The Ground Beneath Us:
From the Oldest Cities to the Last Wilderness, What Dirt Tells Us About Who We Are
Reviewed by Sam Chamelin
Paul Bogard is all of us.
Well, most of us. Bogard established himself as an important voice for environmental issues in his highly recognized The End of Night. Bogard’s first book took us on a journey to the stars, or the lack thereof, highlighting the loss of genuine darkness in our LED-saturated culture, and how that shapes us and our environments. Bogard shows himself fluent in a variety of languages – science, technology, anthropology, and even theology. In The Ground Beneath Us, Bogard continues honing and sharpening his multi-faceted voice, turning his attention to the soil with a similar literary recipe. The Ground Beneath Us is a well-paced, diverse exploration of the various grounds that humans trod, from the paved surfaces of Manhattan to the thawing tundra of Alaska, both in how we have shaped these grounds, and how the ground shapes us.
The distinguishing characteristic of this book is that Bogard does not write as an expert or an apologist. He is an everyman. He is an interviewer and a traveler. He is adept at asking questions, and he faithfully reports the answers. Bogard invites us to join him in the conversation with his questions, concerns, fears, and hopes as we consider a world where the soil is under siege. In this way, The Ground Beneath Us is written as a companion on the journey, rather than a Sherpa pointing us towards a destination.
The environmental expert seeking a grand vision of environmental restoration will find themselves disappointed with Bogard’s varying conclusions at times, wondering if he has sufficiently processed all that he himself has written. For instance, Bogard takes us on a tour of turf, ubiquitous squares of green ground that most Americans call “home.” By doing so, he brings us face to face with our undeniably destructive patterns of waste, ecological destruction, chemical dependence, and vanity. Yet having devastated the reader with his hard facts, he concludes with, “If we could see the ground beneath us – in this case, the turfgrass of our lawns – as worthy of being intensely loved, how would that change our lives?” Like so many of us, when faced with the ecological consequences of our everyday lives, finally arrive at a point of decision, Bogard seems to shrug, unable to say the things that need to be said.
I grew up on a small dairy farm, where Maryland’s regulations regarding Chesapeake Bay conservation so often found its most challenging implementation. It seemed that every year another attempt to curb vast nitrogen runoff had serious financial repercussions for my parents’ manure pit, costing us more money and requiring more delicate and precise farming. However, every farmer in Bachman’s Valley knew the biggest issue was the overfeeding of lawns and the insensitive watering habits of suburbia. But it is easier to regulate farms. At times like this, Bogard takes the easy way out. I found a similarly unsatisfying conclusion when he is faced with invasive development in Northern Virginia. The reader begs Bogard to say and do more.
Yet at times, he meets and exceeds those expectations. Those who are paralyzed with fear as they stare into an environmental apocalypse discover a glimmer of hope at the core of our humanity. His best prose comes as he describes the killing fields of Gettysburg. While he traces the path of the First Minnesota, you can feel the pride and emotion that wells up in him as he contemplates the path of his fellow Minnesotans, the unit with the most casualties of any unit at any battle in the Civil War. This emotion flows over into an extended treatise on Paul Tillich, that this battlefield speaks to our deepest and most human urges. Here, we find his highest and most spiritual thought. He does the heavy lifting of bringing the reader face to face with “the ground of our being.” When he takes the reader to Treblinka, Poland, he paints torturous images of Nazi brutality in the gas chambers, and then returns us to the silence of the forest that housed such atrocities, and leaves us there to contemplate what it means to be human. The reader finds themselves bobbing their head with an enthusiastic “Amen.” In this way, Bogard is all of us. At times, we are virtuous and courageous. At times, we are cowardly and insecure.
The gift of this book is that it is indeed an exploration of ourselves. Bogard conjures images of Moses, where God bends down and forms a human from the dust of the earth and breathed into the nostrils “the breath of life.” Our humanity is tied up in soil that has been paved over, drained, sprayed, and washed away. Nearly 20 percent of our way through the 21st century, perhaps our humanity has experienced a similar fate? And we are left to wonder, if our humanity is tied up in the soil, and we cannot escape our soil-centrism, what does it mean to be human?
The reader is taken on a trip to Ames, Iowa, representative of the Midwestern breadbasket that has served this country for generations. We are taken on a challenging and uncomfortable tour of American industrial agriculture. Where cornfields once served as a point of comfort and country living, they now represent a vast manipulation and sterilization of some of the most fertile soils in the world. Again, we are presented with hard questions concerning what we eat and how we think about food. Yet we are not left without hope. Bogard concludes by taking us to a field at sunset to watch fireflies, “reminded of the incredible way that, no matter how ravaged the place, there is always some wildlife hanging on, continuing the dance it has known since time began.” In the face of catastrophe, there is trust that we are not too far gone, that the natural world is remarkably resilient, and that humans can yet find a sustainable place in it. Maybe it is hopeful optimism, but human civilization needs that as well in this moment, no?
Despite Bogard’s well-deserved accolades as a thoughtful writer on the environment, this book falls short as an answer to the challenges of climate change. So do not ask it to be. Ask it to be a companion. It is a book that captures the pall of fear as we teeter on the edge of environmental collapse. It is a book written with the conviction that the world we occupy is indeed good. It is a book that speaks with great bravado while equally shrinking, as we all do, when face with existential questions and global catastrophe. It is a book for us. It is a book about us.
Sam Chamelin is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, and the founder of The Keep & Till (www.thekeepandtill.org), a church community committed to seeing rural renewal through sustainable agriculture and ecological conservation. He is a regular contributor to www.christianfoodmovement.org.