Confessions of a Dirt Worshipper
Author: Diotima Mantineia
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It
is the source of all art and science. He to whom this emotion is a
stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as
good as dead; his eyes are closed. – Albert Einstein
In the early 1980s, I was initiated into an arcane order of alchemists who refer to themselves as “soil scientists”; practitioners of a discipline called Agronomy, or the study of crops and soils. This initiation was marked by the presentation of a Bachelor of Science degree (I requested Spinster of Science, but was turned down), and my entrance into graduate school at the University of Maryland’s Agronomy Department.
I suspect the designation of Alchemist would distress many of the good men and women who taught me the mysteries of this discipline, for they all were all careful, dedicated scientists, who would shy away from anything quite so…well, magical. But anyone who works with the soil for long knows that at some point, science breaks down under the weight of too many variables and unknowns, and gives way to art. The truly successful farmer or grower has, along with scientific knowledge, an instinctive, artistic, often magical relationship with the soil they nurture.
The professor who introduced me to the workings and wonders of the Earth’s mantle communicated his enthusiasm and deep respect for the ways of Nature to his students, and my Pagan soul found magic in both field and laboratory. Science led me to art, art led to magic, and one morning I woke up and realized I had become that bane of conservative Christian Republicans, a bona fide tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping Pagan.
Like most Pagans, I love to be connected, both physically and psychically, with the Earth. Rituals and meditations that allow us to blend our consciousness with that of trees, plants and animals, and honor the changing of the seasons, give Pagans a relationship to the land that few who have not learned this way of being can know. Magical training in visualization and journeying, meditation and trained awareness gives an expanded understanding of the world around us. Journeys into the world of Spirit open our spirits to the vastness and variety of creation, and assure us of our inalienable place within the world, while reminding us that we will never fully grasp the totality of All That Is. We learn humility and the necessity of right relationship. Rediscovering our connection with the Earth and the Web of Life, we develop ceremonies to reflect that connection and build the appropriate relationships and energetic bonds.
Ritual and the Soil
Many in our community go outdoors as often as they can to do ritual, make magic and/or do spirit journeys and meditations on whatever piece of land they nurture. Even city-bound Pagans usually find a small patch of ground, in a park, or outside the city limits, where they go to connect with Nature, leave offerings both energetic and physical, and thank the land for its bounty. Others find a small bit of land to tend for vegetables and flowers, some visit the wildlands, while some of us are fortunate enough to have some acreage under our care. But whether it is through a flower pot or a working farm, most Pagans make an effort to tend to, bless and connect with the Earth.
What I often find overlooked in Pagan ritual, however, is an awareness of the complex ecosystem of the soil itself. Pagans are more aware of the soil’s value than most people, and Pagan altars frequently are graced with a cauldron full of soil, but the focus seems to be on the plants and animals that live on top of the ground, with little or no attention given to the rich and complex ecosystem that exists under our feet. So before you go out and do your blessings, spirit journeys and other magic in your garden this year, or return to that special place in Nature where you go to reconnect, let me introduce you to some of the beings — mineral, vegetable and animal — that inhabit the soil that makes life on Earth possible. Then we’ll look at how science and magic can meet on the land.
Were you to go and sit in your garden, or somewhere in a forest, or on a grassy plain, and sink your consciousness into the land, your awareness, flowing like water, would burrow under the leaves, mulch or other organic detritus that covers the soil (or should!) and find, in a healthy soil, almost as much empty space as matter. Particles of sand, silt or clay, the three mineral constituents of soil, and particles of organic matter in various stages of decomposition, are surrounded and held together in discrete clumps by both the electrostatic properties of the clay particles and by various glue-like organic substances that result from the process of decomposition or are exuded from the bodies of organisms such as plant roots, fungi, bacteria and earthworms. Unless a soil is badly compacted (by heavy equipment, for instance) these clumps are arranged in a loose structure in which the spaces between may take up as much volume as the clumps themselves. This structure allows gases and water to diffuse through the soil, where they are utilized by plant roots and the many living creatures that make their homes in the earth.
