The wonder of soil

Soil is the literal and metaphorical skin of the Earth. It is the thin layer where rock and life intersect to form the basis of our existence. Whether we realize it or not, soils provide services that make life possible for humans from serving as the medium in which we grow food to regulating our climate.

But soils are more than just the sum of the services they provide us. Soils do not need to do something for humans in order to warrant our appreciation.

Soils have not captured the imaginations of most people the way they have captured mine. Many see soils simply as the medium in which to grow plants. But for me, they are so much more than that.

My path towards becoming a soil scientist didn’t begin with a rational list of all the reasons why soils are important. Yes, I learned many of the functions that soils provide (from supporting agriculture, to purifying water, to maintaining biodiversity), but I didn’t think to myself

“hey, soils are really important for so many things, I should study them.”

That would have been a noble thought — and maybe other scientists did feel that way early in their career.

But for me, it was all about the wonder, the colors, and the unexpected surprises I came across with every new soil I encountered. I was (and still am) enamored by the simple beauty of soils.

Soils can be so vastly different in such a small area. They aren’t all just the thick, brown, agricultural soils most of us see in our minds eye. Soils are colorful and charismatic and these colors give us clues to how they were formed and how they function.

Soils are a beautiful, natural puzzle I want to solve.

The more I started to study soils, the more I realized how deeply important they are to the function of the planet and human existence as we know it. My appreciation for the importance of soil came after that first initial spark of curiosity. Without that sense of wonder, I would have never gotten to the place where I see soils as the foundation of life and feel the need to protect them.

Curiosity and wonder came first. Rationale and relevance came second.

Soils, like rainforest biodiversity and polar bears, have an intuitive and intangible value.

They are precious, complex, interconnected systems that are worthy of respect and awe regardless of what we can “get” out of them.

Much of our view of soils, and the media that surrounds them, focuses on a “take” mindset. This extrinsic value based view of soils sounds something like this:

What can soils do for us?
How can we extract more from our soils?
How much is one inch of soil worth?
How can we monetize the value of soils and their functions?

With this attitude comes the notion that if we, as soil scientists, can just get people to understand all the many ways that soils are important to human life, then surely people will begin to care about soil conservation and sustainable land management.

But what if instead of bombarding the world with more reasons why soils are important and explaining all the many things soils can do for us, we took a different approach.

What if, we aimed to inspire people to see soils as a natural wonder — as a beautiful cross section of nature and culture?

What if, instead of a list of soil functions, we focus on the mystery and beauty of soils? What if our audience could begin to notice the soil below their feet, and feel the gravity of it’s importance without needing to know a single fact?

It is easy to understand the value of a tall mountain range when you stand beside an alpine lake after a long hike. Even those that live in cities with mountain peak backdrops can appreciate the wonder of the mountains without visiting them. When you’re standing in awe of a mountain range, your mind isn’t calculating all the services that mountain ecosystems provide humans (and by the way, there are many).

Instead, your mind and body are reacting to a feeling. A feeling of bewilderment and belittling from the vastness of those endless peaks. A feeling of wonder and appreciation.

Mountains have an intrinsic value. I don’t have to tell you why mountains are important for you to appreciate them.

It is the same feeling you get when you see a sea turtle swim by you while scuba diving in the Caribbean. You don’t ask yourself, “what do the sea turtles do for the ocean that makes them important?” before you let yourself admire their beauty. You just look, feel, see, experience — and that is enough.

Maybe you feel so inspired by their intrinsic beauty that when you come ashore, you decide sea turtles need to be protected from ocean degradation and sign up to take action at the local marine museum. In fact, sea turtles are beloved by many and are the focus of many conservation efforts as a result.

Isn’t wonder the first step to action? 
Don’t you first have to love something to give a shit about protecting it?

We’ve spent decades trying to convince people to conserve and protect soils, without first showing them the wonder. As a result, soil isn’t something the average person talks about on a daily basis.

I, like all my soil scientist colleagues, am always looking for ways to get people to care about soils. It’s time to go back to basics and spark wonder in the minds of the people around us. It’s time to look to soils for more than just what they can do for us, but rather, allow our curiosity and imagination to unfurl as we dig deeper into the wonderful world belowground.

In the coming months, I am going to further develop these ideas surrounding the intuitive worth of soils in my Medium essays. I have become obsessed with the questions swirling around in my brain:

What is the intrinsic value of soil?
When, how, and where does soil intersect with art, culture, photography, travel, and design?

My only goal is to incite wonder and curiosity in my readers — what you do with that sense of wonder is up to you.