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There is no life without the soil

Spring is just a few short weeks away. We are beginning to see green tree buds, and soon green grass will start to brighten up our landscapes. Many of us have already been doing yard work and are noting the tops of perennials popping up through brown leaves and soil.
After being indoors for the long months of winter, being able to get outside and get your hands dirty is almost therapeutic. For me, working in the soil brings back memories of childhood days when my siblings and I played in the woods behind our home.
One of those memories of spring was the smell of woodland soil. The soil was not odorless like the sterilized soil you can buy in a store. It had a rich odor. If you scooped a handful up and looked closely, you could see a miniature ecosystem.
It was home to worms, bugs, rocks, moss and sometimes fungi. What you couldn't see were the millions of bacteria, spores and microscopic organisms that are integral to healthy soil.
A few years ago a gas pipeline was installed down at the end of our street. Unfortunately enormous amounts of trees were cut down including two old oaks that housed the neighborhood rope swing.
As pipeline workers ripped open the forest soil to install the 36-inch pipeline, the earthy smell of disturbed soil could be detected for at least a quarter of a mile away. The odor reminded me of all that is being destroyed or disrupted as pipelines are being installed all over the countryside.
Soil is an often overlooked component of an ecosystem. Farmers have always recognized the importance of soil when it comes to our survival. Without soil, life on earth would be gone. Yet that topsoil that covers much of our terrestrial landscape is more often than not taken for granted. Most of earth's biological processes take place within that two- to 12-inch layer of topsoil.
Many years ago when I was researching my master's thesis on organic farming in Ohio, I came across a frightening story about the Great Dust Bowl. The story, retold in a Public Broadcasting Service segment, described the severity of the Great Plains' dust storms during the early 1930s.
At one point in 1934, the storms were so powerful they were able to move tons of soil across the country. One such storm sent topsoil from the Great Plains region into eastern cities and right into the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C.
The poverty and despair that was prevalent in the plains farming region during this time period inspired the writing of the famous Steinbeck novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” The book was required reading when I was in high school and was quite upsetting.
In the 1800s West Virginia lost a great portion of its forests from massive logging operations that felled most of the old-growth trees across the mountains of the state. Shortly after, spring rains washed the valuable forest topsoils down the denuded slopes and contaminated the clear mountain streams.
More recently the Western states, especially California, have been plagued with a loss of valuable topsoils. Entire communities have been destroyed by mudslides that are precipitated by fast-moving wildfires that destroy soil-stabilizing vegetation. Unwilling to move, many of the inhabitants continue to rebuild in areas prone to fire and landslides.
California has been experiencing droughts for over a decade. It was the drought followed by historical rainfalls that caused the massive landslide last spring in the Big Sur area. The landslide was so large that it added 13 acres to California’s coastline.
Like the farmers of the Great Dust Bowl, residents fail to recognize land use affects soil erosion more than any other factor. Once the farmers plowed away the native tall grass prairies, there was nothing left to protect the precious soil from wind, rain and fire.
Modern large-scale industrial farming also has impacted the soil in a negative way.
Our family lived in Iowa for a brief time during the late 1990s. I saw firsthand what the corporate farming mentality can do to soils and the landscape. The soil is just a growing medium. There are no worms, no bugs and no biological activity. Years of using toxic herbicides and pesticides and chemical fertilizers has left the soil lifeless. The crops are totally reliant on man-made amendments.
Scientists are starting to realize the importance of soils, not just for their role in agriculture, but also for their role in mitigating climate change. Soils are second only to the oceans in their ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Research at the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at the Ohio State University showed soils differed in their ability to capture and contain carbon from the atmosphere. Undisturbed woodland soils were much more effective at removing and containing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The ability of natural ecosystems to remove carbon is greatly decreased when perennial vegetation such as trees, shrubs and grasses are removed. The biomass is no longer there, and it is this biomass that uses carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis.
Land use decisions being made in Ohio and around the world need to take into consideration the effects of healthy soils on climate-change mitigation. Intact ecosystems are becoming the front line of our defense system against climate change.
Dr. Charles Kellogg, soil scientist with the USDA in 1938, wrote, “Essentially all life depends upon the soil. There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”

Published: March 9, 2018
New Article ID: 2018180309968