Soil is one of my most important teachers. Studying soils through a scientific lens has opened my eyes to the diversity of soil forms and the complexity of their functions. Beyond that, soil has also taught me more about my place in the world.
Soils are the living breathing skin of the Earth. They are complex, natural systems that exist in stunning variation across a landscape. Soils vary in their colors, shapes, and forms. They arise from the weathering of diverse geologies that move through landscapes in sometimes unexpected ways.
Soil scientists extract clues from the physical properties of a soil (how a soil looks, feels, smells, sounds) to infer how that soil may have formed. For example, we can infer that soils that contain many rounded pebbles that are stratified in distinct layers formed from the action of moving water, like a river. Soils are like a puzzle, and learning the properties allows you to begin to put together the pieces of how that soil got there.
Soil formation, however, is not static. Soils do not just form over time and then stop in a given state.
Soils are constantly changing. Often this happens at rates slower than we can see with our own eyes. Even so, the processes that formed that soil in the first place are still occurring. Soil scientists categorize soil forming processes into four general categories:
additions: things coming into the soil
losses: things leaving the soil
translocations: things moving within the soil
transformations: things changing within the soil
The soils we see out in nature are the net effect of interactions between these four processes. Every soil continues to take in additional material, lose material, translocate material vertically and horizontally, and transform material into new states. These changes arise from both natural causes and human interventions. Either way, soils are dynamic systems.
I learned this fundamental principle of soil science early on in my career. It shifted my perspective from seeing soils as a passive medium for plant growth towards a recognition that soils are deeply complex and far from stagnant.
I call all the ideas from soil science that translates more directly to my life soil lessons.
One of these soil lessons is the idea that soils are always forming and changing, and that by knowing how soils formed, we can understand how soils function in the here and now. In the same way that history informs the present in societies around the world, we cannot truly understand how a soil functions today without knowing how that soil got there in the first place.
It’s true for humans, too. We are not static entities. We take in new perspectives (additions), let go of old ideas (losses), move in and out of communities and places (translocations), and craft new realities for ourselves (transformations). We do all these things in interaction with other people, and with the world around us. We are always forming into new versions of ourselves, just like soils.
That brings up the question: does knowing our personal histories help us understand how we feel in the present? I have come across many examples of how my outlook has been shaped by my upbringing. Knowing where my embedded ideas came from gives me a better set of mental tools to be able to change them, if I want to.
There is a lot to unpack here and I am still learning how to apply this soil lesson to my own life. Does it resonate with you?
Soil has so much to teach us, as soon as we stop to listen.
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.