The 30-yard-long planter that runs alongside my apartment building in Chicago is only a windmill short of being a mini-golf course. Two weeks ago, the last of the dirt in it was covered by long swaths of synthetic turf. For 10 years, the dirt had been tended but only produced a crop of ditch weeds visited by local dogs. Still, there is something disquieting about the artificial green covering the natural black and brown of the soil.
As much as we try to avoid it, there is something ubiquitous about dirt, particularly for readers of the Bible. With dirt and spit, Jesus heals a blind man. From the rich soil of Eden, God creates humankind. Even the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey, given to the wandering Hebrews has its foundation in the rich soil nourishing flowers and plants for grazing.
Soil is the metaphorical world in which God scatters the gospel seed. It is a symbol of the land our spiritual ancestors could tend as their own, and it is the “stuff” with which humans will fulfill their God-given vocation to “till and keep” the earth.
In “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating” (Cambridge University Press, 2011) professor Norman Wirzba writes about this latter use of dirt. Gardens, and by extension farms, “are where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence … . [Gardening work] enables us to think, feel and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth.”
“Dirt-y” work, Wirzba writes, reminds us of our place in the world, the garden we have been given to tend, the soil from which we come and to which we will return (“from dust to dust”). Without food, there is no life; without soil, there is no food. Life, by design, is “dirt-y,” he writes.
Soil is the focus of Churches’ Food Week of Action Oct. 11-18, giving us the opportunity to “dig deeper” into the many ways dirt connects us – to the food we eat, to the land which we inhabit, and to the ecosystem of which we are a part.
As farmers and gardeners know, the health of a community depends a great deal on the health of its soil. Soil that’s contaminated will contribute to illness among the people depending on it. Soil that’s been degraded by unsustainable practices can’t produce food for people who need it. Soil on land that’s been seized can’t benefit the landless families that have been unjustly deprived.
On the other hand, soil that’s protected can provide abundantly for a community. Soil that’s tended sustainably can yield crops for generations. And when ownership of land and rights of use are protected, the soil can be a rich site for sharing knowledge and fellowship with friends and neighbors.
Elena and Antonio (last names not available), farmers in the Florentino Ameghino area of Argentina know this. Together, they tend a farm that has been in Antonio’s family for more than 80 years. As participants in the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida or IELU (United Evangelical Lutheran Church) in Argentina-Uruguay’s “Seeds of Hope: Sustainable Development and Human Promotion” program (supported by gifts to ELCA World Hunger), they have developed an organic garden that produces enough food for themselves and others.
Everything on their farm is done with an eye toward sustainability. Manure from their animals is used as fertilizer for their vegetables, and their animals consume food they produce, like cassava root, corn and sugar cane. They also grow a diverse variety of crops, which provides for a nutritious diet while enhancing the quality of the soil. The produce they don’t consume they sell at a tax-free market.
The practices they embody in their work reflect a deeper sense of Elena and Antonio’s vocation. As Elena says, “to work with one’s hands is the most beautiful thing that exists.”
The agricultural practices they use are rooted in a vision of “the earth … as an organism and not a factory,” said Elena. They and other participants in Seeds of Hope are encouraged to see the land they farm as borrowed from future generations. Moreover, the land is viewed as a “social and mystic well, giving life to families, women, children, those who produce and those who consume” its bounties, according to María Elena Parras of the IELU.
Their story embodies the sense of interconnectedness and meaning that Wirzba describes throughout his book. Our connection with food goes far deeper than just consumption. We live in our world as eaters, certainly, but we are also producers, growers and partners working “with” the matter – the seed, water and soil – that makes biological and communal life possible.
Perhaps that is what captures my attention about the turf outside my building. There is a certain beauty in the perfect lines of artificial grass, but it’s not a beauty we participate in with our hands. Instead, lush green grass implanted to cover up the dirty reality of what lies beneath symbolizes our disconnection from the land, from soil, from the dirty stuff that God uses to create the world.
This month, we can let the “dirt” in, joining with other Christians around the world in lifting up the abundant richness of our world and the importance of our responsibility to tend it.