This is a story about a pair of fields I used to know. The first field, or rather, a corner of this field, which sat on my dad’s land, was one I drove by every day growing up. On the South and East sides of this field was a gravel road. To the Northwest was a small poplar bush, but for the most part, this field was wide open to the prevailing West winds that determine so much of the weather of the Parkland region. For years, this field had been conventionally cropped with a standard rotation of crops for that area. But, with the combination of road, trees, and a bit of a dip in elevation, the corner of this field inevitably spent a great deal of the early part of the season under water. This caused the soil to become quite alkaline and, as time wore on, this field grew nothing but a white layer of salt.
Eventually, the farmers of that field stopped cropping it, and, instead, sowed it to pasture. Still, the corner grew nothing. Over the years, cattle were over-wintered on this field and fed with copious amounts of round bales. Eventually, the saltiness disappeared, covered over by a rough assortment of weeds, mostly foxtail barley. As these regenerative grazing techniques continued, the weeds slowly gave way to grass. It’s still a low point. Water still drains there in the spring. But because of the improved organic matter in the topsoil, much of that moisture is held in the humus rather than leaching out, leaving infertile, salty soil.
The second field I used to know was cropped by my family for several years. But this field bordered a valley pasture that we also used. I spent many hours building and maintaining the fence-line that divided this bit of land with not much else to do but observe my surroundings. Since the field was on the edge of a valley, the soil was quite sandy, which, coupled with the slope of the land and decades of conventional cropping, caused large patches of erosion to open at various points along the edge. While the location and soil composition of this field left it open to an increased erosion risk, it was immediately obvious to me, as I walked the long way around the eroded patches of field, that the constant chemical cultivation of the cropland caused the real damage. This was juxtaposed by the fence-line, at which point native prairie grasses took over, holding the soil in place and keeping erosion at bay. Even the colour of the soil was different. The soil on the cropland was grey and quite fine textured. The soil on the other side of the fence was darker and held together in larger particles.
It might be tempting to conclude, from these descriptions, that soil health is negatively impacted by the way we grow crops and positively impacted by grazing animals. Cropping involves the annual extracting of nutrients, organic matter, and minerals from the soil through an essentially extractive harvest. What little material we put back in the form of chemical fertilizer keeps yields artificially high while the soil itself continues to deplete and erode. Indeed, the influential soil scientist Hans Jenny, in his landmark book Factors of Soil Formation, points to soil health studies in a parcel of land which originally had identical soil characteristics, favouring the soil make up of fields kept as hay pasture over land which was cropped for 60 years.
But this would be too simple a conclusion. While it’s true that careful cattle management on the first field helped heal some mismanaged land, the valley pasture was resilient despite our efforts, not because of them. I spent more hours than I care to remember pulling burdock out of that pasture by hand until one day my dad had the brilliant idea that we should do a controlled burn of that corner of the pasture and get rid of it once and for all. One thing led to another and, by the end of the day, seven fire departments had responded to try and put out the fire that had, by this point, spread to most of the valley. Within a few weeks the burdock was back, and all our efforts had done was knock back the competition and give that plant a head-start. So much for a “well-managed” pasture.
In Factors of Soil Formation, Jenny attempts to give a mathematical equation that can account for the factors of soil formation. He expresses it this way: S = f(cl , o , r , p , t , … ). Translated, it means that Soil is equal to the Factors of Climate, Organisms, Relief, Parent material, and Time. Notice, however, that he also includes an ellipsis. This is a reminder that there are always potentially more, unknown, or unobserved factors influencing the formation of soil. Human interventions, particularly in our contemporary circumstances, are a major factor, but we are never the sole, nor even always the most significant one. As my tale of two fields makes clear, while we can and do act in ways that are positive and negative in terms of local soil formation, it is not at all clear that the logics and practices we apply to one field are at all appropriate to the unique set of factors that another field requires.
Soil is a subtle teacher. In “Dramas of Love and Dirt,” published by The Cresset, theologian Norman Wirzba has noted that, even at the end of his life, Hans Jenny was still not entirely sure what soil was: “He preferred to describe soil not as a thing but as a web of relationships that goes through varying states of fertility and infertility. It is, finally and irreducibly, a mystery because so many processes and elements and creatures come together to create the diverse conditions in which life can flourish.”
Perhaps that’s where the grace of it all is. We live in that complex web of relations that give rise to the mystery that is soil. We don’t always know what we’re doing. We can identify plenty of factors, but there is always the ellipsis, inviting us to discover new factors, partners, opportunities, and painful lessons. Perhaps what the Church needs today is a “soil spirituality,” an invitation back out into the fields where we can observe, act, respond, learn, and grow.
Having grown up on a cattle ranch in western Manitoba, Ryan Turnbull has a deep interest in the intersection of theology, ecology, place, and friendship. He currently lives in Birmingham, UK, where he is pursuing a PhD in theology at the University of Birmingham, focusing on Christian theologies of place.