Earth Matters

Recently, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about soil. When you’ve spent over three years thinking about ants, thinking about soil is a natural, very small, step. Most northern ants live in the ground. They tunnel and dig. In many places they can be as important for soil as earthworms. Once you’ve crouched down to the ground to get up close and personal with the ants (or in my case, sprawled on your stomach), the soil is hard to ignore. But like many people, I’ve always taken it for granted. I hadn’t thought much about soil, besides when I dragged 50 liters of soil into my apartment to fill my increasing collection of plant pots.

But soil matters. Earth matters, as Richard D. Bardgett’s book has taught me. As a scientist, I sometimes feel guilty for reading the popular science books and not the scientific papers in journals. But honestly, after a long day at the office, picking up another scientific paper is harder than cracking open a book.

Bardgett first sent me down memory lane of digging holes in the ground during my first year of biology (2008) to characterise soil profiles. My first ‘wow’ moment came when I learnt the rate of soil formation is around 0.1 millimeters a year. So if you dig a 1 meter hole, you might be going back 10,000 years. In hindsight, this explains why stone age tools are often discovered when fields are ploughed, they really aren’t buried that deep.

The most exciting parts of the book were on the relationship between soil and biodiversity and between soil and humans. In a handful of soil, you might find billions of organisms among thousands of species. It’s even estimated that soil contains 25 % of the living diversity on earth. It’s therefore to then read that, in Europe, 500 square kilometers of land are sealed by impermeable material (like concrete) every year. That’s an area almost six times as large as Copenhagen, 2.5 times Stockholm, approximately the same size as Oslo. You get my point.

Besides containing a wealth of, often overlooked, biodiversity, soil delivers a number of ecosystem services benefiting humans. The most obvious is food, both for us and for the animals we later consume, but also all the other things we get from plants: lumber, paper and textiles, to name a few. Soil also plays a key role in regulating nutrient and water availability. It is the third largest carbon store and, depending on how we treat it, may act as both a source and sink of greenhouse gasses. As his chapter on soil and war (if not the entire book) makes painfully obvious, we have not treated soil well. But I found the second world war “Dig for Victory” campaign truly inspiring. Lawns, flowerbeds and sports pitches were converted into allotments. 1.4 million people in Britain dug up their lawns to grow food. A small miracle, considering how much brits love their gardens. Perhaps a future campaign could focus on how to best optimize soil conditions for biodiversity and climate. One can dream.

Entire civilizations have risen and collapsed through the management of soil. Yet I agree with Bardgett, soil is an underappreciated subject. Hopefully the tides are turning. 4.5 stars. A few repetitions here and there (and not enough about ants), but a great awakening to the importance of soil.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Soil and the city: View across the ground in Frederiksberg Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark. 09.10.2020

Book review: The Invention of Nature

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Book cover

I’ve decided to write up small reviews of the books I read, that a I believe are of possible interest to ecologists. Maybe one day it will turn into a list of 10 must read books for ecologists. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt, I, like so many others, read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature. Despite being in the final stages of finishing my PhD, I have to admit I devoured this book. It may be because I also had a broken foot for five weeks, and couldn’t do much except sit around and read. But it was captivating.

Andrea Wulf’s description of Alexander von Humboldt and the many famous people he interacted with, is sure to have you wishing to be transported back in time where the world was still largely unexplored, where salons appear to have been a daily occurrence and the line between science and art was practically nonexistent. Of course you tend to forget about the dysentery, the inapropriate clothing for scaling mountains and the lack of modern comforts, such as flushing toilets. These could perhaps easily be tolerated for the opportunity to be in the company of famous personas like Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, who all read and were influenced by Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) acchieved many things in his life, the least of which was living to age 90. He has multiple geographic places (including mountains, towns, counties, lakes and rivers) and species (including the humboldt penguin and the humboldt squid) named after him. It probably also isn’t far fetched to call him the founder of what we today call macroecology. Through his many travels he noticed similarities between continents, predicted the devastating effects that humans have on nature. The following quote is from a book review published on goodreads by William2, which I think captures mostly everything about the book:

“But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life.”

William2 on Goodreads

Most importantly in this quote, is the realisation that, although many say science should be free of emotion, reporting only the facts, scientists may capture scores of new readers (and nature lovers) by expressing their own personal emotional responses to nature. If you need motivation to fall in love with nature (again), read this book. If you are a PhD student in ecology and you’re starting to wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing, read this book.

Hetch Hetchy Side Canyon, I by William Keith. Uploaded to fineartamerica on January 25th, 2016.