soil.

Nature is not a monoculture. But a lot of people don’t think of soil as part of nature. They think it’s something to throw seeds into and get stuff out of.”

Deborah Koons Garcia

DH This brings to mind conversations I’ve had with some of the pioneers in the environmental sector. Some years ago I interviewed agronomist Dean Freudenberger. He threw a rock on the table and asked, “Do you know what that is?” I said, “It’s a rock.” He said, “No, it’s soil from West Africa. It’s what happens after five years when you grow cotton on cleared jungle. And you cannot change it back to soil. It’s like concrete.” Planting cash crops was the developed world’s idea of helping Africa. But in the end we failed them by paying no attention to renewing the soil. Similarly we are losing one percent of topsoil a year in the United States with our industrialized land-management methods. It doesn’t sound like much, but in a hundred years, it’s everything. It’s all gone.

DKG Yes! Some people say in 30 years we’ll be out of topsoil. Because of climate change, there is more drought and more flooding, and that also increases erosion. Mollisols are the most amazing soils in the entire world, and look what we’re planting on them. Forty percent of that corn goes into cars. We are feeding cars and cows. But we use too much nitrogen fertilizer, and nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides dry out the soil and actually make it hard for the roots. If you irrigate too, the roots stay up toward the surface; they’re not going down into the soil and holding it. So it’s dry, it’s a monoculture, and without planting cover crops, floods are often catastrophic. If you had all the plantings that should be on a natural prairie, you wouldn’t have a flood; it would soak into the soil. And it’s the same with drought. If we had really good soil with organic matter in it, then when it did rain, it would hold on to that water so the plants could survive longer. But if we have more and more extreme climate events, not even the best soil in the world is going to thrive.

DH Robert Rodale was well known for his promotion of organic farming and gardening. As we were leaving his research center in Pennsylvania, he said, “You will have noticed a certain atmosphere here in our experimental garden. I’d like you to go down the road and over that hill and compare the feeling there. You’ll find the atmosphere is different. It’s monoculture—grain fields as far as your eye can see.” And sure enough, that’s what it was like. The two places could not have felt more different.

DKG Yes, I think of nature, or a healthy ecosystem, or a really healthy farm. It’s about life. When a crop is cut down, or you pull a weed out and throw it down, or a leaf falls, it stays part of the system, releasing nutrients for other plants to take up. It’s like many cycles of life going on—all kinds of creatures, from microorganisms to foxes. But in the other system—a dead farm—none of that is happening. That’s when farmers go organic. One of them said the reason he decided to do so was that he kept seeing dead animals in his fields, and it upset him. He kept wondering why. And he realized it was because he was killing everything. So he went organic, and he felt like he was part of a system, part of nature again.

DH The forester Aldo Leopold makes an interesting statement about community: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Some people arrive at ethical considerations when they talk about land and nature. Why do you think that is?

DKG Well, exploiting and abusing our power over soil is never a good thing. Soil scientists talk about there being a soil community, from microorganisms to little insects, to voles, then deer, elk, buffalo—we all become part of the soil community, and when we die, we give back to that community with all the nutrients we give to the soil so other members can feed off us. But we’ve really lost that because most agricultural systems today are “my way or the highway”—like Roundup [i.e., glyphosate], which is the most popular pesticide in the world, yet it has not even been properly studied. Roundup “kills everything green.” And Roundup Ready crops such as corn and soy are genetically engineered so you can poison them; everything else will die, but they won’t.

How much do we need to kill to live? It’s one thing if you’re a hunter and you’re being very careful; you’re not taking so much so that you destroy the system that it comes out of. But if you’re just killing the whole system and not even using a small portion of it, it is a moral thing, because we are disconnecting ourselves from this web of life, this community of the soil. There are two sides of that if you see soil in a spiritual way. The Bible says we’re stewards of the soil. We take care of it, because it’s a precious thing that God created and we want to take care of it. The other view is that we are the god here, and we can do whatever we want because we are godlike. That’s a moral dilemma. Which of those do you choose?

When I made Symphony of the Soil, I started breaking down what photosynthesis is. Photosynthesis is a miracle! It’s amazing that it exists, yet without it we wouldn’t even be here. Scientists know that these things happen, they know how they happen, but no one really knows why, all of a sudden, photosynthesis worked. And then we have this amazing planet, where everything just took off once that happened.

So there are moral questions, but a larger question is How much can we destroy and still live through it? Our survival depends on adopting a larger view about how we’re going to treat all this, because if we keep going the way we are, not everybody is going to be able to eat.

