Friday, February 13, 2015

"Be like the Soil:" It's the International Year of Soils

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Both Science and Nature have published editorials decrying the rapid destruction and contamination of soils and calling for more research.

To started celebrating the Year of Soil, I post here the text of a beautiful little talk on the subject by Dr. Timothy Beach.

Tim Beach, Tropaia Lecture 2014 (5-17-2014)
School of Foreign Service Professor of the Year 2014
You and I are only “temporarily not soil” [1]

A few years ago, I was the season’s first scientist under the steaming canopy of our rainforest study site. This meant shoring up the trail and bridges, and accepting a lower place on the food chain. This requires sharp focus: the rainforest is a beautiful but risky place: you keep your eyes wide open and make sure you are not the slowest in the group. While clearing the trail, I noticed the distinct tracks of an endangered tapir, the largest land mammal in the Neotropics. Then, I saw an even rarer track: a jaguar, the world’s third largest cat. My research goal here has been to study soil with the intent to understand water, ecosystems, human interactions, and climate change. These may seem more  mundane, but to the scientist’s eye are as thrilling as happening into the midst of a food chain  unconcerned with your life.

Continuing with food chains, I want to thank my students, colleagues, and mentors, who have taught me in equal parts. I also congratulate all the 2014 honorees who have worked so diligently. You have honed your minds and skills and have considered deeply under the seeds tended so well by many great teachers, including many on this stage as worthy of any teaching awards.

I represent a new trend in this venerated school athwart the Potomac and the Piedmont: indeed Something New under the Sun [2] of the SFS: a scientist, a student of nature, and a physical geographer; these were all firsts, and for the betterment of this fine School, the camel’s nose is under this tent; I shall soon be eclipsed.

We stand here on precious ground, because of the School of Foreign Service, where so many have gone before to speak to the world and learn of the world. But to geoscientists, this ground rings with Hoya Saxa [3] or what rocks of our firmament that once lay bestride Africa and Scotland in the super continent of Pangaea. These plates rifted apart one fifth of the way around the Earth over 200 million years to form a precipice that now sends its promise of hope and education to all those far flung provinces of former Pangaea.

This living, moving, breathing Earth is the only place where we know life can exist in the Universe and where the perfect conditions found the only being that could arrive to “know this place for the first time.” [4]

I have spent my career studying and teaching about this verdant and oblate spheroid, here on this erstwhile edge of Africa. The ceaseless work, not to mention circumnavigating the earth twice by foot and bike, have left little time to despair the litany of losses of our unique planet and the quickened pace of global wierding. But I have taught all of these and fear the loss of what we did not discover from these natural archives that might have made life better for all.

When I came to Georgetown, a generation ago, my charge was to teach Environmental Science, and I was hungry for knowledge and to comprehend Nature. I have had the privilege to teach a score of new courses from climate, to water, to soils and agriculture, to geoscience, to environmental restoration, and more. My creed shared with my STIA colleague Chuck Weiss was Carl Sagan’s still unfortunately fitting phrase: “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” [5]

My obligation was to remedy this in classrooms, labs, and the field, and to help build a faculty. Geoscience and ecology begin and end in the field, but they also provide the transcendent satisfaction of knowing your place, from the soil mycorrhiza to Mahogany trees to the 65 million year old rocks formed by the meteorite that doomed the dinosaurs. “For always roaming with a hungry heart,” [6] I have taken hundreds of students to 6 countries to give them this experience and pass along what my best teachers gave me. The privilege of teaching students is equaled only by creating new knowledge and knowing Nature in intimate detail. “Nature is always more subtle, more intricate, more elegant than what we are able to imagine.”

Soil is at the core of all of my work. “What I stand for is what I stand on.” [7] If science is the most precious thing, [8] then soil is the most precious science, the ultimate combination of all Earth’s spheres. As the great poet says: “be like the soil.” [9] Soil is the most diverse ecosystem. But it is a humble one, like serious wine: you have to learn to appreciate it. The soil is our ultimate ecosystem service, which are nature’s free gifts “we could not make them and we could not live without then.”  [10] Soil gives us a firm foundation, fertility, antibiotics, water purification, carbon storage and waste breakdown, and a mind boggling array of food webs that cycle nutrients and maintain the soil’s  political equilibria. A scientist recently studied polluted rain water filtering through a Canadian soil and found that it became completely clean through a myriad of still little known processes. [11]

I also come with a fascination and devotion to international affairs and a world of places. From this perspective, there are no aspects of international affairs that do not include science. A clear example of this is atmospheric carbon, our greatest challenge because “it is hitched to everything else in the Universe” [12], and will stay relevant to us for the rest of our lives. There are no easy fixes, but the soil can pull carbon out of the air, and thereby make soils more fertile and able to purify water, and indeed soil stores about 4 times more carbon than the air. This will be a focus of the next stage my career.

 “And to make an end, is also a beginning.” [13] This earth that has evolved through eons of risk is now in the Anthropocene, this brave new world [14] when humans have altered it so much that like the Pottery Barn analogy: we now own it (though it is far from completely broken). We now hold the fate of the tapirs, the jaguars, and the climate. And more of international affairs will be about the loss of ecosystems and their trillion dollar free services, and we will have to rise to better manage this only place where we know life has ever existed. This implies nurture, firm foundations, capturing carbon, purifying water, and maintaining diverse life and ecosystem equlibria. In other words, international affairs must inevitably “Be like the soil.”

Thanks and congratulations!

 1 “temporarily not soil” is what the soil scientist Francis Hole meant by appending TNS to his  signature  (

2 “Something New under the Sun” is the title of a book by J.R. McNeill (2001) that refers to Ecclesiastes  1:4-11:“There is nothing new under the sun,” which is a common quote.

3 Hoya Saxa means what rocks and is a motto of Georgetown University

4 T. S. Eliot, 1945. Little Gidding, part V.

5 Carl Sagan, 1990. Why We Need To Understand Science, The Skeptical Inquirer Vol. 14.3.

6 Alfred Tennyson, 1833. Ulysses.

7 Wendell Berry, 1980. Below, a poem in A Part. Berkeley, CA: North Point Press.

8 Carl Sagan, 1995. Demon Haunted World; the first chapter is titled The Most Precious Thing, referring to science.

9 Rumi’s Seven Advices: “In modesty and humility, be like the soil.”

10 Wendell Berry, stated similar things in several interviews (see p. 15 in

11 William Shotyk, 2013. “Peat bogs and their organic soils: Archives of atmospheric change and 
global environmental significance” (Philippe Duchaufour Medal Lecture). EGU 4-9-2013, Vienna,  Austria.

12 John Muir, 1911. My First Summer in the Sierra, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 110.

13 T.S. Eliot, 1945. Little Gidding, part V.

14 Shakespeare, 1611. The Tempest, Act V, Scene I.

(N.B.: I had to reformat the text from a portable document, and I may have thereby introduced errors. CTB)

Thanks, Tim!

Tim Beach in Nicaragua

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