(chickens whining and clucking) (uplifting orchestral music) - [Heather] The secret ingredient- (plate scraping) That makes Northwest Food special- (silverware clinking) Is something you usually try not to eat.
(flame hissing) Great food requires great soil.
And the Pacific Northwest has some of the best.
(worm squelching) But how'd that happen?
(transition whooshes) (upbeat orchestral music) We could start with the volcanoes, the mega floods, the giant earthworms, or the largest living thing on earth.
But if we're being honest, we should probably start billions of years ago in outer space.
(spacey synth music) The main ingredient in just about any soil is rock.
And every rock everywhere is made up of elements forged in the nuclear furnaces of ancient stars.
Those elements come from nuclear fusion, which powers stars until it doesn't, and the star collapses or explodes or collapses then explodes.
That all happened over and over and over again for literally billions of years, until some of that stuff made the sun and a tiny little bit left over made Earth.
For a long time, Earth was just one giant rock cooling out in space.
And at some point, it started to rain.
(quirky percussive music) (projector screen whirring and slamming) Paper doesn't beat rock.
(scissors snipping) Weather does.
Over millions of years, water dissolves rocks' crystal structure, gets into cracks, freezes, warms, and breaks things up.
Add wind and waves, and you have all you need to turn the most imposing rocks into gravel, sand, silt, and clay.
But those aren't quite soil yet.
For that, we need one more ingredient.
(quirky funk music) The oldest fossil we have of a thing that lived on land is a fungus, Tortotubus.
Using acid and force, fungus threads can break up rock, extract minerals, and trade them with plant roots for carbs.
When anything dies on land, fungus is key to breaking it up, recycling nutrients to be available for the next generation.
And that's it.
Rock plus weather plus life equals soil.
From that basic recipe, nature has made an astonishing variety of soils.
Scientists recognize 12 major families of soil, and the Northwest is home to 10 of them.
This is one of the most diverse soil regions on the planet.
And for that, we can largely thank... (gong crashing) (suspenseful synth music) Most of what would become Oregon was under the ocean until about 200 million years ago.
As one plate slid under another, huge masses of volcanic rocks scraped off and stuck to the edge of the continent, forming the bedrock for much of the region.
But all that smooshing and scraping generates a lot of commotion.
(cheerful funk music) This is a volcano.
This, also a volcano, volcano, volcano, volcano, magma vent, giant hole in the ground that's also a volcano.
There are a lot more, and these are just the young ones.
Volcanoes have been coating the Northwest with ash and dust for tens of millions of years.
That's soil, and it really adds up.
When Mount Mazama blew almost 8,000 years ago, it released enough material to cover parts of the state three feet deep.
Volcanic soil is full of the good stuff like phosphorus, nitrogen, carbon, and other minerals that plants crave.
But it doesn't stay put.
(water bubbling) (dramatic cello music) When the ice sheets receded at the end of the last ice age, all that melted water had to go somewhere.
For about 2000 years, it flowed across the Northwest to the sea.
These were massive floods.
Imagine glaciers carrying boulders cruising through the Columbia gorge 80 miles per hour.
And where the water slowed and pooled, sediments built up.
(upbeat electronic music) We never even talked about that time the Yellowstone hotspot covered half the state with lava.
But the point is, those billions of years of cataclysms have left Oregon with incredibly diverse soils like Jory, weathered basalt high in iron and organic matter, great for wine grapes, hazelnuts, strawberries.
But soil doesn't exist just to make us humans happy.
It has its own life.
(energetic chiptune music) There's the big stuff, moles, voles, pocket gophers, and the worms, earthworms, nematodes, and if you're very lucky, the Willamette giant earthworm.
It can grow up to four feet long and an inch thick.
And it smells like lilies, but it's only been spotted a handful of times, ever.
Zoom in further, and you enter the realm of protozoa and bacteria and even viruses that all permeate the soil.
And in healthy soil, everything is tied together by fungus, and those fungal threads are everywhere, trading with plant roots, digesting minerals and providing food for a lot of creatures.
Truffles, chanterelles, morels, you can thank mycorrhizal fungi for those.
(power-down noise blooping) Which brings us to... (quirky waltz music) Yep, it's a fungus, a honey mushroom.
And it lives in Oregon on about four square miles in the Blue Mountains.
Scientists aren't certain, but they estimate it's thousands of years old, which means that the biggest and maybe oldest living thing on Earth lives in Oregon soil.
(vocalist whistling) (epic orchestral music) (wine splashing) Oregon's wealth isn't in the land or on the land.
It is the land.
It's the familiar foundation of just about everything we eat.
And yet our soil contains mysteries as vast as the cosmos.
So the next time you sit down to dine, you can thank that space rock, water-cracked, volcanic, fungal worm poop we call soil.
(worm squelching) (orchestral music continues) (upbeat funk music) (wings flapping) Hi, I'm Heather.
I wrote and co-produced this episode with help from these folks.
I also write Superabundant's weekly newsletter, where you can stay on top of the freshest food stories and recipes from the Pacific Northwest.
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