Human Development and the Soil

All over the world, humans sculpt the land to meet basic human needs for food, water, shelter, energy, and safety. [1] We dike land for agriculture, build hydroelectric dams to supply energy, log forests for forest products and human settlements, drain wetlands, burn fossil fuels, and make industrial and agricultural products. However, these efforts have important consequences for soils now and in the future. [2] 

Diking land to keep out seawater provides fertile land for agriculture and growing tulips, [3] but at the same time may harm local fish habitat. Anadromous fish, like salmon, are born in fresh water, find shelter and develop in river estuaries, and eat their way through ocean waters. They return to terrestrial streams to spawn and die. Animals drag their carcasses up into riparian forests bringing nutrients captured from the sea back to the soils on land.

The use of hydroelectric power [4] reminds us of difficult tradeoffs. On-one-hand hydroelectricity limits our use of fossil fuels but-on-the-other-hand traps important nutrients in the sediment behind dams and disrupts fish passage. We can deal with some of these issues, for example by trucking fish around the dams or building fish ladders, but solutions to the sediment problem and the natural flow of the river are less clear.

Logging and forestry, which are very important to many local economies and provide important building materials and paper products, enhance soil erosion and hinder soil formation and carbon sequestration. The issue of deforestation [5] is a global concern, and it is most evident in the Amazon where the removal of rainforests is resulting in devastating soil erosion, and on a larger scale is influencing regional water budgets and climate.

Draining peat bogs to develop land dries the surface vegetation and the bogs easily catch fire. [6] Peat bogs, a type of wetland with partially decayed vegetation, provide unique wildlife habitat, naturally filter water, help prevent flooding, and sequester carbon.

Acid rain, [7] caused by both natural (i.e. volcanic eruption) and human activities (i.e. burning fossil fuels like coal) can make the soil more acidic, affecting plant growth and limiting subsequent nutrient availability to soil organisms.

Industrial pollution and storm water runoff can result in the accumulation of pesticides and toxic metals such as arsenic and lead in the soils. The heavily polluted sediment in the Gowanus Canal in New York City is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site. One of the artists, who is also a scientist, draws attention to how bacteria work to clean polluted soils and also create beautiful color fields. [8] Another artist [9] points to pollution from a lead and copper smelter in Tacoma, Washington. Once the pride of a local community, the smelter operated from 1896 to 1986, first as a lead smelter, and in 1912 as a copper smelter working on ores with a high level of arsenic contamination. Air pollution from the smelter, drifted over a 1000 square mile area, contaminating soils with lead and arsenic. This area is now being cleaned up and residents informed about potential hazards to gardening or having children play in the soil. Another example of soil pollution stems from the wide availability of agricultural pesticides containing lead and arsenic after World War II. Used to spray orchards, they leave a legacy of toxic soils now in backyards of suburban housing developments.

On a smaller scale, individual environmental practices can negatively affect soils. Think of all of the pavement, black plastic and tarpaper [10] surrounding homes. To get a sense for the amount of fertilizer and pesticides commonly used, one only has to look at the shelves of home improvement stores. How often do we think of soil health when we remove troublesome vegetation [11] and leaf liter?

Negative human impacts on soils are the unintentional result of human activities focused on other goals, and it is only recently that we have recognized the dangers of these single-minded endeavors. How we deal with these important issues and tensions will be important in our ability to cope with future. [12] Small steps added together can make a real difference. [13]

The gift of healthy soil is a legacy that we pass along to future generations. We hope this exhibit will spark conversations as we honor one of our most precious and undervalued resources: the soil.


1 How Soil Becomes Dirt (Jan Dove)
2 Agony (Lara D’ella, Leda Mariano, Maria do Carmo Toniolo Kuhn, Maria Julieta Damaseno Ferreira, Sirlei Caetano)
3 In the Absence of Soil – Between Here and Never Again (Monique Martin)
4 Dichotomy in Bhutan (Gayle Lauradunn)
5 XIMETRIAMAZONIKA (Milton Becerra); In-voluntario (Jane Balconi, Luiza Gutierrez, Nelva Mattoli Leite, There Reis, and Therezinha Fagliato Lima)
6 Fragment by Fragment and Bog Mawnog (Lin Charlston)
7 Revenge (Gary Beck)
8 Gowanus Canal (Jenifer Wightman)
9 How Often Do You? (Dorothy McCuistion)
10 Dignified Dirt (Jennifer Croney Chernak)
11 High Desert (Gayle Lauradunn)
12 Follow Me (Michael Magee)
13 Infiltration (Barbara McMichael)

How Soil Becomes Dirt - Jan Dove


Accordion fold; inkjet, ultrachrome inks; Asuka, Rives BFK, cave paper; 3 pages; 24 x 8 x 1 inches; edition of 15.

