Gary Pierzynski
Gary Pierzynski

A look at various types of soils together creates a color palette that alone serves as a work of art. A-horizon soil, or topsoil, comes in a variety of hues and shades, even in Kansas.

Gary Pierzynski, university distinguished professor and head of Kansas State University’s Department of Agronomy, said soil color is often determined by the addition or removal of some component.

Dark soils typically indicate the addition of organic matter that absorbs light, he said. Red soils mean the prevalence of iron. White soils that are often sandy in nature likely mean some of the color-inducing elements have been removed.

All soil types have different colors and different levels of productivity, Pierzynski said. People might recognize soil as an essential component for life to exist, as it allows for food production, but they might not realize the relation between soils and culture.

“The quality of the soil influences productivity, or the amount of life that does exist,” Pierzynski said. “Productive soils allow us to sustain the population of life that we have, not only humans but all organisms in the environment.”

“Culturally, a lot of people might not think about soil’s relation,” he continued. “Soil can be used as an art medium and also provides for a lot of the recreational activities, which can be anything from outdoor activities on various sports fields to the national park system and the enjoyment we get from it.”

“Soils, Culture and People” is the December theme of the 2015 International Year of Soils, which has brought awareness to people around the world about the importance of soil in their everyday lives.

Soil in art

While it’s difficult to document how long soils have been used in art by various cultures, soils have been used in all types of art forms throughout history. Different soil colors can be used to produce paints, dyes and inks. In addition, the mineral component of soils is categorized by the size of the particles, sand being the largest size and clay being the smallest. Sand can be used to create glass, while clays can be used to make ceramics.

“The American Indians had known deposits (of clay) they would go to,” said Michel Ransom, professor of soil classification and mineralogy at K-State. “This is dominantly clay that is of the mineral kaolinite, and they used it to make pottery. In our artwork now, typical pottery is made of special kinds of clays that have been processed, molded and heated.”

Amy Santoferraro, assistant professor of art and area coordinator of ceramics at K-State, said a hierarchy of clays exists. Throughout history, artists typically used clays based on their geography and accessibility. Today, artists can easily access and use clays from around the world.

While teaching, Santoferraro said she encourages students to find the clay that best suits their needs, whether based on color, workability or plasticity.

“It’s a difficult material to work with, and it feels a little clumsy at first,” Santoferraro said. “But, the longer you work with it, the more you understand and the better you get. It can be rewarding in the end.”

Soil in recreation

In addition to using soils for art, cultures globally rely on different types of soils for recreation, from enjoying their home lawn, to participating in events on athletic fields, to hiking or biking in parks, as examples.

“Soils support recreation, especially in turfgrass systems,” said Jared Hoyle, assistant professor and extension turfgrass specialist at K-State. “Sports fields, recreation fields, parks and golf courses are areas where we can have a wide range of soils.”

The type of soil, which can range from sandy to more clay in nature, determines the management practices necessary to achieve a high-quality turfgrass, he said.

Like recreation on land, soils also support water recreation.

“Soil has a tremendous impact on recreational water quality,” said Dan Devlin, director of the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment and the Kansas Water Resources Institute. “When we think about the things that harm recreation or soil quality, one of those would be sediment.”

When soils from upland areas or riverbanks get into recreational waters, they often come with nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, Devlin said. Improved soil conservation practices improve soil quality, and ultimately lead to less soil erosion and less sedimentation in lakes, rivers and streams.

Opportunities in soil science

Many opportunities exist for people who are interested in a career in soils, Pierzynski said. Agronomy, engineering, horticulture, recreation and art are just a few of the fields that involve people working with soils.

Scientists are needed to study soils directly and advise agricultural producers about conservation practices that help protect the soil resource.

Indirectly, he said agronomists work with the soil resource constantly in relation to crop productivity and to make fertilizer and micronutrient application recommendations.

“Currently, there is a strong demand for agronomists, crop consultants and soil scientists in the industry,” Pierzynski said, adding that the K-State Department of Agronomy has had a near 100 percent placement rate for graduates in the last decade.

To watch a video interview about “Soils, Culture and People,” log on to the K-State Research and Extension YouTube page (https://youtu.be/evWAdrZMbx4). The Soil Science Society of America has numerous resources for the public, teachers and children about soil and each monthly theme for the International Year of Soils. Log on to www.soils.org.