Chapter 3

Soil Is Valuable

The straightforward and simple nature of the biblical story of creation often conceals the deep and complex truth encompassed by it. We understand from the Scripture narrative that mankind—Adam—was formed by our Creator out of the soil of the earth. Early man certainly understood that lifeless human and animal flesh decomposed into the earth, but he had little evidence that living flesh had its source in the earth. He only knew that living flesh came from other living flesh through the process of procreation. Life begetting life. Certainly dust could not beget life.

Scientific knowledge has now provided us with evidence that our material elements are indeed “dust.” What science has not been able to discover, however, is what life is and how it could have originated “naturally.” The biblical account, in fact, speaks only of its supernatural origin—dead matter begetting life because it was so gifted by God:

The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. . . . And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. . . . Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them (Gen. 2:7,9,19).

It’s clear that the common factor in God’s creation of people, animals, and vegetation is that these all have their source in “the ground.” The Hebrew word for “ground,” adamah, is similar to the word Adam, the name for the first man. They first appear together in Genesis 2:19 where we learn Adam’s name. One meaning of adam is “earthy,” or “like reddish earth.” While not all Bible scholars agree, many have maintained that adam is linguistically derived from adamah. What is clear, though, is that Adam was physically derived from the ground. The full meaning of the word adamah in Hebrew is even more instructive. It refers to arable soil—soil that has the capacity to bring forth and support life.

Our Humble Origin. Shortly after science was able to identify the common elements of the earth and the atmosphere, studies were made to determine if the elements and compounds that make up the human body were all present in the earth and air. I recall as a boy hearing that scientists had indeed discovered all these elements and found them very common in the biosphere—so common, in fact, that if you were to purchase the raw elements from a chemical supplier, you’d pay less than a dollar. Now, according to a 2004 study by the US Bureau Of Chemistry And Soils, that value has risen to the whopping sum of $4.50!

Knowing that our human elements have little monetary value should keep us humble—which leads us to another word study. The word humble has its origins in the Latin word humus, the term for “ground.” The ground identified by humus is, again, arable soil— that which gives it the capacity to grow things. Classification scientists have even used this connection between soil and man and have literally labeled our race with it, using the term homo derived out of humus to designate man. Hence, people now have the Latin-derived scientific label homo sapiens. Sapiens is a Latin term for “knowledge” or “wisdom.” The combination of the two terms becomes a statement: The only lifeinfused “wise creature” on earth is begotten of the soil. Knowing this fact should keep us down to earth—literally humble.

When I registered for a word origins course in college (only because it was required of English majors), I prepared myself for boredom. But I never got bored. The sweet, saintly, and always-encouraging professor, a frail little woman in her early seventies, hooked me on the lore of word origins right from the start. Today, some 40 years later, I’m still referring to the now dogeared pages of my textbook. Part of the reason is that a great deal can be learned about the beliefs of the ancients from the way they formed their language and cross-related their words. It should not be surprising for us to discover foundational truth about man and soil buried just below the surface of the vocabulary we use every day. So God’s special revelation, the Bible, tells us both directly and derivatively that Adam is from the adamah. The classical languages tell us derivatively that humans are from the humus. And God’s general revelation, the creation, confirms it.

This fundamental fact, if nothing else, should reveal to us the great value of soil. We are part of the earth, and the earth is part of us. Further, every living thing owes its existence and survival to soil. The ultimate truism here was stated by Charles Kellogg, “There can be no life without soil and no soil without life.”

The Nature Of Soil. Leonardo da Vinci once noted that “the earth has the spirit of growth; its flesh is the soil.” This is not a bad way to think about it, for soil lives and allows everything else to live. It’s a virtual stew of minerals, chemicals, decaying organic matter, water, air, and untold billions of living organisms, most of which are the tiny sort.

I remember being told about the makeup of soil— especially the minuscule mites—in third or fourth grade. For days afterward, my friend Lanny and I spent a good bit of our school recess lying on our bellies in the new spring grass competing with each other for the highest number of small living things we could find in carefully-measured, equal plots of about 6 inches square.

It’s amazing to me how some of the early revelations I received while growing up were so profound that I can take you back to my old hometown and escort you to the exact spot of several discoveries. I could lead you to the location of the patch of grass where, with corsage pins and magnifying glasses in hand, Lanny and I discovered itty-bitty red mites, micro “scorpions,” and antlike things with springy tails all carrying on busy lives in a world previously undiscovered beneath our feet. What we could not see, however, were the microscopic forms of life, like the 5,000 to 7,000 species of bacteria also living in that small plat.

Now, year after year when the frost has left the ground and cock-eyed robins tell me “the worms are up,” the smell of sunwarmed earth makes me recall that loamy lot on the northwest corner of the First Ward School playground. It was about 60 yards from the monkey bars to which my tongue had once become firmly fixed one frosty winter morning! When we’re young, it seems that all our senses are begging to experience each wonder we discover.

