It might seem that the subject of “dirt” is as boring as watching paint dry. That is — until one sits in a forest or a meadow and considers both the beauty of the moment and the basis for that beauty. Much of that forest or meadow resides underground in an invisible world that we can’t see without a microscope or some form of chemical analysis. Yet, that secret underground world is a vital connecting force that is essential for the maintenance and the survival of what we see above ground – including we humans. Dirt is of fundamental importance for global carbon and nutrient cycles that contributes to ecosystem functioning. We can explain many of Nature’s patterns that we see above ground from what is happening in the soil. Indeed, we humans are connected to dirt. We need dirt to live!
Highly complex interconnected subterranean ecosystems are vital to life on this planet.
The plants of our forest or the meadow reach outward and upward for air and for light energy from the sun. These plants also reach downward into the dirt to engage a highly complex interconnected subterranean ecosystem that supplies physical support, nutrients, and water. In turn, the network of organisms in soil receive carbohydrate energy from the above ground forests and meadows. It is another important example of interconnectivity in Nature.
Fifth Season Gardening describes this network in more detail:
“Known collectively as ‘the soil food web,’ the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, and everybody else living underground cycle the nutrients that plants need to grow. It’s a friendly business relationship: plants secrete some of the sugars, proteins, and other compounds they make during photosynthesis through their roots. This buffet attracts beneficial soil organisms to the root zone where they perform many jobs for the plants, such as scavenging for nutrients and water, fixing atmospheric nitrogen into plant-usable forms, breaking down organic matter, aggregating soil particles so roots can easily penetrate soil, and out-competing pathogenic microbes.“
Fungal threads are the internet of the plant world. Research by Dr. Suzanne Simard, a forestry scientist, has shown that there are networks of mycorrhizal fungi in dirt that connect the roots of trees and facilitate the sharing of resources between trees. Simard’s research goes on to show that the underground mycorrhizal fungi networks serve to transfer carbon, nitrogen, and water, when the need arises, from older trees to younger trees. In effect, there is an electrochemical communication system between the roots of trees. She says that :
“…these networks bolster forest resilience against disturbance or stress and facilitate the establishment of new regeneration. This back-and-forth flux of resources according to need may be one process that maintains forest diversity and stability. The big trees are subsidizing the young ones through the fungal networks. Without this helping hand, most tree seedlings wouldn’t make it“
A wonderful 5 minute video by Suzanne Simard entitled “Do Trees Communicate?“ provides us with a description of the mycorrhizal fungi networks in dirt. Two other Suzanne Simard videos are The Science, Art and Meaning of Forest Wisdom and The Networked Beauty of Forests .
Maintaining forest resilience is dependent on conserving the underground mycorrhizal fungi links. In the article entitled “Mother Trees Use Fungal Communication Systems to Preserve Forests , author Jane Engelsiepen states:
“The concept of symbiotic plant communication has far reaching implications in both the forestry and agricultural industries. This revelation may change the way we approach harvesting forests, by leaving the Mother Trees intact to foster regrowth. In agriculture, undisturbed mycorrhiza systems enhance plant’s ability to resist pathogens, and absorb water and nutrients from the soil, bringing into question common practices that disturb these underground networks, such as plowing.”
The core idea portrayed in this blog site is that everything in Nature is interconnected. The engine of life is the linkage that transforms and transports energy. Conservation is the act of identifying, understanding, and preserving these links. The life giving connections afforded by subterranean ecosystems are no exception. Without these underground connections, we humans would not exist because we need plants to live. The plant world, at all levels, above ground and below ground, is responsible for capturing and transforming the sun’s energy into a form that is useful to all life on earth. Plants could not exist without dirt and its interconnected creatures.
Indeed, dirt is the living and breathing skin of our planet. It is a dynamic, highly diverse, interconnected super-organism. Dirt is alive !!
Worth Your Extra Attention
This is a 1 hour 20 minute video that is worth watching !!! It provides you with a comprehensive understanding of dirt from a biological and a social perspective. Very interesting !!!
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.