The Living Soil

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)
Excerpts from an essay by Neil Sampson, The Sampson Group, for the National Association of Conservation Districts

Millions of words have been written about the living soil. Many were scientific and factual, some were emotional and moving, others artistic and creative. But in generation after generation, it is important to bring attention back to the central theme – the living soil sustains all life on earth. Without the soil, nothing lives. Healthy soils support healthy environments, and healthy environments support healthy life.

As you walk across a field or down a forest pathway, your eyes and feet will give you messages about the soil. On your next walk, try to sense those messages. Is the soil hard or does it feel spongy? Is it wet or dry? Look around you. What plants do you see? You may be surprised to learn that most soil has lots of open space below the surface –cracks, channels and pores between the solid grains of sand and soil and around growing plant roots.

You may also be surprised to learn that millions of beneficial organisms are going through their daily routine of eating, breathing, living, and dying in the soil. One cup of fertile soil may contain as many bacteria as there are people on Earth. In one acre – an area about the size of a football field – there may be a ton or more of microscopic bacteria. That’s equal to the weight of two full-grown cows!

We eat the food, drink the water, breathe the air, and enjoy the views, but only a few of us walk the fields and forests on a regular basis and understand what those lands need from us in order to sustain the living soil. However, here are a few things each of us can do in our own backyards to be better stewards of our soil resources:

  • Protect the soil from damage by wind or water erosion by keeping healthy plants growing on the surface.
  • Restore and maintain organic matter in the soil, such as grass clippings or tree leaves.
  • Protect and enhance soil life by using the least amounts and the least toxic materials to control pest problems on growing plants.

Stewardship Calls Everyone

The fate of Earth’s land and waters will be determined by how people use them to meet their daily needs. Only if we can satisfy today’s needs without reducing the opportunity for coming generations to meet their needs will we meet the test of sustainability.

Most of us do not live on the land nor work with it daily. But we can seek opportunities to involve ourselves in a soil-healing effort somewhere in our community. That gives us two opportunities—to help the environment that surrounds us and to help strengthen ourselves. For when we are personally involved, we become more aware of the physical and spiritual ties between ourselves and the environment. As we touch the land in a healing way, those ties are reinforced.

Our response will be based on how we live. If we are suburbanites, we can compost household and yard waste and apply only the proper rates of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. If we are farmers, we can adopt conservation tillage and other conservation practices. If we raise livestock, we can create an effective nutrient management system that turns mountains of manure into a useful byproduct. If we own some forest, we can implement a sustainable forest management plan.

We can also make our voices heard in the public forum. By becoming active in local political circles we can assure that working lands get fair treatment from local government and help communicate the value of maintaining productive working farms and forests to urban neighbors.

You may find ways to work within your church or community organization to guide mission and outreach efforts toward truly long-term solutions such as those that protect and build soil quality around the world. In some cases, that means sending money; in others, it may mean sending yourself.

But in the final analysis, it means that each of us can take some kind of active role in soil and water stewardship. That role will take many forms, but it must have the effect of building, restoring, and improving the world that we touch. For to the extent that each living person becomes a net contributor rather than a net consumer, a builder instead of a destroyer, the entire world is a world of hope.

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