There are few studies more fascinating, and at the same time more neglected, than those of the teeming populations that exist in the dark realms of the soil. We know too little of the threads that bind the soil organisms to each other and to their world, and to the world above.
– Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962.
More than half a century after she wrote this, scientists from all over the world humbly admit that nearly 70-80 per cent of the micro-organisms in the soil have not yet been even identified. It is simply beyond human comprehension to fathom the mysterious realms and marvellous abundance that exists in the soil—“the living skin of the earth”. Because what we know is infinitely insignificant as against what exists right beneath our feet. Just 30-40 inches, to be precise.
How could one possibly interpret this abundance and the consonance that exists between its parts without taking refuge in an artistic rendition? This is exactly what an impassioned soil-lover Deborah Koons Garcia attempts in her ‘Symphony of the soil’. This film is a tribute to the magnificent world of this crumbly substance.
The movie unfolds with “dialogue between nutrients” as Dr Ignacio Chapela, puts it—the rocks spewed out of volcanic eruptions, the minerals from glacier rocks being washed off into the sea, the sand and the coral reef calcium deposits that eventually merge to become soil. In one pinch, you hold millions of years of earth history.
From here the movie takes you across four continents to reveal—in the words of acclaimed scientists, activists, farmers and ranchers—how life began by feasting on the nutrients released by the rocks, the importance of the relationship between humans and animals and how it contributes to soil health, and how microbial population is being decimated due to overuse of inorganic fertilisers and other human-triggered ‘amendments’ to the suffering soil.
Throughout the ‘Symphony…’, a fundamental principle serves as a leitmotif—that life exists on a delicately balanced give-and-take policy. But this “policy” is more of a melodic tone than a curt profit-and-loss statement. Put simply, you have to give Mother Earth back if you want to continue to draw from her.
This is precisely what was going on before a World War-II byproduct—synthetic nitrogen—hit the fertile soil and changed the course of agriculture forever. The next to arrive on the scene is the phantasmagoria of pesticides. Deadly cocktails delivered in plastic bottles and their effects on the soil, the oceans, the green mantle of the earth and us, humans.
This is where exactly the discordant noise of reckless modern scientific experiments creep in. The “soil drought” triggered by nitrogen pollution and the ever-decreasing quantity of organic material going back to the earth reveal horrors, the worst being the death of soil itself. Depleting microbial population notwithstanding, the messianic spirit with which pesticides and inorganic fertilisers are released into the soil speaks volumes for human arrogance and its declaration of war on the soil.
Intermittently, and thankfully so, we keep coming back to the basics of how to give the biomass back to the earth in a form she loves to embrace it: mulch and manure. Many farmers, who broke away from the ‘conventional’ agricultural practices by going organic, tell us how incredibly simple it is to save the soil, its erosion, and eventually, save ourselves and every living being. So we see compost being prepared in Punjab and California and in other places where the ever-graceful soil has recovered its strength after it was fed with organic compost and a layer of mulch was laid upon it. Pest attacks are quite rare if not totally absent. Water consumption, absolutely normal. The humus-laden soil is happy. So is the farmer.
What I liked the most about Deborah’s ‘Symphony…’ is how she goes on revealing the elemental underlying unity in the way life works and the interconnectedness between all living beings. This is perhaps what she calls it “Symphony…”
This symphony began eons ago. It is going on between life and non-life, living and non-living, between bacteria and plants, between fungi and trees, between winged and wingless insects, between microscopic mites and giant red wigglers, between critters and corals, between those 50 billion microbes that exist in a teaspoon of healthy soil…
Trillions of violins play in unison here; yet there is such correspondence of sounds. There is such insight into its magnificence, yet any curious soul can appreciate it. There is a highly evolved intricacy and yet, any uninitiated can fathom it.
Nature is the composer of this symphony. It is constant. It is endless. “We are each but a quarter note in a grand symphony.”
Please note: There is a free streaming of this movie on two websites till December 12, 2014. Click here to get started.