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Soil Life Essay

Know Soil, Know Life

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Think of all the things we need most for daily living: food, clothing, shelter, water. Have you ever considered how each of them, in turn, depends on soil—that without soil, in fact, there would be no life? 

Targeted to high schoolers and college students in introductory courses, this 206-page book tells the story of soil through engaging, accessible language and hundreds of full-color photos and illustrations. It begins with a chapter that challenges readers to view soil not as inert “dirt”, but as living material that carries out critical functions for the environment and for people.

Soil filters our drinking water, for example, and supports the plants that feed, clothe, and shelter us. “Without soil we’d be hungry, naked, and homeless,” quips co-editor Clay Robinson, a New Mexico soil scientist who has taught tens of thousands of school kids about soil as the persona, ‘Dr. Dirt.’ “Also, breathless,” he adds, “because it’s the plants growing in soil that produce our oxygen.”

Know Soil Know Life then takes readers through a traditional sequence of soil science topics, including soil chemistry, biology, and classification, before drawing a direct line between people and soils once again. In chapter 8, “Soil and Society,” the authors describe the impact of soil on human endeavors ranging from art to warfare. The chapter also details soil’s role in the collapse of past civilizations, such as the Easter Islanders, and modern-day concerns like desertification and deforestation.

Lindbo, Robinson and the other contributors to Know Soil Know Life are all members of the Soil Science Society of America’s K-12 education committee: a group of college professors, professional soil scientists, and educators who’ve devoted themselves to sharing soil science as widely as possible. Formed in 2006, the committee’s first book project was a text for 4th graders, SOIL! Get the Inside Scoop, which goes with the traveling soils exhibit for kids, “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” (now showing at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis, MN). 

The book concludes with a chapter on the soil science careers available in research, land management, education, and environmental consulting—careers that many of today’s soil scientists didn’t learn about until they were almost through school, Robinson says. This includes Deb Kozlowski, a soil scientist and K-12 art teacher who co-edited Know Soil Know Life with Robinson and Lindbo.


Image Credit: James B. Nardi

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The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils, paying tribute to the life-giving ground beneath our feet.

"It is difficult to rate the importance of the different soil functions, since all are vital to our well-being to some extent," it says. "However, the function of supporting food and agriculture worldwide is fundamental for the preservation and advancement of human life on this planet."

Most of us know that: no soil, no sustenance. Famines are driven by soil degradation, as poor farming practices lead to soil loss through erosion and leaching of nutrients from the soil. Anyone who has done even a little gardening recognizes how the quality of the soil can change the outcome of the harvest. But soil serves us in so many other ways, FAO points out.

It is difficult to rate the importance of the different soil functions, since all are vital to our well-being to some extent." Photo credit: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

1. Since soil is the basis for plant growth, it contributes to the maintenance of both the natural and plantedlandscape. It supports the forests, wetlands, jungles, prairies and grasslands that spawn the planet's amazing vegetative biodiversity. Those plants—some of which we are still discovering—provide food, fuel, animal feed, medicine and raw materials for clothing, household goods and other essentials. Plants in turn help prevent soil erosion.

2. Soil also supports animal biodiversity, above and below ground. It's essential to the lives of both wildlife and domesticated livestock. And the soil itself is teeming with a fathomless number of micro-organisms and insects as well as familiar organisms such as earthworms that maintain soil quality, provide nutrients, break down toxic elements and interact with water and air to help maintain a healthy natural environment.

3. Soil is important in providing an adequate water supply and maintaining its quality. Soil and the vegetation it supports catch and distribute rainwater and play a key role in the water cycle and supply. Soil distribution can impact rivers, lakes and streams, changing their shape, size, capacity and direction.

4. The water absorption properties of soil play a role in reducing pollution from chemicals in pesticides and other compounds.

5. Soil provides both the foundation and base materials for buildings, roads and other built infrastructure.

6. Soil holds the key to Earth's history, containing and preserving artifacts of the planet's past, both its natural and its human/cultural antecedents. You can thank soil for those dinosaur fossils every kid loves to see at a natural history museum as well as the relics that tell us how our own human story evolved.

7. And critical to Earth's future, soils and how we use them play an important role in helping us to address climate change. Soil organic matter is one of our major pools of carbon, capable of acting as either a source or sink. Soil contains the fossil fuels that drive climate change when extracted but when left underground give us the chance to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and reach our eventual goal of a zero-emissions world.

The FAO Soils Portal provides a wealth of information about what is being done and what can be done to maintain the beneficial qualities of soils around the globe.


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