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Feeding the soil

Madeleine Forbes
Madeleine Forbes
3 min read
Feeding the soil
Mabel and the soft, dry soil under the chestnut tree

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We're baking this week.

Or rather, we are being baked.

The online weather oracles I'm consulting with fevered devotion tell me the temperatures will tip 40°C today (that's 104°F).  

It's properly hot.

This kind of summer feels more akin to weather extremes of the wintry kind - we close the shutters, avoid going outside unless we absolutely have to. Decamp to the river for as much of the afternoon as we can.

Worst are the nights, when the drop of ten degrees or so barely dents the oven-feeling. The kids are cranky. We're scratchy and restless. The bag to take in case of wildfire stays packed by the bed. Last night we set alarms to take it in turns to wake up and check in on the big blaze 10km away, near our friends' farms.

And I'm thinking about soil.

On top of the hill, where the goats and sheep have trampled and grazed and scuffed up places to lay under the chestnut trees, the land is become desert. Soft and sandy, it's hard to believe it will replenish.

But in the garden - where we've laid layers of compost and woodchip and cardboard - the soil's deep and rich. It holds the moisture long after we've watered it. (Standing with hose, gulping in lungs of morning freshness before the day heats up again.)

Grazing animals can create soil, too. I'm learning about cover crops and rotational grazing, ways to rest and replenish the land without abandoning it.

Building soil is the main project of the farm. It's how we grow vegetables, save water, replenish ecosystems. The soil is our ultimate investment in the land - over our lifetimes, I love to think we might leave it better, thicker, fuller, wetter, than we found it.

And of course, I think of soil as metaphor.

I'm taking a semi-sabbatical this summer - stepping away from a chunk of my usual client work to create space for learning and reading and connecting with new ideas.

I started by reading a book about Theory U - have you heard of it? Otto Scharmer writes about creating social change, as leaders and as citizens. Early on, he starts to draw analogies with soil.

"Just as the organic farmer depends completely on the quality of the living quality of the soil, social pioneers depend on the living quality of the social field. I define social field as the quality of relationships that give rise to patterns of thinking, conversing and organising, which in turn produce practical results."

This way of thinking feels so peaceful and nourishing to me. It's subtle, and long-term - just as the quality of the vegetables I'm producing now rests on the work I did to build the soil last year.

But it's also very present. Because every time I dig, or walk, or move organic material around the farm, I am contributing to the soil I am building. It demands I be mindful of the impact of what I am doing in each moment, day to day - as well as giving me the feedback of what I did previously.

It's a subtle shift. Instead of thinking "I want better vegetables" and adding in artificial fertiliser now - I observe "My beans aren't growing so well" and commit to layering in more nutrients for next time round.

In just the same way, when I think about how I want my community to feel, I know the work to do is in building networks, relationships, connection.

It takes time.

Years of exchanging favours, showing up, letting down masks, laughing, weeping, celebrating, commiserating, talking, hugging, helping, fucking up, for deep bonds to form.

(The kind that emerge as 2am Whatsapp messages - saying "the fire's mostly out now". And "well done, you're so brave".)

And then there's the project of tending to my own, individual soil. That's looking like making space to read, and think, and wonder about what's coming next.

The good news is, everything builds soil. The weeds, the failures, the trimmings, the dead and the rotten. There's no waste in ecosystems. Maybe in life, too?

I'd like to think so.