Dirt Reconnecting With Soilscroll down arrow


Dirt Is Beautiful

By reconnecting with soil, we heal the planet and ourselves.

Leah Penniman is the founder of upstate New York's Soul Fire Farm

Leah Penniman is the founder of upstate New York’s Soul Fire Farm, which runs farming immersion training programs for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Photo by Jamel Mosely/Mel eMedia.

Dijour Carter refused to get out of the van parked in the gravel driveway at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York. The other teens in his program emerged skeptical, but Dijour lingered in the van with his hood up, headphones on, eyes averted. There was no way he was going to get mud on his new Jordans and no way he would soil his hands with the dirty work of farming.

Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman lives in Grafton, New York, where she is the co-director of Soul Fire Farm. She’s the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land and has adapted some of her ideas from that book for this article.

I didn’t blame him. Almost without exception, when I ask Black visitors to the farm what they first think of when they see the soil, they respond “slavery” or “plantation.” Our families fled the red clays of Georgia for good reason — the memories of chattel slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, and lynching were bound up with our relationship to the earth. For many of our ancestors, freedom from terror and separation from the soil were synonymous.

While the adult mentors in Dijour’s summer program were fired up about this field trip to a Black-led farm focused on food justice, Dijour was not on board. I tried to convince him that although the land was the “scene of the crime,” as Chris Bolden Newsome put it, she was never the criminal. But Dijour was unconvinced. It was only when he saw the group departing on a tour that his fear of being left alone in a forest full of bears overcame his fear of dirt. He joined us, removing his Jordans to protect them from the damp earth and allowing, at last, the soil to make direct contact with the soles of his bare feet.

Dijour, typically stoic and reserved, broke into tears during the closing circle at the end of that day. He explained that when he was very young, his grandmother had shown him how to garden and how gently to hold a handful of soil teeming with insects. She died years ago, and he had forgotten these lessons. When he removed his shoes on the tour and let the mud reach his feet, the memory of her and of the land literally traveled from the earth, through his soles, and to his heart. He said that it felt like he was “finally home.”

From the Editors

Why the “Dirt” Issue?

“Late last fall, after some gusty winds blew most of the leaves from the bigleaf maples in my backyard, I went outside to inspect our garden. In the raised beds, bare tomato plants, brown from the cold weather, were still in the ground, now buried under orange and yellow leaves. After a few days of rain, those leaves would turn an unattractive brown. I had the urge to grab a rake and shovel and start cleaning up.

Cover of YES! Issue 89

But why did I want to make my backyard soil look less dirty? Raking up the leaf mulch and uprooting last season’s veggie plants would rob the soil of a necessary layer of carbon, nitrogen, and microbes — and me of the benefits of cultivating and connecting with rich, living soil.

“What is the consequence of equating dirt — soil — with all things negative and poor? How did this happen, how could it change, and what would that look like?” one reader asked us as we were planning this issue on soil. Given the negative connotations we generally apply to the word “dirt,” it was a good question. Other readers questioned our use of “dirt” when referring to living soil. We realize that scientifically the terms aren’t interchangeable, but we were inspired to consider how our negative associations with dirt affect our connection with soil. What if we saw all dirt as valuable, beautiful? Welcome to the Dirt Issue.

To research this issue, one of the people I spoke with was Timothy Crews of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. His team is developing perennial grains as an alternative to annual crops. He said industrial agriculture can create “highly disturbed systems” that don’t resemble natural systems. Highly disturbed — like my backyard after I clean it up, I thought. Soils are developed under deeply rooted perennial vegetation, Crews said. Large disturbances — like floods or fires — might knock an ecosystem back, but these events are usually brief. Soon, perennials resprout, soils rebuild, and fertility rebounds.

We construct highly disturbed and highly controlled ecosystems everywhere.

Industrial agriculture clears lands of forests and native vegetation. We plant acres of monocultures and leave fields bare over winter, eroding soil and depleting it of nutrients. Agricultural soil degradation alone is projected to decrease food production by 30 percent over the next 50 years. In cities, we pave over as much dirt as possible, physically separating ourselves from nature and eliminating soil’s services of flood control and water infiltration and storage. We leak industrial toxins, spray synthetic chemicals — more often in and around poor neighborhoods and communities of color.

This disconnection is systemic, food justice activist and author Raj Patel told me during my research. “It’s important to recognize that soil has a history, that it has been mined of fertility by particular people and practices,” Patel said. “It’d be wrong to dissociate soil health from the health of communities around it.”

So this issue is about what communities are doing to reconnect to soil — which solves many problems at once. Ranchers in California and North Dakota are growing healthy food while sequestering carbon. Through composting, a man in North Carolina is showing his community how to build food security and resilience. In the South, the soil is helping us remember historical injustices.

Return to the story

The truth is that for thousands of years Black people have had a sacred relationship with soil that far surpasses our 246 years of enslavement and 75 years of sharecropping in the United States. For many, this period of land-based terror has devastated that connection. We have confused the subjugation our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We do not stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty because we imagine that would revert us to bondage.

Part of the work of healing our relationship with soil is unearthing and relearning the lessons of soil reverence from the past.

We can trace Black people’s sacred relationship with soil back at least to the reign of Cleopatra in Egypt beginning in 51 BCE. Recognizing the earthworm’s contributions to the fertility of Egyptian soil, Cleopatra declared the animal sacred and decreed that no one, not even a farmer, was allowed to harm or remove an earthworm for fear of offending the deity of fertility. According to studies referenced by Jerry Minnich in The Earthworm Book in 1977, worms of the Nile River Valley were largely responsible for the extraordinary fertility of Egyptian soils.

Teen participants take their shoes off to experience the mud on their feet.

Teen participants take their shoes off to experience the mud on their feet. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman

In West Africa, the depth of highly fertile anthropogenic soils serves as a “meter stick” for the age of communities. Over the past 700-plus years, women in Ghana and Liberia have combined several types of waste — including ash and char from cooking, bones from meal preparation, by-­products from processing handmade soaps, and harvest chaff — to create African Dark Earths. According to a 2016 study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, this black gold has high concentrations of calcium and phosphorus, as well as 200 to 300 percent more organic carbon than soils typical to the region. Today, community elders measure the age of their towns by the depth of the black soil, since every farmer in every generation participated in its creation.

When the colonial governments in northern Namibia and southern Angola attempted to force Ovambo farmers off their land, they offered what they said were equivalent plots with better-quality soil. According to Emmanuel Kreike in Environmental Infrastructure in African History, the farmers refused to be displaced, countering that they had invested substantially in building their soils and doubted that the new areas would ever equal their existing farms in fertility. The Ovambo people knew that soil fertility was not an inherent quality but something that is nurtured over generations through mounding, ridging, and the application of manure, ashes, termite earth, cattle urine, and muck from wetlands.

This reverent connection between Black people and soil traveled with Black land stewards to the United States. In the early 1900s, George Washington Carver was a pioneer in regenerative farming and one of the first agricultural scientists in the United States to advocate for the use of leguminous cover crops, nutrient-rich mulching, and diversified horticulture. He wrote in The American Monthly Review of Reviews that the soil’s “deficiency in nitrogen can be met almost wholly by the proper rotation of crops, keeping the legumes, or pod-bearing plants, growing upon the soil as much as possible.” He advised farmers to dedicate every spare moment to raking leaves, gathering rich earth from the woods, piling up muck from swamps, and hauling it to the land. Carver believed that “unkindness to anything means an injustice done to that thing,” a conviction that extended to both people and soil.

Participants of Soul Fire Farm's training program transplant pepper seedlings.

Participants of Soul Fire Farm’s training program transplant pepper seedlings. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman

One of the projects of colonization, capitalism, and White supremacy has been to make us forget this sacred connection to soil. Only when that happened could we rationalize exploiting it for profit. As European settlers displaced Indigenous people across North America in the 1800s, they exposed vast expanses of land to the plow for the first time. It took only a few decades of intense tillage to drive around 50 percent of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. The agricultural productivity of the Great Plains decreased 71 percent during the 28 years following that first European tillage. The initial rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was due to the oxidation of soil organic matter through plowing.

The planet’s soils continue to be in trouble. Each year we lose around 25 million acres of cropland to soil erosion. The loss is 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil formation, putting global food security at risk. Soil degradation alone is projected to decrease food production by 30 percent over the next 50 years. Further, when soils are laden with fertilizers and pesticides, the nutritional quality of the food they produce is lower than crops grown using methods that enrich the soil with compost, cover crops, and mulches.

When the soil suffers, it’s not just our food supply that is at risk. The further the population gets from its connection to earth, the more likely we are to ignore and exploit those who work the soil. As Wendell Berry wrote in The Hidden Wound in 1970:

“The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of meaningful contact with the earth. He was literally blinded by his presuppositions and prejudices. Because he did not know the land, it was inevitable that he would squander its natural bounty, deplete its richness, corrupt and pollute it, or destroy it altogether. The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal.”

In the United States today, nearly 85 percent of the people who work the land are Hispanic or Latino and do not enjoy the same labor protections under the law as other American workers in other sectors. Pesticide exposure, wage theft, uncompensated overtime, child labor, lack of collective bargaining, and sexual abuse are all too common experiences of farmworkers today.

Even in urban areas, our disconnect from soil has grave consequences. As a toddler, my daughter, Neshima, loved to make mud pies in the playground and drop bean seeds into the furrows of community garden plots in ­Worcester, Massachusetts. I didn’t know that exposure to these urban soils would put my child at risk for permanent neurological damage. At her 18-month pediatric visit, I learned that she was one of approximately 500,000 children with elevated blood lead levels in this country. She inhaled and ingested soil that had been contaminated with lead from old paint and gasoline emissions. I quickly became a safe-soils activist and tested hundreds of residential and public spaces across the city, encountering lead levels as high as 11,000 parts per million, well above the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe limit of 400 parts per million.

