Soil With A Soul


Soil With A Soul
Brian Zahnd

“The LORD God formed the human (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah) and breathed into his nostrils the breath (spirit) of life, and the human (adam) became a living soul.” –Genesis 2:7

Soil is miracle ground — it’s the matrix of all life on earth. As the second account of creation in Genesis tell us, all life comes “out of the ground” — plants, animals, and humans. We did not fall as pure spirits from the realm of the perfect forms and find ourselves imprisoned in contemptible matter (as Platonism claims); rather we were formed from the dust of the earth, breathed on by God, and became living souls. We are humans from the humus, soil with a soul; we are a mysterious synthesis of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. There is a sense in which humans are very complicated, self-aware rocks — rocks so magnificently complex that we are capable of bearing the Creator’s image and sharing the Creator’s spirit. Indeed the psalmist is moved to praise God by saying,

Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous — how well I know it.

(Psalm 139:14 NLT)

Our connection with the soil means we share a kinship with all of creation; indeed every living thing shares a common ancestor — the soil from which we come. It’s in this sense that we speak of “Mother Earth,” as Saint Francis of Assisi did in his Canticle of the Creatures.

Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness. …
Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth
who sustains and governs us,
producing varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs. …

Yes, we have our origin in the soil. We are not related to cars, computers, or cell phones — these are inanimate tools created by creatures. But we are related to moss, trees, and moose — these are kin created by our Creator. Someone told me we share roughly 60% of our DNA with bananas. Are you offended by this? Not me. I’m honored to be related to Brother Banana Tree. But as the older brother, we are tasked with taking care of Brother Banana Tree — and all the other trees and every living thing.

(I say “older brother.” In the second creation account in Genesis humans are created first, then plants, and finally animals. I see this as complementing the first creation account, where the order of creation is plants, animals, and finally humans, who are given “dominion” — the task of ruling wisely — over all of God’s creation.)

So don’t forget who you are. You’re not a machine with a soul, you’re soil with a soul. And for your soul to flourish you need to maintain a connection with the soil and the natural world. If we live too much of our lives with floors beneath our feet, roofs over our heads, illuminated by fake fluorescent light, it tends to a pathology of the soul. We need to be outdoors. We need some long walks in the woods, some quiet strolls on the beach, some strenuous hikes in the mountains. If nothing else, we need some regular visits to a park where we can have some communion with Brother Sun and Mother Earth.

Don’t backslide into the horrid Industrial Age notion that nature is something to conquer or exploit. Don’t relate to nature with hubris and greed; walk softly among nature with humility and grace. If we vandalize nature by exploiting it, we kill something in our own soul. When we try to act like machines, we move away from our humanity and toward something less than human — we descend from the humane into the inhumane.

Let us be wise and compassionate guardians of God’s good earth, the matrix from which we are formed. Pay no mind to the ignorant who might mock you as a “tree hugger.” (Never be ashamed to give a hug to Sister Tree.) As for those Christians who shamefully dismiss creation care with ghastly words like, “it’s all going to burn” — gently rebuke them in Jesus’ name. We are not called to be agents of degradation, but agents of new creation. Mary Magdalene mistook the risen Christ for a gardener, not a coal baron.

Humanity’s original vocation was to wisely steward God’s creation and that vocation was never rescinded. Today caring for creation is an urgent responsibility for all who seek to follow Jesus into the New Jerusalem. New Jerusalem is the garden city that John of Patmos sets forth as the alternative to the sulfurous wasteland that is the lake of fire. We are to cooperate with the “gardener” in the verdant city, not the beast in the burning lake.

Remember you are soil with a soul. And remember the wisdom of Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov,

“Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, and universal love.”

Sun and Sand
Blind Man at the Gate

The sun in my eyes
The sand between my toes
Are better for my soul
Than a thousand likes
I’m soil with a soul
A complicated rock
Breathed on
By God
Self aware sod
A speck of the universe
Contemplating itself
And God
Evolved and involved
But not fully resolved
Gonna take more than fourscore
Before I know the score
Of this mysterious symphony
That scientists call supersymmetry
All I know is
If all I do is
Live inside my head
I might as well be
Gotta get the sun in my eyes
And the sand between my toes
The biting wind in my face
If I want to run my race
As a flesh and blood human
And not a digital one and zero
So let my foot fall on old forest humus
Or hike up to the high tundra
Or climb on some ancient granite
Or walk barefoot on sea-lapped sand
Or on some well-worn cobblestone
Before my feet are resting at the end of a box
Waiting for the new creation dawn
For no matter how pleasant the respite
As we await resurrection command
I imagine we’ll miss the sun and sand

(Soil with a soul resting by a tree on the Camino de Santiago.)


(The artwork is Creation by Marc Chagall.)