by Steffen Schneider, Co-Director of Hawthorne Valley Institute for Mindful Agriculture & Emeritus Director of Hawthorne Valley Farm

In mid-July, we posted Part I of “Living Soils” which focused on the living soils that make up our earth, our communities, and ourselves. I went in-depth in discussing the Earth’s soil as a community of living organisms that needs care and attention, and discussed some practices utilized at Hawthorne Valley Farm to impact our soil in a positive way for the health of the planet and her inhabitants.

But there are two other soils that I believe are equally in need of tending for a truly healthy planet and human community. These are what the Institute for Mindful Agriculture is calling “social soil” and “inner soil,” or soul.

Social Soils

school children working together to shovel compost

photo credit: Lawrence Braun

Social soils are present and form in any relationship between humans, be that two, or any group or team. In that sense, there is also an essential foundation for a fair, equitable, and collaborative economy, because the economy consists essentially of “relationships.” Healthy social soils that are based on trust allow for dialogues between people with diverse backgrounds and can open the door to positive developments in our food system. They also provide a sound and healthy basis for any ongoing collaboration. What social tools do we use to cultivate healthy social soils? Deep listening, small group conversation, dialogue walks, playing, and laughing – among other tools (for some excellent resources, please visit The Presencing Institute).

Healthy social soils that are based on trust allow for dialogues between people with diverse backgrounds and can open the door to positive developments in our food system. They also provide a sound and healthy basis for any ongoing collaboration.

What does this look like in practice? Take, for example, a project that the Institute for Mindful Agriculture has been involved in for the last three years. A local community foundation generously supported us to collaborate with other local organizations on a project called the “Fresh & Healthy Food for All in Columbia County Initiative.” The goal of the project was to develop not only immediate solutions for getting food to those who need it most in our county, but also create conditions for a long-term systems change. The first pilot is in Hudson, NY, our nearby urban center that sadly is a USDA designated “food desert.” It is home to diverse communities with 25% of residents earning income below the poverty line. The plan is to begin there and then branch out to rural areas. What a daunting task!

We immediately knew that we couldn’t just bring a solution to the community; we had to engage community members directly and personally and support them in the process of coming up with ideas for addressing food insecurity in their neighborhoods. After all, my ideas as a white male with a European background about which foods are desirable are much different from the ideas of a Bangladeshi woman, for instance. So together with our partners, we formed the Hudson Core Group from individuals in the community who were interested in coming together around the topic of food access. Over the course of many meetings, we found that one of the most sought-after foods was high-quality, affordable proteins. So we launched a Seafood Buying Club that had a sliding scale pricing system. That led us to develop a Mobile Market (Rolling Grocer 19) that launched last September to bring fresh farm products and grocery staples to various locations in Hudson. That, in turn, led us to open a Rolling Grocer 19 storefront in Hudson itself this March that has space for retail and a space for community gatherings. Thus far, these initiatives have been well-received by the various communities in Hudson. All this work would not have been possible had we not started with cultivating the social soil in our county by bringing people together to share their needs and brainstorm together on solutions. It is our hope that having a permanent community gathering space right in Hudson and offering programming to bring people together will continue to cultivate the social soil there and bring about lasting positive change for the city. You can learn more about this project and the Rolling Grocer 19 here.

Inner Soils

“We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.” Discovering and cultivating it supports a feeling of deep belonging and a sense of purpose, which helps to ground our lives, work, and relationships.

Our inner soil, or soul, lies at the core of each of our humanity and authentic beings. In our modern and busy lives, it can easily get overlooked. I think the late UN General Secretary Dag Hammerskjold expresses its essence beautifully when he says, “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.” Discovering and cultivating it supports a feeling of deep belonging and a sense of purpose, which helps to ground our lives, work, and relationships.

student running past the Hawthorne Valley Farm Children's Garden

photo credit: Lawrence Braun

Depending on each individual, there are many different ways to cultivate our inner soils. Practices like meditation or prayer, quiet reflection or journaling, the power of sleep or a walk through the woods among many others, all are so valuable! It’s about finding moments where you can just be fully present and think and recharge, when you can hear and feel who you are in your core. This work of knowing and developing oneself allows a person to better intuit the needs of the community and world around them, and how they might contribute more fully and deeply to a particular place or purpose.

