“Part of our slogan has been ‘what part of sacred don’t you understand?’ Essentially we’re saying, why isn’t it enough for us to say a site is sacred and should be set aside and protected and respected because it’s integral for our spiritual practice to be continued.”
In Chiapas, Mexico, I first considered the difference between the kind of society that builds monumental architecture in stone and the kind that nurtures great people in buffalo-hide tipis.
I had arrived at Palenque on a chartered bus after spending a week in this place so far from the Great Plains and the Southwest, the homelands of my father’s people the Dakota and my mother’s people the Diné (also known as Navajo). I was with a busload of Indigenous representatives from Native nations across the Western hemisphere. Tall Lakota men from Alberta and South Dakota, sticking out among their much-shorter brethren, Maya from Guatemala and Mapuche from Chile and Kuna from Panama. We ventured down the trails of the National Park filled with towering temples. The Kuna and Inca come (from Peru) dressed in colorful dresses, speaking quietly but authoritatively in their languages as we set out.
I stumbled upon two Puerto Rican women, one White and the other Black, leaning with their backs pressed upon the wall of the temple, eyes closed to the sun and hands pressed palms down to the stone. I watched them as they began to chant in Spanish, apparently trying to absorb some of the energy from the building.
No other members of the Indigenous delegation did this. The women in the colorful dresses continued to meander through the accumulation of buildings and trees, stopping lightly like birds, pausing from time to time.
Traveling south, my thoughts were continually drawn back to the north. As I walked the jungle paths and looked at the buildings above me, a pain made its way up my throat from my heart. I felt grief for the prairie, its serene emptiness, where my heart and my mind could wander at the center of the world, as central as every bit of grass that blew all around me. Here, in this jungle, I felt extra—one of many things.
As Native people, we were told that we lacked civilization. That we needed the “progress” of Western Expansionism.
In our defense, we often point to the accomplishments of the Aztec, the Mayas, and the Incas—their empires and towering edifices. All this to show we are civilized, we are human, we are your equals.
But as I stared at these temples now before me, I could only think of the ruler who commanded them to be built, and the sort of society that organized itself in such a way to subject some to the needs of others.
My people, the Dakota and the Diné, did not build these things and were without kings or nobles or peasants. What we created instead were the kinship relationships with land and people that organized our societies. These made life worth living for everyone—not just the mighty.
My people built tipis and hogans, where relationships were nourished and stories were told around a fire. As I stared at the temples, I imagined a lodge—a tipi—translucent and glowing from the fire inside it, like a heart.
The name many Indigenous people call themselves is often some derivation of “the people” or even, “the real people.” This is what Diné means. My father’s people call themselves Dakota or Lakota (depending on the dialect), which means “allies” and “friends,” emphasizing the connections and relationships that make them a people. Those relationships include the land and all its people. Lakota people are the Buffalo Nation because our story begins with transformative contact with a spiritual being who is a manifestation of the land itself and transmits instructions on how to live on the Earth.
Contrast this to a colonial society whose origin story is rooted in financial incentives and power derived from occupation and exploitation of other peoples’ lands.
So, for me, the question monumental buildings like the temples in Palenque—or the Cathedral of Notre Dame—pose is: What kind of relationships do they represent? Are they equitable? Or are they an expression of power over other people and nature? These are questions about French society that Victor Hugo asked in his writing.
In the past few days, much has been made of how The Hunchback of Notre Dame saved the cathedral by making it a character in the novel, a sanctuary for the innocent Esmeralda, wrongly convicted of murder by a cruel and inept system of justice.
In Hugo’s time, the cathedral was in disrepair. A symbol of a corrupt power structure, it had been vandalized and defaced during the French Revolution. Stories matter, and the story of Notre Dame at the time was that it was a monument to oppression. The novel changed that, and the narrative of the cathedral as a sanctuary has lived on worldwide through countless translations and a Disney film. This humanization of a building through storytelling makes readers feel an investment in it, even if we are not French. And Les Miserables (a new adaption is now on Masterpiece Theater) humanized the victims of a criminal system and society that brutalized the poor and women, especially.
But when I watched the roof burn and steeple fall and heard the commentator say that it burned so fast and so hot because the wood was more than 800 years old—harvested from oak trees from France’s ancient forests that are no more. I thought of that forest as it once was and wondered who lived there. Did they have any say about it? Did the creatures who lived there? Did the trees? What does it say about the nature of the agreements between a people and the land, itself? Or was the felling of that forest merely an expression of the power of an autocratic ruler?
