The first edition of Soil Circle from Commonland and Presencing Institute (watch it here!) was launched recently. During the session participants are asked to share their soil story: a story about a place that holds you and which nourishes your soul. The story can be a personal, social or planetary story – or all of it together. The story does not have to be where you come from or live now, but from somewhere that grounds you in a sense of belonging.
This Soil Circle inspired me to think about my own soil story and to share some of my recent interactions with the soil community.
“Many of us working in the field of restoration and regeneration are aware of the healing power of soil in ways that restore our sense of belonging. Soil work is also soul work, or the inner-soil”. – Sarah Queblatin, co-facilitator of Soil Circle
As part of my role as Forest Gardener at Coöperatie Ondergrond, I help manage a tree nursery in De Overtuin Forest Garden at Trompenburg Arboretum, Rotterdam. The 1.5ha garden is located in the middle of the city and while small, it is a rich woodland ecosystem. And when inside the garden, you are transported to another realm.
You find the tree nursery next to a wild patch planted with apricots, pears, nanking cherries and which is swamped by nettles. There is a huge ash tree which stretches up high, its trunk covered in ivy. This nursery site is new; the area was cleared at the end of 2021. So being here, surrounded by the old oaks, fresh hazel and green dogwood that border the nursery, you are enveloped in an amphitheatre of forest architecture.
Stand quietly and you’ll hear the chittering and chippering of the wren – the Winter King! You’ll notice the cluck of blackbirds as they mark their territory. There’s a chiffchaff singing its bright, octave changing call. And a low humming of bees and wasps – which underlie the peaceful forest soundscape – indicates thriving above-ground biodiversity.
This week, I have been planting black & red currants and gooseberry from cuttings. In Autumn, when these cuttings have matured and are ready to plant, they will be transported to new forest garden locations: old school yards and areas of degraded soil. These fruiting shrubs will be part of a cohort of trees and plants that grow into green oases across urban and peri-urban Rotterdam.
The planting bed is dug directly into the forest floor. The soil is rich and soft. A spade easily slices into the earth. And each cut puts me in direct contact with an underground realm.
The soil community is brimming with life. One handful unearths a whole host of creatures – some of which I have never seen before. There are ringed worms, pale and writhing slowly; yellow and fast-creeping centipedes; woodlice patrolling; tiny orange spiders darting into crumbling soil; and an armoured mole cricket.
Chunks of decomposing wood make soft homes for burrowing and wriggling soil life. And digging into soil exposes the chords of mycorrhiza holding dark soil in fungal networks; acting as an underground highway to transport minerals and nutrients through the wood wide web.
I stop and pause while working. The sight of the soil life sucks me in. I smell the richness of the earth: a story of decomposition and layers of falling leaves. In my hands, the soil feels heavy, weighted.
My mind – absorbed – thinks about the complex ecosystem which I am touching. The far-reaching connections of fungi. The systems of cooperation and exchange. All the different organisms and microorganisms burrowing in a soil universe. What unknown creatures lie beneath?
It feels like I know so little – I am only scratching the surface of this deep living system. But soil is fundamental to all of us on Earth. Soil nourishes our lives. Soil filters clean water. Soil feeds us and provides the ground we walk upon. The soil community is mysterious and rich and it supports all ecosystems above ground. Yet many of us never even give soil a second thought.
An impatient robin brings me out of my soil transfixion. The red-breasted bird changes perch and examines my work. The robin knows exactly what a patch of soil has to offer. She cocks her head and keeps an eye on the exposed gummy delights of the underworld.
What is your soil story?
Think about where and when you feel most connected to soil, water and the living beings around you. Take a moment to write down your thoughts. And if you like, share your soil story with the community. You can use the comments below or add your own story.