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The English language is full of phrases—from "bogged down" to "feet of clay" and "dirt cheap"—that reflect how we appreciate the diversity of soil, but value it little.
Soil retains a special place in many cultures. In Ireland, where I grew up, patches of what is known as "hungry ground" are thought to retain the memory of the Irish Famine in the 1800s, and you are advised to carry bread while you cross them. To poet Patrick Kavanagh, the clay of soils sealed the hopeless fate of lonely Irish bachelor farmers: "Clay is the word and clay is the fleshWhere the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move."
Valueless - Dirt - Mystery - Dirt - Memory
But is soil valueless like dirt or replete with mystery? Is it just dirt, or a cathedral of evolutionary and cultural memory? Like an elder among us, soil holds records of our planet's past and the possibilities of its future sustainability.
Like a library, soil houses stories written from the microscopic to the landscape scale of human and evolutionary history. Our enormous recent impacts, from the global nitrogen cycle to our use of atomic weapons, can be read as elemental and isotopic traces in soil.
Quarter - World - Biodiversity - Soil - Plants
One quarter of all the world's biodiversity can be found in soil; it is where many plants, bacteria and fungi evolved together. In many cases, plants and soil microbes established mutually beneficial relationships, communicating with each other by sending signals through the soil in a complex dating game. Butterflies and beetles and some bees, too, evolved to need the soil for certain stages of their life cycle.
Soil also remembers its natural vegetation—as seeds that can be used to help restore the native plant diversity and ecosystem, even in an urban lawn setting. For plants, the memory of their interaction with soil microbes may even be transmitted to their offspring.
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