Sitting quietly in London, in the home of loving friends, I am reflecting on the last couple of days in Amsterdam. Invited to participate in a master class on Feeding the World: the 9 billion people question, I am so grateful to Volkert Engelsman of Eosta for creating this way of celebrating 25 years of working for soils: “the conference will be more than just an exchange of knowledge and commitments; it is intended to be a true celebration of life and its living foundation. Soil… this wonderful thin layer embracing our planet, where trillions of micro-organisms meet in a magic encounter of cosmic and terrestrial powers. Celebrating Soil=-Celebrating Life!”
Miha Pogacnik, violinist, introduces his opening piece with a couple of words…”Soil’s voice, a voice yearning to be heard, darkness into light, mixture and bridges within complexity, where the greatest gift is letting go and letting future arise …” …the last word he says is ‘grace’, before his fingers start and the music plays him.
The day-long event is organised as a Steiner three-fold lesson – head, heart and hands. Session 1 is titled “The Soil is the Limit, Not the Sky”; Session 2 is “What MIndshift is Required to Understand, Love and Develop the Earth as a Living Organism” and Session 3 “Soilutions and Soilmates”.
Session 1: The Soil is the Limit, Not the Sky
Andre Leu, President of IFOAM; Claudia Olazabal, Directorate Environment, European Commission; Alexander Muller, Secretary General IASS, Germany; Anna Blythe Lappe, Small Planet Institute, USA; and Rainer Horn, President of IUSS
We are reminded of the 100% increase in food production required by developing countries by 2050; that there is plenty of food for all on Earth – only a whole lot of it is turfed as waste by the middle-class; of the unequal systems of distribution in the world; that we can improve productivity by improving soils and stimulating biological activity; that 300 square km of fertile soil is lost annually (the size of Munich).
I am struck by the crackliness of the speak￼ers. Tough, lean, incisive – there are no holds barred. Fine research and natural science speaks for itself. There is no need for verbosity, shrillness nor stridency. In the lives of my sons and future grandchildren, i.e. the next 60 years, the most fertile soils of the planet may be lost to industrial farming. I am struck too by the obvious – if there is real wealth in every human being, and every human being is involved in food, how do we re-define wealth, not obscene material consumption for some and starvation for others?
Session 2: What MIndshift is Required to Understand, Love and Develop the Earth as a Living Organism
Angaangap Angakkorsuaq, Shaman and Elder from Greenland (whose name means The Man Who Looks Like His Uncle); Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Faith keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, USA; Rev Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of South Africa; Dr Ibrahim Abouleish, Founder SEKEM and representing modern Islam, Egypt; Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp, Earth Charter Commissioner, Netherlands; Nicolai Fuchs, Director GLS Treuhand, Germany
Angaangap Angakkorsuaq calls our ancestors – a deep, resonating call touching spaces long forgotten, reminding us that the greatest distance is within, between the head and the heart. Like the others, his is a simple message. The melting ice of Greenland is his story – he turns it beautifully into the ice of the human heart that must melt. Feeling with our earth, as Chief Arvol Looking Horse states in his clarity – he is the faith keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe, passed down for 19 generations. 19 generations! In isiZulu, Reverend Makgoba continues, the earth is part of us. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, soil to soil – we were created for rhythm and harmony, if we respect soil we respect ourselves. We are one, and the other – Ubuntu.
Dr Abouleish acknowledges representing modern Islam, and immediately locates himself as Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu – I am human, he says. And my great question is how I can defeat stupidity? Allah created all and as humans we are here for the development of consciousness. We learn, we grow, we understand wisdom and we have the responsibility to pass this on. Everything is interrelated, and the awakened human focuses on action. They speak of life and beauty, fertility for our children’s children and the spiritual challenge of incarnating this spirit into everyday life.
Nicolai Fuchs speaks of integrating ever-more freedom with an underlying movement of ever-more complexity. Complexity forms the combination of living diversity bringing consciousness, development and finally freedom, or liberation. That soils and land are not private property, and refers to the wonderful work of Elinor Ostrom. He continues that the development of earth and humanity are intertwined through common ownership, agri-culture and taking joint responsibility for healthy food from healthy soil.
