An ambitious two-year art/science programme to inspire a deeper public understanding of the importance of soils.
The Future of Our Living Soil
With its main focus on Scotland, it will build on activities delivered during previous congresses in Brazil and South Korea and the UN’s International Year of Soils (2015), and we are exploring a wide range of options from exhibitions, residencies, film screenings and performances to workshops, talks and field trips. One of our first activities is planned for World Soil Day on 5 December this year. Of course, our planning is dependent on Covid-19 restrictions and, during these uncertain times, we will update this website, send out newsletters and begin online discussions.
The health of our soils is a topic that has rarely engaged the public in the way the cleanliness of our air, rivers and oceans and the conservation of endangered species have. However, soil health, climate change, food production, biodiversity and water supply are all intrinsically linked and the latest State of Nature report suggests that poor agricultural management, even more than climate change, is proving to have the greatest single impact upon nature and species depletion in the UK.
All around the world soils are increasingly threatened by intensive management and short-termism, resulting in compaction, contamination, erosion and salinisation, together with loss of fertility, organic matter and biodiversity. To some extent, most of these threats affect Scottish soils: for example, the historic misuse of iconic peatlands is acknowledged in our current efforts to restore them as carbon sinks. Peat has long been recognised as a domestic fuel source and indeed is an important cultural aspect of Scotland’s peat resource. However, other uses such as commercial forestry and industrial scale peat extraction are known to have detrimental impacts on the resource.
Image: Peatland restoration and standing forestry in the Flow Country
“The arts touch people in ways that complement the work of science and conventional education. There are strong indications that an increasing number of artists are becoming involved in environmental issues and in collaborations with scientists.”
Flows to the Future
Scottish visual artist Hannah Imlach’s project in the Flow Country – a vast expanse of blanket bog in the far north east of Scotland – is an example of recent work on the subject. Imlach was artist-in-residence with the Flows to the Future project during 2017-18, commissioned by the Peatland Partnership. During this time she worked alongside RSPB wardens, conservation staff and peatland scientists, addressing both the devastation caused by large-scale monoculture forestry planting in the 1980s and the importance of peatland as an ecologically diverse habitat and carbon store.
Image: Flows Lookout by Icosis Architects
Following her 18-month residency Imlach created a set of sculptural ‘instruments’ inspired by current peatland research and restoration. These works reference scientific flux towers – groupings of meters, dials, solar panels and sensors used to monitor the atmospheric conditions of the bog – and a selection of peatland flora, from the microscopic structures within peat-forming sphagnum mosses to preserved pollen grains, traces of an ancient native woodland. Each work is activated by the conditions of the bog: filling with rainwater, floating in natural pool systems, spinning in high winds and measuring sunlight.
Image: Scientist Myroslava Khomik retrieving data from a Flow Country flux tower
The sculptures were temporarily returned to the Flows and documented in Fieldwork, a short film that explores the process of their assembly and activation amid the peatland habitat. Informed by Imlach’s participation in fieldwork with peatland scientists, the film references their ongoing efforts to monitor and maintain the scientific instruments used to understand and ultimately protect the fragile ecology of the bog.
Images: All images taken by Hannah Imlach during her residency in the Flow Country, 2017-18
Our Living Soil is guided by a panel which includes Willie Towers, a Scottish soil scientist and member of the British Society of Soil Science for over 40 years; Alexandra Toland from Germany whose recent publication Field to Palette brings together over 100 artists and environmental scientists to discuss the state of the world’s soils; and Clive Adams, curator of the Soil Culture programme 2014-16.