Biblically sanctioned arrogance in assuming human dominion over the planet is part of the tangled root of our current environmental problems.

The next transformation will come when humans recognize that they are not the master or even the stewards. Humans are but one part of the planet. Human life -- like the lives of all other earthly inhabitants (including the microbial flora and fauna in the “dirt”depicted in this book) -- is dependent on and part of the health of the planet. 

Agony - Iara D'Elia, Ieda Mariano, Maria do Carmo, Toniolo Kuhn, Maria Julieta Damasceno Ferreira, and Sirlei Caetano 


We talk about the agony of nature and have an alert for the protection of soil, air, plants and animals.

In the Absence of Soil: Between Here and Never Again - Monique Martin


Paper sculpture - altered book; 24 x 2.5 x 2.5; one of a kind.

Dirt, and the absence and the ephemeral quality of dirt is the focus of this piece. The bulbs created from 9 pieces of paper are suspended in time, becoming less full as the piece progresses from left to right. The individual bulbs are 3D but are also able to be flattened. The layering of various types of soil in various parts of the Netherlands is interesting in the 3D paper bulbs. The bulbs are created from pages in the book “Holland from the Air” by Air Leo Riede. 

This piece is interactive while reflecting upon the loss of dirt. The visitors will have access to a few of the bulbs to manipulate and encouraged to think about the fact that without dirt there will be no bulbs and none of the things that bulbs produce. The entire bulb industry would collapse without dirt but interestingly enough the bulb industry in the Netherlands began with the reclaiming of dirt from the sea. This collapse is reflected in the collapsing of the 3D bulbs to flat.

Dichotomy in Bhutan - Gayle Lauradunn

Spring snow melt in the Himalayas washes
topsoil, mid soil, base soil down steep 
slopes, leaves dust covered stones sharp
pointed to drive over to walk over
to ride mules stumbling over. A four-hour
jeep ride takes travellers from the outer
world the forty miles from Thimphu
to Punakha, four hours to witness
the exciting road building project
every stone dug out by hand, dark clad
women removing stones only stones to haul
away, no soil for thousands of years, no soil
on the sharp stone trek up the Himalayan
slope to Tigers Nest Monastery. No soil
in rice paddies water steeped, water washed.
Hydroelectric power for India.


Photo; mat; 138 pages; edition of 10.

In the world laden with changes, I want to preserve the spiritual part of what's ours. there are many natura resources in the amazon jungle that the irresponsible invading man is destroying.

We made one altered book, to recycle materials and protect the nature. We know that each sheet used for making paper represents a tree unless; If we want to protect the soil is necessary to preserve the trees, protecting the survival of human éspecie.  

We talk about the agony of nature and have an alert for the protection of soil, air, plants and animals.

In-voluntário - Jane Balconi, Luiza Gutierrez, Neiva Mattioli Leite, There Reis, and Therezinha Fogliato Lima 


We made one altered book, to recycle materials and protect the nature. We know that each sheet used for making paper represents a tree; If we want to protect the soil is necessary to preserve the trees, protecting the survival of human éspecie.  

Fragment by Fragment - Lin Charlston

Hand-stitched codex, limp binding; digital printing with archival pigment inks; Gerstaecker 125 gsm; acid-free tissue, Arches 250 gsm rag paper for wrap; 28 pages; 10.5 x 6 x 0.2 inches; edition of 50.

Peat is an ancient organic soil in the early stages of coal formation. It is a valuable carbon sink as well as a rare marshy habitat which is endangered by climate change and human activity. When the surface vegetation is destroyed, for example by fire, the peat dries out and blows away. 'Fragment by Fragment' tells this story as a visual concrete poem written in my own semi-legible font. I generated the font from sketches of minute peat fragments which became an obscure language, like messages from the soil. The rich black wrap and the delicate green tissue of the book embody the sensations of the flourishing peat bog for the reader while the diminishing fragments, page by page, impart the sense of loss as it disappears for ever.

Bog-Mawnog - Lin Charlston

Perfect binding with added stitching; laser printing; Hewlett packard color photo laser paper; mull; 54 pages; 10.75 x 4.5 x 0.25 inches; edition of 50.

The panoramic view in 'Bog-Mawnog is a view from high in the Black Mountains of Wales (mawnog is Welsh for peat, an ancient loamy soil). Behind me was an area of devastating soil erosion, like a black scar, where once there had been a flourishing peat-bog habitat. The book presents a glossary of terms that apply to peat bogs all over the world. The objective facts are strongly confronted by my subjective reactions to the wild solitude of the damaged environment. The outer casing of the book appears to have been ripped away to remind us of the vulnerable, exposed peat after the surface vegetation has gone. Peat is a very early stage of coal formation and easily catches fire if is not constantly wet and boggy. If humans try to reclaim the land by making drainage channels, the rare habitat is ruined and the peat erodes away.  

