With the rise of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and afterward, it has become common to speak of conserving natural resources such as trees or fossil fuels. Yet long before humans recognized the need to make responsible use of things taken from the ground, they learned to conserve the ground itself—that is, the soil. This was a hard-won lesson: failure to conserve soil has turned many a fertile farmland into temporary dust bowl or even permanent desert. Techniques such as crop rotation aid in conservation efforts, but communities continue to face hazards associated with the soil. There is, for instance, the matter of leaching, the movement of dissolved substances through the soil, which, on the one hand, can benefit it but, on the other hand, can rob it of valuable nutrients. Issues of soil contamination also raise concerns that affect not just farmers but the population as a whole.
HOW IT WORKS
Billions of Years in the Making
Earth’s present wealth of soil is the result of hundreds of millions of years’ worth of weathering, erosion, and sedimentation. Once, long ago, there was no soil, only rock, and it took eons’ worth of weathering to dislodge particles of those rocks. These rocks, when combined with organic materials, became the basis for soil, but before the soil could even begin to take shape, a number of things had to fall into place. Chief among these was the formation of something that, at first glance, at least, does not seem to have a great deal of bearing on the soil: the atmosphere.
In combination with water in the hydrosphere (e.g., streams and rivers) as well as water in the form of evaporated moisture and precipitation in the air itself, the blanket of gases we call our atmosphere has been essential to the formation and sustenance of Earth’s soil. This importance goes beyond the obvious point that rain transports water to the soil, thus making possible the abundance of plant life that grows in it. Rain, of course, is of unquestionable importance, but it is only one of several factors associated with the atmosphere (including the water vapor it contains) that have a role in shaping soil as we know it.
To move weathered rocks from highlands to lowlands, where they can become sediment and eventually begin to form soil, it is necessary to subject the rocks themselves to a process of erosion. And erosion—aside from erosion caused by gravity, which usually is considered weathering—can take place only when an atmosphere exists, along with water in the air and on the land. The chief agents of erosion are wind, water (both flowing and in the form of precipitation), and frozen water in the form of icy glaciers, all of which depend on an atmosphere or water or both (see Glaciology).
Erosion transports not only rock sediment but organic material as well. Together, these two ingredients are as essential to making soil as tea bags and water are to making tea. Obviously, the greater the organic content, the richer the soil, and here again the air plays a part. It is important that deeper layers of soil receive a supply of air from the surface to sustain the life of subterranean organisms, who not only process nutrients through the soil but (by their burrowing activities) also aerate it, or make air available to it.
A Product of Its Environment
Soil, like most people, is a product of the environment in which it was formed. That environment has five major influencing factors: the nature of the “parent material,” or the rock from which the soil was derived; the local climate; the presence of living organisms; local topography; and the passage of time.
Specific classes of mineral break apart in characteristic ways, and the size of the pieces into which the original weathered rock is broken has a great deal to do with the character of the soil that it forms. This does not mean, however, that relatively large rock pieces necessarily will yield the worst soils, since erosive forces will continue to work on the rock, pulling out its nutrient-rich mineral wealth and gradually acting to break it apart.
As for climate, it is clear that rain and sun are essential for the growth of plant matter, but, of course, too much of either or both is harmful. (See Soil for a discussion of soils in rainforests.) Plants aid the soil by dying and feeding it with more organic material, but they are not the only types of organism in the soil. Indeed, the soil constitutes an ecosystem in and of itself, a realm rich in biodiversity, in which various biogeochemical cycles are played out, and through which energy flows as part of the operation of the larger Earth system.
The underground world teems with creatures ranging from bacteria to moles and prairie dogs (in some regions), each of which fulfills a function. These functions include aerating the soil by burrowing; processing material though ingestion and elimination of waste, thus converting compounds into nutrients that the soil can use; and mixing organic material with minerals. Organisms’ final contribution to the soil comes when they die, as their bodies become material that feeds the earth through decomposition.
Topography, or elevation, plays a major role in making possible erosion, itself a process that can be either beneficial or detrimental. The question of whether it is one or the other may be a matter of perspective, or rather elevation. From the standpoint of lowland areas, which receive the wealth of the upland areas in the form of nutrient-rich runoff carried by gravity or flowing media, such as wind or water, erosion is a good thing. Matters do not look as good from the viewpoint of the mountains, which lose much of their best soil to low-lying areas.