In Conclusion

These three soils—Earth’s, Social, and Inner—share certain characteristics. They are easily overlooked and often taken for granted. At the same time, they are places where each one of us has the opportunity for direct action. Once discovered, they benefit from on-going, regular cultivation and can then provide the foundation and context for truly (re)-generative and future-oriented work to emerge in society, ecology, and economy.

On any farm, not only is the soil the keeper of the past, it is essentially a pathway on which the future can arrive.

The quality and health of these living media or “connecting tissues” – soils – determines to a large degree how the future will enter into our lives. On the land and on farms, the fertility – the health of the soil – affects how plants are able to become the embodiment of future potential, in their symbiotic relationship with the soil, through their vibrancy as food, and also as seed producers for the next generation of plants. On any farm, not only is the soil the keeper of the past, it is essentially a pathway on which the future can arrive.

Regular contemplation, attention, and practice are helpful in order to till this inner soil.
students working together in Hawthorne Valley Farm's Children's Garden

photo credit: Lawrence Braun

Just like the land, each of us individually also holds a key in regards to the future within us. Our ability to digest, conduct, hold, listen, transform, enable, and create could be called “soil like.” Interesting to note here that a Latin word for soil is humus, which in turn relates to human and humility. We have the ability as humans to self-reflect, examine, and cultivate an inner life, where our essential being and conscience can emerge more clearly. Regular contemplation, attention, and practice are helpful in order to till this inner soil. This will enable us to better understand ourselves and then serve the future by acting with conscious awareness in the many moments when we are faced with challenges – both large and small – and opportunities.

Finally, most of us feel clearly that the many global challenges facing us can only to be solved collaboratively. Our ability or inability to work and problem solve together, to find ways to invite future bearing solutions into the world, becomes more and more critical. This is the area of “social-soil.” While invisible to the eye, nevertheless this substance makes up the social fabric, the social climate in any relationship, any group, and any enterprise. The quality of this connecting fabric (“team spirit”) influences to a large degree whether or not deliberations, conversations, or discussions show results that are truly of the future and not simply different versions of the past. In the words of Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I assume many of us have experiences of group conversations and discussions that are based on trust and deep listening, when seemingly out of the blue a new idea or innovative solution arises for a problem that appeared hopeless and intractable.

By learning to see and appreciate the essential qualities and characteristics of “soil health” in this expanded way, we might be able to set the stage to aspire to what Orland Bishop (Co-founder and Executive Director of ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation in Los Angeles, California) so beautifully expresses:

“Earth is the school of love. Earth is where we form relationships and learn to connect through service for the sake of the whole. Nowhere else is this possible – but on Earth. In this sense, Earth is the great evolutionary experiment, upon which the whole universe depends. Earth and humanity are one. There is no such thing as a single human being. A human being is always in relation.”

And the three soils are living places and spaces where we can help heal, grow, and cultivate these relationships.

In this vein, IMA is piloting a new series called “Soil Saturdays” in the late summer and fall. These events will be open to the public with the goal of opening the door for people to discover the otherwise ‘invisible’ on the farm and possibly within themselves. Each Saturday will include an introduction, a hands-on activity involving soil, a ‘farm-bathing’ walk, and a closing circle for sharing. We hope you will join us to learn more about these important soils! It is a deep secret and paradox of our world that these “soils” are all not directly visible and as a result often reside in individual and collective blind spots. With these offerings, we want to create opportunities and shed light into areas that are important not only for a healthy farm but for our future in general.

photo credit: Lawrence Braun