Reading Deep Horizons

Soil monoliths at CanSIS. Photo: Peter Anderson.

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Visitors to the Canadian Soil Information Service (CanSIS, pronounced like “Kansas”), located at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm, are greeted by a highlight reel of soils from across Canada. Collected and preserved in the 1960s and 1970s,[1] these metre-tall soil monoliths from every province and territory hang from the wall. Beautiful in their own right, these monoliths freeze specific soil profiles in time. Experts can read the history of complex interactions between climate, geology, topography, ground cover, and human land use in the size, colour, and texture of their “horizons,” or banded layers within the soil. Even the uneducated eye can appreciate the relative fertility of prairie chernozems against that of rocky regosols or peaty organic soils.

Top: a prairie chernozem soil from Manitoba. Bottom: a sedge-based organic soil from Quebec. Horizons are identified using standard notation. Source: C.F. Bentley, ed., “Photographs and Displays of Some Canadian Soils” (Ottawa: Department of Agriculture, 1978), 40 and 66.

The soil monoliths are the product of physical labour, technical skill, and scientific expertise. As scientific and pedagogical objects, they make it possible to classify soils into orders, great groups, sub orders, and series through the interpretation of soil horizons. As defined in the Canadian System of Soil Classification, a soil horizon is “a layer of mineral or organic soil material approximately parallel to the land surface that has characteristics altered by processes of soil formation.” Horizons are distinguished by a variety of factors, including colours, structures, and textures produced by different chemical, biological, and geological processes. They are also indicative of different states of soil genesis. By preserving soil horizons, soil monoliths provide a picture of a particular soil at a particular time that can be used as a proxy to promote certain land uses. They might, for example, illustrate the relative fertility of an area, helping to encourage agriculture or discourage urban development there. They can also be used in the classroom as a pedagogical tool. Finally, the monoliths, as well as the horizons they preserve, can be viewed as historical objects that represent both the high tide of political support and funding for Canadian soil science and the state of Canadian soils in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

Collections of old “Soil Surveys can Help…” pamphlets are stored in the CanSIS warehouse. Photo: Peter Anderson.

Over the past three months, I’ve been working closely with staff at CanSIS, physical and historical geographers, and public historians to lay the groundwork for a thorough excavation of Canadian soil science history.[2] This work was generously funded by Xiaoyuan Geng, the manager at CanSIS, and supported by soil analyst Dave Howlett, Ingenium Canada curator William Knight, Nipissing University historical geographer Kirsten Greer, and Laurentian University soil scientist and physical geographer Nathan Basiliko. Throughout the summer I began to trace the complex makeup of the historic collections stored in CanSIS’s offices and warehouse at the Central Experimental Farm. At the same time as I inventoried these collections, I undertook a crash course in soil science and soil survey that, following Edmund Russell, “increase[d my] ability to evaluate such sources and write” a better history based in their materiality.[3] As I developed the ability to read the horizons present in the collections, I began to interpret the history of Canadian soil science through the layers of the publications, maps, field notes, journals, and records left behind by retired scientists.

Nathan Basiliko (right) describing a soil monolith to Dave Howlett, Kirsten Greer, and Peter Anderson (behind the camera) in the CanSIS warehouse. Photo: Peter Anderson.

From its origins in the early twentieth century up to the present day, the historical geography of Canadian soil science has involved a web of interests, from forestry in British Columbia to agricultural settlement on the Prairies to the preservation of fragile cryosols in Arctic national parks. It has been marked out by various institutions, including the federal and provincial governments and universities across Canada, and by various funding schemes. These last include ad hoc agreements between federal and provincial governments; formal arrangements under the federal Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, various federal and provincial Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Act Administrations,[4] and tripartite (University-Province-Federal) Institutes of Pedology; and officially sanctioned expert committees that met regularly from 1945 until 1992. Capturing this organizational complexity in 1978, scientists L. Farstad and N.T. Drewery noted that “there long remained a bewildering interchange of personnel and financing that would turn a modern administrative officer gray.”[5] And this doesn’t even touch on the international collaborations underpinning Canadian soil science, from the fortuitous meetings between Manitoba soil surveyor J.H. Ellis and C.C. Nikiforoff, a Russian exile working for the United States Department of Agriculture, along the Red River in the 1920s that brought key Russian and American concepts to Canada,[6] to the exporting of Canadian expertise to countries in South America, Asia, and Africa through CIDA-funded projects in the 1980s. Details of such encounters and exchanges are preserved in dormant records stored at the Central Experimental Farm.

