Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock


A tiller of the soil.

The Soil

Teacher's Story

The soil is the sepulcher and the resurrection of all life in the past. The greater the sepulcher the greater the resurrection. The greater the resurrection the greater the growth. The life of yesterday seeks the earth to-day that new life may come from it tomorrow. The soil is composed of stone flour and organic matter (humus) mixed; the greater the store of organic matter the greater the fertility.

John Walton Spencer.

Because the child, after making mud pies, is told that his face is dirty, he naturally concludes that all soil is dirt. But it is only when out of place that it is dirt; for, in place, it is the home of miracles—the matrix from which comes that wonderful force which we call life. After the study of the brook, the crystals, the minerals and the rocks, the pupils are ready for a more careful study of the soil. However, most of the study in soils belongs to agriculture rather than to nature-study.

The Soil Makers

If we could go back to the very beginning, we should find that the soil consisted solely of broken off particles of rock—particles so finely ground by nature's forces that we might properly call them "rock flour." In our study of the brook, we noted that those stones with sharp corners were just beginning their experience in the brook mill, and those that were rounded out, forming pebbles, had their corners ground off in the making of the soil grist. And in the work of the brook we saw how this grinding was done, and how the soil grist is sifted, sorted, carried and dropped.


One of Uncle John's nieces making stone flour.

But there are other agencies besides water that help in grinding the stone flour. If we visit some rocky cliff, we are sure to find at its base a heap of stones, gravel and soil, which the geologists call talus.  In our eastern country we know that these pebbles and soil were pried loose by Jack Frost with his ice wedges. The water filters into all the cracks and crevices of the rock, and since water, when freezing, is obliged to expand, the particles of rock were thereby torn loose and forced off and fell to the bottom of the cliff. Moreover, rocks expand when hot, and are often thus broken without the aid of water and frost. In the rocks of the desert, the changes in temperature pry off the rock particles, which the winds carry away to make up the sands of the desert. The winds hurl these sands against other rocks which are still standing, and hurl them with such force that more particles are torn off, making more sand. In fact, the wind, in some regions, grinds the rocks into stone flour as effectually as does the water in other places. Then, too, the gases of the air also cause rocks to decay. We know how iron rusts and falls to pieces through contact with the gases of the air. Some rocks decompose in a similar way. We often see that the inscriptions on old headstones have been almost obliterated, because the gases in the air have so decomposed the marble.


Lichens growing on rocks.

Photo by Verne Morton.

In addition to the other soil makers, there are the little plants which we call lichens. The spores of these plants are so minute that we cannot see them, and they drift about in the air until they find resting place upon some rock. Here they begin to grow, and as they grow they become strongly acid; they are thus enabled to eat a foothold into the rock, softening its surface and powdering it into stone flour. And in these situations other plants grow later, sending their roots down into every crack and crevice and thus prying off more of the rock.

The Soil Carriers

In the study of the brook we have seen how the water lifts, carries and deposits the soils; and since, at one time or another, the entire surface of the earth has been under water, we can see that water has been the most important of the soil carriers and has done the greatest work. The wind carries much soil, especially in the arid regions; the movements of the sand dunes in the deserts and on the seashores bear witness to what the wind can do as a soil carrier. But in the northern United States, from New England to the Dakotas, much of our soil has been carried by a great ice river that once upon a time flowed down upon our lands from the North. This great, slow-moving river, perhaps a mile or more high, plowed up the soil and stones, and freezing them fast carried and shoved them along under its great weight. After a time the ice melted and dropped its burden. Many of the stones were of granite taken up from the old mountains of northern Canada and ground off and rounded during their journey. We call these stones which were brought down to us from the North, "boulders;" and the soils which were brought along on the bottoms of glaciers and dropped and pressed down by the tremendous ice weight and thus made compact although unsorted, we call "hardpan."

The Kinds of Soil

By the work of these soil makers and soil carriers, the rock flour was made. But if we should take some of it and plant our seeds in it, we should find that they would not grow thriftily, even though we watered them and gave them every care. The reason for this is that most rock flour does not have in it the substances which the plants most need for their growth. But if we should go to the woods and get some of the black woods-earth and mix it with rock flour, we should find that our plants would thrive. This rich, earth mold in the forest is almost wholly made up of matter once alive, but which is now decayed, and which we call "humus." The more humus that we have in the rock flour, the richer it is in plant food, and the more plant growth it will support.

In general, soils may be divided into clay, sand, gravel, loam and humus.

Clay in its purest state is kaolinite, the result of weathering of feldspar, or mica. It is finely powdered and is used for pottery, while the less pure clays are used for brickmaking. Clayey soil is sticky and slippery when wet, and bakes hard and cracks when dry. It is hard to cultivate, but it absorbs moisture from the air and holds fast to its fertility, and is especially good for permanent pastures and meadows.