Canada’s Agriculture, Food, And Rural Development agency provides even more amazing figures about life in the dirt: A single spadeful of rich garden soil contains more species of organisms than can be found above ground in the entire Amazon rain forest. A teaspoonful of soil contains more than 2 billion microorganisms, and the total weight of living organisms in the top 6 inches of an acre of soil can range from 5,000 to as much as 20,000 pounds. And earthworms can move up to 100 tons of soil per acre per year.

Every area of expertise has its own terms, and pedology (the study of soil) is no exception. Soil scientists have chosen the term horizon to define the layers we find in soil. I imagine that’s because an exposed cross-section of an intact soil sample looks a lot like the photographic profile of a distant landscape with its variety of lines, colors, textures, and shapes leading our eyes to the horizon. Each level is classified by a letter. The O-horizon, for instance, is the top layer of loose duff (twigs, dead leaves, and other organic litter). Just below it is the Ahorizon where decomposed organic matter has begun its transformation to plant food—and ultimately people food. This is the topsoil that farmers and landscapers treasure: literal “pay dirt.” Below this are three more horizons (E, B, and C) that lay atop the lowest layer: the R-horizon, R standing for rock—bedrock.

Each of these horizons has a life-critical role to play: providing substance and space in which roots can grow, serving up both organic and elemental nutrients, and allowing for either the retention or percolation of water. Together they create just the right conditions to support the microbial and other life forms that are vital to vegetation in both its germination and its aboveground structure.

These subterranean horizons are almost as varied as the visible horizons we’re familiar with. Some thin and some thick. Some black, orange, brown, yellow, or white. Some coarse and some fine. Some sandy and some clayey. Some acidic and others alkaline—waiting to be analyzed by eager 4-H’ers with their soiltesting kits. It’s these differences that allow for the great variety we see above ground: marshes, grasslands, and deserts; and tropical, deciduous, and coniferous forests.

Soil is not only classified by its layers, but also by its texture and content. Besides the vital elements of water and air, soil has varying amounts of humus, sand, silt, and clay. According to G. Tyler Miller, Jr. in Living In The Environment:

To get an idea of a soil’s texture, take a small amount of topsoil, moisten it, and rub it between your fingers and thumb. A gritty feel means that it contains a lot of sand. A sticky feel means a high clay content, and you should be able to roll it into a clump. Silt-laden soil feels smooth like flour. A loam topsoil, best suited for plant growth, has a texture between these extremes—a crumbly, spongy feeling with many of its particles clumped loosely together (p.316).

The Work Of Soil. One of the most significant features of soil is its role as a recycling instrument. Water, nitrogen, and carbon all work their way into the soil and then find their way back out again, mostly through the growth, death, and decomposition of vegetable and animal life. The phrase “dust to dust,” so often said at graveside funeral ceremonies—and accompanied by the somber tossing of soil on the casket—hails back to the Garden of Eden when Adam received his death sentence from the Creator. Immediately after being told that his gardening was now going to become miserably difficult, Adam learned about his ultimate earthly humiliation: His body was going to become an active part of the carbon cycle.

In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19).

It’s humbling for us all to realize that the lifegiving carbon atoms that make up so much of our own bodies were not so long ago in plants, bugs, animals, and other human beings. I might contain an atom or two cycled through from Martin Luther, Augustine, and Moses, but probably a lot more atoms from beetles, slugs, earthworms, and poison ivy!

It’s humbling for us all to realize that the life-giving carbon atoms that make up so much of our own bodies were not so long ago in plants, bugs, animals, and other human beings.

Aside from its role as provider, sustainer, and incubator of life, what are some other gifts of the soil? Soil is the filter that gives us pure, mineral-rich water to drink. It’s the sponge that prevents flooding. It’s the provider of particulates that cause water drops and then rain. It’s the producer of many of the greenhouse gases that moderate temperature and shield us from harmful cosmic radiation. It’s the dwelling place of billions of God’s creatures that share this bountiful earth with us. It’s the anchor of our cherished trees. And soil is the palette that holds up for the brushes of human creativity the textures, colors, and substances that make so many of our own endeavors beautiful.

Mankind commonly believes that diamonds, emeralds, and gold are the earth’s most valuable materials. But soil is the most precious substance we know—that which softens the contours of the hills, cushions our footfalls, and is the material source and sustainer of all life. William Bryant Logan wrote:

How can I stand on the ground every day and not feel its power? How can I live my life stepping on this stuff and not wonder at it. . . . We spend our lives hurrying away from the real, as though it were deadly to us. “It must be somewhere up there on the horizon,” we think. And all the time it is in the soil right beneath our feet (Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin Of The Earth).