When’s the last time you read a good book about dirt? Not a gossipy tell-all, but a story about the world beneath our feet, where a single teaspoon packs enough species to fill several rain forests.

In “The Soil Will Save Us,” author Kristin Ohlson focuses on the ecology of topsoil, its symbiotic relationship with plant life and, perhaps more important, the staple crops we have come to depend upon for sustenance.

Ohlson posits that the same biological mechanisms regulating soil health can be used to store carbon as well as solve a multitude of environmental woes now facing the planet. To support her thesis, she takes readers on a tour of maverick farmers and iconoclastic ranchers at the vanguard of soil conservation. Aside from raising cattle and growing crops, these land stewards are concerned with creating favorable conditions for the hordes of microbes inhabiting the soil.

Kristin OhlsonIn vivid, sometimes breathless prose (she’s enthusiastic), we get to ride along during her encounters with these dirt mavens — a group not unlike bee enthusiasts, except that they’re obsessed with composting, no-till agriculture and alternative farming practices designed to mimic nature.

They are a cadre of soil scientists, farm advocates and activists obsessed with the kingdom of microorganisms living just below the soil surface that coexist with plants. Called the rhizosphere, this region supports waves of competing creatures that rise and fall with the seasons, exchanging nutrients with plants, which in turn allows vegetation to thrive.

Planting cover crops to retain moisture and feed the soil, she contends, can mitigate global warming. Fortunately, what’s good for the soil also benefits the farmer in terms of abundant crop yields. As concern grows about the state of the planet, we could use some good news on the environment. The book does an admirable job of delivering on the promise of the title.

MNN: What’s the premise of the book?

Kristin Ohlson: I think the big premise of the book is that the world is lot more complex than we thought. We’ve been thinking about issues like climate change just from the perspective of the bad things we put into the air and leaving out a critically important part of our natural environment, which is under our feet.

The title of the book is a declarative statement "The Soil Will Save Us," but shouldn’t the title of the book really be framed "Can the Soil Save Us?"

Yeah, I think the soil can save us. However, as a species, we like to change things and tinker about. We like to think we can do better. But nature’s technology has been working for half a billion years; the soil has been a huge carbon sink through the relationship between plants and microbes below the soil line. That means we need to understand how carbon is stored in the soil and what keeps it there.

Book coverIs it fair to say the book is about soil ecology rather than established soil science?

Absolutely. It’s really a new way of looking at soil. People used to just look at the physical qualities of soil and the chemistry of soil instead of the biology of soil. We’ve gone from being terrified of this hidden kingdom, and the diseases these organisms can bring, to realizing that we couldn’t function without them. Microorganisms in our body regulate energy levels, our metabolism and brain function.

Scientists are beginning to think of them as an organ, critical to human health. I think the same holds true for soil. All of our land management decisions should be with an eye toward how can we work with and protect that life below the soil because it’s so critical to life above the soil.

What do traditional farmers and communities connected to farming have to say when you present the findings of your book?

I have not been in the Midwest since writing the book. However, farmers are necessarily risk averse. They have this huge living undertaking that they’ve got, and they’re afraid of screwing it up. If you do something that doesn’t work out, you’re out for the year. It’s got to be difficult to hear information that runs to counter to what they’ve been taught in agriculture school. Regardless, a lot of them are interested in making changes when they see their soil and the landscape not being as resilient as it could be.

Much of the farm population is reaching retirement age. Do you see a younger generation embracing these soil ecology concepts?

Absolutely. There are so many young people getting into agriculture, and they are all interested. I went to a conference recently and of the 430 people there, I’d swear two-thirds them were in their 20s and 30s. It just blows away older organic farmers and public university plant breeders who’ve been at it since the ’70s. They thought they’d never have grad students interested in creating crops for farmers rather than private industry.

One of the more divisive aspects of the book is that farmland, if managed right, can absorb much of the carbon produced by burning fossil fuels. Has there been much pushback from old-guard environmentalists?  

Nobody has. Thus far, Bill McKibben read my book and blurbed  it. One of the more hopeful things, right now, is that environmental groups and individual farmers are working together on coming up with climate-friendly practices for their land. That’s the great untold story that’s going on all over the country. Farmers and environmentalists are getting together, because they see that not only is farming a major contributor to global warming but that it could be a huge mitigator. Plants suck up carbon; they do it for free and on a massive scale.

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Inset photo (of author): Kristin Beadle