Sand, in a pure state, is made up mostly of finely broken particles of quartz and feldspar, and is used for the making of glass. A sandy soil is light and open and easy to work. It absorbs little water from the air and has little power for holding plant food, since the water washes it out. It is especially valuable for truck gardening, because it is a warm soil. It is warm because water does not evaporate from its surface rapidly.

Humus is composed of decayed animal and vegetable matter. It is very rich in plant food. Wherever there is humus in the soil it is likely to be darker in color than the stone flour.

Loam is a mixture of clay, sand and humus. For many crops it is the most desirable soil.

Lesson CCXX

The Soil

Leading thought—The soil is composed of rock flour and humus. Soil, to support life, must be porous, so that the roots of the plants may receive through it both water and air.

Method—The children should bring in specimens of soils from various localities near the school. Parts of each specimen should be wet to see if they are clayey, that quality showing quickly in the puttylike adhesiveness when rubbed between the fingers. It would be well to get some pure blue clay, and let the children make marbles of it to impress upon them this quality of clay. They should try and make marbles of other soils to show the lack of adhesiveness in them. They should examine sand through a lens and should examine humus in a similar way. After they are familiar with these three kinds of soils, they are ready for the lesson.


1. Look at any kind of soil with a lens, and tell why you think it is made up of small pieces of stone and rock.

2. Take a piece of rock and pound it fine. What does it look like? Do you think that your plants will grow well if you plant them in the rock flour which you have just made? Try the experiment and describe the results.

3. How does the water grind off the stones and make soil? How does the wind do it?

4. How do water and frost pry off pieces of rock? Is there a cliff in your neighborhood that has at its foot a heap of soil and stones? Where did these comes from?

5. How do the lichens and other plants pry off the outside of rocks? Have you ever found lichens growing on stones?

6. Have you ever noticed old headstones in the cemetery that were falling to pieces? What causes them to decay?

7. Write an English theme on the great glacier that formerly covered the northeastern portion of the United States.

8. Go to the woods, scrape off the leaves and get some of the black earth beneath them. Of what is this soil composed? Is it rock flour? What makes it so black? Why do you call this soil rich? What does it do if you add it to the soil in the pots where your flowers are growing?

9. Find a railroad cut or some other place where the earth is exposed for some distance up and down. Is there solid rock at the bottom? How deep is the soil above the rock? Is the soil the same color at the surface as it is below? Why is this?

10. Experiment 1: To show which kinds of soil hold most water—Take three lamp chimneys, or bottles from which the bottoms have been broken. Place in one loam, in another clay, in another fine-grained sand, using in each case the same amount. Tie cheesecloth over the bottom, so that the soil will not fall out; make the soil compact by jarring down. Place each over a tumbler. From a cup of water, held as near as possible to the soil, pour water into one of the bottles slowly, so as to keep the surface of the soil covered. Consult a watch and note how long before the water begins dripping below. Do the same with the other two. Compare the results. Which soil takes the water most rapidly? Which lets it through first? Which lets through the most? How would rain affect fields of clayey soil? Of sandy soil? Of loam?


     Loam.        Sand.        Clay.          

Note that the sand has allowed the most water to drip through it, the loam next, while no water has passed through the clay.

Hints for teacher on Experiment No. 1—Through sand the water passes very rapidly—in less than a minute if the sand is coarse. It takes several minutes (14 min.) to go through loam, but requires some hours to appear below the clay. It requires more water to saturate clay. Care should be taken to use the same amount of water on the three kinds of soil. More than one application will be required for clay, since the amount of water accommodated in the chimney above the soil will not be sufficient to saturate clay.

More water will be found to have percolated through sand than through loam or clay. The latter are more retentive of moisture than is sand, although absorbing rain less readily than sand. The mixture of sand and clay in loam is most ideal for cultivated fields, absorbing moisture more readily than clay and retaining it better than sand.

Experiment 2—Fill a glass tumbler with very small marbles or buckshot. Pour water over them to fill the glass. Placing cheesecloth over the top of the tumbler pour off all the water that easily drains away. Remove the cheesecloth, and immediately examine the marbles for the film of water which surrounds each one and can clearly be seen where one marble comes in contact with another marble or the side of the glass.

Hints for teacher on Experiment 2—It is such a film of water as remains on the marbles that on each particle of soil supplies the plant with water and food. The water between the marbles has been drained off. This water corresponds to that carried out of the soil by drainage; it is injurious to the plant, keeping "its feet too wet," and should be removed.

Experiment 3—To show that soil lifts water up from below—Use the same soils arranged in the same way as for Experiment 1, but instead of pouring water in at the top, place the three lamp chimneys in a pan which has water in it about an inch deep. In which soil does the water rise most rapidly? In which does it rise the highest? After the water has been taken up, let the soil stand in the lamp chimneys for several days. Which soil dries out the soonest? If we had three fields, one of loam, one of clay, and one of sand, in which would the most water be lifted from below for the use of the plants? Which would retain the water longest?


