Why is it, if people want to insult you, they'll say you're "lower than dirt" - when dirt, more appropriately known as soil, is one of the most valuable things on earth? Literally the foundation for most of Ohio's natural resources, soil offers a whole lot more than meets the eye.
More than something to be washed off our hands and muddy shoes, soil is actually an incredible living world that's right beneath our feet. Dig up a clump of soil. Hold it in your hand, smell its earthy odor, feel its texture and then imagine that very clump of dirt may well have been thousands of years in the making. In some parts of Ohio, the soil may be more than a million years old!
Composed mostly of minerals such as sand, silt and clay, something as complex as soil doesn't just happen. It's a long, slow process that begins with the weathering of rock by wind, water and ice - until eventually the rock breaks down into tiny particles of soil. In fact, on average it takes 1,000 years to create just one inch of topsoil!
But soil is even more than that. The essential ingredients making soil worth its salt are living organisms. Soil literally crawls with all kinds of living things - from life forms so small they can't be seen with the unaided eye, to earth-plowing invertebrates, such as worms, and burrowing mammals, such as moles and chipmunks.
Good soil is an important natural resource on many levels. Did you know that soil is a filter for helping clean our water supplies of contaminated material? Others perceive the importance of soil in a variety of different ways. For instance:
- Farmers and foresters see soil as a resource to produce crops and trees
- Engineers view soil as the support for bridges, buildings and roads
- Landscapers and homeowners see it as a necessary component to beautify parks and gardens
- And a child sees soil as great stuff for making mud pies!
Plants need minerals from the rock particles to make them healthy, nutritious, and tasty. Microbes in the soil help plants convert minerals into a form plants can absorb through their roots. That's why carrots are loaded with vitamin A and spinach is chock full of iron.
Not only does soil provide us the medium to grow plants and build our homes, it also includes certain bacteria that produce most of our antibiotics, such as streptomycin (the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis), tetracycline, and several potent anti-cancer drugs. These same bacteria also create the fresh, earthy odor we typically associate with healthy soil.
The ingredients in soil can mix in an amazing variety of combinations. More than 400 different kinds of soils have been identified in Ohio by soil scientists. Soils are classified much like plants and animals, with characteristics specific to each type, including texture, porosity, and acidity. Soil surveys enable people to make good decisions about what to do with their land. Is it good for farming? Will it support a highway or office building? Is it suitable for housing? Can it contain a landfill? Does it drain well? Is it stable?
The state's first soil survey took place in 1900 in Montgomery County, and the first Ohio soil to be documented was Miamian, which is the rich, well-draining soil so valuable to farmers.
Clearly, there's more to soil than meets the eye - it's the essence of life itself. Pretty impressive stuff for something people are used to looking down on!