Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mother Earth, the pedosphere

Soil is a complex and dynamic substance.  Not only a support for vegetation, soils lie at the interface of numerous interactions between Earth's atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere.  What's more, soils lie at the interface of the living and non-living, biotic and abiotic, organic and inorganic, casting doubt upon the duality implied by these domains.  In healthy soil, absorbancy, storing (largest terrestrial pool of carbon), recycling and processing is high in relation to the limits set by climate.  Soil is the foundation of our home, a host to our activities, and a witness to our comings and goings.  It is ancient (but fertile), easy to destroy, and all too easy to overlook.  A thorough understanding of soils requires knowledge of many earth sciences and natural sciences.  (The two main branches of soil science are pedology and edaphology.  Pedology deals with pedogenesis, soil morphology, and soil classification, while edaphology studies the way soils influence plants, fungi, and other living things.)  E.O. Wilson's interest in microbial ecology is clearly a subject with close ties to soil science. 

Now a word on the romanticisation of agriculture and pastoral life.  Humans never wanted it, we only entered into that enterprise through necessity (source: The Wild Life of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn, as read in here).  Do I love the farm life?  It can be very good, but it will never compare to the beauty of raw wilderness.  The over emphasis on fertility and growth that farmers tend to have is due to their need for productive farmland and crops.  Soil doesn't need to be maximally productive, like a weight-lifter on steroids, to be healthy, it just needs to be at its natural balancing point.  Organic farmers have recognized that this balance point is higher than we tend to give it credit for.  A whole slew of back to the land, natural farming philosophies developed in the 20th century to address and repair our dysfunctional relationship with the Earth.  I would be content with a field of raspberries to pick.  The sobering reality is that soil conservation must be built into society.  It is harder to gain back once it is lost.  Aside from the use of earth moving equipment, most of our interaction with the soil is indirect.  How do we affect water runoff and drainage?  Leaf litter accumulation?  Plant diversity and growth?  Sun and shade patterns?  Soil structure and compaction?  What animals do we allow on our soil?  Questions like these are central for the soil conservationist. 

Any meditation on the transience of life would do well to include variations on the following Christian passages that identify a symbiotic relationship between man and soil:
“The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”  Genesis 2:7
“For dust you are, and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19
“All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Ecclesiastes 3:20
There are many who literally want to do, and have done this, among them Malcolm Beck (alive), and W.D. Hamilton (dead).  In a pedocentric world, perhaps the purpose of death is to return to mother earth, enrich the soil with our bodies, and allow our matter to find reanimation in another form of life.  [Update: Helen Knight's article in New Scientist explores this in more depth.]

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