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Soil Connoisseurs

Happy World Soil Day!

Today the United Nations launched the International Year of Soils 2015. The formal launch event will occur during the 69th session of the UN General Assembly to coincide with the first official World Soil Day. Concurrent events will take place around the world.

It seems timely that soil is finally receiving worldwide recognition. Cosmic travel and undersea adventures have inspired theme parks, computer games, and Hollywood films, but the dramatic invasions, combats, and reconciliations that transpire under our feet have mostly been ignored. Few current humans pay heed to soil, and they are even less likely to relish soil.

Despite our dependence upon soil for survival, most contemporary humans are oblivious of its elaborate structure, diverse populations, and multi-millennial history. This underground universe exists ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’. No 4-H Club provides ribbons to youngsters who raise excellent breeds of dirt. There is no holiday honoring the founder of soil science. If Muhammad, the Buddha, Jesus, and Moses are revered for saving peoples’ souls, it seems Vasily Vasilievich Dokuchaev (1846 – 1903), the pioneer soil scientist, merits veneration for his role in saving life on Earth.

A minority of people counter this neglectful trend. Like art connoisseurs who pinpoint the masterpiece qualities of a painting, or wine connoisseurs who detect the region where grapes were grown from a sip and a whiff of wine, soil connoisseurs can discriminate between all eleven soil orders and 14,000 distinct soil varieties.   They can differentiate soil samples from deserts, swamps, coasts, basins, woods, and jungles, and perhaps even deduce the precise point of origin by detecting subtle gradations of a soil’s texture (sand, silt, loam, clay); color (tones of red, orange, gray, white, green, yellow, black); and aroma (sweet, pungent, acrid, metallic, musty, yeasty). Soil connoisseurs can reconstruct a soil’s history by detecting signs of weathered mineral deposits and decomposed organic materials. Besides visual and manual clues, the place of a soil’s origin can be discerned from the flavor of the crops it produces. This is because flavor reveals the particular mineral composition of zinc, copper, iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and other essential minerals of the region’s soils. The term terroir refers to palpable evidence of a region’s soils, along with its geography, climate, and geology. It is, literally, the ‘sense’ of place.   Furthermore, connoisseurs appreciate the immense diversity of life forms that make their homes in various kinds of dirt. But most importantly, connoisseurs savor the finest soils, bestowing upon them the respect and dignity of masterworks.

Artists like Joe Scanlan and Claire Pentecost are heeding this call by dignifying the fundamental substance that perpetuates life on Earth. They are diverting attention away from the multiplicity of colors, forms, and patterns above ground, to engage the monochrome, formless, chaotic territories underground. Some who are creating art at the frontier of ecologically conscious cultural change has vastly expanded the themes and the means of creating art.  Within their diverse creative practices, soil is preserved, conserved, aestheticized, politicized, and revered.  Artists who are active interventionists effectively remediate and restore soil. Those who address civilization’s role in determining soil’s fate explore interactions that are harmful as well as those that are beneficial.  Each approach positions artists as leaders in affecting the long-term vitality of humanity and the planet we inhabit.