Outdoors

Getting soiled on a recent outdoor retreat

The Nature Call: In Iowa, it's more soil than dirt

These leaves are awaiting their final fate, becoming part of the soil where they rest. (John Lawrence Hanson/correspondent)
These leaves are awaiting their final fate, becoming part of the soil where they rest. (John Lawrence Hanson/correspondent)
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“Woo-hooo!” And then the squeal of delight sped away, another satisfied participant on the zip line.

All eyes were up. Up at the wire as the courageous took flight, up at the preparation tower as the next commer summoned bravery, and up to the leaden skies beyond in hopes the rain would hold off.

Me, I was kicking at the ground. The damp leaf litter and dark forest floor were claiming my attention.

Shrieks of joy gave me enough stimulation to glance up at the next high wire rider. Sure looked like they were having fun. Moss and fungi were commandeering a stump. Ooh, I think I will take a closer look at that.

I was on a weekend youth retreat. The name of the event suggested good clean fun in the woods, so I expected to get dirty. The shoes and boots of all were testimony that the outing was aptly named. There wasn’t a clean pair to be found. But, were they dirty?

I’ve had to change my thinking about good ol’ terra firma. In Iowa, we don’t stand on dirt as much as we live on soil.

The more I have learned about soil, the more convinced I am there is a wonder below like there is above. If you’ve stood on a field in the dark to appreciate the celestial vastness, then a nearly equal universe of complexity was mirrored below your shoes.

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Countless microorganisms work at our feet in countless ways to turn the plant and animal matter that falls to the ground into the tiny particles that transform mere dirt into soil.

If you like to eat, then you like soil. I love soil.

A child came running up the path. The ear-to-ear grin said the zip line was fun. Her shoes had started the day white. No more. “Camouflage” was now a more apt description.

The stump, fungi, moss and leaves were on a journey of change. With time and the right temperatures they will become soil. That same soil which grows our corn, pastures our cattle and supports our golf habit.

Those biological engines engage with just a little warmth. The old saw from biologists is “life begins at 40.” Above 40 degrees Fahrenheit the microbes get to work. Cooler than 40, they quit their chores. Think potato salad in your refrigerator or at a sweltering summer picnic.

Now our group event was a guided nature walk. We paralleled the course of a modest Iowa stream. Due to excessive rain and cultivated fields, this was no longer a meek creek. Rather, it was a swollen river, angry with sediment. Its healthy clear complexion now jaundiced. More proof that some of the best Iowa soil can be found in the Gulf of Mexico.

December 5 is World Soils Day. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 95 percent of our food comes from soil but 33 percent of global soils are degraded. Do you like to eat?

Our group was on to a new activity. The kids were to exercise their skills of cooperation to complete a series of tasks with lumber, rope or locked arms as the challenges dictated. I noticed the leaves dropping. They landed so gently on the damp duff, it was almost hypnotic.

Perhaps the Norwegians could feature that for the next installment of “Slow TV.”

I’m sure shoes got cleaned when all got home. Some likely banged their shoes together, while others used a brush. I suspect a few used a hose. They may have thought they were getting rid of dirt, an unwanted hitchhiker.

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When I addressed my boots I couldn’t help but think about all the life I was scraping off. I made sure to get it all done outside. Then shall the dust return to earth as it was. That dust will combine with earth and make soil. And we all will eat.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

l John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.