Thinking soil

“If soil is conceived as a super-organism – as more than the sum of its parts – it remains essentially amorphous, without an overriding form. We, descendents from the living earth, are that aspect of the soil that has taken form – that has pulled itself together and learnt to move around. We are soil that has learnt to talk and reflect on its place in the cosmos. We are walking, talking, thinking soil.”

Daro Montag’s art practice has, for many years, been involved with environmental and ecological issues – he is particularly interested in the inherent creativity of the organic world. His research and creative practice start from the premise that the natural world is best understood as being constituted of interacting events rather than consisting of discrete objects.

Daro Montag: This Earth 1

Daro Montag: This Earth 1


Soil has played an important role in numerous works of art. Since humans first daubed their handprints on cave walls – the earliest surviving paintings – the colour of earth has been an essential medium. Different coloured soils, and their mineral constituents, originally provided the pigment for a large range of paints, and once it was discovered that clay could be modelled and hardened, it also became used for representational and well as utilitarian purposes.

In more recent times, soil once again became a key medium for sculptors. In the 1970s, a number of prominent artists created works away from the confines of the gallery. Instead of producing sculpture for urban environments, artists such as Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer and Robert Morris used vast tracts of remote land as the site for new works. Using diggers and bulldozers, these ‘land artists’, as they became known, gouged out tons of mud and rock to create massive earthworks.

Although this work was being created at a time of growing environmental awareness, this was not their core concern. Issues of art and its placement were often their overriding motivation; earth was being used for its sculptural qualities, rather than as a living substance.

By focusing on its formal materiality, such works tend to ignore or deny the life-sustaining qualities of soil. In 1977, for example, Walter de Maria filled a New York gallery with 250 cubic yards of earth. The sculpture, known as New York Earth Room, covers 3,600 square feet of floor space to a depth of 22 inches. Its indoor presence is somewhat disconcerting and, as an installation, it confronts the viewer with both its emptiness and its potential.

This amount of soil contains unimaginable numbers of organisms. It is rich in colour and life. Even a small sample is packed with micro-organisms – seeds, fungal spores, nematodes and other microbes. They lie dormant, waiting for some moisture that will enable them to spring into life.  Consequently, the gallery needs to maintain this earth in a state of suspended animation, and any weeds that begin to sprout are swiftly removed. So Earth Room is more about sculpture than ecology.

Visiting this installation for the first time, in 1996, I couldn’t help imaging how different it would look if the fire sprinklers were accidentally triggered. The water would enliven the soil’s potential, forgotten seeds would germinate from the brown and barren field, and instead of an expanse of mud, we might see drifts of grasses or wild flowers, or maybe some seedling trees breaking through the crust.

The soil, however, has not been watered. Confronted by this absence of visible life, I took a small sample, with the permission of the gallery, and used it to create a Bioglyph.[1] Within days of it being placed on the surface of some moist film, plants and fungi began to emerge and smaller organisms were beginning to stir. Within two weeks, this micro-community had thrived and left its trace in the coloured gelatin. The resulting print, made from this decomposed piece of film, was later exhibited a few doors down from the Dia Art Foundation that houses New York Earth Room[2].

This approach, which views soil as a prima materia[3] as opposed to a mere sculptural material, is related more to ‘ecological’ art than ‘land’ or ‘environmental’ practices.[4] In contrast to the land art of the 1970s, a number of artists working concurrently produced art that drew attention to the symbolic and essential life-sustaining properties of soil.

These forerunners were to inspire much subsequent ecological art. They include Alan Sonfist, herman de vries, Ana Mendieta and Paolo Barrile. Barrile, in particular, has made it his mission to raise our awareness of soil through his Message Earth project. Since 1969, he has been salvaging uncontaminated earth as well as initiating pressure-group activity and other consciousness-raising initiatives[5].

Since this initial adoption of ecological ideas, there is now a new generation of artists who examine the biological, chemical and even alchemical properties of soil. Many collaborate with scientists or specialists from other disciplines. The overarching idea that links many of these diverse projects has been the desire to raise public awareness of the importance of healthy soil, to draw attention to its significance and to celebrate its vitality.

Daro Montag: This Earth 2

Daro Montag: This Earth 2

Knowing my place

‘It remains the sobering fact that even in the age of global communications and the Internet, civilisation continues to depend on a few inches of topsoil for its very existence. The activity in and around that soil provides the material to sustain life and the environment to give it meaning. The earth is very forgiving of our abuse. But it will not forgive forever.’

