As harvest approaches, Tearfund's Gideon Heugh reflects on why dirt should be celebrated.
I stared at the weeds, the weeds stared at me – a suburban standoff. My t-shirt was sticky with sweat, my back was sore, and my skin was starting to turn the angry red of sunburn. This was my first day of gardening. And I was loving it.
Last summer, my wife and I moved out of our one bed flat in south-west London in search of more space. We were planning on starting a family, and dreamt of our children having a garden to explore, digging up worms that they hopefully wouldn’t eat.
We had found a terraced house in a leafy suburb with a small garden. But there was a problem: it had a major bindweed infestation.
Bindweed is the Terminator of the weed world. It mercilessly smothers other plants, twisting itself around their stems. Its roots can penetrate up to five metres into the ground, and if even a few centimetres of the root system is left in the soil, it will regenerate. Our new garden was covered in it.
It took two weeks of hard manual labour to clear it all, during which time I got very well acquainted with the soil. This isn’t something that usually happens in our increasingly urbanised lives. Our culture does its best to avoid dirt. We live in the most sanitised civilization in history, and as I put my hands into the soil among the weeds and the worms, I started to wonder if we are poorer for it.
In the Genesis story, God forms the first human out of dirt. The name Adam (man in Hebrew) is from ‘adamah’, meaning ground. The organic matter in soil, ‘humus’ (not to be confused with the chickpea-based dip), has the same linguistic root as human, both from a word meaning earth.
We are intrinsically linked to the ground beneath our feet – we depend on it for our survival: we need food to live, and food needs soil to grow. Yet the modern world is doing its best to sever this link.
Think of the last meal you had. Where did it come from? Not the shop or restaurant – where was the food actually grown? If you had meat, where did those animals live? These days, a lot of us probably don’t know the answers to those questions.
Wendell Berry, the poet, philosopher and farmer (now there’s a job title) said that ‘eating is an agricultural act’. Everything we eat was farmed by someone, somewhere.