Pedological papacy faces schism

Soils
August 30, 1996

Soils is refreshingly different from most textbooks on soils, many of which are hard to enjoy, because it is not packed with the dire terminology and penchant for endless classification that characterises less adventurous texts. It is not even specifically aimed at soil scientists but at geomorphologists and sedimentologists with interests in soils, palaeosols, terrestrial ecology, the regolith, landforms and hill-slope and fluvial processes. Above all the book has a clear and cogent message that may reflect its Australian pedigree. It exposes the inadequacies of much traditional soil science and questions its climatic determinism and its reliance upon the vertically operating processes embodied in the zonal approach to soils. It argues that there should be less concern with developing classifications and more concern with pedogenic processes in three dimensions if a general "pedogenic atrophy" is to be avoided.

The book is especially strong in two areas. The first is in a consideration of the processes that lead to texture-contrast soils. There is a very comprehensive and original chapter on bioturbation by vertebrates, invertebrates and plants. There is another useful chapter on rainwash, which is a process that is responsible for the detachment, transport, sorting and redeposition of the bioturbated mantle. This contains some original thoughts on stone-layers (stone-lines), litter dams and microterraces. Two other processes that receive attention are aeolian processes (the treatment of which is rather sparse) and soil creep (where the treatment is original, provocative, but too short).

The other area in which the book is strong, and original, is in its consideration of plate tectonics. This is seen to control both lithospheric materials and topography, the primary factors controlling the global distribution of soil. Three chapters consider soil development on continental plate centres (Australia, Africa and on other Gondwana and Laurasian centres), while a fourth considers soil development at continental plate margins. Paton and his colleagues point to the fact that much traditional soil science was developed in northern Laurasia (in European Russia and the midwestern plains of North America), but that this area "has a markedly aberrant style of soil formation compared to continental plate centres elsewhere in the world".

The hero of this book is that colonial soil scientist who, in the 1930s, gave us the catena concept, Geoffrey Milne. He referred at that time to the dominant "pedological papacy in Washington". Sixty years on the Australian team promote schism. Milne would have approved.

Andrew Goudie is professor of geography, University of Oxford.

Soils: A New Global View

Author - T. R. Paton, G. S. Humphreys and P. B. Mitchell
ISBN - 1 85728 464 X and 465 8
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 224

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