We have also been capturing the social history of soil. What human activity has it supported, how are people emotionally connected to the soil on that sites we visit and what do they imagine for the future. Interview at North Kelvin Meadow.
Monday 11th April, Land Rights Night, reflections by Kristina Nitsolova
Carving out spaces for collective learning and getting to grips with new to us ideas is a challenge in a culture of hectic urban living. Yet, in the midst of a very busy arts festival, quite a few of us chose to come along and hear the perspectives of the speakers contributing to this discussion on Land Rights.
Each speaker contributed a response to how our relationship to land is changing and has been changing as economic considerations seem to increasingly take priority over the social, cultural and environmental in a local and global scale. Having those different voices, spanning two continents, different generations and fields of interest, asking critical questions allowed us to learn not from facts but from the experiences of the speakers, and begin to look at our own connection to (our) land and response (or lack of) to how it is used and who makes the decisions.
Land as commons, a resources owned by no one and shared by everyone, was a key point of discussion and an ethical point from which issues of land use and land right were perceived by some of the speakers. Elinor Ostrom’s 8 principles for managing a commons were highlighted as guidance and inspiration-giving document. Looking back in history at how commons and land rights issues had been approached in different cultures was highlighted as another source of wisdom for the current movement (for example, the Highland Land League); other movements are also a source of knowledge (for example, the Food sovereignty movement). The feral commons of the Govan graving docks, now cleared and the the site of a new housing development, illustrates how land use issues are very much relevant to those of us living in cities, as well well as those living in rural areas, the possibilities of public use begin to diminish through the commercialisation of urban land.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming (Greenhorns; Farm Hack) focussed on agency, that of young farmers in the US working to build ‘infrastructure for holding land in common’ in spite of the barriers created by large scale agricultural models which make it very difficult for young people to re-enter agriculture as a way of (making a) living. She spoke of their ambition to open up access to land for local economies for young farmers and people without enough, or any, capital in an increasingly speculative system. She said to look up Terre de Liens, a group from France, who are forging the way and inspiring the global movement!
Artist Alec Finlay, guided us through a journey of Scottish landscapes and their Gaelic names demonstrating how landscape and culture, nature and people are interconnected but how we may be witnessing the weakening or disappearance of these connections. Here are some notes from his contribution to the evening excluding the beautiful-sounding names and the stunning landscapes projected on the wall: First there was the place, then the name. The name of what a place once was…Place names are social signs…A field of biotic relations, necessary relations. A name could aid habitat restoration as it is all that remain from a past habitat…a sound designating reality. A name is a place and it’s absence
The word ‘indicator’ makes it sound as if plants can be read as signs of soil conditions, when in fact, it is more like a starting point for a more complicated analysis that (in theory at least) takes a range of factors into consideration, including not only the other conditions at the site, but also the relative quantity and vigour of the plants, and the presence of other species. It is also true that soil conditions can vary dramatically in a small area (if polluting or fertilising substances are present, if animals have been defecating there, and so on). The discovery of indicator plants in a given location thus often yields contradictory ‘results’. For example, on our site visits to date, we have observed ragwort (Senecio jacobea), which is an indicator of poor soil, together with nettle and ivy, which are indicators of fertile soil. In practice, indicator plants rarely provide evidence of soil conditions; rather, they pose questions: might the soil be more fertile here than over there? What could lead the soil to be locally basic within an otherwise acidic site?
I prepared a mini guide to indicator plant species for use in the mobile lab. This includes a short list of plant species that are common in Glasgow, and which have a specific and reliable relationship to different kinds of soil (e.g., acidic, basic, fertile, infertile etc.). This was an interesting but surprisingly time consuming task: many of the plants that are strong indicators of soil conditions are only rarely present in the city; at the same time, certain soil conditions (e.g., dampness) are so widespread in Glasgow as to be irrelevant (since they do not distinguish between different sites). Finally, in April, many plants are still at an early stage in their growth cycle (or not even visible), which means that they can only really indicate something to experts. All this underscores the fact that what can be ‘read’ about urban soil through plants is both geographically specific and highly subjective.
Though it is important not to expect too much, the search for indicator plants is a pleasant way to get to know your local park, garden or vacant lot, and a good way to begin to see the inextricable and complex relations between plants and soil. Plants simply do not grow where the soil cannot support them. In this light, the surprising abundance and diversity of vegetation in Glasgow is worth thinking and talking about. What more could we be doing here?
Erin Despard, 14 April, 2016
Alec Finlay reflects on his involvement in the Land Rights Night which took place at South Block on Monday 11th April
I valued how the conversation revealed the unresolved tensions – unresolved in my own mind – between the healing effects of feral-play and the task of community growing-producing. I don’t know about the other speakers, but I felt the different examples opened that up as a discussion to move towards, without seeing it as an opposition. (Maybe at first I introduced it in that way, but I thought the examples of wild huts, shelters, and the creative potential of ruins made it clear that isn’t the case, and the conversations I had afterwards suggested that).
