Dirt → soil → earth: the art of building life.

KSCA member Lucas Ihlein was recently invited to write a short essay about soil for Kaldor Public Art Projects, at the time of the exhibition of Asad Raza’s ‘Absorption’, an installation of 300 tonnes of soil at Sydney's Carriageworks in May 2019. It was included in the Education Kit provided to school students who attended the exhibition, to broaden their understanding of socially engaged and site specific art, and the role of soil in food systems. 

Farmer John Sweet with a soil sample gathered at  The Beacon , Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

Farmer John Sweet with a soil sample gathered at The Beacon, Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

By Lucas Ihlein

Living in cities, we rarely think about what lies beneath the concrete and bitumen of our freeways and footpaths. But every so often a burst pipe summons the emergency repair crew, and jackhammers smash up the road. If we’re lucky to be there at just the right moment, we might witness rapidly growing piles of a gritty brownish matter heaped up on the verge: dirt.

Dirt is useful. You can mound it up, scrape it away, level it off. It’s a malleable building material, helping engineers solve drainage problems. Tamp it down hard to create the solid base for a new apartment block. Sink cement pilings into it and span a bridge across a wide harbour. Dirt is indispensable for making all this urban infrastructure. But one of the things you can’t do very easily with dirt is grow plants in it. For that you need soil.

What’s the difference? Well, dirt is basically dead soil. Or to put it back to front: if you want to make soil, take the mixture of tiny particles that constitute dirt (sand, rock, clay etc) and breathe life into them with organic matter. Dead bits of plants and animals (leaves, roots, poo) layered on top of the dirt break down and bind themselves to it, and soil formation has begun. A seed dropped by a passing bird will start to germinate — fertilized by birdshit! — and as the seedling grows, its roots push down into the dirt, opening space underground, making way for air and water to infiltrate. Fungus finds dead organic matter to feed on. Worms move in. Bacteria feeds voraciously on the whole lot. It doesn’t take long for an ecosystem teeming with microbes to emerge, almost invisibly, under your feet. It’s this living community that transforms dirt into soil.

Another word for living soil is humus. It’s no accident that this word shares a common root with human. Without the equation dirt+life=soil, there would be no human life on this planet. Without humus, there would be no farms perched on the outskirts of our cities providing the food we need to keep our families alive. Soil is the hidden ingredient in every hamburger we munch, every lettuce leaf we crunch, every glass of juice (or wine) we slurp. Soil is woven into the fabric of our cotton jeans, and knitted into the yarn of our woollen jumpers.

Soil is the principle resource upon which civilisations thrive. Nature, in her ever-generous way, creates soil for us, inch by inch, over thousands of years, a living blanket covering the surface of the earth. And yet, like so many natural resources at our disposal, human societies have been mining soil – removing it faster than it can replace itself. How do we do this? Our capitalist systems create demand for very large yields of a very small range of species. Faced with such demand, we respond by growing monocultures, by ploughing, by applying chemical fertilisers, and by spraying poisons on weeds and pests. These ordinary agricultural processes break up the living ecosystems in soil, diminishing organic matter, changing rich soil back to ordinary lifeless dirt.

Unlike good soil, dirt can’t bind itself together. Faced with a heavy shower of rain, dirt erodes. Crops grown in poor soil require more chemicals and tillage to produce a viable yield, creating more erosion, and so the cycle continues. The dried out, unproductive landscapes you can witness throughout Australia are what results when soil is mined. Since the advent of agriculture around 10,000BC, human civilisations have repeatedly mined their soils to the point where they can no longer support thriving populations. Degraded land is abandoned, new forests are cleared for farming, and on it goes.

Currently, our commercial food production and distribution systems demand efficiency of scale: massive crops which after harvesting are gathered together in enormous silos and shipped around the world as commodities. Such economies cannot afford to tolerate plant diversity. Anything apart from the target species is vilified as a “weed” and eliminated at all costs. Animals are often kept in feedlots separate from the crops they eat. But when we exclude animals and diverse plant species from our farming systems, the price we pay is the loss of soil.

What can we do to slow and reverse this process? Fortunately, nature has created a template we can emulate and adapt. Never in nature do we see monocultures. Rather, lots of different plants grow together, amongst and alongside each other, and in sequence with each other. This process is replicated belowground, where the roots of all those plants interact with the soil organisms to foster vast biodiverse communities. Nature doesn’t exclude animals from its landscapes either. Before broadacre agriculture took over, grass eaters like bison moved through prairies in nomadic herds, eating everything in their path, shitting as they went, continuing the cycling of organic matter and nutrients, and contributing to the endless task of building soil. Insects followed, pollinating, eating and helping to decompose animal droppings, becoming protein themselves for birds, frogs, fish. As life flourishes, soil flourishes.

We could describe soil within such flourishing landscapes as earth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is also the name we have given our planet! It’s now time to celebrate the work of those farmers who, as custodians of the land, make it their life’s work to emulate natural systems, feeding and clothing us and also, importantly, building earth, regenerating the abundance of biological diversity that has been in decline for so long.

[Click here to read the article in context as part of the Kaldor Public Art Project Education Kit for artist Asad Raza]