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Film (Earth Primer #2)

(Photo courtesy of Giacomo Sartori)

(Earth Primer #1)

When I travel around, giving lectures on soil, I ask my listeners—who sometimes are children—how deep it is. In response, some people say a mile or two, others say hundreds of yards. They all imagine it limitless; you can tell by the seriousness in their hesitations, the sort that emerge whenever incommensurable entities are at stake. But it is also clear that no one has a precise measurement in mind. This is normal, because what we’re given to see is its face looking to the heavens, and only meager indices—not simple to suss out—encourage us to imagine how deep it goes.

In reality, almost everywhere the soil below us isn’t even chest-deep; at best, it’s the height of a basketball star. All of the life and the extremely important processes it hosts—the capacity for growing plants, for recycling organic matter, and for storing it—are concentrated in that layer of practically nothing. Moreover, concentrated above all in first few feet, since after that soil becomes less and less active. Under it lies inert matter, impenetrable stone or sediment inhospitable to roots, lacking in life: rock—friable or solid—that has no active role, other than support.

Very often, soil is squat, a basset hound standing on its hind legs. That’s all. Roots and all the reactions of life have to gather themselves together within that extremely reduced film of earth. Many magnificent wines, so many delicious cheeses are born there. In deserts it is even thinner, just as it is in the highest mountains. Thick vegetation is necessary for the formation of soil, and it must be left undisturbed for many years, thousands of years, otherwise it remains very weak, or get carried off by waters running over its surface or by winds. On steep slopes, it gets taken away as soon as it is formed, a phoenix fated never to mature. In very cold countries, it is permanently frozen, thus as if it never existed.

Our current food supply, therefore, and that of the future as well depend on this scant film that, where the climate is mild, covers lands above sea-level, like an haute pâtisserie glaze. Yet the lives of all the other animals (meaning the animals that are not people) that get their nourishment from plants (or that eat other animals that eat plants) also depend on this laughably thin crust, of which we see only the external membrane. Yet a large slice of the gaseous exchange with the atmosphere, which worries us so much now, also happens there—including the emissions that we cause by farming. A large part of the gases accumulating in the atmosphere, pushing down the pedal on the greenhouse effect, are exhaled by lands used in agriculture. And methane in particular, that rises above all from rice fields that feed the poor, and from livestock that fattens us, the rich.

Only in tropical regions is soil many yards deep. Those are the orange strips that cut the tropical forests like scars: those orange-colored, razed zones in the background of so many photos of torrid lands. In these regions the soil is very deep, that is true, yet except for the first few inches it is too old and very poor. Thus no more than a thin veil of life, which then becomes an inert substratum. By recycling the few elements it contains with virtuosic frugality, as old folks do, it succeeds in hosting lush forests, but as soon as the forest is cut down it loses them, and problems ensue. Excellent for making bricks (which is why it’s called laterite), yet industrial farming requires that this soil swallow barrels of chemical fertilizers, since we humans lack more intelligent methods.

Only now are we beginning to realize that everything depends on that eggshell of earth that nourishes the roots and everyone else. We used to see only the surface of the earth below us, and we took it for granted that it continued down to who knows what depths. Realizing how important it was, we were less reckless than we are today, because we then thought it went deep, and was inexhaustible. For this reason we even called our planet Earth. It would have be wiser, and a better lesson, to have called it Stone, Rock, or Lava.

The people I ask still believe this, they delude themselves in believing that the earth is deep as the Earth. I try to explain to them how things really are, but my words are perhaps not be very persuasive. So I get a few tools together, and we go out to explore: naturally, it’s best to see things with your own eyes, digging a hole and examining the feet of the earth, caressing its resolute, yet fragile body.

(Earth Primer # 3)

Giacomo Sartori is a novelist, poet, dramatist, and agronomist. His most recent novel in English, Bug (Restless Books, 2020), was translated by Frederika Randall. His novel I Am God (Restless Books, 2019), also translated by Randall, won the 2020 Italian Prose in Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.

Translated by Jim Hicks


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