The Purpose of Soil

To take an object, a thing, and prescribe purpose to it is to treat it teleologically.  Pre-Enlightenment Europeans were said to consider the universe with a Aristotelean teleological scholasticism, which means there was a dominant school (scholastic) of philosophy based on the purpose-driven ideas of Aristotle.  The classic lived example of this philosophy is Thomas Aquinas asking for a favor from a rich friend to buy him all the caged birds at the marketplace.  His friend gladly does so and Aquinas promptly opens all the cage doors, for what is a bird but to fly?

The teleological cynic in us immediately says ‘ah-ha! What about penguins?’  There is no over-arching purpose in a bird to fly because we know of lots of examples of flightless birds.  Also, the anti-ableist in us says ‘slow down, a bird that has lost it’s ability to fly, from an accident, could still live a long, healthy life on a preserve.’ It’s wrong to prescribe purpose to things, in particular living things, because of the inherently oppressive, short-sightedness of what we perceive to be a thing’s value.  Still there is something compelling about Aquinas setting the birds free, something that resonates as just.  Why is that, if you can’t boil it down to ideas of value and purpose?  It’s a bit more clumsy to say what is a bird but to not live in a cage except under certain circumstances where we use other criteria to determine it is within the birds best interest.

A non-living example I like to think of is a house.  What is a house but a place to live in?  Boiled down a house is a non-living thing that’s purpose is to accommodate living things, in most examples in nature for the purpose of creating more living things (bird’s nests, dens, one-family homes).  It’s fair to say that a house is not bound to abide by these purposes.  A house could also be simply a storage facility or it could be a torture chamber, which would be wholly the opposite of a place to live in.  Our society would condemn both of these ideas for a house in various ways.  A house used only for storage on your block would bring everyone’s home values down.  A house used for nefarious purposes would see the owners arrested and the house condemned.  Some events and uses go so far beyond the intention of a building that the building cannot be redeemed.  After the Sandy Hook massacre the entire school was torn down and rebuilt.

A houses purpose is also not to burn down.  You can think of instances when it might be appropriate to burn down a house (for filming a movie or if you are an arsonist) but for the vast amount of homes that are built they are intended to last many years and are intended to avoid destruction.  Think of this when we explore the purpose of soil.

As you’ve probably gathered discussing things in terms of their purposes is frowned upon by modern science because it is seen as antiquated, incomplete, and at worst a fallacious and oppressive way of looking at the world.  Ironically teleology is rife in modern culture and if you are in school studying science, like I did, you will constantly hear teachers chaff as students refer to plants as “wanting to” grow toward the light, or an animal “wanting to do” this or that.  Students were trained well enough never to impart emotion to a butterfly “loving a flower” for this would have been beyond the pale.  No, the teleological slips in the classroom were only slips, nothing that couldn’t be corrected by mechanistic, technical training.  In science’s eyes, this is the human impulse towards anthropomorphism and poetry and should be left to artists to play with and is not a proper way to really understand nature.

How we speak and define soil is an interesting topic.  Regular people like you and me think of soil in simple, pliable terms.  We think of soil as being something that covers the ground and where plants grow or, for that matter, don’t grow, if the soil happens to be exposed or poisoned.  If I held up some farm potting mix or a handful of beach sand and ask “is this soil?” you would probably shrug and say “sure.”  However the definition of soil is more technical and excludes certain things you might consider to be “soil.”  Potting soils for instance, because they are not the naturally occurring result of millennia of erosion and decay, but are rather a human made mix of naturally occurring mineral and organic material, are not technically soil by most definitions.  Even beach sand, though mostly devoid of organic matter, and therefor almost wholly mineral, is still considered soil, even when no plants can be found growing within it.  The beach sand closer to the dunes, where beach grass and other species grow, would be more easily recognized as soil for the presence of plant roots and the beginning of a very remote organic layer.  To many a soil isn’t really a soil until it has become a host to plants, or at least has the potential to foster plant life.

