An appreciation of soil

– Posted in: Garden Musings

“The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation of goodness.” — The Dalai Lama

Freshly tilled soil

Freshly tilled soil

When Labor Day comes rolling in, regardless of the weather, I think about fall, harvest, and the land. There is a certain sweetness to feeling the rich, crumbly soil in my hands. Knowing that the days of digging in the earth before the cold weather settles in are numbered.

On this American holiday, I think of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whose love of the land was boundless and whose appreciation of the soil has left a significant imprint on those of us who dig in it.

“While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all the people because civilization itself rests upon the soil.” — Thomas Jefferson

“Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. The small landowners are the most precious part of a state.” — Thomas Jefferson

“I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of a husbandman’s care.”
George Washington

I think about the revered Nobel Laureate, Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, who died this weekend and who the NY Times called ‘ the Irish poet of soil and strife’.  In his well known poem ‘Digging’, his words are about the Irish landscape, but the meaning is universal.


“Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.”

From Death of A Naturalist, Mr. Heaney’s inaugural book of poems

I think of Mary Oliver, the author of more than 10 volumes of poetry whose soulful relationship with nature, self, death, and beauty is legendary.

THE BOOK OF TIME (a paragraph from it)

“What secrets fly out of the earth

when I push the shovel-edge?

when I have the dirt open?

And if there are no secrets?

what is that smell that sweetness rising?”

From The Leaf And The Cloud: A Poem Mary Oliver

And with thoughts from his backyard in Prague -Karl Capek – considered one of Czechoslovakia’s greatest playright’s –

“The soil opens up but does not yet produce a green leaf; still one can take it as it is, as a bare and waiting soil. At present it is still the time for manuring and digging, draining and trenching, lightening and mixing. Then the gardener finds that his soil is too heavy, too clayey, or too sandy, too sour or too dry; in short, the passion to improve it somehow springs in him.You may be sure that the soil can be improved by a thousand different means; fortunately the gardener has not usually got them at hand.” From The Gardener’s Year – Karl Capek

My final thoughts

On this day of reflection

I think about how sacred the soil is

And yet we walk on it carelessly

I think about how magnificent the world will be

When we slow down

Breathe in the earth’s splendor

And tread lightly on it with gratitude

And love.


Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at

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Fran Sorin
10 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Jan Johnsen September 2, 2013, 1:39 am

What a lovely post! It is all about la terra firma….and Mary Oliver really conveyed that thought!
Thanks for this.

Gareth September 2, 2013, 8:50 am

Like the quotes!! Soil is the foundation of every garden and if it’s not nurtured and cared for then you will not reap the maximum benefits !!

Chris September 2, 2013, 1:16 pm

You remind me of William Bryant Logan’s fine book, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.

Susan September 3, 2013, 8:05 am

I treat the soil like a living creature. It needs to be nourished and cared for.

Fran Sorin September 3, 2013, 8:17 am

Susan –
I like term ‘living creature’. Have never heard it before ~ Fran

Fran Sorin September 3, 2013, 8:18 am

I had never heard of William Bryant Logan’s book but because of you, I checked it on Amazon. It looks quite interesting. Thanks for letting me know about it ~

Fran Sorin September 3, 2013, 8:19 am

Jan –
I’ve been reading Mary Oliver for years. A friend of mine who is poet turned me onto her. Her words pierce my soul (in a good way). ~

Fran Sorin September 3, 2013, 8:22 am

For years I gardened without really understanding and appreciating soil. When I finally ‘got’ what a jewel it is, well, my entire perception of gardening changed. Thanks for your comment ~

Saxon Holt September 9, 2013, 12:39 pm

What a fine collection of quotes ! Anyone who can put Thomas Jefferson and Mary Oliver together shows keen understanding in *my* world. Thanks.
While not nearly so poetic, those interested in a more scientific understanding of the importance of caring for soil should check out Jeff Lowenfel’s award winning book “Teaming With Microbes”.

Fran Sorin September 15, 2013, 11:31 am

Saxon- Thanks for your kind words. Juxta-positioning Thomas Jefferson and Mary Oliver took no effort. I could have added dozens more of ‘soil/nature’ lovers. Thanks for the heads up on Jeff Lowenfel’s book. I’ll check it out. Fran

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