A healthy soil has a thriving population of various critters, from the microscopic — fungi, actinomycetes, bacteria (almost as many in a gram of good soil as there are humans on the Earth), rotifers, protozoa and nematodes — to a wide variety of insects, the occasional reptile, and mammals such as moles and gophers. Some of these organisms feed on dead organic matter, transforming it into carbon dioxide, and breakdown products that feed plants and other organisms. Others feed on living matter, everything from microbes on up serving as a food source for another organism.
The area directly adjacent to plant roots has such a rich and diverse ecosystem it is given its own name: the rhizosphere. Miles of root tips move inexorably through the soil, secreting a gelatinous substance to ease their way, and growing fine root hairs to absorb water. The roots also can exude substances that inhibit or encourage life; some give off chemicals that inhibit growth of nearby plant roots, most form a symbiotic relationship with fungi that nourishes both plant and fungus, and the nitrogen-fixing plants, such as peas and clover, form nodules on their roots containing bacteria that claim nitrogen from the air, transform it at the molecular level, and then feed it to the plant.
This incredibly diverse, complex and sustainable life cycle comes to a crashing halt under current, “factory-farm”, methods of agriculture. The earthworm population is devastated by nitrogenous fertilizers, useful microorganisms and insects are eliminated along with the destructive ones by broad-spectrum pesticides, and the critters that live higher on the food chain decamp as soon as their food source dies off. Because of the reliance on chemical fertilizers, organic matter is not carefully managed, and the soil of the average modern farm becomes almost a dead zone. The dearth of life and organic matter leads to more erosion and fertilizer runoff, filling our waterways with pollution, and with the top layer of soil, which took eons to form. The prevailing views of the scientific community are only just beginning to catch up with what spiritual stewards of the land have known for centuries: that Mother Nature will work with us, but only if we work with Her. Wholesale destruction of the Web of Life can never, in the long run, result in a higher quality of life for any one part of that Web. Those of us who work and commune with the spirits of nature know this beyond a doubt.
My interest in organic agriculture began even before I started college, when organic methods were still considered pretty far out in left field. Now, when even the most mainstream of scientists must admit that much of what they scorned about organic methods decades ago has turned out to be valid, my interests and investigations have taken me even further afield into the truly alchemical realm of Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic agriculture, the effect of sound and chanting on plant growth, the effect of magic and intent on plant and soil health, and work with the Devic and Faery realms. Of course, none of the above methods of working with plants and the soil would be considered scientifically valid – they would, in fact, be looked on as anything from wishful thinking to outright delusion. But the logic behind these methods seemed clear to me once I seriously considered the possibility of a Universe birthed from Consciousness, instead of one in which consciousness arose simply from chance and the laws of physics.
I had not come to this concept of a Consciousness-based reality quickly or easily; in fact, I spent many years attempting to reconcile my interest in science and my interest in religion, metaphysics, magic, and what is commonly known as “the occult” before this connection became clear to me.
Magic does not require an unquestioning belief in anything – quite the opposite. Questions and careful observance are part of the work, but there is a need to suspend restrictive judgments about what can and cannot be, what is and is not possible, and to allow pure experience to bring the answers to questions that can be answered in no other way.
The basis of most metaphysical, magical and “occult” disciplines lies in the concept of a form of life energy called, variously, chi, prana, orgone, life energy. Mainstream science says this energy doesn’t exist. Those who work with it – who experience it – believe it simply has not yet been measured or quantified. The use of this life energy, and the mind’s direction of it, is the framing of magic. Learning to use it, learning magic, requires an openness to the possibility of the existence of this life energy.
When I began my formal training in Witchcraft in the mid-1980s, I knew I had to find a way to blend my understanding of science with my growing knowledge of magical principles, because I knew instinctively that there must be an underlying basis to reality that tied the two together. I certainly didn’t spurn the Western scientific way of thinking, but I learned that it was only one way of approaching and understanding reality.