The influence of time in shaping soils—as well as much else about the soil itself—can be appreciated by studying soil horizons, the various strata, or layers, of soil that lie beneath the surface. The most basic division of layers is between the A, B, and C horizons, which differ in depth and physical and chemical characteristics as well as age.
Above the A horizon, or topsoil, lies humus, decomposing organic material that eventually will become soil. The A horizon itself contains a large amount of organic matter, and thus it may be black, or at least much darker than the soil below it. Between the A and B horizons is a sandy, silty later called the E horizon. Then comes the B horizon, or subsoil, which starts at a depth as shallow as 1 ft. (0.3 m) or deeper than 5 ft. (1.5 m).
Lacking a great deal of organic material but still rich in nutrients, the B horizon has a sizable impact on the A horizon. Minerals—both healthful and harmful—may rise up from the B to the A horizon, and the ability of the B horizon to hold in moisture from above greatly affects the moisture of the A horizon soil. (See Soil for a discussion of how salt deposits in the B horizon affect topsoil in deserts.) Together, A and B horizons constitute what is called the solum, or true soil.
The C horizon is called regolith. It is the home for the rocks of the parent material, which has given up much of its nutrient riches in fortifying the soil that lies above it. This far below the surface, there is no sign of plant or animal life, and below the C horizon is the R horizon, or bedrock—the top of the layers of rock and metal that descend all the way to the planet’s core. Once again depths vary, with bedrock as shallow as 5-10 ft. (1.5-3 m) or as deep as 0.5 mi. (0.8 km) or more.
Differences Between Soils
The depth of the soil is a measure of wealth— wealth, that is, in terms of natural resources. A sheath over much of the solid earth, soil separates the planet’s surface from its rocky interior and preserves the lives of the plants and animals that live on and in it. It receives rain and other forms of precipitation, which it filters through its layers, as we discuss later, in the context of leaching. Thus, it not only provides water to organisms above and below its surface but also helps prevent flooding by acting as a reservoir.
A cloud of topsoil is picked up by the wind near Boise City, Oklahoma, during the dust bowl of the 193ds. In some cases, wind removed 3-4 in. (7.6-1d.6 cm) of topsoil, turning acreage that once rippled with wheat into a desertlike wasteland.
A great deal of soil’s volume is air, for which it also acts as a reservoir. Underground creatures depend on this air and also help circulate it by burrowing. This circulation, in turn, provides oxygen to the roots of plants and makes the soil more hospitable to growth. Even though soil performs these and other life-preserving functions, it would be a mistake to assume that all soils are the same. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified 11 major soil orders, each of which is divided into suborders, groups, subgroups, families, and series.
The specificity of soil types, as reflected in the identification and naming of soil series, illustrates the complexity of what at first seems a very simple thing. In fact, soils can be extremely specific, with names that reflect local landmarks. If soils share enough similarities, they are grouped together in a soil series, but it is safe to say that there are thousands of individual soil types on Earth.
On a broad level, there are certain types of environment more or less favorable to the formation of rich soil. Some of these types are discussed in the essay Soil, and specific examples of environmental problems are provided later in this essay. Yet almost any environment can become unfavorable to plant growth if proper soil-conservation procedures are not observed.
The phrase soil conservation refers to the application of principles for maintaining the productivity and health of agricultural land by control of wind- and water-induced soil erosion. For the remainder of this essay, we examine the dangers involved in such erosion and the use of measures to prevent it. In so doing, we give the matter of soil conservation a somewhat larger scope than the preceding definition might suggest. Since soil affects the world far beyond farms, it seems only fitting to approach it not as a concern merely of agriculture but of the environment in general.
Erosion is spoken of here in a general sense, but for a more in-depth discussion of erosive processes, see Erosion. Mass Wasting examines dramatic erosion-related phenomena, such as landslides. Biogeochemical Cycles contains some discussion of erosion, inasmuch as it helps circulate life-sustaining chemical elements throughout the various earth systems. Indeed, it is important to remember that erosion is not always negative in its results; on the contrary, it is a valuable process by which landforms are shaped. The erosive processes we explore here, however, generally contribute to the loss of soil health and productivity.
