When one looks at the dirt beneath our feet, it seems a most mysterious process to imagine that this apparently mundane “dirty” substance can become the beautiful plants, and dynamic animals and humans that walk the earth.
It does not have to be so mysterious, because truly there are fundamental processes that govern this sequence from dirt into plants. Culturally, for whatever reasons, we have not made it a priority to know this process deeply or at all. In the sciences, all throughout school, soil processes are little mentioned. We learn some chemistry through the periodic table, and some biology mostly through paper handouts about “the cell”, and unless we choose the agricultural studies subject, the mystery of soils will likely evade our education. We teach biology, chemistry, physics, geology and agriculture as separate subjects, yet they are all intrinsically connected. The disconnected subjects of science taught in the mainstream do little to inspire any practically applied knowledge in the learner. Yet, in the seemingly simple act of growing a plant in soil, the principles and realities of chemistry, biology, physics and more coalesce together to create and perpetuate all of life on Earth.
We can teach the foundational aspects of science through pragmatic measures, like growing food. Yet the mainstream education system seems to have divided all the aspects of the whole. In nature, one cannot observe chemistry, outside of an organic context. It is only in a lab that where we can isolate certain chemical compounds into pure forms , and observe their interactions in a lab setting where the parameters of the interactions have been controlled to achieve accuracy of experiments.
In nature, we find sulfur, paired with carbon, silica, bound in a crystalline matrix of minerals, that will have certain sulfur loving microbes living on these compounds. Elements in nature are seen bound to various environmental contexts depending upon a multitude of prevailing local conditions. We see biology, living upon chemistry, influenced by physics, within an environment that makes sense of this dynamic. In a lab, we see purified elemental forms, mixed in specific ratios, weighed out by machines, sterilised from life, obviously to mitigate any variance in the environment, to control the parameters of how we conduct our experiments. Somehow, we have taken that lab mindset, where everything is separated, reduced, and controlled – and applied it to the way we teach our science. Labs are not bad, in fact , they are genius! Yet, fundamentally it is a place where we take nature, to break it down into components, to study its aspects, and modern science can have the tendency to become focused on the aspects, at the cost of understanding the whole system – the systems of living, working nature.
When the natural linking between the elements is removed, along with it goes the interconnected story of nature. On the side of a volcano, we can see why certain chemistry dominates. We can see what geological influences the movement of plates, and the upswelling of the lithosphere from underground, has had on the environment. From this we can see why certain biology in that area will be found thriving, whilst other life forms will not thrive. We can see the interpenetrating factors in real time, and throughout history, through observing the elements in symphony within their context. This makes sense to our ancient, and natural brain, designed to observe patterns in nature.
Observing patterns , is deeply connected to our sense of survival and fulfillment. Without seeing the flow of the seasons, or at which points in the year a plant fruits, or what signs may indicate a water source in an environment, or any other number of natural patterns – we may perish. This is why human beings love to learn, and naturally feel elevated from the learning process – it is the sense that we are seeing patterns, which means becoming smarter, which means us and our loved ones surviving and thriving for longer.
This is why nature is not only our favourite home throughout history, but our favourite laboratory, and classroom. The richness of context, and interpenetrating elements, tell a story that is endless and complex. Stories , and context create meaning, and meaning is what helps us to grow, and continue to thrive. For these same reasons, when we take aspects of science, and we disconnect them from other aspects of nature, we lose so much context, and therefore so much meaning. This is a large part of why so much of our education system fails to engage students in deep and lifelong learning of the natural sciences, and of nature. Our culture, our children, and ourselves all grasp for meaning in our lives. With meaning comes satisfaction, happiness, and awe. All of those things are important in the mental health and physical wellbeing of any human. We can begin to bring meaning back into our lives, simply by immersing ourselves in natural worlds. Now more than ever , returning to natures vast, and complex landscapes to learn, to play and grow – can be exactly what we and our children need to become passionate about life, and live a life full of meaning and connectedness to the Earth and each other.