Aldo Leopold Farm House

Photo courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

by guest contributor Buddy Huffaker, executive director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

My journey to Aldo Leopold’s call for a land ethic began covered in dirt. I don’t mean in the sense of the dirt under my feet at some wild place or dirt under my fingernails after working in a garden. No, I mean dirt literally all over me—up my nose and in my ears, deep in my ears.

When I couldn’t find a normal summer high school job, my parents connected me with a family friend who owned a soil testing laboratory. I was hired, I’m sure as a favor, and spent the better part of the next three summers drying soil samples, grinding soil samples, and testing soils for their texture and fertility.

I never would have believed that soil grows dreams as well as food. A gradual awakening occurred during those dirt-covered summers that ultimately led me to search for a career in agronomy, turf science, or really anything that had something to do with “dirt.”

It wasn’t a straight line, to be sure, to the Land Ethic. Initially my dream job was to be the groundskeeper at Comisky Park (not Wrigley Field!). That interest circuitously introduced me to landscape architecture, which in turn sparked an interest in ecological restoration, which eventually led me to the Aldo Leopold Foundation. It has been a kind of homecoming in 2015 for the Aldo Leopold Foundation to join organizations and individuals all over the world to unify with the United Nations celebrating the International Year of Soils, bringing a heightened urgency to taking actions that will protect and restore soil health and the accompanying economic, ecological, and social benefits.

Indeed, we have seen time and again—demonstrated by abundant examples from Easter Island to the devastation of the Dust Bowl—that when the soil is not cared for, dreams turn to nightmares. Today we may well be on this path again, on the grandest of scales, but the feedback signals are camouflaged by technological improvements and petro-chemicals that maintain, maybe even improve, production … in the short term.  Meanwhile the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico grows and California burns.

Because my career has now taken me from the field to the desk I, like many people, try to continue connecting how my own actions can make difference. Every weekend I look forward to having my hands directly in the dirt, cutting invasive buckthorn from our woods, burning prairies, planting prairie plants, feeding our eight (previously ten) chickens, and watching our kids harvest fresh food from our garden allows me to make a more direct contribution to land health.

Sometimes as I scrub the dirt from under my fingernails after working outside I realize it might be a somber metaphor for what happens to so much of our “dirt”: We wash it down a drain, from fields to streams, to big rivers, and finally to the sea and with it goes so much of our potential for the future.

Fortunately more and more people are beginning to realize that dirt truly is where our hope, our potential, remains rooted. Healthy soil gives us so much: the potential to sequester an amazing amount of carbon mitigating global warming, the potential to sustain healthy habitats for wildlife, the potential to slow, grab, and even hold water in place to abate flooding and keep drinking water clean and safe, and the potential to grow healthy, not harmful, food to nourish our bodies and our souls.

Grinding soil cores for hours on end feels like a lifetime ago but I now appreciate more than ever how being covered in dirt can make a world of difference!

This story was originally published in the summer 2015 issue of The Leopold Outlook. Republished here with permission from the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

Organic Valley is proud to support the Aldo Leopold Foundation in its work to preserve and protect the land we hold so dear.