soil – a simple guide

(to be continued)

Soil, like oceans, rivers and skies, creates the foundation of our lives. It is through their devoted dynamic interchange of energy and matter that our lives and all life emerge. Small changes in composition may alter the innate ability of such primal elements to support certain life forms in favour of others, or even none at all. The relative proportions of water, air and minerals evident in these environments lead to specific conditions that may in turn determine an infinite variety of new dynamic conditions and life forms. These changes are caused by the constantly evolving ebb and flow of nature, of which we are an integral part.

I walk this earth (film still; f owen + pward 2014)walk this earth (film still; f owen + pward 2014)

In previous posts I have commented on the shortcomings of scientific data to communicate the importance of soil (or any ecologically sensible and intelligent thinking) within our lives and the necessity to love, respect and care for it. On second thoughts I have recognized a lack of fundamental understanding regarding such issues and realize how I may have taken for granted the knowledge I have acquired throughout my life and especially more recently through my present research. So here is a simple list of some of the information about soil that I have accumulated and hopefully assimilated so far…

  • Soil is the largest carbon sink on the planet. Its ability to absorb and hold carbon is conditional to specific local conditions, land use and management.
  • Soil may also be managed as part of environmental policy, if needs be, to absorb and hold water during times of excessive precipitation. The soil of woodland and rough pasture and in well-hedged land may hold more water than cleared, intensively farmed arable or grazing land.
  • There are 3 basic types of Soil – Sand, Clay and Silt.
  • Loam is a name given to a soil made up of roughly equal proportions of each.
  • Soil may be acid or alkali depending on its underlying geology and to a lesser degree any resulting vegetation.
  • The amounts of water and air held within, as well as the proportions of sand, clay and silt, affect the quality and character of a soil.
  • Each soil has a unique and specific mineralogical and biological structure – this may change from one side of a field to another.
  • The quality of a soil may be influenced by weather, bedrock, vegetation and land use. For example, walking on or grazing livestock intensively on soil with compress, or compact, it leading to less air and space for life to thrive.

nurture (earth pigments + linseed oil on board; p ward 2008)nurture (earth pigments + linseed oil on board; p ward 2008)

  • There is no single formula to manage soil – each is unique and requires specific understanding to reveal and maintain it’s evolving potential for all, and management, if any, is dependant on chosen land use.
  • Basic organic farming methods – the non-use of chemical fertilizers in favour of more complementary methods of propagation – are not enough to create and maintain healthy productive soils. Rigorous and ongoing monitoring of water, air and mineral levels and neighbouring environments, along with sensitive indigenous knowledge may all contribute to intelligent soil maintenance. More holistic management is often known as biodynamic farming.
  • Similarly there is no definitive tillage (ploughing) strategy applicable to all soil types and habitats. The decision to plough land and to what depth can only be correctly made when factors such a drainage, air content and compaction rates have been taken into account.
  • There are 17 minerals that make up a healthy soil (to produce healthy, mineral rich vegetables). The most important of all these is molybdenum, which acts as a catalyst towards the absorption and utilization of all others[i].
  • The mineral content and biological nature of a soil directly affect the nutritional value of any food produced and consumed from that soil, as well as its flavour, size and ability to thrive.
  • Fundamentally, the biological organisms that live within it maintain the soil. Worms, moles, bacteria and fungus, endless varieties of insects and microbes are constantly processing and restructuring the elements – air and water ways, minerals and vegetation – that constitute and compose it.
  • The quality/character of a soil, determined predominantly by its underlying geology, but also by the vegetation that it may support influences its subsequent habitat and/or land use, and hence the cultural identity of the entire region.
  • Soil is an essential, constantly evolving and site-specific entity upon which all life depends. While it is easy to evaluate its worth in purely human terms, it is equally, if not more, necessary to consider its intrinsic place and function within the universal web of life.


 “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.”

― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

north devon landscape (ground earth pigments; p ward 2009)north devon landscape (ground earth pigments; p ward 2009)

This post has been written as part of my continuing research with the CCANW/RANE Soil Culture Project 2013-17[ii]. The project hopes to raise awareness about the importance of soil in light of its continuing degradation by past and present industrial, agricultural and behavioural practices and tendencies. The project aims to employ various contemporary art practices, events and strategies to engage policy makers, farmers and industrialists along with members of the public in the hope of catalyzing a change in attitude and behaviour in favour of soil and a healthier global ecology on the whole. The project is one of numerous similar projects worldwide in line with the UN Year of Soil 2015[iii].

© P Ward 2014

[i] From a presentation at the Soil Association’s National Soil Symposium @ Bristol 2013 by Charlie Bannister (Headland Agrochemicals)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s