A simple look at the characters in a soil ecosystem

The soil and the organisms living on and in it comprise an ecosystem. The active components of the soil ecosystem are the vegetation, fauna, including microorganisms, and man.

– Vegetation: The primary succession of plants that colonize a wethering rock culminates in the development of a climax community, the species composition of which depends on the climate and parent material, but which, in turn, has a profound influence on the soil that is formed. For example in the Mid-West of the U.S. deciduous forest seems to accelerate soil formation compared to grassland on the same parent material under similar climatic conditions. Differences in the chemical composition of leaf leachates can partly account for a divergent pattern of soil formation. For example acid litter of pines or heather favors the development of acid soils with poor soil structure, whereas litter of decidious trees favors the development of well structured soils.

– Meso-/Macrofauna: Earthworms are the most important of the soil forming fauna in temperate regions, being supported to a variable extent by the small arthropods and the larger burrowing animals (rabbits, moles). Earthworms are also important in tropical soils, but in general the activities of termites, ants, and beetles are of greater significance, particularly in the subhumid to semiarid savanna of Africa and Asia. Earthworms build up a stone-free layer at the soil surface, as well as intimately mixing the litter with fine mineral particles they have ingested. The surface area of the organic matter that is accessible to microbial attack is then much greater. Types of the mesofauna comprise arthropods (e.g. mites, collembola) and annelids (e.g earthworms, enchytraeids).


Table 3.2.1. Earthworm biomass in soils under different land use (White, 1987)

Earthworm biomass [kg/ha]
Hardwood and mixed woodland: 370 – 680
Coniferous forest: 50 – 170
Pasture: 500 – 1500
Arable land: 16 – 760

– Microorganisms: The organic matter of the soil is colonized by a variety of soil organisms, most importantly the microorganisms, which derive energy for growth from the oxidative decomposition of complex organic molecules. During decomposition, essential elements are converted form organic combination to simple inorganic forms (mineralization). Most of the microorganisms are concentrated in the top 15 – 25 cm of the soil because C substrates are more plentiful there. Estimates of microbial biomass C range from 500 to 2,000 kg /ha to 15-cm depth (White, 1987). Types of microorganisms comprise bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, algae, protozoa, and soil enzymes.

– Man: Man influences soil formation through his impact to the natural vegetation, i.e. his agricultural practices, urban and industrial development. Heavy machinery compacts soils and decreases the rate of  water infiltration into the soil, thereby increasing surface runoff and erosion. Land use and site specific management (e.g. application of fertilizer, lime) also act on soil development.


– from Soil Morphology, Classification and Mapping, Dept of Soil Science, U. of Wisconsin-Madison

Report 7.28.13. Synergies, tiny and long

Yesterday I met with Heather Julius, who’s a bright star of a human, a researcher and chef who works with The Center for Genomic Gastronomy conceiving meals . These artists are kindred spirits. Heather’s knowledge of food nutrition, systems, and histories is deep, as is her info on the Missoula Floods and other deep time events, relations and natural histories that she researches for work as a natural sciences interpretive writer. I borrowed a book called Cataclysms of the Columbia, which could make a fine fine secret moniker for this project I am starting. Maybe.


One of the illuminating facts Heather mentioned is how corn made it to the Old World in the 16th century, minus the technology to make the corn’s niacin available to humans’ digestive systems. The missing ingredient was lime (calcium hydroxide), used to soak the corn in a process known as nixtamalization. If you live on corn, and don’t use lime, you end up with a niacin deficiency that manifests in extreme cases as pellagra, or, as this article says, you become a vampire:

After American corn (maize) was introduced to Europe, the food calories yielded per acre increased greatly over what had been provided previously by rye and wheatl2. The use of corn as a staple crop spread gradually from the Iberian Peninsula to eastern Europe9. At that time, where corn went pellagra was sure to follow, for cornmeal became the main source of energy for poor people. Although popularly observed and described in Spain and Italy, pellagra was uniquely macabre in eastern Europe, where poverty, cultural viewpoints, and a lack of medical knowledge kept the disease from being diagnosed until 18589. For years, an infectious or genetic cause was suspected, but pellagra is generally the consequence of a diet which relies upon corn as a staple because the niacin and tryptophan in corn are bound and have poor bioavailability. Clinically, the disease is identified by the ‘four Ds’-dermatitis, dementia, diarrhoea, and death.

– Pellagra and the origin of a myth: evidence from European literature and folklore,  J S Hampl and W S Hampl, 3rd
PDF here

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Another perspective Heather shared is how the Missoula Floods greatly enriched the soil base in Oregon, borrowing, snatching, ripping the soils from eastern Washington after the ice dams broke, and a roaring cascade of water, glacial silt, debris, rock, minerals, came rushing towards the sea along the Columbia and other water ways.  That was only 10,000 years ago.