Click here to scroll through the preliminary federal Canadian soil science timeline, produced using Knightlabs tools.

What’s a historical geographer to do? This rich history almost instantly provided more questions than could be answered in a single summer. With an eye to continuing the research beyond the current funding, it quickly became necessary to put together a preliminary timeline of the multiple intersecting bodies and their activities. I also identified as many key players and institutions as possible, and conducted a high-level inventory of the storage spaces.

None of this work is radical. Rather, it is what any historically minded researcher would do. However, in contrast to the archival reading rooms where I have spent much of my research career to date, the physical context of this research highlighted the layered history of soil science. My workspaces included an unused cubicle underneath the soil monoliths in the CanSIS offices; a makeshift desk atop an early map-digitizing machine from the 1960s-era CGIS project in a small warehouse; and a seat amongst cabinets of field notes, data print-offs, preserved plant samples, and old framed maps in a basement storage room. Over the course of the summer, the seemingly haphazard arrangement of artifacts and documents began to coalesce into a reflection of the complex web of interests, political priorities, personalities, technologies, and expertise that created the rich profile of Canadian soil science.

Now used for storage, the basement rooms occupied by CanSIS used to be full of bustling activity, including social events. Photo: Peter Anderson.

Just as soil monoliths preserve distinct horizons of soil development—from the organic horizon down to the parent geological material—so too did my historical exercises help identify key factors and events in the history of Canadian soil science. Without labouring the metaphor too much, it is possible to identify a number of horizons in the collection. Deep underground, one finds the institutional bedrock of federal and provincial governments as well as university soil departments. Above that comes a rich interplay between individual scientists, survey teams, and funding schemes that can be tentatively separated into distinct horizons. Finally, at the top of it all, publications, such as those produced through the Canada Land Inventory and Canada Soil Landscape projects between the 1960s and 1990s, can be seen as the rich organic products growing out of the soil below.

The 11th Congress of the International Society of Soil Science was held in Edmonton in 1978, and included 18 field trips that investigated soils from coast to coast to coast. The Congress generated numerous other publications meant to showcase Canadian soil science at its peak.

I’m buoyed by the enthusiasm of my collaborators and oral history participants as I dig deeper into this fertile research area. One participant, retired scientist David Kroestch,[7] was particularly voluble about the project’s potential. He pointed out that soils are dynamic objects, constantly changing in relation to events and factors above and below ground. The history of soil science seeks to uncover the intellectual and material worlds of its practitioners, including their observations on the state of soils at different times in Canadian history. Just as soil monoliths can provide a window into the deep history of Canada, so too, Kroestch argued, can excavating the history of soil science help us understand the effects of human activity and climate change on the soils that provide us with food, fibre and forage, through accessing data from earlier times and placing it in its political, social, and environmental contexts.


[1] The backside of the monoliths contain varying amounts of details. Some include the quarter section where they were collected; others are blank. None identify their creator, although oral history participant David Kroestch revealed that at least some of the monoliths were created by retired Agriculture Canada soil technician Ray Guertin. David Kroestch, oral history interview, 4 September 2018. See also John H. Day, “Making Soil Monoliths,” publication 1372 (Ottawa: Canada Department of Agriculture, 1968),

[2] Much of the history of soil science, including retrospectives and profiles of founding figures, has been written by scientists themselves. Historians including Stéphane Castonguay, David Moon, and Shannon Stunden Bower have also made important contributions.

[3] Edmund Russell, “Science and Environmental History,” Environmental History 10, 1 (2005): 82.

[4] Shannon Stunden Bower, “Tools for Rational Development: The Canada Land Inventory and the Canada Geographic Information System in Mid-Twentieth Century Canada,” Scientia Canadensis 40, 1 (2018): 44-75.

[5] L. Farstad and N.T. Drewer, “4.2 Soil and Land Utilization Surveys Prior to 1965,” in British Columbia Soil Landscapes, ed. K.W.G. Valentine et al. (Victoria: Government of BC, 1978), 177.

[6] J.H. Ellis, “A Field Classification of Soils for Use in the Soil Survey,” Scientific Agriculture 12, 6 (1932): 338-45.

[7] David Kroestch, oral history interview, 4 September 2018.

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Pete Anderson

Public History Consultant at History Applied
I am an Ottawa-based historical research consultant. My personal research examines the confluence of science, settler colonialism, and landscape change in Canada and my doctoral thesis explored the early history of Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm.

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