Chautauqua Watershed Notes

The Stuff Of Soil And Sediments

Appreciate soil as the ancient, life-giving and dynamic mix of stuff that it is, and take care not to wash it all away with the next heavy storm — because the stuff of soil is the stuff of life, and it’s a long-time in the making. Photo by Jeff Carlson

Have you ever thought about soil? How it’s formed, what it’s composed of, where it comes from and what lives within it? Soil is so much more than dirt and mud. In reality, it is a precious medley of minerals, microbes and nutrient-rich organic matter, forming ever so slowly, perhaps only an inch over a span of 500 to 1,000 years. It is marvelous stuff, upon which nearly all life depends. Sediments are essentially soils that form in the bottoms of lakes and ponds but which can accumulate rapidly if soils are flushed from surrounding lands due to heavy rains and run-off.

Fundamentally, soil is a complex mixture consisting of rock and mineral fragments, earthly “stardust” subject to weathering and biological action; organic matter, comprised of living creatures and their decaying remains and wastes; gases, and; water.

In the rich soils of our local forests, fields and gardens, the upper layer is comprised of dead and decaying leaves and other plant material, animal remains and droppings, and it teems with thousands of teeny organisms. A single teaspoonful of healthy garden soil may contain 5 billion bacteria, 20 million filamentous fungi and countless numbers of other life forms, mostly unseen. The earthy fragrance of this damp, spongy layer is due largely to the microbial activity of actinomycete bacteria, which also create valuable antibiotics such as streptomycin and erythromycin, while fungal networks are woven within. Below this lies the crumbly, dark “humus proper,” the end-product of decay and processing by the living realm, mixed and mingled with the mineral matter of weathered bedrock.

While decomposition of organic matter is dependent upon bacteria and fungi, soil animals aid the process in significant ways. A fallen leaf, softened by rain and dew, may be chewed by springtails, bark lice, millipedes and bristletails, leaving patterns and lines as the fleshy parts of the leaf are devoured. Fungi send tiny filaments into the mass to accelerate digestion and decay, while in turn, diminutive animals suck on the sugary fungal threads for nourishment. More nibbling and gnawing down to the veins by earthworms, roundworms, snails, slugs, wood lice, pill bugs and beetle larvae follow, leaving the dismantled leaf in lacy filigree.

The process is a very slow one — a single ash leaf may take a full year to decompose, while oak leaves and pine needles may require three years or more. In reality, thousands of years may be needed to create the productive soils upon which all of us depend. Without wise conservation practices and proper safeguards against erosion, an exposed layer of centuries-old topsoil can wash away in one heavy rainstorm. Unfortunately, deforestation and poorly-planned development, including hillside construction projects, road-building and road-ditching without proper erosion controls, and other careless human practices needlessly accelerate the loss of soils. Tragic consequences result, as this priceless stuff is swept from the land by wind and water and deposited downstream as suffocating sediments and fertilizing silt fueling algal blooms and excessive plant growth in rivers and lakes below.

Farmers, gardeners, conservationists and others close to the land have long understood the value of soil and the gift of life it offers. In agriculture, contour farming, crop rotation, the use of cover crops and no-till practices all help minimize soil loss, while our Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy encourages the conservation of woodlands and wetlands of the highest ecological and hydrological value, effectively protecting soils and the ecosystem services they provide. Restoration of streamside forests, grasslands and other natural areas not only enhances water quality, recreational opportunities and habitat for fish and wildlife, but it also sequesters significant amounts of carbon, a critical strategy in the fight against greenhouse emissions and a warming planet. Local towns, municipalities and homeowners can also be good soil stewards, especially when engaged in land use planning, and should strive to minimize the amount of vegetation removed while insisting on the use of erosion control measures such as sediment traps and silt fences around construction sites as well as the creation of vegetated buffers, swales and rain gardens. Be sure to contact the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy for help with such efforts.

So, as you explore the fields, forests and waterways of our beautiful area and dream of your sleeping gardens under the snow, consider the complexities of soil and how priceless it really is. The natural world all around you wouldn’t be here without the soils to support them, nor would our productive farmland, forests, waterways and rural landscape. Appreciate soil as the ancient, life-giving and dynamic mix of stuff that it is, and take care not to wash it all away with the next heavy storm. And if you can, come springtime, feel the good earth with your own two hands, be gentle in your demands on its capacities to grow your food, use care in what you build and where you build it, plant some trees, a garden, or a greenbelt and be a good steward of the soil — because the stuff of soil is the stuff of life, and it’s a long-time in the making.

Becky Nystrom is a Professor of Biology at Jamestown Community College, a founding trustee and former board director of the CWC, and a longtime CWC supporter and volunteer. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit or