Soil Redemption Song

Michael Phillips, author of The Apple Grower and The Holistic Orchard, now has a new book, Mycorrhizal Planet, just published by Chelsea Green Publishing. There was some disagreement between Phillips and the publisher about the title for the book, so he conducted a poll asking friends for input. A cattle rancher, a regional publisher, a permaculture guru, a biodynamic herbalist, an academic, and an orchardist/artist, among others, all weighed in on which of three titles they preferred. I voted without hesitation for Mycorrhizal Alchemy, but Chelsea Green decided to go with Mycorrhizal Planet (Mycorrhizal Pathways was the other choice). Alchemy suggests transformation, mystery, and ancient practices, all of which I am drawn towards. It’s a little like taking old found objects and making them into art.

 Linda Hoffman (left) and Madeleine Lord working on Belle the Bird in Hoffman's Studio, 2009

Linda Hoffman (left) and Madeleine Lord working on Belle the Bird in Hoffman's Studio, 2009

In the painting, The Alchemist by Cornelis Bega, a hunched figure sits in a cave-like room, intent on what is happening inside a glass jar. Books, notebooks, and earthenware pots surround him, suggesting a lifetime of mixing substances and studying their reactions. The alchemist is grounded and humble in Bega’s depiction. It’s a lonely art, much maligned as a materialistic quest to turn ore into gold; when, in fact, alchemists made considerable contributions to early science. 

   The Alchemist  , Cornelis Bega

The Alchemist, Cornelis Bega

I think of Michael Phillips like this alchemist, studying the threads of life in the soil, appreciating them, and sharing their magic. Mycorrhizal fungi form a fibrous network stretching throughout the soil, attaching to roots, and connecting plant roots to each other. These fungi process minerals and feed them up to the plants, sending up just what is required. They will even provide storage for a plant’s bounty until leaner times, or pass on needed nutrients to other plants. It's a hidden world that scientists are only beginning to explore.

 Photo courtesy of Larry Petersen, University of Guelph

Photo courtesy of Larry Petersen, University of Guelph

“Each and every Mycorrhizal pulsating with nutrient flow, [is] making our lives possible,” Phillips writes. I consider Phillip’s passion to understand soil devotional.

Interestingly, Buddhism conceives of our world as one in which everything is interrelated and interdependent; nothing is separate in all of existence (or non-existence). Buddhism uses the analogy of the jeweled Net of Indra to describe this global interconnectedness. Imagine a vast net spreading out infinitely in all directions. At every crossing point in the net is a reflective jewel, and each jewel contains the reflection of every other jewel. If I were to put a mark on one gemstone, it would appear on every other one. How we treat one person ripples across the entire world.  

The world under our feet is no different. Trees even share nutrients through Mycorrhizal fungi attached to their roots with trees of different species. It’s a little mind blowing — this network of fungi in the soil supporting the cosmic connection between all beings throughout space and time.

Phillips told me that he actually wanted the title to be Soil Redemption Song, inspired by Bob Marley’s haunting Redemption Song.

[…]
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
'Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look? Ooh
Some say it's just a part of it
We've got to fulfill the Book

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Michael told me that as he pondered the lyrics of this song, he wrote, “Healthy plant metabolism begins with a molecule of water, a breath of carbon, and light energy from our nearest star. The tangible science behind all this unlocks the righteous way to farm and garden, give honor to trees, and plain do right by this earth. Nothing has ever excited me more.”

Mycorrhizal Planet provides practical information for the farmer, gardener, orchardist, and forester, as well as inspiration for all of us who have temporarily lost heart from following the daily news. If you’d like to order the book please go to Phillips’ website. He’ll sign a copy and send it to you.

Listen closely when you next walk among the trees. You might just hear the great alchemist Bob Marley singing — transforming our pain with his courage. Listen!