Star Trek called space the final frontier, and that phrase is still resonating through our collective psyche.  Americans have nostalgia for our lost frontier, but if we want to recapture that excitement of discovery, we are looking in the wrong direction.

We need to look straight down at what we are standing on.

The dirt beneath our feet is poorly understood and practically unexplored.  I just finished an amazing book, Under Ground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World by Yvonne Baskin that has got me looking at dirt with more awe than ever.

Baskin begins by noting that we have spent $820 million to explore the soil on the surface of Mars, and yet have never taken any thorough exploration of the earth beneath our feet.  This is misdirected of us.  This soil is what sustains all life, and it is just as precious a non-renewable resource as oil.

Baskin calls soils “the poor man’s rainforest” because a single shovelful may be home to more species than live above ground in the Amazon.  From bacteria to mites and beetles, the soil is teaming with life – at least where we haven’t destroyed it all.

A good science book has more mystery than P.D. James and more drama than Shakespeare.  And Under Ground is a good science book.  I came away with a whole new set of lenses to look at the world underground.

..Doug had a whole universe in my hands when he picked up this rich, brown clump.

Each chapter is devoted to a different type of soil and the people who are bravely going where no one has gone before to try to understand it.  She inspects soils from Antarctica to the soils on the ocean floor that the fishing industry is systematically and ever more efficiently trashing as they literally scrape bottom to pull up dwindling fish supplies.

Did you know that earthworms are destroying Minnesota’s maple forests?  Those night crawlers and red wigglers are actually just another invasive reeking havoc on native ecosystems.  They got here in ship’s ballast an in the soil of imported plants.  Now they are a multimillion dollar industry, being produces for bait and vermiculture.  Exotic worms are spreading through Minnesota’s natural areas because fishers dump their excess bait into areas that were previously pristine.

Worms are neither good or bad.  We like them in some areas, but they do a number on the forest floor, churning the soil and changing the habitat.  In the chapter Fungi and the Fate of Forests, she looks at what foresters are learning that my make regret a little more likely.

..I hope we can recreate the rich life this soil had in its old home.

Baskin sketches portraits of a range of explorers out there trying to understand this final frontier.  There is a whole world under our feet.  I’m more inspired than ever to try to keep my footprint small and tread lightly.

What’s the best science book you’ve read lately?

8 replies

  1. Loved this post. I’m not a science book reader, but I can handle shorts posts and articles. That’s why I’ve really come to enjoy your blog. I never thought about soil before, but I will now!

    • If you were only going to read one science book this year, this might be the one I would suggest, Lorijo. It’s not that long, and it reads almost like a novel. Each chapter taking on a different researcher and their quest.

  2. Some of our ground has suffered a lot this year as we have cleared the ground to put in a barn and a polytunnel and then cleared the area again after our first polytunnel fell down and all I can think of is saying sorry to the land. Your posts are making me feel even more guilty :).

    Some things are a process and trying to make our land somewhere that is productive is hard when trying to keep things in balance.. We are certainly cautious before embarking on anything and your blogs helps to keep the soil in mind when we do anything.

  3. Yes, I know exactly what you mean, Joanna. Aldo Leopold said, “The oldest task in human history is to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
    It’s a balancing act. And trying to create sustainable agriculture is really a guessing game. I keep going to organic farming conferences and every other place I can find where people are seriously exploring these topics. Mainly I come away knowing how little I or anyone else really knows.
    All we can do is keep trying.

  4. Indeed that is all we can keep on doing. Thanks for all the information you keep posting. I nearly put “digging up” and then “unearthing” and then realised that probably would just sound corny

  5. Thanks for this marvelous post about dirt and under the ground! I am glas you introduced me to this book. I hadn’t heard of it before. Another book that I found interesting is The Earth Moved which is about earthworms. You can read more about worm composting on my blog.

    • Hi Sandie Anne,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m going to check out The Earth Moved. Very few things are more important that understanding what’s going on in the soil. Your website on gardening and worm composting looks great. I’m going to dig into it.

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