In The Dirt

When we pried up the rotting board, there was a small gooey orange blob in the wet duff beneath. The cold rain had soaked everything, and I gently scooped up the unmoving creature.

Only visitors to the Portland area, none of us knew the local fauna. It might be a small salamander; someone suggested a newt. We didn’t know the difference, but agreed to call it Gingrich — the Newt. (Later, Google explained that newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts.)

The ground around Portland is hardly dirt at all, but consists of decaying leaves, bark and other organic materials. It’s like a well-composted mulch. The spring rains add even more moisture and the forest shade keeps it almost uncomfortably cool. Trees and shrubs compete to be the flashiest and brightest. Pinks, whites and reds compel your attention. Petals and whole flowers covered the ground and I was reluctant to step on them and mar their beauty.

I became aware of the system at work. The trees shed their leaves and flowers, which formed a mat gradually decayed by the action of moisture, bacteria, fungi and various insects and animals. A layer of wet, rotting organic material covered the ground and formed a soil full of everything needed to support life. The smell was earthy, humid and primal. Life existed here.

Years ago, when we studied an old landfill on a Florida air force base, we found the site was covered in twenty-foot pine trees spaced at no more than three foot intervals. It was nearly impossible to walk through, much less bring in a drill rig. The site had only been closed for twenty years. That is what the Florida climate gets you – all the conditions needed to promote growth.

Compared to Florida or much of the northwest, our Colorado soils are slow to form, and thin in most places. A healthy soil community is like an old-growth forest that has a rich interrelated web of many different, and often unrecognized, forms of life.

That becomes a challenge for reclaiming disturbed soil — such as a strip mine — is that the topsoil can be stripped and stockpiled, but the natural soil microbes and biota usually won’t survive. In a natural environment, the topsoil is a community that consists of many disparate parts: minerals, organics, and living creatures. Insects and microfauna make it habitable for plants and animals alike. It can take decades to recreate a complete soil community, and it can be destroyed in a flash.

Some gardeners import earthworms to improve the soils in their gardens. Obviously impractical on a large scale, this practice partially recognizes the interrelationships among a healthy soil community. Migration by wind, water or animal into a disturbed area can provide the diverse ecosystem required for successful reclamation, but this happens slowly and can be thwarted by lack of moisture and the extent of the area to be reclaimed. Time and plant succession are required to return an area to a natural state.

In most of the inland west, reclamation efforts are limited by extreme temperatures and absent or erratic moisture. We persevere, but know that reclamation efforts will take a while, and often require extensive maintenance. Being in the northwest, in the life-rich forest, gave me a new appreciation for time. Nature moves quicker there.

In the warmth of my cupped hands, Gingrich began to move slowly, then scuttle around with more vigor. I placed him back on the ground and he scampered under cover away from predatory and curious eyes, back to where he belonged – in the dirt.


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