Sacred Soil

by Shephali Patel

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Photo: Aya Okawa

The Birth of Soil

Soil is born from the cycle of life and death. Soil is about 50% air and water, 45% minerals, and 5% organic matter. Soil mineral is formed from the wearing of bedrock that is birthed from core of the earth. This weathering takes thousands of years and much of our present day agricultural soils are more than 10,000 years old. But before there was an Earth, there was just universe.

The universe was originally composed primarily of the lighter atomic elements hydrogen and helium. The rest of the heavier elements, including carbon and oxygen, were fused in the hearts of the giant floating nuclear reactors we call stars. When a massive star is dying, it becomes hotter and hotter; its pressure-fueled expansion culminating in a violent explosion, a supernova. These massive explosions blow the heavier elements in the star’s core out into space, where they are incorporated into the formation of other planets, moons, and stars. The minerals within and on the earth come from stars that died when the universe was young. All living matter on Earth is composed of this ancient debris. And stars are still dying and exploding. Every year, 40,000 tons of cosmic dust rains down upon us, erasing all validity of human-conceived borders. This cosmic dust settles everywhere, particularly in our soil. The chemical elements in the cosmic dust are taken up by plants, which are then eaten by us. Our bodies are constantly being rebuilt and nourished by dying stars.

The Life of Soil

Soil is a living entity. It is composed of a thin skin over the surface of the earth called the pedosphere. The pedosphere exists as the interface of:

  • lithosphere (Earth crust and upper mantle)
  • atmosphere (air in and above soil)
  • hydrosphere (water below, in, and above soil)
  • biosphere (living organisms)

The pedosphere can exist only when there is dynamic interconnection among all forms of life and its supporting mediums. Soil, the pedosphere, is a revolving sphere at the heart of interlaced cycles of life.

Soil is not just a living body, but also a place. Soil is a physical meeting place for the key processes that support life. It is a physical place where we can experience living interconnection. Within the 50% of air and water and 45% of mineral that comprises soil, lives the 5% of organic matter in various stages of death–living, dead, and very dead. All three are inextricably linked in a biogeochemical process of nutrient and element cycling across land, sea, and air; where everything is transformed, consumed, and shared all at once. The consumption and excretion of the dead frees up nutrients and molecules needed to fuel life. Communication and sharing among plant, microbes, and fungi manages and moves these elements. This is the foundation for all ecosystem health. The process requires such a diversity and density of life that there can be over a billion living organisms in just one teaspoon of soil–only a small fraction of which we have identified. These billion organisms and plant parts are part of the only 20% of organic matter that is alive.

To be able to understand the existence of soil is to understand that so much precision, symbiosis, and harmony goes into supporting just 1% of the solid living earth. That understanding is a call to remembrance– that we are loved like that.

The Death of Soil


With one spray of noxious pesticide, one extra pound of synthetic fertilizer, and another round of unrelenting tillage, we can unintentionally wipe out all future hopes for joy, health, and the tiny friends we have co-evolved with for millennia.

We are loved like that. And there we go, 93% stardust and magic, walking around both alien and native at once, in constant calculation of what belongs. Building walls and guns against what doesn’t. And many times what doesn’t belong are the living beings we don’t understand and can’t see. The grace that moves invisibly through our lives. When we breathe in the soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae, serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain increase. The bacteria makes us feel calm and happy. That pleasing sweet, metallic scent of the earth after it rains is released by soil actinobacteria. Seventy-eight percent of the top 150 prescription drugs in the U.S. and 70% of all new drugs are derived from plants and soil-dwelling microfauna. With one spray of noxious pesticide, one extra pound of synthetic fertilizer, and another round of unrelenting tillage, we can unintentionally wipe out all future hopes for joy, health, and the tiny friends we have co-evolved with for millennia.

Most of the times, what doesn’t belong are living beings we can see and don’t want to understand. Our soil is soaked through with the blood of the wolves that scared us but kept rivers and forests healthy. The soil is glutted with the murdered bodies of entire civilizations of people who knew it first and best. Only to have its insides then persistently gutted to resurrect the dead in their ghostly forms of coal and oil. Scientists say that more carbon resides in the soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined. Soil is all skin, thin and naked, absorbing our sins. Yet, despite the abuse, she is still holding her breath for us while we are stuck in this deranged wetiko dream. But you can’t hold your breath for long, when the air is being stamped out of you. Under that dark skin I can hear a muffled “I can’t breathe” that pushes through the sidewalks and reverberates in the streets.

The Soul of Soil

The soil teaches that we are loved. And also where we fail in loving back. When I first learned to read the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, I learned to read it in two weeks and by the third week the pages in the brand-new book began to inexplicably disintegrate without being touched, and the book immediately looked like it was over one-hundred years old. The tiny pieces of pages would fall into the ground whenever I picked it up or carried it in my bag. Even tightly wrapped in its cloth covering. Pieces so tiny and thin that they would disappear into the ground and become part of it so that I couldn’t find them again. This is how I first realized that the Word lives in the soil.

