Healthy, fertile soil, which is literally teaming with living things, is
the foundation of organic growing. A doctor friend once told me that he
could sterilize surgical instruments with good garden soil because it
contains so many beneficial and benign organisms (up to six billion in a
teaspoonful) that pathogenic germs can't survive. This concept is a little
easier to grasp if you consider the opposite end of the spectrum. Many of
the most virulent organisms exist in places like the drains in hospitals
and meat-packing plants, where germicides have been used to keep anything
living (other than patients, that is) under control.
Soil organisms (especially the decomposers, bacteria and fungi) break down
organic matter into simpler molecules which provide plant nutrients and
build humus. The tough fibers in straw and wood are particularly valuable
for creating the most stable and long-lasting humus, that ever-changing,
not-fully-understood, almost magical substance which has so many beneficial
effects in the garden.
In talking about soil, I've often compared the need for fiber there with
the importance of fiber in the human diet. Now I understand how
appropriate this analogy is.
In a recent talk at Yale University, Sidney Baker, a physician from Weston,
clearly connected the digestive processes in the soil, with similar
processes inside the human body. Apparently, every adult has a surface the
size of a tennis court lining his or her intestines. This surface is
inhabited by bacteria and fungi similar to those found in healthy soil.
According to Dr. Baker, the one hundred trillion organisms in each human's
gut constitute the second largest organ in the body. This "organ" which is
integral to our nutrition but is not genetically human, is metabolically
active and changeable. It contains over 300 species, mostly bacteria with
a few kinds of fungi.
These intestinal organisms perform numerous chemical functions. From the
passing stream of food, they synthesize vitamins, turn fiber into the
nutrients needed by cells lining the intestines, and create
metabolically-active substances which have effects throughout the body. A
healthy, balanced intestinal ecosystem is as important to our well-being as
fertile soil is to a healthy garden.
Of course, the ecosystem in our intestines, like that in the soil or the
rain forest, can be upset by environmental insults. Antibiotics are one
common cause of excess growth of fungi and undesirable bacteria. When
these organisms "practice chemistry," the compounds they make can be
damaging to our health, causing symptoms in other parts of the body that
are commonly attributed to a disease. Conditions as diverse as autism and
"fish odor syndrome" seem to be connected with faulty digestion which
produces damaging chemicals.
Our digestive system evolved over hundreds of eons before the advent of
agriculture and many of the foods that we eat today. Dr. Baker pointed out
that our diets have changed faster than our digestive processes. The
average modern diet provides just one fifth the amount of fiber eaten by
most of our ancestors. Foods such as milk and cereal grains are,
relatively speaking, very recent additions to our diets.
Given our long evolution on this planet, it is not surprising that our
insides are connected with the outside- that the processes in the soil are
similar to those in our guts. They are both part of nature's cycling. The
wastes which result from our intestinal processes have the same nearly
neutral pH as good compost. The roots and stems of rye are one of the best
ingredients for building fertile soil. The fiber from rye bread seems to
be especially beneficial to our intestines.
Over the last century, humans have made major changes to soil microbiology
with agricultural chemicals and to intestinal ecology with new foods and
Although there is much more to learn about soil ecology and human
digestion, evidence suggests we should show greater respect for
The organic garden, which uses a variety of plant residues to build healthy
soil and produces nutrient and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables for us to
eat, is a good way to begin.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1999, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "Living on the
Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays Living on the Earth:
Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill
Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first
appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted
weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since November 1995 are
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