The Dust Bowl
When people mismanage agricultural lands or when natural forces otherwise conspire to destroy soil, the results can be devastating. One of the most dramatic examples occurred in what came to be known as the dust bowl. This was the name given to a wide area covering Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and even agricultural parts ofCol-orado during the years 1934 and 1935. Over the course of a few months, once-productive farmlands turned into worthless fields of stubble and dust, good for almost nothing and highly vulnerable to violent wind erosion.
And wind erosion came, scattering vast quantities of soil from the Great Plains of the Midwest to the Atlantic Seaboard. The classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz sets its fantastic, otherworldly story against this backdrop, and to viewers in the late 1930s the tornado that swept Dorothy from her Kansas farmland into the world of Oz was all too real. The only difference was that no magical adventure awaited victims of the real-life tornadoes and other windstorms.
The fate of the dust bowl farmers, many of whom lost everything, was dramatized in the novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck in 1939 as well as in the acclaimed motion picture that followed a year later. A perhaps equally eloquent tribute appeared in the form of the American photographer Dorothea Lange’s photographs of dust bowl refugees. The images etched by Lange are unforgettable: in one a woman stares into the distance, her face a landscape of despair, as her children huddle next to her, their eyes hidden from the camera. In another a man, obviously exhausted from months or years of overwork, hardship, and fear, sits behind the wheel of a truck, gazing somewhere beyond the camera lens. Like the woman, he seems to be looking into a future that offers scant hope.
Causes of the dust bowl
What happened? The sad fact is that in the years leading up to the early 1930s, the future dust bowl farmlands had seemed remarkably productive, and farmers continued to be pleasantly surprised, year after year, at the abundant yields they could draw from each field. In fact, farmers were unwittingly preparing the way for vast erosion by overcultivating the land and not taking proper steps to preserve its moisture against drought. This was particularly unfortunate because farmers in the 1930s had long known about the principle of crop rotation as a means of giving the soil a rest in order to restore its nutrients. Yet the farmers of the plains tried to push their crops to yield more and more, and for a time it worked, though at great future expense to the land.
One is tempted to see in the agricultural world of the U.S. Midwest parallels to the foolhardy attitude that, just a few years earlier, created a boom on Wall Street, followed by the devastating stock market crash of October 29, 1929, that ushered in the Great Depression. Certainly the ravages of the dust bowl, when they came, were particularly unwelcome in a land already reeling from several years of widespread unemployment and a sagging economy. And though there was no cause-effect relationship between the Wall Street crash and the dust bowl, there is no question that both were brought about in large part by a lack of planning for the future and by a naive belief that it is possible to get “something for nothing”—that is, to get more out of the world (whether the world of finances or the natural world) than one puts into it.
In some places farmers alternated between wheat cultivation and livestock grazing on particular plots of land. Thus, the hooves of the cattle damaged the soil, which had been weakened by raising wheat. The land was therefore ready to become the site of a full-fledged natural disaster, and, at the height of the depression, natural disaster came in the form of high winds. The winds in some cases removed topsoil as much as 3-4 in. (7-10 cm) thick. Dunes of dust as tall as 15-20 ft. (4.6-6.1 m) formed, turning acreage that once had rippled with wheat into desertlike wastelands.
Erosion Control in Action
Today the farmlands of the plains states long since have recovered, and American farmers have benefited from the lessons learned in the dust bowl. Out of the dust bowl years came the establishment, in 1935, of the Soil Conservation Service, a federal agency charged with implementing erosion-control practices. (The Soil Conservation Service was the predecessor of the modern-day Natural Resources Conservation Service.) In the wake of the legislation creating the agency, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), states passed laws creating nearly 3,000 local soil conservation districts.
If one passes through agricultural lands today, one is likely to see signs identifying the local conservation district. Even more important, the lands themselves are a testament to principles put into practice as an outgrowth of the dust bowl years. For instance, instead of alternating one year of wheat with one year in which a field lies fallow, or unused, farmers in the dust bowl region discovered that a three-year cycle of wheat, sorghum, and fallow land worked much better. They also planted trees to serve as barriers against wind.
