I was invited to watch the film Kiss the Ground, now streaming on Netflix or for free online for teachers and students, by two of the producers of the film, Bill and Laurie Benenson, longtime environmental activists and longtime supporters of LARB, and was so impressed and, frankly, uplifted, that I wanted someone to write about it for us. In the midst of the pandemic and the increasingly frightening election, to see a path forward to addressing climate change was exhilarating. As someone with a long involvement myself with questions of regenerative agriculture, I was especially heartened. Ellen Sklarz had written previously about the filmmakers Rebecca and Josh Tickell, and so I asked her to review the film. —Tom Lutz
Kiss the Ground
84 minutes, April 2020
Directed by Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Joshua Tickell
In November 2020, the environmental future of the planet looked even bleaker, as the United States formally left the Paris Agreement. A record number of fierce hurricanes smashed into the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, a record number of fires ravaged California, and the Arctic continued to melt. But a flicker of optimism shone through for anyone who saw the groundbreaking Kiss the Ground, a documentary that offers a hopeful, viable solution to climate change through the management of the earth’s soil.
Award-winning documentary filmmakers Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Joshua Tickell have spent the past seven years following the work of scientists on regenerating the world’s soils as a key solution for stabilizing the earth’s climate crisis and restoring lost ecosystems. The full-length film is narrated by longtime environmental activist Woody Harrelson, whose doomsday introduction softens as passionate, pioneering experts, scientists, and eco-farmers shed light on a classic but now-updated farming method called “regenerative agriculture.”
The Tickells are no neophytes in this arena, as they have created, produced and directed an impactful roster of environmental films, addressing climate and sustainability, regenerative farming, and the future of alternative energies and fuels. FUEL won the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, and The Big Fix, which was an Official Selection of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, was then followed by the critically acclaimed Pump.
In addition to providing basic information and concepts, Kiss the Ground offers possibilities, strategies and history. The United States has emitted more cumulative carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country since the Industrial era began in the mid-1800s, following the Civil War. Industrialization brought population growth, which then necessitated increased dependency on agricultural production for food. Using archival footage, Kiss the Ground graphically explains that during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the US experienced the largest unnatural disaster in history, caused by tilling soil and other “degenerative” agricultural practices in the Midwest. With continued tilling, soil erosion increases, moisture is lost, and the lifespan of beneficial organisms is disrupted. As a result, farmers are more compelled to use chemical sprays, which kill the organisms necessary for soil health and, therefore, the health of all of us. Over time, the fungi, insects, nematodes, nutrients, and organic matter are leeched from the soil, and along with them, the soil’s ability to function as a carbon sink. Farming as it is practiced in the US and other industrial nations is thus on a death spiral that is central to the phenomenon of global warming. The Tickells emphasize that on a national and global scale, the politics of climate change must shift dramatically to avoid complete desertification of this precious earth, and that burning fossil fuel is only part of the problem.
Kiss the Ground appeals to disparate viewers, from the novice to the well-informed, from students to farmers who want to transform their land through “carbon farming,” a movement to reverse climate change by pulling carbon out of the air and putting it back into the soil. The Tickells engage the star power of such environmental activists as Ian Somerhalder, who studied with Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory in Africa. David Arquette, Rosario Dawson, and Gisele Bündchen appear, while Patricia Arquette is seen installing compost toilets in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Musician Jason Mraz, also a regenerative avocado farmer, composed an original song entitled, of course, “Kiss the Ground.”
The genuine stars of Kiss the Ground, though, are the committed, passionate experts, farmers agronomists, and other scientific advocates of regenerative agriculture. Renowned soil conservationist and water-quality specialist Ray Archuleta appears throughout the film as he travels tirelessly to teach soil health and principles of agroecology throughout the country. Another of the moving pieces of the documentary is the testimony, transformation and, finally, success story of regenerative rancher Gabe Brown. In addition to no-till farming on his land in North Dakota, Brown demonstrates and talks about the system of moving livestock and rotating cover crops as a means of healing the land. Viewers readily experience his journey from financial loss, near ruin, and desertification to a thriving, ecologically sound farm with 25 percent more crop yield than “traditional” ranches in his county.
Many Americans understand that chemical farming, overuse of pesticides, massive erosion, the depletion of the soil, and other aspects of industrial agriculture are bad for the planet and bad for our food, but few have understood the connection between agriculture and global warming.
Climate change is real, and we have all understood the carbon emitted by burning oil, gas, and coal to be the main culprits. In one extraordinary sequence in Kiss the Ground, we see a satellite-based image of the earth, showing the level of carbon dioxide in the air in the Northern Hemisphere over the course of a year. Each year the amount of carbon in the atmosphere peaks at exactly the time of peak tilling in the spring, and then gradually deceases to lows during the winter. (One might expect the converse since winter is when, of course, more fossil fuel is burned for heating.) Tilling the soil releases C02 into the atmosphere, and healthy soil pulls it out of the air. If half the farmland in the world adopted regenerative agricultural techniques, we could reverse climate change, even with little change in fossil fuel consumption.
Kiss the Ground inspires viewers with this exceptionally visual, educational, user-friendly voyage. As the film ends, narrator Harrelson appears in the sound booth where he began. He is now hopeful and inspired about the potential of a replenished earth that can be handed over to future generations. He invites us all to join him in the journey ahead.