making a mole hill soil ball, baggy point 281114
i come upon
in my perambulations
the hill of a mole
a breathing space for some subterranean excavation
tunneling her way
through rich rooted firmament
and on meeting such a mound
it is my inclination
to reach down
from my lofty perspective
to bury my soft suburban hands
in this sifted sorted moist soil
and to draw out a handful
i form a ball
and place it thereabouts
acknowledgement of our underground companions
symbol of my connection
with what lies beneath my feet
above your head
that supports this miraculous life we do enjoy
© P Ward 2014
Falmouth University, 2-5 July 2014
The first major event of the Soil Culture[i] programme organized by CCANW[ii] and RANE[iii] at Falmouth University took place over the last week. The event brought together talks, workshops, social gatherings and exhibitions of artwork and posters from local and international artists, soil scientists and agriculturalists to celebrate and investigate how the arts may contribute to shifts in attitudes and understanding of a matter we take very much for granted – soil.
My own contribution included the forum logo, a small display of soil inspired work with Francesca Owen in the Woodlane Campus Library, a poster commissioned and printed for the 20th World Congress of Soil Science in South Korea by Alex Toland[iv], a Painting with Earth workshop and a number of art works in a pop-up exhibition on site. It was good to meet, hear and see the rich and varied work of those of like minds and inspirations, and especially to hear the no-nonsense common sense of Graham Harvey, author of one of my favourite books, The Carbon Fields[v]…
“Why, she wondered, were Indian peasants being pushed into debt and penury by a system of agriculture that was supposed to bring prosperity to rural communities? And why did monocultures, which were intrinsically of low productivity, come to be accepted as highly productive though they required huge inputs of chemicals and fossil fuels, and then produced less food than traditional, diverse farming systems?” from The Carbon Fields by Graham Harvey, p.100
“Organic milk, for example, is a blend of the good and not so good. Organic standards require that at least 60 per cent of the ratio must be in the form of grass and forage. In terms of its nutrient content, milk produced to this minimum standard won’t compare in quality with milk of cows getting 80 per cent of their feed in the form of grazed pasture, organic or not. And, as on conventional farms, milk produced to higher standards will be diluted with milk produced to the bare minimum standard.” from The Carbon Fields by Graham Harvey, p.136
It is always exciting how participation in such events can provide the space to create new work and to make and renew contacts. Let’s hope that the forum will lead to increased future awareness, projects and collaborations towards our need for changes in attitude and policy around issues of our care and relationship with soil, a living substance upon which our and all life depends. Also thank you to Daro Montag for all his hard work organizing and raising funds[vi] for this event.
© P Ward 2014
[v]THE CARBON FIELDS – GRAHAM HARVEY (Bridgewater UK; GRASSROOTS; 2008)
[vi] Funding for the Forum was provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
a simple film about connecting with the earth – just walking barefoot along a muddy track in west somerset. the film was made with francesca owen as part of our ongoing collaboration and research towards the SOIL CULTURE project 2013-17 led by CCANW and RANE (http://artsandecology.info/pdf/Soil_culture_info_Oct2013.pdf). the images were captured on continuous shooting mode and edited using i-movie.
© Francesca Owen & Peter Ward 2014
(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.
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.
- 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
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) http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=KZwmjuWsC7g%3d&tabid=2143
as we make way
accumulating and assimilating
it is often hard to fully appreciate
what and who and where we have become
so as we grow
it is in everyone’s interest
to allow some space to grow apart
like the water and air around us
a breathing space
some elbow room
to stretch and flex
to test our boundaries
to assess our newly found wisdom
our freedoms and limitations
our sensory shell
like a root in the earth
following the worm’s way
or a branch reaching for the sun
we must each find our own path to grow and share and heal
The photographs above were taken on a midwinter visit to some youthful haunts on the South Downs in southern England. It was brilliant to see and feel the difference of light and rolling ambience of chalk bedrock and sandy Surrey soils in contrast to my local wet culm grassland and beaches of northern Devon. Harting Hill, on the newly attributed South Downs National Park, exhibits a rueful example of soils degraded by overgrazing despite the obvious rural beauty of the area, while Kingley Vale, nestled in the dip slopes of the Downs near Chichester, has some of the oldest living yew trees in the United Kingdom estimated at about 2000 years old. It is utterly awe inspiring to share space and time with such incredibly ancient beings.
