Like most kids, I grew up in the dirt. I whiled away my youthful days searching for worms and wriggly creatures under the soil. My brother and I stomped around in mud pits until we were covered from head to toe in cakes of gooey, brown muck. Then as an undergraduate, my attention started drifting upwards to the trees and plants of the forest. I spent six years doing fieldwork at a research station in southwest Virginia, absorbed by hemlock and birch while neglecting the soft mats of soil on which they grew.
It’s been almost a decade since I’ve ventured into the woods for a research project, so I was thrilled when James “Jim” Leonard invited me to join him on his quest to uncover the mysteries of West Virginia’s soils. Leonard, a master’s student at West Virginia University (WVU) and soil science pathways student for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, was eager to show me the spruce-laden slopes he studies.
After a 45-minute drive along a curvy back road through Glady, we arrived at the trailhead to the field site. The green hues of the hills popped among the misty clouds that nestled into the hollows. Goldenrod and purple Joe-Pye weed bloomed in open meadows, hinting that late summer had officially arrived in the highlands. As the rain drizzled down, we looked to the skies, hoping the weather would clear or, at the very least, not get any worse. Leonard loaded a backpack full of gear and grabbed his spaded shovel, while I donned my rain jacket and hiking boots. After mounting a GPS unit to his hip, we set off down a lumpy road, every inch reclaimed by a sea of sprawling plants.
Leonard is particularly interested in soils that occur in red spruce forests, which once covered approximately 1.5 million acres across West Virginia until they were extensively logged and burned in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Now, scientists and citizens are working to restore red spruce throughout Central Appalachia, in part because of the exceptional services they provide to native ecosystems. Red spruce forests create homes for endangered and rare species, store massive amounts of carbon, and prevent sediment from running off into the surrounding watersheds. “I just love the forests they create. They’re beautiful, absolutely gorgeous,” said Leonard.
For his current project, Leonard is measuring how much carbon is stored in soils under red spruce forests throughout the Monongahela National Forest. He’s sampled soil from about 65 sites since 2018 and has 25 more to go. Using a digital mapping program, he randomly selected each site based on the forest composition, mapped soil types, and proximity to roads. Then, every field day, he wanders into the woods with a single GPS point as his guide.
We trekked along the old logging road, checking the GPS every so often to make sure we were on the right track. About 20 minutes later, we took a sharp right into a thicket of red spruce, birch, hemlock, and beech trees, treading carefully up the north-facing slope until we arrived at the sampling site. A red spruce towered over us, which Leonard enthusiastically estimated to be at least 100 years old. “You often don’t know what you’ll find until you get there,” he said. Relieved that he could use this site for his study, he dropped his backpack and scattered notebooks, measuring tapes, a broom, and other instruments across the forest floor.
While Leonard took notes about the landscape and vegetation, I wandered around, gazing up into the misty tree canopy and down onto the mossy hummocks that shaped the slope. Relishing in my privilege to spend a peaceful morning in the woods, I turned around to see Leonard vigorously hacking into the dirt, sweat dripping from his brow and soaking through his maroon WVU Soils Team t-shirt.
After marking out a one-meter square, he crouched down to carefully remove the top layer of organic matter, comprised of a loose nest of decaying conifer needles and hardwood leaves sprinkled with twigs. Then he continued shoveling, digging deep into the earth, revealing layer after layer of buried history, piling it up into a golden mound by his side.
“All soils tell a story,” said Leonard. While processes, like logging or fires, can drastically alter the plant community in a forest, remnants of the past are still present in soils, which have accumulated for thousands or even millions of years. If you dig deep enough and know what to look for, you can use properties of the soil to recreate bygone eras. For instance, conifer species, like red spruce and hemlock, produce organic acids that leach out of the upper soil layers and are deposited deeper into the subsoil or nearby streams, bestowing them with characteristic tea-stained hues.
To uncover the soil’s story, Leonard dug a pit 100 centimeters (or about 3.3 feet) deep, then tidied up the layers by clipping stray roots, chiseling into the soil, and brushing away loose clumps and rocks. The pit, which first appeared to be a dark layer of topsoil dripping into an array of blended browns and iron-dyed oranges, transformed into an exquisitely executed layer cake with a distinct golden layer on bottom, a light-brown layer on top, and a dark-chocolate frosting. A charcoal compote separated the bottom layer, indicating that something likely burned there in the past—perhaps a large root, a fallen tree, or the entire forest.
