Ohlson (Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares, 2003, etc.) welcomes readers to the kingdom of soil and—if it is healthy—its trillions of life-sustaining microorganisms.
The author has a clear storytelling style, which comes in handy when drawing this head-turning portrait of lowly dirt. But dirt—or soil, if you prefer—takes on character in Ohlson’s hands, and readers will soon become invested in its well-being, for soil is a planetary balancer, and from its goodness comes the food we eat. The author examines soil’s role in countering our greenhouse-gas problem, noting how healthy soil sequesters carbon. Indeed, by the end of the story, it doesn’t seem far-fetched when a group of scientists tell her that “if only 11 percent of the world’s cropland—land that is typically not in use—improved its community of soil microorganisms as [the scientists] did in their test plots, the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil would offset all our current emissions of carbon dioxide.” But what is particularly captivating is the process whereby healthy soil goes about its work; when one understands the process, many puzzle pieces fall into place and readers can judge for themselves the various claims. The interplay between plants and soil—plants “leak” carbon and other nutrients into the soil and are fed by teams of creatures that eat and excrete minerals near the plants’ roots—is complex yet elegant and discernable. Along the way, the author touches on other subjects—genetically engineered crops, farming activities around the world, the use of leftover skim milk as a fertilizer, and the interdependence of urban planning and soil health—to provide background and local color.
Ohlson ably delineates this promising situation: Vital soil may well help address climate change, but it absolutely will provide for “more productive farms, cleaner waterways, and overall healthier landscapes.”