By Reconnecting With Soil, We Heal the Planet and Ourselves

Civil Eats

By Reconnecting With Soil, We Heal the Planet and Ourselves

Leah Penniman writes that Black people in the U.S have had a sacred relationship with soil that far surpasses enslavement and sharecropping.

Participants of Soul Fire Farm’s training program transplant pepper seedlings. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman.


Dijour Carter refused to get out of the van parked in the gravel driveway at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York. The other teens in his program emerged skeptical, but Dijour lingered in the van with his hood up, headphones on, eyes averted.

There was no way he was going to get mud on his new Jordans and no way he would soil his hands with the dirty work of farming.

I didn’t blame him. Almost without exception, when I ask Black visitors to the farm what they first think of when they see the soil, they respond “slavery” or “plantation.” Our families fled the red clays of Georgia for good reason—the memories of chattel slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, and lynching were bound up with our relationship to the earth. For many of our ancestors, freedom from terror and separation from the soil were synonymous.

While the adult mentors in Dijour’s summer program were fired up about this field trip to a Black-led farm focused on food justice, Dijour was not on board. I tried to convince him that although the land was the “scene of the crime,” as Chris Bolden Newsome put it, she was never the criminal.

But Dijour was unconvinced. It was only when he saw the group departing on a tour that his fear of being left alone in a forest full of bears overcame his fear of dirt. He joined us, removing his Jordans to protect them from the damp earth and allowing, at last, the soil to make direct contact with the soles of his bare feet.

Dijour, typically stoic and reserved, broke into tears during the closing circle at the end of that day. He explained that when he was very young, his grandmother had shown him how to garden and how gently to hold a handful of soil teeming with insects. She died years ago, and he had forgotten these lessons. When he removed his shoes on the tour and let the mud reach his feet, the memory of her and of the land literally traveled from the earth, through his soles, and to his heart. He said that it felt like he was “finally home.”

The truth is that for thousands of years Black people have had a sacred relationship with soil that far surpasses our 246 years of enslavement and 75 years of sharecropping in the United States.

For many, this period of land-based terror has devastated that connection. We have confused the subjugation our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We do not stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty because we imagine that would revert us to bondage.

Part of the work of healing our relationship with soil is unearthing and relearning the lessons of soil reverence from the past.

Teen participants take their shoes off to experience the mud on their feet. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman.Teen participants take their shoes off to experience the mud on their feet. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman.

We can trace Black people’s sacred relationship with soil back at least to the reign of Cleopatra in Egypt beginning in 51 BCE. Recognizing the earthworm’s contributions to the fertility of Egyptian soil, Cleopatra declared the animal sacred and decreed that no one, not even a farmer, was allowed to harm or remove an earthworm for fear of offending the deity of fertility. According to studies referenced by Jerry Minnich in The Earthworm Book in 1977, worms of the Nile River Valley were largely responsible for the extraordinary fertility of Egyptian soils.

In West Africa, the depth of highly fertile anthropogenic soils serves as a “meter stick” for the age of communities. Over the past 700-plus years, women in Ghana and Liberia have combined several types of waste—including ash and char from cooking, bones from meal preparation, by-­products from processing handmade soaps, and harvest chaff—to create African Dark Earths.

According to a 2016 study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, this black gold has high concentrations of calcium and phosphorus, as well as 200 to 300 percent more organic carbon than soils typical to the region. Today, community elders measure the age of their towns by the depth of the black soil, since every farmer in every generation participated in its creation.

When the colonial governments in northern Namibia and southern Angola attempted to force Ovambo farmers off their land, they offered what they said were equivalent plots with better-quality soil. According to Emmanuel Kreike in Environmental Infrastructure in African History, the farmers refused to be displaced, countering that they had invested substantially in building their soils and doubted that the new areas would ever equal their existing farms in fertility. The Ovambo people knew that soil fertility was not an inherent quality but something that is nurtured over generations through mounding, ridging, and the application of manure, ashes, termite earth, cattle urine, and muck from wetlands.

This reverent connection between Black people and soil traveled with Black land stewards to the United States.

In the early 1900’s, George Washington Carver was a pioneer in regenerative farming and one of the first agricultural scientists in the United States to advocate for the use of leguminous cover crops, nutrient-rich mulching, and diversified horticulture. He wrote in The American Monthly Review of Reviews that the soil’s “deficiency in nitrogen can be met almost wholly by the proper rotation of crops, keeping the legumes, or pod-bearing plants, growing upon the soil as much as possible.”

He advised farmers to dedicate every spare moment to raking leaves, gathering rich earth from the woods, piling up muck from swamps, and hauling it to the land. Carver believed that “unkindness to anything means an injustice done to that thing,” a conviction that extended to both people and soil.

