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The Smell of Living Soil

By Sheila Keeling, NRCS Natural Resource Planner in the Hopkinsville, KY Work Unit

Have you ever thought about the feeling when you take off your shoes and dip your feet into a clear rippling stream?.......when you walk through a pile of fallen dried leaves or listen to the wind rustling through the tree leaves?...... when you watch the waves come into the shore over and over again?.... or when you smell the sweet fresh fragrance of earth?   We feel something deep in the smell of that fresh-soil, and it is one of those mysteries that takes us back to a place in time.  The smell of soil invokes something so deep that it never really can be described. Can you describe the smell of soil in a forest, freshly tilled field, or in a swamp?  Have you ever wondered if fresh tilled soil has always had the same sweet aroma? 

Actually it’s not the soil we smell but the bacteria that enters the soil through the geosmin.  It’s the bacteria that is producing the chemical that we smell.  The smell will be different depending on where the soil is found.  Healthy, productive soils should smell fresh, clean and pleasant or have little odor at all.  If the soil smells like ammonia or has a rotten odor that is a good indication there is poor drainage or lack of oxygen in the soil.

The unique smell is because soil is not just dirt.  Healthy soil is living and is a complex ecosystem with an abundance of bio-diversity.  “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energFresh Soily flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals”. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949.  Soil…..”the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.”  Dr. Daniel Hillel

So when we smell that sweet fragrance of soil and feel something deep remember the soil is alive and ultimately it’s the soil that gives us life.   Smell the soil we create.


(Photo credit: Marty Lewis, Soil Conservationist, Hopkinsville Work Unit)