by H Leopold and Jarrah Callister

In each main course at Springhouse, learning is interdisciplinary. We explore a topic like soil, anatomy, or government through a historical lens, current events, creativity, data analysis, reading, experiences in real time, and writing. In particular, writing often becomes one of the most potent vehicles through which we practice resiliency and discipline. As many of you reading this already know, writing can be challenging – articulating what’s within us so that others understand our ideas, dreams, analyses – and it has been a point of tension and discomfort for all of the learners I have worked with in building this skill. However, I have witnessed learners become incredible writers through the consistent honing of this craft over years of practice and struggle and perseverance.

Jarrah is one of those learners. Read Jarrah’s well-articulated reflective research essay below who has been at Springhouse since he was 12 and is now in his second to last year.

The Red Desert

By Jarrah Callister

The air was cooling down, so I put on a coat for the first time all day. Night swiftly approached over the vast red desert as we sat and stared at the sky. Firey color split the horizon while the sun set over the shrubbery. Over the period of a few weeks, our family had been on a trip up north to the reefs. We saw so many different things from wallabies to turtles, but the single experience that I will never forget is the red dirt. I find it hard to believe that it was dirt at that – more sand and dust than anything, but whatever it was screamed the harsh Australian outback. Through my personal experience with the desert soil in Western Australia, I explore the difference in other soil types as well as the etymology of soil itself.

Although desert soils are very deprived of the same nutrients found in other areas, it only takes ten minutes of sitting on the ground to realize how diverse and abundant plant and animal life truly is. A very common misconception is one that the Australian desert is deserted; however, when I spent only a couple of weeks in it, I realized the exact opposite. According to the Nature Conservancy Australia, “Australia is home to the largest intact desert on Earth, full of wildlife spectacularly evolved to eke out a living in the extreme conditions of the desert.” (The Nature Conservancy Australia, n.d.). This article, as well as an article by the World Atlas, lists prominent species that have called the western Australian lands home. I find it simply amazing how they can all adapt to the harsh surroundings and live amongst this dry earth. 

Soil types can vary drastically in their color, texture, mineral composition, organic matter, as well as biological life. All of these factors can completely change the way that the soil feels. I think that it’s really important to experience vastly different landscapes and the soil that comes with it. My home was located in the center of a karri forest for most of my life in Australia. Our house was built  on an extremely nutrient dense soil called Karri Loam, a rich red colored loam with a greater concentration of organic matter, considered highly fertile by West Australian standards (McArthur, 2004). I really remember how harsh and shocking the desert felt after playing in this forest dirt, and how the entire feeling of a place can be so strongly influenced by the land itself.

Although a lot of my findings on the etymology of the word “soil” spoke to its origins in a very literal sense with things such as “mud” and “dirt,” I also discovered that it traces back to the English word we use for “soul” and ties into the word “ foundation.” I find it really interesting to think about its relation to the people who inhabit the land and if there is a correlation between the word “soul” and the people’s mindset as well as the way a culture as a whole acts. A stereotype of Australian people, just like the desert soil itself, is the harsh and toughened attitude they hold. Although no one is alike, I do think that there is some merit to the statement. In my time living in Australia, I found a common mindset is of independence and being able to fend for oneself; this could quite possibly be where the stereotype stemmed from. From a purely opinionated perspective, I see a similarity in the humans and the land, as well as how the earth that they live on reflects in their society.

About five years ago, our family moved to Virginia so my mom could reunite with her family. I remember waking up in a hotel, running to the window, and screaming, “It’s a Christmas tree!” I had never seen a North American pine. Though small, this was the first moment I realized how much my life had truly changed, and how everything to come would open my eyes in a new way. It wasn’t long after that that I ran into the woods and experienced the new and rich soil. So from searching in the red sand for metals with a magnet, to looking for crawdads in the Virginian creeks, I’ve never strayed too far from the dirt.

Reference List 

Dwevedi, A., & Arvind, Kayastha, A. (2017). Desert soils. Desert Soils – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. 

Etymonline. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Etymonline.

McArthur, WM. (2004). Reference soils of south-western Australia. Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development WA.

Nag, O. (2019). What Animals Live In The Australian Outback?. WorldAtlas.

The Nature Conservancy Australia. (n.d.). Desert Dwellers. The Nature Conservancy Australia.


  • Paul says:

    Beautiful reflection, Jarrah! I’ll be sitting with this quote: “…the entire feeling of a place can be so strongly influenced by the land itself.”

  • Philip Carp says:

    I enjoyed the essay Jarrah. I agree that the land on which we live impacts our whole being.

Leave a Reply