CIRS Blog about Rural California

Alix Blair: Book Review

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan.

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

 

William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth is a 202-page love song to the soil. Logan’s book is made up of multiple styles: part scientific fact, part narrative storytelling, part poetry, part history-lesson.

 

Logan’s writing is beautiful, meditative, metaphor-full, and poetic, filled with lyrical connections between surprising thoughts. He uses soil as the connective thread to examine multiple, immense ideas, many verging on discussions of the meaning of life.

 

To give an example of his style of writing, in taking on the beginning of life on earth (no small subject), Logan writes, “life is the story of bodies that learned to contain the sea…when you look for a creature to match the range of motion of the human hand, you find yourself back with the wiggling orange filaments of fungi and the gesture of acclamation of a spreading bacterial branch” (11,13).

 

Moving from the beginning of life, he takes on death in graphic detail in the chapter The Soil of Graves writing, “so in the end the tomb is empty, and human forms have been changed into apple forms. The soil of graves is the transformer. It is natural magic. The grave is a memory from which the story of the Earth is told” (57).

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Authors:

Lorena M. Zavala. University of Seville, Sevilla, Spain

Antonio Jordán. University of Seville, Sevilla, Spain

Jorge Mataix-Solera. University Miguel Hernández, Elche, Spain

Artemi Cerdà. University of Valencia, Valencia, Spain

 

Originally posted at http://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/sss/ on March 3, 2015. 

 

According to official statistics, during the 1990’s, about 1.5 million ha were burned in Spain. In the first decade of this century, the burned area in Spain also surpassed one million hectares. To put it in conventional TV surface units, the burned area in the past 20 years equals the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz, or 274,000 soccer fields. The effects caused by the fire on the soil have been studied over the past 20 years by research groups who have made a significant contribution to the advancement and improvement of scientific knowledge.

 

Forest fires are a regular topic of conversation in our society, especially during summer conversations, and people agrees to describe forest fires as disasters. Instead, they disagree vehemently about forest management, restoration and prevention policies. We have never seen one of those familiar discussions in which a consensus has been reached. Nor have we seen people talking about the twinned management of fire and forest areas. We cannot understand fire as something alien to ecosystems.

 

Undoubtedly, forest fires are an important part of the history of Mediterranean and most terrestrial ecosystems. Natural fires caused by lightning or other causes such as volcanic eruptions, have contributed to shape the history of vegetation, soils, and ultimately the landscape we know. Fire has been used by humans since 400,000 years ago and only about 10,000 years ago man learned to light a fire without relying on natural agents such as lightning.

 

Since then, the fire has been an excellent tool to harness and manage natural ecosystems worldwide. The Mediterranean landscape we know today has been shaped by the action of man for thousands of years, and the use of fire is not out of this process. The intense transformation of original forests in cropland and pastures since the fifteenth century to promote livestock, the exploitation of coal and wood, and human supply has been possible thanks to fire.

 

Since the mid-twentieth century, and as a result of urbanization and the abandonment of rural areas, traditional agricultural uses and management are being lost. Perhaps this is why, now, people see fire as an enemy that must be eradicated. The problem is not fire itself, but the modification of natural fire regimes in ecosystems.

 

This has turned fire, a natural ecological factor, in an environmental problem. The solution therefore is not as simple as the total eradication of fire. Burning shrubland.

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Introduction

 

Non-point source pollution (NPS) is a global problem affecting the safety of our drinking water supply and aquatic habitats. According to the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, agriculturally derived NPS is the leading cause of water quality degradation in surface waters. Pollutants originating from agricultural runoff include sediment, nutrients (N and P), pesticides, pathogens, salts, trace elements, dissolved organic carbon and substances that contribute to biological oxygen demand (BOD). 

 

For example, discharge of nutrients into aquatic ecosystems has led to the formation of hypoxia/anoxia induced “dead zones” in more than 400 locations worldwide. Thus, new and effective management practices for agriculture must be identified, tested and monitored in order to reduce the impacts of agriculture on the sustainability of water resources.

 

Wetlands are widely advertised as critical components of our planet providing a wide variety of ecosystem services: kidneys of the hydrologic cycle by removing pollutants, biodiversity hot spots, habitats of rare and endangered species, ground water recharge zones, localized areas for flood protection, carbon sinks and aesthetic value.

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“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s words might bring to mind images of pavement or resource extraction, yet our most common agricultural practices also are destroying our soil.

Modern industrial agricultural practices have been impacting our once-rich belowground ecosystem since the early 20th century and we’re just beginning to understand how it’s affecting our health.

When compared with the nutrient value of the foods our grandparents ate, what we consume today has substantially lower nutritional value. According to the “Journal of the American College of Nutrition,” today’s foods typically are lower in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C. It’s now possible to buy an orange that contains zero vitamin C.

Why is this happening? One potential cause is changes in plant varieties. If breeders are focused on other factors besides nutritional value (yield, disease resistance, etc.), then the new varieties may decline in nutrient concentrations. Depleted soil may be another reason.

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With endocrine-disrupting compounds affecting fish populations in rivers as close as Pennsylvania's Susquehanna and as far away as Israel's Jordan, a new research study shows that soils can filter out and break down at least some of these emerging contaminants. The results suggest that water pollution can be diminished by spraying treated wastewater on land rather than discharging it directly into streams, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

 

Using Penn State's 600-acre "Living Filter" -- a wastewater reuse system less than a mile from the University Park campus -- as a laboratory, researchers tested soil samples for the presence and accumulation of three estrogens. For almost three decades, more than 500 million gallons of treated wastewater from the campus has been sprayed annually from irrigation pipes onto this site, which is composed of cropland, grassland and forest.

 

To understand how endocrine-disrupting compounds behave in the soil, researchers extracted samples and analyzed for two natural estrogens, 17-beta-estradiol and estrone -- hormones naturally produced by humans and animals, such as dairy cattle -- and one synthetic estrogen, 17-alpha-ethynylestradiol -- a compound in birth-control pills.

 

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