Evolving Understandings of Health: Soil and Psyche, An Introduction

Evolving Understandings of Health:  Soil and Psyche, An Introduction

Understandings of soil health do not appear out of nowhere but emerge within a particular social, historical,  and economic context.  While soil health is an intrinsic characteristic of vital living soils, the elements humans tend to emphasize -  the physical, chemical, and biological components - or underemphasize, reflect the values of the surrounding culture, of agriculture at that particular period in history. It  is this human element, the reality that our understandings of health are malleable, that makes the health of our soils a topic of considerable psychological intrigue. In other words, we may draw a comparison to the health of our soils, and our understandings of the healthy individual over time.  

Freud’s insight that symptoms have “primary” and “secondary” gains implies that the mind, in an effort to navigate through the baffling dilemmas of childhood, creates worlds sustained by fantasies and fictions so convincing that it serves adaptation on the one hand, and eventually gets lost in on the other.    Neuroses,  as Freud understood it, consisted of behavioral or psychological symptoms as a substitute for thoughts and feelings that were too difficult to admit into consciousness.  The individual suffers from the knowledge he knows, but doesn't allow himself to think, what the analyst Christopher Bolas calls the "unthought known".  The challenges industrial agriculture currently faces—compaction, plant disease, insect infestation, erosion, low organic matter content, etc.—are not dissimilar, in that these problems are created by the methods (symptoms) believed to relieve the issue.  Fred Magdoff from the University of Vermont writes: 

"The conventional answer has been to view the ‘problems’ that develop as separate issues, each dealt with by its own remedy:  applying more fertilizers, irrigating more frequently, using fungicides and insecticides, and employing heavy equipment to try to breakup compact layers."  

And just as the analysand must inevitably come to terms with the unintended harm and neglect caused by a lifetime of neurotically-induced self-absorbment, so too is agriculture now beginning to understand the extent to which these so-called “remedies” have caused a cascade of problems of their own - rising temperatures, contamination of water systems, rapid erosion of soil, and the extinction of hundreds of species. 

It is important to note the specialization of crop and livestock characteristic of industrial agriculture enabled farmers to successfully meet the hunger demands of rapidly expanding populations.  However, we must not overlook how these advancements have interrupted greater processes, both social (the isolation farmers now currently face are linked with the mechanization of agriculture, the replacement of humans and animals with machines) and ecological (i.e., nutrient cycling, whereby wastes in the form of dead plant and animal manure never return to the soil but instead are disposed into ponds,  rivers, and other fresh water sources).   Karl Marx,  observing something similar, writes:

"Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centers, and causing an ever increasing preponderance of town population…disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil."

So what is the point of all this?   Besides from introducing the idea that psychoanalysis may help us become better farmers, or should I say understand ourselves better, helping us to become better farmers, I am also trying to show how our conceptions of soil health do not arise within a vacuum but to some extent reflect the consequences of what we don't believe we are not doing,  or doing despite not knowing we're doing it.   The impoverishment of soils caused by unsustainable agricultural methods historically have given rise to conceptions of soil health that reduce health to a function of fertility - a term used to describe the ability of a soil to supply nutrients to its crops - not by convenience, but by necessity.

In another post,  I hope to show how these current understandings of soil health reflect those from the school of object-relations, a school of thought which arose in 1940's and 1950's England.

However, more recent definitions of soil health favorable amongst regenerative farmers now recognize fertility simply as one characteristic amongst beneath a larger umbrella of exchanges and processes, such as those offered by  J.W. Zoran from the University of Nebraska who defines soil health as:

“The capacity of a soil to function as a vital living system within ecosystem and land use boundaries to sustain plant and animal production, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health”.

In another post,  I hope to show how these current understandings of soil health reflect those from the school of object-relations, a school of thought which arose in 1940's and 1950's England.


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