© P Ward 2014
Doniford, West Somerset 291113
This day, I was sent two disturbing articles relating to the research I am presently doing about soil. One, posted by the Soil Association on Facebook from the Ecologist magazine, stated how the majority of meat sold and consumed in the UK is now fed with Genetically Modified products, which has led to sickness in the animals and in turn is passing such illness onto humans who (choose to) eat the products[i]. The other, published in the Telegraph was sent by a fellow artist, and expressed the realization by American soil scientists that the biological life and energy in a great deal of US soil may have been irreversibly degraded by continued intensive farming methods similar to those employed in the UK[ii]. The articles unfortunately did not surprise or shock me, but both left me feeling, yet again, utterly helpless and frustrated in the face of such odds. What, as an artist or otherwise, can I do to change or shift human attitudes and behaviour? Why do big companies, governments and the majority of the population continue to adopt, support and employ technologies that have been proven without doubt to be for the good of no one, let alone the few? Just where is the sense in a world motivated solely by power over, by profit and material gain? Is it small wonder that many of us chose to bury our heads in the sand, or to numb our senses to the facts? Just how can we expect to cope not only with the constant barrage of distressing information but also the even more distressing reality?
More recently, with the immanent prospect of my second child, such information leaves me utterly terrified at what the future may hold. While I may personally accept, with much difficulty, the debilitating truth of this present ecocidal reality in which we live, I still have not fully realized the power or belief within myself to confront or even challenge it. Over the last few years my previous optimism and enthusiasm has been sorely tested by the constant exposure through social media and the internet to the cumulative implications of our self-imposed abuse. Can my own chosen vocation as an artist really affect the world, as I once believed, beyond simple and crude awareness-raising? Can it truly reach people who really don’t want to hear? And even if it can, how can I financially sustain my work as an artist? In the current political climate many aspects of the cultural sector, including education, seem to have been deemed such a threat to the status quo that artists are finding it harder and harder to find support for our work beyond the stultifying and questionable confines of academia or, if we are ‘lucky’, the morally spurious world of commerce. How in such a time can we find the strength to pick up our pens, our brushes or our cameras, to stretch and flex our aesthetic and intuitive muscles, to squeeze more paint from the tube, so to speak? What drives us on and inspires us to arrange, compose and juxtapose; to experiment, investigate and perform our plethora of creative maneuvers and how can we not respond to the situation in which we find ourselves wholly immersed?
My own interest in art and my resulting practice as an artist was born out of a desire and an aptitude to observe, manipulate and record the processes and materials of the world – in other words to enjoy and share the process of making things. Alongside this I have had a lifelong fascination and sense of wonder with the other creatures and life forms that share this world. At some point these interests (and every other aspect of my life) merged to create the art practice that I share today. At no point did I consciously decide to make my work political. By Nature it simply is. To make good and affective art, to interact fully and with energy in the world I must allow myself to become utterly absorbed in the processes of creativity and the materials and subject matter that fascinate me. To do this, artists must be fully supported in their role. I find it difficult to tailor my work in response to ecological crisis or to any economic or intellectual climate. My tendency, based most likely in mental and physical self-preservation, is to turn away from suffering and trauma and to make things that bring myself and hopefully others joy – to celebrate the privilege of being alive. This is not to say that I am not willing to accept the facts or implications of the present ecological crisis, nor that I cannot deal with the sorrow and grieving that such suffering entails. It is more that to celebrate existence, to engage with it in all its gory detail – its birth, its life, its destruction and decomposition, its ignorance, helplessness and despair, its beauty and magnificence – is my way of responding. This may not be obvious or directly related to the more empirical evidence that science relies upon as proof; it is more simply an act of defiance! My way of saying my energy will not be subdued! I am not ready to roll over and die just yet…
tribute to ana medieta 1, doniford, west somerset (p ward + f owen 2013)[iii]
Art by its very nature is transformative. Our actions as artists do not need to be directed at any particular issue or thing, we must simply do! And the more we allow ourselves to do, the more we allow ourselves and are allowed to become emotionally, intellectually, physically and spiritually in the work that gives us joy then the more power and resonance that work may hold and convey. This is true of all things.
