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Year of Soil - Ode to Dirt

The dirt of my childhood

Like so many children, my introduction to soil took place in our backyard garden, in the west end of Toronto, near High Park. Perhaps I was 3 or 4 years old at the time, I certainly do not remember all the details, but I do recall my father showing me how to plant onions. He would have learned this skill at about the same age, from his father, on their small farm in Ukraine. Watching plants grow out of the earth (some would say
“dirt”) is fascinating, and could even be considered miraculous. When I was in the eighth grade, my parents bought a small farm near Elmvale, Ontario. Although we never lived there, the farm certainly became the turning point for much of the rest of my life. I fell in love with that little farm property, became enchanted by its rich soil and clean water, and I put down roots, deep roots: with the help of family and friends, and supported by various agencies, to date we have planted over twenty‐five thousand trees, of more than fifty species. The impact of these trees on the local environment has been incredible, but that’s a story for another time. What I can report here, however, is that thanks to this very rich soil, our red oak, black walnut, sycamore, and white spruce probably grow approximately 30 cm per year.

The dirt of our farm

After grade 12, I spent a summer living at the farm, by myself, in the milkhouse next to the barn, and I kept a small garden. I enjoyed that summer so much, I returned the following year, this time with chickens, ducks and rabbits and a much larger garden. The alluvial soils on this farm, derived from the sediments of glacial Lake Algonquin, are remarkable for their inherent fertility. The garden produced so many vegetables, I had to buy a pickup truck to transport all the food to our home in Toronto. Potatoes the size of bricks, cabbages the size of basketballs and so many tomatoes that I was giving them away by the bushel. Upon the passing of my parents, the ownership of the farm was transferred to me. Land, however, cannot really be “owned”: it can only be cared for, or not, for subsequent generations. I am now the steward of that property, and my goal is simply to take care of it for my children. I still have that old truck, and it has done so many journeys north and south by now it could practically drive itself from Toronto to the farm and back again. When I retire, it will be to this little farm property, and I will once again grow all of my own food from that wonderful land. The original inhabitants of this area, the Wendat (called “Huron” by the French when they arrived in the 17th C) grew squash, corns, and beans (The Three Sisters). Amazing to think that this region of Ontario has been used to grow crops for thousands of years.

Dirt and the Ontario Agricultural College

Perhaps it was inevitable that I would major in Soil Science at the University of Guelph. My first lecture in soil science was given by Art “Dirt” Willis. He brought a small glass vial of “dirt” into the classroom and explained that this lowly material is so complex, an entire lifetime of study would be insufficient to truly understand it. Having been a student of earth science for almost forty years (!), I now realize Dirt Willis was right after all. In the Department of Land Resource Science, I was fortunate to be surrounded by many inspiring professors of soil science. The late Dave Elrick, my professor of soil physics, was a great role model and I kept in touch with him throughout my career. I would describe Dave as an excellent research scientist and teacher, an athlete, and a sincere, caring individual. I would later learn that he had grown up in that same neighbourhood of Toronto, that we attended the same high school, and that his maternal grandmother was from Elmvale. The connections we discover during our lifetimes are remarkable, and many of mine are somehow connected to soil.

Many years later I would learn that the street I grew up on, Ellis Avenue, adjacent to Grenadier Pond, in the Village of Swansea, had been the home and experimental farm of Mr. William Rennie. The William Rennie seed house was the largest in Canada and operated for 90 years. But Rennie was much more than a horticulturalist; he also taught soil science at the Ontario Agricultural College (which later became the University of Guelph). Reading his written works today, it is clear that Rennie had a profound understanding of the vital function of soil in terrestrial ecosystems. Here is a quotation from his book “Successful Farming” published in Toronto in 1900:

 “Humus has a distinct value, apart from the plant food it contains. It absorbs and retains moisture much more readily than any other ingredient, so that a soil which is rich in humus will withstand drought, without drying out and becoming hard. Humus also aids in the decomposition of the mineral matter in the soil, changing unavailable into available plant food.It improves the texture and mechanical condition of a heavy soil, making it lighter, more porous, and less adhesive or sticky. On a sandy soil, humus serves to bind together the loose particles of sand, and so prevents the soil from drifting and the excessive leaching of plant food."