Dance moves teach the process of weeding.

Dance moves teach the process of weeding. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman

From the arsenic found at a school site in Maine to the heavy metals in the gardens of Portland, Oregon, and the brownfields at an affordable housing site in Minneapolis, our urban soils are showing the scars of our disconnection. Hailing from the Bronx, New York, a participant in one of our farm training programs shared, “The soil is toxic in my neighborhood. The only good thing I can say about it is that when there were drive-by shootings, I would get low to the ground and the smell of the earth meant I was safe.”

When soils suffer the most egregious abuse, they can no longer even provide stable ground beneath our feet. In early 2018, wildfires tore through Santa Barbara County, California, burning up the soil organic matter and ravaging the vegetation that held the hillsides in place. Heavy rain followed the blaze, and the destabilized mud and boulders flowed downhill, leaving at least 21 dead and over 400 homes damaged or destroyed in their wake. Both the wildfires and the erratic rainfall can be linked to anthropogenic climate change and our voracious appetite for fossil fuels. Coupled with that, the process of extracting those fossil fuels from the earth through coal mining and fracking further destabilizes the soil, resulting in sinkholes like the one in Chester County, Pennsylvania, connected to the Mariner East pipeline.

The soil stewards of generations past recognized that healthy soil is not only imperative for our food security — it is also foundational for our cultural and emotional well-being. Western science is catching up, now understanding that exposure to the microbiome of a healthy soil offers benefits to mental health that rival antidepressants. After mice were treated with Mycobacterium vaccae, a friendly soil bacteria, their brains produced more of the mood-regulating hormone serotonin. Some scientists are now advocating that we play in the dirt to care for our psychological health.

We see the benefits of soil anecdotally on our farm with the youth and adult participants who come to learn Afro-Indigenous soil regeneration methods. While the curriculum focuses on such nerdy details as the correlation between earthworm count and soil organic matter, participants often reflect that the main thing they gain from their time with the dirt is “healing” and the strength to leave behind addictions, toxic relationships, poor diets, and demeaning work environments.

Our ancestors teach us that it’s not just soil bacteria that contribute to this healing process. Part of African cosmology is that the spirits of our ancestors persist in the earth and transmit messages of encouragement and guidance to us through contact with the soil. Further, we believe the Earth herself is a living, conscious spirit imparting wisdom. When we regard a handful of woodland soil, rich in the mycelium that transmits sugars and messages between trees, we are made privy to the inner world of the forest super­organism and its secrets of sharing and interdependence. Like Dijour, we are welcomed home to a profound web of belonging that extends beyond the boundaries of self and species.

One student on our farm reflected, “I leave this experience feeling grounded like a tree in a land and country that I previously did not feel welcomed in. Connection with soil was the awakening of my sovereignty.”

Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman lives in Grafton, New York, where she is the co-director of Soul Fire Farm. She’s the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land and has adapted some of her ideas from that book for this article.

A DIY Soil Story

A geologist and a biologist discover their backyard soil is lifeless, and so they change it. And the world changed.

A geologist and a biologist discover their backyard soil is lifeless, and so they change it. And the world changed.

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

When we broke ground for a garden at our 80-year-old house in the middle of Seattle we took the most obvious thing for granted. Again and again we crisscrossed the yard surrounding our new home, imagining where we’d plant trees to screen us from the street and neighbors. We fantasized about where we’d sit on warm summer evenings. We watched how the sun and wind moved across the yard through the seasons before choosing a place for our veggie bed. We spent months pondering every little detail but we had overlooked the biggest one: our soil.

Anne Biklé and David R. Montgomery

Anne Biklé and David R. Montgomery are authors of the dirt trilogy — Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. Twitter: @Dig2Grow

How did this happen to us? My realm is biology. I am the one with a bad case of plant lust, hankering to see, touch, eat, and smell all things green and rooted. Dave’s realm is geology. At the time he was working on a book about dirt and how the plow helped bring down civilizations. Eventually, we’d travel the world to meet farmers and gardeners who were rebuilding the health and fertility of their soil. But our journey started with the dirt in our own yard. And we’d forgotten about it, until a too-hot day in mid-August.

It was 2001, and dozens of plants stood in black plastic pots scattered across the bare earth of our freshly cleared lot, baking in the sun. After a broken water line and months of delay, they needed out of their pots and into the ground.

Dave watched as the shovel I plunged into the soil stopped suddenly, sending a snap of pain into my wrist. I tried again at a different spot and the same thing happened. “Umm, how ’bout you give it a try?” I said. He dug in one spot, and then another. Each time a resounding t-i-i-i-n-g-g rang out as the shovel bounced off a shallow impenetrable layer. All our planning and now the damn dirt was on strike?

Part of our challenge was obvious. Beneath our anemic dirt, somewhere between the color of beach sand and a beat-up pair of khaki pants, lay glacial till. This was the concretelike geology my shovel kept hitting. But perhaps the biggest problem was the dearth of life in our soil. Without this critical ingredient we’d never have the kind of soil that would support the lush garden we dreamed about.


Cut way back on practices that disturb the soil. Plant with minimal digging. And layer organic matter on top instead of “digging it in.”

Keep soil covered with either living plants (including cover crops) or mulches made of organic matter.

Grow diverse plants. Whether ornamental, natives, or vegetables, strive for a variety of different species and cultivars.

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

Soil Is the Greatest Gut on Earth

Through the rest of August and into fall, we struggled with planting and accepted our only option — do what we could with the soil we had. We’d never get rid of the glacial till deep down, but we could restore life to the ground above it. Imbuing our soil with life meant we needed to add dead things to it — organic matter. Soil, after all, is the gut of the Earth, and organic matter is the lifeblood that makes this great gut work.

The giants of soil life — the smooth, liver-colored earthworms and hard-bodied insects with oversized jaws — take the first run at breaking down organic matter. They grind, chomp, chew, and shred it into pieces, which feed them and smaller soil dwellers, all the way down the line to the tiniest creatures on Earth: bacteria and other microbes.

This eat-or-be-eaten world in the soil circulates the basic compounds and molecules of life from the dead to the living and back to the dead. Could we revive the creaking wheel of life beneath our feet? Could organic matter get it spinning and thrumming again?

As the aspiring gardener, I embarked on a mission — find organic matter and bring it home. The staccato bursts from an arborist’s chipper in the neighborhood put my brain into radar mode. I’d zigzag on foot toward the sounds, zeroing in on my target. I asked the arborists if they wouldn’t mind dumping their wood chips in our driveway. Most of the time this worked. They avoided disposal fees, and I got free organic matter.

My other scores included coffee grounds from nearby shops, fallen leaves from neighbors’ yards, and the occasional pile of discarded oyster or mussel shells from a friend’s dinner table. I loaded my loot into buckets and bags and packed them into our Subaru hatchback. And though we had no farm animals for manure, I scored “zoo doo,” the composted equivalent from elephants, zebras, and other herbivores at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo — which, luckily, is about a mile from our house.

With this bounty of organic matter, I made mulches that I layered onto all the new garden beds. Previous gardening adventures taught me how backbreaking and time consuming it is to mix things into the soil. Plus, I wanted to cultivate soil life. The more I dug and turned the soil, the more likely I’d maim or kill earthworms and smaller organisms like beneficial nematodes and mites.

Later in our journey, we began researching the effects of gardening and agricultural practices on soil health and visiting with farmers who had cut way back on plowing and chemicals. The take-home lesson was pretty clear — and convincing. Whether it’s gardeners using shovels or farmers using discs and plows, these practices disrupt some of the grandest symbioses on the planet. For around the roots of plants growing in healthy, life-filled soils, a biological bazaar hums with activities that underpin the well-being of the botanical world.

Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

Under Mulch and Compost, Slowly Life Returns

While Anne is the chief strategist and doer in our garden, I began to observe the cumulative effects of what she was doing. One day she complained that her mulches kept disappearing. Despite the thick layers she put on top of the planting beds, they inevitably thinned out after a few months. I poked around beneath the mulch and noticed that the surface of the soil had changed to a milk-chocolate hue, no longer the light-colored dirt I remembered initially digging into. Now, a thin, dark layer at the interface of the soil and the mulch made it hard to say really where the mulch ended and the soil began.

About four years after we put the garden in, I helped Anne move some plants from one bed to another. We were surprised to find a couple of inches of dark soil in both beds, just atop the original khaki dirt. The earth had been changing right before our eyes and right under our noses — just too slowly to notice day to day.

The dark layer contained humus, a multitude of the organic compounds and molecules that are a key part of what imbues soils with fertility. The darkening color and increasing amount of humus meant that the carbon content of the soil was increasing and, with it, the fertility of our soil.

Keeping the soil covered with compost and mulch is a way to reverse a problem that has plagued societies throughout history. Time and again, from ancient Greece to the American Dust Bowl, declining soil fertility and eroding topsoil due to plowing contributed to the demise of civilizations. But it’s not just a problem of the past. North American agricultural soils have lost about half their original complement of organic matter — so far.

Yet right in our yard Anne was solving this age-old problem, one wheelbarrow of mulch at a time. She was building new soil far faster than nature — which takes centuries to build an inch — and along with it, more and more life.

