Over four days in July, Falmouth University hosted the Soil Culture Forum, which aimed to devise and reflect on the ways in which culture can raise awareness and develop an appreciation about soils. The forum was the culmination of a year-long ARHC networking project researching cultural engagement with soil science.
The forum attracted over 80 delegates from the UK, France, Germany and even America who listened to inspirational talks, participated in creative workshops, shared ideas, ate good local food and even got a little bit dirty!
Globally soils are under threat. With an estimated 25% of healthy topsoil lost since the start of industrial farming, soils are rapidly becoming the next major environmental issue to hit the headlines. As a non-renewable resource, that is essential for our continued food production and hence our civilisation, soils are vital to our survival. Whilst this issue is well-understood by soil scientists, research suggests that the non-specialist, even those involved in food production and distribution, are not aware of the seriousness of the situation.
The international community of soil experts is doing what it can to raise the profile of soils amongst the public, and it has been announced that 2015 will be designated as International Year of Soil by the United Nations. For the success of this campaign it is important that soil is seen not simply as the domain of science, but also of significance to the wider culture. Indeed the word ‘culture’ has its roots in ‘horticulture’ and ‘agriculture’.
The Soil Culture project has worked with many of the key organisations involved in soil protection including the Soil Association, the British Society of Soil Science, Natural England, the James Hutton Institute, and the Global Soil Partnership. Drawing on this network the forum brought together scientists, artists, writers, educators and farmers to consider the many ways that cultural activity can raise awareness of this major environmental issue.
At the forum there were a number of inspirational speakers including, Stephan Harding, resident ecologist at Schumacher College, who explained some complex scientific concepts through images and the familiar narrative of a fairy tale; Patrick Holden, director of the Sustainable Food Trust, who made tangible the connection between the activities within soil and our human gut; and Barbara Geiger, performer from Berlin, who entertained everyone with a performance lecture about her love of the earthworm.
There were also seventeen creative workshops which enabled participants to experience soil through a number of different physical and sensorial methods. These included – symbolic seed saving and planting; building with cob; painting with earth pigments; composting poetry; the African art of Bogolafini (printing with mud); and the Japanese craze of Hikaru Dorodango.
On the final day of the forum a number of selected papers were presented that demonstrated the rich heritage of soil within creative writing. The forum also featured an exhibition of artworks that incorporated soil and an exhibition of 40 posters of soil art that were commissioned for the 20th World Congress of Soil Science in Korea.
The next stage of the project, which will take us into the International Year of Soil, is a series of artists’ residencies throughout the South West of England and an exhibition of international artists who have produced soil art. The project will continue to show how cultural activities can educate, entertain and expand on scientific knowledge.
For more information about the Soil Culture research network, visit http://soilculture.wordpress.com
This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about the Soil Culture Research Network can be found here. Follow us on twitter at @AHRCSciCulture for updates from the theme.