The Story of Soil
“The soil is the greatest connector of lives, the source and destination of all…Without proper care of it, we can have no life.” – Wendell Berry
It is easy for most of us to look down and take for granted what is under our feet, regarding soil simply as dirt. But did you know it takes up to 400 years to replace just one centimeter of topsoil? Soil is so much more than ‘dirt’. In fact, if it wasn’t here, we wouldn’t be here today. We depend on soil to exist, as does every other living thing on the Earth. Yet we know so little of its journey.
If soil could speak, it would tell you that it has a pretty amazing history with rocky beginnings – quite literally. Soil begins as cold, hard rock. Spewed out by volcanoes, shifted by glaciers, it creates a fast base, rich in minerals, but devoid of life. Over time, rain and ice, varying temperatures, geography and other factors gradually break down its surface into small, even dust-like particles.
These particles accumulate in lakes and streams, rock crevices and surfaces, moving downstream and spreading over vast surfaces, or blown by winds to new locations. This powdery mineral rich base becomes the foundation for life to follow.
Combined with organic materials like leaves, animal waste, insects and organisms, these materials when mixed with moisture slowly start the first inklings of life in the soil. Life cycles upon itself, and so the as plants develop on that mineral base, grow and die, they add more organic matter, slowly, slowly building thin layer upon thin layer of the nutrient rich soil that sustains all life on this planet.
Nature is amazing – she grows just the right plant at the right time to break down the rocky mineral base with its roots, or to supply the nutrients that are deficient in the soil, all the while moving the soil towards richer fertility. The deeper the plant life goes into this mineral rich base, as it breaks it apart and creates more living soil, the denser becomes the growth and the beginning of canopy cover, which in turn creates habitat for richer life and soil.
As the density of the plant material grows, taller and taller plant material blocks out the strong sun so the soil does not heat up as much, creating an even more habitable area for all kinds of life. And this cycle continues – for our forests, to the point that most of the direct sun is blocked and rich, fertile, lush topsoil continues to build on the forest floor.
Very aged topsoil, hundreds of thousands of years old, is very deep, and so nutrient rich it can support any kind of plant growth in abundance.
Soil Is Alive!
Soil has several layers – anywhere from three to six depending on the region it is in. The upper layer is called the topsoil. Topsoil is that fertile rich surface layer of soil with all the nutrients, microbial life and humus needed to sustain a healthy habitat of plants and living organisms. It is a blanket of nature’s finest that is critical to sustaining life. Topsoil is very thin compared to the other layers of earth. It is also relatively fragile and needs to be treated carefully because once it is gone, it is almost impossible to replace.
Topsoil is a living, thriving community – an ecosystem – where there are producers and consumers and a flurry of activity going on all the time. In fact, there is so much life in one gram of soil, 70 to 80 percent of the organisms in it haven’t even been identified yet! You don’t notice much of this activity unless you spend some time on the ground carefully observing what is going on, and even then you only see a very small portion of what is really happening under your feet. This is important to know because healthy, living soil will produce healthy, thriving plants. If the topsoil dies, the things planted in the topsoil will die as well.
And It Can Die
Soil is the living skin of the Earth, and like our own skin, it can be damaged. It is being damaged.
Topsoil dies when it is over-farmed using modern farming practices that involve chemicals and synthetic fertilizers that change the pH of the soil, killing the tiny creatures living in it, making ‘dirt’ that is depleted of nutrients and barren.
Studies have found that weedkillers like Roundup actually compete with plants for important nutrients such as calcium and boron. They also cause a serious imbalance in the beneficial bacteria around the roots of plants that are needed to protect against diseases and parasites.
Soil dies because of deforestation. Over grazing, fires and mass construction also do irreparable damage to our topsoil. These things rape the Earth, forcefully stripping away that vital resource that we can’t simply replace, leaving us with nothing but lifeless dust. The worms are gone. The insects are gone. The microorganisms are gone. So the soil is gone. Forever.
Erosion occurs when topsoil is damaged so badly that it is washed away by wind and rains, and eventually becomes sediment. Today, erosion is removing topsoil at a rate many times faster than it can be replaced world wide.
When acres of topsoil are destroyed, we can’t just make more. Soil is a vital non-renewable resource; it cannot be recreated, it must regenerate itself over time. It takes thousands of years for nature to replace what was lost, but by then it may be too late. It is up to us to learn to manage the gift that has been given to us and not squander it.
If we don’t learn to cherish and nurture the soil we have, the story of soil will have a very sad ending.
And so will the Earth.