Yes, but is it art? Why our passion for soil shouldn’t only be about the science….

“In our latest Dirt Docs post, Professor Jane Rickson of Cranfield Soil and AgriFood Institute poses the view that we should be looking at soil as more than just science and consider the art side of things too…”

It may not be Christmas for some time, but if you are wondering what to buy the soil scientist who has everything, may I suggest an extraordinary and fascinating book on ‘Soil and Culture’ edited by Landa and Feller (ISBN 978-90-481-2960-7)..

Figure 1: The National Soil Map of England and Wales

This book made me consider soils in ways I have never thought of before. As soil scientists, we often regard soil as being able to deliver many tangible and essential ecosystem goods and services to society. These include food production, climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration and flood control through water regulation…but how often do we appreciate the role of soil in art, cinema, literature, politics, religion, history…and even as the subject matter on postage stamps!!

Soils are both the object and subject for many historical and contemporary works of art. The variety of visual art works that involve soil (and sediment) is staggering, from paintings to gallery installations to performance art (some of it even captured on YouTube). We are all familiar with the huge variety of different soil types in England and Wales – the National Soil Map could be regarded as a work of art in itself! (Figure 1). The range of different soil textures and chemical compositions is reflected in the huge variety of soil (and subsoil) colours, from yellow, maroon, red, green, dark brown, white, brown and black. Almost inevitably, this range of hues have made soil historically a valuable pigment for paint….which is still used by artists today.

In the chapter on the representation of soil in Western art, Christian Feller goes back in time and uses a number of famous Renaissance paintings to illustrate that soil was only shown in early paintings either to show where dead bodies are buried, or the architecture of plant roots, or the effects of ploughing. More modern works of art involving soil tend to be more abstract. Figure 2 shows an installation I saw at the Pompidou Centre in Paris many years ago. It is my favourite work of art that uses soils as its medium. The bags of soil hanging from a metal frame represent the finite nature of top soil ‘attached’ to our planet. Warnings about soil degradation and soil loss are shown in the piped words on the top of the installation.

Figure 2. Installation at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, showing the finite nature of soil…and its possible loss. Mario Merz, Igloo di Giap (Giap’s Igloo), 1968, metal structure, plastic bags of clay soil, neon, batteries, accumulators, ht. 120 x diam. 200 cm)

Artwork has often been used to convey the vulnerability of soils to degradation. Photographic images of dramatic soil degradation can be found all over the internet nowadays, but how were these images captured before we all had cameras? Historical art shows that soil degradation is not only a modern phenomenon. For example, Walter Parham’s chapter uses historical artworks of the Pearl River delta region in China as evidence of deforestation and resulting soil erosion in the 1700s and 1800s. Exposed tree roots and large eroding gullies are used to represent a very unstable landscape. Similar images are used today by research and extension services to show the costs of soil degradation and the benefits of soil conservation in Africa, in an attempt to encourage the uptake of erosion control measures (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Painting of soil conservation benefits by Sukuro Etale

I never thought of soil featuring in film…but it does! I love going to the cinema, so was very entertained by the chapter on soil and cinema (titled “In a Supporting Role: Soil and the Cinema”). For example, Peter Doyle et al in a wonderfully named chapter “Yellow Sands and Penguins: The Soil of “The Great Escape”” analyse the importance of soil conditions for the prisoners of war who excavate the famous escape tunnels (‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’) in the popular film, The Great Escape. It is not just live action films where soil has a role to play: soil also features on comic strips and in cartoons. There’s a full interview with Pixar’s head of production in their ‘Texture and Shading Department’, Ryan Michero, who describes how animators have tried to visualise key soil features such as particle size, colour, desiccation cracks, root channels and emerging plants in films such as A Bug’s Life (1998) and Antz (1998).

Soil also inspires works of literature and poetry, as reported in “’Pochveniks’ – The Poets of The Soil” by Paul Belasky, who asks “what is it about earth science that makes it produce a disproportionately large number of serious poets”? Well, I’m afraid I don’t know of any soil science colleagues who are ‘serious poets’ (maybe they are very modest about their talents and are keeping quiet?!)….but even if this breed of poetic soil scientists is dead(?), Belasky is optimistic that the “”poets of the soil” will be back”.

One of the ecosystem services provided by soil (but often overlooked and undervalued) is the protection of archaeological sites. I like the idea of “The Soil Memory”, where soil holds the memory and protects the artefacts of previous civilizations, as covered in the chapter by Chavane and Feller. This reminds me of a project Cranfield University undertook for DEFRA and Oxford Archaeology, looking at the importance of soil quality (here in relation to soil depth and level of compaction) in protecting ancient artefacts such as ceramic pots and even human bones….and how army maneuvers on Salisbury Plain were potentially damaging the soil as well as the ancient remains it protected. Another military perspective is given in the chapter on “Soil and Warfare” by C.E. Wood, who discusses the importance of soil in determining the outcome of some of the most pivotal campaigns in military history. The moisture content and texture of soil will affect trafficability of military and support vehicles to supply armies. The chapter also discusses the influence of soil conditions on service personnel’s health, morale and fatigue, which can ultimately influence whether a battle is lost or won.

Many of us spend a lot of our ‘day job’ trying to define and study ‘soil health’. Landa and Fella includes chapters on the relationship between soil and human health, which is gaining increased interest, as provision of naturally occuring medicines is another potential ecosystem good / service  emanating from soil. Eiliv Steinnes’ chapter on “Soils and Geomedicine: Trace Elements” discusses the potential value of soil in human health and supply of vital trace elements and nutrients.

Figure 4 Postage stamp showing soil erosion control measures

Another link between soils and human health is the practice of ‘geophagy’, where soil is deliberately ingested by humans, as described in “Earth Eaters”: Ancient and Modern Perspectives on Human Geophagy by Peter Abrahams. This fascinating chapter presents the history (and geographical distribution globally) of geophagy, and how this can turn into ‘geomania’ – an irresistible craving or addiction to eating soil – even to the extent that health can be adversely affected. In a less direct way, human health is also linked to the food we eat, and according to FAO statistics, over 97% of our food comes the terrestrial environment. The link between soil and food quantity (crop production and yield) is obvious: but what about the effect of soil on food quality? This is seldom considered, although the influence of soil on wine quality is well known and expressed through the term ‘terroir’, as explained in Cornelis Leeuwen’s chapter on “Soils and Terroir Expression in Wines”

My favourite chapter from ‘Soil and Culture’ has to be the most obscure and unexpected, namely “Soils and Soil Pioneers on Stamps” by Hans-Peter Blume (? What will they think of next?!). I think this subtly demonstrates how soil and soil resources are moving up the agenda by appearing on everyday objects such as stamps (Figure 4). It is encouraging that maybe, just maybe, soil is increasingly perceived by general members of the public as being more than just ‘dirt’.

Author: Jane Rickson