You see, soil is — first and foremost — alive. It is not just dirt or dust. It is teeming with thousands upon thousands of tiny creatures. Indeed, one tablespoon of soil contains millions of tiny organisms hailing from thousands of different species of animal. And that living soil feeds on death. It takes death and from it feeds the fruits and vegetables in your garden, the grasses that feed your cow, the bugs that feed your laying hens. It takes death and makes life. It is the Resurrection written into the tiniest, yet arguably most essential, detail of our daily existence.
Lierre Keith confronted this when, as a vegetarian, she’d started her own garden. She shares the story in her compassionate and poignant book, The Vegetarian Myth:
“Feed the soil, not the plant,” was the first commandment of organic growing. I had to feed the soil because it was alive.
Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium — NPK — is the Triple Goddess of gardeners, the Troika of elements that rule plant growth. What did soil and plants eat and where would I get those substances? I hadn’t learned the phrase “closed-loop system,” but that was what I was after.
Nitrogen was the big one. There are plants that fix nitrogen. Wasn’t that enough for my garden? Couldn’t it be? I begged. But I was begging a million living creatures who had organized themselves into mutual dependence millions of years ago. They had no use for my ethical anguish. No nitrogen-fixing plant could make up for all the nutrients I was taking out. The soil wanted manure. Worse, it wanted the inconceivable: blood and bones.
There were other sources of nitrogen I could have applied. Right now, fossil fuel provides the nitrogen to grow crops the world over. Synthetic fertilizer is what created the green revolution, with its 250 percent increase in crops. Besides the fact that nothing made from fossil fuels is sustainable—we can’t grow fossil fuel and it doesn’t reproduce itself—synthetic fertilizers eventually destroy the soil.
So synthetic nitrogen was out. And that left me facing animal products. Of course, the irony is that either source of nitrogen, synthetic or organic, comes from animals. Oil and gas are what’s left of the dinosaurs. So my choices—our choices, actually—were nitrogen from dead reptiles or from living ruminants.
My garden wanted to eat animals, even if I didn’t."