Erosion control legislation
Concerns over soil conservation in America did not end with the dust bowl. As United States farm production soared in the 1970s, American farms enjoyed such a great surplus that U.S. farmers increasingly began to sell their crops overseas—most notably, to the Soviet Union. While some Americans were upset to see the farmers of the Midwest selling wheat to the Communists in Moscow, others saw in this act a testament to the failure of the Soviet agricultural system and to the strength of U.S. farming. In the wake of these increased exports, farmers were encouraged to cultivate even marginal croplands to increase profits, thus heightening the vulnerability of their lands to erosion.
What followed was not another dust bowl, however; instead, the experience of the 1970s and 1980s shows just how much American farmers, legislators, and others had learned from the 1930s. Environmental activists in the 1970s, concerned over water quality, helped return public interest to the problem of soil erosion. They called attention to the flow of nutrients from croplands into water resources, most notably leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus that choked lakes with eutrophication (see Biogeochemical Cycles). As a result of public concerns over these and related issues, Congress in 1977 passed the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act, mandating the conservation of soil, water, and other resources on private farmlands and other properties.
In 1985 the Food Security Act further served to encourage steps toward the reduction of soil erosion. Some 45 million acres (18 million hectares) of land vulnerable to erosion were removed from intensive cultivation by the act. The legislation also forbade the conversion of rangelands into agricultural fields, which would have raised great potential for erosion and depletion of already vulnerable soil. In addition, the act required farmers to develop and maintain practices for the control of erosion on lands susceptible to that threat.
Barrier and cover
Soil-conservation practices fall under two headings: barrier and cover. Under the barrier approach, various structures act as a wall against water runoff, wind, and the movement of soil. Among such structures are banks, hedgerows, walls of earth or other materials, and silt fences such as one sees at construction sites. The cover approach is devoted to the idea of maintaining a heavy soil cover of living and dead plant material. This is achieved through the use of mulch, cover crops, and other techniques.
Local governments and property owners in nonagricultural lands often apply both the cover and barrier approaches, planting trees as well as grass not simply to beautify the land but also to hold the soil in place. Land has to have some sort of vegetative protection to stand between it and the forces of wind and water erosion, and the two approaches together serve to protect soil against nature’s onslaught.
Like erosion, leaching—the movement of dissolved substances with water percolating through soil—can be both positive and negative. For any plot of land, assuming the rate of water input is greater than the rate of water loss through evaporation, water has to go somewhere, so it leaves the site by moving downward. Eventually it either reaches the deep groundwater or passes through subterranean springs to flow into the surface waters of streams, rivers, and lakes.
Along the way, the leached water carries all sorts of dissolved substances, ranging from nutrients to contaminants. The threat of the latter has led to widespread concern in the United States over the leaching of toxins into water supplies, and in 1980 this concern spurred a massive piece of legislation called CERLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act), better known as Superfund. Six years later, in 1986, Congress updated CERLA with the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act. These laws provided for a vast array of measures directed toward environmental cleanup, including the removal of chemicals and other toxins in soil.
Drastic measures such as those outlined in CERLA and other legislation may be required for the cleanup of artificial materials introduced into soils and groundwater. But for human waste and other more natural forms of toxin, nature itself is able to achieve a certain amount of cleanup on its own. In a septic-tank system, used by people who are not connected to a municipal sewage system, bacteria process wastes, removing a great deal of their toxic content in the tank itself. The waste-water leaves the tank and passes through a filtration system, in which the water leaches through layers of gravel and other filters that help remove more of its harmful content. As the wastewater percolates from the filtration system through the soil (usually well below the A horizon by this point), it is purified further before it enters the groundwater supply.
Not only does leaching help purify the water that passes through the soil, it also is an important part of the soil-formation process, inasmuch as it passes nutrients to the depths of the A horizon and into the B horizon. Its ability to pass along nutrients is not always beneficial, and in some ecosystems, large amounts of dissolved nitrogen are lost to soil as a result of leaching. In such a situation, soil typically is fertilized with nitrate, a form of the element with which soil often has difficulty binding (see Nitrogen Cycle). For this reason, nitrate tends to leach easily, leading to an overabundance of nitrogen in the lower levels of the soil and in the groundwater. This condition, known as nitrogen saturation, can influence the eutrophication of waters (see Bio-geochemical Cycles for an explanation of eutrophication) and can cause the decline and death of trees on the surface.