One of the projects of colonization, capitalism, and White supremacy has been to make us forget this sacred connection to soil. Only when that happened could we rationalize exploiting it for profit.

As European settlers displaced Indigenous people across North America in the 1800’s, they exposed vast expanses of land to the plow for the first time. It took only a few decades of intense tillage to drive around 50 percent of the original organic matter from the soil into the sky as carbon dioxide. The agricultural productivity of the Great Plains decreased 71 percent during the 28 years following that first European tillage. The initial rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was due to the oxidation of soil organic matter through plowing.

The planet’s soils continue to be in trouble.

Each year we lose around 25 million acres of cropland to soil erosion. The loss is 10 to 40 times faster than the rate of soil formation, putting global food security at risk. Soil degradation alone is projected to decrease food production by 30 percent over the next 50 years. Further, when soils are laden with fertilizers and pesticides, the nutritional quality of the food they produce is lower than crops grown using methods that enrich the soil with compost, cover crops, and mulches.

Dance moves teach the process of weeding. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman.Dance moves teach the process of weeding. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman.

When the soil suffers, it’s not just our food supply that is at risk. The further the population gets from its connection to earth, the more likely we are to ignore and exploit those who work the soil. As Wendell Berry wrote in The Hidden Wound in 1970:

The white man, preoccupied with the abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of meaningful contact with the earth. He was literally blinded by his presuppositions and prejudices. Because he did not know the land, it was inevitable that he would squander its natural bounty, deplete its richness, corrupt and pollute it, or destroy it altogether. The history of the white man’s use of the earth in America is a scandal.

In the United States today, nearly 85 percent of the people who work the land are Hispanic or Latino and do not enjoy the same labor protections under the law as other American workers in other sectors. Pesticide exposure, wage theft, uncompensated overtime, child labor, lack of collective bargaining, and sexual abuse are all too common experiences of farmworkers today.

Even in urban areas, our disconnect from soil has grave consequences.

As a toddler, my daughter, Neshima, loved to make mud pies in the playground and drop bean seeds into the furrows of community garden plots in ­Worcester, Massachusetts. I didn’t know that exposure to these urban soils would put my child at risk for permanent neurological damage.

At her 18-month pediatric visit, I learned that she was one of approximately 500,000 children with elevated blood lead levels in this country. She inhaled and ingested soil that had been contaminated with lead from old paint and gasoline emissions. I quickly became a safe-soils activist and tested hundreds of residential and public spaces across the city, encountering lead levels as high as 11,000 parts per million, well above the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe limit of 400 parts per million.

From the arsenic found at a school site in Maine to the heavy metals in the gardens of Portland, Oregon, and the brownfields at an affordable housing site in Minneapolis, our urban soils are showing the scars of our disconnection. Hailing from the Bronx, New York, a participant in one of our farm training programs shared, “The soil is toxic in my neighborhood. The only good thing I can say about it is that when there were drive-by shootings, I would get low to the ground and the smell of the earth meant I was safe.”

When soils suffer the most egregious abuse, they can no longer even provide stable ground beneath our feet.

In early 2018, wildfires tore through Santa Barbara County, California, burning up the soil organic matter and ravaging the vegetation that held the hillsides in place. Heavy rain followed the blaze, and the destabilized mud and boulders flowed downhill, leaving at least 21 dead and over 400 homes damaged or destroyed in their wake.

Both the wildfires and the erratic rainfall can be linked to anthropogenic climate change and our voracious appetite for fossil fuels. Coupled with that, the process of extracting those fossil fuels from the earth through coal mining and fracking further destabilizes the soil, resulting in sinkholes like the one in Chester County, Pennsylvania, connected to the Mariner East pipeline.

The soil stewards of generations past recognized that healthy soil is not only imperative for our food security—it is also foundational for our cultural and emotional well-being.

Western science is catching up, now understanding that exposure to the microbiome of a healthy soil offers benefits to mental health that rival antidepressants. After mice were treated with Mycobacterium vaccae, a friendly soil bacteria, their brains produced more of the mood-regulating hormone serotonin. Some scientists are now advocating that we play in the dirt to care for our psychological health.

We see the benefits of soil anecdotally on our farm with the youth and adult participants who come to learn Afro-Indigenous soil regeneration methods. While the curriculum focuses on such nerdy details as the correlation between earthworm count and soil organic matter, participants often reflect that the main thing they gain from their time with the dirt is “healing” and the strength to leave behind addictions, toxic relationships, poor diets, and demeaning work environments.

