New book encourages readers to Know Soil, Know Life
January 24, 2013
Think of all the things we need most for daily living: food, clothing, shelter, water. Have you ever considered how each of them, in turn, depends on soil—that without soil there would in fact be no life?
Unfortunately, most people haven’t, says North Carolina State University soil science professor David Lindbo, although the lack of awareness is perhaps understandable. Unlike air and water, we don’t take soil directly into our bodies, making it less obvious how we rely on it. Nor is it easy for us to tell when soil is polluted.
“We don’t see soil. We walk on it, but we don’t see it,” says Lindbo, who is current president of the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), an international scientific society headquartered in Madison, WI. He and a team of co-authors now hope students, teachers, and the public will take a fresh look at this hidden yet vital substance in the SSSA’s new book, Know Soil Know Life.
Targeted to high schoolers and college students in introductory courses, the 206-page book tells the story of soil through engaging, accessible language and hundreds of full-color photos and illustrations. It begins with a chapter that challenges readers to view soil not as inert “dirt”, but as a living material that carries out critical functions for the environment and for people.
Soil filters our drinking water, for example, and supports the plants that feed, clothe, and shelter us. “Without soil we’d be hungry, naked, and homeless,” quips co-editor Clay Robinson, a New Mexico soil scientist who has taught tens of thousands of school kids about soil as the persona, ‘Dr. Dirt.’ “Also, breathless,” he adds, “because it’s the plants growing in soil that produce our oxygen.”
Know Soil Know Life then takes readers through a traditional sequence of soil science topics, including soil chemistry, biology, and classification, before drawing a direct line between people and soils once again. In chapter 8, “Soil and Society,” the authors describe the impact of soil on human endeavors ranging from art to warfare. This section also details soil’s role in the collapse of past civilizations, such as the Easter Islanders, and modern-day concerns like desertification and deforestation.
The book concludes with a chapter on the soil science careers available in research, land management, education, and environmental consulting—options that many of today’s soil scientists didn’t learn about until they were almost through school, Robinson says. This includes Deb Kozlowski, a soil scientist and grade school art teacher who co-edited Know Soil Know Life with Robinson and Lindbo.
“I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as soil science until I went to college,” Kozlowski says. “So, we want kids to grow up knowing about soil science, and that it is a bona-fide field of science that you can make a living at.”
Lindbo, Robinson and other contributors to Know Soil Know Life belong to the Soil Science Society of America’s K-12 education committee: a group of college professors, professional soil scientists, and educators who’ve devoted themselves to getting many more people to understand and appreciate soils. And this, the committee knows, means grabbing their attention early on.
Thus, the group’s first book project was a text for 4th graders, SOIL! Get the Inside Scoop, which goes with the traveling exhibit for kids, “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” (now showing at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis, MN). Later, the team worked with the North American Envirothon, a national environmental education program based in Texas, to revise the learning objectives for its annual competition for high school students.
That effort produced a detailed outline of soil-related topics, which the K-12 committee subsequently decided to expand into Know Soil Know Life, Lindbo says. The group also recently launched a website for K-12 educators, www.soils4teachers.org, and will soon launch one for kids.
Where does a group of extremely busy soil science professionals and professors find the time and energy to teach children, too? “The pat answer is that they’re our future,” Lindbo says with a laugh. “I do it because I enjoy it. I enjoy working with students of all ages as well as adults because I feed off their enthusiasm.”
He and the others now hope that Know Soil Know Life spreads the enthusiasm for soils far and wide. True, the relationships between soils, plants, climate, water, and humans aren’t always easy for people outside the soils profession to grasp. Nevertheless, says Robinson, “Those connections can be made—if people are just asked to make them.”