Between Heaven and Hell Sermon Series


'The Earth Shall Endure and Blossom Forth in Spring' - or maybe it won't?



The earth is our solid ground – or so we think: we in western society might  think of the heavens as above and hell as below, but in between we have at least  our own reassuring reality of ‘terra firma’ to stand on. Thus, the terms ‘earth’  and ‘soil’ can be imbued with reassuring notions of reliability such as stability,  fertility, provision and abundance such as in my title:  ‘The earth shall endure and blossom forth in spring’ which is a line from  Das Lied von der Erde by Mahler using words from on Chinese folk poetry  (by Li Tai Po translated into German by Bethge). But how valid are such appreciations?  I think that when we look more closely at our cultural constructs of the earth we often  find that soil is a resource rather taken for granted and it is often not  appreciated that it is actually more fragile than we think – and that we can lose it all too easily. 
In the 1880 novel La Terre by Emile Zola there is one of the classic appreciations of the soil. The central character is very attached to the land. On revisiting his land, once lost and now regained, the text says that “[he] stood for a long time contemplating [the field]: it was still there and seemed to be in good heart, nobody had harmed it. His heart overflowed with joy at the thought that it was his again, and forever. He stooped and picked up a lump of earth in both hands, crumbled it, sniffed it and let it trickle through his fingers. It was his own good earth, and he went home humming a tune, as though intoxicated by its smell.”


It might however be argued that is this contact which we have lost, to our cost. It is often said of the Bible that Jesus based many of his stories on the common experience of agriculture because everyone would understand them - such as in the parable of the sower. With the movement of people to towns throughout history and the differentiation of labour, agriculture changes from being something that most people might be involved in to the specialism of the farmer, with specialist knowledge. Thus, a direct spiritual attachment to the earth, such as recorded by Zola, and the common experience of agriculture, declines, though there still can be a positive, if romantic, attachment to the land felt by many people.


It is, however, this loss of contact with the soil which can be implicated in the neglect and misuse of soil, such as in the North American ‘Dust Bowl’ with its descriptive epithets of ‘earth butchery’, ‘predatory agriculture’, ‘spoliation’ and ‘exhaustion’ in what is seen as the “most rapid rate of wasteful land use in the history of the world”. Steinbeck (1939) in his novel The Grapes of Wrath clearly blames the detachment from the land for this misuse of soil. He writes of a farmer climbing aboard a tractor, losing contact with the earth:


He [the farmer climbing into the tractor rather than walking behind a horse-drawn plough] could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals.... He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land.... He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land.... Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades—not ploughing but surgery, pushing the cut earth … no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips.... The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses.


There is yet more, though, to our relationship with soil than the way in which personal detachment from it and mechanisation can lead to misuse. It is something to do with the way in which soil can help us, but that that there may be a struggle involved. The novel ‘The Growth of Soil’ by Knut Hamsun (1921) is described in the 1980 edition publisher’s blurb as “the story of Isak, ‘the tiller of the ground, body and soul’… the book sinks its roots into man’s deepest myths about his struggle to cultivate the land and make it fertile.” It describes how he worked on the land—“there were stones and roots to be dug up and cleared away, and the meadow to be levelled ready for next year”—and of the pleasure when the fields and meadows were looking good. Here the notions of struggle, mastery and productivity are embedded in the text and become metaphors for the human endeavour.


Struggle is indeed seen as a universal part of our relationship with nature as whole in Kahn’s (2001) book on The Human Relationship with Nature. He quotes Rolston (1997) that: “Environmental life, including human life, is nursed in struggle; ... If nature is good, it must be both an assisting and resisting reality. We cannot succeed unless it can defeat us.” Thus it is not uncommon to find things in nature that are both valued but also simultaneously autonomous and thereby may not necessarily easily facilitate us. The ‘resisting reality’ can be well seen in the poem Stony Grey Soil by Patrick Kavanagh, in which “soil” is in part used metaphorically for his origins and early days in which the intractable stony, grey soil held him back: “clogged the foot of my boyhood” and “burgled the bank of my youth”.


If you look at the representations of soil in poetry in general, you can indeed find more of the ‘assisting and resisting’ duality stressed by Kahn and Rolston. There are negative notions recording soil can be simply dismissed as dirt. There is also a sense of obduracy, a resistance to our will during attempts at cultivation – with epithets such as barren, stubborn and pestilential – revealing that because we depend so much on the soil it becomes hated if it cannot be bent to our will. Or it can be much loved if it does and there are indeed positive notions which record a bountiful, rich, fruitful, celebrated nature.


So soil is, it seems, indeed seen as either unhelpful or bounteous – as in the stony ground and the fertile ground of the parable of the sower. Cultural geographers tell me that this is a gendered narrative, displaying a male attitude to soil that is akin to attitudes to women. Be that as it may, while we can suggest this may be something to do with simultaneously appearing to cherish something of value while actually abusing it, there is, I think, something even more fundamental involved. This is that in nearly all cultural writings on soil there appears to be underlying, unwritten and unchallenged assumption that the soil is an infinite resource - and thus perhaps needs no special care. There is scant reference to the origin or loss of soils which is precisely what is missing. That is what is wrong with our cultural attitudes to soil – we have lost the idea of creation.


While rates of soil formation can be rapid, as in the deposits which follow floods, it is generally at rates of only a few mm per year from rock weathering. There is scant conception that soil came from somewhere, has an origin and is therefore actually finite and can be lost. Writing on soil conservation an author R K Bryan (1981, p. 207) observed that if the loss of one grain of soil had been prevented by each word written on soil erosion, then there would be no soil erosion -  but it is in fact an increasing problem. Why is this?


I think that is because somehow we feel no guilt. Guilt is a narrative which we readily reach for in other spheres of human existence, so it is strange that it seems absent here. Conceiving that global warming is our fault is something we readily go along with – it is additionally comforting, because it gives us the notion that we might be able to do something about it. But where is the guilt for soil erosion? This loss of precious earth? One might conclude that the conception of soil as an almost inert solid entity means that it can be taken for granted and neglected without needing our care. Why worry about soil? It is not surely durable, infinite—and thus reassuring? This seems to lie at the heart of the paradox that soil is certainly valued but also thereby neglected – it is because it is just ‘there’ - and that is our problem.


The name Adam is thought to be derived from the Hebrew Adamah for ground or land and so if Genesis teaches us that when God breathed on the dust (Adamah) of the ground he made man (Adam), we might ponder more on the soil. In Genesis 3: 19 are the words: In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. Rupert Brooke had his most eloquent expression of this when considering dying abroad as a soldier ‘In that rich earth a richer dust concealed’ but even most un-poetic and ardent atheist might admit that wheat to make bread grows in soil and surely realises that geochemical cycling has an inevitability. We can only conclude that we may regard soil as dirt, but it is surely where we come from, what sustains us and where we go back to – and that the earth might well ‘endure and blossom forth in spring’ – but only if we actually look after it. Source: Trudgill, S. T. (2006). "Dirt Cheap" - cultural constructs of soil: a challenge for education about soils? Journal of Geography in Higher Education 30 (1), 7-14 doi:10.1080/03098260500499576