Much of North Africa lies under the cover of a vast desert, the Sahara. By far the world’s largest desert, the Sahara today spreads across some 3.5 million sq. mi. (9.06 million sq km), an area larger than the continental United States. Only about 780 acres (316 hectares) of it, or little more than 1 sq. mi. (2.6 sq km), is fertile. The rest is mostly stone and dry earth with scattered shrubs—and, here and there, the rolling sand dunes typically used to depict the Sahara in movies.
Given the forbidding moonscape of the Sahara today, it might be surprising to learn that just 8,000 years ago—the blink of an eye in terms of geologic time—it was a region of flowing rivers and lush valleys. For thousands of years it served as a home to many cultures, some of them quite advanced, to judge from their artwork. Though they left behind an extraordinary record in the form of their rock-art paintings and carvings, which show an understanding of realistic representation that would not be matched until the time of the Greeks, the identity of the early Saharan peoples themselves remains largely a mystery.
Instead of identifying them by the name of a nationality or empire, archaeologists divide the phases of the early Saharan culture according to a set of four names that collectively tell the story of the region’s progressive transformation into a desert. First was the Hunter period, from about 6000 to about 4000 B.C., when a Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, people survived by hunting the many wild animals then available in the region. Next came the Herder period, from about 4000 to 1500 B.C. As their name suggests, these people maintained herds of animals and also practiced basic agriculture.
As the Sahara became drier and drier, however, there were no more herds. Egyptians began bringing in domesticated horses to cross the desert: hence the name of the Horse period (ca. 1500-ca. 600 B.C.) By about 600 B.C., not even horses could survive in the forbidding climate. There was only one creature that could survive: the hardy, seemingly inexhaustible camel. Thus began the Camel era, which continues to the present day.
Attempts to control desertification
As with the dust bowl, the first question one wants to ask when confronted with a story such as that of the Sahara, is “What happened?” The answer is much more complex, just as the effects of desertification—the slow transformation of ordinary lands to desert—are much more permanent than those of the erosion associated with the dust bowl. Desertification does not always result in what people normally think of as a desert. It is rather a process that contributes toward making a region more dry and arid, and because it is usually gradual, it can be reversed in some cases. But doing so represents a vast challenge.
A camel caravan in the Sahara. The world’s largest desert, it covers 3.5 million sq. mi. (9 million sq km), but 8,000 years ago this was a region of lush valleys and flowing rivers.
In 1977 the United Nations (UN), in the form of the UN Conference on Desertification in Nairobi, Kenya, set out to address the spread of the Sahara into the Sahel, an arid region that stretches south of the desert. Some 700 delegates from almost 100 countries adopted a number of measures designed to halt the spread of desertification in that region and others by the year 2000.
Even though there have been some successes, the Sahel region today remains a blighted area where famine is common, and this state of affairs is not entirely the result of the natural causes addressed in the conference’s resolutions. Poor government management and a near-constant state of civil war in such countries as Ethiopia have played at least as important a role in spreading famine as nature itself. During the 1980s, in fact, the government of Ethiopia (at that time a Marxist-Leninist state) deliberately withheld food supplies, shipped to it from the West, as a way of exerting pressure on rebel factions and other groups it wished to subdue.
The example of Iraq
The arid regions of Iraq provide another example of how human influences can result in desertification. Once that country, known in ancient times as Mesopotamia, was among the greenest and most lush places in the known world. For this reason, historians today use the name Fertile Crescent to describe an arc from the deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia to the mouth of the Nile in Egypt. Today, of course, Iraq is mostly a dust-colored land of bare trees and brush.
What happened? Agricultural mismanagement certainly played a role, as did the simple exhaustion of the soil by some 6,000 years of human civilization. Indeed, since the Fertile Crescent was perhaps the first area settled by agricultural societies long before the beginning of full-fledged civilization as such in about 3500 B.C., it is safe to say that the region has been under cultivation for several thousand years longer—perhaps 8,000 or even 10,000 years. Direct human action and malice also may have played a role: some historians believe that the Mongols, during their brutal invasion in the 1250s, so badly devastated the farmlands and irrigation channels of Iraq that the land never recovered.
