This is the first entry in a new book corner for gardeners.
Life in the Soil
A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners
By James B. Nardi
The University of Chicago Press, 2007
Part guidebook, part natural history of the soil, Life in the Soil is an especially gratifying read for a composter-gardener and an excellent antidote for the tendency to view the plant world as existing primarily aboveground and the soil as material of use merely to hold plants in place. That tendency, in fact, could not be further from the truth. The author, a biologist and illustrator, characterizes the story of soil as “a marriage of the mineral world and the organic world.” “It is a good marriage; and as in all good marriages, the two partners work together in harmony. Each partner’s attributes are often enhanced in the other’s company.” From there, the reader moves through the breakdown of rock by weathering and acids to the work of the “pioneers” of rock, the algae, lichens, mosses, bacteria, and fungi, which make way for the plant roots that will eventually crack open rocks, creating more space for rock minerals and organic detritus to combine into the powerful and still-mysterious matter we call soil.
The last of three parts, “Working in Partnership With Creatures of the Soil” not only guides the reader in setting up and maintaining a compost pile but explores the science (cation exchange explained) and braids together the concerns that thread throughout the book: climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction.
There are diagrams and photographic plates, but Nardi’s illustrations of creatures, ranging from the microscopic to tiny to macro, are deliciously engaging. One of my favorites is the drawing of a daddy longlegs with hitchhiking mites. (Daddy longlegs take their passengers to new places they would never be able to visit on their own. While their long legs that serve as antennae lift their travelers above the fray, their ability to produce a noxious fluid when attacked keeps predators away.)
I often carry my copy with me to the garden or on nature walks and sometimes to the preschool classroom to help my young gardening students recognize what’s going on in our compost bin. This sturdy paperback edition puts up with all that travel and still looks pretty good albeit bristling with bookmarks and post-its and tinged with, well, soil.