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Earth Etude for Elul 6: As Above, So Below

by Deb Nam-Krane

What is the difference between dry, grey soil that’s one step up from clay, not too far removed from dirt, and dark, rich soil that you could grow almost anything in?

The answer, of course, is biodiversity. As above, so below, as they say. The more diverse the plants above ground, the richer the microbial life and the amazing mycorrhizal network (think “plant internet”) that nutrients travel through. Strong networks and vibrant micro-organisms in turn lead to stronger individual plants that are able to, almost miraculously, fight off the pests so many of us dump poisons on, with diminishing returns. (I promise you, this is true, but you have to try it yourself to believe it.)

But…how much biodiversity? Dr. Christine Jones, the eminent Australian soil scientist, has answered this question. Shorter answer: the more, the better. A plot with five species can still fail to thrive, but at twenty-seven you see the kinds of aggregated, chocolate cake-like soil all farmers (and gardeners) dream of. It would seem that the minimum amount of diversity the soil needs is about a dozen species.

As we begin another cycle of demanding equity in this country, I cannot help but be struck by the parallels between ourselves and our plant kingdom cousins. We thrive in diversity along every measure as much as they do, and when we lack it, we are in as much danger of withering away as they are. For us, applications of biocides are the equivalent of racist or otherwise prejudiced policies that artificially prop up some segment of us at the exclusion of all others, including discriminatory lending, race-based exclusion from government programs like the GI bill, or using race and/or socioeconomic status as the primary determinants of what classroom a student is taught in. 

Let’s learn not just from plants and microbes, but from soil. If we want to thrive, we need to bring in as much diversity as we can, both into our communities and into our lives.

Deb Nam-Krane has been an urban gardener and compost enthusiast for over a decade and an activist for over three (somewhere there’s WBZ footage of her from 1989 protesting against fur). She is deeply concerned with the connections between climate change, food injustice, and human rights abuses. Deb leads JCAN-MA’s Land Use/Soil Carbon team with the goal of educating people about the connections between agriculture and climate change and what they can do right now to help. Since the team’s inception in March of 2020, they have hosted four webinars, a film series on land use solutions, and a class on Trees (two more to come on August 26 and September 2!). She’s excited about the upcoming three-part book discussion series, as well as JCAN-MA’s upcoming Spring 2021 conference. A homeschooling mother of four, she genuinely enjoys working with youth and is constantly looking for ways to authentically bring them into decision-making and leadership roles. Please email deborahnamkrane@gmail.com to find out more.

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