Living on the land for decades, and connecting with the incredible community of our CSA Members almost twenty years, we’ve met some amazing people.
One of them is surely our neighbor, Mr. Persey, an unassuming quiet man who’s farmed the soil of Maryland for his entire life – and what a life it’s been: he’s over a hundred now, maybe 101. He lives a few miles from us, and we run into him from time to time. And we always come away with some kind of wisdom he’s picked up in his long and productive life.
“Dirt,” says Mr. Persey, is what we sweep under the rug. It’s the stock-in-trade for gossips and yellow journalists. It’s the medium that plants grow in, the earth that gives us our food, that all human (and other) life depends on – let’s not call that “dirt.” Soil is a nobler, nicer word for the most complex ecosystem in the universe.
Soil is probably also one of the least understood. A teaspoon of native grassland soil contains an amazing number and variety of creatures. Besides the big critters like earthworms and burrowing insects, the microbes may include 800 million bacteria of up to ten thousand different species; five thousand species of fungi forming underground networks extending for several miles; ten thousand protozoa, and twenty or thirty beneficial nematodes. That doesn’t begin to address the complexity of the minerals, the organic matter, and how they interact, not to mention the variety of soils that underlie every human effort to “bring forth bread from the Earth.”
Undamaged soil life constitutes a population of enmeshed, interdependent communities working together to provide an environment of optimum health for the plants growing in it, and the animals that depend on the plants. They, in turn, provide us with all we need for our health. Science has barely begun to discern and analyze all the roles of this multitude of microscopic creatures, gradually helping us to understand what all these little guys do and how they are affected when we start farming a soil. It’s already very clear, though, how detrimental pesticides and chemical fertilizers are to the complex life of natural soil.
Yesterday I was walking through a field of spinach with our old neighbor, Mr. Persey. Looking up and down the rows of green shoots, he remarked, “that’s all the vitamins you ever need… You don’t need no drug store.” Since he’s about 101 years old, I think I’ll take his advice.