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Let’s just stop calling soil “dirt”

The many benefits of the good earth

soilThe soil lies at the heart of life (Photo credit: Ranjit Lal)

How many times have parents yelled at their kids, “Don’t track dirt all over the floors!” Or, “Go and change those soiled clothes immediately!” And then, hauled them off for a disinfectant-laced scrub so that they emerge squeaky clean and the very antithesis of childhood?

Dirt; mud, soil – well, they’re yuck, right?

No right-minded child would agree. It’s huge fun to play and splash in a muddy pond. Some adults are getting the idea too as mud packs and mud-baths (using ‘sanitised’ mud, I suppose) are used in spas where they charge thousands for something you can get free by going out after it rains and stomping around in puddles! Animals have known this for eons, be they elephants, hippos, zebras, or even your dog, birds, reptiles: nothing like a mud or dust bath for a glowing pest-free skin and complexion!

But really, we do so disrespect the one medium that keeps the whole of life ticking: Soil; what many of us also call dirt. (Some scientists maintain that soil is alive, dirt is dead and, hence, different) Not only is soil alive, it keeps every living creature alive. Plants are one obvious example, and every living creature – vegan or carnivore depends on plants, and plants grow in soil, hydroponics notwithstanding.

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So, what exactly is in the soil? Organic matter composed basically of potty, (I wonder if that’s where the term “potted plants” came from!) the remains of dead creatures, minerals, trillions and trillions of living microbes, water, and gas. Soil comprises 50 per cent solid matter (5 per cent organic matter, 45 per cent minerals) and 50 per cent of what are called ‘voids’ – gases and water equally divided. The solid matter is transported, stored, and distributed around by water, microbial enzymes turn minerals and organic matter into nutrients plants need, and oxygen filtering through helps the microbial organisms to live and breathe.

Large amounts of carbon are stored in the organic matter, making soil serve as a magnum carbon sink, though some of this is released into the air as carbon dioxide due to decomposition and the respiration of the living organisms. Heat and humidity increase the rate of decomposition of organic material, directly into carbon dioxide which is why soils in tropical and subtropical regions have less sequestered carbon and are usually less fertile than those in temperate regions. This also happens when the soil is tilled and disturbed and one of the consequences of global warming is that even more carbon dioxide is likely to be released into the atmosphere by the soil.

Soil performs other functions: for one, everything we build has its foundations in the soil, and, of course, plants are supported by it, apart from which, soil provides them with air, water, nutrients, keeps the temperature from fluctuating, and filters out toxins. Living creatures from the multitude of microbes, to insects, mammals, and reptiles live in the soil, and some, like earthworms, repay the favour, by aerating the soil so increasing the amount of oxygen in it.

It is, perhaps, the greatest recycler of all: processing and reprocessing nutrients so that they can be used over and over again and filters and stores water.

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If we cut into soil like we would into a layer cake, seven layers emerge, which have been labeled, O, A, B, E, C, and R; though most soils only have three: A, B and C. Each of these tells the story of the soil. Right at the top, O stands for the organic material – like dead, decaying leaves that lie right on the top – and which may not be present in all soils. A stands for the topsoil, comprising minerals and organic material, E (eluviated) — the deposition of dissolved or suspended particles from the layers above by water, again not found in many soils, B is subsoil, which is rich in minerals that moved down or leached further from the layers above, C, the deposit from the ‘ parent’ material which was deposited on the Earth’s surface when the soil began to form and, finally, R, the solid base or bedrock comprising the hardcore parent granite, basalt, sandstone, or limestone on which everything stacks up, and which is not soil, but solid matter.

Like everything else, we’re busy destroying our soils. We poison it, cut down the forests which hold it in place (and vice versa!) leading to erosion, bury it under our towns and cities, flood it or drain it, and stuff chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides into it as if it could not do its own job properly of providing a balanced ‘diet’ for plants and crops! And, so, we may turn it acidic, or too saline or toxic for anything to grow on it, or imbalance its composition enough to cause desertification.

Of course not all we do is hideous. Thousands of years ago, the Amazonian Indians discovered that they could enrich the relatively poor tropical soils of their region by adding a mixture of charcoal, shards of broken pottery, bones, compost and manure to it which boosted its fertility manifold. Even better, the charcoal’s porosity made it retain water and nutrients better and for much longer. The soil, called Terra petra also had a unique and still mystifying ability to increase its own volume and thereby sequester even greater amounts of carbon. It is now being said that Terra petra occurred naturally, the sterling qualities of which were recognised and used by the native Indians.

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Certainly all is not lost! We proudly call farmers ‘sons of the soil’ (umm…and why not ‘daughters of the soil’?!) and our films are replete with thunderous dialogues referring to ‘iss dharti jis ki mitti se…’ etc etc.
Just let’s stop calling soil, dirt.

First published on: 30-11-2022 at 08:37 IST
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