Fundament Wonder A brief, imagined visit from the deep, dark, and productive
Michael John Furniss
Hi, I’m the soil. Some call me the fundament. I am very pleased to meet you.
I very seldom speak, so help me with your imagination. Think about me, standing before you, as a tall column with many different layers, many different textures and materials, soft browns and yellows. The moist aroma of fresh, exposed earth gently touching your nose. I want you to know me better, to understand what I am and what I mean to you. I ask you to think about me as these many different things.
I am topsoil and I am old growth. I am very old compared to you and your civilizations. It takes 10 or 20 thousand years or more just to form one foot of me. As I am alive, my complexity and productivity grows over time, but very slowly. Try this: If you were in a time machine and looked at a forest soil in cross-section like, well, like me right now. Now speed the flow of time up … so that you can actually see the soil growing, depth increasing, humus accumulating, structure getting more open and complex, and all. Well, you would have to go at such a speed to see my growth, that the trees growing on top would just be flickering in and out very quickly. I am the real old growth. I am ancient.
I am topsoil and I am stardust. Every 50,000 years or so, an inch of stuff falls to earth from the burn-up of meteors from space. Since I am about half a million years old, that would make about 10 inches of stardust in me, quite as lot. So, the firmament, the sky, rains stardust on me, and becomes the fundament, me. You are walking on startstuff my friend.
I am topsoil and I am bug poop. Yep, all of me has passed through the guts of soil arthropods, the many many small bugs that live in me, at least once, most of me many times. So, I am poop, bug poop, all bug poop. Wheee, bug poop!
I am topsoil and I am habitat. Do you know where the greatest biodiversity can be found? Right here in my upper layers. It’s true. E.O. Wilson has said that a handful of me is like the Amazon rain forest, just more diverse. I have tremendous species diversity. I am teeming with intense and super intricate ecological interactions. I’m hard to study, so not much is known about my biology, but you do know that I am the most diverse habitat and ecosystem there is.
I am topsoil and I am tissue, like an organism turned inside out. I am alive. I have bones, the mineral part of me. I have organs, innumerable bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, arthropods, all sorts of living parts, and they each have a function. In every gram of me I have 5 billion live bacteria. And I have a digestive system. Put a piece of food on me and I will digest it. I eat constantly. I breathe as the many living things in me breathe. Yes, I breathe.
I have an enormous organic complex called humus, inside-out membranes that filter and sort and harbor and exchange and nourish the whole system. And I have blood, the soil water that flows through my capillaries and veins.
I am topsoil and I am the placenta of life on Earth. I am in the middle, between you and the forests and the farms, between you and the mother earth. A wise human, Nathaniel Shaler, just said… well, it was what you call the “turn of the century”, aroud 1900, ….Nathaniel said that I am “a kind of placenta that enables living things to feed upon the earth.” Well yes, I am very much like that part of a mother and child.
I am topsoil and I am a vast reservoir. There’s lots of space in me that is not solid. When I am healthy, half of my volume is open for water and air to move through or hang out. About half the water from rain and snow drains through me to gravity; some quickly, some slowly, some very slowly. Half the water that fills my pores does not go downstream at all. I hang on to it, for the plants that grow in me, that need water all the time. I hold the water against gravity, and this means huge amounts of water. I delicately meter out the water that falls on me, so that the creeks run between rains, and the plants have water when the sun shines. The landscape is a giant reservoir, because of my spaces and pipes, all that water hanging in me. Without my reservoirs there’d be nothing but flash floods when it rained, and dusty dry droughts when it didn’t.
Think about it. In a 3,000 acre watershed I can hold over a trillion gallons of water.
I am topsoil and I am the plumbing system of the landscape. Most of any watershed’s plumbing is inside of me. When a raindrop falls on me in the forest, it first travels through me, (Ooou, I love that feeling!), through billions upon billions of minute pathways, a fractal matrix of quintillions of tiny streams and pathways, connected little pipes, trickling and oozing through me. The vast majority of the streams in the watershed run out of your sight, in me. I am chock full of pipes.
Without my plumbing system, all the water would run right off during storms, with none left after the storms for creeks or rivers or for plants. That means I am the Headwaters: With a soil mantle over the whole watershed. I am the headwaters, everywhere. So you are standing on the headwaters of your watershed, no matter where you are.
I am topsoil and I am the engine of the land; the engine of the watershed, the engine of the ecosystem. I run the productivity of the whole thing. Think of it like this: Organic matter is my fuel, decomposers are my cylinders, the food web is my cylinder firing order, local environmental factors are my carburetion. I am humming. I am like the flywheel of the whole ecosystem.
I am topsoil and I am a chemical factory. That’s because I am made of a lot of very small particles, like clays and humus molecules. which have immense surface areas: In my typical soil, there are about 6 acres of surface to the ounce. Think about that. These surfaces are active places places where things live, where water and solids and air react, where things stick and adhere, and exchange, and adsorb, and cohere, and all that. Most of my surfaces are electrically charged. I’m a churning urn of burning funk for Ya, Baby.
And in forests and grasslands, at least three quarters of the total carbon storage is in me, and I store most of it much longer than the wood or grass that I keep making. I am the best carbon sequesterer you’ve got.
I am topsoil and I am capital. That’s right, I am the ultimate form of capital, the true wealth of the land; the basic investment and infrastructure from which all commodities and amenities flow on terrestrial Earth. Trees and grasslands and crops, fish and wildlife habitats, the water I purify and meter out…. these are my profits. They come from me, but I am not to be consumed. Good capitalists never, ever spend their capital, but build upon it! Do you see?
I am topsoil and I am history. I am the long-term record of land use and stewardship of each generation, and I am absolutely accurate. I bear the imprint of your wisdom or your waste. I am the landscape’s long-term memory. Yes, I myself am a repository of record. Your wise FDR once said that the “history of every nation is eventually written in how it cares for its soils.”
Many civilizations were ruined because the people did not notice what I was and how fragile I can be: Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Crete, Tunisia, Italy, Sicily, Morocco, Portugal and eastern Spain just to name a few. The original fertile mantle of topsoil is simply gone, and with it the prosperity I once brought. Do you see? Losing my incredible bounty ended the empires of the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, and the Romans, just to name a few.
I am topsoil, the fundament of life on Earth, and much like your soul
Stewardship of soil is part of many of your wonderful human spiritual traditions. Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in his covenant with God was instructed to “Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell.” Wherein I dwell.
Seeing the land as the embodiment of the Great Spirit is central in many of your native cultures, such as the American Indians, the Australian aborigines, and hosts of others. In Buddhism all life forms are sacred. Aristotle saw soil as the central mixing pot for the other elements of the world, air, fire and water, in the formation of all things. Confucius taught that my thin mantle sustained all plant and animal life and minerals that people treasure. The connection between human spiritual longing and soil is strong and abiding. So your land ethics and deep appreciation for me must be renewed, again and again, lest you lose your roots. Humans and humus and humility are all bound together in the same word, my friend.
The dark productive earth is like your own vast interiority. Your inner life is as a soil. Dark, all productive, hard to see, immense, showing itself only in a penumbra of manifestation. Easy to forget and neglect, yet the source and substance of your life and creativity. Remember: You become soil when the time for your incarnation is done; human to humus.
I give you birth, and wealth, and water. I give you plants and animals, and form the tissues of your history and sustainance. I am your outer and inner landscape, inside out and outside in, holding all. I am many more things. I am you.
Acknowledgements : My Teacher Aslan Sattler for inspiration; Andy Moldenke at Oregon State University for the bug poop insight; and my wife Kerima for astue and insightful reframing and editing.