Every day I go to the farm and take my familiar position. Kneeling down on one knee, head bowed down to work, I run my fingers through the dirt, combing through its pages. The wisdom of the soil starts with what I can see and then speaks to me about the Mystery that I can’t see with my eyes. Transplanting young plants, I follow their roots as they are embraced and gently clothed in soil. I know that though I cannot see it there is an orbit of bacteria and fungi protecting and communing with the plant. There are thin strands of mycorrhizae with fingers gently wrapped around plant roots, radiating out into all directions to forage for nutrients and relay messages that these roots cannot quite stretch far enough to reach. The unfolding drama of the living attracts more life –nematodes and protozoa, which then attract other nematodes and arthropods, which call out larger invertebrates, etc. Orbits expanding out like ripples in the water. The echo of the infinite taking shape. Beyond the field, the trees sport roots wrapped in mycelium connecting and communicating with the entire forest through an organic internet far more effective, intricate, and complex than our own–making all things whole and together even as they stand separate. I am again reminded that our salvation and spirituality lies in our interconnection. And that I am both whole already and at the same time always in a state of becoming whole by learning how to revere what is holy. The soil is calling for me to reimagine how I pray and love back–together, connected, sharing.

Next to the row of new transplants, an uncovered row of planted seeds looks like a mala unhooked and laid down on the ground. The cultivation of my devotion and awareness has always belonged inside the soil. So does my redemption. When I pull my hands from the dirt, they are stained in life, death, sacrifice, happiness, and healing. The compost is where I begin to take real responsibility for my existence and actions on this planet. I mark my penance with the work of my hands, turning and spinning that garbage until I help make medicine. Help, because it’s not me making anything. I am just learning from the masters; from that 1% of living, moving soil. It is their living and dying and love-making that produces a heat that transforms garbage into black gold. These tiny, unseen, unloved beings possess the power of alchemy. To make it truly medicine for all, the decomposing organic matter has to rest at a continuous temperature of at least 131º F for a minimum of three days at the core of the pile. So, even in this pile of trash and cast-offs, it is deep in the heart that the transformation and healing takes place. I have to make sure every square centimeter gets to spend some time resting in the cocoon of its own heart. Only then can it be applied to the open wounds of the earth and taken in through the open wounds of mouth, eyes, nose, ears, and skin. Composting works hand-in-hand with time. The time it takes to hopefully learn that in order to heal my insides, I have to be able to heal what is outside of me too. And to heal what is outside of me, I need to learn how to heal myself.


Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

The Word follows me inside, embedded into the creases of my fingers. Writing organic matter on the board, scribbling it into my notes, seeing it in books–the words organic matter inevitably morph into OM. All of existence conspired to culminate and begin in OM. In a world where the OM is stripped away what do we have left?

The gift of our lives comes up through the core of the earth and, bursting forth from the core of stars, right into the blazing core of our souls, if we let it. Which means all ground is sacred ground no matter what or where. It is we humans who decide when it is not sacred when we choose to desecrate it. When something is sacred we don’t want to or need to trade it in for a Plan B on Mars or carbon credits. We will protect and sacrifice for this home that is living body, place, teacher, and sanctuary. A temple to pour our love, suffering, gratitude, and remorse into. A place where we learn to breathe together again and slowly open our eyes to all of our gifts and their fundamental nature. That they are grace and miracle and love in a more-than-human world. That they cannot be possessed and that their value increases with how much we cherish them and offer them to others. That our greatest contribution as a species is to humbly know everything as Gift and, with dignity, surrender, and awe to practice upholding “sacredness” so that we are not complicit in stripping away the OM of the world.

It is somehow easier to see that the Mystery lives in everything when you are nose to ground. So I go back outside. I kneel once more, putting hand to ground so that it is soil pressed against soil in prayer. We live in holy times.

This essay was originally printed in Parabola Magazine, Fall 2017

If You Want to Save a Culture, Save a Mother

In the remote region of Surmang, giving birth was a matter of life or death. Both mothers and children were at extreme risk. Located in the Yushu prefecture within the Qinghai province of China, this area has been among some of the places in the world with the highest maternal mortality and infant mortality rates. A mother was three times as likely to die as an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In 1987, Lee Weingrad, an American student of Trungpa Rinpoche, traveled to Tibet to visit his late teacher’s monastery.  Upon leaving Tibet, Lee said, “I thought I had reached the destination in my life. Years later I realized I had only arrived at the bus depot.”

He was distressed with the poverty he saw, with the harsh living conditions of the Tibetan Khampa nomads and farmers. When he heard the numbers of mothers and infants that were dying needlessly, he said yes to an adventure that has put the Buddhist teachings of compassion and reverence for life to the test of reality.

