In honor of the United Nations International 2015 Year of Soils, The Collins Memorial Library on the campus of University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington agreed to host an interdisciplinary exhibition, Dirt? Scientists, Artists, and Poets Reflect on Soil and Our Environment. On display from August 6 through December 6, 2015, the exhibition featured natural history specimens, and artist books and poems selected from an international call for entries. We challenged the scientists, artists, and poets to make the soil visible. Their work deepens our understanding of how humans think about soil and what we need to do to pass along this precious resource to future generations.

The exhibit explores soil as the earth’s delicately structured biological, geological and chemical skin—something far more complex, life giving and informative than simply dirt, which is what we buy at garden-supply stores or sweep out of our houses. Soils develop on bedrock and anchor and feed forests, prairies, and farmed fields. Every terrestrial ecosystem and almost all of our foods sprout from soil. Soil provides building materials like clay and wood as well as fuel, medicines, and fiber. Soils also provide the homes for many burrowing animals like foxes, snakes and owls as well as an amazing diversity of microbes and insects. Overall, soils hold on the order of one quarter of the earth’s biodiversity. Essential to the water cycle, soil filters and gradually releases water year-round to streams, rivers, and lakes. Increasing organic matter storage in the soil sequesters additional carbon that could otherwise be in the atmosphere, which could help mitigate climate change. For many, soil represents sacred ground: a homeland, a place where children play, a place to garden, a place where ancestors are buried and in the end, our final resting place.

As essential as soil is, few people appreciate this crucial resource. Human activities such as agricultural dikes, hydroelectric dam construction, logging, draining bogs, real estate development, metal industrial production, agriculture with pesticides and individual home practices all can affect our soils and the health of our ecosystems now and in the future.

We organized the exhibition catalog into thematic sections. Each section has a brief introductory essay and uses footnoted references to connect the reader to the artist books and poems. The artists and poets in the Introduction (I) to the exhibition call attention to the integral place of soil in our lives.[1] The remaining artist books and poems echo and develop the introduction. Layers in Time (II) explores the work of artists and poets inspired by looking at the layers of the earth and dynamic geological processes. Work in the Soil Formation (III) section explores this complex process involving the physical qualities of rocks, diverse biological organisms, climate, and chemistry. While biological organisms are an essential part of soil formation, soils also provide habitat for an amazing diversity of life forms. Work in Soil Dwellers (IV) draws our attention to these organisms. A primary connection people have with the land is food and its not surprising that book artists and poets made work about gardening. The work in From Farm to Garden (V) explores the meaning of farming and gardening in our lives. All over the world, humans sculpt the land to meet basic human needs for food, water, shelter, energy, and safety. How we deal with the unintentional consequences on soils is the focus of the artists and poets in the final section, Human Development and the Soil (VI). Organizing the poems and artist books into thematic categories risks narrowing the interpretation of the work, so we ask the viewers not to be confined by these categories. The catalog concludes with book artist and poet biographies, artist statements for the artist books, juror biographies, suggestions for further reading about soils, and a handy index to book artists and poets.


Rub the Ground Hard (Barbara Johnstone); The Common Living Dirt (Magdalena Cordero); and Soil Rap (Barbara McMichael)


RUB THE GROUND, HARD - Barbara Johnstone

The skin of the earth is where,
9 years old, I pave roads for dolls, rub
the ground, hard, until the clay--and my hand--
turn black, Where, 13,000 years ago, a glacier overruns
Puget Sound and leaves the sand, silt, clay and waterways we
have today, Where my daughter, 5, plays with 8 earthworms and
laughs when they poop in her hand, Where Mt. St. Helens erupts 540
tons of ash, and the ash wrecks Jay's seed drill and Adina's car but holds
water in the soil for a good apple crop, Where Nora & I, 12, dig deep holes
to bury gadgets we make only to fool future archeologists who will write BS
theories about newly-discovered "tools" from the 60's, Where, at 22, I leave
my adobe home for the green Northwest, by way of Grand Canyon, where I
drink precious jugs of water, see the power of water, wind and continental
drift to carve this canyon, and see ocean fossils from 1.2 billion years ago,
Where my father constructs an irrigation ditch system with wood gates
 to let water flow between my raised garden rows, where at 10 I grow
chard, zucchini, tomatoes, onions and beets to feed seven of us
all year, Where Maria, the great Pueblo potter, creates that
elegant black on black from red clay and lives to be 93,
Where in Utah the aspen Pando quakes, 106 acres
of him, his system of roots protected from
wildfires by soil for 80,000 years.

The Common Living Dirt - Magdalena Cordero 

The Common Living Dirt by Magdalena Cordero

Accordion fold; watercolor, pressure printing, drawings and photographs, all digitized to be printed in photo paper; epson photo paper, transparent and color vellum paper, Canson and decorative paper; edition of 4.

Magdalena found Marge Piercy’s poem and thought it was perfect for this project. With the global warming and pollution issues, she thought this project of Dirt would be really interesting, because earth is the whole world, and we have to be conscious about it everywhere, not just in the place we live or reside. No matter the different culture or race, we have to love Dirt. The poem was published in 1983 and the artist thought that she could bring it back to this actual times again, when is probably more needed because of the lack of conscious about the earth issues in this last thirty years. She creates this accordion with the idea of a big land with different scenes, as different part of the world but no any particular land, you can identified with any of them. The size of the book make us get involved in it in an intimate perspective, to make a reflection in the words of the poem. 

Soil Rap - Barbara McMichael

Food, forests,
Fiber, fodder
All depend on soil

Dirt, duff,
loam, earth,
For what it’s worth
Call it anything you like
But we depend on soil

Gems and genetic pharmacopeia
The key to our utopia
Climate regulation
Water purification
Carbon sequestration
Essence of creation

We depend on all of it
We depend on soil

Earth Works - Natalie Cunningham

Earth Works by Natalie Cunningham

Drum leaf; digital prints; Moab entrada rag; one of a kind.

Earth Works displays a fragmented essay built around four topics: prehistoric earthworks in the Midwest; my childhood growing up with a gardening mother; the canyons and people of the Southwest; and unusual ways the earth is shaped by caverns, lava, and hot springs. These fragments led to digitally constructed illustrations using photographs, maps, and satellite imagery. The text and imagery work together to create a stimulating experience that contemplates the way humans interact with the earth and the way the earth is shaped by the Earth's own forces. How do these two forces interact, and what can we learn when we think about the two together?  

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