Our ancestors teach us that it’s not just soil bacteria that contribute to this healing process. Part of African cosmology is that the spirits of our ancestors persist in the earth and transmit messages of encouragement and guidance to us through contact with the soil.

Further, we believe the Earth herself is a living, conscious spirit imparting wisdom. When we regard a handful of woodland soil, rich in the mycelium that transmits sugars and messages between trees, we are made privy to the inner world of the forest super­-organism and its secrets of sharing and interdependence.

Like Dijour, we are welcomed home to a profound web of belonging that extends beyond the boundaries of self and species.

One student on our farm reflected, “I leave this experience feeling grounded like a tree in a land and country that I previously did not feel welcomed in. Connection with soil was the awakening of my sovereignty.”

This article originally appeared in Yes! Magazine, and is reprinted with permission.

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Manafort’s “accidental” lies will deal American justice a black eye and he’ll walk with oodles of Russian cash

Lucian K. Truscott IV, Salon     February 16, 2019

                                                 Paul Manafort arrives for a hearing at US District Court on June 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Mandel Ngan)

One thing you have to remember about these guys: it’s always worse than you think it is. So it goes with Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman, current resident of the solitary confinement wing of a cellblock in a federal lock-up in Washington, D.C.As Manafort stews behind bars, pundits have spent all week wondering why he would make the seemingly insane move of lying to Mueller’s investigators after he had signed an agreement to cooperate with them “fully, truthfully, completely, and forthrightly” concerning what he knew about the Trump campaign’s contacts with the Russian government. If you look back with me for a moment at what we have learned about Manafort over the last three years, maybe it’s not such a mystery at all.


During Manafort’s trial on charges of money laundering and tax evasion, prosecutors produced evidence that between 2010 and 2014, Manafort was paid more than $60 million by Russia-friendly Ukrainian sponsors, including Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine.

But after Yanukovych was deposed by a popular uprising in 2014, Manafort was out of work and scrambling around looking for work in the United States. He found a political life-raft in the campaign of Donald Trump. In March of 2016, he was hired as a consultant on Trump’s campaign.  By May Trump had vanquished his primary opponents and was on his way to the nomination, Manafort was promoted to campaign chairman and charged with wrangling delegates at the Republican National Convention. He remained as Trump’s campaign chairman until August, when he was ousted following revelations of his receiving cash payoffs from Russia-friendly figures in the Ukraine during his time working for Yanukovych.

What you find in the career of Paul Manafort then is a peculiar, pungent mix of all the distasteful elements in the contemporary Republican Party. He had real political skills; he was a master fixer and image doctor; and over the years, he developed a big-time love of big bucks. Keep this in mind as we move forward.

What we knew of Manafort from the public record, however, had very little relation to what was really going on behind the scenes of the Trump campaign. After the revelations of his indictments by Mueller and the Eastern District of Virginia, and especially after this week’s order by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C., we know far more about what Manafort was up to on the Trump campaign.

Manafort was put in control of the Republican National Convention to insure that the anti-Russia plank critical of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea was taken out of the Republican platform. Back in New York, he wasn’t sitting around Trump Tower making calls to Republican county chairmen.  No, he was busy attending the infamous meeting on June 9 at the Trump campaign headquarters with Jared Kushner and Don Jr. when the three of them met with six Russians with ties to Kremlin intelligence agencies.

As we now know from Judge Jackson’s order, Manafort was also meeting with his main Russian contact in the “Havana Room,” a cigar bar conveniently located in a building owned by the Kushner family at 666 Fifth Avenue. The Russian contact was Konstantin Kilimnik, a man with whom Manafort had partnered in the Ukraine when he worked for Yanukovych. Kilimnik had ties to Russian intelligence and was close to Oleg Deripaska, a prominent Russian oligarch and friend of Putin, with whom Manafort had a $10 million contract to promote his interests in the United States and elsewhere. A witness as his trial in Washington D.C. testified that Deripaska had loaned Manafort another $10 million, which he had never repaid.

What did Manafort do as soon as he moved into his offices in the Trump campaign in Trump Tower in the spring of 2016? Why, he sent a message to his Russian pal Kilimnik, who was now living in Moscow and working for Deripaska, asking what they could do together to “get whole” with Deripaska now that he was working for Trump.

Mueller’s prosecutors appeared before Judge Jackson seeking to prove that Manafort had lied to them after he had copped a plea on the second set of federal charges he was facing. The judge found that one of the major things Manafort had lied about was his meeting with Kilimnik in the “Havana Room,” where he was alleged to have passed polling data from the Trump campaign to his Russian contact. Prosecutors apparently knew Manafort had lied to them because his partner Rick Gates was at the meeting with Kilimnik, and he had been truthful when told them what had transpired between Manafort and Kilimnik.

