Dick Arnold: Connecting the dots of international soil science

Dick Arnold has lots of stories to tell. All of them are interesting. He’s taught at a prestigious university and led a major division of a government agency. Yet, he remains humble, preferring to talk about the people he met and what they taught him, rather than what he may have taught them.

Dick Arnold standing in soil pit

Arnold had a wonderful career and made many contributions to the field of soil science. He’s been an SSSA and ASA Fellow since 1985. He was recently awarded the Lomonosov Gold Medal by the Russian Academy of Sciences for his “outstanding contribution to the development of theoretical and applied soil science and modeling the behavior of soils in different landscapes of the world.”

After growing up in a small town in Iowa and a short stint in the Navy, Arnold’s career took him to Europe, Asia, parts of Africa, and South America. Most of the early journeys were with USAID. “In 1977, I worked with the Cornell TROPSOIL program,” Arnold says. “Our goal was to transfer our knowledge of soil management to the tropics.” The month-long course attracted 24 students to the Philippines from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. “It was teaching this course and interacting with the students that helped me realize that I wanted to spend most of my life helping people understand soils. The enthusiasm of the students made everything worthwhile.” Most of his co-teachers were from Cornell, Hawaii, or the Philippines.

Arnold emphasizes the need to do soil surveys as research projects. “Soil surveys are science and research. It’s just that the “experiments” have already been run over the course of time! How has the geography changed, how did the erosion happen…these things we record afterward in a soil survey. We were recording the research results of those experiments and making guesswork about how the landscape had evolved. Are there new layers on top or severe erosion? All of science deals with uncertainty. We can only talk in probabilities.”

Headshot of Ilya Sokolov

As an academic, Arnold taught courses in soil survey, soil genesis, regional studies, as well as various special topics (soil statistics, anyone?). He mentored numerous graduate students. His first sabbatical was in Venezuela in 1972. If you ask Arnold where he has travelled, you get a shorter answer than if you ask “where have you not been?”

Because he was gifted in communication, Arnold spent much of his career in science administration, building international bridges among scientists, practitioners, and governments. “I often observed how various programs fit together. My job was to help soil scientists around the world better understand and interpret their soil resources.” In late 1979, Arnold and his wife moved to Washington, DC where Arnold worked with the Soil Conservation Service as director of Soil Correlation and Classification. In 1980, he became director of the Soil Survey Division and held that position until 1996. For four additional years, he served as a special assistant, working mainly with international interests and global change. After retirement, he was a Fulbright Scholar to Russia among many other tasks.

Interpersonal Finesse

Arnold used not only his scientific knowledge, but a certain well-honed interpersonal finesse when working in government and abroad. While he was on assignment in China in 1982, he spent four weeks in Beijing, teaching soil classification and genesis and leading discussions in the field. The government monitored everything he did. His wife traveled with him, and they had an armed guard at night. There was no conversation allowed, except about soil science. He found similar conditions in Russia during the Cold War era.

Dick and Helen Arnold

In 1990, he was a “visiting scientist” in Germany, spending three months in Hamburg. He traveled around the country, talking to graduate students and researchers. They were doing great work in environmental monitoring to assist their communities in being sustainable. One geomorphologist showed him field evidence of common layering of soil materials that had occurred during post-glacial times and more recently due to human habitation. “It was fantastic. One time, a young researcher studying litter dynamics took me to his site in central Germany. He mentioned that once on the hilltop there had been a fortress with animals and gardens outside the fences, but now the area was a serene forested landscape. He seemed unaware that the soil profile wanted him to ‘read the landscape’ to better understand the history of a constantly changing environment and that geomorphic awareness might be useful.”

In 1982, he went from China to Kiev, Russia to discuss how to designate land uses internationally. On that trip, he met Ilya Sokolov. “He was one of the most interesting scientists I knew! On a return trip, Ilya’s English had improved so we could talk (Dick doesn’t speak Russian). We met nine times in Russia, once in Alaska, and also at the SSSA meeting in Seattle. The way he approached science was really interesting. The Russians had been isolated, and here he was, not the enemy, but a fellow scientist! We could work together, and that became a good relationship.” Sadly, Ilya died in 2006, and one day Arnold plans to write a story about him.

Arnold didn’t imagine all the travel he was going to do when he started his career. But his wife, Helen, was supportive. She raised their three children. Based on the amount of connections Arnold made throughout his career, the bridges he built, and the science he helped to progress, we should all be grateful to Mrs. Arnold!

This story originally appeared in the July-August 2014 issue of Soil Horizons.

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