Revenge - Gary Beck

The rain falls steadily,
acid eating away
levels of protection
insufficient to deter
chemical attack,
nature's payback
for environmental abuse.

Gowanus Canal - Jenifer Wightman

Clamshell; Epson color prints, Vandercook printing press; 40 pages; 8 5/8 x 9 1/4 x 1 1/8 inches; artist proof. 

Bacteria Paint.

I employ a 19th century microbiology technique to induce bacteria to synthesize pigment. Specifically, I build sculptural frames and fill them with site-specific mud, water, and microbes. Exposed to light, the microbes photosynthesize pigments. Single cells are invisible to the naked eye. However, as a species reproduces in its landscape, the collective masses of pointillist color create blocks of visible color. As one species uses up resources and releases wastes, a differently colored successor begins thriving on the wastes. Color indicates the transitions of cultures in a finite ecosystem of soil, water and sunlight.

While I make these ‘transforming colorfields’ from a variety of ecosystems, I present a clamshell box of time-lapse photographs taken of mud collected from the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site. Here, we witness that the underbelly of NYC is alive and thriving, metabolizing wastes to make a beautiful livelihood.

How Often Do You?  - Dorothy McCuistion

Ring binding; paper lithography, inkjet print, watercolor stencil; Rives BFK; copper plate, copper leaf, copper electrical wire; 8 x 12 x 0.625 inches; one of a kind. 

For nearly 100 years, the American Smelter and Refining Company, or ASARCO, located in Ruston, WA, extracted copper from metal ores. Until the smelter closed in 1985, the 562 foot stack spewed lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals into the air above the surrounding cities and towns.

The iconic stack eventually became a symbol of 20th century environmental pollution. Over 1,000 square miles of soil was impacted. Ignorant of the dirt’s toxicity, I raised my children in the smelter’s shadow. Like other good 1970’s moms, I grew vegetables for the table while the kids dug alongside me in the dirt.
The stack was demolished in 1993, and my family joined the community to witness the detonation from our fishing boat in Commencement Bay. Paper lithographs of family photos from that day make up the book’s primary images.

Last year the health department sent a questionnaire to affected neighborhoods and it included the fill-in-the-bubble inquiries that make up that part the text in this book.  


Dignified Dirt - Jennifer Croney Chernak

Holes punched through chemical-laced tarpaper create

 Open vents revealing the earth’s fragile epidermis.

 Light drips and spreads onto the cave floor,

 Compiled toxins disperse in ghostly, odorous vapors.

 Skin, the largest human organ, is the self’s soil.

 Stagnant, stale, unable to breathe beneath the well-intentioned roof,

 Ground exists suppressed.

 Now, the neglected and suffocated dirt enlightened by air and rain --

 An undervalued base becomes aware of its complexity.

High Desert - Gayle Lauradunn

This afternoon in the hot windblown
sun I pull weeds from my yard of gravel.
Weeds with pale lavender petals
or dandelions of brightest yellow
creep up between the small stones
from grains of sand spread thin
beneath all that is left in this high
desert where once an ocean broke
waves. The neighbor's mulberry tree,
in daring, spreads its roots to search
for water, runners creep between volcanic
glass laid down long ago by the diminished
peaks in view across the Rio Grande.
The foundation cracks, the house
shifts. The neighbors pack and steal
into the night cursing the tree. Its
punishment: to become a stump
hacked to pieces, composted
into soil plowed by earthworms.

FOLLOW ME - Michael Magee

       The ground is covered by a layer of grit created
by tourists who have done nothing more vicious
than walk.  -- National Geographic

 Even in Ancient Ephesus
where each footprint said: “Follow me”
it was the accepted way--

to follow the path, tracing their messages
a scrabble of letters like a ouija board
in earth where men were easily led
to walk following in their footprints 

finding women in loose-fitting garments
waiting –soft and willing.
Never in their serpentine ways would
they have dreamed we would come here.   

As we try not to stray from the beaten path
to promises of touch me and look here
knowing there is nothing vicious in just
walking in another's footsteps.

Infiltration - Barbara McMichael

Last fall, I held congress with earthworms
Consulted with them on their covert digs
Curried their favor with eggshells, tea leaves
and sagging jack-o-lanterns
(pumpkin slime! oh, the wriggling joy!)

Then, come spring, we carried out our plot
I wheeled the compost to this barren lot
upended the barrow,
and the liberated worms
went underground once again,
silently subverting the dominant paradigm
imposed by developer’s bulldozer,
inexorably poking life and hope
(and pumpkin seeds)
back into the demeaned dirt

Now… watch the re-greening begin!

<< From Farm to Garden | Acknowledgements >>