Soil in Science and Poetry
By Melody Winnig “All kindness begins with the sown seed.” Mary Oliver
Poets and scientists have both developed a refined sense of observation of the physical/natural world. Scientists can use this sharpened skill of observation to de-mystify and bring understanding to the mechanisms of the physical world. Poets can use their heightened sense of observation to transform the physical and allow us transcend what we might otherwise overlook as mundane.
Both poets and scientists can take us beyond what is first seen. Over the past few years April Thanhauser and I have frequently talked plant communications and also exchanged poetry about plants and what grows from the earth. April shares from a perspective that includes her deep study of plant spirit healing, while I offer some of the scientific background of plant life from my work as a researcher of phytosubstances for the blog againsciences.com. Since, after a very long winter, spring was showing her shy face and we were eagerly turning over the soil, we thought it would be interesting to combine some of the poems about what goes on in the unseen worlds below the surface of the earth and briefly touch on some of the related scientific studies.
In what follows below, I have juxtaposed lines from poems with science articles. The featured poems are not meant to be perfect matches to the scientific articles, but rather an offering of associative connections between poetry and science to stimulate the imagination. I have only included excerpts from each poem and article with links to more complete works.
- SOIL – The “skin of the earth.” Soil is the mixture of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and countless organisms that together support plant life. Soil is a medium for plant growth, a means of water storage, supply and purification, a modifier of the Earth’s atmosphere and a habitat for organisms who change the soil. Until very recently the soil itself has been ignored.
“Be like the soil in humbleness” by Mevlana Jelaleddin Rumi https://www.facebook.com/melody.winnig/posts/10153366890831563?notif_t=like
The secret life of underground microbes: Plant root microbiomes rule the world. “We often ignore what we cannot see, and yet organisms below the soil's surface play a vital role in plant functions and ecosystem well-being. These microbes can influence a plant's genetic structure, its health, and its interactions with other plants. A new series of articles in a Special Section in the American Journal of Botany on Rhizosphere Interactions: The Root Microbiome explores how root microbiomes influence plants across multiple scales -- from cellular, bacterial, and whole plant levels to community and ecosystem levels.
Plants are teeming with microbial organisms; not only are they in plant cells, but they are also found in between the cells (intercellular spaces) and in a small layer of soil surrounding plant roots. This area of soil, the rhizosphere, is an especially important zone of activity as it contains microbes that are intricately involved in the molecular, genetic, and ecological components of a plant, and it also influences plant community composition and soil health. The importance of this "unseen majority" led Marnie Rout (University of North Texas Health Science Center) and Darlene Southworth (Southern Oregon University) to gather together a series of works highlighting some of the significant advances that have been made in the last decade in understanding the integrative and far-reaching impacts plant root microbiomes have not only on the organisms themselves, but globally as well. "Until recently," Rout commented, "the microbiome had been easy to ignore in plant science because soil was considered a 'black box' for so long. But microbial research approaches and molecular techniques are illuminating this unknown -- essentially, shining light on the microbiome."
Picnic, Lightening by Billy Collins
“This is what I think about when I shovel compost into a wheelbarrow, and when I fill the long flower boxes, then press into rows the limp roots of red impatiens -- the instant hand of Death always ready to burst forth from the sleeve of his voluminous cloak. Then the soil is full of marvels, bits of leaf like flakes off a fresco, red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick to burrow back under the loam. Then the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the clouds a brighter white”
Microbes in Central Park soil: If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere:
“Researchers have uncovered more than 167,000 kinds of bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes in the soil beneath one of the nation's iconic urban environments. That’s 260 times as many species of birds, plants and invertebrates that live in New York City's Central Park -- combined. Soil microbes that thrive in the deserts, rainforests, prairies and forests of the world can also be found living beneath New York City's Central Park, according to a surprising new study led by Colorado State University and the University of Colorado Boulder.
The research team analyzed 596 soil samples collected from across Central Park's 843 acres and discovered a stunning diversity of below-ground life, most of which had never been documented before.