Sitting at my altar, or walking in the woods, I worked hard to learn to sense and shape energy, training my mind to focus and shape or diffuse the energy I sensed. I dug deeply into my psyche to discover how my thoughts, beliefs and emotions shape the energy I surround myself with – that energy with which we all meet the world — and how to change and control that energy by working with and changing my thoughts, beliefs and emotions.
I cast spells, and used divinatory techniques. I meditated, studied martial arts, and participated in many rituals, all as part of my magical training. I read voraciously in psychology, science, mythology, magic, philosophy and comparative religion. My life began to change…
The proverbial dark night of the soul came, and, on the other side of it I found myself living my dream. I now felt certain that magic was a valid, useful way of interacting with the world. My life continued to change in the direction of my dreams, as I continued to use applied techniques that seemed to shift reality without any specific, physical effort on my part. The fact that many would think me at least slightly mad bothered me not at all. My beliefs and interests now made my lifelong interest in organic agriculture seem tame by comparison.
Which still left me looking for the connection I knew was there but could not trace. Finally, the basic dichotomy became clear to me. The primary difference between reductionist scientific thinking and the world of the Witch is that the Witch – like most other religious people – believes that the physical universe is created from consciousness. The reductionists, on the other hand, cling to the increasingly less credible idea that consciousness is nothing but an epiphenomenon of the brain. I realized from all the reading I had been absorbing on modern physics that science, on its bleeding edge, was walking a path towards First Cause that took it closer and closer to an understanding of the primacy of Consciousness.
Most Pagans believe that Consciousness is primary and that the energetic nature of the Universe can be influenced by the human mind, will and emotions. This does not make us “wacky” or unscientific, and the prejudices of mainstream science should not discourage us from approaching the use of our unconventional methods with an attitude of “Does it grow corn?” (or tomatoes, or lilacs, or oak trees). The scientific method is valid in any area of endeavor-the primary difficulty with approaching Reiki healing, sacred geometry or the influence of the Devas through the scientific method is always identifying and controlling for the variables. Replication is basic to the scientific method, and it’s darned hard to replicate something when you don’t know what all the influences are!
So if your intuitive feelings or mystical observations of the natural world lead you to sing to your plants , ask the advice and help of various spirits, or magically transfer and pattern Earth energies , do not feel as though you are being inherently unscientific. I’ve found that Pagans can be reluctant to look for the reasons behind the effects of the magic and rituals we perform. There is a fear that the magic will disappear under the “cold light of science”, and we may find that we are deluding ourselves. But both valid science and valid magic require an unflinching willingness and ability to look for the underlying truth. While magic may seem to disappear under the scrutiny of a poorly-designed experiment, the true light of science is not a strobe, under which things appear to be other than they are, but is the steady, warm and illuminating light of the Sun.
What we call magic does not disappear in the light of day, and science will eventually expand to encompass and confirm any truth we may find in our mystical explorations, even if the methods of science sometimes fall short in explaining the reasons behind those truths. Real science, and real magic, will expand along with our growing understanding of the nature of reality. Those who try to force reality to fit their fears, prejudices, and pre-conceived notions, whether in magic or science, will find their path both destructive and ultimately futile.
While I am a firm believer in the scientific method, I also know that it can be and regularly is misused, either deliberately or unconsciously, in the service of human greed and fear. Quantum physics is questioning whether or not true objectivity is possible, but any student of human nature knows that, even if possible, it is rarely achieved. The litany of scientific error is long – which, in itself, is not a bad thing. Science is a process, an ongoing investigation, and if we are unwilling to make errors -even spectacular ones – we limit ourselves, for trial and error is at the heart of scientific experimentation. What is problematic in science is the all-too-common unwillingness to change, to admit error, to see past truths as being superseded by more current discoveries, or worse, to see the error, but actively suppress truth for reasons of simple greed and fear.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an Agronomy professor at a Midwestern university who, speaking to an editor of Acres magazine about the realities of agricultural research said, “Give us a $100,000 grant, and we’ll prove anything you want.” While I persist in thinking that such a level of corruption within academia is not common, nonetheless, it is a fact that much agricultural research is funded by corporate agri-business. Clearly, it is a challenge for a scientist whose livelihood is in the hands of a large corporation to be entirely objective, and the research that supports the continuing use of poisons and petroleum-dependent fertilizers and unregulated genetic manipulation reflects, at best, a blindered view of the agricultural process, at worst, an extraordinary level of venality and corruption, the consequences of which are tragic, and will take generations to overcome.