Soil Health is a difficult concept to define and fraught with teleological pitfalls.  Applying the concept of health to non-humans is something that people have not cleanly worked out.  Our dogs and cats are seen as deserving almost the same level of health care as our children.  Farm animals, well, it depends on your point of view.  Wild animals, plants, extrapolated into larger units called ecosystems, are governed by a natural order, one that is beautiful but harsh.  A malnourished wolf or chipmunk is set upon by natural selection, something humans should not tinker with (a common view), except in that we should follow wildlife biologists recommendations and care for these ecosystems as a whole.  “Individual [animals] don’t matter,” my wildlife professor said.  “It is populations of animals we need to concern ourselves with.”  So the health of an individual, sick white-tailed deer is not societies concern, but the health of the white-tail population is.

Soil is an ecosystem, an ecosystem composed of different kinds of organisms, most small and smaller.  It is by far and away the most diverse ecosystem on the planet (fungi alone are estimated to represent between six hundred thousand to ten million species, most having a role in soil ecosystems).  If we were to stick with the definition of health laid out by my wildlife professor we would consider the health of the ecosystem to be based on how “well” the populations of organisms in the ecosystem are doing.  Terms like fitness, fecundity, diversity, reproductive success would all play into the equation.  Generally speaking most of us can think of what an unhealthy soil environment looks like without trying too hard.  A bare, uneven field or yard, for example, with large tracts eroded away from exposure to rainfall or thaw.  The farmer with a sense of soil health can tell just by looking at a field to what degree it is healthy in terms of it’s color, it’s particle aggregation, or the quality of the plants growing on it.  It seems that from agriculture’s point of view a soil’s purpose is to produce crops and it’s health can be accessed by how well it does this.

Leaving the definition of soil here does not take us to the point of fully appreciating the magnitude of the beauty of soil, or it’s higher potentials.  For this we have to step back, stand beside the entire scope of the phenomenon we call soil.  Purpose can be tied to the concept of duty, as if we were talking about the dharma of the soil.  The more we learn about the degradation of our planet’s soils the more we have to give thought to how we have managed our soil’s dharma.  That is to say, are we supporting or hindering our soils in their ability to do their duty?

In Gabe Brown’s book Dirt to Soil he talks about the extent that his home state’s (North Dakota) prairie soil has been degraded from farming over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from having organic matter contents of around 7% down to current averages between 1-2%.  Although this may sound like a small amount of the soil’s volume it is important to remember that soil organic matter is the primary warehouse of soil carbon, each percent containing between ten and twenty tons of carbon in the just the top six inches of soil, and increasing the water holding capacity of the soil by about twenty-thousand  gallons per acre per percent.  Think of all of that land’s organic matter vanishing from the soil and being returned to the atmosphere by conventional methods of farming.  I hear that we have an issue with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

Since Gabe Brown began farming his land in the early nineties his soil organic matter has returned to those pre-ag numbers, because he is farming with the soils dharma in mind, the soils gestalt, the soils purpose.  Many farmers are trying to regenerate their lands and looking to methods such as Gabe’s for the answers to making soil dharma a priority.

To finish where we began, if we can be forgiven for being a little teleological we might be able to stand a little closer to a better way of conceptualizing our treatment of the natural world, soil in particular.  I once heard an extension agent say, when asked what school children needed to understand about farming, “it’s important for them to understand that farming is not Nature.”  This is exactly the opposite of what we need to be telling young people about agriculture.  It is also exactly the opposite of how agriculturalist should be trained.  Look to nature for your model.  See the tall grass prairie, or the New England wildflower meadow and ask what it’s lessons are.  What do you see: diversity of plants and animals (big and small), balanced ratios of predators and prey, balances of perennial and annual plants, balances of biannual and winter annual plants, carbon cycling through grazing, nutrients cycling through penetrating and diverse styles of root systems, ecosystems buffered against disturbances.

If farmers and extension agents don’t recognize this as a model for farming than the land and it’s soil, with it’s potential, it’s purpose, it’s gestalt, it’s dharma, will continue to be deferred.   Unfortunately we do not have time for the next generation to be so poorly served to believe that mankind’s most intimate relationship with nature, agriculture, is nothing more than an adversarial battle to bend nature to our will.





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