A horizon: Topsoil, the uppermost of the three major soil horizons.
Aerate: To make air available to soil.
B horizon: Subsoil, beneath topsoil and above regolith.
Bedrock: The solid rock that lies below the C horizon, the deepest layer of soil.
Biogeochemical cycles: The changes that particular elements undergo as they pass back and forth through the various earth systems and particularly between living and nonliving matter. The elements involved in biogeochemical cycles are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.
C horizon: Regolith, which lies between subsoil and bedrock and constitutes the bottommost of the soil horizons.
Decomposers: Organisms that obtain their energy from the chemical breakdown of dead organisms as well as from animal and plant waste products. The principal forms of decomposer are bacteria and fungi.
Decomposition reaction: A chemical reaction in which a compound is broken down into simpler compounds or into its constituent elements. In the earth system, this often is achieved through the help of detritivores and decomposers.
Detritivores: Organisms that feed on waste matter, breaking organic material down into inorganic substances that then can become available to the biosphere in the form of nutrients for plants. Their function is similar to that of decomposers; however, unlike decomposers—which tend to be bacteria or fungi—detritivores are relatively complex organisms, such as earthworms or maggots.
Ecosystem: A community of interdependent organisms along with the inorganic components of their environment.
Erosion: The movement of soil and rock due to forces produced by water, wind, glaciers, gravity, and other influences. In most cases, a fluid medium, such as air or water, is involved.
Eutrophication: A state of heightened biological productivity in a body of water, which is typically detrimental to the ecosystem in which it takes place. Eutrophication can be caused by an excess of nitrogen or phosphorus in the form of nitrates and phosphates, respectively.
Humus: Unincorporated, often partially decomposed plant residue that lies at the top of soil and eventually will decay fully to become part of it.
Landform: A notable topographical feature, such as a mountain, plateau, or valley.
Leaching: The removal of soil materials that are in solution, or dissolved in water.
Mass wasting: The transfer of earth material down slopes by processes that include creep, slump, slide, flow, and fall. Also known as mass movement.
Mineral: A naturally occurring, typically inorganic substance with a specific chemical composition and a crystalline structure.
Organic: At one time chemists used the term organic only in reference to living things. Now the word is applied to most compounds containing carbon, with the exception of carbonates (which are minerals) and oxides, such as carbon dioxide.
Parent material: Mineral fragments removed from rocks by means of weathering. Along with organic deposits, these fragments form the basis for soil.
Regolith: A general term describing a layer of weathered material that rests atop bedrock.
Sediment: Material deposited at or near Earth’s surface from a number of sources, most notably preexisting rock. There are three types of sediment: rocks, or clastic sediment; mineral deposits, or chemical sediment; and organic sediment, composed primarily of organic material.
Sedimentation: The process of erosion, transport, and deposition undergone by sediment.
Soil conservation: The application of principles for maintaining the productivity and health of agricultural land by control of wind- and water-induced soil erosion. The term also may be applied more broadly to encompass the maintenance and protection of nonagricultural soils.
Soil horizons: Layers of soil, parallel to the surface of the earth, which have built up over time. These layers are distinguished from one another by color, consistency, and composition.
Soil profile: A cross-section combining all or most of the soil horizons that lie between Earth’s surface and the bedrock below it.
Weathering: The breakdown of rocks and minerals at or near the surface of Earth due to physical, chemical, or biological processes.
Some causes of desertification
With regard to human involvement in the desertification process, it is not necessary for a society to be advanced agriculturally to do long-term damage to the soil. The Pueblan culture of what is now the southwestern United States depleted an already dry and vulnerable region after about a.d. 800 by removing its meager stands of mesquite trees. And though human causes, in the form of either mismanagement or deliberate damage, have contributed toward desertification, sometimes nature itself is the driving force.
Long-term changes in rainfall or general climate as well as water erosion and wind erosion such as caused the dust bowl can turn a region into a permanent desert. An ecosystem may survive short-term drought, but if soil is forced to go too long without proper moisture, it sets in motion a chain reaction in which plant life dwindles and, with it, animal life as well. Thus, the soil is denied the fresh organic material necessary to its continued sustenance, and a slow, steady process of decline begins.