Ersatz dirt

You can’t grow tomatoes in it, but the artificial soil invented recently by a University of Arkansas professor is just the thing for researchers investigating how certain agricultural practices affect soil chemistry. 


Robert Ficklin, a soil scientist and ecophysiologist with the U of A system’s Arkansas Forest Resources Center, developed the synthetic soil with a colleague because finding real dirt with the specific levels of nitrogen and other nutrients they needed for their research was too time-consuming and expensive. The white powder reacts just like real soil in chemical tests. 

Ficklin is researching what happens to soil when all plant material is removed from an area — a practice that’s conceivable in the era of biofuels, but that could change the soil’s chemistry in ways that affect sustainable productivity and environmental quality. Ficklin is researching how much plant material can be removed safely. 


Award for courage

Lanette Grate, a lecturer at the University of Central Arkansas, has been named the winner of the 2008 Rachel Corrie Award for Courage in the Teaching of Writing. The award, named for the Evergreen College student who was killed in 2003 by a bulldozer in Gaza while protesting the demolition of homes, recognizes writing teachers who promote social justice. Grate created the UCA Demand Justice Student Panel, which works on wrongful conviction issues. Their current focus is the West Memphis Three, whose convictions — including a death sentence for Damian Echols, who recently won a new hearing on what his lawyers believe is exculpatory evidence — are the subject of rallies, letter-writing campaigns and petition drives.


We’re watching 

The April issue of Church and State, the monthly publication of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, contains a Q-and-A interview with Sarah Posner, a writer and researcher who follows the Religious Right. This is the final exchange:

“Q. Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy are dead. James Dobson and Pat Robertson aren’t getting any younger. Who will lead the Religious Right in the coming years? We’ve talked about [Rod] Parsley. Are there other contenders our readers should know about? 

“A. Watch Mike Huckabee. His career is far from over.”