Mother Earth and World Soil Day Musings

 By Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

In 1912 Curley an Indian chef refused to sell any more of his land to the Federal government. He rejected the Government offer for a land cession. The words he said were heart rending, ” “The land you see is not ordinary soil. It is the dust of the blood ,the flesh , the bone of our ancestors We fought , bled and died to keep other Indians from taking it.” Essentially, all life depends  upon the soil . There can be no life without soil and no soil without life, they have evolved together. Land is not merely soil, it is a fountain of energy flowing through a three-tiered hierarchical circuit of soils , plants and animals. Each soil has had its own history. Like a river , a mountain , a forest  or any natural  thing its present condition is due to the influences  of many things  and events of the past. Nature has endowed mother earth with glorious wonders and vast resources that man may use for his own ends. Soil is the most remarkable wonder and nothing can be more important to our ancestors to ourselves and to our children than the soil. In fact, soil provides living space for humans as well as essential ecosystem services which are important for water regulation and supply, climate regulation and biodiversity conservation.

The Latin name for man , homo ,derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil. Pearl S. Buck in her novel, ‘The Good Earth,’ once said, “And roots , if they are to bear fruits , must be kept well in the soil of the land.” These words seem significant when the world was celebrating World Soil Day on December 5. Out of the land we came and into it we must all go. Even going beyond these symbolic words, we can understand the value of soil and land in our life. The Global Soil partnership dedicated World Soil Day 2017 to the theme of ‘Caring for the Planet Starts from the Ground’. Soil plays the essential role in human livelihoods although there is a worldwide increase  in degradation of soil resources  due to the inappropriate management practices,  population pressure driving unsustainable  intensification and inadequate  governance  over the essential resource. According to the Food and Agriculture  Organization of the United Nations (FAO) soil holds three times as much carbon as the atmosphere and can help us meet the challenges of a changing climate. 815 million people are food insecure and 2 billion people are nutritionally unsafe, but we can mitigate this through soil. Actually 95% of our food comes from soil, 33% of our global soils are already degraded. All focus now should be given on the importance of soil and land use management in a sustainable manner. Protection of soil is most important in the hilly regions like Meghalaya and other states of the North East where landslides occur frequently. As Marion Cran wrote it, ” If I wanted to have a happy garden , I must ally myself with my soil ; study and help it to the utmost , untiringly. Always, the soil must come first.”

Sometimes we can make a land beautiful like a flower as William Blake sings  in Auguries of Innocence : ” To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a  wild flower. ” Some nations consider various other solutions. Whereas an overabundance of carbon in the air has been disrupting  our climate, plants are hungry for the stuff. Farmlands  essentially operate as a vast lung , breathing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and converting it into plant tissues. It results in less of the heat -trapping gas in the atmosphere, but the healthier the soil , the more carbon is stored in plants. Soil beneath our feet has a huge potential to sequester carbon. Actually the earth  possesses  five major  pools of carbon. Of those pools the atmosphere  is already overloaded  with the stuff. The oceans  are turning acidic as they become saturated with it. The forests are diminishing and underground fossil fuel reserves  are being emptied. It leaves  soil as the  as the most likely repository for immense  quantities  of carbon. Advent of agriculture started about 10000 years ago and it accelerated  over the last century as industrial farming and ranching rapidly expanded.

To avoid catastrophic climate, soil cannot be ignored. Sequestering carbon in soil can produce double dividend one by reducing climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere and it restores the health of degraded soil and increases agricultural yields. Many scientists  and farmers  believe  the emerging understanding of soil’s role in climate stability and agricultural productivity will prompt a paradigm  shift in agriculture , triggering abandonment  of conventional practices  like tillage , crop , residue removal , mono-cropping , excessive grazing and blanket  use of the chemical fertilizer and pesticide. Many scientists advocate a regenerative form of agriculture that calls for adopting steps to improve soil fertility  and increase its carbon content  to jettison deleterious climate impacts. The techniques  that regenerative farmers use vary with soil , climate  and crop. Nutrient -rich manure or compost  can be used to re-fertilize the fields. Some farmers combine livestock , cover crops  and row crops on the same field. Advent of synthetics  in the late 1800s , fertilizers consisted  of carbon-rich manure  or compost. But synthetic fertilizers contain no carbon. The process accelerated after World War II. American nitrogen-based munition plants were converted into nitrogen-based fertilizer factories. India too can begin initiative  to incorporate soil health into the state’s farm and ranch operations. Many scientists do not keep much faith on regenerative agriculture. The argument is simple .If we give up trying to vanquish Nature we can reap more benefit.

The soil, says Wendell Berry , is the great connector of our lives , the source and destination of all. We cannot deny this fact and herein lies the significance of the World Soil Day. Indians believe that the earth is alive and all that is related to it is alive. We may conclude with  a poem of Violet Fane who celebrated life in celebrating mother earth in a wonderful way : ” Let me arise  and open the gate , to breathe/ the wild warm air of the heath / And to let in Love  , and to let out hate / And anger at living  and scorn of Fate,/ To let in Life and to let out Death.”

(Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee is Associate Professor and Head  ,Post Graduate Dept of English Dum Dum Motijheel College. He can be reached at :profratanbhattacharjee@gmail.com)