Perhaps you have seen bumper stickers that read: “Don’t treat the soil like dirt!” Well, it’s true, soil is much more than just a pile of sediments. In fact, though we may not normally think so, the soil is alive. In addition to the presence of inorganic minerals, soil is also comprised of hefty quantities of water, air, and organic materials such as bacteria, decaying plant and animal matter, and bugs. The complex amalgam of components that we call soil is generated from the physical, biological, and chemical breakdown of living and non-living matter.

Having a basic understanding of Putney’s bedrock and surficial materials will help us dig into the world of soil, for it develops directly from the underlying substrate. Localized differences in topography, drainage, and depth to bedrock can result in a medley of distinct soil varieties from the same parent material. The glacial till on the uplands of the Southern Vermont Piedmont has weathered to form soils called loams that contain a mixture of gravel, sand, silt, and clay size particles in different concentrations. These till derived soils can be found on almost all of Putney’s hillsides, from Putney Mountain in the west, to Hickory ridge in the center of town, and on Bear Hill and Rocky Ridge towards the east. On the ridges where sediment cover is thin, the composition of the soils reflect the bedrock that sits directly beneath. Thus, soils that formed from sandstone or granite tend to be droughty and low in nutrients; fine-grained rocks like shale or phyllite weather into silt and clay particles that hold more water and may be slick or sticky; and the sediments of limestone and marble are rich in calcium and magnesium that support a diverse abundance of highly productive plant life.

In the valley areas, the soils are derived from the fertile alluvial sand and silt deposits of rivers and streams. Lacking the cumbersome stones of the hills, these soils tend to be well-drained, thanks to the porous sand, as well as nutrient-rich, due to the steady input of fine-textured silt and clay in seasonal floodwaters. Consequently, many of the region’s agricultural lands that grow vegetables or graze cattle are situated on these productive soils. The Sacketts Brook valley, for instance, was historically an important component of the town’s bread basket. Today only a few active farms remain in the valley, one of them being the Goodell dairy farm directly to the north of the Putney Central School. In the wettest areas, like swamps and bogs, the soil remains saturated from season to season, preventing the decomposition of organic material. In these ecosystems, dead plant matter accumulates annually, creating soils rich in peat and supporting a plants that can tolerate having their feet wet all year round. Once considered ‘useless’ habitats, today we recognize these colorful wetland areas as important breeding grounds for a diversity of wildlife, in addition to valuable sanctuaries in which to escape from the urban machine and recharge the human spirit.

Two other reasons not to treat the soil like dirt are because first, it takes a long time to form; on average one inch of fertile Connecticut River Valley soil forms every 100 years, yet it can be destroyed in a fraction of the time through the processes of erosion or degradation with pesticides and salts. Secondly, the importance of soil and its connections to our daily lives cannot be overstated. Basic resources such as the water we drink, the food we eat, and many of the fabrics and products we use come directly or indirectly from the earth. Perhaps less obvious is the valuable service soil provides as a ‘sink’ for storing vast quantities of atmospheric carbon – one of the main culprits in current global warming trends. An intimate way to nurture a relationship between humans and the soil is to farm or garden. By digging into the soil with our hands and hearts and taking part in the process of creation we come closer to understanding, respecting, and conserving the delicate cycles of nature that mediate all life on earth.