Great article about the importance of both dirt (it's alive!) and exposure to nature. Main points: It’s estimated that children now spend less time outside than the average prisoner, and that that the average American adult now spends 93 percent of their life indoors (in our homes, workplaces, cars, etc.). It is now thought that human beings need to be exposed to lots of microbes when young for proper immune system development - and this means exposure to the microbes in dirt (for example, young children benefit from playing in the dirt!). There is much harm on many levels from monocultures (whether huge fields of only one crop or "perfect" lawns) sustained by large amounts of chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers). In contrast, a lawn with diversity (clover, flowering "weeds", etc) avoids the use of dangerous chemicals, has benefits to wildlife and humans, and is also a "bee habitat".
Also, what is rarely discussed, but very important to the health of our environment: An estimated quarter of a million acres are paved or repaved in the United States each year - so that “asphalt is the land’s last crop". Paving over the land is "soil sealing", because this cuts off air and water, and kills the microorganisms and insects that live there. This results in dirt being killed off forever. Yikes! Why isn't this discussed more? Excerpts from National Geographic:
It’s estimated that children now spend less time outside than the average prisoner. This could have devastating effects: Kids need to be exposed to the microbes in the soil to build up their defences against diseases that may attack them later. But it’s not just children, Paul Bogard explains in his new book, The Ground Beneath Us. The EPA estimates that the average American adult now spends 93 percent of their life indoors. As we retreat indoors, more and more of the earth is disappearing, with an estimated quarter of a million acres paved or repaved in the United States each year.
When National Geographic caught up with Bogard by phone at his home in Minnesota, the author explained why Iowa is the most transformed state in the U.S., how soil is alive but we’re killing it, and how places where terrible things happened can become sacred ground.
You write, “We are only just now beginning to understand the vast life in the soil, what it does, and how our activities on the surface may affect it.” Talk us through some highlights of the new science—and how you became so passionate about dirt.
It began with this statistic: that those of us in the Western world now spend about 90-95 percent of our time inside, in our houses, workplaces, in our cars. We’re living our lives separated from the natural world. When we walk outside, many of us walk on pavement. There’s this literal separation from the natural ground, from the soil, the dirt. It made me think, what are the costs of this separation? And it struck me as symbolic of our separation of these many different kinds of grounds that sustain us. Our food, water, energy, even our spirits come from these different grounds.
One of the first scientific discoveries I found was the hypothesis that human beings need to be exposed to the biota in the dirt, on the ground, especially when they’re kids, as a way of inoculating us to diseases that appear later in life. Kids these days are not being exposed to dirt because they’re not allowed to play outside. Their parents think dirt is dirty. But both the newest science and the oldest traditions tell us the same thing, which is that the ground is alive. The ground gives us life. And in the book, I tried to touch on both of those things.
One expert you quote says, “asphalt is the land’s last crop.” Talk about “soil sealing” and how roads and suburbs are literally eating away at the ground beneath our feet.
Soil sealing is one of the most shocking things I learned about. When we pave over the natural ground, we cut it off from the air and water that the life in the ground needs to stay alive. We essentially kill that ground. There is an argument that, if we pulled up the pavement and worked hard to rejuvenate that ground, we could bring it back. But the scientists I talked to said, when you pave it over, it’s the last crop, the last thing that’s going to grow there. We’re not moving in the direction of pulling pavement up. We’re moving in the opposite direction where we’re paving some of our most fertile ground, the ground that we’re going to need to feed a growing population.
You also had childhood affection for Iowa. But when you went back to research your book, you changed your mind. Why?
As a child, I was enamoured with the beauty of the green corn stalks, the black dirt, and what I thought was the natural topography. Coming back older and with a new understanding of the ground, it made me uncomfortable because Iowa is the most transformed state in the union. Some 97 percent of the natural ground has been altered, changed, or transformed. As one biologist said, “it’s an open air monoculture owned by monopolies.” So, instead of my romantic, childhood view of miles of corn stalks, the beauty of life growing, and the colour green, I saw it as this monoculture where another life isn’t allowed to grow.
Americans love their lawns and spend billions of dollars keeping them green and weed free. But we are also paying a high price for this perfect turf, aren’t we?
Oh my! We really are, certainly ecologically, paying a high price. America’s greatest crop, the thing we grow the most of, is our turf grass lawns. And the amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilisers we dump onto these lawns, and the amount of water that we use to grow them, is enormous. As a result, we have problems with runoff draining into our rivers and the lawns themselves tend to become monocultures, where nothing else grows but the turf grass. What a massive opportunity is being lost! We could have lawns that are more biologically diverse and pollinator-friendly. There’s also evidence that a number of illnesses are associated with coming into contact with these chemical fertilisers and pesticides.