Sand.        Clay.        Loam.  

The water has nearly reached the upper surface of the sand and is halfway up the loam; in the clay it has climbed but a short distance.

Hints for teacher on Experiment 3—Water rises through the sand in a short time; if rather fine sand is used it requires less than half an hour. To rise through loam it will require three or four times as long, and may not reach the top of the clay for several days. If the glass tubes were three or four feet long and allowed to stand for several days, we would find that although the water climbs very slowly through the clay it will climb to a greater height in clay than in loam or sand. Under field conditions clay will retain moisture for a longer time than sand or loam.

Experiment 4—To show that mulch keeps the water from evaporating from soils—Take two of the lamp chimneys filled half full with loam. Pour in the same amount of water in each until the soil is thoroughly wet. Cover the top of one with an inch deep of dry, loose earth. Which dries out first? What does the loosening and pulverizing of the soil in our fields by harrowing do for our planted crops? What is a mulch?


The unmulched loam in the chimney at the left dried out in four days. The loam covered with a dust mulch in the other chimney retained moisture for a month.

Hints for teacher on Experiment 4—The soil covered with a layer of dry soil—a dust mulch—will retain moisture much longer than the unmulched soil. Hence, the farmer or gardener loosens and pulverizes the top soil by harrowing, hoeing or raking in order to retain moisture for plant roots. A mulch may also be of straw, boards, leaves or stones. Fallen leaves form a natural mulch in the woods. There, at any time, under this covering, may be found moist earth. A mulch is a soil cover which breaks the capillary connection, so that water will not rise to the surface to be evaporated. To be efficient a mulch must be dry.  After rain the "dust blanket" on the garden bed should be renewed by cultivation.

Experiment 5—Fill several vials with different soils from fields in the neighborhood. If the soil in any of the vials is dry, moisten it. Take a piece of blue litmus paper and press down into the soil in each vial. Does the litmus paper turn red as it becomes dampened by the soil in any of the vials? If so, this soil is acid. Add a little lime and mix it in thoroughly with the soil in the vial that shows the acid soil. Test it again with the litmus paper. Does the paper remain blue or turn red? Does alfalfa and clover grow on acid soils? Why should we add lime to such soils?

Hints for teacher on Experiment 5—A slightly acid soil may show no reaction with litmus paper. It may be well to have a prepared soil with a few drops of vinegar or other acid added, which will show the reaction. The addition of lime will correct the acid condition. Soils for alfalfa or clover should never be acid. They are usually well limed before an attempt is made to grow these legumes.


Experiment to show the proper treatment of clay soil.

Experiment 6, which indicates the proper treatment of clay soils—Fill four pie tins with clay which has been wet and smoothly puddled. In one mix with the clay a small portion of lime; in another add a larger portion of muck; leave two with pure clay, and place one of these out-of-doors where it will freeze hard. Then place the four tins on a shelf and allow to dry. In which of these is the clay most friable? In which is it the hardest?

Hints to the teacher on Experiment 6—This experiment shows that freezing the clay rendered it finer, so that it may be broken easily into particles small enough to set closely about the plant's roots. The clay mixed with lime is much more friable than the one mixed with muck, showing that clay needs lime more than organic matter to make it of greatest use. The pure clay which is dried without freezing hardens into large, flat pieces, each being almost as hard as stone.

Supplementary reading—Ch. I, II, III in The Great World's Farm, Gaye: Ch. IV. in Practical Forestry, Gifford.

Beside the moist clods the slender flags arise filled with the sweetness of the earth. Out of the darkness—under that darkness which knows no day save when the ploughshare opens its chinks—they have come to the light. To the light they have brought a colour which will attract the sunbeams from now till harvest.

Richard Jefferies.

"Here is a problem, a wonder for all to see.

Look at this marvelous thing I hold in my hand!

This is a magic surprising, a mystery

Strange as a miracle, harder to understand.

What is it? Only a handful of dust: to your touch

A dry, rough powder you trample beneath your feet,

Dark and lifeless; but think for a moment, how much

It hides and holds that is beautiful, bitter, or sweet.

Think of the glory of color! The red of the rose,

Green of the myriad leaves and the fields of grass,

Yellow as bright as the sun where the daffodil blows,

Purple where violets nod as the breezes pass.

Strange, that this lifeless thing gives vine, flower, tree,

Color and shape and character, fragrance too;

That the timber that builds the house, the ship for the sea,

Out of this powder its strength and its toughness drew!"


—From "Dust," Celia Thaxter.

Some years ago there was received at Cornell University a letter from a boy working upon a farm in Canada. In this letter he said:

"I have read your leaflet entitled, 'The Soil, What It Is,' and as I trudged up and down the furrows every stone, every lump of earth, every shady knoll, every sod hollow had for me a new interest. The day passed, the work was done, and I at least had had a rich experience."

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