Studying soils has changed my perspective of my local landscapes, and you can learn to see soils, too.
Just the other day, I was taking the bus through town. I was the only person on the bus that afternoon. The bus driver, let’s call him Ted, was bubbling over with enthusiasm that day. When I asked him how long he had been a bus driver in town, he responded with a wave of reasons for why he has loved his job since he started 2.5 years ago.
Reason number 1. Ted enjoys meeting new people and talking to folks from all walks of life.
Reason number 2. Ted likes driving, is good at driving, and therefore finds it satisfying to get people to their destination safely.
Reason number 3. Ted feels like he gets to spend most of the day almost outside, exploring his local landscapes. That’s when mentioned birds… he gets to drive around town, talking to people, and noticing birds. We made an immediate connection.
I told him I’d recently started birding and that I teach ecology at the local university. He told me about the White-tailed Kite he’d seen earlier that day, and about how he missed spending time with his birding group during the pandemic.
Ted sees our town through a birder’s and bus driver’s lens. He’s looking for birds wherever he goes and it makes his job experience better.
Me? I see the world as a soil scientist. I notice soils in my everyday life when I am walking around town, hiking along trails, and looking out the window during a long bus ride.
I would guess that most people have had an experience with a bird in their daily life, but when was the last time you came across a soil and stopped to take a second look?
Soils, like birds, are everywhere once you begin to notice them. But many of us are still developing the eyes to be able to see soils in our everyday lives. It wasn’t until I began taking soil science courses as an undergraduate student that I started developing my soil lenses. Before that, I could hardly tell you anything about the soils in the area where I grew up. I quickly learned that once you start to see soils, you cannot unsee them.
What do I mean when I say “see soil”? Soil scientists commonly study soils in the form of the soil profile. A soil profile is an exposed section of soil, where the layers (we call them horizons) of the soil are revealed. Rather than looking at soils from the top down (birds-eye view), soil scientists investigate soils head on (profile view) because the properties of soils change with depth.
Only studying the surface of the soil gives us a very limited perspective of that soil. Soil scientists seek a more comprehensive view of the properties of a soil in order to figure out how that soil formed, how it functions, and how it might change in the future. So, we study soil profiles.
I’m looking for exposed soil profiles whenever I am outside, even when I don’t notice it. Once you know where to look, you’ll start to notice that soil profiles are everywhere! The colors, shapes, and forms of soil profiles vary immensely, even across relatively small distances, like the places you go on a daily basis.
Here’s a short list of places where I look for exposed soil profiles, so that you can start seeing them, too:
Where road or trail construction cuts through the Earth. Look for soils along roads that have been cut out of a mountainside, or run through the natural topography of a landscape. Also notice the same exposures along hiking and biking trails.
Along waterways where soils have been exposed by erosion. Look for soil profiles along streams, rivers, lakes, and coastlines. Anywhere that water has consistently come in contact with the Earth is a great place to find soil profile exposures.
Within construction sites in urban and suburban settings. Look for soil profiles that have been exposed during the ground removal process of construction. Soils are everywhere, and our urban centers are no exception. I always stop at construction sites and peek through the fence to see if there are any interesting soils.
Along hillsides where soil has moved slowly by gravity and water. Look for soil exposures in steep places where natural processes work together to move soil material downslope. Often, soils and the rocks from which they are weathering will be exposed in this way.
Anywhere a hole has been dug. Look for soil profiles any time a hole has been dug. Maybe humans are the culprits, maybe animals have a role in creating the hole — either way, if you see a hole, stop and take a look at what lies beneath.
Once you start seeing soils, your world will begin to look different. You might notice new things on the walk you’ve taken a thousand times. You will experience your local landscapes differently.
Soils have the ability to ground us to a given place. Soils are highly variable and therefore unique to the exact place in which they formed. Many soils have similar properties, but no two soil profiles are exactly the same. Discovering the soils in your local area can give you a whole new perspective on what makes your home special. I encourage you to get outside and take a look.
Dr. Yamina Pressler is a soil scientist and educator in San Luis Obispo, CA. She is the co-founder of www.fortheloveofsoil.org, a wildly independent soil science education, communication, and art organization. Learn more about all the ways we celebrate soil and join our community of soil enthusiasts on instagram @fortheloveofsoil. You can learn more about Yamina’s work at www.yaminapressler.com.