Going to an event about soil may not be some people’s idea of a fun way to spend a bright sunny Saturday in August. But they clearly haven’t been to the Soil Saturdays at Create in Bristol. The events, running for eight Saturdays in July and August, are part of Soil Culture at the Create Centre, a summer celebration to honour the 2015 International Year of Soils. Co-created by Touchstone Collaborations and the Soil Sisters – Miche Fabre Lewin, Daphne Lambert and Flora Gathorne-Hardy, who have dedicated huge amounts of time and energy to co-curate these pioneering day-long festivals to soil – the result is a vibrant, imaginative and inspiring day.
Soil and social justice was the topic of this past Saturday, 8th August. I entered to find a small group stood in a circle, coming together to welcome each other and share an introduction to the day. We then had brunch, a beautiful feast made from wholesome, local organic produce. The message here was that we all experience soil through the food we eat, and our food choices affect soil. This is something everybody must understand – we are not food consumers, we are food citizens, and every choice we make has an impact.
The key principle infused through the entire event was about how art and culture can reconnect people with soil. The event encouraged learning through feeling rather than simply through intellect. As a starting point, we were invited to look at the wide array of art installations and projects, on the theme of soil, that were on view at Create. Soil Kitchen, a project of the artist collective Future Farmers, provided one example of how art can encourage us to think differently about soil. Soil Kitchen is a windmill-powered structure that provides free soup in exchange for soil samples – a literal ‘functioning symbol of self-reliance’. The exhibition also included work from artist residencies organised by the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World as part of the wider Soil Culture programme. Writing tables placed through the exhibition encouraged active participation in this cultural learning, for example, by writing a ‘community love letter to the earth’ using earth-based inks and handmade paper
Art and culture, and how this relates to agriculture, was the centre of a discussion I had with some of the organisers – one of many enriching conversations that opened up amongst the people there. The feeling was that art and culture has become a commodity – there are those who produce it and those who consume it, but there is little crossover between the two. Similarly in agriculture, many of us have lost that shared cultural aspect of farming and the sense that food production involves us all.
The afternoon began with everyone gathering in a circle outside to hear about the campaigns to protect Bristol’s Grade 1 agricultural land at Stapleton Road Allotments, where a new bus-only road is being constructed as part of the MetroBus Project. This will destroy what Maddy Longhurst of the Blue Finger Alliance describes as “a food growing and wildlife paradise.” We also heard from Eno Usua, of the Southern Minorities Movement in Nigeria, and Jane Trowell, of Platform, London. They showed a film and gave a talk about what is happening in the Niger-Delta, where oil companies are destroying prime agricultural land belonging to indigenous communities, such as the Ogoni. At one point a plastic bottle full of soil was passed around for us to smell. The soil, dug from Ogoni land, stank so strongly of oil that you reeled back from the smallest sniff.
Platform has campaigned for the Ogoni by commissioning a London-based Nigerian artist, Sokari Douglas Camp, to create something that would engage with people on a cultural and emotional level. This is how the ‘Battle Bus’ was made. The bus is a memorial to the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a prominent Ogoni activist who was executed in 1995 along with 8 others, despite an international outcry. Camp’s bus is a living accusation; inscribed down the side of the bus are Ken’s words, “I accuse the oil companies of practicing genocide against the Ogoni people.” Eight oil drums on top of the bus contain the names of each activist. Last week, the bus was sent on a ship to Nigeria where it is going to play a role in commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8.
The plight of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 8 highlights the issue of land rights, and exemplifies the event’s title “Whose Soil?” Indigenous people all over the world have faced, and continue to face, battles over access to land. For generations these communities have been dependent on soil for their livelihoods and culture, but many have now been displaced or overwhelmed by spreading urban development and capitalist economics. According to Saro-Wiwa, taking away land is an existential threat:
To take away the resources of the people and refuse to give them anything in return is to subject them to slavery. To take away the land of a people who depend on land for their survival and refuse to pay them compensation is to subject them to genocide.
We all have a stake in looking after our soils, and we must therefore respect those who are the guardians of the land – farmers. From the Ogoni in Nigeria, to the Palestinian farmers of the West Bank, to the small family farms in the UK, all countries have traditional farming communities with indigenous ties to the land that go beyond its economic purpose and includes cultural, spiritual and social values. But failure to appreciate the role these people play in protecting soil and stewarding the land has led to the undermining of their land rights as larger, more powerful forces claim ownership and drive out original inhabitants.
This is done overtly through land grabbing and community relocation, as is currently happening in parts of Africa, or historically during the Highland Clearances of Scotland, for example. But it is also something that has happened gradually and more subtly, such as in the UK where poor economic returns for farmers, the unattainable price of land and housing, and the spreading development of urban areas has resulted in many rural communities finding themselves displaced by wealthy urban incomers. This has implications not only for these communities but for the entire nation. As Patrick Holden said in his recent commentary for The Observer, with the loss of small family farms, “a precious and irreplaceable part of our national heritage is lost forever.”
But respecting and empowering our farmers is just one aspect of caring for our soil. The conversations generated by “Whose Soil?” expressed the need to reconnect people to where their food comes from, and to reflect on how their choices impact the earth. Engaging with people on this can be challenging, which is where art and culture comes in. The role of the artist is to break through barriers. Art can bring the life of soil into the consciousness of people in the city. People often don’t engage with intellectual information, but if anything resonated through Saturday’s event it was that art and culture can provide a deeper sense of connection.
Soil Saturdays will be continuing for the next two weekends. The 15th August is Fallow Field, a day for reflections and community-inspired gatherings, and 22nd August is the final soil Saturday dedicated to the Art of Soil, a symposium on the role of art.
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