Everyday Earth: Sacred soil

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By contributor Chantelle Spicer. Photo via Flickr.

From the food we eat to the flowers we enjoy, from the forests we walk in to the beaches we walk along, a magical process is occurring. Yes, all of nature is amazing and beautiful, but some parts of it are quite unsung—none more so than soil. Soil contributes to every part of our existence; it is supportive of our every step, provides nutrients for our fruits and veggies, and offers a habitat to millions of unique species. Very little life could exist on this planet without soil, so how can it be so overlooked?

The soils under our feet here on Vancouver Island are very young in the grand scheme of geological time. About 16 thousand years ago, the great ice sheets which covered North America began to retreat, leaving a changed landscape. Released from the tremendous weight of the tundra, the earth recouped via a process called isostatic rebound, which created some of the land formations we see around us today. In their retreat, the glaciers also scraped bare the bedrock in some areas, and deposited minerals, broken rocks, and soil debris in others. This has left landscapes, such as our own here in Nanaimo, exposed with soils less than one inch deep.

These thin soils, known as regisols, allow us the opportunity to see the soil forming process happening. Layers of moss and hardy native perennials cling to the surface of the exposed rocks, each year adding another layer of their decay and nutrients. At the same time, moisture from these plants and our climate slowly work their magic on the rocks, pulling out nutrients. From this original state of bedrock and layers of moss, it can take 500 to one thousand years to form one inch of topsoil, depending on rainfall, climate, and input from the environment. In this slow-motion dance, soil is formed over millennia. As these soils form, many different types of insects, bacteria, algae, fungi, and, eventually, small mammals come to call them home—the biodiversity in soils is some of the greatest on earth.

The soils of the Nanaimo region are generally acidic due to the coniferous forests, so the main species which live under our feet are fungi. The fungi form vast webs of connection under our feet, and are some of the largest living organisms on earth. They are not only connected to each other, but are also connected to the trees above them, forming symbiotic relationships and a “wood wide web” for the trees to communicate with one another. Old growth trees work as hubs, with millions of fungi connected to the roots which spread outwards, transferring chemical signals, water, and food to younger trees in the vicinity. Known as “mother trees,” they are vital to maintaining a healthy forest. Suzanne Simard of UBC has shown, through years of research, that the more stressed these young trees are, the more the “mother trees” will send to them.

“The big trees are subsidizing the young ones through fungal networks,” Simard says. “Without this helping hand, many of these seedlings wouldn’t make it.”

The oceans also become a part of our forest ecosystems. Every year, the coast of Vancouver Island plays host to millions of salmon returning to the river systems to spawn. For many wildlife species, such as bears, eagles, and wolves, this is the keystone event that helps them through year after year. After being carried through the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, the bodies and nutrients of the salmon are deposited along riverbeds or carried into the trees by predators, slowly releasing into the soils. As the salmon run progresses, the rich nitrogen enters the forest soil ecosystem and moves far into the interior, sometimes being spread up to two kilometres from the rivers.

All of this, and so much more, is happening under our feet every day. The values of soil and its importance to continued agriculture and healthy ecosystems is becoming subject to global attention—although it seems to be happening in sluggish, geological time. As has been seen in Shawnigan Lake, soils all over the province become contaminated and need to be put somewhere. As seen in the growing belts of central Canada and the US, heavy applications of chemical fertilizer coupled with severe droughts are degrading millions of years’ worth of vital topsoil. There has been much discussion about soil as a renewable resource, but is this actually the case? By placing the idea of “renewable soil” into the context of time, one begins to see that within our lifetime or our children’s, that is certainly not the case. There needs to be less debate on how much contamination, erosion, or destruction soil can take and more laying of groundwork to begin treating soil like a vital natural resource.

At this time, the forestry industry is legislated to manage soils when harvesting forests and building roads, and when to use chemical fertilizer or pesticides. A rising interest in using biomass from forests as an alternative to fossil fuel energy is raising some interesting questions in this industry. As international markets grow for this alternative energy, research is ongoing to see how this effects the soil-forming process and nutrient availability for the ecosystem. In terms of the mining industry, regular testing of soil and water from mining sites are done regularly, but compaction and disturbance of soil is part of the industry, making it harder to regulate. In Canada, we have no specific legislation that protects our home and native soil, except under industry regulations, or in sections of the Department of the Environment Act, Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Environmental Enforcement Act.

As the weather grows nicer, many folks turn towards the garden and the forest. If you are one of those folks, I encourage you to take a moment and appreciate how connected, miraculous, and generous the soils are. The story of life and soil is intrinsically linked—each provides the other with life year after year.