WHAT IS SOIL ANYWAY?

Friday 22nd April // Reflections by Hannah Baxter

Today I went along to ‘What is soil?’ because I wasn’t really that sure about it and wanted to find out! The workshop was led by Malcolm Coull, from the James Hutton Institute, and Abi Mordin, from Propagate. There were also quite a few worms involved who led by action rather than with words.

Malcolm gave a talk about soil which, he said, is made from inorganic material, organic materials, water, air and beasties. It is formed by the climate (the wind blowing materials about and the cold pushing rocks apart) and organisms, and it takes a very, very long time to make. Soil is best known for growing things in – and many people in the room were experienced gardeners – but it is also good at storing water, storing carbon, locking up chemicals, supporting buildings and preserving the past. It is also a home for millions of organisms – apparently there are more living things in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet. But there are big problems facing soil – competing demands from various people, pollution from industry, floods washing it away, overgrazing and weathering.

Abi then talked about compost. This led to a little debate about what should go into compost. Is it okay to put in cooked food? Abi thought not, and most agreed, as it can attract rats and mice but an allotment holder present puts it into his compost – controversial! Should orange and lemon peel go in? It can but it takes a long time to break down. And what about human poo? Abi makes humanure! But she wouldn’t use cat or dog poo. Essentially Abi explained that composting is helping to speed up a natural process of organic matter breaking down and for this to happen the organisms doing the work need to be kept happy with food, shelter, heat and water. Compost is not the same as soil; but it is added to soil to improve it.

There was then a practical part of the workshop and we were asked to think about whether soil can be made. If soil is depleted this might actually have to happen as soil would not naturally form as fast as existing soil is being exhausted. Malcolm asked if people would be comfortable with growing plants in this type of soil and mostly everyone seemed cool with that. We then had a go at making soil. I say we but actually I didn’t as my hands are very dry and sore from being in allotment soil a lot this week! This soil was a mix of ground down bricks and ash to make up the non-organic part and Abi’s compost to make the organic part, along with helpful worms and other tiny organisms too small for us to see.

The workshop gave me a lot of questions to think about. Are we being good enough to our soil? What will happen if it is depleted? Will we have to ‘make’ soil and how could this happen on a large enough scale? Abi also asked where does the top soil imported for community gardens and allotments come from – is it okay to move soil around like this? But with these questions, I did get the very helpful answer from Malcolm and Abi to ‘What is soil anyway?’

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URBAN ALLUVIUM WORKSHOP

SOIL CITY: Urban Alluvium Workshop / Guddling About // April 17, 2016

Artists: Minty Donald and Nick Millar // Field Notes by Ursula Lang // Photos by Clementine Sandison

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What does the water carry?

Have you looked into a storm drain along the streets of Glasgow? Probably you’ve glanced down at the floating cigarette butts, sky reflected on a thick surface, and odd pieces of urban detritus. Following the former tideline of the River Clyde, in this workshop led by artists Minty Donald and Nick Millar, we used urban storm drains to investigate what the water carries as it moves through the city. And how might this matter become soil?

Glasgow’s rivers have been shaped in conjunction with the city’s settlement and industrial history – and vice versa. What was once a wide, flat alluvial plain shaped by the coming and going of the tides has become the solid paved streets we take for granted. Over centuries of dredging and channelizing, the river’s path through the landscape has deepened and narrowed, constraining its meandering tendencies. This Soil City workshop is part of a larger ongoing project of Minty and Nick’s called “Guddling About” – based on the Scots word meaning to muck about, to be playful, to get messy. link: http://guddlingaboutexperiments.tumblr.com

How do water and soil meet?

It was a cold Sunday afternoon, windy and grey. A small group gathered, lots of conversation. Out we went, to meander along the former tideline. As we talked and walked, we stopped to peer into storm drains in gutters. We collected jars of water from eight storm drains with a basic water pump attached to a length of plastic tubing taped to a stick. Lowering the tubing into the water attracted pretty enthusiastic attention from passers by – many of whom were football fans. The liveliness of the streets loosened up conversation.

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Back at the Soil City Lab, the kettle was on and cups of tea warmed our cold fingers. We used a simple apparatus to filter each of the eight water samples: test tube stand, glass funnel, filter paper, and jar. Part ritual, part experiment. For about a half hour water dripped at varying rates. People chatted, looked through the library, and attended to ongoing Soil City projects like making nettle beer.

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We looked at the eight soggy filter paper circles laid out on the map. Tiny bits of vegetation, grains of sand, a couple of very small piles of wet mud. The actions of this performance brought us into closer contact with the drain water and all it carried, while at the same time our almost clinical treatment of the water once back at the lab distanced us from it. We talked about when dirt, sediment, and soil might be “matter out of place” (Mary Douglas’ famous phrase). Dirt in the garden is soil, is earth, is right where it should be. Is the muck from a city drain ever in the right place?

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At the end of the workshop, Minty sprinkled the filtered water as we walked a length of the former tideline. Lines of water marked the sidewalks, crossed the road diagonally. A man outside a pub watched us go by, and asked if if was holy water. Hard to escape the symbolic meanings of water, how we carry it, and where we place it. Minty smiled and said, “It’s drain water!”

Farm Hack

Some Notes by Kristina Nitsolva from the talk co-founder of Farm Hack, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, shared at the Soil City Lab

Farm Hack is…

….the meshing of cultures – engineers and farmers are different characters, approaching problem-solving in different ways. Collaborating patience and time and listening, and this should be honoured. Farm Hack is like a microcosm of what it takes for the different cultures/fields to collaborate towards common goals.

….meeting through working in service of sustaining (sustainable) farming.

….sharing a problem or a project at gatherings and inviting input, advice, collaboration.

….hacking open accountability (of the unaccountable organisations, mechanisms).

….activists working with scientists.

….hacking open farm equipment so it can be adapted to the needs of small-scale farmers, it can be easily repaired, and so that it can be affordable unlike farm machinery produced by large corporations.

….is organising- you don’t need to be a designer, a farmer or a tech person; communicating, connecting people and their ideas and bringing them together is vital to the movement.

What is the sharing economy?

The opposite of the current economy which tends to put a price on things and activities we could easily do for free.

How do we go about changing this?

One idea is making our economy visible by situating art and activism in places where multiple intersections of our economy meet (rivers/cities).

Inspiring developments in the movement?

Ouishare (http://ouishare.net/en) and their conferences in Paris and beyond

Fermentation Circle

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).

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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.

Not only did we get to taste Clem’s sourdough rye bread, beetroot and cabbage sauerkraut, and yogurts, Martin’s white cabbage and caraway seeds sauerkraut and kombucha, and Lindsay’s allioli but we had a go at making some sauerkraut with seasonal (very aesthetically pleasing) vegetables, and even ferment some wild garlic.
On a personal level participating in the Fermentation Circle was a way to switch off from the politics of our global food system and its ills (which I often find thinking about and discussing) and re-connect with food as a source of nourishment and health when produced/processed/prepared using natural methods- another valuable point of engagement with sustainable food activism, in my opinion.