By the garden’s third year, mushrooms were popping up beneath the handsome trio of young Persian ironwoods in our side yard. Fine white mats of fungal mycelia ran through decomposing clumps of last year’s wood-chip mulch. Plump-bodied spiders spun webs that caught water droplets and transformed the garden into a magical setting on drizzly fall days. By midsummer, herds of bees and other insect pollinators bumbled around the garden and hovered over the beds to feed on flower pollen and nectar. Dragonflies patrolled, hunting for lunch.

As the garden matured, larger animals started showing up, too. Crows and Steller’s jays used their feet and beaks to unearth a smorgasbord of morsels in the mulch and soil. A rocket-fast Cooper’s hawk cruised through one fall evening and nabbed dinner — leaving behind a small pile of soft brown feathers from its prey, a smaller bird. Bandit-masked raccoons staked their claim year-round.

Restoring life to our soil gave us a ringside seat to the march of life in the rough order in which it evolved on Earth — from microbes and fungi to worms, spiders, ­beetles, birds, and eventually mammals. This parallel revealed how soil life forms the foundation of ecosystems on land.

With life blossoming aboveground, we turned once again to the world beneath our feet.

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

Tiny Friends Do Big Work

Understanding what drives the soil dwellers in our subterranean menagerie led us to a place called the rhizosphere. This halolike zone extends a few millimeters or so around every single root and root hair. While Anne’s mulches prevented soil erosion and fed the largest soil dwellers, we learned the tiniest creatures supplemented their mulch meals with other food.

We delved into the recent research by plant scientists to learn more about the rhizosphere and the wild and alive biological bazaar within its boundaries. Bacteria and fungi flock here to dine on food that living plants ooze from their roots. The food, called exudates, is a homemade brew of nutrients including sugars, amino acids, and fats.

Plants run a pop-up restaurant in the soil, and, like human diners, the communities of microbes who partake need to pay for what they eat. Plants are open to different kinds of currency. Some microbes bring ready-to-go things already present in the soil, such as zinc and other mineral elements important for plant health. Others specialize in making compounds that plants need, like growth hormones, or that signal to a plant that a pathogen has entered the biological bazaar. So long as the currency translates into benefits, the botanical world serves up exudates.

The incessant exchanges of plant exudates for microbial goods also influence the nutrient profile of food crops. A well-functioning biological bazaar is key to imbuing our diet with the minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients we need for lifelong health.

What we learned got us thinking more about the soil in our vegetable bed and the kale crops it produced. By this point, the main garden was about nine years old while the vegetable beds had been in for around three years. We wondered how the nutritional quality of our greens stacked up against the USDA nutrient database, a widely used reference for standard levels of nutrients in food. We suspected that the rhizospheres of our kale plants, if their biological bazaars were thriving, would ripple through into their nutritional profiles.

We pictured bustling communities of bacteria congregating around the roots of our kale plants, lapping up exudates. Kale and other members of the cabbage family produce exudates rich in sulfur, on which certain bacteria thrive. In return, these bacteria turn phosphorus into a form that the plants can readily take up.

When we got the lab results back, we learned that our kale did pretty well. Although we hadn’t used any synthetic fertilizer containing phosphorus, the level in our kale was similar to the USDA reference value. And, in terms of calcium and zinc, our kale had twice as much as the reference value and four times the amount of folic acid.

Perhaps the most intimate relationship taking place in many biological bazaars is one where certain bacteria leave the rhizosphere and move inside of the roots of their plant host. These bacteria act like a plant’s personal chemist, converting nitrogen from the air into a form that their host can use. Abundant populations of these nitrogen-capturing bacteria can free gardeners and farmers from buying synthetic fertilizers.

Soil is often considered the most biodiverse place on the planet. A diversity of organic matter, and plant exudates, is the biggest factor for growing and maintaining soil biodiversity. And this matters — a lot. Cultivating living soil provides plants in gardens and on farms with a robust and reliable built-in health plan.

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

Transforming Soil Transforms the World

The botanical world managed to carpet the continents long before people existed. When we tapped into this ancient wisdom, we saw the common ground we shared with the first twiglike land plants. Like Anne and I, they found themselves surrounded by dirt when what they really needed was soil. The efforts of the botanical world to improve their lot in life took millions of years. Fortunately, our efforts began to bear fruit in a geological instant. Thanks to wheelbarrows full of organic matter, by the end of three growing seasons, the life of our soil was back on its proverbial feet and the transformation of our dead dirt into fertile soil was well underway.

Changing our soil changed our world. Adding organic matter stashed tons of carbon belowground. In our case, we started with about 1 percent carbon and increased it to almost 10 percent in little more than a decade. This may not sound like a big difference, but even really fertile native soils rarely contain 10 percent carbon. The additional carbon improved the fertility of our soil — and the quality of our kale.

Today our roughly 2,500-square-foot garden hosts beds for almost 30 trees, dozens of shrubs and flowering perennials, and vegetables. Come fall, the garden is a spectrum of color, from golden yellows to deep oranges, reds, and burgundy. In the summertime, we kick back on the patio enveloped by the garden. And, of course, we have a work area for storing and mixing organic matter into mulches.

Regenerating soil to change the piece of the planet where you live is possible at multiple scales. It might be a city yard like ours, rooftop garden, community garden, or working farm. Add up these efforts, and we can restore fertility to degraded soils, end hunger, and pull some carbon from the sky. Farmers can wean themselves off of agrochemicals and slash one of their biggest expenses. And we can all enjoy more life in yards, city parks, and farm fields. Cultivating living soil is something anyone can do to change the world — from the ground up.

Anne Biklé and David R. Montgomery

Anne Biklé and David R. Montgomery are authors of the dirt trilogy — Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, and Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. Twitter: @Dig2Grow

The Softening of Cities

Depaving and greening alleys invites nature deep into cities and reconnects urban dwellers to one another.

This northeast Portland neighborhood is one of many projects reclaiming forgotten concrete pathways for nature and people.

Portland alley advocates estimate there are 76 miles of alleys in their city — all potential green public spaces. This northeast Portland neighborhood is one of many projects reclaiming forgotten concrete pathways for nature and people. photo by Derek Dauphin

Rachel Schutz hated watching the kids play outside, and not because she was a curmudgeon. As director of an after-school program in a Latino neighborhood near ­Portland, Oregon, she likes the outdoors, the piney tang that hangs in the damp air. But the kids’ shoes would thump on the asphalt, the pounding echoing against metal dumpsters along the alley. That was their play space. When a neighbor’s pine tree shed its needles, she watched the kids sweep them together and build them into a nest or fort. Otherwise, they were limited to games with chalk or a ball hoop.

The kids wanted something different for the Inukai Family Boys and Girls Club’s 5,000 square feet of alleyside space. They talked about a soccer field or a traditional playground — but surprised Schutz by choosing a nature park. They imagined dirt, logs, and boulders to climb on, raised beds to grow flowers and veggies, and hundreds of trees and plants throughout.

Schutz just had to figure out how to remove the pavement.

Doing so introduced her to a soften-our-cities movement in which cities such as Nashville, Tennessee, Montreal, and Detroit are rethinking all that cement. Alleys and alleysides in particular are being effectively reimagined as people-friendly pathways, parks, and lushly planted urban habitat.

Schutz and the kids she serves understand why the idea has been spreading. The day before they strong-armed the asphalt up, one girl asked her, “Miss Rachel, does this mean we get real grass we can touch?”

Some Things About Alleys

Practically every city’s got alleys, passageways behind or between buildings or homes. They can be wide or narrow, pedestrian-only or open to vehicles. They date back to medieval times in many world cities, where some still host commerce and neighborhood gatherings and others stay hushed.

U.S. city planners purposefully laid dirt alleys to accommodate horses and carriages. Garbage pickup was done there (and still is today). Alleys were improvised living areas, notably for immigrants and newly freed slaves — there’s an especially strong history of that in Washington, D.C., where 300,000 people took refuge after the Civil War, according to author Grady Clay in Alleys: A Hidden Resource.

But post-World War II, Americans wanted their large cars parked out front, visible tokens of affluence. By the 1960s, The Community Builder's Handbook pronounced alleys obsolete: “one of the advances which has been made in land planning during the motor age.” Paving was considered progress, even as it made cities impermeable. And now, as climate change brings record rains, pavement is contributing to toxic stormwater runoff and dangerous flooding. Asphalt drew cars deeper into the city and reduced urban community gathering spots. Lack of dirt cut down on a neighborhood’s trees, plants, and animal habitat.

Studies show access to nature is associated with good health — but it also correlates with wealth. The families with large front yards and backyards and lush neighborhood parks are wealthier. Less-expensive homes, multifamily structures, and dense housing often sit next to asphalt alleyways. These residents share their outdoor space with traffic and trash bins and can’t easily grow food or relax in the shade of trees. In a 2014 study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, a team of researchers found also that this is true for neighborhoods with greater concentrations of Black or Hispanic people, who “lack health-promoting and activity-inviting environmental resources.” That was certainly the case for the Inukai Family Boys and Girls Club, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood where residents had to trek a full mile to the nearest park.

Recently, cities have been rethinking their hard alleys. Montreal has an official Ruelle Verte (“Green Alley”) program encompassing more than 250 back routes that have been turned into gardens, play spaces, and neighborhood gathering spots. And in Detroit, a green-business incubator and a brewery teamed up to do a demonstration Green Alley project with absorbent pavers and native plants. It went so well, the neighborhood treats the area like a minipark — people even take formal photos there.

Softening the Cities

Reclaiming paved spaces like alleys sometimes means just planting gardens along the edges of the concrete. Other times, it means ripping out asphalt entirely.

