Grounded: How soil shapes the games we play, the lives we make and the graves we lie in
The power of simile and metaphor often hits its peak in the poetic line. When describing something as apparently commonplace as soil, a writer might be forgiven for unleashing all their rhetorical strategies to enliven the topic. But as Alisa Bryce shows us in her book Grounded, soil isn’t commonplace at all – rather, it is a teeming wonderland beneath our feet, an archive of earth and human history and a living pharmacopoeia. It needs no dressing up in order to fascinate and entertain.
Alisa Bryce is a soil scientist who has all the information at her disposal. Bryce’s argument in Grounded is that soil is at the centre of all of our lives, whether we know it or not. Everything we eat must germinate in soil, or at least survive on soil for its own growth and nourishment. That’s kind of obvious when you think about it. Less obvious is how what appears typically to be a black, brown or reddish mass turns out to be a complex zone of life more akin to a peak-hour crowd than a mute or barren field.
That’s, of course, if the soil’s healthy, in which case it sings with microbial life. It is this micro-world that often holds the key to human health, as was famously the case with Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. Yet despite the burgeoning of utilitarian modern earth sciences in the past two centuries, for most of us soil remains akin to the depths of the ocean, in the sense that we still know so little about what abides there.
Which brings us to our own effect on the life force of soil. Bryce declares early on that her book will avoid environmental doomsaying in favour of breezy reportage from the substrate. However, as she ranges across the role soil plays in the processes of the earth, as well as in human burial rituals, crime solving, war-making and intimate memories, we undergo a discovery process that alerts us to the impact we have on the ground we walk on.
When French philosopher Bruno Latour calls the narrow band of the atmosphere we subsist within “the critical zone”, he’s reminding us that the degraded state of this critical zone – including the soil itself – is perhaps the best metaphor we currently have for our own interdependent condition. Despite its unadorned cheeriness, Bryce’s book can’t help but remind us that it’s time to start paying proper attention.
Text Publishing, 320pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2022 as "Grounded: How soil shapes the games we play, the lives we make and the graves we lie in, Alisa Bryce".
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