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.
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.
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?
Categories: Ecosystem Restoration