No soil, no life - in praise of dirt

Last modified: Thursday, October 25, 2012

One of my favorite Pioneer Valley bumper stickers proclaims: “No Farms, No Food!”

Perhaps we should modify this slogan by adding: “And No Soil, No Farms!”

Of course, farms can’t function without soil. But I’ll go much further. Nothing else can function without soil, either. Soil is much more than a place for our crops to grow: It is the foundation for human civilization. Productive, healthy soils, support food production, but also the life of all the terrestrial and wetland systems that provide essential ecosystem services — for nature itself! And those services make possible all life, including our own. For the most part, though, we’re unaware of the part that soil plays in our daily existence.

Modern citizens are increasingly alienated from our soils. We know very little about our soils and the continuing challenges to soil integrity and productivity. We purchase only well-washed, unsoiled or frozen produce from a grocery. We have so little opportunity to directly experience the feel, smell and texture of rich loam — or even a smelly muck! It’s time for us all to consider what’s needed to restore and maintain harmony and balance in soils.

First, we need to be thoughtful and respectful if we endanger or irreversibly modify any soil system, be it farm, forest or prairie — even if it seems to be for a good reason. The consequences of any changes we make may not be immediately obvious. Dramatic examples from the past abound, such as the salinization of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq), a process we continue to repeat in the arid Southwest. A more recent example is the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when extreme drought in the Great Plains, coupled with farmers’ plowing fencerow to fencerow, turned deep fertile loess into toxic dust. And in many places today, long-lived chemicals that we add to soils may take years to disappear, if ever.

Second, we need to acknowledge that there are many theories of soil health and fertility, and many prescriptions for good practice. Diversity of approach is appropriate, given the huge variation in soils from time to time and place to place, the centrality of soil in sustaining human culture and the long history of farming. All soil and farming practices — whether they are based in cultural rituals, spiritual beliefs or chemical analysis and agronomy — organize and systematize food production in the face of the vagaries of climate, pests and disease, providing a plan based upon past experience.

Third, virtually all theories of healthy soil acknowledge the crucial role of the life of the soil — that is, soil as a complex community of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other organisms. While rocks, sand, streams, lakes, wind, volcanoes and silt and clay made by rivers form the “bones” of the soil, myriads of living creatures create and sustain its constant cycle of nutrients and organic compounds. (Recently, scientists have found that we can culture and characterize only about 1 percent of the different kinds of bacteria in most soils. We already know that the number of individual soil animals is vast: billions of protozoa, millions of nematodes and hundreds of thousands of mites per square meter.) These cycles are driven ultimately by the sun, as carbon — captured through photosynthesis — makes its way into the soil in the form of decaying roots and leaves or by the addition of organic matter as compost, manure and cover crops. There is wisdom in all (or at least most!) of these theories, and we can augment them and test them against logic and our personal experience.

So get to know your soils. Make wise choices about what you take from and put into them, keeping in mind the life of the soil. We go bird watching; why not soil watching?

Plant a garden at home and at school, support local farmers, crawl around and sniff the dirt!

Lawrence J. Winship, a member of the Hitchcock Center board, is a professor of botany in the School of Natural Science and director of the Southwest Studies Program at Hampshire College.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of The Hitchcock Center for the Environment, appears every other week. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the center aims to foster a greater awareness of the environment. It is located at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst. For more information, visit, call 256-6006 or write to

The Hitchcock Center for the Environment’s film series concludes Oct. 10, at the Amherst Cinema with “Dirt! The Movie,” a humorous and substantial look into the living organic matter from which we come and to which we will return. Peter McLean of Brookfield Farm will introduce the film and lead a Q&A afterward. For more information about the film and to reserve tickets, visit the Amherst Cinema website at


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