Countless hours of my childhood had been spent playing in Rennie Park, never having known the remarkable contributions made to agriculture by William Rennie.

Dirt in geology and medicine

James Hutton, 18th C professor at Edinburgh is widely considered the father of modern geology, having provided some of the first insight into earth dynamics and geological time. In fact, Hutton’s thinking was profoundly influenced by the observations he made on his farm. The chemical transformations he witnessed there, including mineral weathering, soil formation, erosion and sedimentation, as well as the decomposition of organic matter, all helped him to better understand the rates of geological processes. Hutton soon realized that the Earth could not possibly be 6,000 years old, an idea that had held sway in many circles at that time. 

Albrecht Thaer, a German contemporary of Hutton, realized that the organic fraction of soil was a valuable storehouse of plant nutrients and therefore essential to life, and was quoted as saying that “humus is the product of living matter, and the source of it”. Selman Waksman, an American student of soil microbiology, born in Ukraine, dedicated his life to the study of humus. Waksman received the 1952 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of antibiotics (a term he created) in soil organisms. Waksman went on to discover 20 antibiotics and his book “Humus” (1936) reads well to this day. 

Dirt and the global climate system

We now know that humus is the single greatest reservoir of organic matter on the continents, and the accumulation of this material is an extremely important reservoir in the global carbon cycle. In other words, humus in our soils helps to stabilize the climate system of Spaceship Earth. Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and when they die some fraction of their constituent organic materials accumulates in the soil as humus. All gardeners know the importance of composting and humus, and good farmers know the importance of soil organic matter as it creates a reservoir of nitrogen and many other nutrients, and helps to conserve soil moisture. The accumulation and preservation of organic matter in our soils, however, is also helping to battle global climate change. Improved soil management practices, therefore, present a real opportunity to help stabilize global climate.

Peatlands: wet dirt

Our peatlands ‐ the bogs, fens, marshes and swamps which probably cover nearly 20 %of our beautiful country, are considered soils too. Think of them as wet dirt: these “organic” soils form under waterlogged conditions which inhibits decay. The peat which forms in these environments, essentially fossil plant material, represents the other important carbon reservoir on the continents. For millenia, our peatlands have been accumulating organic matter and helping to stabilize the global climate system. Not only is organic matter preserved in our peatlands, but plant remains, pollen grains, mineral dust particles, heavy metals, organic contaminants, radioactive fallout: our bogs are valuable archives of so many aspects of environmental change, in addition to providing us with records of climate and human history, extending back in time many thousands of years. Unfortunately, more than two‐thirds of the wetlands in southern Ontario, as well as those in southern Alberta, have been lost to drainage and development. Wetland loss not only impacts ecosystem function and myriad species of wildlife, but also the global climate system, as organic matter is oxidized to carbon dioxide which is then returned to the atmosphere and contributes to the greenhouse effect.

The best dirt of all

The best dirt in all of Canada, the black earth or “Chernozem” soils of the prairie provinces, are very rich in organic matter. These are also the soils of the steppes of Ukraine where agriculture has been practiced for thousands of years, extending back in time at least to the Scythian culture. No wonder the early settlers in western Canada felt right at home when they arrived at the end of the 19th C. It’s remarkable that soils on the prairies of Canada and the steppes of Ukraine are virtually identical. Although they evolved independently, the main factors of soils formation (geological parent material, climate, topography, organisms and time) are effectively identical in both places. And no wonder the University of Alberta is a powerhouse of soil science research and teaching in Canada: in the Department of Renewable Resources, a dozen “dirt dudes” supported by world‐class laboratory facilities are dedicated to the study and teaching of the physics, chemistry, and biochemistry of soils, soil‐plant relations, the utilization and management of agronomic and forest soils, as well as their use in land reclamation. The Breton Plots, a U of A research facility established in 1929, provides an opportunity unique in Canada to study long‐term environmental change.