To give you an idea of how seriously Mueller’s investigators took Manafort’s contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, one of his prosecutors told Judge Jackson that his contacts with the Russian went “very much to the heart of” the Special Counsel’s broader mandate to investigate Russian influence in the Trump campaign during 2016.

Now we have to ask ourselves, why would Donald Trump’s campaign chairman be passing political polling data to a known Russian intelligence operative during the campaign? Well, the obvious answer is that Donald Trump knew exactly what he was doing when he hired Paul Manafort as his campaign chairman. He knew he was getting a guy who had the political skills to fix the anti-Russian plank in the Republican platform at the convention, and he knew that Manafort had extensive contacts with Ukrainian and Russian intelligence that went back more than a decade, and that Manafort could tap those contacts and pass information back and forth between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

The other thing to notice when you look back at the service Manafort provided to the Trump campaign is the timing of his involvement. He went to work on the campaign during the time Russian GRU intelligence agents were hacking the servers of the Democratic Party and stealing their emails and political secrets. He met with Russian intelligence operatives in Trump Tower in advance of the Russians releasing those stolen emails, and he was running the campaign when the Russians began leaking the emails via WikiLeaks. He was there throughout the convention when Trump got the nomination for president on the Republican ticket, and he wasn’t ousted until Trump was well on his way as a candidate who was on the stump day after day talking about how much “I love WikiLeaks” and taking advantage of the Russian hacking.

The key figure who apparently tipped off Muller’s prosecutors that Manafort was lying to them during his agreement to cooperate was his former partner, Rick Gates. He was the deputy campaign chairman under Manafort and remained with the campaign after Manafort left. He was in constant contact with Manafort during the campaign and was present for the meeting with Kilimnik at the “Havana Room.”

But Gates clearly wasn’t inside the room every time Manafort as campaign chairman met with candidate Trump. That’s the big secret Manafort is keeping for Trump. The only two men who know what transpired between campaign chairman and candidate during the campaign are Manafort and Trump. Manafort was Trump’s cut-out to Putin’s intelligence operatives who were hacking the Democrats’ emails and releasing them through WikiLeaks. They obviously used the campaign polling data Manafort passed to Kilimnik in determining when to release information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta. Only Manafort knows what instructions Trump gave him when he was dealing with the Russians during the campaign, and so far, he is keeping this very, very big secret.

Most pundits think Manafort is counting on a pardon from Trump before he is impeached or leaves office by losing the election of 2020. Trump can certainly do this. He has a real interest in keeping Manafort’s mouth shut because Trump has created the fiction that he beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 fair and square without the help of the Russian government, and he’s not going to easily let this fiction be credibly challenged. It would be too much of a blow to his ego, even after he has left office. Manafort could blow up Trump’s lies about the 2016 campaign. Trump will do anything to keep him quiet. Dangling a pardon insured Manafort would lie to Mueller even under a plea agreement.

A pardon might not be enough to insure Manafort’s loyalty over the long term, but money will. Remember the revelations during his trial about the millions he laundered through banks in Cyprus and how he spent it? Six hundred grand for landscaping his house in Bridgehampton! Five hundred grand for fancy suits from men’s clothing stores! Hundreds of thousands on Persian rugs! He owned houses in the Hamptons, Florida, Brooklyn, and a condo in Trump Tower!

Manafort isn’t sitting there in jail in Washington D.C. just waiting on a pardon. He still faces heavy fines for tax evasion. Nearly every asset he ever owned has been seized. He’s not going to walk out of jail with a pardon and move into a walk-up in Queens. The other party to Trump’s fiction about how he beat Hillary is the Russians, and they don’t want the truth to come out any more than Trump does. Whoever beats Trump in 2020 (if he’s still around to beat) will double or triple sanctions on Russia if the secrets behind Russia’s involvement in Trump’s campaign are ever told. Somebody over there loyal to Putin — Deripaska or Akhmetov or another oligarch — has made promises to Manafort to “make him whole” financially.

Trump will pay off Manafort for his silence with a pardon, and the Russians will pay him off with millions of dollars. That’s why Paul Manafort is sitting in jail in Washington D.C. lying to Robert Mueller’s investigators. He’s always been a dirty-trickster and a fixer, and just because he’s wearing an orange jumpsuit and going gray in the absence of his bottle of black hair dye doesn’t mean he’s stopped trickstering and fixing. Look out, Bridgehampton and Manhattan! Paul Manafort has a big secret and even bigger plans to use it to make his comeback!

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better.