After separating each soil layer, or horizon, with stakes, Leonard started sampling from the bottom, recording color, texture, firmness, and other soil properties. He handed me a clod of soil, moistened with a spritz of water. “Feel this one,” he said, “notice how it kind of sticks and breaks apart?” I crushed it between my fingers, coating my hand in a layer of rust-orange clay.
“Now feel this one,” he continued, handing me another clump of wet soil. It felt slick and oily as I worked it between my fingertips. “That’s the spodic properties,” Leonard said, referring to organic materials that occur in soils where conifers are or were present in the high-elevation mountains of Central Appalachia. “We have a term called pedomemory—the soil’s memory of the past, stored in the soil properties that we see.”
Searching for spodic properties in the soil allows Leonard and other scientists to map where red spruce and other conifer trees occurred historically, even if forests are now dominated by maple, oak, black cherry, and other hardwood trees. “Finding those spodic properties where they shouldn’t be helps us to guide red spruce restoration in the Monongahela National Forest,” Leonard said. His work to understand how much carbon is stored in various red spruce soils can also assist in management efforts, for instance, by discouraging timbering in areas with high soil-carbon that provide a variety of benefits to the ecosystem and planet.
Although forests and soils can be resilient to change, disturbances like logging, mining, and fires have transformed the landscapes in West Virginia, including those once dominated by red spruce. “Our forests have drastically changed due to these disturbances, and they’re not going back to the way they were,” said Leonard. “It would take a lot of time and a lot of money to put it back to the way it was, but we can try to guide it so that it develops back toward that trajectory.”
Jeff Skousen, a professor of soil science and land reclamation specialist at WVU, is also working on a project to restore forests through revitalizing the soil. Since the 1960s, forest soils in the Mon have become more acidic due to acid rain. Skousen worries that when trees are harvested, species that prefer acidic soils, like black cherry and red maple, will outcompete the tree species that were once there.
To reduce the acidity of the soil, Skousen and his colleagues set up an 800-acre experimental plot in the Mon Forest and used a helicopter to lime the soil. Over the five-year study, they’ll compare limed sites to non-limed sites to evaluate how the soil properties have changed. “The purpose is to see if we can help the soils return to what they were previously like before acid rain really impacted them,” said Skousen.
This research highlights the foundational role soils play in environments throughout the Mountain State. “Our forests vary across the landscape based on the soil properties: how much water soils hold, how deep they are, and where they’re located. I really love these soils because they’re so unique, and they form the basis of all of these ecosystems that make our state so beautiful,” said Skousen.
West Virginia’s mountainous topography and location along the Eastern Continental Divide affect erosion, temperature, and precipitation patterns, driving an immense diversity in soil types and the plant communities they host. “You can have a temperate rainforest on the western facing slope, and on the eastern facing slope, you can have cacti,” said Stephanie Connolly, a program analyst on detail with the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station.
Along with providing habitat and nutrients to support a diverse array of flora and fauna, soils make landscapes resilient. The minerals, organic matter, and microbes in soil help filter water, retain pollutants, and store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet. Soils also act like giant sponges, absorbing and storing massive amounts of water, which prevents flooding, erosion, and sediment runoff. After red spruce forests were clear-cut in the late 1800s and early 1900s, catastrophic floods tore through Pittsburgh, Huntington, and numerous other regions throughout the East Coast that were fed by the Mountain State’s rivers. “That’s a direct result of logging because we lost all the water-holding capabilities that soils offer,” said Leonard.
And yet, it’s easy to overlook dirt. We often take for granted the impact soil has on our lives, from saving the planet to growing forests to providing a playground for endless childhood entertainment. “We see all the mountains and the trees and the plains and the grass, but we don’t think about what lies beneath our feet. It’s an interconnected web,” said Leonard, “but isn’t it all?”
Nikki Forrester is senior editor of Highland Outdoors and used her journalistic instincts to dig up dirt for this story.
Feature Photo: Jim Leonard digs a pit at a sampling site. Photo by Nikki Forrester