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“Ordinary Soil” Revisits the Weedkiller and AgBiotech Story, While Feeding the Scientist-As-Nerd Stereotype

I love the spectacular symbiosis of my vegetable garden as harvest time approaches.

Beanstalks spiral up cornstalks, their tendrils teasing nearby tomato stems. Below, broad leaves protect ballooning squashes from the slugs that appear, seemingly from nowhere, after a rain, while providing water for passing furry creatures.

The synergism of a garden is an ancient and somewhat obvious idea. Many indigenous peoples honored the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash. My kids – three sisters – learned about the practice in grade school, and all recall the first meal that we grew: corn, beans, and squash.

Those memories returned as I read Alex Woodard’s excellent novel Ordinary Soil.

Rounding Up the Enemy

The tale opens with homage to the three sisters. Then a multi-generational saga unspools that contrasts the old ways with the horrors of modern agriculture as they debut – overuse of chemical fertilizers; monoculture; squeezing seasons; and of course planting seeds genetically modified to resist herbicides and pesticides.

At the heart of the plot is the weedkiller and drying agent glyphosate, found in the product Roundup. Even though glyphosate overuse and the dangers of GM seeds dominated headlines in the 1990s, with the chemical linked to various human ills, today it’s easily ordered on Amazon for a home garden, while TV lawyer ads offer representation for those seeking compensation for glyphosate-associated cancers. To make matters worse, natural selection has won. Overuse of the herbicide favored plants with spontaneously-occurring mutations that enabled them to grow in its presence.

For anyone who’s not heard of glyphosate or the pitfalls of GM crops, Ordinary Soil is an alarming read and a wake-up call. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder.  

Although the narrative has momentum and the characters are well drawn, Ordinary Soil falls into the stereotype trap, depicting physician-turned-scientist Mark as a know-it-all, multi-syllable-spouting nerd. The hugely popular Lessons in Chemistry, which I dissected here, does the same.

The title Ordinary Soil alone would have drawn me to this book, for years ago, a dear botanist friend admonished me for using “dirt” and “soil” interchangeably, although dictionaries do so. Soil is a rich ecosystem, alive with species as diverse as viruses, bacteria, fungi, worms and grubs. But dirt is dead, depleted of life. Although the book is based on this very distinction, towards the end, “dirt” dominates.

A Five-Generation Saga

The tale alternates between ancestors and the present generation farming the same land. Three ancestors rest under an ancient elm, becoming part of the soil. Descendants encounter the tree too.

The book begins in 1898, the patriarch standing, distraught, in his field as his young son is taken away to a compulsory school “for his own good.” The man, Aki, and his wife, dead from smallpox, were full-blooded Choctaw, their ancestors coming to the Oklahoma panhandle from the southeast along the Trail of Tears. The narrative is a bit confusing because Aki is the only ancestor named, and there’s no family tree to link present-day Jake to the past.

When Aki’s time comes, he cannot rest in peace. And so his shadowy image appears at harvest time to his male descendants, more frequently and more gruesomely as soil becomes dirt with the new agricultural practices.

Aki’s shilombish – Choctaw for “spirit” – persists, swirling to the “slow circle of the ghost dance,” his braids and the fringes on his deerskin shirt awhirl, like a dancer at a Grateful Dead show happily spinning. One by one his descendants look on in disbelief at the shadowy fringed stranger in the field, each questioning his sanity and keeping the disturbing image to himself.

In the haunting, Aki’s face melts as if dipped in candlewax or napalm, “eyes bulging out of sockets.” The “demon-ghost” appears to the next five generations, on the growing farm on the outskirts of what becomes the small town of Guymon.

Aki’s son returned after a decade in the school, living in white peoples’ homes during the summers. Seeing how they mistreat the land, he recognizes his father’s wisdom and records Aki’s ways in notebooks, starting in 1908, to guide the future.  

Half of the book is the story of present-day farmer and descendant Jake, who sees the demon-ghost at every harvest.

Jake is a mess, with opiate addiction, obesity, and leaky-gut syndrome. He and his wife Jessica’s daughter died from leukemia. Other relatives in the area have autism, dementia, Parkinson’s, and diabetes. The book dubs this “the medical mystery of small town sickness,” but they’re all fairly common conditions.

Clueless Jake drowns his fields in glyphosate, the area greatly expanded from the original homestead of the Choctaw.  

Ignored Notebooks

The backbone of the story is the notebooks recounting the old ways to maintain rich soil. Generations of the menfolk know about the notebooks, but steadfastly refuse to read them, for reasons never explained.