The official depave movement began with a single Portland lot in 2007. A man named Arif Khan moved into a house whose backyard was completely paved over, but Khan wanted a garden. He and some friends discussed how to go about it, then hit on the idea of just taking it out by hand themselves. Ted Labbe was one of those friends, and he still serves on the board of what is now Depave Portland. Over the past decade, the nonprofit has inspired other Depave organizations around the U.S., plus in Canada and the United Kingdom.

The original chapter has now done more than 125 depavings, according to Labbe, most recently the Inukai Family Boys and Girls Club in October. Following what has become its playbook, Depave helped raise $38,000 for the project and secured the proper permits. The asphalt was scored into square “brownies” the day before. Around 100 people fueled up with donated coffee, juice, and bananas, and as speakers blared Latin pop, pried up the asphalt with huge crowbars. They flipped the squares over, broke them up, and wheeled the chunks to dumpsters.

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

The Portland chapter of Depave has done more than 125 depavings, most recently the Inukai Family Boys and Girls Club in October 2018.

photo by Saxon Holt; Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene

The asphalt was scored and broken up, then volunteers took the chunks away. The play area is now being planted. photos from depave portland

The Boys and Girls Club sought out a local artist, Arturo Villaseñor, to paint a mural on the building wall along the area. Villaseñor was surprised when people started walking along the alley and snapping pictures as he worked. The lot is still dirt and waiting for plantings, but he believes the green space will serve as a combination community plaza and garden. “There is a tradition, especially in Latin American cities, of a plaza with maybe a gazebo. It’s important for the community,” he says.

Reducing Flooding

The idea of returning alleys to nature has taken hold in Nashville. Record flooding in 2010 made the city reevaluate its use of alleys and adjacent paved spaces. The Cumberland River Compact launched a Green Alley program to plant rain gardens along 150 alleys to help absorb increasing stormwater.

Along an alley on a humid Tennessee summer day, Compact’s program manager, Will Caplenor, gave a tour, showing off coneflower and echinacea as carpenter bees circled for a landing. Nearby, a resident walked a dog. “Here locally there’s a big endeavor to make our streets more complete, to make our streets more walkable, bikeable, livable,” he said. “There’s no reason alleys can’t be part of that, can’t be part of your walkable thoroughfares in your neighborhoods.”

The nonprofit has undertaken some depaving. Caplenor traveled to Portland to learn from the Depave team there before launching Depave Nashville. Both Nashville’s green alleys and adjacent depaved spaces “are accomplishing the same goals,” Caplenor says. “Beyond stormwater capturing, I see wildlife habitat and aesthetic sense of place [for people] as the real benefits.”

The Cumberland River Compact completed its first depaving with the Greater Nashville Unitarian Universalist Congregation, which had a parking lot on top of a hill that caused flooding problems. Nathanael Reveal, the church’s board president, also wanted churchgoers and neighborhood residents to feel more connected to the natural world. And so, on a hot Saturday, 40 volunteers ripped out 150,000 pounds of asphalt.

At the end of the sweaty day, Reveal was walking across the freshly exposed dirt with an 8-year-old student when they saw a butterfly touch down. “We’d both been through that space hundreds of times and never seen anything like that. That was a profound moment,” Reveal says.

“We thought, It’s already starting. Nature is already showing up and getting back to work.”

Country Lanes in the City

Researchers agree that green alleys are good for both nature and community.

Michael Martin, a landscape architecture professor at Iowa State University, began studying “soft” alleys nearly three decades ago. Observing the unpaved back routes of the cities where he had lived — Eugene, Oregon, and Ames, Iowa — gave him rich research material. He found he could ramble along them like country lanes. A soft alley might be 11 feet wide but usually had a soil edge of several more feet along the pavement. That strip of earth could host both wild and cultivated plants, from buckthorn to blackberry bushes.

There are downsides to raw back alleys, to be sure. Susan Jasper, Martin’s neighbor in Ames, plants hostas on the fence along hers, but they’re often run over by neighbors. Dust and potholes annoy her, too. Still, “When I go for walks, I choose to go down alleys,” she says. “They are fun and offer behind-the-scenes looks at life.”

Martin agrees, calling them “an important cultural landscape resource.” Kids tend to play and adults socialize and plant gardens along them. “It provides a connection with people of your block … a really interesting mix of culture and nature.”

Back in Portland, Schutz says she can’t wait to watch the Boys and Girls Club kids play outside in their new alleyside space, even digging in the dirt. “It’s healing, and they’ll go on in their lives to want to engage with nature.”

The project, she says, is “the most incredible thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

Mushrooms Clean Up Our Toxic Messes

Nature’s oil spill sponge

At the Española Healing Foods Oasis in Española, New Mexico, Pueblo dryland farming techniques are on display in a downtown public park. The garden, designed and planted by the Indigenous-led organization Tewa Women United, demonstrates how food and medicine can be grown in an environment that receives just 11 inches of rain per year. But they have a problem: The soils are toxic.

Petroleum from a nearby parking lot percolates into the soil when it rains. Tewa Women United hopes oyster mushrooms will clean up the mess.

It’s worked before.

Mycologist Peter McCoy explains that in a process called mycoremediation, mushrooms have the ability to remove chemicals from soil — and heavy metals from water — through their mycelium.

“They’re sort of nature’s greatest decomposers, disassemblers, by far better than and more powerful than bacteria, animals, and plants,” said McCoy. “They break all kinds of stuff down.”

Mushrooms have helped remove petroleum from soil everywhere from Orleans, California, where they cleaned up a small motor-oil-and-diesel-fuel spill at a community center, to the Ecuadorian Amazon, where they’re being used to clean up the largest land-based oil spill in history.

Beata Tsosie-Peña of Santa Clara Pueblo is the program coordinator at Tewa Women United. She said her elders experience disease, illness, and miscarriage as a result of pollution in the area.

It’s not just the soils in the garden that are contaminated. At nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory, hexavalent chromium, a heavy metal and known carcinogen, is seeping into the water supply.

A coalition including Tewa Women United is advocating, through public testimony in a permit renewal process, that the laboratory use mycoremediation to clean up the heavy metals. They don’t yet know whether their recommendations will result in more stringent cleanup requirements. In the meantime, Tewa Women United is doing what it can to clean up petroleum at the Foods Oasis.

In April 2018, the organization buried bricks inoculated with oyster mushroom mycelium. They plan to test the soil in spring 2019 to see how the remediation worked.

“I think the mainstream view is that these places have been lost to us because they’re contaminated,” Tsosie-Peña said. “But to me, it’s like you wouldn’t just abandon your sick grandmother in the hospital to suffer alone.

“That’s how we feel about these places. They’re sick. They need healing. They need our love and attention more than ever.”

Mushrooms will eat anything

Fungi are the primary decomposers in most environments. They have developed unique tools for breaking down hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals.

It’s the enzymes

Scientists have identified more than 120 enzymes in the tissues of mushroom-forming fungi. These enzymes can break down toxic chemicals, including cancer-causing hydrocarbons found in oil.

Illustration from De Agostini Picture Library

Local mushrooms

Native mushroom species are best adapted to local conditions and therefore do the best job of cleaning up toxic messes.

Illustration from De Agostini Picture Library

It happens underground

Hydrocarbons with molecular weights are easier for the mycelium (the underground part of the fungus) to digest than those with higher ones. However, the mycelium gradually breaks heavier hydrocarlowerbons into lighter-weight compounds that are less harmful to people and the environment. With repeated fungal treatments, oil toxins can be rendered nontoxic.

Illustration from De Agostini Picture Library

Add some compost

Oyster mushroom mycelia break down hydrocarbons much more effectively when mixed with wood chips and compost. Researchers found one strain of oil-eating oyster mushroom that thrives in saltwater environments. The mycelium fully colonizes straw soaked with seawater.

Healthy soil

In one test, researchers inoculated diesel-contaminated soil with oyster mushrooms and found that they reduced the concentration of toxic hydrocarbons from a dangerous 10,000 parts per million to just 200 parts per million over a 16-week period. The remediated soil was so clean that regulators approved it for use in landscaping along highways.

Source:  Research by Paul Stamets, Fungi.com. Illustrations  from De Agostini Picture Library, Mark Longworth, Dorling Kindersley / Getty. Yes! Magazine Infographic, 2010 and 2019.

What to do with 1.5 million acres of strip-mining rubble in Central Appalachia’s devastated economies?

Enter the Elk

In Buchanan County, Virginia, a 2,600-acre former strip mine site is being restored with wildlife

In Buchanan County, Virginia, a 2,600-acre former strip mine site is being restored with wildlife in mind: seeding with native plants, removing invasive species, improving the soil, and reintroducing an elk population. photo by Leon Boyd

The camera wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Clad in chest waders and camouflage, Kyle Hill stepped into the pond, reached into the shallow water, and lifted it from the post where it had been mounted. “They got it pretty good,” he said.

A few hundred yards away were the culprits: Rocky Mountain elk, lurking at the interface between scrubby woods and sparse grassland. Overhead, patches of clouds moved briskly across a blue November sky in southwest Virginia. The sheared ground of this former strip mine was unnaturally flat and a sharp contrast to the crinkled mountain ridges of late-autumn brown that stood layer upon layer on the horizon. The animals were slowly fading into the pine and autumn olive, leaving just one who boldly remained in the open — a large bull with antlers reaching more than 3 feet from its head.

Hill is a senior environmental science major at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He was here with biology professor Wally Smith to study the impact of the elk in the area.

These elk are members of a herd released onto the site of a former strip mine outside the town of Grundy in Buchanan County, Virginia. They’re part of a larger population now spread across Central Appalachia, where the ungulates are at the center of a pioneering new environmental and economic landscape on the literal remnants of Central Appalachia’s coal industry. It’s the kind of habitat that elk prefer — open country, with grasses, forbs, and low shrubs, and pockets of wooded areas. Elk once were native to these mountains, but the population was driven to extinction by habitat loss and overhunting.

