Many years ago in Alaska, I had a discussion with a biologist who was studying the Alaskan soils. His study revolved around the fact that Alaska has very little soil and what it does have is developing. The lack of soil in Alaska has limited plant growth and made the ecology dependent on migrating salmon. Soils are complex mixtures of organic matter, minerals, water, air, and billions of organisms that form over hundreds of years. Good soils are vital for survival. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”
Research has shown that plants are designed to “call” for nutrients from the soil. A plant will release molecules called flavonoids, which cause bacteria in the soil to migrate into the plant and form nitrogen nodules on the roots. The nitrogen nodules generate food for the plant. If ample nitrogen is already available for the plant, it will not release the flavonoids.
This “hunger” by plants is vital to understand because many natural and human-caused processes can deplete the soil. Forest and brush fires, hurricanes, pollution, and climate change can deplete soils’ nitrogen content and kill plants. Studies of the giant sequoias in California have shown that the soil under them has twice as many bacteria as the soil under nearby sugar pines. We all know that bacteria influence human health, but bacteria also affect plant health and growth.
As our population increases and world climates change, it will become increasingly important to understand how soil allows us to feed our growing population. God’s design of the Earth includes providing the soils necessary to produce food. Good soils are vital for survival.
All life forms on planet Earth need nitrates to build proteins and DNA. We get our nitrates from the plants and seeds that we eat. Plants absorb nitrates from the soil through their roots. The nitrates in the soil come from rain that has absorbed nitrates from the air through which it falls. The nitrates in the air come from the action of lightning. Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, and lightning takes some of the nitrogen and catalyzes it into a bond with oxygen to make nitrates. That is why we need lightning.
A surprising thing about this complex system is that the lightning is far more abundant than we realize. Lightning strikes the Earth around 1000 times every second. Above the clouds, in the upper atmosphere, there are continuous lightning types that we don’t see from Earth’s surface. They are called elves, sprites, blue jets, and gigantic jets, depending on their color and shape. There is a voltage difference between the ground and the ionosphere, which varies from 200,000 volts to 500,000 volts. Even in fair weather, there is a constant flow of current, which scientists believe is caused by the spinning of Earth’s core. All of this adds up to a total of over three million lightning strikes a day, and each produces nitrates to sustain life. The jet stream carries these nitrates around the planet, providing a natural fertilizer in places where electrical storms rarely occur.
There is an economy of language in the Hebrew descriptions of the Bible. In Genesis 2:8-9 for example, the Bible says: “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees to grow out of the ground…”
We can learn a lot from those verses. They tell us that the Lord planted something, he did not “zap” something into existence. Later the man was told to tend the garden (verse 15), suggesting that it needed care to continue to provide for the man’s needs and later for the woman’s needs. How long was it after God planted the trees before they began to produce fruit? What did Adam and Eve have to do to take care of the garden? How long was it before Adam and Eve sinned? What else did God need to do in the process of planting the trees?
This last question opens the door to a great deal of understanding that science has gained in recent years through the study of soil chemistry. Plants do not grow in sterile sand. For soil to nourish plants so that they can feed us, much careful science has to be applied. Modern soil scientists refer to “healthy soil” meaning that it is rich in organic material, is crumbly, and has the right chemical profile. To have these things, the soil must contain microbes including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa. A teaspoon of healthy soil can hold more microorganisms than there are people on Earth.
We now know that there is a symbiotic relationship between plants and soil microbes. Plants use the sun’s energy to pull carbon dioxide from the air and create a carbon-rich nutrient packet to allow growth. Oxygen is released in that process. The plants also leak nutrients to the microbes, and the microbes supply plants with other nutrients they have extracted from the minerals in the soil. The fungi produce an underground network that brings water and carbon to the plants. When insects begin to feed on a plant, fungi filaments called hyphae help the plant bring tiny soil nematodes that feed on the insects.
When humans abuse the soil and interrupt this system, we have to artificially add chemicals to do what organisms in the soil were designed to do. The chemicals of modern farming could be reduced or eliminated if farmers worked on building healthy soils. The Garden of Eden was a place of healthy soil. God used incredible wisdom and intelligent design to build a system that would meet human needs. This was done in God’s time and was not a magic show, but a consciously built system that has sustained all living things for a very long time. Proverbs 8:22-31 tells us that wisdom was involved in all of this planning and design, and Romans 1:18-22 lets us know that all of this is a testimony to the existence of God.