Adam's Reviews > Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil

Out of the Earth by Daniel Hillel
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's review
Nov 21, 2010

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bookshelves: the-problem-of-civilization, non-fiction, interlibrary-loan, soil, history, environmental-history
Read from December 09 to 12, 2010

Edit: David Montgomery's Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations is the last word on the subject Hillel foibles in this book. Go straight to it; there is nothing here that isn't better put there, and there is a wealth of other information there as well.

I got Out of the Earth as a follow up to Carter and Dale's excellent Topsoil and Civilization. It seemed a good part of a chronological trio of popularizations of soil erosion (the third of which is David Montgomery's promising "Dirt: Erosion of Civilizations). However, I regret spending time on this one.

Hillel starts of well, delving into the soil basics I wished Carter and Dale had spent more time on. The rest of the book essentially rehashes their points, but in a considerably watered down form. His analysis is more comprehensive (including problems like salinization and waterlogging, groundwater overdraft, etc) but feels gratuitous and above all thin. It was boring, yet easy to read, because it never felt like he was saying much. After a few points about soil basics and historical mistakes, the whole book could have been avoided by simply saying: these problems happened in X places. Because that's about as much analysis as Hillel gives.

He also ends up spending the last third of the book trying to broaden its scope from a basic soil and water management history to a general Environmental Studies 101. Having just taken that very class, I'm perhaps overreacting, but it seems like a book should give some interesting analysis and information on the subject.

Overall, Hillel takes very important and interesting topics and says not a whole lot about them, in quite bland prose without any real information. He's also quite bad about integrating interesting source materials and giving in text citations. Don't bother.

A good story about wandering soil erosion expert Walter Lowdermilk:

"Two early leaders of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, Hugh H. Bennett and Walter C. Lowdermilk, who surveyed the global dimensions of the soil erosion problem, wrote in the 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture: 'Soil erosion is as old as farming. It began when the first heavy rain struck the first furrow turned by a crude implement of tillage in the hands of prehistoric man. It has been going on ever since, whever man's culture of the earth has bared the soil to rain and wind.' Asked to testify on soil erosion before a committee of Congress, the two of them, without a word, placed a thick towel on the committee's polished table and poured a large cup of water onto it. The towel soaked up the water. Next they removed the wet towel, and, still saying nothing to the puzzled members of the committee, poured a second glass of water on the bare table. The water splashed and trickled off the table and onto the laps of the distinguished committeemen. Every one of them then understood the dire consequences of removing soil from hillslopes."
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12/10/2010 page 108
09/25/2016 marked as: read

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message 1: by Elentarri (new)

Elentarri Thanks for the comparison with David Montgomery's Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. I've read that and was wondering if there was something better, but if not, I'm going to purchase it.

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