There is a lot to think about in terms of the alternatives of preserving feral places as ‘refugia’, where wild things grow and people heal their pasts, in a locality, and, on the other hand, taking over sites, to grow things, make innovative parks, or harvest (e.g. biomass). I was left reflecting on that tension between conserving industrial ruins, and translating them into productive green sites (ideally with the addition of renewable energy).
Part of that is an artist feeing a need to analyse and criticise my own tendency to be involved in a ‘play’ activity; part of it is the duty climate change brings; and part of it is about strategies of how you preserve spaces from unnecessary development. Without becoming “something”, whether a landscaped ruin, park, garden, etc, feral places are always vulnerable. My point about the teenage den was that it tends to be vulnerable to developers, unless, perhaps, we define that evolution towards “something”. (The something can be landscaping the ruin as a ruin, productive of a feral space and healing activities, or it can be the productivity of crofts or gardens. What we need are innovative solutions to what that “something” is?
I liked how the conversation introduced these issues, and possible solutions, without finding one answer. Translating crofting into the city, and composing a “ruin” – they kind of meet in Kevin Langan’s wild shelters, or bothies, or huts – where the den becomes a dwelling, and that makes a ‘steward’ to protect a place from development. So I valued the way the other speakers opened up that discussion, and possibly hinted at a menu of solutions? For me, I think dwelling became more important than commons – though its a useful word. Access is always an issue, but what seems to protect spaces is lived presence, and maybe not even a word like commons is powerful enough, at this time, to resist development?
One thing we didn’t touch on, but which the soil project will, is the toxic soil in Glasgow, and what can be done with it. Some of it is ‘ruined’, some of it can be redeemed.
Thanks to everyone.
A short film clip by Johnny Barrington of our visit to the North Kelvin Meadow.
by John Hutchinson
The bright yellow bikes of the Soil City roving research team brightened up a rather dreich day at North Kelvin Meadow yesterday. Despite the weather, spirits were high and a selection of soil samples were gathered from the site, as well as some worm surveying and recording of tree, plant and bird life. The old red blaes surface upon which the meadow has grown proved to be a recurring theme across the soil samples – a reminder of its previous use as a football pitch and of how quickly nature can flourish if given a chance. It was great to hear the thoughts and feelings of local residents towards the meadow, with a strong sense of community attachment coming to the fore and an appreciation of the meadow as a valuable place in which to play with, experience and learn about nature.
NADFLY Oat Library at the Soil City Laboratory
Nicola and Caspar of NADFLY gave a talk on a Wednesday evening during Glasgow International in a Merchant City railway arch that was transformed into the Soil City Laboratory. Oat Library is an artist vision for creating sculptural pocket fields of oats with Glasgow, and we related an intimate narrative of how the project has developed.
We talked about the challenge of growing oats, a grain rich with history and full of uses from cooking to beauty products. Glasgow’s industrial past is never far away when trying to find uncontaminated ground to grow on, and we have learned as much from archaeologists as from agriculturalists.
At the end of the talk, Nicola made peppermint creams using oat milk, and we gave out ‘oat capsules’ – small glass jars with organic oats, enough for one large serving of porridge or oatmeal.
Many thanks to the team at Open Jar Collective for inviting us to participate in their Soil City programme, and for creating such a great space in the Laboratory!
Saturday 9 April, blog by Kristina Nitsolova, photos by Clementine Sandison
It is a wonderful thing to realise how much can be learned in the space of a few hours, even if the subject may be the ancient practice of fermentation (pre-dating agriculture).
It took an afternoon in the Soil City lab to motivate me to turn all the leftover vegetables (especially cabbage) from the weekly Locavore veg bag into all sorts of delicious sauerkraut experiments and to give rye sourdough bread making another go. Hearing about the different approaches to preserving and preparing food of experienced Glasgow-based ‘fermentators’ made the use of natural fermentation techniques seem less of an aspect of countryside life and more of a possibility for a healthy urban diet.
Some great books to guide the novice as well as those more experienced in the art of fermentation, are available in the Soil City library- The Art of Fermentation and Gut reveal a lot about the principles and health benefits of incorporating more naturally fermented foods into our modern diets.
Saturday was our first day out on the bikes. We had a welcome reception at the Kinning Park Complex community garden and Moogety Garden, a community garden in Govan. We also dropped by Plantation Park on the way and were surprised by the biodiversity of the site event though it is right next to a busy motorway.
People wanted to know more about their soil and what that meant in terms of growing produce. They were up for getting to know their soil better and sharing their passion for these small patches of land they had invested in.