What lies beneath?

One came to be alone out of many, so at another time it divided to be many out of One: fire and water and earth and the limitless vault of air

Empedocles

If you want to build a space ship or a mobile phone, De Chancourtois‘ periodic table of elements wins hands down. But, to understand the land, we are better served by an older theory. A theory of the elements that was shared by most Eurasian farmers for millennia.

earth · air · water · fire

What makes up soil?

Soil is a mixture of earth, air and water, with each of these three absorbing, storing and releasing energy (fire) in various forms. The ratios of earth, air and water and the flow of energy within and between them define the key characteristics of soil

earth

Earth is perhaps, the most obvious component of soil. Earth begins its journey deep underground. One way or another it makes its way to the surface where we encounter it as rocks. These rocks are slowly weathered to become soil particles and mineral nutrients. The journey the earth has taken to reach the surface and the weathering it has been exposed to on or near the surface dictates both the size and properties of the soil particles that it will eventually form.

air

It is strange to think about, but air is actually one of the most important components of soil. The quantity and distribution of air defines the structure of a soil. Stranger still, all of the living things in soil (or indeed anywhere else for that matter), are, in essence, solidified air. They (and you) are built from millions and billions of molecules of carbon dioxide pulled from the air and built into sugars, carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Soil provides a habitat not only for aboveground plants, but also a whole world of creatures below the ground: fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, mites, worms and a thousand other weird and wonderful beings. The belowground habitat is almost certainly the most complex, diverse and least understood ecosystem on earth.

water

Water is where all the action is. If something is happening in soil, it is almost certainly happening in water. Bacteria live and move on watery films. Nutrients are transported in water. Mineral particles dissolve into and precipitate out of water. Without water, soil is just dust.

fire

Energy is invisible, but its flow is the force that animates everything else. Rocks are weathered into different soil particles depending on their embodied energy. Organic matter cycles at different rates depending on its embodied energy. Water erodes soil downhill depending on its embodied energy. Energy is the puppet master behind everything else pulling the strings.

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