University of Chicago Press, 2007

ISBN 978-0-226-56852-2

Reviewed by Michael Colebrook (abridged from the original)


In his book Standing on Earth, Wendell Berry wrote, “We might make a long list of things that we would have to describe as primary values, but the one I want to talk about, because it is the one with which we have the most intimate working relationship, is the topsoil… a handful of the real thing has life in it, it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behaviour of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will have to call ‘unearthly’. It is making life out of death.” This beautifully presented and well written book tells us all about the living creatures of the soil. Their numbers and variety are prodigious. Once you have looked through this book your attitude to the soil will never be the same again and it is clear that its title is misleading. There is no soil without the life. It is the living things that create the soil and which, if left alone, will maintain it.

The other aspect which emerges very clearly relates to the time scale of events in the soil. It takes somewhere between 500 and 1000 years for natural processes to produce just one inch of topsoil. It takes three years for an oak leaf to decay and be recycled. The whole show is about recycling. At the same time, within these slow processes there is a hive of activity. There is plenty of eating and being eaten and yet the focus is on symbiosis, living together in balance, with a wide range of obligatory associations between different organisms.

The book opens with a comprehensive account of the structure of the soil and of the processes involved in the creation and maintenance of soil. The main part of the book, nearly 200 pages, is devoted to a well illustrated catalogue of the organisms of the soil, from the bacteria and other micro-organisms through to the burrowing mammals. The illustrations are particularly valuable because the vast majority of the organisms are invisible to the naked eye, and those that are visible are mostly very small and live in the dark.

The last part of the book is a section on ‘Working in Partnership with Creatures of the Soil’ which is something that all readers of this book will want to do.