I discovered the dirt by accident.
I was in Costa Rica, taking classes in both Photography and Environmental Journalism. I had just learned the how to control the camera manually in my photography class. I was also on my first hike for the Journalism class—ready to shoot pictures of all the flora and fauna I could find.
And then it happened.
With my camera strap around my neck, I pointed the lens towards the ground to adjust my settings to avoid underexposed or overexposed photographs. It was through the small screen on my camera that I noticed the multitude of colored leaves in various levels of decomposition.
It is almost as if I was seeing the ground for the first time. Before that moment, the dirt on the ground was just a place for me to put my feet and walk.
Now, the ground was as interesting as every other part of the forest. I had a Eureka moment—the dirt, I realized held a story that was little told. It wasn’t very good looking or glamorous (think enormous Strangler Figs trees or colorful Toucans) but without a productive and healthy topsoil, there would be no foundation for a forest.
From then on there was a difference in how I experienced each hike. It was not so much a change in what I looked at as it was a change in my paradigm of what was viewable. It was also functional. To be safe on the trails, I had to look at the ground constantly to watch out for
rocks, plant life, and roots, but I now began to think about the many insects that live under the rocks and in the decaying leaves, the vast and diverse number of plants that sprouted off the path, and the quantity of water that the thick, tough roots absorbed to nourish the tree.
I always knew that many insects made the topsoil their home and were useful in the process of decay, but it was not until one of naturalist explained the size and scale of the giant ant hills seen throughout the University of Georgia Costa Rica campus. He told the hiking group that we were standing on eight to ten million ants at that moment!
On the silent night hike, Professor Kavoori used his “divining rod” to rustle around the leaves and I used my unnecessarily bright flashlight to illuminate the area. There were hops, chirps, flaps, and scurrying as insects large and small hid from the light and angrily took shelter under the earth.
If asked to draw a picture of a forest before coming the Costa Rica, I would draw a dense, green, and rainy mess of trees and vines with a couple birds and a monkey. While I would agree that this is one representation of a forest, I think there is another, much richer story. The forest floor of the Costa Rican forest supports a diversity of life, both under and above its surface. The nutrient-rich soil is a product of the cycle of life and death in the forest.
Old life supports new life. But the equation is often fragile.
While the soil here has the necessary nutrients to sustain hundreds of species, it is not as stable as soil found in other biomes. The soil is usually saturated with water and sometimes can be completely depleted of nutrients if it is used for farming or if only one species is grown in an area. Because of the highly saturated soil, trees grow their roots out instead of down which also makes them less stable and more likely to fall over in a strong wind or mudslide.
All of which is to say, that the strength of a forest comes from its dirt. Everything above—builds from below.
So the next time, you take that camera along on your hike—no matter where that might be.
Look down in wonder. At the Dirt.