Linking compassion, cooperation and economics there is a question raised about a possible connection between the way we think, and the monoculture of the farms that feed us. There is a sense that if we are the food we eat, we have become the mammoth, bloated monocrops we are fed. What a thought. Imagine then eating biodynamic produce? Where our bodies are the diversity, lunar-based cycles, human cultures connected to music and the earth …we’d be different? It’s beyond words, really… simply energy.
I am reminded of the Rilke poem brought to me by a psychiatrist with whom I work. He is of the wild, and his ways of accessing his patients in the deepest pain is often through poetry. Poetry as revolution, he says fiercely. For some reason the stupidity to which Dr Abouleish refers, and the messages of simplicity seem pained and deep too. Rilke ends crying to the divine…
Pushing Through – Rainer Maria Rilke
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
Sarah Wiener, food activist and cook, makes us laugh. She tells us the most practical and radical thing we can do is to cook every day with seasonal, organic food in ways that are funny and loving. She is hilarious, authentic and without airs and graces. I suddenly miss my tiny veggie garden, and the love affair with cooking I began last year in a silent retreat in the middle of the Karoo. I realise Sarah is right – my sons love my food. My friendship with my organic farmer neighbour, Eric, has endless conversations about what to plant, our agroecology academy and how to keep the birds’ share of our newly planted vegetables at 5%.
Session 3: Soilutions & Soilmates – Living Earth, fundament for a sustainable economy
In the afternoon, it’s Doug Tompkins, conservationist, founder The North Faced, Esprit, USA; Pema Gyamtsho, Opposition Leader, former Minister of Agriculture and Forests, Bhutan; Gotz Rehn, Alnatura, Germany; Vandana Shiva, author and environmental activist, India; Hans Herren, Millennium Institute, USA; and Joszi Smeets, Youth Food Movement, Netherlands who meander through their own particular takes on Living Earth.
From Doug Tompkins calls for a systemic critique of the existing model and world view that informs the ecocide of the planet. His images are raw, in your face and shocking. If we have become immune to the grief of elephants as their family members are killed, or slaughtered whales, then how can we possibly care when huge machines (much heavier than allowed on any autobahn) move over vast tracts of fertile land damaging totally the flexibility and internal strength of that soil – after all, we have always been taught that soil is dead matter, and animals can’t feel?
Vandana Shiva says she is with Ibrahim Abouleish on trying to deal with stupidity. In full stride, her eloquence and derision seem to escalate simultaneously – she talks of intelligence at every level in soils and life, and the importance of Darwin’s last two books. That the roots are the brain of the plant, forming a neural system – and there is nothing dead in soil. She plans to launch ‘Food Smart Cities’ in opposition to the Indian government trying to move 600 million farmers into ‘Smart Cities’. She weaves together the notion of blending community engagement and responsibility with the decision-making of farmers, and the main problem in her view being private ownership. 300000 Indian farmers committed suicide last year (could this be true? How is it suicide like this is treated like a mere statistic?) and $1,2b spent on ‘externalities’. Do we not realise, she blazes, that understanding soil as self-organising and alive is directly linked to self-organising communities?
This session ends on earthworms as living spirits, creatives giving us life. On seeds and soil – local food sovereignty – Vandana urging for creating gardens of hope. What if we used the metaphor of a garden, not of war and force for the way we live? How we could turn our living spaces into small paradises…
Day 2: Master classes
The Earth’s Fate:
- Evolution and (Self) Leadership;
- Feeding the world: the 9 billion people question;
- Soil as the Earth’s largest carbon sink: regulator of water, biodiversity & climate change;
- Living earth: fundament for a sustainable economy;
- Biodiversity & Eco-systems restoration – redefining profit and ‘returns’;
- Building the business case for soil fertility – entrepreneurial approaches and best practices
I tell the SI story on food in master class 2 – feeding the world. In my telling of Eric, our agroecology academy, Shima’s SI community cookbook masters’ thesis using images taken by Luke and put together for me by Ray – I am filled with awe and wonder. I feel like one of the micro-organisms in the soil, belonging in a vast, shimmering network of life. When Eric asks over whatsapp how it went, I tell him I am a re-born Soil Geek.
It’s been an amazing couple of days. I tell my friend, Esseline, over dinner – ‘it’s extraordinary .. being human is hummus; when we protect a handful of soil we protect our future; humanity is soil; the sacredness of soil; the exceptional science of soil; its constant transformation and the transformation of life.