The ever-sensible Jessica, when she learns about the notebooks, reads them. They start with Aki’s son recalling something his father remembered his own father saying, taking the narrative back one more generation:

“He told me that he was not happy, because people are forgetting the old ways. He said that the earth gives to us what she offers, and we cannot take more from her, and that his shilombish (spirit) had shown him a grave future .. and his shilup (shadow) may haunt this land for many moons, in a warning of what is to come. He told me to honor the earth, and his shilup would have peace and retreat.”

Aki’s son then describes the ghost dance that will revisit future generations.

Gee-Whiz Science

Jake binges on junk food and sprays weedkiller. Meanwhile, “Jessica was working in the soil almost every day, growing what she ate, with dirt under her fingernails, streaked across her cheeks … and she was healthy.”

Jessica’s living soil is a microbiome – all species in a small area – that influences the composition of her own gut microbiome, keeping her healthy.

“So you’re saying they’re connected? The soil microbiome and gut microbiome?” she utters at the end of the book, having already stated it many times.

Jessica is the only one in the present, it seems, to notice the decrepitude of the once-majestic crops, “how the wheat towered over the farmland in the afternoon light before her husband started using the seeds fixed in a laboratory and the wheat only reached her waist.” She’s the anti-stereotype, the smart woman in contrast to the bumbling males.

The contrast between soils is stark. “Her dirt was teeming with life. Jake’s dirt was dead by comparison, even though the samples came from virtually the same land.”

Then there’s Mark, the physician come to town to care for his mother. He’s apparently a scientist too. “I was developing new chemotherapies … ten thousand drugs to treat ten thousand symptoms was normal to me, and to all my colleagues,” he says nonsensically. Chemo preferentially attacks rapidly dividing cells anywhere, not whack-a-moling body parts.

Mark is also a cell biologist, although he mixes up the roles of proteins and lipids in cell membranes, and a microbiologist, bellowing “microbiome” repeatedly. “A word no one within a hundred miles would likely understand fell off his tongue … microbiome.”

“Likely heard of” is one thing. “Likely understand” is condescending, too complex for the average citizen to grasp.  

Mark goes to the university library to meet an old colleague, an expert. She (the other brilliant female) provides stacks of papers about GM crops and glyphosate, supposedly special stuff. Mark reacts as if this is astonishing new knowledge, yet glyphosate was approved as a pesticide in 1974. I wrote about it in the 1980s and 1990s. The herbicide isn’t named until ten pages before the end of the book, a supposedly big reveal.

The Othering of Scientists

Dr. Mark talks like a nerd. Consider his referral to Jake’s inebriation: “A more scientific way of saying the same thing might be that you introduced a toxin to your body … most notably acetaldehyde, from the oxidation of ethanol and …”

(My husband and I are scientists, and while our daughters seem a bit traumatized by our nerdy dinner table talk of decades ago, we’d never descend into science babble to non-scientists.)

After Mark explains how chronic inflammation lies behind diverse ills, Jake zones out. “Apparently, they’d had enough science talk for now.”

The oversimplification leads to one astounding error of logic. When Mark peers at Jessica’s “dirt” under his microscope, he excitedly sees bacteria, fungi, an earthworm, and carbon molecules that “looked a lot like” the chemo he once researched. The same light microscope images everything from a molecule to a worm? And a pure carbon molecule is graphite or diamond, not an organic (carbon-containing) compound like a chemotherapeutic agent.

When Mark finally utters glyphosate, dramatically, Jake immediately interrupts. “You’re making no sense. English, please.”

I think the dialog is a literary device to break up info – like noting when characters take a sip of something to avoid long quotes. Gly-pho-sate is three syllables, like id-i-ot. What’s incomprehensible about that?

Jake goes on to call Mark’s explanations “a questionable science class. Maybe you should take a break in the teacher’s lounge, professor.” So Mark is now a high school teacher, in addition to being a chemist and a physician?

A Clear, Compelling Ending

Ultimately, the explanation of how glyphosate harms people is crystal clear, from Mark’s female colleague. The herbicide interrupts the synthesis of three types of amino acids in some bacterial species that inhabit the human gut, which could trigger inflammation, which can lead to the associated ills. One sentence near the end elegantly sums up the book:

“The side effect of killing weeds and pests is that we’re also killing the soil, which makes it hard to grow good crops and stay healthy.”

I’ll readily admit that I’m a scientist nerd, and an old one at that. Despite my crankiness, I think that Ordinary Soil is an extraordinary read for anyone who hasn’t heard the glyphosate story – perfect for a high school or college biology class. For readers who already know about agbiotech, read the terrific  afterward by Zach Bush, MD, the scientific literature list, and the author’s notes first. 

I can’t wait for spring to get back to gardening!

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