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A Publication of


From The Ark, No 185 Summer 2000

The Organic Soil Community at the Eucharist

Dr Echlin is a frequent contributor to The Ark. His latest book is Earth Spirituality, Jesus at the Centre, Arthur James, 1999 (reviewed in Ark 183)

by Edward P. Echlin

An organic garden - and this can be as small as a 4ft. by 20ft. bed - is an animal-friendly place. Animals and humans garden organically as partners. A fundamental principle of organic gardening is that we feed the plants by feeding the soil. To feed the soil is to feed resident animals. A handful of well rotted compost teems with millions of microbes, micro-forms of animal life, who digest and transfer to other animals and plants whatever compost I feed the soil. An important member of the garden soil community is the earthworm. In a lifetime the worm digests and excretes into the soil many times his own weight in humus. When worms die they even give their own bodies to the soil in the greenest of green burials, arising to new life as vegetables.

A small plot, our own share of garden earth, whether it be that 4ft by 20ft bed, a window box, or a larger garden, is a living community. Humans are within the soil community, we are soil organisms like the other animals, large and micro. With good reason the Bible calls people Adam, soil creatures, fashioned by God the Head Gardener, from adamah, the soil. In the soil community we live, to the soil we return when we die, our salvation, comprehending and transcending that of our souls, is salvation of our soil within which, under God, we people are responsible.

When we feed the soil we feed the microbes and larger animals, who in turn feed us, in a beautifully closed, sustainable circle - like eternity. Some growers garden larger holdings with large animals or poultry. When larger growers feed livestock, the animals return the favour by returning manure which rots down, becomes rich humus, and feeds the rest of the soil community. Kitchen compost and grass cuttings, like manure, is very valuable. To deposit this treasure unsustainably in a dustbin for landfill is folly that only urban earth-illiterates could perpetrate. The more closed the circle, the more sustainable the garden, because the gardener does not take fertility from other neighbourhoods. Nor does she or he unnecessarily import soil fertility in the form of food from poorer peoples. We can, however, with good conscience, use, as kitchen compost, tea leaves, citrus or banana peels, and other foods which are necessarily imported. We can also feed discarded apple cores, rich in nutrients, which we pick up from the pavement to our soil community.

We may even use manure from horses of local yuppies, while teaching them that they feed our sparrows and plants when they feed their horses.

Organic gardens are bird heavens. When we feed - and water - the garden, we feed the garden birds who return the favour by devouring slugs and aphids, scattering winter compost about the garden, and depositing their own rich manure. Tits help plants and ourselves by eating aphid eggs, thrushes eat slugs and snails, kestrels eat mice. Bees are invaluable workers who pollinate fruit and produce local honey. Ladybirds add a touch of colour and class, and they devour greenfly. Even wasps eat aphids and caterpillars. It's wise to encourage some nettles in the garden which harbour harmless aphids upon which ladybirds feed in early spring awaiting the arrival of greenfly. Slow-worms and hedgehogs are now rare in gardens, at least where young male humans speed around in red cars. When in residence, hedgehogs and slow-worms sweep the garden free of slugs, as do large frogs. Last winter I disturbed one of my frog helpers when I moved some decaying brassica stumps where he had hibernated. Fortunately, I was able to carry him, cold and drowsy, to a pile of twigs in my small wildlife area where he resumed his winter rest. When he emerges in spring, slugs decrease.

It would be inexcusable to describe garden animals without a word about Bertha, our peke. Bertha likes attention. In good weather she is a stalwart companion, sometimes sitting next to me when I weed. She also helps after dark by keeping the local badger on the move before he discovers my root crops. Whereas pekes like attention, badgers do not, because badgers relish root crops such as parsnips and carrots. Badgers cruise gardens because people destroy rural habitats with endless roads, houses, and shops. Badgers in a garden are yet another reason for shared transport, families staying together, procreative restraint, and no more construction in the countryside. We and animals such as badgers need each other, we care for each others' needs in friendship. As Deacon Ephrem wrote, 'In the case of the animals, because we need them, we take care of them. Clearly our need for everything binds us with a love for everything.'

Jesus, we know from the Gospels, was familiar with organic horticulture. Jesus' familiarity with organic growing and with animals, shines through his parables, as in the fourth chapter of Mark and the thirteenth of Luke. In the familiar Good Samaritan story Jesus includes olive oil and wine. Olive groves and vineyards, even lone olive trees and vines, send their roots probing deeply into subsoil, drawing upwards into trunk, branches, leaves, and fruit, minerals from deep within the earth. They feed the soil by dropping their leaves and fruit. Microbes recycle leaves into leafmould, into humus, into living soil. In the Good Samaritan story, Jesus also includes the patient donkey, a familiar animal of his Nazareth years, and his public life. What a beautiful and inclusive part of the parable when Jesus says, 'When he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him' (Luke 10.33-4)

When we offer transformed bread and wine in the Eucharist we offer through Jesus to the Father the whole soil community. As David Toolan says, we take 'stone, metals, silicon, water, fire, grain, grape, animal stuffs, air-waves and sound - indeed, as much space-time as we can sensuously lay our hands on - and convert it into a gathering of voices, a ceremony of praise and thanksgiving.' An organic soil community teems and buzzes with animals of myriad sizes, shapes, and tasks, all of which, in the power of the Spirit, we offer through Jesus to the Father in the Eucharist.

How you can go organic

Gardeners: contact the Henry Doubleday Research Association tel: 01203 303517 Just buying seeds: Terre de Semence, Ripple Farm, Crundale, Canterbury CT4 7EB, tel 0966 448379. Catalogue 4 incls p&p. Farmers and small holders: contact the Soil Association, tel: 0117 922 7707

Return to The Ark No. 185

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Deborah Jones at The Catholic Study Circle for Animal Welfare

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