August 19, 2008

The Soil Beneath Our Feet is What Lifts His Spirit Up “Mr. Myakka” Was a Consultant at a New Exhibit at the Smithsonian.


HILLIARD - As he watched the two-minute promotional DVD in his living room, Frank Watts got a little emotional.

"This brings goose bumps to me," Watts said.

Soil has that effect on Watts, a 64-year-old pedologist who has spent his life digging around in what he refuses to call dirt.

"I don't like the word 'dirt,' " he said.

It's soil.

Soil, as the two-minute promotional clip documents, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Watts was in Washington for the July opening of Dig It! The Secrets of Soil, feeling just a little like a proud parent. Part of the exhibit consists of 54 monoliths, cross-sections of soil from each state and territory.

The Florida monolith was a slice of Myakka sand Watts helped take out of the ground in St. Johns County about a decade ago. It originally went to Washington for a 1999 centennial celebration of the U.S. Soil Survey. It remained in storage in Washington until the opening of Dig It.

Dig It will continue at the Smithsonian until January 2010, then become a traveling exhibit.

Myakka fine sand was chosen to represent Florida because it is the state's most common soil, covering about 1.5 million acres. In 1989, the Legislature designated Myakka as the state's official soil.

Watts, who retired in 2003 after a long career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, formerly called the Soil Conservation Service, helped lead the effort to recognize Myakka as the state soil. As a result, friends took to calling Watts "Mr. Myakka."

But Watts admits that Myakka isn't his favorite Florida soil. It isn't fertile and it isn't a great soil to build on, he said.

He's much happier on a plot of moderately wet Blanton soil, underneath a stand of oak trees near Hilliard in Nassau County where he and his wife have lived since 1983.

Myakka and Blanton are two of the 174 soils documented in a new book, Soils of Florida, co-written by Watts and Mary E. Collins, a University of Florida professor of environmental pedology. The book, published by the Soil Science Society of America, is a handsome trade paperback with color illustrations of each soil.

Between the book and the Smithsonian exhibit, Watts hopes people learn a little more about the ground we all stand on. And maybe a few of us will learn to share his enthusiasm.

"I live and die soils," he said with a [email protected], (904) 359-4413

(c) 2008 Florida Times Union. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.