The Columbia River begins its flow through this Basin from Canada’s Rocky Mountain Range and eventually becomes the border between Oregon and Washington. Along the way, the Columbia is fed by a number of major tributaries. The three largest include the Kootenai, the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille and the Snake rivers. Others include the Payette, the Sultan, the Cowlitz, the Santiam and the Willamette. While each of these tributaries has its own unique characteristics, the Columbia River and the Basin represent the larger whole to which they are all connected.Over millions of years a series of cataclysmic events shaped the Basin’s topography. During the Eocene and Oligocene periods that date back 20 to 50 million years, there were tectonic shifts that helped form mountainous areas and volcanic activity that resulted in floods of molten lava. Seventeen million years ago, scientists believe a giant meteorite struck southeastern Oregon, causing floods of basalt lava. As this lava spilled across the western lowlands, the Columbia Plateau began to form. When the lava cooled and cracked, it formed vertical columns of basalt that are still visible today. These volcanic fires were followed by the deep freeze of the ice age.The big glaciers of the last ice age covered all the northern fringe of Washington and Idaho. In Washington, these glaciers advanced down the western part of the Okanogan Valley about as far south as Chelan. In Idaho, a finger of the ice sheet came down to Sandpoint, where it blocked the mouth of the Clark-Fork River. In so doing, an ice dam one-half mile high was created.This ice dam resulted in the creation of Lake Missoula, which was 2,000 feet deep and stretched hundreds of miles into Montana. Approximately the size of Lake Ontario, about 15,000 years ago the dam burst all at once and Lake Missoula was drained. As the resulting flood carved out 50 cubic miles of earth, deep channels were formed and areas such as the Columbia Gorge were further widened and shaped. It dug riverless canyons such as Dry Coulee, Spring Coulee and Moses Coulee in a matter of days. And it formed the Grand Coulee, which is fifty miles long, up to six miles wide and nine hundred feet deep.Floods also swept into Oregon, covering much of the Willamette Valley. Where Portland stands today, flood waters were thought to be 400 feet deep. Scientists now believe such floods occurred repeatedly as the continental ice sheet came and receded. With all these cataclysmic events, the Northwest’s topography took shape…As the hydrologic cycle occurs, 130 million acre feet of runoff flows through the topography of the Columbia river system annually. By comparison, that is more than eight times the runoff than the Colorado River System…In short, the Columbia River Basin is an essential reason for the Northwest being a dynamic and highly prosperous region within the nation and the world. Hydropower, flood control, irrigation, navigation and recreation are specific benefits that the uniqueness of the Basin and its river system provide.

– from the Foundation for Water & Energy Eduction
(this is a non-profit “committed to providing balanced information regarding the use of water as a renewable energy resource in the Northwest,” and  whose FWEE Sponsorship Level Members include most if not all the hydroelectric power companies in the Columbia Basin, in addition to the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Bureau of Reclamation, and others)


What is the connection between Hydro’s vested interest in the continue dominance of this form of power in the area, and an absence of the use of solar in, say, Facebook’s and Apple’s newly built server farms  in the sage-steppe (high desert) of Prineville? Cheap hydro. Not solar. This made me very aware of hitting the “send” button on my me.com email on my smartphone, or checking in to Facebook.  What’s powering that, and what’s its relation to the larger system of water, sun, energy, money, geography?

Data center energy use has become a hot topic in the Northwest and beyond because these massive server farms use huge volumes of electricity — as much as a small town — to power thousands of computers and to cool those long corridors of hardworking machines.Environmental groups are critical of projects that don’t use renewable energy, and power planners are watching closely to assess the impact of the Northwest’s burgeoning data center industry on regional power demand.Data centers are springing up across Oregon, drawn by tax breaks that exempt the facilities from property taxes. Those incentives can be worth tens of millions of dollars annually to large projects like Apple’s; the value of Apple’s exemptions will depend on how much it spends equipping the facility. While server farms employ relatively few people — Facebook employs just 70 at its massive facility in Prineville — they can make a big impact in small communities, especially during the labor-intensive construction phase.Apple needs new data centers to power its iCloud service, which stores its customers photos, music, calendars and other digital information uploaded from iPhones, iPads and iMacs.The company confirmed plans to build a data center in Prineville last year, just up the road from two massive Facebook buildings. Work began last fall on the first of two, 338,000-square-foot buildings on the bluff above town.Famously secretive, Apple has said little about the details of its project beyond what’s on file with city planners. It had said previously, though, that it would use only renewable energy for the facility. Today, it said that mix will include renewable sources “such as wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal power.”That apparently includes hydropower from the Bonneville Power Administration via the Central Electric Cooperative, a regional power agency serving the Prineville area. The CEC said this morning that it’s supplying electricity for Apple’s construction and is in talks to help power center operations.– Apple Outlines “Green” Energy PLans for Prineville Data Center (link)

Facebook has a Page for Prineville Data Center, with over 109,000 Likes, and a lot of local information.

This article from 4.29.13 on datacenterknowledge.com does a good general job of describing the transformation of rural landscapes like Prineville’s, called “The Cowboy Capitol of Oregon”  (sic) on Facebook’s Prineville Data Center Page.

Your iTunes downloads, Facebook posts and YouTube videos travel through these small rural communities en route to your desktop and mobile device. The growth of the digital economy is not just reshaping how we use the Internet, but creating a new data center geography in which armadas of servers now reside in suburbs or rural towns, often outnumbering the humans in these communities.The economics of hyper-scale computing favor cheap land and cheap electricity, which are unavailable in many of the historic Internet hubs, which are located near major cities. This has created an unusual side effect – major data centers are transforming the economies of small towns around the U.S., placing them on the front line of the race to build out the infrastructure that runs the Internet.


Disposable chai cups


Made all over India, single-use low-fired red clay cups are used by chai sellers in the street, then disposed, dissolved, returned.

I’m looking into how to do something similar in Oregon.

Not sure I can master off-the-hump throwing on the wheel at all, let alone one that’s manually operated by firing up a stick.

Here’s an example of technique from a master in Varanasi:


Are the clay sources each local to the potter’s city?
Does toxicity come into play (I’m thinking of the Ganges around Varanasi for instance)?
How much are plastic cups replacing clay?
How connected to class or nostalgia are these cups?


I’m starting a new project based in Portland Oregon as part of a 3 year Research Fellowship at PNCA, in the Collaborative Design department.

Here’re my new temporary digs:





I have a lot of reading and research lined up, thanks to my formal and informal mentors Peter Schoonmaker, Kimberlee Chambers, and David Johns as well as friends and colleagues back home:



And a lot of doodles and hunches have accumulated.



terro:i:r map

invasive ceramics