Get your hands dirty

Get your hands dirty

Our earth is an amazing place. It is absolutely full of God’s creation! How can we recall God’s faithfulness from the natural world around us, and how might we remain faithful in caring for the world before us? Mark Day takes a fresh look at compost and veges, and inspires us to get our hands dirty!

I magine what it would be like if tomorrow humanity vanished from the earth. There would be a shock to animal ecosystems as new balances of power between predator and prey worked out, and there would be a number of potential disasters due to pots left on stoves. More seriously, there would be fallout from unmaintained nuclear reactors and the like. Otherwise, the so-called natural world would go along quite merrily without us. Plant and animal life would retake those spaces humans now occupy and, given enough time, concreted city streets would turn to forest or grassland. 

That the earth could flourish without humanity is amazing and humbling. A large part of this possibility is due to the earth’s natural soil-building process; the land surface of the earth wants to turn itself into soil and for vegetable matter to grow in it. Soil, though perhaps a humble thing in our eyes, is very important—as humble things often are. Soil is not (as we might imagine) inert matter, but a living and breathing web of microbial, invertebrate, and plant life engaged in a constant cycle of growth, consumption, death, decomposition, and regrowth. All life on earth depends upon the soil. You depend on it for the food you eat, which at some point grew in soil or ate something that did. The air you breathe is dependent upon the ability of trees to grow, and they grow best in soil. 

All this sounds very naturalistic—almost materialist in its description. But as Christians, we know a deeper truth about the world—it was created, ordered, and is continually sustained by God. The earth goes on as it does because of God’s creative genius and trustworthy promise to keep it running. In that way, the ongoing functionality of the earth bears witness to faithfulness of the creator God. 

Humans are highly unlikely to vanish tomorrow and despite the hopes of some radical environmentalists, it would not be desirable if we did. This is because even though God could sustain creation without us, he has desired not to. He instead deemed that we bear his image in his world as his representative stewards. In Genesis, God commissions humanity to care for his faithfully upheld creation. We are, in that text, given “dominion,” which implies a combination of rights and responsibilities. We are entitled to enjoy the benefits of the natural world, and expected to care for and protect it. We are to “subdue” creation where it is unruly, and bring it, with God, to its flourishing self. You might call this mandate ‘earth stewardship’ or ‘creation care.’

Sadly, humans are not doing a very good job of this in many respects. We are witnessing, and in fact presiding over, a raft of ecological problems from pollution of air and waterways, to the erosion of arable lands and the extinction of species, right up to the large-looming matter of climate change. Humans have always had a profound impact on the environment, but when ecological damage occurred prior to the industrial revolution, it was—relatively speaking—far more localised and far less permanent. We now have the technological capacity to muck up the planet to an unprecedented degree, and on a global scale. 

Whose way?

Our participation in God’s natural order ought to result in the improvement of creation, but in fact we are having the opposite effect. Let’s keep looking at our example of the soil. The earth’s soils tend towards growth, but this is a very slow process. On average, they increase by three centimetres of topsoil every thousand years. In theory this means that if you measured the depth of the soil under your front lawn, and then left it alone for a thousand years before re‑measuring, it would be (on a world average) three centimetres deeper. That is a slow rate of growth. Against this, humans are now depleting the world’s soils. Agricultural methods such as deforestation, tillage, chemical fertilisation, and pesticide use are eroding our soils at an alarming rate—at least ten and as much as forty times faster than they naturally grow. This means most of our productive soil will be severely depleted before the end of this century, which means less food production, higher prices, more hunger, and more conflict over arable land and access to water.1 The stakes go even higher: Loss of soil really means loss of carbon from the soil. This carbon goes into the atmosphere, so soil health is a climate change issue. Though the efficiency of this proposal is up for debate, one way to begin dealing with carbon emissions could involve regenerating soils to sequester that carbon.2

God is faithful in upholding creation. The natural process God uses is slow, but it would be sufficient if we humans took sufficient care with it. However, we continue to be unfaithful in caring for it, and our care of the earth has farther-reaching consequences than we want to admit. So one of the big questions for Christians at this time is this: What on earth do we do about it? 

Outsourcing our responsibility or participating in the blueprint?

A number of solutions are on offer. Political parties, to a lesser or greater extent, have visions for how to care for the environment, just as they offer solutions to the economy, poverty, housing, crime, and whatever else. Some businesses are producing ‘organic’ products and seeking to do things in sustainable ways. One may support numerous charities. These kinds of efforts are important, but they are severely limited in certain respects. 