Only 8.5 percent to 16.2 percent of the organisms discovered in the park soils, depending on their type, had been previously entered into existing databases that describe microbial life, according to the study results published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.” http://www.newswise.com/articles/microbes-in-central-park-soil-if-they-can-make-it-there-they-can-make-it-anywhere
- COMPOST – Compost is rich in nutrients and beneficial to the land in many ways, including as a fertilizer, as a soil conditioner and as a natural pesticide. Composting organisms require four ingredients to work effectively: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and water.
This Compost by Walt Whitman
“Behold this compost! behold it well! Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—yet behold! The grass of spring covers the prairies, The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden, The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward, The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches, The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,”
Human Hair Combined With Compost Is Good Fertilizer For Plants
“Agricultural crop production relies on composted waste materials and byproducts, such as animal manure, municipal solid waste composts, and sewage sludge, as a necessary nutrient source. Studies have shown that human hair, a readily available waste generated from barbershops and hair salons, combined with additional compost, is an additional nutrient source for crops. This study compared the productivity of four crops: lettuce, wormwood, yellow poppy, and feverfew, grown in commercial growth medium using untreated control, noncomposted hair cubes at differing weights, a controlled-release fertilizer and a water-soluble fertilizer. Results showed that, with the addition of hair waste cubes, yields increased relative to the untreated control but were lower than yields in the inorganic treatments, suggesting that hair waste should not be used as a single source for fast-growing plants such as lettuce.
"Once the degradation and mineralization of hair waste starts, it can provide sufficient nutrients to container-grown plants and ensure similar yields to those obtained with the commonly used fertilizers in horticulture. However, it takes time for the hair to start degrading and releasing nutrients, as is reflected in lower yields in the hair treatments relative to the inorganic fertilizers for lettuce and wormwood," according to researcher Vlatcho D. Zheljazkov.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081229104704.htm
- ROOTS – Roots anchor the body of a plant and support it. They absorb water and inorganic nutrients, store food and nutrients and signal how fast shoots can grow. They also form partnerships with fungi and bacteria… all below the surface.
The Seven Of Pentacles by Marge Piercy
“You cannot tell always by looking what is happening. More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet. Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet. Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree. Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden. Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.
Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.” http://dragonflyspoetryandprolixity.blogspot.com/2010/06/seven-of-pentacles-by-marge-piercy.html
Tree roots in the mountains 'acted like a thermostat' for millions of years
“Scientists have discovered how tree roots in the mountains may play an important role in controlling long-term global temperatures. Researchers have found that temperatures affect the thickness of the leaf litter and organic soil layers, as well as the rate at which the tree roots grow. In a warmer world, this means that tree roots are more likely to grow into the mineral layer of the soil, breaking down rock into component parts which will eventually combine with carbon dioxide. This process, called weathering, draws carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and cools the planet. The theory suggests that mountainous ecosystems have acted like Earth's thermostat, addressing the risk of 'catastrophic' overheating or cooling over millions of years.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140205210436.htm
- SYMBIOTIC ECOSYSTEM – a community of living organisms and air, water and soil in an environment interact as a system and are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Microorganisms that normally compete or overthrow one another can switch to a cooperative lifestyle when their living conditions change: They even start producing substances to make life easier for the other species, helping them to survive.
For All by Gary Snyder
“I pledge allegiance to the soil of Turtle Island, and to the beings who thereon dwell one ecosystem in diversity under the sun With joyful interpenetration for all.” http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/snyder/onlinepoems.htm
Termite mounds can increase the robustness of dryland ecosystems to climatic change “Termite mounds can help prevent the spread of deserts into semi-arid ecosystems and agricultural lands. The results of a new study not only suggest that termite mounds could make these areas more resilient to climate change than previously thought, but could also inspire a change in how scientists determine the possible effects of climate change on ecosystems. In the parched grasslands and savannas, or drylands, of Africa, South America and Asia, termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, and -- via internal tunnels -- allow water to better penetrate the soil. As a result, vegetation flourishes on and near termite mounds in ecosystems that are otherwise highly vulnerable to "desertification," or the environment's collapse into desert.