This land has been mined by multiple companies for decades. A sign on the gated road into the property reads, “Dominion Coal Company, Mine #10.” It’s from an earlier mining operation, with underground mines burrowing deep into the earth. More recently, Paramont Coal Co. removed the mountaintop to get at the coal beneath the surface, leaving behind a flat terrain covered in grass, scrub, and pine.

That’s how mountaintop-removal mining works — blowing up the top few hundred feet of mountain to expose coal seams. After the coal is stripped, mine companies are legally required to do some restoration, which usually involves replacing the exploded soil and rock — rubble — covering it with a layer of topsoil, and seeding it with anything that will hold the ground together. Even under optimal conditions, mountaintop removal severely disrupts the ecology and environmental quality of large sites. A 2016 Duke University study found the technique has left parts of Appalachia 40 percent flatter.

Central Appalachian communities are burdened with more than a million acres of these flattened mountains, many of which have been restored on the cheap. Faced with the quandary of what to do with these problematic lands, several states have used them as reintroduction sites for elk in hopes of enriching the habitat for diverse animal species. And the hopes that follow involve some economic revival in coal country from tourist dollars spent by wildlife watchers and, eventually, hunters.

Guide Leon Boyd pulled up in a truck to join them. He’d been up the ridge getting a different camera back online. That tower-mounted camera streams to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website.

Boyd is a vice president at an oil and gas drilling company in nearby Vansant who has become a local champion for elk restoration. He heads up the Southwestern Virginia Coalfields Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a group of volunteers that partners with Game and Inland Fisheries and other agencies to restore the 2,600-acre former strip mine site by seeding it with native plants, improving the soil, removing invasive species, and generally trying to create ideal wildlife habitat.

A 2011 study by John Cox, a wildlife ecology and conservation biology professor at the University of Kentucky, suggested that elk are a keystone species that “act as habitat modifiers through grazing, trampling, wallowing, and uprooting of existing vegetation.”

Hunters were happy, and so were biologists. “We started making more open areas that had a lot of autumn olive and locust, and seeding them with orchard grasses and clovers,” Boyd said.

“The number of white-tailed deer and black bear and turkey we see come in and utilize those food sources is amazing. That’s what’s got the wildlife biologists so excited.”

By breaking up the otherwise forested landscape and creating ponds and other wetlands, these open grasslands attract insects, amphibians, and migratory songbirds.

Wildlife restoration is just one of the new uses of about 1.5 million acres of Central Appalachian land affected by strip- and mountaintop-removal-mining since the 1970s. Other communities have turned their land into sites for solar energy farms, outdoor recreation hubs, industrial parks, and more. A coalition of advocacy groups recently released a list spotlighting 20 different projects at reclaimed mines in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Elk have proven a powerful draw for Central Appalachian communities, especially since the effort engages hunters, who have historically proven to be a powerful group when it comes to funding conservation efforts.

But elk restoration also has its downsides.

Many former strip mines are reclaimed with the goal of stabilizing the ground so that it doesn’t all run off with a heavy rainfall. Remnants of the rock and soil removed to expose coal are replaced with new material that’s graded and seeded, often with non­native species like autumn olive, which is known for holding soil. As a result, soil on reclaimed mine sites tends to be tightly compacted, which makes it difficult for vegetation to take root. A 2008 study published in the journal Ecological Applications found that reclaimed mine land was poorer in nutrients, had more severe storm runoff, and resulted in major changes to vegetation, wildlife, and soil structure.

Despite habitat improvement efforts by Leon Boyd and other volunteers, the landscape is covered with broom sage, a sign of poor soil fertility. One of the few running streams on-site flows out from one of the old deep mines.

Yet wildlife is showing up. It’s not just elk, but songbirds, dragonflies, damselflies, bullfrogs, and waterfowl.

Jennifer Franklin, a professor in the University of Tennessee’s Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, said elk damage trees and keep the landscape more open, which “is bad if you want to grow timber, but good if you are a golden-winged warbler.”

“The main impact of elk is on the vegetation, although the development of soils and vegetation go hand in hand,” Franklin said. “Elk could improve the soil organic matter by defecating on the site, but at the same time, some studies have found that elk grazing can increase soil compaction and reduce some soil nutrients.

“They also bring in soil microorganisms and seeds because they frequently move between the forest and reclaimed mine site. This could help to reestablish soil biota and nutrient cycling on soils that were initially void of microorganisms after reclamation.”

A 2011 study by John Cox, a wildlife ecology and conservation biology professor at the University of Kentucky, suggested that elk are a keystone species that “act as habitat modifiers through grazing, trampling, wallowing, and uprooting of existing vegetation.”

Sometimes that habitat modification can benefit other species, as in the case of an elk wallow becoming a small wetland used by waterfowl, said David Kalb, a biologist with Virginia’s Game and Inland Fisheries department.

One of the few running streams on the site flows out from one of the old deep mines.

Despite habitat improvement efforts, the landscape is covered with broom sage, a sign of poor soil fertility. One of the few running streams on the site flows out from one of the old deep mines. Yet wildlife is showing up. photo by Mason Adams

“Restoration into meadows creates opportunities for elk on the landscape, but also for these less common or rare birds that need that habitat to take advantage of it,” Kalb said. “A whole host of amphibian species that need small vernal pools can take advantage of the small ponds and wallows that elk create.”

But that activity can also disrupt local ecologies by causing erosion and transporting invasive plants.

“On the edge of surface mines, elk have created wide movement paths as they enter and exit forests during their daily activities,” Cox wrote in his study. “In these areas, erosion is readily visible, where soils have been excavated by trampling hooves, particularly on steeper slopes.”

Research has confirmed that elk disturb soil in areas where they are bedding, resulting in less soil moisture, less leaf litter, and less vegetation. By disrupting the natural ecological succession toward hardwood forest, however, they’re also creating spaces for other wildlife.

“It’s a double-edged sword with elk,” Cox said. “They’re back doing the work they’re supposed to be doing in the landscape, even though it’s a denatured sort of alien landscape in some ways. These grasslands are providing habitat for grassland bird and shrub-scrub species that are declining in the U.S. Now migratory warblers are coming in. The elk help maintain that.”

One reason Leon Boyd’s elk cameras are important is to get the elk herd before a worldwide audience. The camera’s accompanying website links to a public comment form for the state’s proposed 10-year elk management plan for the herd in Dickenson, Wise, and Buchanan counties. The plan includes guidelines for growing the elk population before opening it to hunting. Another reason for keeping the camera going: Livestreamers might eventually decide to come view the elk in person.

Wildlife viewing has become a pillar in the growing outdoor recreation industry of many Central Appalachian communities in the aftermath of coal’s dominance.

Places gifted with beautiful scenery see outdoor recreation as a path toward rebuilding their economies. The welcome signs in Buchanan County, for instance, bill it as “Nature’s Wonderland.”

Elk restoration adds another attraction to the marketing of the region as an outdoor destination.

“The elk viewing tours are one of about six things that we really kind of publicize as our adventure offerings, including zip line, mountain bike and e-bike rentals, whitewater rafting trips, guided adventure hikes, and rock climbing,” said Austin Bradley, superintendent at Breaks Interstate Park, which is located on the Kentucky–­Virginia state line.

Breaks started offering elk-viewing tours in 2015, three years after the Virginia elk population was introduced. In 2018, about 400 people went on elk tours, Bradley said, including free trips for school groups, economic development professionals, and elected officials.

“For a really long time, this park and this entire region were so heavily focused on mining,” Bradley said. “Even here at the park, the coal miners came in and ate at our restaurant, they camped at our campground, and coal companies had large employee appreciation events in the summer and Christmas parties in the winter. All that dried up. We were really getting in some pretty dire straits.

“But that outdoor recreation and adventure tourism focus to reach a broader audience has definitely paid off. We’ll set a revenue record this year. The elk help us reach a broader audience.”

Across the state line in Kentucky, elk have had an even more transformative effect on mountain economies.

The Bluegrass State began studying elk reintroduction in the 1990s, released its first herds in 1997, and opened hunting in 2001. Kentucky has seen its elk population in the 16-county region grow from 1,541 introduced animals to more than 10,000. About 10 percent of the area is reclaimed and active surface mines.

A 2013 study from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources estimated that hunters spend $1.9 million annually in the elk region. Licenses and permits bring another $800,000. These figures don’t factor in nonconsumptive users, such as wildlife watchers.

“If you go to places like Louisville or Paducah or Lexington, $1.9 million is nice, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to other revenue sources,” said Steven Dobey, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s conservation program manager for the eastern U.S. “But when you go to eastern Kentucky and that 16-county elk zone, and spread that over gas stations, hotels, hunting stores, that does have a significant economic impact.”

A study on five Tennessee counties where elk populations have been restored counted about $10.25 million in total economic value.

As Hill and Smith set up the last of their wildlife cameras, the weather had started to turn. The temperature had dropped, and clouds coalesced overhead and started to spit cold rain.

Boyd recounted hunting and wildlife-watching stories.

He clearly believes in the restorative power of the elk. He described a group of birders he’d brought to the site who expected the former strip mine to look like a moonscape. At one point in time it did. But by the end of the day, he said, the most skeptical birders were the most enthusiastic, gushing about the 27 species they’d seen that day.

“You’ve just got to get out and see the site,” Boyd said. “Then you’ll really understand it.”

The Science Behind Mud’s Magic

For thousands of years, mud has been wallowed in and slathered on for both medicine and beauty. Does it really work?

