Have you ever heard the expression, “I’d rather watch paint dry”? That’s how I felt when I signed up to a soil workshop in 2014. Talking about dirt and watching paint dry are at about the same level on my fun scale (ie not fun at all). But, at the time, I was thinking about growing my own food, so learning about soil seemed like an important first step. I went to the workshop with a triple espresso to make sure I didn’t fall asleep. To my surprise, the soil class turned out to be really fascinating and engrossing. Anyone who enjoys left brain and right brain thinking (like me) would love to talk about dirt. While most people (including myself) have been taught that soil is an inert lump of gross mud that should be avoided and sanitized, that’s actually not true at all. Here are 5 totally fascinating things I learned about dirt.
- Soil is an awesome carbon sink. Maybe even the best we’ve got.
One of the first things that the teacher declared was that if soil around the world was worked on organically and systematically it would drop carbon levels from 400ppm to 280ppm in just 3 ½ years. That means that while (most of) the global community are wringing our collective hands about how to tackle climate change and sequester carbon, the answer could be under our feet. 280ppm (parts per million) is about the level of carbon that was in the atmosphere over 400,000 years ago, according to this NASA graph. Today, people are freaking out because we just surpassed the 400ppm mark. At first, I was skeptical of this claim – that just can’t be…can it? While I find the 3 ½ year mark hard to believe, it is clear that remediating soil is a hugely overlooked opportunity in the climate fight. So much so that it came up in the most recent Paris Climate Talks. With this in mind should we maybe focus our attention away from (I think slightly insane) geo-engineering schemes and focus on simple soil remediation? I vote YES and please.
- Our childhood pet rocks are way cooler than we ever thought.
I never realized that being a farmer meant also being a part time chemist. Not only do farmers have to take soil samples, and how to read the results from the lab, they also have to understand what elements and nutrients are missing from their soil and add them back in. How do they do that? Spreading rock dust. Yep, as in ground up rocks. Turns out that our childhood pet rocks contain the fundamental elements needed to make soil – and therefore food – optimally healthy, optimally nutritious, and optimally tasty (yes, there is a correlation between taste and nutrition).
- Soil is kind of like the Earth’s all in one digestive/immune/nervous system.
Before you scroll/read down further, take a guess how many different living organisms are in 1 teaspoon of healthy soil. And BTW, a teaspoon is about this big:
Answer? 1 teaspoon of healthy soil can contain up to 1 billion different bacteria, 1 million fungi, and 10,000 amoeba. These tiny creatures work together to help soil digest and break down decaying matter into minerals that are used by plants (a process called mineralization). These minerals also help to reinforce the immune system of the plants, which means there is less of a need for pesticides and fungicides. And also help the soil act as a conductor – transmitting electric signals, information, and messages between plants and organisms. Did this last point just slightly blow your mind? Well, then think about the fact that…
- Soil invented the Internet way before we did.
Specifically, fungi did. To simplify it all, fungi create vast networks of tiny intertwined white threads called mycelium. You see it when your bread or food goes bad – it’s those tiny white hairs. The role of the mycelium networks is multi-faceted, but most fascinatingly they serve to channel information – The networks of mycelium create the Wood Wide Web, if you will. I’ll spare you a long paragraph to read here, but if you’re interested in learning more about this, I recommend watching Paul Stamets TED Talk on mycelium, fungi, and mushrooms – it’s awesome.
- Anyone out there who loves science AND loves New Age mysticism-type-stuff should get in on the soil love.
It’s no surprise that balancing and remineralizing soil requires an understanding of chemistry and biology. But one man argued that there are was also a larger force at play: Phil Callahan’s work on Paramagnetism and its application to soil health and farming makes your crystal toting friend seem not so nuts. Callahan argued that “physics is the science that connects biology and chemistry”; and when it comes to soil and farming, a larger physical force known as paramagnetism is an influencing force that has long been overlooked or dismissed. It is agreed upon since that the Earth has an electromagnetic field; Callahan argued that electro-magnetic radiations from the atmosphere are attracted to “paramagnetic” materials in the soil (for example, volcanic sediment), having a direct effect on the health of the soil and plants. The paramagnetism charges the plant’s energetic system, enabling it to root and grow faster, increase its levels of photosynthetic activity, resulting in better nutrition and the ability to resist bug attacks (source). And we’re not just talking a difference of a fraction of an inch in growth here and there – plants grown in paramagnetic soil have been been reported to grow up (taller), out (wide), and down (roots) by a significant amount.
While there is evidence to support this, though the influence of paramagnetic fields is hard to quantify. Callahan also got into some theories about paramagnetic fields and ancient societies like the Egyptians, Mayans, Babylonians, as well as the paramagnetic significance of historical buildings like the Great Pyramids. In my opinion, this type of postulation is what allowed many in the scientific community to cast doubt on his overall work. That being said, several sources, including the teacher of my class, said that US military classified several of Callahan’s patents. When I tried to dig into this, I couldn’t find much. So the questions remains – crazy or not? You decide.