“Not quite a solid, not quite a liquid, mud coats the bottoms of our lakes, rivers, and seas. It helps form massive floodplains, river deltas, and tidal flats that store vast quantities of carbon and nutrients, and support vibrant communities of people, flora, and fauna.” [Science]

Muddy trails, muddy shoes, muddy footprints. We tend to view mud as a nuisance more than a benefit – but that’s a mistake. It has and continues to play a pivotal role in shaping our planet.

Water, Plants, and Mud

Mud is composed of tiny particles of clay and minerals as opposed to sand which is made up of small particles of rock and quartz. If you mix sand and clay in water, the sand will quickly sink to the bottom of the container, while the clay will remain in suspension indefinitely.

Scientists have found that the addition of a small amount of organic material to the clay enables it to form clumps that will then drop to the bottom of a container. “Adding even a small amount of organic material acts as a sticky substance to glue the clay particles together, enabling them to form bigger and bigger clumps and thereby more rapidly settle to the bottom of the container." [Caltech]

In the early years, the earth was a barren, rocky place. Wind, rain, snow, and ice gradually broke the rocks down into smaller particles, eventually forming mud and sand. But there was nothing to hold the mud or sand in place. Rivers would carry them away, depositing them at the bottom of the sea.

The early rivers formed multiple channels that were constantly collapsing to form new channels as there was nothing to hold the channels in place. The situation changed when plant life emerged on earth. Plants helped break down rock, creating more fine particles. They also stabilized the riverbanks, slowed runoff, and helped the mud to form large clumps that weren’t rapidly dispersed in water. Rivers started to form a single channel that curled across the landscape in a series of s-shaped curves. Mud accumulated in the river valleys and floodplains, enhancing the potential for transportation, farming, and fishing.

Humans are now the dominant force on the planet, and the interplay of mud, water, and plants is changing once again. We’ve harnessed water with dams and dykes stopping the free flow of sediment, while riverbanks and hillsides have been stripped of vegetation, leading to erosion and flooding.

Mud Puddles & Baths

Cleopatra used wraps made from Dead Sea mud as part of her beauty regimen. Spas from Turkey and Croatia to California and New Zealand promote the health benefits of mud baths. And they’re right. Healthy mud is rich in minerals and other nutrients, as well as fungi, bacteria, worms, and their by-products. Mud baths can reduce pain from arthritis and fibromyalgia. Inhaling and ingesting soil particles, both as children and adults, contributes to our internal microbes, stimulates our immune systems, and helps our bodies to function properly.

Ask a toddler, and they’ll be quick to tell you that splashing in puddles and making mud pies is fun. It also promotes creativity and outdoor exploration and lends itself to simple science experiments. Children can make mud bricks; paint with mud; or replicate deltas, storms, and erosion (resources listed below under Further Information).

Animals take advantage of mud puddles too. Elephants wallow in semi-liquid mud to cool off and to protect themselves from biting insects. Many butterflies drink from mud puddles to obtain salt and minerals that aren’t available from plant nectar.

Mud Houses

Barn swallows and many species of solitary wasps make their homes from mud. So do humans. Mud houses are common in Africa and India. Not only is mud readily available, but houses made of mud are much cooler than concrete ones. Mud does have one major drawback as it can crumble over time or dissolve in the rain. A covering of stone, concrete or tile, bricks stabilized with concrete, and a roof that extends well beyond the walls can all add to longevity and solidity.

Rammed earth techniques provide greater durability as well. Remnants of rammed-earth buildings can be found in Neolithic archaeological sites along the Yellow River in China dating back to 5000 BCE. The Great Wall of China was built using rammed-earth techniques as was the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. The techniques are still in use today.

Further Information

Mud [Science]

The Origin of Mud [Knowable]

Clear as Mud: How Tiny Plants Changed the Planet, 488 Million Years Ago [CalTech]

What is Mud’s Dirty Little Secret? [Yes Magazine]

How Mud Boosts Your Immune System [BBC]

Science Experiments for Kids [Live Science]

Science Experiments for Mud Kitchens [Discovering Days]

Dirt Lab: Pre-School Science Projects Exploring Soil and Mud [Parenting Science]

When Life Gives You Mud, Make Science [Edutopia]

Mud of the Earth: Composition, Uses, and Problems [Owlcation]

Mud Housing is the Key [Down to Earth]

The Extraordinary Benefits of a House Made of Mud [National Geographic]

New Again: Rammed Earth Construction [EcoFriendly Sask]

* “In Just-spring when the world is mud-luscious” – e e cummings [Poetry Foundation]

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/45824746504/

EcoFriendly West informs and encourages initiatives that support Western Canada’s natural environment through its online publication and the Nature Companion website/app. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or Mastodon, or subscribe by email.