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environment | sustainability

Hey Look! There Goes our Topsoil!

What's that up there in the sky? Is it a bird? A plane? A chemtrail? No! It's our topsoil, the stuff of life. The thin layer of humus, nutrients, and microorganisms that form the ground layer of our ecosystem. The thing our food grows in. Not worried? Here's why you should be.
The unseasonably dry winter and the powerful gusts of wind today have combined with our foolish timber and agricultural practices to create clouds of dust billowing by in the air. If you have asthma or other breathing problems, then you're already aware of some of the risks associated with this development. But the issue is much deeper even than that. The things we squander from the surface of our planet are hard won, unimaginably necessary, and not easily replaced. The complex and delicate forests that we carved off the face of the earth, for example, are gone forever. And now, beneath those vanished forests, and laying atop plowed fields and weeded lots and manicured gardens, is a quieter, less glamorous, but absolutely important resource that is about to be gone with the wind.

The soil beneath us is a thin layer of minerals, organic matter, and micro and macro organisms tied in a delicate balance. Healthy soil feeds our world, from the ground up. Wise gardeners know this, and do everything they can to nurture and protect their soil. Corporate agribusiness, suburban chemlawn customers, and buffoons like the garden-gutting officer Meyers are ignorant of it, and so they foolishly lay waste to it.

The reason this matters is that this thin, dark layer of earth took thousands upon thousands of years to build up to a level that could support the biomass that now depends upon it. That biomas is you, and me, and every plant, animal, being you see before you. It's rich with minerals leached from bedrock, with nutrients recycled from organic matter, with tiny herds of micro beings whose presence ties us all together in an intricate and scarcely understood web of life. And when it's gone, it's gone.

A forest recycles almost all the water, soil, and nutrients beneath its canopy. The soil is gently and conscientiously protected, fed, and nurtured beneath soft beds of moss and carpets of fallen needles, leaves and fronds. It's held lovingly by plump roots and microscopic fibers of fungus. It's stewarded wisely. But once the forest has been brutally carved away, the soil is left to the elements. When the wind blows, the topsoil blows with it, like it's doing today. Scattered to the winds, the microorganisms within it die away and the soil becomes lifeless. The balance is broken. And when the rain finally falls, whatever is left of the soil bleeds down mountain slopes and urban gullies in rivulets and streams, winding its way to the waters. When it reaches the rivers, it clouds them with silt, and when it reaches the oceans, it stays there.

Unless we learn to steward the soil as wisely as the forests once did, rather than poisoning it with herbicides, starving it with ignorance, and baring it to the harsh winds and rains, we will be left with nothing but dead rock beneath our feet. It will take a very long time for the lichens that survive us to build up even an inch of soil again. So this is why we should care.

Here's what you can do about it. You can leave those weeds unless you plan to plant something else there right away. You can mulch and plant cover crops and green manure. You can feed your (non-toxic) waste to the soil. You can stop using herbicides and other poisons. You can stop the damn saws from tearing away any more forests than they already have. And you can stop taking more than you need, because ultimately, it comes from the ground.
ditto 16.Mar.2005 18:09


those are very incisive thoughts. Over the decades, the farmbelt has lost millions of cubic feet of topsoil. Historical records of dramatic, measured losses exist. The dustbowl thirties forced the country, through the government, to analyze the problem and devise measures to deal with the problem. Government agronomists did, and some measures have worked. I haven't done the research, so I've got no hard facts to offer, but an article I read some years back claimed that in spite of those partly successful measures, there is still a gradual, yearly loss of farmbelt topsoil.
A general concept I remember, is that the farmbelt, geologically what might be described to be a glacial revine, was the repository for all the ground up rocks and organic matter creating the extraordinarily productive topsoil bearing region renowned the world over. Stretching my memory, I remember the piece to say that topsoil in some places measured in terms of, like 14 feet. Living out here in Beaverton, that's funny when you barely scratch down 18" to hit clay at times.
Of course, the same concept applies to forest land. The all knowing logging industry, to whom citizens of this country early on nearly relinquished entire management and sustenance of the forest lands, for years, wasted and violated the rich, delicate topsoil created over millennia, that perpetuated the forest. All of it was taken for granted until it factored into the bottom line. Still the abuse and disregard for topsoil occurs through tree farming. No timber country has the integrity to actually take part of their holdings, set them aside and say something like, "these sections of land shall evolve to become a thousand year old forest". Or even one 400 years old.
I learned some years back, to hate lawns, the deceptively beautiful expanse of monotonous green that provided poor people with the illusion that they could be equal in some way, to the wealthy, or have a green that looked like that of the white house. Lawns are poison. Commercial fertilizers stink. In fact, I don't even like the smell that comes from those kind of greens anymore.
People could do something to address the problems responsible for topsoil loss, but will they? That would mean population reduction and management. (think of all the topsoil under pavement). Cover crops are a great idea. Natural grasses, indigenous woodland shrubs and trees, great ideas, but now, they represent fire hazards and go against the conditioned image of what constitutes desirable landscape surroundings. Herbicides, in one sense, are a consequence of the introduction of noxious non-native species.
In the final anaylsis, an unkempt landscape can be more beautiful than it appears at first glance.