By Wendy Langhans
“How can I stand on the ground every day and not feel itspower? How can I live my life stepping on this stuff and not wonder at it?”
I found this quote from William Brian Logan at the entry tothe exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History, “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil”  whichexplores the “hidden horizons” of world beneath our feet.
I found it to be a fascinating exhibit, both because of itssubject matter and the highly professional interpretive techniques they used. Let me share one small tidbit with you.
Ground Hog: Williamsburg, Virginia. This ground hog is mixing the soil as he digs his burrow.
Gopher: Santa Clarita California . In the same way this gopher also mixes the soil. Photo by Paul Levine.
Soil Scientists describe the factors that create soil by theacronym CLORPT. I like to think of it asa cooking lesson from Chef Wendy.
- Climate. Whether you are making soil or cooking a pot of stew, temperature matters. That’s because temperature affects the speed at which chemical reactions occur.
- Organisms. A spoon combines and mixes ingredients together. So do burrowing animal or growing roots; they combine and mix the soil. Other organisms, like bacteria, secrete enzymes that alter the soil’s composition, much like adding yeast will cause a bread to rise. According to the exhibition, “A teaspoon of good farm soil contains up to 1 billion bacteria in more than 4,000 species.”
- Relief. We’re not talking about Alka-Seltzer here, but topography such as a slope’s steepness and aspect (facing towards or away from the sun). You bake a soufflé in a pan with straight sides, not a pie pan with sloping sides. And when you broil a piece of meat, you carefully place the rack near but not too close from the heating element.
- Parent Material. This is the composition of the original rock. Bakers use many types of wheat flour: cake flour (low protein content) for a tender crumb, bread flour (high protein content) for stretchy gluten, or all-purpose (a mid-range) for everyday use.
- Time. As any parent of a hungry child can tell you, cooking takes time. So does making soil. And we’re using it up faster than it’s being made.
History shows us that more than one ancient civilization hascrumbled because of the destruction of their topsoil. So let me end with one last quote from theexhibit, an old
If you want to read a well-written book about dirt, I recommendthis one:
Dirt: the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth  by WilliamBryant Logan.
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