The Spiritual Importance of Earth, Clay and Rock

Reflections on the earth beneath us.


| September/October 1999


In B-movies, aliens use it as an epithet: humans are mere Earthlings. Tied to earthly existence by the soles of our feet, we, too, sometimes view the intricate ecosystems beneath us as, indeed, beneath us. Dumb as dirt, we say, chafing at the forces that keep us rooted to our tiny ball of a planet, earthbound.

Cross-cultural creation myths offer mud as the primordial clay from which various gods crafted humankind like so many ceramic pots. Lest this sound farfetched, remember that a pinch of ordinary soil teems with multi-billions of bacteria representing thousands of as yet unknown species. Meanwhile a current origin-of-life theory strikes to our core—scientists have discovered microorganisms permeating the very bedrock of our planet, surviving extreme temperatures and suggesting that life may have started deeper underground than ever imagined.

Ancient cosmologies associate the element earth with autumn, melancholy, the center, and the color yellow. Others have symbolized earth as maternal goddess. And with the mother role comes a certain steadiness we’ve learned to depend on—rock solid, terra firma.

Valued for that stability, earth remains a basic building material, coming home in forms as various as caves, adobe, bricks and mortar. Rocks bespeak the eternal, and, across cultures, connect to the divine, giving rise to some of our most lasting and mysterious man-made structures: Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids. Today, rock crafted as surface finish—granite, marble, slate, limestone—brings the outside in, rendering the domestic monumental.

Dust to dust. The familiar funereal phrase evokes a life-and-death cycle as real as the process farmers have ever used to enrich their soils. With a lead-into-gold sort of alchemy, one man’s garbage becomes another’s organic additive: Compost happens. But we have distanced ourselves from Mother Earth. While indigenous farmers use a complex lexicon of soil-savvy terms, the modern world puzzles at such primer-level concepts as friable and tilth. Layers of asphalt and concrete literally separate us from the soil, and the majority of our food travels over a thousand miles from earth to table.

We are, after all, terrestrial beings, on and of the earth. And the remedy for what ails us may be as near as our own backyards. Dig in.





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