It’s… alive?


Community Solutions’ Healthy Soils Symposium at Antioch

By Terri Gordon

Photo: Soil from the Greenacres cattle pasture reflects the health of the soil, a complex system linked to the health of the Earth; photo: David Rafie

It is everywhere, from forest floors to ocean beaches. It is the stuff under our feet, our sidewalks, our roads. It is the stuff we dig in as kids, the stuff we bulldoze to build houses, and yes, the medium we use to grow flowers, trees, and food.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “soil” as “ the upper layer of earth in which plants grow.”

Gardeners talk about “rich” or “good” soil, or loam, made up of humus, sand, and clay.

What those who study soil are realizing, however, is that soil is not just sand, clay, and water—it is also a complex matrix of fungi, bacteria, and a number of other microbes. It is a full-on microbiome all its own. In fact, the microbiome is what creates the soil carbon sponge that holds nutrients and water. Without the matrix of microbial life, rain doesn’t percolate; it simply runs off, and the soil lacks fertility. And when we stir up the earth’s microbiome, we destroy it. And we’ve been destroying it since the very dawn of agriculture. This is the message Didi Pershouse will bring to the Healthy Soils Symposium on Feb. 24 and 25 at Antioch College in Yellow Springs. In a pre-conference reading on Feb. 23, she will sign copies of her book, “The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities” at Yellow Springs Library.

Pershouse hails from the state of Vermont, where she practices acupuncture and works, through her Center for Sustainable Medicine, with the Soil Carbon Coalition to study and educate others about those systems that govern human health and the health of Earth—especially where the health of the planet and the health of its inhabitants intersect—because, in truth, the health of one is tied inextricably to the health of the other.

Community Solutions in Yellow Springs, is sponsoring the symposium as part of its mission to “support small communities” and foster their resilience, their ability to weather storms—metaphorically and literally.

“The more we can grow our own food, in our own region, the more resilient we are,” explains Susan Jennings, executive director of Community Solutions. “The more we are able to keep our water clean, and where it belongs—as in, not running off, but really being absorbed into the soil—the more resilient we are. And healthy soils are at the center of that.

“The healthier our soils are, the healthier our food will be; and the more fertile the soil, the greater the output of food we’ll be able to have. And if we are able to cool the climate through carbon sequestration in the soil, then it makes, not just the region, but the planet itself more resilient.”

The symposium begins as a roundtable event on Friday with presenters and participants contributing questions and information in an informal effort to delineate the needs of and progress in the region, as well as a plan of response.

Saturday, following Pershouse’s keynote, there will be presentations by farmers, gardeners, city land use officials, and soil researchers on a wide range of topics—farming and gardening, soil restoration, urban “greenscaping,” and climate mitigation.

Author Peter Bane’s presentation will center on the relationships between healthy soils, water cycles, and cooling the climate. Bane’s primary interest has been social equity. When he began to study how technology affects society in the 1970s, his work led him to soils. In his book, “The Permaculture Handbook,” he coined the phrase “permaculture” to describe the system of sustainable growing and design practices he thinks can reverse the detrimental effect of industry, and promote efficient use of resources.

“I’m interested in the impacts of energy on ecosystems, and on society,” Bane says. “How do we respond to a time of unprecedented energy wealth and the impact that it’s had—because it won’t continue indefinitely and the changes may come very soon? It takes 7½ calories of fossil energy to produce every calorie [of food] on the plate. We’re like Wile E. Coyote—spinning our wheels over the abyss.”

Bane calls for “a radical regeneration of natural capital—fertile soils, forests, grasslands, and wetlands—to mitigate the dangers,” dangers that include more weather extremes and wars—fought largely over lack of food, a result of extended drought.

“Soil is at the center of [human] health, environmental health, climate resilience, economics, and is the basic infrastructure of all civilization,” Pershouse says. “It takes about a thousand years to take virgin land, plow it up, and turn it into unaggregated mineral soil.” She points to the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East as an example. “The Fertile Crescent is now desert,” she says, “[what was] once the most fertile land in the world.”

Simply put: if there is no life in the soil, there is no life in the food grown in it, and the lives of the people and animals eating the food will suffer. Period. People like Pershouse and others taking part in the Healthy Soils Symposium urge us to wake up and help create a more sustainable agricultural system—our lives depend on it.

The Community Solutions’ Healthy Soils Symposium takes place Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24 and 25 in McGregor Hall, Rm. 113, 1 Morgan Place on the Antioch College Campus in Yellow Springs. Cost ranges from $10–$75. Didi Pershouse will sign copies of her book, ‘The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities’ at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 23 at the Yellow Springs Library, 415 Xenia Ave. For more information, please visit

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Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks ( is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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