Federal soil researchers break into literary world

A Lethbridge research scientist in biogeochemistry and a biogeochemistry technician have won an international prize in children’s literature.

Ben Ellert and Katelyn Lutes, who work for Agriculture Canada from the Lethbridge Research Centre, teamed up to write and illustrate a book that placed second in a contest organized by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Union of Soil Sciences and the Global Soil Partnership.

Their 16-page book is entitled Soil Biodiversity: What’s Most Important? It was chosen as the second-place winner from among more than 100 entries from six different countries. The winners were announced from Rome on World Soil Day Dec. 5.

Ellert said he hopes Agriculture Canada will print copies of the book, which has already been translated into French.

“For communicating with children I think it’s nice to be able to sit down with an analog real paper copy of a book and turn the pages and point to the pictures. Even if a young child can’t read all the text, they can sort of follow along the story line.”

That story line involves six characters who insist their area of soil study is most important in terms of biodiversity. Billy the Botanist, Edward the Entomologist, Mo the Microbiologist, Zoey the Soil Zoologist, Melody the Mycologist and Emily the Ecologist eventually agree that all research into soil is important.

Ellert said none of the scientists directly resemble the many Agriculture Canada researchers and others who were consulted on the content, although he and Lutes did joke about including a disclaimer in that regard.

The book is richly illustrated by Lutes, who said she had to think creatively to draw the many elements of soil biology.

“The scale, the size of things that we actually have in the soil, it was hard to show with the illustrations because you’ve got these tiny, tiny little mites and even smaller bacteria and then you might also have a cow or a plant in the same picture. I found that was a challenge, which is why I did the magnifying glasses occasionally.”

The contest guidelines stipulated a focus on the six- to 11-year age group but Ellert and Lutes think their book might be suited to slightly older children too. Ellert consulted teachers during the project and was told to avoid “talking down” to kids.

“I’ve had positive feedback from educators at this point. I know one fellow put it on his assigned reading for his university course already … so that’s kind of encouraging.”

Colleagues at the research centre checked early drafts of the text to ensure accuracy. Several had helpful suggestions.

“In the beginning, we were a little bit hard on earthworms. That was pointed out to us,” said Lutes. “And we did add in the millipedes and the centipedes based on a recommendation. We wanted to make sure that we sent it to the people who are experts in the field.”

Katelyn Lutes, a biogeochemistry technician at Agriculture Canada’s research centre in Lethbridge, illustrated the book. | Supplied photo

The years 2015-24 have been declared the International Decade of Soils, which may be some of the impetus behind recent attention on the importance of soil in biodiversity, food production, climate and other aspects of life.

“Right now the catchword is soil health. That’s a term that has morphed throughout history,” said Ellert.

“When I started out over 20 years ago, everybody was talking about soil quality, and it’s hard enough to define what soil health is, let alone soil quality. These terms morph a little bit. There certainly is a lot of interest in it right now.

“The new science is metagenomics and that is something that I thought for sure we had to put in there. It’s a little bit of a heavy concept and a big word but I think we’re going to be hearing more and more about that.”

Lutes’ illustrations range from dung beetles to DNA and mycorrhizae to rhizobium.

“I took enjoyment from drawing every single one of the pages and refining the text as I went along,” she said.

“The points that I kind of wanted to drive home were that there are so many soil organisms and a lot of them we don’t even know yet, so it’s kind of exciting to study. And also that humans have a direct influence on the soil biodiversity, which then affects what we can get from the soil. I just wanted to make kids or anyone who’s reading it sort of aware that there’s more than meets the eye. Its not just dirt.”

The book and other finalists in the contest can be found online at www.fao.org/world-soil-day/bookcontest/en/.

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