Dear Friends and Partners
This in my minds eye: Bison. Thousands of them. They form a sort of brownish-black sea around me. The wave, or current of them parts around me slowly as they graze—a river in slow motion– giving me an apprehensive look with their one-sided brown eye. Like a whale, their eyes are to the far sides of their heads, with which to spy predators from a long way off, and from nearly all directions.
There are two dimensions to this world I stand in; the first is the dimension of land—of grass with bison on it. The second is blue sky, cloudless. The sun is high overhead, beating down on me and them. It is hot and humid. I’m sweating.
Thousands of flimsy tails switch as they walk by, giving me a wide berth. Their now useless winter coat shags off their backs, rough, broken and ragged. An unmistakable bison odor permeates the Earth on this early summer day. They graze. They walk.
There is little to no dust as they graze. Instead, the tall grass that they eat, picked from the cafeteria diversity, is trampled underfoot, covering the soil so much that there is only the matted and trampled green thatch that inevitably marks their passage.
Large round dung beetles rise up from nowhere to attack the manure.
There is no end to bison back as I gaze across the flatland. But I am grateful, as only hours ago, I found myself standing in a sward of diverse grass that reached head high and was still growing. If I walked here just a month from now, much of the big bluestem, the tallgrass monarch, would reach over ten feet in height, making it impossible to see beyond 3 feet.
At least after their passage, I would be able to see the herd for hours, maybe even days as they roamed on the wide prairie before me. It was mostly flat, and I could easily see several miles before the curvature of the Earth stole away my view.
The bison are thinning. I am reaching the end of the throng, or they are reaching me. I’m a little more comfortable now with their presence, and I kneel down on the half-eaten thatch. I pull back the horizontal curtain, with both hands, eager to see the soil underneath. It’s not easy, because the matrix for the most part is still attached to living plants, anchored deeply in the soil.
I just want to get my hands in it. Smell it. Feel it. There’s something deep within me that resonates with this desire.
There. I’ve parted the thick basal stems, and now for the first time, I feel earth. It’s hard to get my face close, so I see with my fingers. Surprisingly, the soil is moist and cool despite the heat. And it’s no wonder why; even with the heat of this early summer day, there is no way that the sun itself could penetrate the tallgrass before it was disturbed, or even now. The ground has a coat, a covering on it that always protects it from the impacts that the unending sky could dish out.
Relentless sun, especially in the late part of the summer would dry the soil out if it was exposed. The driving rain and hail of midsummer thunderheads, rising 40,000 feet from the plains could wash a significant part of it away in hours without this protective coat of debris.
But the soil remains covered in this land of sky, grass and bison. And so, the detritus, the litter that the bison leave behind—a fairly devastated sward of tallgrass –becomes soil itself, given time. The incredible carbon load of cellulose and lignin of plant material is readily torn asunder by the hungry unseen elements—the biology of the black matrix below.
And that is what it is. A black matrix of living and the dead. The prairie is textbook in this; life takes no prisoners. It eats them. Everything that walks, flies, grows and warbles in, above, on and under this soil surface lives on dead things.
The rich clayey loam that I stand on was made by the bison. Wikipedia even says so. They were the sole agent responsible for the depth and breadth of the black.
It is called the Blackland Prairie.
I come out of my minds eye now, into the present. The soil is still there, albeit largely removed by erosion. I still peel the clayey black loam off my boots when I set foot in the bunkhouse-like cabin Caryl and I are living in. We are in Central Texas, and the Blackland fascinates us. It is the southernmost former extension of the tallgrass prairie province that once blanketed a third of the US.
We’re a little blown away that it is here, because it gets hot in Texas. And dry. Brittle. Rains tend to stop in the late summer. Hot and dry winds descend from the high plains of Colorado and New Mexico. These can be and were dust bowl generators.
We had no idea. But the bison, and their grazing alone established the tallgrass and propagated it as the ice of the last continental glaciation moved northward. Without their grazing, there would be no activity to feed the biology below. By the time the mature tall grass—plants like Indian grass, switchgrass, gamagrass and big bluestem would go dormant at the end of the year, without a large hoofed agent to put them in contact with the ground and the decomposing effect of hungry soil biota, the plants would eventually fall to the ground on their own.
Onto a soil that was itself dormant. A thatch would lay on the cold winter soils. And soil would be protected from driving rains and snowmelts over the winter. But little spring sunshine would reach the surface, and shading from thatch decomposing too slowly would dramatically lower production even into the next summer. Soils would build, but very slowly.
But with bison, all of that vaunts into lightspeed quite handily. And because of those large ungulates traveling above ground, the Blackland Prairie of Texas, despite Texas heat and frequent drought, still had black prairie soil 12 to 20 feet deep.
