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Life (Earth Primer #3)

(Mycorrhiza mushroom: Photo by Backpackerin, Pixabay)

(Earth Primer # 2)

Unconsciously, we associate soil with life, because we’ve had the experience of observing the critters that live there: insects, ants, glassy larvae, light little spiders, snails, worms. A swarm of life that somewhat repels us, it is very distant from the ideal nature that we favor, those vast spaces where our gaze gets lost—an immensity that awes us but also attracts us, and where, in fact, we feel at ease. Not in line with our tastes, the life of soil is too humid, too dark, it smells too much of corruption and decomposition, of death. The spaces of our lives have become ever more aerated and sterile, and soil looks more and more like dirt that sticks to our shoes. It’s mud—annoying, a possible contamination.

Ever since the most distant eras, our ancestors have associated soil with fecundity and fertility, remaining enthralled by its capacity each year to cause plants to grow, to give us our food. (Still a lovely little favor.) Our ancestors would respect and honor the soil, never forgetting that our lives depended on it. In the last few generations, though, we’ve given ever more importance to processing and packaging, to industry, to whatever we do that we take pride in. We tend to forget that whatever we eat is in the earth or emerges from it. Clean and processed agricultural products land in our homes, already treated aesthetically and hygienically, with a nicely flattened, formatted look. We no longer care where they come from, or their intrinsic well-being: we look at the price.

Earth has become a necessary evil, an archaism we haven’t managed to get rid of. And so we flatten it with maniacal precision, we shape our fields into perfect rectangles, we exterminate every sort of weed, in short, we do our best to give it—at the very least—a modern look, in step with the times. We’re the ones who have to decide what happens, as it should happen, and how it ought to look. Now all we need is for our automobiles—our new pack animals and pets—to go wherever they decide. Engineers are making serious plans for farming without soil, as they call it. At last liberated from that ugly beast, at last everything under control, from A to Z, at least neat and sterilized, freed from rain and sun: they tell us this is our future. Considering soil to be living would mean agreeing to its coming insubordination.  

We’ve known for a long time that earth seethes with incredible microscopic life, not there by chance, and necessary for everything that happens within it. It makes soil work. Thanks to bacteria, residual vegetal forms return to the air as simple compounds, and in part they get refashioned, stocking up a stable resource, a form of capital with an assured annual return of mineral elements that nourish the roots. Thanks to it, the soil is enriched with the form of nitrogen that plants utilize, the most essential filling. Thanks to fungal filaments, the roots increase out of all proportion their usable surface area and their capacity for extracting water and minerals. And so on and so forth.

And yet, despite its importance, we have not been able to see this life. And to some extent, it has suited us not to see it, to act as if it didn’t exist, because the chemical industry has been a dictator that brooked no competition, especially not bitter enemies. With tremendous effort, microbiologists did succeed in growing a few strains in Petri dishes (shallow transparent receptacles, their bottoms smeared with a gelatinous culture), so that they were able to observe the growth that it produced. From a scientific point of view, this was too little, and thus whoever emphasized the centrality of this shortcoming was taken to be an arcane, raving maniac, an enemy of the chemical industry, and therefore, with a bold leap impeded little by truth, an enemy of science.

Only during the most recent decades has our technology allowed us to lay bare the genetic code: a world has been opened. The forms of microscopic life present in soil are infinitely more abundant that what had previously been thought—a variety that takes one’s breath away. The vast majority of those microbes won’t let themselves be leashed, which is why no one had ever seen them before. Yet they were there, and this time it was science that said so: they now had scientific dignity equal to that of chemical compounds. Actually greater, given that a large part of chemical processes are the result of their presence, and thus are in realty biochemical. Reasoning only according to the terms of chemisty, as had been done for a century, is now impossible.

Today we get to meet the genes of those microbes, and that’s really something, anyway. It’s almost as if, while walking into a crowded stadium with your eyes closed, you were able to obtain genetic codes for the entire crowd. You can imagine all sorts of things, once you have the genetic data, but that doesn’t imply in any way any sort of intimacy. Of course, by spending time and money we could arrive at the level of individual species, and get photographs for every individual face. But that’s an endless, Dantesque nightmare: to generate an index card for everything and everyone is unthinkable. Taking only bacteria into account we’d be talking tens of thousands of species. Even focusing only on bacteria, no specialist would manage to minimally sort things out—even ten lives wouldn’t be enough. And current hypotheses are that roughly ten viruses circulate around every microscopic critter.

It seems likely that every species differs significantly from the others, having its own habits and vices: even sticking with mammals, a dog is not a cat, and a mouse is no elephant. And that’s the point: in a layer of earth, species are like the grains of sand on a giant beach. Who could ever study them, who would ever get to know them, who would ever manage to track their infinite interrelations, which together determine how the various terrains function? Such and such microorganisms sit in the lap of these others, and those are hugging onto others still, with who knows what agreements and reciporal advantages; those eat those others that are eaten by those other still: just try and figure out what’s really going on. Is it true that only forms of intelligence without life—which, it is implied, might be sharper and more capacious than ours—will succeed in understanding life? (Yet is it really necessary to understand everything? Are we unable to accept that we don’t understand everything? Isn’t life itself the very mystery that we are unable to grasp?)

(Earth Primer #4)

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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