Clean dirt = clean water

Soil is not only where we grow most of our food and fibre, but it is also the perfect water filter. The little farm property near Elmvale not only stimulated my interest in soil, but water too. The farm has an artesian spring, and I have been testing this water for more than twenty years. It became the “reference water” for my lab at the University of Berne in Switzerland, where I worked for twelve years, and also at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where I worked for ten years. This spring water is so clean, we have had to design, construct, and install dedicated groundwater sampling wells to allow the water to be collected while avoiding contamination. The more careful the sampling, the cleaner this water seems to become. This facility has grown to become the Elmvale Groundwater Observatory where the spring water is collected within a “clean air cabinet” which prevents the water being contaminated by dust particles in the air during sampling. This spring water contains lower concentrations of heavy metals such as lead (Pb) than the cleanest layers of ancient Arctic ice more than 5,000 years old. Why is this water so clean, you ask ? Soil: rainwater is filtered through thick layers of nice, clean soil before it enters the aquifer which stores the groundwater. The soils overlying the aquifer protect the water from contamination from various human activities. Compared to this spring water, our published studies showed that all bottled waters from around the world are contaminated because of leaching from their containers. In some ways, the water on our little farm property has become a kind of “gold standard” for water quality. Several other exciting things have sprung up from this little farm property, including the Elmvale Water Festival and the Elmvale Foundation, a federally registered charity for environmental education. All of this, and much more, stems from the wonderful soil on that little farm property.

The tragic loss of our best dirt

Asphalt, concrete, glass and steel, unlike soil, cannot be used for growing food, do not help stabilize the planetary climate system, and do not filter our water. In fact, these synthetic materials prevent infiltration, add contaminants to our surface waters and promote rapid runoff and flooding. It seems as though virtually every community across southern Canada is spreading across our precious farmlands like a kind of urban leprosy. Houses planted like carrots, shopping malls with all the same stores, selling all the same poor quality stuff, things we mainly don’t need on their way to overflowing landfills, are homogenizing the urban landscape and reducing our ability to feed ourselves.

Edmonton is a prime example of a sprawling city that endeavours to extend its footprint as much as possible, as quickly as possible, swallowing up great chunks of beautiful black earth. Property developers here already have hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of rich black earth that they have to pay to dispose of as “waste”. Yet Edmonton is currently proposing to annex 38,000 acres which would extend the city to Leduc, 50 km to the south. Rather than watch their family farm get swallowed up and become part of somebody’s bedroom or garage, the Bocock family of St. Albert donated 777 acres of their property to the University of Alberta. This land has since become the St. Albert Agricultural Research Station and guarantees agricultural research opportunities for current and future generations of scientists well into the future. As our climate system enters a period of rapid and unpredictable change, with growing variation in rainfall intensity and distribution, agricultural research will become increasingly important as we seek to understand which crops can best be grown in future, where, and how. In appreciation of this extremely generous and prescient donation, the University of Alberta created the Bocock Chair for Agriculture and the Environment. As the first holder of the Bocock Chair, I am forever in the debt of this wonderful family.

Sadly, with most people now living in cities, many will only have their first contact with dirt when they are no longer alive, once they have been buried or cremated. But at that stage, with almost every element in our bodies ultimately having been derived from the soil, each of us will be returned from whence we came. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I hope my own ashes, when the time comes, will be scattered by my daughters under the beloved English White Oak I planted with my father, on our farm. At that point, I too will return to the soil and, by fertilizing that tree, begin to help remove some of the carbon dioxide I have emitted during my lifetime. 

Our precious dirt

According to Friedrich Fallou, a 19th C German soil scientist, “there is nothing in the whole of Nature which is more important than or deserves as much attention as the soil….. the whole Creation depends on the soil which is the ultimate foundation of our existence”. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, said
“civilization itself rests upon the soil”. Fred Bentley, professor of soil science and former Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Alberta, wrote more than 30 years ago in a visionary report that “agriculture over the long term has to be seen as part of a total environmental strategy that aims to sustain food production in integration with care of diverse landscapes, organisms, air, and water”. 

Soil is the basis for life on earth and we should not treat it like dirt.