The settlers who discovered it had found gold in black earth.
Today, I stand with Caryl, on the Blackland with two friends. They are Jonathan and Kaylyn Cobb. The own and operate a farm smack dab in the middle of the prairie. Jonathan was born and raised here, as his dad farmed the black expanse.
But like many commodity agricultural practitioners, he found low margins in producing grains on the deep soils. Yields could be good, given the rains. But weeds were ubiquitous, and often the Texas heat would wilt their crops with abandon.
The soil that they farmed together was exposed year-round. Sure, it often supported a crop on it through the growing season, and that provided some cover. But you could see places as we drove to the Cobb’s place where the black soil had been cut, exposed by the force of flowing water.
As we drove to their farm, Caryl marveled at the black soil. It is February, after all, and nearly all of it was exposed for the entire winter, bare, of stripped crops and cultivated with a disc. The rain was still coming down as we picked our way through the checkerboard landscape of section line roads, following the advice of our cellphone google maps assistant.
There was standing water in most of the black dirt fields—a testament to soils that lacked structure and the ability to retain water.
When we pulled up to their home it had stopped raining. Jonathan and Kaylyn were eager to go out on the farm—they had been in the same conference we’d been in just south of the Blackland and were ready to breathe some air.
We all jumped in a UTV, Jonathan at the wheel, and headed out. It had stopped raining, thankfully, and now, a brisk wind from the west was sweeping scudding clouds away. Blue sky was on the horizon.
The first thing we noticed about their portion of the prairie was that it was all covered. There was plantlife, much of it green and growing, even now in February, over much of it. The Cobbs excitedly pointed out plants that were returning to their regenerated grassland, one by one, like lost children. Jonathan often stopped driving to show us prairie species showing up–often on their own.
“Here’s that gamagrass I was talking about,” he would say. Or, “over there is where we have some big bluestem.”
Or we’d ask him. “What is that tall bunchgrass out there moving into that meadow?”
All of these were natives of the tallgrass that covered this country for millennia. Some were reintroduced by the Cobbs, but some came on their own. And with them is coming resilience. Soil building. Soil biota.
And they’ve returned livestock to the prairie province. Sheep and cattle. Most of it was grazed down to the point now in February, that there was plenty of opportunity for sunlight to reach the ground and start the nextgen of grassland.
Sure, there is a lot to do yet for the Cobbs. But they are on the path toward regenerating a lost and deteriorating landscape. It was exciting. Instead of standing waters in the fields and meadows, their water went into the soil, because soil life had created a matrix, open and porous that was ready to receive life giving water and create more life.
Caryl and I often despair about the state of the earth. Rather than Earthkeepers, we as a culture, as a planet tend to be Earthtrashers.
But thankfully, nature is quite forgiving, and will fast track work back to restoring carbon to the soil, holding water where it falls, rebuilding vibrant ecosystems. We’ve seen it happen on Alderspring. And it will continue to happen. Jonathan and Kaylyn are doing similar, but different work on the Blackland Prairie. They’re just dealing nature a good hand, and with that, she can win.
And the dirt is miraculously, quickly changed to soil.
Deborah Clark, another friend from the Texas Prairie, who with her husband Emry Birdwell runs 7000 head of cattle north of the Blackland, sums everything up quite well with regard to how she feels about soil.:“It’s like oftentimes when I write the word soil down, it comes out soul. And I don’t think that’s just an accident. Because if you’re in this line of work, soil is the soul of you and that which you do. They’re directly tied together. You can’t separate them.”
It’s the soul of the matter. It’s what keeps the Cobbs going on the Blackland. And it’s what keeps Glenn and Caryl going on Alderspring. For all of us, there’s only razor thin margins in this business. We don’t do it to make money. We do it because we all believe that it’s what we meant to do. It’s in our soul.
Our own high mountain volcanic soils are very different from Texas’ black soils, but the principle of capturing as much organic matter in the soil as possible remains the same.
Loved reading this—-as a fellow rancher, I appreciate the beauty of your words and the truth! What a wonderful piece of writing to educate those not living on the land with animals—-hats off to you. It’s also great encouragement for those of us smack dab in the middle of ranch life. Often when I am out on the land I think “Then sings my soul”….. .. love your title! The soul of soil.
You are doing a great job defining the love and the care and the thought ….put into everything. What a great 5:00am read to start my day—-before my 4 kids wake up.
Thank-you for the gift!
The Cobb family have a great story of the of surviving in the Blacklands, from mule powered farming to high tech equipment, to sustainable livestock ranching.
Thank you for sharing. I love your love of the land. 🙂