Have you ever
examined a handful of soil? Dug down into a bare patch of earth and
rubbed the dirt between thumb and forefinger, feeling the grit of it?
You can tell a lot just from the color, or how it crumbles in your
instinctual understanding, I think, of what’s a good soil and what
isn’t. Given the choice between a rich black loam, dark with
organic matter and squirming with all manner of fauna, and a handful
of dusty clay, beaten into clods harder than stone by the plow, just
about anyone would know the former as superior to the latter.
And yet, how many
soil science classes have I taken? How many different tests for humus
content, nitrogen levels, textural classifications? If the difference
between good and bad soils is so immediately obvious, why bother with
sieves and porosity tests and Walkley-Black analyses?
Because nearly all
of our soils are bad, and splitting hairs is the only way to
distinguish one from another. Because modern agriculture is obsessed
with nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium levels in the soil, to
exclusion of everything else. Because we’ve started to see the soil
as nothing more than an inert medium supporting the roots of the
plant and containing chemical nutrients to be extracted, and have
treated it accordingly.
Alienation is a
pretty simple concept—to put it simply, becoming separated from something, losing
your understanding of it. Workers are alienated from the products of
their labor, of course, but that’s just the beginning of it. We’ve
been so cut off from an organic connection to the environment around
us that detached, scientific knowledge has become our only way of
In the same way,
we’re alienated from our own desires, and from one another. The
conditioning inflicted upon us by our civilization since the moment
we were born has buried some needs and drawn out others, twisting us
in whatever way is most convenient for its own growth and
maintenance. This is why we argue about what it means to have
‘autonomy’, what it means to have genuine relationships.
We’ve been so cut
off from our instinctive understandings, and from cultural examples,
of how to live freely that these kinds of discourse are some of the
only tools left to us to decide how to arrange our lives. Still,
maybe it’s possible to strive for something better—a way to feel
the grit between our fingers, and grow a different way of