PROJECT: Everything on Earth exists within an ecosystem, but it is not practical to include ‘everything’ in a student project exploring ecosystem ecology. Instead, this project focuses on ‘soil’ which is selected because it consists of biotic entities, abiotic components, water, and air – basic ingredients of every ecosystem.

Ecosystem-based management emerged in the late 1980s as an alternative to the piecemeal, jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction and issue-by-issue approach to natural resource management. It is based upon collaborative, long-term planning on a large scale, with the goal of forecasting the risks and gains of management procedures.

An ecosystem is the smallest unit of ecological study that includes both biotic communities (living entities) and abiotic components (sunlight, temperature, moisture, soil, and nutrients). Puddles, coral reefs, forests, estuaries, and grasslands are all ecosystems. Ecosystem ecologists study how the system’s biotic and abiotic elements are linked.

  • Flow of energy: Light energy enters the biological system and is transformed into chemical energy through photosynthesis and respiration. Then it is converted into heat energy which dissipates. The system depends upon continued inputs of energy from the sun. For this reason, energy flows are open systems.
  • Cycling of materials (chemical nutrients): Nutrients enter living organisms where they are transformed biochemically and then returned to an inorganic state after excretion and decomposition. Because these materials cycle endlessly between their biotic and abiotic states, they are not destroyed or lost.18 For this reason, nutrient cycles are closed systems.

A series of pairings summarize the essential qualities that ecosystem ecologists study: biotic/abiotic; flow/cycle; energy/matter; closed system/open system. 

The eco artworks that engage in the dynamics of ecosystem ecology are also constituted out of energy flows and material cycles: cycling of water (Bayer); cycling of wildlife (Fournier, Merz, Sonfist); cycling of decomposed matter (Gelitin); flow of energy (Gracie, Ngo, Saraceno); cycling of microbes (Haapoja, Kac); cyclingof sewage (Haacke, Ngo); flows and cyclings within watersheds (Harrisons, Steiner & Lenzlinger); cycling of human waste (Hundertwasser, Lee); cycling of farm products (Sherk); examples of disrupted cycling (Ji, Kaprow, Lin).

READ TO LIFE! Any three chapters featuring the artists listed above.

PROJECT: Everything on Earth exists within an ecosystem, but it is not practical to include ‘everything’ in a student project exploring ecosystem ecology. Instead, this project focuses on ‘soil’ which is selected because it consists of biotic entities, abiotic components, water, and air – basic ingredients of every ecosystem. The abiotic components of soil are dirt which consists of minerals. The biotic component of soil is humus which is decayed organic matter. Humus provides a home for the microscopic organisms that jump-start the food chain upon which we and all other forms of life depend. These living organisms channel moisture and air through dirt, mixing the strata of the earth’s mantle and enabling plants to grow. If microorganism populations shrink, plant matter diminishes, the animals that depend upon it for food suffer, and the entire ecosystem is threatened.

Create an artwork that addresses one of the following aspects of soil’s biography:

  1. REDEEM SOIL’S REPUTATION: The word “soil” carries distasteful connotations. ‘Soil’ derives from the Indo European word for pigsty, ‘souil’. Its synonyms include the words ‘degrade’, ‘foul’, ‘spoil’, and ‘corrupt’. Likewise, dirt elicits derogatory connotations. “Dirty words” are rude. “Dirt cheap” conveys extremely low value. These phrases link an eco system’s principal life-sustaining substance with squalor instead of fertility.
  2. HONOR SOIL’S DISTASTEFUL INGREDIENTS: Humus, the organic component of healthy soil, might qualify as a prop in a horror movie. It is a grisly admixture of defecated matter from slimy invertebrates and the decaying corpses of virus, yeast, mold, and bacteria; decomposing twigs, needles, bark, and leaves of plants; hair, nails, bones, and skins of decomposing animals. Demonstrate that humus is not gruesome because it functions ‘beautifully’ in an ecosystem. A synonym for ‘beautiful’ is ‘admirable’.
  3. PAY TRIBUTE TO SOIL’S TEEMING POPULATIONS: There are billions to hundreds of billions of soil microorganisms in a mere handful of garden soil. That single handful might contain thousands of species of bacteria, hundreds of species of fungi and protozoa, dozens of species of nematodes, plus various mites and other microarthropods.19 The microbes living in soil are the workhorses of our farms and gardens because they enable plants to thrive. Recognition of this fact is imbedded in creation myths the world over. It is also evident in the Bible.  Adam is named from the Hebrew word ‘adama’ meaning “earth” or “soil”. Eve comes from the Hebrew word ‘hava’ meaning “living”. 
  4. PRESENT SOIL AS A CONNOISSEUR’S DELIGHT: Soil samples from deserts, swamps, coasts, basins, woods, and jungles are as varied as the vegetation they support. Experts have identified eleven separate soil orders and assigned proper names to 14,000 distinct varieties.20  Those who savor its multiplicity and discern its finest qualities are connoisseurs of soil.
  5. EXPOSE SOIL’S ENEMY:  Industrial mono-cultural agriculture debilitates soil because growing the same crop year after year depletes its fertility and leads to dependence on chemical fertilizers. An alternative involves rotating crops, allowing fields to lie fallow, and leaving crop residues in fields after harvest. These methods replenish nutrients while reducing mineralization, erosion, and water loss.
  6. ELEVATE SOIL’S VALUE BY DEMONSTRATING ITS RARITY: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that more than three-quarters of the global land surface (excluding Antarctica) suffer severe constraints for rain-fed crop cultivation. Approximately 13 percent is too cold, 27 percent is too dry, and 12 percent is too steep. Of these, about 65 percent are constrained by unfavorable soil conditions.21 This lack is aggravated by the loss of arable land due to deforestation, overexploitation for fuel wood, overgrazing, agricultural activities and industrialization. These activities cause acidification, salinity, organic depletion, compaction, nutrient depletion, chemical contamination, landslides, and erosion. The United States is losing soil 10 times faster — and China and India are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster — than the natural replenishment rate.22
  7. PROMOTE SOIL AS A HEALTHY ADDITION TO PEOPLE’S DIETS: “Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us. As nature’s blanket, the potentially pathogenic and benign microorganisms associated with the dirt that once covered every aspect of our preindustrial day guaranteed a time-honored co-evolutionary process that established “normal” background levels and kept our bodies from overreacting to foreign bodies. This research suggests that reintroducing some of the organisms from the mud and water of our natural world would help avoid an overreaction of an otherwise healthy immune response that results in such chronic diseases as Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and a host of allergic disorders.”23

RESEARCH / DISCUSSION: Provide evidence to prove or disprove one of the six aspects of soils ‘biography’ that are enumerated above.