Andersen: Thinking like an earthworm |

Andersen: Thinking like an earthworm

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Anyone who nurtures gardens knows that soil is more than dirt — that soil is a living, organic medium, that soil is our sustenance, our base, our survival. Food does not originate in grocery stores. It originates in soil.

Few are the deep thinkers whose roots reach into the soil. But there is one who is urging that we go deep into the earth to uncover a salient truth about soil. A writer, Woody Tasch, takes a philosophical approach to thinking like an earthworm. It’s something we must do, he says, if we are to understand the value of our native soil before it is irrevocably plundered by chemicals.

Tasch is the founder of the “Slow Money” movement. He has his eye on the soil as a barometer of our true net worth. He follows the example of Rachael Carson as he warns of chemical abuses to the environment.

Tasch says that while industrial food harvests are historically high, soil fertility is historically low. Chemicals lace the once-living earth and mask its depletion. Tasch also equates the epidemic of soil exhaustion with soaring economic growth. The higher the Dow, the lower the health of essential ecosystems throughout the biosphere.

“To grow from $1 trillion to $77 trillion in little more than a century,” Tasch wrote, “you must live in a binary world: Create as much wealth as you can now, worry about philanthropy later. This made sense in 1900, but once we saw the first picture of the Earth rising over the moon, shouldn’t all that have begun to change?”

Tasch says that we are of the soil and need to reaffirm that linkage. His connection is not only physical, as in getting his hands into the earth as a farmer, it is political and financial.

Much of the developed world, he says, is suffering from a mental myopia that drives short-term thinking, a lack of planning and a failure to envision the future or the lives of our children. We pursue immediate gratification through immediate material gain.

“In today’s fast world,” Tasch wrote, “with fast food, fast money, fast information, a few weeks is a long time, a month an eternity, and who can even describe the immense duration of a fiscal quarter or a season?”

We achieve financial gain, he says, often at the expense of the natural world, which is in a tailspin from climate change, species extinctions, drought and ocean pollution. We fail to equate our aggregate actions with these cumulative results.

Tasch quotes Robert Kennedy, who said equations for the gross national product must include air pollution and waste streams from industry.

“It includes,” he said, “the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our children.”

We must examine the world at our feet — or below our feet — where the earthworms are the final judges of the quality of the soil on which we live. If you’re a gardener, you know this truth, especially as you turn over spring soil and see the worms for which gardeners are grateful.

“The State of the Soil is weak,” Tasch wrote. “We are strong in terms of tillage, but weak in terms of fertility. We are strong measured in chemical and mechanical power — millions and millions of tons of NPK (fertilizers), petrochemicals, herbicides and pesticides, and the sophisticated technologies to apply them — but we are weak in terms of soil erosion, in terms of our connection to the land, in terms of sense of place.

“Our industrial systems are taking carbon from the soil instead of building carbon in the soil. We have less and less organic matter, and fewer and fewer people who know what it feels, smells or tastes like.”

Thinking like an earthworm requires humility, Tasch says. We must realize that organic systems function sustainably, as they have for millennia, where industrial exploitation is short-term and destructive.

The next time you dig up a worm in your garden, pick it up, kiss it, pat it gently, and replace it in your soil with loving care for the benefits it provides at no charge. Then, start thinking like that worm.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at