Me'Lea Connelly

photo by stanzel ullstein bild / Getty Images

On a recent vacation to the Sicilian island of Pantelleria, I went straight for the mud. Alongside tourists and locals at the Lago di Venere thermal springs and mud baths, I slathered myself with the sulfuric-smelling ooze, then baked in the sun until the mud cracked. Surely this had to be cleansing; it was such a pristine, uncommercial place. I couldn’t detect specific physical improvements, but I did feel rejuvenated.

I wanted to get to the bottom of all the fuss about mud — mud masks for beauty, mud baths for health, mud runs for fun, and garden soil for healing. We’re a nation in which clean is good and people carry antibacterial gel everywhere, yet soil and mud continue to fascinate us.

I tried to reconnect to some of that Sicilian indulgent healing with a mud treatment at an urban spa in New York. I was body-painted with a cold mud-and-matcha mixture, wrapped neck to toes in aluminum sheets, and left for 20 minutes on a heated massage table. With no limbs free, there was nothing to do but relax. Postshower, I had an immediate feeling of lightness, a distinct absence of my usual lower back pain developed after decades of commitment to high-intensity fitness. The euphoric, pain-free lightness didn’t last more than 48 hours, but it made me curious: Does mud have that kind of power?


Science tells us that healthy mud, or wet soil, is rich with minerals and other nutrients, alive with worms, fungi, and bacteria, and all of their byproducts. It has been used for cleansing and healing rituals for millennia. And Egyptian queen Cleopatra allegedly used wraps made from Dead Sea mud as a beauty treatment.

Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, a mask treatment developer, says that the benefits of mud body treatments are usually immediate and obvious: The skin changes, blood flow changes, and muscles relax. “They’re a great exfoliator,” Bhanusali says. A key is in the minerals. Kaolinite, bentonite, magnesium, potassium, and other minerals in mud and clay masks imperceptibly abrade the skin and dislodge impurities, he says, and the minerals in mud also help retain heat, which helps relax muscles, stimulate blood flow, and improve lymphatic system cleansing.

Calistoga, at the top of California’s Napa Valley, is a well-known American spot for mud baths and thermal springs. The area’s proximity to long-dormant volcanic craters means mud made from prime volcanic ash. At Indian Springs, the oldest local spa, the ash is collected every week, sifted to refine it to a silky texture, then blended with boiling water from nearby geysers. The thermal waters and mud in the area are believed to have been used for restorative purposes and as a curative for insect stings and sunburn by the Wappo tribe as far back as 4,000 years ago.

At Indian Springs, your treatment might go like this: Usually nude, you will settle from the neck down into a tub of mud for about 10 minutes. (You can wear clothes, but they will never be the same.) You’re buoyant. The mud is warm (104 degrees) and heavy, like a weighted blanket — an invitation to relax. Afterward, you shower off, then enjoy a warm mineral water soak for up to 15 more minutes. That is followed by a relaxing five minutes in a steam room. Finally, there is a cooldown and a nap.

Is it a miracle cure, or just about the relaxing alone time? No one makes any promises, but assistant spa director Susan McCarthy says long-term clients swear by it for a variety of ills, from eczema to aching backs.

The thermal waters and mud in Calistoga, at the top of California’s Napa Valley, are believed to have been used for restorative purposes and as a curative for insect stings and sunburn by the Wappo tribe as far back as 4,000 years ago.

There are some promising discoveries to explain their dedication. A 2018 Dead Sea study reports that mud pack treatments helped people with fibromyalgia pain. A study published in Arthritis Research and Therapy says that the condition “may be relieved by the hydrostatic pressure and the effects of temperature on the nerve endings” as well as by muscle relaxation. It goes on to explain that the “glow” after a mud treatment isn’t only on the outside; the “thermal mud baths increase plasma levels of beta-endorphin.” That endorphin is a powerful pain suppressor and it influences our mood, possibly explaining a mud bath’s calming effect.

In 2002, the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology reported the results of a small study done specifically with mud treatments for knee arthritis. A group treated with natural mineral-rich mud compresses had a significant reduction in knee pain. The control group, given mineral-depleted mud compresses, had no significant change.

As the rheumatology study suggests, not just any wet dirt will do. Skin is a massive, porous organ, and mineral-and microbe-rich soil matters.


There are records of soil having been studied and pursued as external physical remedies in ancient India, Rome, China, and even for internal consumption to cure ailments in European traditional medicines. Descriptions of medical applications can be found in Sanskrit.

In the 1800s, when Western scientists became interested in the components of soil, they found that within fertile soil, there is constant action and interaction of live organisms and dead organisms. When live and dead organisms interact, a third type of organic matter develops: humic substances. This interaction supports the development of fossil fuels as well as the growth of food, nature-based remedies, and ultimately medicines.

The work of David Newman, retired chief of the Natural Products Branch of the National Cancer Institute, connects fertile soil and these curative humic substances. Nature has long provided the “chemical scaffolds” of medicines and other healing agents, he and colleague Gordon M. Cragg write. These structures evolved over millennia as plant microrganisms adapted to threats in the natural world. Newman and Cragg cite a report from the American Academy of Microbiology that indicates “less than 1 percent of bacterial and 5 percent of fungal species are currently known, and the potential of novel microbial sources, particularly those found in extreme environments, seems unbounded.”

To that end, health researchers are looking closely at humic substances as remedies.

A 2017 World Journal of Gastroenterology study showed that in healthy volunteers who were given oral supplements of humic acids, colonic microbiota increased from 20 percent to 30 percent without changes in the bacterial diversity of the person’s microbiome. The researchers proposed that this could help people with digestive disorders and replace probiotics.

Another humic substance, fulvic acid, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for 3,000 years. There’s still scant modern research on it, but according to a 2018 study review article in the Journal of Diabetes Research, fulvic acid shows promise for preventing chronic inflammatory diseases, such as diabetes. Though the results are controversial, some research has shown that it may “modulate the immune system, influence the oxidative state of cells, and improve gastrointestinal function; all of which are hallmarks of diabetes,” the report states.

The Monihei carnival takes place in Cangyuan, in southwest China

The Monihei carnival takes place in Cangyuan, in southwest China’s Yunnan Province, each April. It is derived from the Wa ethnic group’s tradition of smearing mud to bestow health and happiness. photo by VCG / Getty Images


Not surprisingly, we’re hard-wired to get dirty. Humans become aware of their surroundings as babies and hone that awareness as they begin crawling on the ground. Babies’ senses are stimulated by dirt and microbes. Getting dirty as children helps us develop our internal composition of microbes that help our bodies adapt to the world.

“There’s a reason children put their hands in their mouths,” says Dr. Jack Gilbert, microbiome specialist, co-author of Dirt Is Good, and co-director of the crowdsourced American Gut Project. “Their oral interaction with the microbial world helps to train their immune system to be more robust.”

And it’s important to continue developing that system. He says that it’s important to stimulate the immune system as frequently as possible. Even as adults, when we’re in and around dirt, we inhale and ingest soil particles, which, it turns out, is good for us.

A 2017 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health review on the benefits of nature sums it up. In addition to the direct sensory benefits of the outdoors, such as feeling fresh air and sun and smelling and touching plants and the ground, there are nonsensory benefits. Being exposed to fertile soil has positive effects on our microbiome, and that affects brain function and behavior.

We take in soil microorganisms through our sensory organs and onto our skin directly. Some of these microorganisms may be missing and needed in our gut for our bodies to function properly.

The 2017 report succinctly connects the dots. “Humans co-evolved with microbes for over 500 million years, and this has led to a symbiotic relationship, where bidirectional neuronal, hormonal, and immunological signals are exchanged between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. … (Soil) bacteria are commonly found in the gut, and while they cannot replicate there, were present in our ancestors due to exposure through mud and water. Repeated exposure to these organisms was found to lead to a tolerance response to stress, and indeed continued exposure to environmental organisms is necessary to maintain the diversity of gut microbiota.”

The science seems to be saying … let your kids jump in the mud puddles. And adults should consider walking barefoot in the grass and gardening without gloves.

Dr. Maya Shetreat, integrative neurologist and author of The Dirt Cure, says, “We have developed this idea that being sterile or hygienic is good and healthy, and being dirty is bad. The irony is that the instinct to be in the dirt, to be in nature, is actually healthy for us in many ways.”

Anne Biklé, biologist and co-author of The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, says that throughout evolution humans were constantly exposed to the microbiota of the soil. “We walked on it, handled it, had physical proximity to nature. In our modern lives, structures of home and cars, clothing and shoes, have created physical barriers to the microbial world.” While some barriers are obviously beneficial, she adds, “It’s a double-edged sword. … The more we put up barriers, the more we reduce our human microbiomes.”

When adults do decide to muck around, the garden is often a healthy place to do it. Biklé, a serious gardener herself who converted her lifeless backyard into a thriving garden says, “Because of the interaction with [healthy] soil microbes and what’s happening to their microbiomes — gardeners tend to be happier, healthier.”

Which brings up mud just for the fun of it. In recent years, many people are jumping back into muddy child’s play at full throttle.

Since its creation in 2010, about 3.5 million people have participated in Tough Mudder events. And at the Louisiana Mudfest in Colfax, along the Red River, people race open vehicles through acres of mud ponds every spring. The Boryeong Mud Festival attracts large global participation. Every July near Seoul, South Korea, anyone game can partake in mud wrestling and tug-of-war, mud baths and masks, and family-friendly mud rides.

Maya Shetreat says that for some, mudslinging is a way to reconnect to your own wildness. “It’s intuitive to us — to get dirty.”

