18 April 2016

A Journey on the Dirt Road

Posted by John Freeland

When I was seven years old, my family moved from Dearborn, a modern suburb of Detroit, Michigan and the home of Henry Ford, to a much smaller and older town in Northwest Ohio, called Defiance. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Defiance was that it was built at the confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers and regional folklore had it that the meeting of these two rivers protected the town from tornadoes. Twisters were fairly common in the flat corn country surrounding Defiance, but the town never suffered a direct hit.

Northwest Ohio, prior to European settlement was known as the Great Black Swamp (more about that here and here), a vast, malaria-carrying mosquito-infested deciduous forested wetland. Too wet, dense, and buggy, it was practically worthless from the white man’s perspective. Native Americans used it for hunting and camped near the rivers after being pushed from their ancestral homes in more desirable upland country. They hung on until the Indian Removal Act of 1830 empowered the U.S. Government to force the natives out and relocate them in Kansas, west of the Mississippi River.

Draining of the Great Black Swamp began in the early 1800s when it was realized that building up a road grade using the native soil also created a ditch that drained to streams crossing the road. The well-established belief that “bad swamp air” caused malaria justified a series of laws giving counties and townships the mandate to drain wetlands for the sake of public health.

As a young boy, I wasn’t aware of these things, but if one kept a sharp look down at the soil of a freshly plowed farm field, or at the mud along the river bank, or dug a pit in the woods, with luck, there was a chance of finding arrow heads or spear points or even bones from a wild exotic past – the time of Hiawatha. Lying on your belly peering into a fresh dug hole in the ground, feeling dark coolness on your face, smelling the rich loam, you could travel to the past: feel it, see it, touch it, smell it.

Years later, as a graduate student in an earth science seminar, I recall a presentation by a fellow student who’d worked for an oil company in Houston, Texas. Standing at the front of the classroom, he rolled out a paper scroll about three meters long and a meter wide. On the paper were hundreds of roughly parallel pencil lines. It was a seismogram representing – by charting differences in the speed of induced sound waves underground – variability of rock density, porosity, and thickness, which suggested the possibility of trapped oil and gas.

I remember a distinct sense of deflated spirit as I watched my colleague “fight” with the awkward sheet in a struggle to get it taped to the chalkboard. The thought of sitting in an office all day scrutinizing these cryptic scrolls (the job of a stratigrapher), had all the appeal of a jail sentence.

Micrograph showing sand grains with compound cutans: inner allophane (allans) and outer organo-sesquioxide cutans (O-sesquans) (250X).

Micrograph showing sand grains with compound cutans: inner allophane (allans) and outer organo-sesquioxide cutans (O-sesquans) (250X).

What I liked about geology was the visual and tactile experience of getting close to the thing itself: digging, hammering, seeing patterns in the earth, climbing, working outdoors under the big sky, ice-cold beer at the end of the day, traveling. The soil was literally right in front of my nose. Eventually, I developed a serious appreciation for the need and wonderment of studying the earth multiple scales: from satellites to microscopes.

Dendritic drainage patterns in the Driftless Zone, near La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Dendritic drainage patterns in the Driftless Zone, near La Crosse, Wisconsin.

As an adult with grown-up responsibilities, soil science is not just about child’s-play and aesthetic satisfaction. The good thing is, you can actually make a living doing it. Landmark federal environmental legislation passed over forty years ago created a need for environmental scientists. The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 recognized the importance of wetlands to maintaining water supply and quality. Jurisdictional wetlands are defined according to three diagnostic parameters: vegetation, hydrology, and soils. The National Technical Committee for Hydric Soils has developed technical definitions and a set of regional hydric soil indicators used for wetland determinations. Most of my work during fifteen years of consulting has been directly related to (and made possible by) Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and hydric soils.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969 established Environmental Assessments and Impact Statements that analyze environmental and human impacts resulting from projects receiving federal funds. These studies include consideration of soils, geologic resources and wetlands. I worked on the Vector Pipeline Environmental Impact Statement shortly after finishing graduate school.

I’ve worked on many projects over the years and enjoyed associations with professionals in the public and private sectors. One example of one of the more notable projects was a 600-acre combined mine reclamation/wetland mitigation effort located on thixotropic (youtube video) iron tailings basins near Republic, Michigan. Do not leave a truck parked and running on a thixotropic soil! Tailings are not natural soils, but they can grow plants fairly well with application of fertilizer and soil amendments. The project site is now part of the Republic Wetland Preserve.

My advice to young soil scientists is to keep learning and stay connected to your peers through professional organizations. Don’t figure on the “headhunters” coming to you with job offers. Make a point of getting out to make presentations to keep your speaking skills sharp and communicate to the public the importance of soil’s role in the environment and sustainability. Write letters to the editor of newspapers. Have a presence in the “public square.”

An earlier version of this post is available at the European Geophysical Union Soil Systems Science Blog