Science, however, is not solely in the hands of those who have the correct letters after their names. Anyone with a bit of land or even a few pots can learn the basic principles of scientific experimentation and observation, and apply them to various methods and techniques that are regularly ignored or scorned by mainstream science. You can take that piece of land you nurture and learn through careful observation what the land needs to create and maintain the Web of Life. If your experiments are carefully thought out and executed, you will add to a body of general knowledge and experience that can be discussed and built on by yourself and others. Don’t be afraid of doing it “wrong”, or of what you might find out. The gods and spirits are not dead, and investigative science does not have the power to kill them. Just keep an open mind, observant eyes, and good records. If this type of research interests you, learn what you can (see the resources section below) of experimental design, and use it to test any questions that may come to you when you are working with the land, or with the spirits of the land.
An excellent example of this attitude can be found in Sandra Ingerman’s book “Medicine for the Earth”, which details her work with spirits to alleviate water pollution, and the encouraging results of her experiments. Hopefully, the results of these preliminary experiments will encourage some professional scientists to develop more sophisticated research and establish a baseline of data from which we can work to develop replicable methods of spiritual, energetic healing that will help reverse the effects of pollution. Who knows, perhaps they will even be able to find funding for it.
Everyone who can identify with the label “dirt worshipper” has a job they can do to help in reclaiming the Earth. Magical workings, tending whatever spot of Earth you can, and donating time and money to environmental causes are all valid and much needed responses to the current crisis. Whether you are interested in working from a scientific perspective, or prefer to work with the land in an instinctive, magical way (or both!) your attention and energy are needed. Those of us who work with other levels of consciousness, who honor the mysteries of both life and death, must continue to do the work that will strengthen the Web of Life on this planet.
The work begins with honoring and attending to the planet and the land we have been given to care for, observing and understanding the cycles, and the complex and beautifully balanced interactions of the ecosystems around us. It continues by expanding our minds to encompass influences and forces which we may not fully understand.
Standard scientific research and knowledge will play a large part in rebalancing the Earth’s cycles, but standard scientific research cannot account for things it does not know or will not acknowledge. Those of us who work with other levels of consciousness and energy are pioneers. A strength and certainty of vision is needed to do the work that must be done, though it will often be done in the face of scorn and fundamental skepticism. Know that when you do this work, you are not alone.
Natural Resources Conservation Service: “Helping People Understand Soils” http://soils.usda.gov/
The Rodale Institute http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/
Community Supported Agriculture: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa/
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association http://www.biodynamics.com/
Sustainable Agriculture Network http://www.sare.org
Recommended reading, in no particular order:
The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry. ISBN: 0871568772
The Nature and Properties of Soil by Nyle C. Brady and Ray R. Weil. ISBN: 0130167630
The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena by Dean Radin. ISBN: 0062515020
Medicine for the Earth: How to Transform Personal and Environmental Toxins by Sandra Ingerman ISBN: 0609805177
Earth Light: The Ancient Path to Transformation Rediscovering the Wisdom of Celtic & Faery Lore by R.J. Stewart ISBN: 1892137011
The Faery Teachings by Orion Foxwood ISBN: 1-89213-704-5
Secrets of the Soil: New Solutions for Restoring Our Planet by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. ISBN: 1890693243
An Introduction to Scientific Research by E. Bright Wilson ISBN: 0486665453