In London, our soil is perhaps the most overlooked habitat of all. It's an unseen world, sealed under tarmac, home to countless billions of plants and creatures. A mirrored image of its overground counterpart, this subterranean metropolis is the literal bedrock of London; the city is built on it and with it. Beneath the carapace of city streets, soil and below that, London clay, rich in fossils from the Eocene, are signs that human life in London is only a small part of a natural ecosystem that has existed here for millions of years. This often neglected, subsurface zone is the subject of the first issue of Undergrowth. Where better place to begin a story about London's unseen nature than its soil?
Soil finds its literary roots in solum, the Latin word for foundation or base and its significance as a place of nativity is well established. But for many of us, soil has a less romantic association. Mud, dirt and sod are all words that belie soil's life-giving qualities. Soil is shit too and during the 18th and 19th centuries, 'nightmen' had the unenviable task of collecting and disposing of London's night-soil. Our relationship with soil is both complex and contradictory. Soil is a sign of toil but also of adventure and play. And it is as much a harbinger of death as a symbol of life. Weeks before he died in Flanders, the poet Edward Thomas felt this duality. When Eleanor Farjeon pressed him on why precisely he had chosen to enlist to fight, Thomas bent to pick up a handful of soil and replied: "Literally, for this". We have a sentimental connection to soil. It represents a sense of place that in London, we feel that much further from.
The primary ingredients of soil are water, minerals and air. Soil also contains vast amounts of organic matter both alive and dead with the former feeding on the latter. Many of the organisms that call this humus their home are familiar to us. The creepy crawlies; earthworms, woodlice and centipedes are easily identified by most children. Perhaps so too are the burrowing mammals, the badgers, foxes, rabbits and moles. But in London alone, this underground world is home to crayfish, hibernating toads and palmate newts. It shelters grass snakes, legless lizards and adders. Urban foxes dig their dens amongst a mycelium web of more than a thousand species of mushroom and within the roots of over two thousand species of tree numbering in excess of eight million individuals. And in London's tube network live a variety of mosquito found nowhere else on earth. It is an undiscovered ecosystem but one that provides the substrate in which all London's plants take root, greenery that supports a host of animals including ourselves.
Farmers and gardeners have always understood the value of healthy soil. But in London, a sense of disconnection from our food, from field to fork, has seen more Londoners than at any time since The War, pick up tools and start cultivating the land. Soil and food are inseparable but we are only beginning to discover soilís less apparent qualities. It plays a vital role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, storing floodwater and filtering that which we drink only to name a few.
This first issue of Undergrowth starts at that foundation. The foundation of nature in London and it hopes to illuminate soil's unseen world and offer a new perspective on its overlooked narratives.