So everyday I continue to act in this world. To walk and observe, to interact with and explore the wonder that it continues to express through its very existence, and to share my own sense of wonder with it all. And this day – a dull grey day in late November – I visited a what-may-seem rather unimpressive stretch of coast along the Bristol Channel in West Somerset. I am presently reflecting upon how my work with earth pigments may engage audiences with contemporary issues relating to soil as part of the CCANW/RANE Soil Culture project[iv]. While there is an obvious relationship between what lies beneath the soil, the rocks and geological structures and their mineral content, and hence its ability to support flora and fauna specific to a particular geomorphological region and then whatever agri-industrial-cultural manifestation that may become evident, how may creative and intellectual engagement with such materials raise awareness about contemporary soil issues? So to follow my own lead, I must simply do and invite others to do the same. Stop the overly analytical head and partake in those things that give joy, that bring peace, and share with others. Maybe that way we will find a way…
© P Ward 2013
soil culture[i] at the national soil symposium, @bristol 131113
“Man takes root at his feet, and at best he is no more than a potted plant in his house or carriage till he has established communication with the soil by the loving and magnetic touch of his soles to it.” John Burroughs
During a series of fascinating presentations, workshops and discussions among soil scientists, farmers and other interested parties at a recent Soil Association conference[ii] it became apparent that within contemporary ecological thinking the relevance and importance of the specific conditions and circumstance of any entity or system are paramount in any action or intervention we may deem necessary for its’ sustained well-being. Whether it is the health, condition or resilience of the soil for the production of food for human consumption[iii] or the empowerment of our children and fellow beings through education and experience, it is our understanding of the intrinsic and individual nature within a unique and particular dynamic environment that may enable suitable decisions to be made and implemented. The age-old principles of nurturing, of allowing and encouraging each to exist and flourish according to its’ own nature with respect for all, are as relevant today as ever. Indeed, it may be said that strict adherence to such principles are the only way we may challenge a currently accelerating and diabolical ecological crisis.
However, the virtual impossibility of adequate comprehensive empirical certainty (science[iv]) within the holistic complexity of this ever-changing world may only lead us to seriously question our ability to consciously or correctly intervene at all. As experience continues to show, often in the most alarming and catastrophic ways, human arrogance, our we-will-know-it-all tendency, seldom does get it right – the long-term implications of our well-meaning actions, in the name of progress or survival, leading to further unpredicted and unpredictable complications that adversely impact the diverse and subtle dimensions of this wondrous and profound universe. As I have written before[v], the unintentional but all-pervading intrusive resonance of our becoming is our nature, our unavoidable presence within this emerging world, and thus must be wholeheartedly embraced for any sense of understanding to evolve; neither denied and discarded as the fault of another or else employed as an excuse for apathy and inactivity, but maybe seen as the ‘funny side’ of being, the irony of and purpose for it all, without which we would not bother to be at all (or otherwise act despicably without due respect for what we have been generously granted). Likewise the necessity of intuition, its development and our ability to base decisions and act on them according to inter-sensory experience and contemplation, is essential if any positive shift is to be made both in our perceptions of this world and also as our behaviour within it.
“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
Personally, my own innate and inherent intuitive ecological abilities, or the power to observe, perceive and manipulate a range of sensory, emotive and energetic materials within specific or predefined but shifting natural and manmade systems, for both personal and political, aesthetic or altruistic intentions, have been greatly developed and further understood (in relation to intimate experience) by the practice of art. Irrespective of whatever media, material or discipline we may choose to employ, whether the bias may be object or process based or with what audience, human or otherwise, we wish to interact, it is the energetic relational concepts of space, composition, juxtaposition, environment and movement, combined with an empirical and intuitive appreciation of the nature of the entities and processes involved that create the foundation for an artist’s work. The refinement of such aptitudes and their investment, especially within more specific environments, may obviously be greatly enhanced through the familiarity gained by prolonged and disciplined research and practice within that space and the materials that it consists of, with a similarly diligent awareness of the broader picture and the spaces that lie within its close proximity, for these are by its very nature of equal relevance to the whole – ‘no man is an island’ after all, as the saying goes.
So, how may such long-sentenced and wordy expression manifest in this world? Does the theory become the practice? At this time, art and its soul-mates of sentiment, spirit and communal good sense have become such threats to the deceptions of Cartesian science and the politics of capital and greed it upholds, that its rightful integration is too often subjugated to hedonistic consumerism and investment or meaningless modernism, trapped within the rhetoric of its own contemptuous intellect. But as arts’ worth is pitifully suppressed through ignorance and fear, so its’ power is more widely recognized, utilized and amplified by those in need, its voice speaking with eloquence, compassion, humour and grace through acts of disguise, defiance and defence, invisible in its own magic, often unrecognizable but determined by its own perpetual presence within the nature of life itself. Art is healing and revealing all at once.
