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5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – A Grounding Practice with the Soil

How soil can help us practice a mindful grounding exercise

Flowers with purple and white petals growing out of leaf and stick-covered soil.
Photo by Brad Yates

The practice of grounding in the meditation and mindfulness fields is about being present (rather than the disciplinary "you are grounded for a month!")  We can practice this type of grounding at any time, and it's beneficial to people managing stress, anxiety, and a variety of mental health challenges. While there are different grounding exercises, one of the most popular ones is using the five senses to feel more present in our bodies and spaces. 


The idea is to name 5 things you can see, name 4 things you can hear, name 3 things you can feel, name 2 things you can smell, and name 1 thing you can taste. However, any variation of the numbers work – if I can't remember which number goes with which sense, I tend to stick with one or two for each. 


While the idea of "4 The Soil" can relate to thinking globally and acting locally, we can also use the idea of appreciating and valuing soil to help ground us where our feet are. 


As you get outside this summer, try practicing this 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding practice with the soil. Doing so can help us feel connected to nature, which has multiple health benefits and can help us maintain hope for our environment. 


Here's what this practice might look like when you incorporate the soil:



5 Things We Can See


The first principle of soil health management is to keep the soil covered. This helps keep the temperature low in the hot summers, retain water, and avoid erosion. If the soil is left uncovered or consistently disturbed, notice how it might blow away in the breeze. Notice if it is dry or cracking. 


But if the soil is covered, how can we "see" the soil? 


If the soil is full of life, we might see plants growing tall and strong. Notice the shape and colors of the trees and flowers. Notice how many different plants are growing around you. Perhaps you see insects, birds, and other creatures that rely on the soil. 


We also might see a lack of puddles or muddy areas, since healthy soil absorbs water. Notice whether the leaves look a bit wilted or if they shimmer in the light. 


Pasture full of flowers, grasses, cover crops, and pollinators on an overcast day.
Biodiverse pasture on ​​N.S. Farms in eastern Virginia. Photo by Mary Sketch-Bryant.

4 Things We Can Hear


Does the soil make sound? Yes! We might not be able to hear it above the topsoil, but researchers are beginning to show how healthy soils are full of lively sounds. 


"Earthworms make rasping sounds and rhythmic scrunching as they move through the soil which we can use to detect them," said Dr Jacqueline Stroud, from the University of Warwick’s Crop Centre. The University of Warwick Crop Centre and Baker Consultants Ltd, experts in ecoacoustics, are collaborating to "develop a system to monitor the activity of earthworms and other soil fauna, to help farmers grow crops more efficiently," said their press release. 


But what if we don't have the same ecoacoustic microphones as the researchers, then how can we practice "hearing" soil? 


One way is to use a spade or shovel. Nadene Hall's article What your soil is trying to tell you with sound, smell and colour says: 


"Gritty, rasping sound: sand, loamy sand

Slightly gritty, faint rasping: sandy loam

No grit, smooth, soapy feel: silt loam

Very smooth, slightly sticky to sticky: clay loam

Very smooth, sticky to very sticky: clay"



3 Things We Can Feel


"[Encourage] having people getting their hands dirty, especially young people," said Karen Washington on Episode 22-5 of 4 The Soil: A Conversation. "Coming into gardens and visiting farms, getting their hands into the soil and seeing how lively that soil is, [to] not be afraid of earthworms or little creatures that you see, but getting your fingers into that soil, and taking that soil and smelling it. I myself had to do that, so I could find my sense of connection and sense of belonging into the soil." 


Does the soil feel gritty or smooth? Does the soil feel dry or soaked? 


The Natural Resources Conservation Service offers a Guide to Texture By Feel to learn more about what type of soil you are holding. 


A person holding soil in their hands standing outside.
A person holding soil at Fifer Family Farm in Mount Solon, Virginia. Photo by Mary Sketch-Bryant.

2 Things We Can Smell


Can you smell the "earthy" quality of the soil where you are? Do the nearby trees or plants have a particular scent? Are herbs thriving in your garden? Has the grass been cut or has mulch been spread? Has a neighborhood animal recently made their mark nearby? 


"The smell of soil, and the earthy taste we get from root vegetables like beets, is due to a compound called Geosmin, produced by soil microbes called Streptomyces," writes Soil Science Society of America scientists in their The Know Soil, Know Life teacher’s guide. 


A hand holding a radish shaped like a heart beside another radish.
A radish harvested from Project Grows in Augusta County, Virginia.

1 Thing We Can Taste


You may not want to taste the soil - especially if you are in an area where you may not know how the soil has been treated or impacted. 


However, people have eaten soil –a practice known as "geophagy"– for cultural and health reasons for centuries. Arty Mangan wrote about his experience at a soil-tasting event in California. Arty opined, "A silty clay loam had a rich chocolate flavor while a sandy loam was rather bland tasting." Soil health champions like Ray Archuleta, a soil expert formerly with USDA, and Gabe Brown, an innovative Midwest farmer, shared practices throughout the day to help build soil health on farms. 



A Grounding Practice


Practicing ground techniques can help us feel more present. Incorporating a focus on soil can help us notice the soil, how we impact it, and how it impacts us. No matter where we live, work, and play, we can all be "4 The Soil," for the present. 



A person watching the sun rise over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Photo by Clare Tallamy on Unsplash.
A person watching the sun rise over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Photo by Clare Tallamy on Unsplash.

Resources:



Jimenez MP, DeVille NV, Elliott EG, Schiff JE, Wilt GE, Hart JE, James P. Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Apr 30;18(9):4790. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18094790. PMID: 33946197; PMCID: PMC8125471.


5 Ways to Keep Climate Anxiety at Bay from Britt Wray, UVA Sustainability Blog




Guide to Texture by Feel, Modified from S.J. Thien. 1979. A flow diagram for teaching texture by feel analysis. Journal of Agronomic Education. 8:54-55.





Why the 4? 4 The Soil Blog

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