With nearly a billion dollars raised in a few days to rebuild the cathedral, critics on social media contrasted that with the minuscule amounts raised to rebuild black churches burned by arson. This quickly garnered more than a million dollars of donations for those churches. Does one wonder what would happen if people donated to help restore the lands and homes of tribal nations affected by the recent “Bomb Cyclone” in the Great Plains of the U.S.? And what would happen if the French government, French citizens (including the billionaires who donated hundreds of millions of Euros), and the Roman Catholic Church urged more of the donations to go to other overlooked catastrophes like the victims of Cyclone Idai in Africa?
Those donations would be especially apt given France’s history of colonization in Africa. Even Victor Hugo, an ardent opponent to American slavery, stumbled when it came to France’s colonization of Africa. “God offers Africa to Europe,” he said in a speech in 1879 as France brutally conquered Algeria in the name of civilizing it. “Take it.”
In 2014, the “Conseil des Ventes,” which regulates auction sales in France, refused to suspend the auctioning of masks sacred to Hopi and Navajo people. The French agency denied the Hopi tribe possessed any legal standing to pursue a cultural claim in France. This ruling not only denigrated an Indigenous nation’s political existence (the Hopi is a federally recognized tribe which enjoys a nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government) but declared Paris a haven for the trafficking of the sacred items of Indigenous people. This, despite France being a signee of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Klee Benally, a Navajo sacred sites activist, told me how he traveled to Paris to get the San Francisco Peaks, which we call Doko’oosliid and which is one of our sacred mountains, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. While there, he visited Notre Dame. He went in with the throngs of tourists and purchased a votive candle. Taking it back to Doko’oosliid, he lit it there. His prayer was that someday they could see our sacred sites in the same way they view Notre Dame. UNESCO refused to consider our sacred mountain for consideration as a World Heritage site, but maybe someday, if we had a Navajo Victor Hugo write a novel telling the story of our relationship to this sacred being—the Earth and its people—the world would come to understand.
Wendell Berry called it “the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.”Ninety-five percent of our food is grown in it, it stores and filters our water and provides a home for the majority of life on the planet, and yet most of us rarely pay much attention to it. We dump poisonous chemicals on it, inject it with synthetic nutrients, slash it with plows, strip it of its natural diversity, and bury our trash in it.
But soil has a story to tell us, and we are all a part of it.
For as long as humans have engaged in agriculture, and even before, we’ve relied on healthy soil and the organisms it supports. And for most of that time, we’ve cultivated good soil. Early societies developed food production systems that actually enhanced soil fertility and food abundance, such as with “terra preta,” or Amazonian dark earth, and thefood forests of the Mayans. We planted, harvested, and consumed but also took care to nourish and regenerate.
What changed? At some point, humans started relating to the planet differently, and our emotional and spiritual connection to the earth was severed. Whether the shift happened during the Neolithic Revolution, when humans settled and established agriculture, or the Age of Enlightenment, when nature became viewed as an object to be observed and controlled, the result was a disconnect from nature. We became, in the words of Daniel Quinn in his book Ishmael, “Takers” and not “Leavers.”
Thousands of years of taking have caught up with us—and our soil. Approximately 40 percent of agricultural soils worldwide are degraded or seriously degraded; we lose an estimated 36 billion tons of topsoil every year.
Scientists warn us that we only have about 60 years of productive soil left. What will happen when the Earth has lost all of its soil and can no longer produce food? While this is a dire future, it doesn’t have to be our destiny. It’s time to act. And the solution is under our feet.
The authors of this article work on projects that promote soil and community health for Greenpeace and other organizations. This is the story of how each of us came to see soil as a solution to one of our biggest environmental problems—and as a tool to build more resilient communities.
As the co-owner of a farm and eco-lodge in Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, I’ve long been interested in ways to optimize agriculture. Years ago, I met Tim LaSalle, then CEO of the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. From LaSalle, I first learned about the importance of carbon in soil health. Soil carbon comes from the interaction of photosynthesizing plants and the web of life in the soil. He said that if enough of the planet’s arable acreage were converted to what he described as “regenerative” agriculture, we could draw enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change. I saw his data, and the conclusion was undeniable: If we just farmed in a way that optimized photosynthesis and learned to leave carbon in the ground, we could repair damaged water cycles, capture greenhouse gases, and address one of humanity’s biggest challenges.
My world was rocked. I thought I was a pretty well-informed citizen scientist, and I was long in the camp of folks who advocated for non-GMO and organic agriculture, but I hadn’t made the key connection to carbon sequestration.
Several years later, my world was rocked again. At our farm in Costa Rica, we’d been farming under organic or biodynamic certifications. We composted, used teams of oxen and water buffalos pulling old-fashioned plows, employed biodynamic preparations for soil fertility and overall plant health and gave our fields years of rest. So we were shocked when we measured our soil’s carbon content and learned the soils at our farm held less carbon than the rainforest around it.