For one thing, there is a low degree of political or business willpower for such efforts to become the norm on a large-scale because they are generally costly in the short-term. The agricultural methods destroying our soils are not sustainable, but they are alluringly productive and result in cheap products and food for the consumer. Current ‘organic’ methods may do less harm, but they are no cure-all either. This is partly because they can be inaccessibly expensive, but also because growing ‘organically’ does not necessarily set a high enough bar. Some methods which could be certified as organic are merely less wasteful versions of the same soil-depleting, fertiliser-based, tillage-heavy farming systems already causing the problems. So the definition of such words needs scrutiny. The word ‘sustainable’ too needs some qualification. One agronomist suggests that the case is far too dire now for us merely to sustain it. We need regeneration before we can talk about sustainability.3

The deeper issue for Christians, though, is a close analogy to how we approach, say, global poverty. Voting and engaging in ‘conscious consumerism’ are noble ideas; giving to charity is a worthy thing to do. But are these efforts enough? The problem is that reliance on government, business, or charity to address these matters on our behalf is exactly that: reliance on someone else. As laudable as those efforts may be, they represent an outsourcing of our own responsibility, at the personal and local level, to care for the earth. It’s basically saying that caring for creation is someone else’s job. But if the call to creation care or earth stewardship is part of what it means to be human, and if being Christian disciples makes us members of God’s new humanity, then our response to ecological crises should be more radical and participatory than relying on others to do the work for us.

Back to the soil

So here’s a simple solution to a complex problem: Get your hands dirty. Start a compost bin and grow some vegetables. If you already have one, consider expanding it. 

There are two sides to this story. To begin with, by growing your own food you begin to detach yourself from the ecologically harmful practices mentioned above because you become less reliant on that fertiliser and fossil-fuel-dependent system. Fewer trips to the supermarket is a good thing too, and it means using less in the way of wasteful plastic packaging. This is a ‘do less harm’ sort of benefit. 

More positively though (and this is exciting), by composting and growing you begin to actively contribute to the health of the planet’s soils by growing them. The soil producing cycle described above is slow (three centimetres per millennium), but it is the natural way God has chosen to sustain the planet and feed its creatures. If you start a compost bin, you are engaging basically the same process that is going on under the cover of leaves on a forest floor or under grassland. Life, death, and decomposition, in a cycle tending towards abundant life. Composting works alongside this process, and done properly (which takes time, skill, and effort) it is a way to be sustainable in your use of creation and, even better, to regenerate the land. This means working alongside the faithfulness of God, so to speak, rather than cutting against it.

There are myriad other potential socio-economic, physical, and mental health benefits to gardening too. We know the deep problems of nutrition and physical health in our society. Well grown home-grown food is potentially tastier and more nutritious than that available commercially. It can also be cheaper, and it is a great way to provide for one’s family and neighbours. Not the least of these benefits is the sense of value and worth that comes from being physically productive. The gratitude made possible at a time of harvest for God’s faithfully upheld creation outstrips anything you’re likely to experience in a supermarket aisle. At this personal level, connection with God’s creation can and does catalyse connection with God. 

It is generally a good idea to be suspicious of people claiming to have found simple solutions to complex problems. In this case, however, while growing a garden will not fix the whole world, it may address (in some small way) a huge number of things. 

Earlier this year, a friend shared a picture online of an abundant tomato and courgette harvest captioned, “My garden hasn’t neglected me, even though I have neglected it!” There’s something in that. God is not neglecting his commitment to upholding and sustaining creation, and we enjoy it even though we are neglecting it. Let’s consider how to turn that neglect around, and be faithful ourselves in response to God’s faithfulness. 

Story: Mark Day

Mark is on pastoral staff at Hillcrest Baptist Church, and Chaplain at Wintec in Hamilton. He is married to Ainsley and father to Nathan. He sometimes blogs about God, politics, and his vege garden at upsidedownresistance.wordpress.com.

TAKE OUTS:

  1. Do you think caring for creation is important?

  2. What could you change to better care for our world?

  3. Could you develop a compost bin and vegetable patch? Could you do this with others? 

  4. Creation care is one area where God calls us to be faithful. Is God asking you to remain faithful in other areas of your life as well? What will this involve?

Reference 

1. “What if the World’s Soil Runs Out?” John Crawford: TIME, world.time.com/2012/12/14/what-if-the-worlds-soil-runs-out.
2. R. Lal, “Soil Carbon Sequestration Impacts on Global Climate Change and Food Security” Science 304 (2004): 1623-1627, doi: 10.1126/science.1097396 and “Soil carbon storage not the climate change fix it was thought, research finds,” Oliver Milman: The Guardian, theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/22/soil-carbon-storage-not-the-climate-change-fix-it-was-thought-research-finds.
3. “Interview with John Kempf Farmer, Agronomist, Scientist,” John Kempf: YouTube, youtube.com/watch?v=krUyr7PxkMk.

Mark acknowledges the ongoing work of the Koanga Institute, which has inspired parts of this article. For more information and some practical ideas to help get you started, check out koanga.org.nz.

Photo credit: Karen/lightstock.com

Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

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