He returned to the US and not long after, packed his bags and moved permanently to China. There, he fell in love and married Wang Wenjing, a Tibetan scholar who had spent 4 years living in Lhasa.  He reflected on how he was going to undertake such a project with his background in teaching and sales rather than international development or aid. But he worked directly with his inspiration, and his passion was able to do its work. When asked how he could do such a project by a representative of UNICEF, he said, “did you ever see Field of Dreams? Kevin Costner’s character asked the same question. The ghost answered, ‘build the field and they will come.’”

Shortly after he arrived, he incorporated the Surmang Foundation. Since that time more than 150,000 people in the region have received lifesaving care.

In 1992, the Qinghai government agreed to let his group build a clinic, which would be completed over the next few years. They would eventually hire two resident physicians, who were local Tibetans themselves.  Lee and his team invited volunteer doctors to visit annually and often stay in nomadic tents after treating hundreds or thousands of patients over several months.  Visiting doctors from the West will often acknowledge that being there was a waters­hed moment in their life and career.

Among the beautiful and remote mountains, with forbidding snowy winters and fleeting summers, the villages are scattered and it can take hours to reach even with vehicles. Travel, even in emergencies, is impossible in the winter and in the rainy seasons. A corps of 40 midwives and traveling health care workers brought the health care to them, traveling to some of the more far reaching areas by foot.

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Lee’s deepest motivation was ensuring that no mothers die in childbirth. When a woman dies the effects are devastating and it touches everyone. The family is cratered. Grandparents especially bear so much grief for all. A mother’s death tears at the fabric of their small encampments and communities where women hold so much together.  

In Tibet, nomads have high status. Leading the traditional life of a nomad in a tent encampment, despite the harshness of the terrain, the sun, the winds or the icy temperatures of winter, few would trade it for city living.  Here they tend herds of sheep or yaks or horses. Some cultivate barley on small farms living in village dwellings. With a few exceptions all are devout Buddhists and children wake to incense and offerings being made each morning.  Afternoons are for prayer or making butter and cheese or sipping many small cups of tea.  The community is close and there is ample work for the young and old.

In the warmer summer months, they will set up high mountain camps, and as the seasons change, they will again move to areas better suited for animal grazing and nearer to safer, more accessible roads. They believe, in accordance with their Buddhist principles, that slaughtering one yak will feed them all winter, and is more compassionate than harvesting a whole field of crops. All the tiny beings also have a lifeforce: the plants, the worms, the insects, the fungi. Their animals are sacred, sentient, and life-giving. Life, in all forms, is precious.

Since the permanent clinic originally opened, patients have never been charged for services or medicine. In this area where the land and their way of life provides basic needs for food and clothing, but otherwise money is scarce and people may live on less than 50 cents a day.

In addition to assisting with births and well-baby visits, the clinic sees many other patients. The clinic can offer an ultrasound, set bones and pull teeth; they are often treating mild ailments; and even offer veterinary services when there is great need.

Expecting mothers will often receive a birth kit that includes basic items such as a clean sheet and a sterile razor for cutting the umbilical cord. This can make a world of a difference—often, the difference between life and death.

It has taken years of patient work by the clinic to get the women of the region onboard. But when they saw that their pregnant friends and family were no longer dying from pregnancy or childbirth, more and more trust was established for the clinic and the foundation.

After decades of the foundation providing aid, everyone at the clinic and the region agrees, “If you want to save a culture, save a mother.”

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Abbot of local monastery and Lee Weingrad.

Please visit www.surmang.org

 

Emma Szymanski

The Contemplative Alliance in Conversation

Spring, New York City

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In late April, a small gathering of Contemplative Alliance members met in New York City for an evening of conversation and sharing. It was a chance to catch up and hear what the local members have been doing in their communities. One topic that emerged was the question of how to hold the suffering that is happening in our world and at the same time support and nourish the spiritual evolution that is simultaneously taking place.

We discussed how many Americans are realizing that as a country we are not as advanced as we once thought. The social and political chaos that is erupting is also spawning a collective awakening that is propelling a heightened global consciousness.

As more assaults are taking place on nature and the environment, more and more people are stepping into action as we see with the young climate strikers and in the many steps people are taking to care for the Earth.

Rev. Diane Burke of OneSpirit Learning Alliance spoke about this moment in time as one in which spiritual and faith leaders are being challenged to walk the talk and truly ask, “what does it mean to live our teachings and beliefs in this world?” How can we preserve what’s worth passing forward to future generations whilst also relinquishing old ideas and beliefs that are no longer serving the collective?”

Members spoke of how many younger people are steering away from religion and the more formal practices. This brought up the question of what our traditions have to offer the world at this time, to those in who may not take up a traditional meditation practice, or see themselves as being on a specific spiritual path. What can we offer the people who are depressed and fearful at what they are seeing?

The conversation concluded with asking ourselves, ‘what is the essential message from each of our traditions that is most helpful at this time for humanity?’ While the answers are diverse and continually unfolding, there was agreement that if we can offer a way to reconnect people with reverence for all life, love for the Earth, caring for one another, and embracing more culture, music, and storytelling, that this would be something of great value.