Meet the marvelous creatures that bring soil to life

At the microscopic level, soil from Germany’s Black Forest is a fantastical realm—one that’s mirrored in wooded ecosystems worldwide.

The newfound species seen here is one of about 1,300 known types of tardigrades. It was discovered in moss growing on dead tree trunks in Germany’s Black Forest. Far too small to see with the unaided eye, this creature is among billions of life-forms on the forest floor that are essential to the health of the planet. Magnified 2,400 times.

Scoop a handful of soil from the Black Forest in Germany, or the Tongass in Alaska, or the Waipoua in New Zealand. Lift it close to your eyes. What do you see? Dirt, of course—soft, rich, and dark as cocoa. Pine needles and decaying leaves. Flecks of moss or lichen. The pale concertina of an inverted mushroom cap. An earthworm wriggling away from the light, perhaps, or an ant perplexed by the sudden change in altitude. 

Sue Grayston knows there is so much more.

Grayston’s lifelong devotion to soil began in her backyard. As a young girl in Stockton-on-Tees, England, she helped her mother sow seeds and tend to the apple trees, roses, and rhubarbs in their garden. Grayston loved the author Beatrix Potter—not only for her children’s books about mischievous rabbits but also for her scientific illustrations of fungi and the many fabulous forms they thrust through the earth. 

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