“When you learn to read dirt, you walk into the forest or across a city . . . and the fisted world opens up like two palms holding a book of the best story ever told, because it is every story ever told—if you know how to read dirt.”
These words of BK Loren
, a novelist, make clear that by reading dirt, we will learn to recognize the footprints of nature and human civilization and see not only what has happened, but also what future possibilities are in store.
And she may be on to something. Soil is a hot button topic in agricultural development. FAO
designated this year as the International Year of Soil, and it seems everyone is digging deeper to uncover what implications soil may have for the future of food. Mostly, we consider what we know about soil – how we think about it and perceive it. Mary Parks, a gender researcher here at OIRED, has written on women’s knowledge of soils
and the ways in which gendered knowledge of land management can affect agricultural productivity and the success of development projects.
But what about the soils’ knowledge of us? What is soil telling us about the past, present and even the future? In order to find the answers to these questions, we have to speak the language.
While archaeologists often steal the spotlight for unearthing the past, soil scientists too can translate soil’s historical record, using distinct features that evidence where rivers once were, where humans used to grow certain crops and even where the dead are buried. In my soil science training, we spent a lot of time immersed – literally – in soil pits where we learned to read the soil profile. After understanding the larger context from GIS data and soil maps, we would look for clues by rubbing soil clumps between our fingers to determine texture, measuring the depth of different layers and making observations about characteristics such as color, pattern, and landscape position (i.e. on top of a hill, or at the bottom).
Using all of this information, it is possible to learn not only how and from what the soil formed, but also how productive or appropriate it can be for different land uses (farming, construction etc.). Human influence on soil is especially significant not only because of the rapidity of change as contrasted with geologic time, but also because of the traces it leaves behind. There is an entire category of soil classification for human-altered soils – anthropogenic – that helps us to understand what soils are telling us about our ancestors. A compacted layer close to the surface – a plow pan – indicates the field was cultivated, and discontinuity in soil layers can indicate terraces up to thousands of years old.
As soil continues to dominate the agendas of development projects, it is more important than ever to assess not only what we know about soil, but also what the soil can tell us about ourselves. Speaking the universal language of dirt has become a currency in itself, valuable to anyone with the mind to manage it. And because soil entraps even the most ordinary of histories, encompassing both the breadth and depth of the human experience, there is still so much to learn.
Loren reminds us:
“Dirt is everywhere and records everything, retelling your story, perhaps even eons after your death, in sediments pressed into history, pressed into time. There is nothing you do that escapes record. There is nothing that the earth will not record and read back to you and others. Listen: It’s ever-present. Our lives left in dust, where our stories, always, remain.”