My friend Sam has quickly become one my favorite people. He is a UCC pastor that I met at the Just Food conference back in 2016. He lives not too far from me and serves a traditional UCC church. He is also the founder of a ministry called Keep & Till. K&T’s vision is “To See Rural Renewal Through Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Responsibility Informed by Radical Christian Faith”. Reading that, you can probably see why it is I like Sam. I generally categorize myself as a “fan” of K&T and have hung around the periphery of some of their work.
Sam posted a question on Facebook the other day that has been swimming around in my head all week:
Is there a difference “You are dust…” and “You are soil…”?
Let’s back up here for a second.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. Most of my readers know that, but should you have just stumbled upon this blog due to random interweb hijinx, I’ll remind you that for Christians (not just Catholics) Lent is the season leading up to Easter that, a forty day journey of spiritual discovery that mirrors Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Oftentimes, during the imposition of ashes (when the holy person smudges dirt on your face) the words “remember that you are dust, to dust you shall return” are uttered. Many ministers like to add something else hopeful there, but I like to leave it like that. There’s nothing wrong with sitting with your own mortality for a night, or even a whole day.
So back to the question: would it be different for you if this Ash Wednesday you heard “remember that you are soil” instead of “dust”?
Sam’s friends, many of whom are likely also agrarian-minded, generally commented that the word “soil” gives the connotation of life (or at least the possibility of life), while “dust” hints at barrenness and death. I generally agree with those connotations.
Then, I did a little digging… see what I did there?
A very quick word study shows “apar” as the Hebrew word for dust while “adamah” is the word for soil. All well and good except that Genesis 2:7 uses both words back to back:
Then the Lord God formed man from the dust (apar) of the ground (adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Here we get God’s breath turning the “apar” into… wait for it… “adam”, the soil person.
The intuition is correct then that dust is soil minus the God-given breath of life. But we aren’t dust. We’re adam made from adamah.
For me, change in verbiage does a couple of important things. First and foremost, it reminds me more vividly of the natural cycles. The circle of life, if you will. We die and we become a part of the soil that nourishes new life. As far as we might try to separate ourselves from that reality, we can’t avoid it. To say that we are soil reminds us of our rightful place in the natural world and should create in us some humility.
More fun with words, “humility” comes from the same root as “humus” and “human”. Humility is recognizing your humanity… which is that you are humus.
The second thing that this change of wording does for me is that it elevates the status of soil to the level of humanity. In other words, soil, like humans, should be cared for. As I talk to friends like Sam and learn more about organic food movements, one of the common refrains that is repeated is soil health. I’m learning about how corporate agriculture degrades soil quality making chemicals more necessary that also hurt the soil as well as the consumers. I’m learning about how monoculture drains the soil of nutrients and leads to soil erosion (dust). I’m learning about the practices, most of which are ancient and widely known, that can lead to soil health like fallow seasons and crop rotation. Soil health has everything to do with how and what we eat. Soil health then is human health.
My lenten discipline this year is to eat as local as possible and to at least eat organic when I can’t eat local. This will mean spending a bit more on food, likely eating less meat, and all but eliminating the drive thru which has sadly become a staple of my diet. Fortunately, both Baltimore and Arlington give me a lot of good local and organic food options, but as I prayerfully move through the season, I’ll be thinking about why good food is harder to access and ways to bring the health that I have the luxury and privilege to pursue to more people.
I can’t not mention the proposed changes to SNAP that the administration is suggesting. Simply put, I think they are evil. It is dehumanizing to tell people what they must eat and not give them the option to eat more healthily. It deprives people of choice. It deprives people of dignity. It may deprive people of needed calories to get through their day. It may also deprive people of the joy that eating should be, sometimes the only joy that people living in poverty know. This is a move to further stigmatize poverty and it should infuriate people.
Back to our question… the final thing that changing “dust” into “soil” does for me is give me hope, a thing which is in short supply these days. “Dust” gives the sense of annihilation or oblivion. “Soil”… well, maybe it’s because I’m a gardener, but soil is hopeful. Soil says “possibility”. Soil says “potential”. Soil says “not the end”.
I don’t mind considering my mortality, I really don’t. I probably think about more than I should. But when I do think about death, I don’t like to think of it as an ending, but rather as a transition. My life ends in its current form and life then takes a new form.
I love things like The Living Urn that take human remains and use them as the medium in which to grow a plant or a tree. I love the idea that what’s left of me could be used to nourish a plant that could provide food or shade for others. My theology is such that death is not an end. New life can and does happen. That gives me hope!
Remember that you are soil and to soil you will return.