“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
My own life is about to change – soon I will be a father again and another living breathing being will enter the dynamic hubbub of perpetual decision-making. I am both utterly overjoyed and somewhat afraid. How can I truly know what further changes this new life will bring? It is the most natural event in the world, but in a world that is collapsing in our hands. While it may be impossible to deny the underlying implications of our behaviours within this world, I will endeavour to constitute a personal policy of postive, guilt-free intuitive holistic action with each new breath, whether it is in my art, my parenting and every relationship I am able to maintain or through a basic integrity to the soil on which I continue to stand. I will continue to do. I will touch the soil and learn. I will breathe its scent, speak its language, shape it and form it in its own image, as the soil itself stretches and breathes its life-giving life for all, an ebullient interface between earth, air, fire and water. We may know beauty and beauty may know us…
© P Ward 2014
[iii] At least at this conference there was no pretense otherwise, that as humans we are somehow aloof from the very physical needs and implications of our actions. Of course, we are motivated by our desire to survive, but not necessarily always to the detriment of others.
[iv] This is not to disregard entirely the practice of science but to question its ability to realistically and finitely take into account all the factors that may lead to our decisions or policies in relation to the world. Indeed, if science, or even science in measured or logical combination with other disciplines such as art and religion, did present the incontrovertible Truth to policy makers, as many are hoping and striving, would we be in the illogical, ridiculous and catastrophic predicament we are currently facing?
A soft rain beneath grey skies
Doing nothing to subdue this radiance
This resonance of photosynthesis singing in the low-lying vegetation
Moisture percolating and gathering in the soil
Refilling the reservoirs
Cleaning the capillaries
The essential arteries
The root tunnels, the worm halls, the mole ways
Making ready for the frost-thaw-plough
Breaking the sodden firmament apart again
Rejuvenating and replenishing the mineral microbial composition
Offering sustenance in elemental complexity
Willfully perpetuating an existential flow
I welcome this water of the skies
I thank the ice and sun
I cherish the earth at my feet
As in this life itself
© P Ward 2013
* This piece of writing was inspired by a fascinating day of presentations and workshops examining the beauty, importance and nature of soil in support of human survival at the Soil Association National Soil Symposium in Bristol in November where I was representing the Soil Culture project for the Centre for Contemporary Arts & The Natural World (CCANW), 2013-17 (http://www.ccanw.co.uk/assets/files/Uploads/Soil_4pg.pdf)
northam burrows, north devon 261013
“Soil is a material on which – even in the age of the internet – the whole of civilization depends. Along with clean air and fresh water, it is one of the fundamental components that support life on this planet. Without a healthy layer of soil, life and human society as we know it would not be able to function.”[i]
Believe it or not the soil is a living entity – a thin but rich, breathing interface of fungal and microbial[ii] action between the air and mineral bedrock. Water and vegetation, animal and human activity all contributing to its fertility and power. It is the world’s greatest carbon sink, holding climate in balance, when allowed to function healthily[iii]. One element of soil that maintains its potency, its life-sustaining quality, is the far-reaching microscopic tendrils, or mycelium, of Earth’s largest organisms – fungus. Fungus is generally recognized by its splendid array of weird and wonderful fruiting bodies in the form of the mushrooms, toadstools, brackets and sporific slimes which appear often overnight in the wetter seasons of the year, providing food, entertainment and insight, as well as danger to the unwary grazer. Within the soil the mycelium breaks down organic matter, such as leaves, wood and dead animals, as it feeds to create the humus and compost that fertilizes and nourishes the plants that feed us all.
As an artist interested in soil and natural resources it is only logical that I should want to celebrate this dimension of the soil’s power. I was recently provided with a wonderful opportunity to further explore such processes when I was presented with a field of shaggy ink-cap mushrooms (Coprinus comatus), local to my home on the coast of North Devon. Shaggy ink-cap mushrooms as the name suggests, have been used as ink throughout history – the fruiting body providing a deep black-brown slimy liquid as it decays. To alleviate the smell of the rotting fungus I added cloves boiled in water to the pungent ‘soup’. I last made ink-cap ink in Ireland in 1995 and still have a usable jar of it today. The ink has a beautiful dark brown and textured quality, but is liable to fade if exposed to direct sunlight like many plant-based dyes. The white fruiting bodies may also be eaten if caught very early (otherwise they tend to turn to grey slime!)[iv].
Many thanks again to Francesca for joining me on this adventure …
PLEASE GATHER ALL FUNGUS RESPONSIBLY
© P Ward 2013
[iii] for an in depth account of such processes and human intervention within them read THE CARBON FIELDS by GRAHAM HARVEY (Bridgewater UK; GRASSROOTS; 2008)
[iv] NEVER EAT FUNGUS UNLESS PROPERLY IDENTIFIED FIRST. SOME ARE VERY POISONOUS AND EVEN DEADLY!