• Lukus Robbins

The World Below Our Feet

'Soils define culture. Throughout history soil has defined human societies perhaps more strongly than any other single environmental variable. Its fertility defines our food, our population and our economy. Its colours define our art. Its organisms may define our health. Yet, the importance of soils in regulating human society is frequently overlooked'

Joshua Schimel

The Soil Project* started in early 2020 as lockdown 0.1 started. The pace of life slowed down, everyday living became simplified even though there was a new strange world outside. With much of this last year being taken over my the Covid-19 pandemic it has slowed down the momentum some of the greatest environmental movements this planet has ever seen. A 'stop gap', 'a pause' or as someone said to me, ' once the pandemic allows us, it's an opportunity to take stock and design a different future, in the way that we want'.

Like a lot of people, I have always been fascinated by the natural world, I never really wanted to socialise too much in my younger years, I took great comfort in turning to nature for connection, escape, and to make sense of the world. I have always been fascinated by non-conventional storytelling. I studied Theatre and Digital Arts at Dartington College of Arts. This place, wedged deep in the rolling hills of Devon was surrounded by nature; redwood forests, the moors and a sweeping river surrounded the estate. This allowed for my idea of storytelling to go outside and find a place within nature. For me, here are the most fascinating and important narratives that we are yet to discover.

Through its richness and complexity, the soil beneath our feet holds the most memory about human existence on this planet. The underground world has stark similarities with the way we live above ground. Politics, migration, creativity, biology, economy, pollution and engineering are all very much part of the past, present and future of this subterranean ecosystem. 54% of the human population lives in urban areas so most of us have little to no functional interactions with soil apart from the potted plants in our homes. A widespread cultural perception of what we think of soil is so often reduced to mundane and repulsive language that sits alongside pessimism, gloom, depression, poverty and filth. The word 'dirt' first appeared in the fifteenth century meaning "smutty, morally unclean". By reducing the Earth's principle life-sustaining substance to dirt instead of vitality we have carved a difficult path for the future of soil on Earth. The ramifications of our abuse to soil is beginning to have devastating consequences to our landscapes, our foods and our health.

What happens if we find new ways to engage, celebrate and harness the wonder of soil that changes the course of our relationship with it? What if we start using positive terminologies and metaphors to celebrate the life-give functions of soil? How can we cultivate sensitivity and acquire local knowledge about our soils?

Beneath our feet is a network of communication that we are yet to tap into and fully understand. The ground we walk on actually regulates the temperature and air quality of the planet, this is because it is a living network of insects, roots, fungus, bacteria and algae that work together in a symbiotic manner with plants and form vast interspecies communication networks. With an estimated 90% of the world's plants depending on mycorrhizal fungi to provide valuable nutrients and protection, it should be a priority that we protect with and regenerate the soil we have depleted.

By focusing on mycorrhizal fungi - a type of fungi that forms a symbiosis with the roots of plants - I started off learning how it has shaped the existence of human life thus far. Throughout human history, the synthesis of fungi and its properties have been utilised as a source of food and drink and in the last 100 years have been a major factor in modern medicines. Some 200,000 years ago the brains of Homo sapiens rapidly doubled in cognitive ability and one theory is that when migrating they came into contact with psilocybin mushrooms and gained a higher consciousness through ingesting them. It was around this time that art, pictography and tool usage has been documented.

Whatever we believe in, the importance of fungus and all of its properties and abilities has without doubt has shaped human existence on this planet and continues to do so. In a world of advancing technology such as big data, automation and nanotechnology, we can only hope that the direction of the planet co-designs new systems which deeply learn from these fascinating ecosystems that have adapted, survived and thrived well before we became the destructive creatures we are today.

Our environmental ecosystems are being transformed as a result of humans consuming the earth's natural resources at an alarming rate. Plastic pollution, air pollution and environmental destruction are some of the biggest threats to the future of this planet. The planet has always been incredible at repairing the damage caused by humans, but it cannot give promise to the future of humanity anymore, some leading scientists have started warning of the end of human civilisation within the next 100-200 years. It is daunting and overwhelming but there are some incredible nature-based solutions to human-made problems that give hope to a future we can cultivate and work towards.

My residency at Watershed's Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol will see me researching a series of artistic interventions exploring the symbiotic ecosystems within soil. Excited by naturally occurring phenomena such as Aspergillus Tubingensis, a fungi that breaks down plastic (see Plastic Not Fantastic), I will delve into roots, fungus, bacteria, algae and insects. Focussing on how systems within the natural world can be harnessed to reverse human impact.

By using intersectional environmentalism as a lens and soil as the medium I have been exploring the following questions about soil and its importance to our minds, bodies and environments.

  • How can we engage with a world we cannot see but is so important to our lives?

  • If we look beyond real estate and farming, what value does healthy soil bring to our communities?

  • How can we build collective power and cultivate new opportunities for the narratives that often miss out of environmental conversations?

  • How can we work towards transformative collective action whilst celebrating difference?

  • In what ways can we explore, question and creatively imagine a culture of possibilities?

  • What is the value of healthy soil to the way we live in our communities?

More to follow...

Keywords: Localisation, Co-Creation, Mental and Physical Wellbeing, Soil Health, Carbon Capture, Pollution, Regeneration, Systems Thinking

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