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SMC lecture examines relationship between humanity, nature

| Friday, September 11, 2015

Norman Wirzba, professor of ecology and rural life at Duke Divinity School and author of several books, explained the scientific and theological significance of soil on Thursday in a lecture titled “For God So Loved the Soil.” He said over the past 100 years, the human relationship with soil has shifted in such a way that by harming the soil, humans are also harming themselves.

“This is a totally new situation we find ourselves in because we now have more people in cities across the world than on the land,” Wirzba said. “This matters, because human beings are growing up without any deep appreciation for why land matters. We are terrestrial beings, which means we draw our very life from the soil.

“And if we don’t know anything about the soul, we are more likely to become negligent, or even worse, abusive.”

Human abuse of the soil increased during the 20th-century period known as the Green Revolution, when more minerals and pesticides were added to soil alongside root-destructive farming techniques, all of which degrade the life of soil while increasing calorie output, he said.

“We had this relationship to the land that was the direct result of your day-to-day livelihood … you had to get your hands in dirt,” Wirzba said. “What we’ve done is change the way we treat the soil. Instead of thinking about soil as a complex reality, we have come to think of soil as a receptacle for certain kinds of minerals we need to grow food.”

Along with being an environmental concern, care for the soil is also a vocation of humanity, he said. The complex mineral element interactions of soil provide the flavor and nutritional value of foods as well as valuable kinship with the surrounding environment, Wirzba said.

“If you despise the ground, you despise the creatures that depend upon it,” Wirzba said. “The relationship that joins us to the land becomes very clear once you start to trace patterns of health and ill-health in different forms of organisms in the circular chain.”

From a theological perspective, Wirzba said humans have always had a connection to the soil. Indeed, he said the name “Adam” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “from the soil.”

According to Wirzba, in the Garden of Eden, God is not depicted as a warrior but a gardener working close to humanity.

“This is a God on his knees holding soil so close as to breath into it the life that is human … you are an en-soiled being, not just an ensouled being,” he said.

Wirzba said working in a garden — such as the way Adam works in the Garden — should be viewed as an invitation to develop humanity and better see the world as God does. He said working with soil provides valuable life lessons.

Wirzba said the idea of caring for the soil is relatively new to humanity, but that there are ways to re-shape today’s culture. There is research being done on regenerative and organic forms of agriculture which take into account the integrity of the soil, he said.

“By not learning to love the land, the place you are in, you have not been able to experience the reality that the land loves you back,” Wirzba said. “Fertile soil is the place where God’s love becomes active, and why would you want to pull away from that?”

Senior biology major Cinthya Benitez said she was impressed with the lecture and appreciated the new perspective on the human relationship with soil.

“The relationship with the soil goes beyond ourselves,” Benitez said. “There were a lot of interesting ideas I had never thought of before, like how we are connected to the soil through Adam and also so interconnected with everything else.”

The lecture was the first of four in a series titled “Earth, Water, Air and Fire: Theology, Ethics and the Elements of Life,” sponsored by the Center for Spirituality. The series intends to look at the environment through the lens of theology in response to Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato si’. The next lecture will be Sept. 29.

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About Kathryn Marshall

Kathryn Marshall, Saint Mary's College '17, is a Biology and Humanistic Studies double major. Follow Kathryn on Twitter @kmarshallSMC

Contact Kathryn