Gifts of Good Dirt

“I believe food should be free, and it actually can be free.”

photos by Kevin Holtham

photos by Kevin Holtham

It took more than two decades for Kevin Holtham, 49, to formulate what he reckons is the perfect soil mixture. And he’s working just as hard at giving it away.

Holtham comes from a farmer lineage in Niagara County, western New York, but his home for the past 15 years has been Charlotte, North Carolina. There, he collects compostable waste that people are happy to get rid of and uses it to cultivate his land.

Each week, Holtham rounds up several thousand pounds of plant-based food waste and wood chips from restaurants and contractors around town. The food goes to a landfill if he doesn’t take it, and workers who would otherwise have to pay to dump their wood waste are eager for him to take it off their hands.

“One of my biggest problems was I can’t afford to buy all this soil,” Holtham said. “So I figured out how to do it with wood chips and food waste, and then suddenly you’re negating a huge waste problem. Soil is being made from food waste 100 percent free, and it’s just up to me to do all the hard work.”

Holtham’s special soil recipe requires mixing a medley of composted carrots, beets, and kale with the wood chips. He learned that the fertility of compost is largely contingent upon its carbon-to-nitrogen ratio; the vegetables provide a source of nitrogen, the wood emits carbon. The microbial breakdown of the organic material produces heat as a by-product, causing the mixture to homogenize within three months. Holtham places that into his worm bin to infuse it with microbes and nutrients from the castings.

Kevin Holtham’s Soil Recipe

1. Carbon to nitrogen, 4 to 1: Carbon is dead things; wood chips create a nice surface area for aerobic bacteria. Nitrogen is food scraps and green things.

2. Heat: The piles should get to 120 degrees from bacterial activity.

3. Water: Keep a 50 percent moisture level.

4. Aeration: He uses a little tiller to go through the rows every few days.

5. Extra nutrients: A microbial finish in the worm bin.

6. Time: About three months.

Though he can imagine his operation as an income-generating business, Holtham prefers to give away his soil and educate others on how to build it. In that way, increasing food sustainability and access is at the heart of his initiative.

Holtham estimates that so far he’s given a couple dump truck loads of soil away. He’s created around 30 gardens in four states within the past decade, all free of charge. Neighbors know they can come to him with buckets, he said, and he’ll send them off with his soil mixture. He’s also given soil to the Bulb, an organization that provides fresh produce and educational tools to communities in food deserts.

Last April, Holtham gave soil to friend and local herbalist Brandon Ruiz and taught him how to make soil on his own. Ruiz said that knowledge will give him better access to food and medicinal plants regardless of his financial situation.

“That was just really significant to me with wanting to really encourage sovereignty, whether it’s over food or herbalism — all the things relating to our health,” Ruiz said of Holtham’s gift. “Our soil is where it all starts, and so being able to do that and learn how to create it on my own is really powerful.”

Across the country in California, soil also came in the form of a gift to Lake Tahoe resident Susi Lippuner.

Lippuner, 60, always wanted to garden, but she just couldn’t get started. Living high in the mountains poses unique challenges — hard soil, a short growing season, and severe weather. Moreover, Lippuner’s sensitivities to a number of environmental irritants have made most yard work unbearable.

So last spring, neighbor Polly Ryan assembled a vegetable patch for Lippuner outside of her mobile home using leftover topsoil, chicken manure, worm castings, and seedlings from her own garden. Lippuner then added an irrigation system.

She grew cauliflower, bok choy, and several varieties of kale.

“I would enjoy being out at night, just as the sun was going down, watering my plants and cultivating life.”

Now she’s paying the gift forward. Lippuner estimates that she gave away about half of her first harvest to neighbors. It’s been “a bonding experience and community building in a small way,” she said.

For similar reasons, Holtham plans to expand his agricultural projects to include other Charlotte-based farmers and food groups who can assist with materials and labor. This could make a larger impact.

The majority of people interested in his soil generally have an affinity for growing their own food. He hopes to help others who might not — especially those who are food insecure.

“I believe food should be free, and it actually can be free,” Holtham said. “Because soil is free and seeds are free. You can go to the store and buy 30 seeds of red amaranth. Those 30 plants grow and they give out millions of seeds. So you have amaranth for life.”

The Climate Solution Right Under Us

The ideas behind regenerative farming are simple and ancient.

YES! Illustration by Pablo Iglesias

Regenerative farming practices — such as composting, incorporating animal grazing, diversifying crops — prioritize soil health. Fertile soil stores more carbon. This sequestration solution is not just for agriculture. A recent study found that better management of forests, grasslands, and soils in the United States could absorb as much as 21 percent of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. PHOTO BY GUIDO LOIS

There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. — Rumi

The way to stop climate change might be buried in 300 square feet of earth in the Venice neighborhood of Los ­Angeles, amid kale and potatoes. Half a dozen city youth are digging through the raised bed on a quiet side street, planting tomato seedlings between peach and lime trees. Nineteen-year-old ­Calvin sweats as he works the rake. There’s a lot at stake here: The formerly homeless youngsters are tentatively exploring farming through a community outreach program started by a California nonprofit called Kiss the Ground. More importantly, they are tending to the future of our planet.

“Soil just might save us,” filmmaker Josh Tickell says, “but we are going to have to save it first.” He wrote that in his 2017 book, also called Kiss the Ground, after becoming deeply invested in the potential of soil to reverse climate change. (The nonprofit supports the book and Tickell’s upcoming documentary about it, though he has no role with the organization.) He has experienced both soil and climate change intimately. He started to work on farms over two decades ago for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and in 2017 he and his family had to leave their home in Ojai, fleeing devastating wildfires.

Even as most of the world works to reduce emissions, new studies confirm that it will be impossible to stop climate change without changing agriculture. Soil degradation is slowly turning a third of the world into desert. At this rate, fertile soil will be depleted in 60 years.

What exactly does soil have to do with climate change? In the atmosphere, too much carbon overheats the climate. But in the ground, carbon is useful.

Loss of topsoil releases carbon into the air. Modern petroleum-fueled agriculture, beginning around 1930, has released 50 to 70 percent of soil’s carbon into the atmosphere. In a report last year, the U.N. warned that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased at record speed to hit a level not seen for more than 3 million years.

“The irony is that bringing carbon into the soil solves multiple global problems,” Tickell says in Kiss the Ground. “It reduces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it increases the fertility of the soil, it helps farmers grow more, and it allows the oceans to release the CO2 that threatens to acidify the phytoplankton that produce so much of the oxygen we breathe.”

And there’s a simple way to get it into the ground. Instead of complicated bioengineering projects that attempt to trap carbon underground, initiatives such as Kiss the Ground’s propose that the best machines for binding the carbon in the ground already exist: plants.

“They break the CO2 from the atmosphere down into its components and sequester the carbon in the soil,” explains Don Smith, the organization’s research director. Modern agriculture that is focused on industrial efficiencies and profits disturbs this natural process, mainly through tilling, monocultures, and overuse of synthetic chemicals. “But methods such as composting, perennial plants, and biodiversity help regenerate the soil.”

The idea behind regenerative farming is simple and ancient: The mother soil, which nurtures the harvest, in turn has to be nurtured and protected.

“The [plants] use sunlight as energy, pull the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, turn it into carbon fuel, and that’s how they grow,” explains The Soil Will Save Us author Kristin Ohlson in Tickell’s documentary. “They send 40 percent of that carbon fuel down to their roots, and that’s one of the ways carbon gets fixed in soil.”

Researchers for the French government estimate that the Earth can sequester 6 gigatons of CO2 in the soil yearly through planting the right kind of crops, thus compensating for the 4.3 gigatons of CO2 humanity emits into the atmosphere every year.

How realistic is this? Whendee Silver, lead researcher for the Marin Carbon Project and an ecosystem ecologist at the University of California at Berkeley, has calculated that if as little as 5 percent of California’s rangelands were coated with a thin layer of compost, the resulting carbon sequestration would offset the annual greenhouse emissions of 6 million cars.

Josh Tickell has experienced both soil and climate change intimately.

Josh Tickell has experienced both soil and climate change intimately. He’s worked on farms for more than two decades, and in 2017 he and his family fled the devastating wildfires in Ojai. Photo from Kiss the Ground

In the Santa Ynez Valley, the Ted Chamberlin Ranch became the first ranch in Southern California to implement a large-scale carbon farming plan. A quarter-inch layer of compost applied two years ago increased the grazing land’s capacity to hold water, and grass production increased 24 percent. These kinds of results give ranchers and farmers economic incentive to help sequester carbon.

In fact, ranchers all over the country who shift to carbon farming find impressive results. Decades ago, in Bismarck, North Dakota, Gabe Brown had almost lost his ranch after several years of drought. He was able to turn it profitable again by working with natural systems, such as abandoning tilling, which disrupts soil. “We have now eliminated the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides. We use minimal herbicide and are striving to eliminate it,” the Brown’s Ranch website states. “We do not use GMOs or glyphosate. Our ever-evolving grazing strategy allows most of our pastures a recovery period of over 360 days.” Brown is considered one of the pioneers of regenerative farming, and his farm is a flourishing model. “These strategies have allowed the health of the soil, the mineral and water cycles to greatly improve. In other words, the natural resources have benefited. This results in increased production, profit, and a higher quality of life for us. We are moving toward sustainability for not only ours, but future generations as well,” the website states.

And the sequestration solution is not just for agriculture. A new study in the journal Science Advances found that better management of forests, grasslands, and soils in the United States could remedy as much as 21 percent of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

“Done correctly,” Tickell says in his book, “the numbers suggest we could sequester most if not all of the CO2 that has been emitted by humanity thus far. … It would not absolve us of having to end the use of coal and petroleum-based fuels … but by using the restorative power of nature, it might give us a chance at a future that keeps a majority of Earth’s ecosystems intact.”