Princeton University researchers report in the journal Science that termites slow the spread of deserts into drylands by providing a moist refuge for vegetation on and around their mounds. They report that drylands with termite mounds can survive on significantly less rain than those without termite mounds. The research was inspired by fungus-growing termites of the genus Odontotermes, but the theoretical results apply to all types of termites that increase resource availability on and/or around their nests. Termite mounds also preserve seeds and plant life, which helps surrounding areas rebound faster once rainfall resumes.”
Invisible work by Alison Luterman
“I am being carried by great winds across the sky, thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night, the slow, unglamorous work of healing, the way worms in the garden tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe and bees ransack this world into being,
while owls and poets stalk shadows, our loneliest labors under the moon.”
http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/invisible-work/ Earthworms, ants, termites: The real engineers of the ecosystem
“New research has focused on the study of soil invertebrates because they are indicators of its quality, scientists say. "These organisms fulfill various functions, like allowing the soil to absorb processed organic matter such as leaves, wood, trunks and branches and with this nourishing crops; they also maintain an ecological balance capable of preventing the invasion of pests and provide greater fertility without using chemicals. This happens when growing different types of plants, allowing the existence of a wide variety of soil invertebrates" the researcher explains.
The research team worked in 50 home gardens located in different physiographic regions of Tabasco, Mexico: mountains, coast, floodplain and hillocks. "During the fieldwork I realized that the orchards whose owners had family harmony, were characterized by a rich vegetation and greater diversity of soil invertebrates was found. However, in other orchards we observed garbage instead of vegetation and organisms, revealing a gap between people and nature," relates researcher Huerta Lwanga.
An important finding of this project was when the researcher found an anecic earthworm, initially thought to be a new species, however, it was only a new entry in the state of Tabasco. "Such organism is characterized by its vertical movements, thereby creating tunnels, helping to integrate the organic matter in the soil, aerating it and forming its structure," the researcher says.
Other species were also identified, like earthworms, ants, termites, centipedes, beetles, grasshoppers, cockroaches and woodlice, which may also be called "ecosystem engineers" (specifically earthworms, termites and some ants) because their activities modify the soil, enriching its productivity.
According to the researcher, it is important to note that the presence of such organisms does not mean that the garden is infested with pests. "If you let them live there, they fulfill their tasks and at the same time control their population because the variety of invertebrates generates food chains." The pest problem, she says, appears when the land is handled as a monoculture. In these cases only one type of organism thrives and rapidly increases in number and, because nobody eats them, they become a threat to the plantations.” <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141023154945.htm>
A touching story: Ancient conversation between plants, fungi and bacteria
“The mechanical force that a single fungal cell or bacterial colony exerts on a plant cell may seem vanishingly small, but it plays a heavy role in setting up some of the most fundamental symbiotic relationships in biology, according to a new study. It's known that disease-causing fungi build a structure to break through the plant cell wall, "but there is growing evidence that fungi and also bacteria in symbiotic associations use a mechanical stimulation to indicate their presence," says researcher Ané. "They are knocking on the door, but not breaking it down."
After the fungus announces its arrival, the plant builds a tube in which the fungus can grow. "There is clearly a mutual exchange of signals between the plant and the fungus. It's only when the path is completed that the fungus starts to penetrate."
Mycorrhizae are the beneficial fungi that help virtually all land plants absorb the essential nutrients -- phosphorus and nitrogen -- from the soil. Biologists believe this ubiquitous mechanism began about 450 million years ago, when plants first moved onto land.
Mechanical signaling is only part of the story -- microbes and plants also communicate with chemicals, says Ané. "So this is comparable not to breaking the door or even just knocking on the door, but to knocking on the door while wearing cologne. Clearly the plant is much more active than we thought; it can process signals, prepare the path and accept the symbiont." www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140827163328.htm>
Sleeping In The Forest by Mary Oliver
“I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds. I slept as never before, a stone on the riverbed, nothing between me and the white fire of the stars but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths among the branches of the perfect trees. All night I heard the small kingdoms breathing around me, the insects, and the birds who do their work in the darkness. All night I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling with a luminous doom. By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times into something better.”