What does soil type tell us?

Published 12:33 pm Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Some of our regular readers may have noticed that I didn’t write a Conversation Corner last month. Of course, I was full of good intentions, but I was also short on time with too much to do. 


The main reason for this shortfall was that I was on a mission trip to Guatemala for 10 days. The Saluda Presbyterian Church has a partner church in the western hills of Guatemala, in the small village of La Reforma. This partnership was formed way back in the year 2000. Since then, several of us have gone to visit our Guatemalan brothers and sisters every two years, and several Guatemalans have been able to come here in the past. Covid-19 postponed everything; this was the first time that any of us from Western NC have been to our sister churches in five years.

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Believe it or not, I saw things this year that I had never noticed before. I can attribute that to my granddaughter Lucy: it’s because of her and our weekly nature lessons outdoors that I have started seeing things that I had never noticed before. 


Soil types! That’s what captivated my thoughts throughout the week in Guatemala. In our little mountain village, it is all clay. Back in compost school, I learned that clay is one of the soils most rich in minerals and nutrients, but it cannot breathe and so it strangles/smothers plants. For us to make clay soil better for our crops, we can add compost to it for a period of up to 10 years, thus giving the clay the ability to breathe and nourish our crops.

One of the most obvious observations is that the fruits and vegetables we saw growing are plants that we cannot grow here – bananas, coffee, lemons, sugarcane, etc. I always thought that climate was the reason why we cannot grow so many of those things, but the soil also has much to do with it. 


A quick lesson about coffee: a fresh (un-roasted) coffee bean can be planted right after it is mature, and it will take root and produce a coffee plant. Before that young coffee plant can be transplanted into a permanent location, it has to be nurtured (babied) for 4 years, replanting in larger pots throughout those four years. Only when the young coffee plant’s roots are strong and well-established can the plant be put in its permanent location, usually on a steep mountainside beneath mature banana or plantain trees that can offer it some protection from wind. 


And how can the young coffee plant survive on a steep mountainside? Because the mountainside is all clay and the clay holds the mountain together. To top it all off, a coffee bush can live 85 years, well worth the 4 years needed to create a healthy young plant.

In our remote village, people live on very small parcels of land, most of them steep and less than an eighth of an acre. There is no such thing as a mowed front lawn in rural, poor Guatemala. Their houses are also small. Some are made of concrete blocks with cement floors, and some are only wooden uprights covered with tin, with dirt floors. It is not unusual for families to be living in the same house as the chickens.

But most of their yards are full of life – chickens, oranges, coffee, and bananas to mention just a few. And how can these people grow so much in a tiny place? It is because their soil is nutritious clay! And why are the steps down the narrow ally to their house so slippery? It is because they are made of nothing but clay. Not only is the food of the village determined by the soil type and the climate, but so are the roads, sidewalks and homes. I have never seen a tractor anywhere near La Reforma, but mountains all around are covered with food to sustain the people who live there. 

I have heard the saying all my life that “we are products of our environment,” and this recent trip to Guatemala put an entirely new light on that old saying. I learned a whole lot on that trip, simply by opening my eyes and ears.