Some experts believe the effect may be more marginal, pointing out that global warming is leading to more wildfires and more wildfires lead to more carbon in the atmosphere. And the pressure of feeding growing populations can lead to more deforestation, more chemicals, more acres of natural land being converted for industrial farming. Outcomes will depend not only on how many farmers and states get on board, but on consumption patterns: how people eat, drink, and shop.

For this reason, Kiss the Ground regularly holds “soil advocate” trainings both at its Venice offices and online, gatherings of people who want to learn more about the connection between soil and climate. Given the potential for carbon sequestration in agriculture, there is a lot of discussion about food choices.

Matthew and Terces Engelhart, founders of the popular vegan chain Café Gratitude and parents of Kiss the Ground co-founder Ryland ­Engelhart, keep chickens and cattle on their farm in Northern California, dubbed the Be Love Farm. After 40 years as vegetarians, they decided to eat the meat from their own farm.

One of the group’s practical guides starts with “Know your food source.” Some of the information is common sense: Eat what’s in season, whole foods instead of processed foods, grow your own, and compost. And some advice is controversial: “Imagine: If 50 percent of the world’s population ate 2,500 calories per day and reduced meat consumption overall, then an estimated 26.7 gigatons of emissions could be avoided from dietary change alone.”

People taking the training are often surprised to find out that sustainable ecological farming — and healthy soil — actually thrives when cattle graze the land. Matthew and Terces Engelhart, founders of the popular vegan chain Café Gratitude and parents of Kiss the Ground co-founder Ryland ­Engelhart, keep chickens and cattle on their farm in Northern California, dubbed the Be Love Farm. After 40 years as vegetarians, they decided to eat the meat from their own farm. The ­Engelharts’ switch caused an outcry among the vegan community; they even received death threats.

Tickell and other Kiss the Ground advocates say the issue is less a question of whether to eat meat, but what kind. “Few know that conventionally farmed food requires 3 pounds of toxic chemicals per American per year. And even fewer know that the process of growing organic produce requires the deaths of vast numbers of animals. Our choice for the future of food therefore is not vegan versus paleo versus omnivore versus vegetarian,” Tickell writes in his book. “Rather, we must choose between a food system that honors and respects the lives of flora, fauna, planet, and people versus a system that demoralizes, dehumanizes, and destroys our biological commons.”

For Tickell and so many others, it’s a down-to-earth solution.

Racial Injustice Unearthed

Soil is a living witness.

Siri Russell, left, and professor Jalane Schmidt collect dirt from a site near Charlottesville, Virginia

Siri Russell, left, and professor Jalane Schmidt collect dirt from a site near Charlottesville, Virginia, where an ancestor of Russell’s, John Henry James, was lynched by a mob 120 years ago. Photo by Michael S. Williamson / washington post

In July 1898, a Black ice cream vendor by the name of John Henry James was accused of assaulting a White woman just west of Charlottesville, Virginia. He was dragged off a moving train by an angry mob, hanged from the branch of a locust tree near the train tracks, and shot multiple times. This past summer, 120 years later, John Henry James was taken on a pilgrimage from Charlottes­ville to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which memorializes the victims of racial violence in the United States. James, symbolically represented by a jar filled with soil collected at the site of his lynching, was accompanied by approximately 100 members of a delegation of Charlottesville residents intent on ushering his allegorical remains to their final resting place. He would join others whose lives have been largely washed away from collective memory.

In opening the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Equal Justice Initiative has documented the brutal lynchings of more than 4,400 African-descended people between 1877 and 1950. Many of them were in 12 Southern states, but more than 300 killings occurred in states outside of the South. This work is bolstered by the organization’s Community Remembrance Project, through which the Equal Justice Initiative has prompted people who live near the sites of lynching deaths to organize soil collection at those locations. The collection often includes a ceremony honoring the life lost and discussion about how a historical narrative addressing these atrocities might be spread more widely. In each community effort, a jar of earth is sent to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, where it joins a growing collection of hundreds of jars of soil, each engraved with the name of a lynching victim (or marked as “unknown”) along with the date and location where the person was killed.

On the bus from Charlottesville that day was Jalane Schmidt, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and one of the organizers of the soil collection and memorial service held in honor of James prior to the pilgrimage. She says the jar full of earth was more than rocks and dirt. “It really felt like an urn with ashes,” she says. James was “the most important passenger on the bus.”

Schmidt had spent the spring of 2018 collecting clues from newspaper archives that hinted at the site of James’ killing: “up the hill,” “near the blacksmith shop,” some “20 steps from the station.” Accompanied by another historian and an arborist, Schmidt compared this information with photographs to determine as accurately as possible the site of James’ death. Later, Schmidt gathered here with community interfaith leaders, the descendant of another lynching victim, a student organizer, and a few city officials, as if for a funeral. During the ceremony, a trio of clergy delivered a litany requesting that attendees continually “say his name,” as soil was scooped slowly into three glass jars etched with the words “John Henry James.” One of the jars would travel to the Equal Justice Initiative museum in Montgomery.

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, displays dirt samples from lynching sites across the country. Each sample has the date of the lynching and the name of the victim. Photo by Ricky Carioti / washington post

Throughout history, humans have used burial rituals to consecrate particular places. Mark Tebeau, an associate professor of public history at Arizona State University who has studied and developed tools to improve the telling of community histories, says organic material has been used to consecrate war memorials since the late 19th century. The involvement of soil in particular “turns [a site] into a grave, it makes it something that is clearly recognizable as sacred,” Tebeau says. This theme has reemerged in the 21st century.

Tebeau is writing a book on the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, where a crypt is filled with soil collected from Turkey, Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, and 24 other countries in 1939 as a gesture of good faith during wartime. It has attracted renewed interest in recent years, including the depositing of additional soil samples from Croatia, Albania, and India.

Tebeau says the use of soil in this case is similar to the use of soil in the lynching memorials, though at a more emblematic level. “The fact that they use soil is an attempt to bridge, to go from symbolic to real funerary spaces,” he says.

The list of United States lynching victims is long, and soil collections and ceremonies in Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and north of the Mason-Dixon line have drawn and involved hundreds of Black, Brown, and White people from a wide range of faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds. Josie Lemon Allen, chief operating officer of Bridge the Gap Coalition and organizer of soil ceremonies in Ocoee, Florida, says that is because “everybody is in need of healing from what happened in this country.” The soil varies from red and clay-filled here to sandy or rocky there. But there is an affinity between gatherings held at the site of each atrocity. Scooping soil in honor of a particular person “is what allows people to actualize that a life was lost,” Allen says.

Karen Jones of Birmingham, Alabama, participated in a soil collection to memorialize the life of another lynching victim, Joe Thompson. Although Jones says having a traditional slab headstone would also have been sacred, using soil “was a greater memorial …just the reliving and the experience brought him back to life,” she says.

left double quoteWe try to allow for every person participating to come up and put a pinch of soil in [the jar] so they, in fact, have a part in the ceremony. — John Ashworth, executive director of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis

Soil has also been put to use in artwork that evokes the people or events it memorializes. Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik is an Oakland, California-based artist and activist whose installation at the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art in Georgia commemorates the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Bhaumik’s work incorporates ashen soil from the Tule Lake Segregation Center in Newell, California, into a wallpaper pattern made from cyanotypes of some of the same kinds of bean plants Japanese American prisoners cultivated in the barren earth at Tule Lake.

Bhaumik says once she identified the medium she intended to work with, she called another Japanese American friend of hers, Mark Baugh-Sasaki, whose father was a prisoner at Tule Lake in the 1940s. As it turned out, Baugh-Sasaki already had 300 pounds of Tule Lake soil packed into buckets and suitcases at his home studio for an upcoming project, and he agreed to give some to Bhaumik.

The two were surprised by their overlapping, highly specific choice of materials. But it was not coincidence. “It’s not just soil,” Bhaumik says. “It’s because it’s so particular and because it’s so fine and this particular color … it is of that place.” She says the ashen soil also evokes descriptions of clouds of dust in the writings of those interned. “You couldn’t get away from it. It was in your ears, in your mouth, just this dust coming from everywhere,” she says. Bhaumik inadvertently produced a dust storm in securing soil on the walls and in the cases of the installation. Much like she had read in memoirs of Tule Lake prisoners, she says, the volcanic soil “came in through the cracks like ants.”

In Memphis, Tennessee, more than 500 people came together in May 2017 to mark the centennial of the death of Ell Persons. The Black woodcutter was lynched alongside the Wolf River a century ago after being blamed for the death of a 16-year-old White girl named Antoinette Rappel. John Ashworth is executive director of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, the community group that organized Persons’ memorial. Ashworth says he has been involved in seven or eight soil ceremonies like this one, resulting in jars of earth sent to join the others in Montgomery, as if filled with remains.

After scooping soil from the banks of the Wolf River, community members, including descendants of Persons and Rappel, gathered around the pile of earth. “We try to allow for every person participating to come up and put a pinch of soil in [the jar] so they, in fact, have a part in the ceremony,” he says. “That in and of itself brings about a certain amount of feeling or connection.” It also aids in communication, in changing the narrative, Ashworth says.

“We did it in Alamo, we did it in Brownsville, we’ve done it a couple times in Memphis … it’s a very cathartic process.” Ashworth says using soil has made the work of interpersonal and historical reconciliation a little bit easier, and in the process given rise to “a renewed sense of each other’s humanity.”