When I was a boy, growing up in rural Ireland we lived on a small farm holding and looking back now I can see how close we were to the land. Our lives were simpler then and as a small community we shared a lot in common and lived in a close-knit way with our neighbours, working together to support each other tackle the typical annual tasks on a farming calendar, such as preparing the ground for wheat crops, or vegetable growing; picking stones; weeding; harvesting potatoes, or bringing in the hay or straw.
All of this community activity, which then was quite low tech and hands-on, revolved around the soil and preparing and protecting it. Local farmers did not know much about regenerative farming practices then, but unwittingly so, these were very much ingrained in their methodology, such as crop rotation, mobile grazing and using organic manure to nourish the soil. There was a clear understanding that poor soil equalled poor, or no crops.
Back then there was a natural expectation in country living for everyone to grow your own vegetables as staples for the proceeding years family diet. That was a given and being so meant that everyone from a young age had almost an innate knowledge and skillset on how to grow and work the soil. This was the result of a shared learned experience, but with that also came a great sense of reverence and respect for the soil and its immense and critical value to the survival and prosperity of the community. This is something that has stayed with me, my love for the soil but also my responsibility to it.
When I am working in our Modern Botany field, turning over the sod and preparing the ground, I get that distinctive earthy smell of the soil which instantly takes me back to my childhood memories which capture the wonder I felt then when planting my first pea seeds in the ground. I remember being so excited when their sprouts burst out into the light; watching over the weeks as its leaves unfurled, and white flowers blossomed and finally the first sight of pea pods emerged. Even now with all the learnings I have picked up over the years, it is still a profound mystery as to how and why this works - that’s the secret of the soil.
This mystery has indeed been passed on from our ancestors who held the earth as sacred and that love for the land is still very much alive in the Irish psyche. Even, living in our modern technological age where we see a move away from county to urban living, there is still a growing desire, as seen on social media, of folk wanting to reconnect with our roots and return to nature and gain an understanding of the source and origin of ingredients. Like the slow food or beauty movements.
The soil is fascinating in a way that I could not adequately justify in this short blog, but to highlight here: the soil contains inexhaustible eco systems and did you know that just one tablespoon of soil contains more organisms than people on the planet?
We are now learning from top scientists that soil has the power to save the planet from the effects of Climate Change. Through the power of photosynthesis CO2 is sequestered in the soil by growing plants and can be stored for up to 100 years. So, it our most vital defence to save out planet but we must protect and nourish it!
And that’s the most important thing, like any relationship, if we truly love someone we must look after him/her, treat with respect and reverence and care for their wellbeing. Likewise with the soil which is the gift that keeps on giving, provided we look after it.