The thinker and writer Wendell Berry reminds us that ‘the soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.’ It is a salient comment to ponder when in recent weeks, the EU has thrown out the Soil Framework directive, which would have given special protection to European soils as a non-renewable resource.

Soils across the globe are in danger, so, as Berry aptly asserts, we are also in danger. It’s projected that the earth has only 60 years of topsoil left, and some 70% of the world’s topsoils are already seriously degraded. Our current habit of using excessive amounts of nitrogen fertiliser is beginning to fail, with yields at a plateau or declining and wide-spread damage to soils evident. It’s time to start thinking deeply about soil and raising awareness of its importance across a wide and diverse public.

Soil samplesThe recent Soil Culture forum at Falmouth University attempted to do just this. The brainchild of artist Daro Montag and Clive Adams, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World (CCANW) in Exeter, the forum brought together academics, practitioners, artists and activists to reflect on how culture might help push soil to the foreground of people’s minds, encouraging us to see it differently and develop a deeper relationship with it. How do we get people to understand it as ‘the great connector of lives’?

The four day forum, Montag was careful to point out, was not intended as a ‘conference’ where papers are presented and polite discussion ensues. Its aim was rather to stimulate creative thinking and generate ideas around the role that art and culture play in supporting our relationship to soil and agriculture more broadly. On entering the auditorium for the opening talk by the SFT’s director Patrick Holden, the first thing participants saw was a large pile of dirt in the middle of the floor, the materiality of which had a tangible presence in the room.

Patrick opened the forum with a talk that was deeply personal, informed by his own experience of the dirt on his farm in west Wales. He reminded the audience that our relationship with soil is at root a spiritual one, deeply embedded in our culture. It’s just that we have become lost in what the philosopher, thinker and founder of Biodynamic farming, Rudolf Steiner calls the ‘mineral stage’ – our relationship to soil is largely chemical and we’ve forgotten that it is a living material. A handful of soil holds more microorganisms than the number of people that have ever lived on the earth.

In part that’s what culture can do for soil – help us to appreciate the wonder of it, to engage us in the magic, asking us to feel ourselves in the billions of tiny organisms that the fabric of our lives depend on. Our name-tags for the conference were marked by a fingerprint we made with dirt. This is what we are. Genesis 3:19 lays it out, ‘By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’

Soil Culture ForumThe sessions of Soil Culture were a mix of ‘inspirational’ talks, creative workshops and a chance to eat and talk to one another. There was plenty of information on soil imparted but not in the usual way. Artist Barbara Geiger, gave an ecstatic lecture in the guise of Fraulein Brehms Tierleben, on the extraordinary earthworm and its habits, lingering on a detailed description of its reproductive rituals. Professor Stephen Harding told the tale of soil’s role in stabilising the planet’s temperature as a fairy tale between calcium and carbon. Harding gave us the most profound thought of the day when he was asked if calcium and carbon can mitigate climate change – his answer is yes but it will take too long to save us – and he responds that the only thing that might stop climate change is if we learn to love our earth, dirt and all. We have to care deeply about its matter because if we can save it, it might save us.

Art is also given space to comment on soil with an exhibition called ‘Soil Art’ showcasing work by students and faculty at Falmouth University. It included work by Soil Culture organiser Daro Montag, whose work captures the trace of what he sees as ‘nature’s events’ by allowing the microbial reactions to imprint themselves on film – he has buried it in soil, allowed fruit to rot on it and done a variety of other things to producing images he calls ‘bioglyphs.’ They are beautifully abstracted celebrations of living, as he describes, ‘…everything is in the process of becoming something else; creativity is the natural state of living matter; living matter is the embodiment of creativity.’ It’s a perfect reflection of the interelationship of nature and culture.

CCANW, as part of Soil Culture, is hosting a series of 12 artist residencies, which give artists space and time to develop artwork which takes soil as its subject. Artists will be placed in a wide variety of settings to collaborate with environmental organisations in the development of their work. The Royal Botanic Gardens, the Eden Project and the Environment and Sustainability Institute are just some of the organisations involved. The first round of selected artists include Marissa Benedict, a Chicago-based artist whose work reflects on humans relationship with the materiality of the world and Karen Guthrie, a rising art star in Britain, who has created edible gardens for the public and built earthworks as well as making films. An exhibition of work from the residencies will travel in 2015 – 2016.

Feature image by United States Department of Agriculture, in text images by Martyn Windsor

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