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Of Dirt and Dreams: the Leopold Outlook Soils Issue

My journey to Leopold began covered in dirt. I don’t mean in the sense of the dirt under my feet at some wild place or dirt under my fingernails after working in a garden. No, I mean dirt literally all over me—up my nose and in my ears, deep in my ears.

Buddy still gets his hand in the dirt from time to time- he helped plant prairie seedlings during the foundation's Family Day event at the new Leopold Memorial Site. Photo: Ed Pembleton, St. Paul, Minn.

Buddy still gets his hand in the dirt from time to time- he helped plant prairie seedlings during the foundation’s Family Day event at the new Leopold Memorial Site. Photo: Ed Pembleton, St. Paul, Minn.

When I couldn’t find a normal summer high school job my parents connected me with a family friend who owned a soil testing laboratory. He hired me, I’m sure as a favor, and I spent the better part of the next three summers drying soil samples, grinding soil samples, and testing soils for their texture and fertility.

A gradual awakening occurred during those dirt-covered summers. It ultimately led me to search for a career in agronomy, turf science, or really anything that had something to do with “dirt.”

It wasn’t a straight line, to be sure, to the Land Ethic. Initially my dream job was to be the groundskeeper at Comisky Park (not Wrigley Field!). That interest circuitously introduced me to landscape architecture, which in turn sparked an interest in ecological restoration, which eventually led me to the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

Buddy in his early career at the foundation.

Buddy in his early career at the foundation.

Grinding soil cores for hours on end feels like a lifetime ago. But what started out as a way to earn some spending money slowly transformed into a life in conservation. Who knew that soil grows dreams as well as food?

Growing away from the soil has spiritual as well as economic consequences.”

-Aldo Leopold, “A Criticism of the Booster Spirit,” 1923

What we should know by now—demonstrated by abundant examples from Easter Island to the devastation of the Dust Bowl—is that when the soil is not cared for, dreams turn to nightmares. In this issue of The Leopold Outlook, we look at just how powerful soil is to our health and wealth as individuals, families, and society. Kristen Ohlson’s piece “Where Did All the Carbon Go?” describes the soil’s ability to store carbon in concentrations and amounts that are difficult to comprehend but critical to informing agriculture policy and practice. Dr. Daphne Miller, M.D., speaks to the growing evidence of how important it is to our personal health to eat foods grown in healthy soil. In “Coon Valley: An Adventure in Cooperative Conservation,” Leopold’s own words document the first coordinated effort to protect soil health across a privately owned landscape. Lori Horbas, a graduate of our Land Ethic Leaders program, describes in “Shifting Cultivation” a case study where soil health is the driver integrating food production and eating at the Stone Barns Center. In the Leopold Atlas, we visit the other Leopold Center, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa, Aldo’s home state. And Outlook editor Jeannine Richards developed the Backyard Almanac in this issue to illuminate all that is happening down there in the dirt!

Photo: Rebecca Power, Soils photo contest winner

Photo: Rebecca Power, Soils photo contest winner

My own career has now taken me from the field to the desk in an effort to do what I can to engender the care our Earth desperately needs. Like many of you, I now relish the weekends when I once again get to cut buckthorn, burn prairies, plant compass plants, feed our eight (previously ten) new chickens, and watch our kids harvest fresh fruit as we do what we can to make a more direct contribution to land health.

Buddy’s son, Zach, waters newly-planted prairie seedlings around the Leopold Memorial Site, constructed this spring. In the background, Buddy continues with the planting. Photo: Ed Pembleton, St. Paul, Minn.

Buddy’s son, Zach, waters newly-planted prairie seedlings around the Leopold Memorial Site, constructed this spring. In the background, Buddy continues with the planting. Photo: Ed Pembleton, St. Paul, Minn.

Afterwards, as I scrub the dirt from under my fingernails, I realize it might be a somber metaphor for what happens to so much of our “dirt”: We wash it down a drain, from fields to streams, to big rivers, and finally to the sea and with it goes so much of our hope for the future.

As the United Nations celebrates 2015 as the International Year of Soils, along with organizations and individuals all over the world, perhaps we can bring a heightened urgency to taking actions that will protect and restore soil health. I hope this issue of The Outlook will inspire you—if not to get dirt up your nose, at least to get your hands dirty and reconnect with the spiritual, physical, and economic benefits of taking care of the soil!

P.S. In the comments below, please share how you are growing and taking care of your dirt!