We integrated principles of regenerative agriculture into our farm, and everything changed.
Then I remembered Dr. LaSalle’s presentation and realized that organic practices don’t necessarily translate into greater soil health. While our oxen and water buffaloes were impressive and “old school,” it turns out they didn’t build soil. Ploughing fields—by any method—exposes decomposing microorganisms and sequestered carbon to oxygen and sunlight. This also meant that when it rained, all those good nutrients in the soil washed away.
I realized we weren’t using permanent ground cover where we were growing our crops, so we weren’t optimizing the natural process of photosynthesis. We were planting crops in monoculture plots with plants of uniform heights. If we wanted to be more aligned with natural systems that optimize solar cycles and carbon capture, we would need to think about how forests, prairies, and rainforests produce food—and that’s not in monoculture rows surrounded by bare earth.
So we integrated principles of regenerative agriculture into our farm, and everything changed.
We’re still using organic and biodynamic practices, but since employing regenerative practices, our farm is performing a lot better, or so our fields seem to be telling us. Our fields and pastures are home to a greater diversity of ground cover and grasses, native creatures are coming onto our lands, and our fruit and nut trees are producing with ever greater abundance.
A key part of our journey was admitting that we didn’t know everything, and to humbly learn from how natural systems grow food.
Ironically, my journey to realizing the importance of soil began in a city. As a student at Barnard College in Manhattan, I was disturbed to see mounds of garbage lining the sidewalks as I walked to class in the morning. Having been raised in the lush Pacific Northwest, where we take our recycling seriously, I was more accustomed to being surrounded by nature than piles of trash bags. What was in these bags and where was it going? I had to find out.
My curiosity about those piles of trash in New York City, led me to spend more than a decade of my life following waste around the globe, learning how our culture of material excess and planned obsolescence is trashing the planet. My first stop was New York’s Staten Island, home of the infamous Fresh Kills landfill—at the time, one of the largest dumps in the world. I had never seen anything like it. As far as I could see in every direction, there was rotting food, old furniture, discarded appliances, books, and clothes. I was stunned by the scale of the waste—and by how effectively this side of our consumer culture was hidden from view.
After finishing college, I moved to Washington, D.C., to start working at Greenpeace. I was thrilled to land a job at an organization tackling the problem of waste.
My work with Greenpeace took me around the world to investigate and advocate for solutions to waste. Everywhere I visited, from Staten Island to the Philippines, Guatemala, and Bangladesh, there was one thing common: A lot of municipal waste was organic.
Food and yard scraps are full of nutrients, but what we do with them makes a big difference in how they interact with the earth once they’re discarded. Throw them in a landfill as we do in the U.S., and they convert to methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Leave them rotting in the streets, as happens in countries with irregular waste disposal, and they attract vermin and threaten public health.
Composting takes organic waste from individuals, mixes it together, and transforms it into a practice that benefits a community.
By throwing away our food, we’re missing out on a win-win solution to our trash problem.
When food scraps are used to fertilize crops as compost, they build soil health while reducing a major source of waste. What’s more, it can work on all scales, from backyard herb gardens to whole farms. And with such a significant portion of municipal waste being organic, composting makes a huge dent in the challenge of dealing with waste.
But what I love the most is this: composting can build community social and economic resilience. For example, in Manila’s barangays, or small neighborhoods, in the absence of regular waste collection, the Mother Earth Foundation organizes residents to compost organic material. There, neighborhood youth receive a small stipend for going door-to-door to collect the material, which is composted in street side bins and used in potted gardens. And building this community compost system requires neighbors to get to come together. In areas where garden pots are hard to come by, neighbors lined the path with old tires, filled with compost, and now bursting with flowers and herbs. The barangays that participate in these programs are colorful and lush compared to those that have piles of garbage rather than flower beds on the corners.
Composting isn’t limited to low-tech neighborhood approaches, although I admit those are my favorite. Where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have curbside collection of organic material. Every resident gets a little green bucket to keep our food scraps in. San Francisco’s residents and businesses compost 650 tons of food scraps and other compostable material per day.
Regardless of the logistics involved, composting takes organic waste from individuals, mixes it together, and transforms it into a practice that benefits a community—and the planet—as a whole. Figuring out local composting systems requires us to come together to solve problems that affect us all, and we’re going to need a strong sense of community to guide us through our soil and climate crises.
We cannot continue to treat our land, air, and water like ATM machines hooked up to bottomless bank accounts; at some point they’re bound to run dry. Life comes from the soil and ultimately returns to it. The story of soil is the story of all of us and it spans eons. It tells us to adapt to nature, not to squeeze every last drop of value from it. It reminds us that our fate is inextricably bound to the soil’s, and that ultimately, we’re all in this together.