Our survival depends on adopting a larger view about how we’re going to treat all this, because if we keep going the way we are, not everybody is going to be able to eat.”

Deborah Koons Garcia

DH In China they did a study from 2005 to 2013 into the soil around the nation’s industrialized areas, and they found that 16 percent of its soil and 20 percent of arable land is damaged.

DKG China is an interesting case. I first went to China in 1988 and was invited back a few years ago to show my work, and I had a conversation with a senior scientist who advises the government. He was telling me that only about 12 percent of the Chinese soil is really good, and that they are limited in their water; in America, 42 percent of our soils are the best soils, mollisols and alfisols, and we have plenty of water. Because China is somewhat limited in its natural resources, they’ve had to work together as a people to figure out how to use them. So it’s more of a collectivist culture, and that makes sense. In America, because we have so many resources, we can just use things up and move on. I think the problem with Americans is that we don’t like limits. So when people say you can’t do that anymore, even though it would be good for us not to do it, we feel someone is limiting us, and it’s un-American to accept limits. But we do have limits. The other side of it is that we like a challenge. So instead of saying we have to limit this, if someone says we have this challenge and I don’t think you’re going to be able to do it, we’d say, “Oh yes we can!”

But the thing about China is that they understand that disaster is on the way if they don’t change things. You can’t even go outside in some of their cities during the day, air pollution is so thick. But it wouldn’t surprise me to find that in 10 years they have shifted everything around and they’re the solar people; we’re not. They are the ones that are really pioneering this. They come over here and go to the universities and learn from us, and they go back over there and make it better.

DH We tend to think of topsoil loss as only in the Midwest. But really topsoil is being lost all over the world—lost so fast that it can’t be replaced.

DKG Right, and the problem is that most topsoil is just a few inches deep. There are different layers: the topsoil is the really fertile layer, and then as it goes down it becomes less and less fertile until you get down to the base material, which could be rock. You can rebuild soil using organic matter, but you have to have the organic matter. In some places, like Africa, there is no organic matter. It’s been all used up and overgrazed and blown away. The scientists I know are not crazy about the effects of fertilizer, but they say Africa is one place where they need fertilizer because there is nothing left in the soil; so you need to put some fertilizer on it so something can grow, and then you turn that back into the soil. In several years you can build soil, but you have to find something to put on there; you can’t just plant in it, because plants can’t grow.

A lot of topsoil is contaminated because of pesticides. On top of that, huge amounts of California, for example, are removed from agriculture now because of salinization; if you irrigate a certain kind of soil, the salts come up from below. It’s not that you put anything bad into it, but it becomes so salty that you can’t grow anything in it. It’s very, very expensive to ameliorate that.

DH Are you optimistic overall about solving these problems?

DKG I’m optimistic in that there have been a lot of great developments in the last 10 years. Aside from that which gets the attention, people are doing home gardens, rooftop gardens; lots of young people and retired people are organizing farmer’s markets all over the cities. What people are doing connects into this instinctive desire to feed ourselves and connect to the earth, and this satisfaction of growing something and feeling independent.

I’m not optimistic about what government is doing, and I’m not optimistic about what these big multinational corporations are doing. Now they want to get approval for crops that are resistant to increasingly toxic chemicals. And if we have a GMO field right next to your organic field, and this pollen just contaminated yours, you owe us money. Or maybe you don’t owe us money, but you are no longer organic. So it’s creepy, and I think a lot of it is deliberate; they want to contaminate their way into controlling the food supply.

People in America take food for granted. The idea that someone could control the food supply or that we may not be able to get the kind of food we want doesn’t even occur to us, but in fact that could happen.”

Deborah Koons Garcia

People in America take food for granted. The idea that someone could control the food supply or that we may not be able to get the kind of food we want doesn’t even occur to us, but in fact that could happen. If we lived in a world where the bullies could be kept back, it would be a wonderful future, but it’s a battle. And it’s really hard to know how it’s going to turn out. I feel there is more understanding of healthy food, healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people, healthy community—of how important it is to give back. But I also think that the forces on the other side have an agenda; they have captured the ability to decide what’s allowed, and they’re abusing it. The profit motive in controlling the marketplace is so destructive. It’s a very powerful force.

DH So, more work for you to do?

DKG More work for me to do. Well, and more work for everyone to do: more work for understanding, for people to start thinking about this rather than taking it for granted. We can’t take it for granted.