By Donella Meadows
–April 30, 1987–
It’s Earth Day 1987 at the University of Wisconsin, where Earth Day is alive and well. A retired professor of Soil Science, with the appropriate name of Francis D. Hole, comes to visit the Environmental Conservation class. He is a white-haired pixie who exudes more energy than all 120 laid-back students combined. He is carrying a fiddle.
“How old are your feet?” he begins. “Well yours are about 20 years old and mine are 73. But actually our feet are millions of years old, and they’re attuned to the earth. When they’re on a hard floor like this, they think they’re in a desert. Hardpan. Not much water, not much food. Ugh! But when they walk on the nice, springy grass, they know they’re in touch with LIFE!”
Professor Hole quotes a snatch of Walt Whitman:
Underfoot the divine soil Overhead the sun. The press of my foot to the earth Springs a hundred affections. “Notice the BOUNCE of the life-giving soil! It can be a WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE to walk over to the Chemistry Building,” he says, bouncing. “When you’re walking on good soil, ALL NATURE is singing with you.” On the fiddle he plays the sound of trudging footsteps and then adds a cheerful obligato, nature’s song.
He’s not the world’s best fiddler, but he’s the most unapologetic. He’s glowing with enthusiasm. The students are trying to look cool.
Francis Hole produces with his fiddle the sound of roots growing down into the soil. He adds a high vibrato. That’s the little soil bugs, he says, the mites and bacteria, the fungi and algae, throbbing away, producing nutrients for the roots. “It shouldn’t be called Terra Firma, at all, it should be called Terra VIBRATA!”
He launches into a Soil Song, pointing out that anyone who thinks soil is just plain brown has not been paying attention. He sings:
A rainbow of soils under our feet, Red as a barn and black as peat. Yellow as lemon and white as the snow, Bluish gray, are the colors below. Hidden in darkness as thick as the night, The only rainbow that forms without light. On to a tune everyone knows. By now the students are softened up enough to join in.
Oh give me a home on a deep mellow loam That supports the trees and the grass; Where we hardly recall a bad crop year at all, And the crickets rejoice as we pass. “You can’t have a range without a loam,” says Professor Hole. “We ought to make our songs about what’s REALLY important!”
“We have everything backward. Do you know it took Wisconsin until 1983 to adopt an official State Soil? Think what a pickle the badger, the State Animal, was in without a State Soil to burrow in. What do you think has been feeding the State Tree, the maple? We should have had a State Soil FIRST, not last!”
Wisconsin’s State Soil is the Antigo Silt Loam, found in twelve counties in the north central part of the state. It’s not the best soil in Wisconsin, nor the worst. It grows potatoes and forests and pastures for America’s Dairyland. Francis Hole, of course, was the motor behind the seven-year effort that led to its adoption. He had a lot of help from schoolchildren, who bombarded legislators with letters. Most of them were inspired by Francis Hole’s puppet show (in which Bucky Badger helps save Antigo Loam from the nasty monster Erosion).
On the day Antigo Silt Loam became Wisconsin’s Official State Soil, Francis Hole stood with his fiddle on the steps of the State Capitol and sang the Antigo Silt Loam Song, which he now teaches to the Earth Day class in Environmental Conservation.
Antigo, a soil to know, Wisconsin’s crops and livestock grow, and forests, too, on Antigo, and forests, too, on Antigo. Great Lakes region, fertile land; Glaciers spread both clay and sand; Winds blew silt, then forests grew, Giving soils their brownish hue. “Wow, a whole course in soil science, right there in ONE VERSE!” Great Lakes region, fertile land, You strengthen us in heart and hand; Each slope, each flower, each wild bird call Proclaims the unity in all. “Now that’s what I’d call AWARENESS!”
There’s time for a few more songs — “Where have all the bedrocks gone? (Long time weathering.)” and “You are my soil, my only soil, you keep me vital, night and day.” By now the unabashed joyfulness of Francis Hole has infected everyone in the room. The students are singing and whistling and stamping.
The class period ends. Everyone goes off to Chemistry on million-year-old feet, bouncing on the grass that grows out of the loam, listening as all nature sings.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987