‘Symphony of the Soil’ examines the fascinating world below your feet


Hands in good soil. (Barbara Damrosch)
Contributor October 2, 2013

“It’s like Times Square on New Year’s Eve all the time,” Elaine Ingham says in the recent film “Symphony of the Soil” by Deborah Koons Garcia. Ingham, a well-known soil microbiologist, is excited about the teeming masses of creatures in the soil — bacteria, fungi and others — that make all life on Earth possible. And Koons Garcia manages to devote 101 minutes to the living soil without letting any of that excitement flag.

In the years since her 2004 success, “The Future of Food,” which addressed the woes of conventional agriculture and genetic engineering, an almost numbing parade of documentaries about the failure of modern farming has emerged. But this film raises the bar. It makes you care about our Earth’s precious skin, so rare among planets.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

I like to see anything done well, and this film’s high production values are on a level with those of “Winged Migration,” which moviegoers flocked to see. Instead of diagrammatic or cartoonish ways of dramatizing plant science, we get gorgeous animated watercolors. A quick photomontage of 20 soil types, accompanied by lively music, had me hit the rewind button to watch it again.

(The DVD costs $25 and can be ordered at www.symphonyofthesoil.com for shipping later this fall.)

Yes, there are scientists and farmers talking to you, but they are so supported visually that you are drawn into a respect for and awe of our Earth’s alliance between mineral soil and biological life. It’s like a global field trip with great teachers.

Instead of just reading about how nodules in the roots of legumes make atmospheric nitrogen available to plants, we peer into a nodule’s center and see the pink substance, much like the hemoglobin in our blood, that makes it happen.

It’s not easy for people to understand a living soil because most of its inhabitants are too small to see, and their importance too huge to grasp. But unless you do understand it, you’ll always be misled by the false promise of the post-World War II Green Revolution, as succinctly outlined by Fred Kirschenmann, one of the film’s chief spokesmen and advisers. Exhausting our great native soils by plowing without erosion controls, moving from plot to plot as each was depleted, we were “saved” by chemical fertilizers, created in the same process by which nitrogen was synthesized in the munitions plants of Word War I, only to be betrayed by an agriculture that put soil on a perpetual petrochemically based diet.

Kirschenmann aptly notes the “Law of Return.” Anything taken from the soil must be returned to it. It’s a law made by nature, and you can’t break it. You can’t isolate one little piece of the natural world, one element, one creature, or one crop, and ignore all the strings that tie everything together.

We’d also be fools to ignore the farmers in the film, who — by cover-cropping, compost-making, encouraging diversity, integrating animals with plants, integrating people with plants, protecting soil and water and by generally learning from nature’s systems — are leaving the soil better than they found it.

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Tip of the week

Lawns require continual renovation in shady and poorly drained areas — the presence of moss and ground ivy suggests underlying site problems. Consider replacing struggling grass with ground covers suited to darker environments. For ideas, check out shade loving perennials, sedges and dwarf shrubs in public gardens and garden centers.

— Adrian Higgins

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