Graham Harvey, The Killing of the Countryside

The term ‘oekologie’ (ecology) was initially coined in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Since its derivation comes from the two Greek words meaning ‘household’ and ‘study’, the term literally means ‘the study of the household’. Although the word is now used more widely to suggest a form of environmental knowledge that is generally holistic and systemic, I would like to dwell for a short while on its original sense – of studying the home.

In the current rush towards globalisation, our attention is often diverted from our surrounding location. With recent developments in mass media and global communication, it is easy to have a superficial knowledge of events on the other side of the planet, and yet have no knowledge of one’s own, immediate environment. This superficiality is symptomatic of our modern malaise that has cast us adrift from a healthy relationship with nature.

It seems important, therefore, for an ecological artist to develop a deeper knowledge of his or her own habitat, and to use that knowledge to feed their practice. This is not to rule out work about other ecological niches, but to suggest that, before rushing off to fix other peoples environments, it might be good to have gained a thorough working knowledge of your own place on this planet. Consequently, I believe it is important for anyone interested in ecology to spend some time concentrating on, and learning about, their own immediate locality.

This notion of ‘knowing your place’ applies regardless of where you happen to live. It is just as relevant to an urban setting as to a rural one. Our environment is everywhere – indeed, it is wherever we are. Over the past few years, my own particular habitat has become central to my art practice. It is more than just a source of inspiration; it is a co-creator, a generator of artworks.

Rather than create art that simply portrays this particular location in south-west Cornwall, known as Lower Treculliacks, I have chosen to work more in collaboration with the place. In doing so, I have come to understand that ‘place’ is not a singular entity; it is complex, many layered and, for the most part, hidden from our perception. Instead of referring to the concept of a fixed location, ‘place’ seems to be more of a nexus where events unfold. It is made up of plants, animals, people, buildings, weather systems, stories, dreams – and all their never-ending interactions. It is always changing, regardless of anything we may do. In trying to understand a place in this way, I have become more enmeshed in its multi-dimensionality.

In order to engage more fully with the innumerable features that make up Lower Treculliacks, I chose to start at the bottom, with the soil. As Graham Harvey reminds us, although the soil can seem a lowly or insignificant medium to our 21st-century technology, without a few inches of good topsoil our civilisation would crumble. The soil, then, would seem like a good starting point for getting to know one’s place on this planet.

Daor Montag: This Earth 3

Daro Montag: This Earth 3

Looking at mud

We often speak about soil as though it were just one thing, a separate entity in the world. But, as any gardener will tell you, this is far from the truth. Nothing is fixed, and the humble earth is no exception. Soil is many things and there are many different soils. In one of the earliest books on soil, entitled Terra (1675), John Evelyn states that the theorists of his day “reckon up no fewer than one hundred seventy nine millions one thousand and sixty different sorts of Earths”.[6]

While the precise number of different soils may not be possible to calculate, there are certain key components that all soils have in common. How we choose to think about these components is likely to say as much about our personal interests as the soil itself. Each discipline will highlight some aspects and ignore others. The biologist, for example, will be interested in the organic matter that is contained within the soil. The geologist, on the other hand, might be more interested in its mineral components, and be able to unravel from these the history of its formation. The horticulturist will analyse the soil as a medium that supports plants. The poet will draw attention to its symbolic connotations, while the painter might take inspiration from its rich palette of colours.

Although little more than one acre, much of the soil at Lower Treculliacks has been untouched for decades. While the garden that surrounds the house has been well tended, the small field, known as Stoney Acre, was uncultivated and overgrown. The topsoil is, in many places, around 40 centimetres deep and slightly acidic. Its colour, according to the Munsell system, is composed of a range of browns, including ‘brown’, ‘dark greyish brown’ or ‘very dark greyish brown’.[7]  This would indicate that the soil is generally rich in organic matter and has a high carbon content.

The organic content is clearly visible to the naked eye. Small fragments of decaying plant matter – roots, bark, leaves – have been pulled well below the surface by the activities of earthworms.  In samples of the topsoil viewed under a scanning electron microscope, the difference between the organic and the inorganic, between plant and mineral, is even more apparent.

Although most of the individual organic particles are tiny, when added together they are massive.  The implications of this are particularly pertinent at the present moment, as these organic particles contain carbon. Globally, vast amounts of carbon are locked up in this organic matter. It has been estimated that soils around the world contain approximately 2,000 billion tonnes of carbon in various forms at any one time. About 300 billion tonnes can be found as detritus in the topsoil.

This carbon-rich material decomposes at various rates, depending on factors such as temperature and soil conditions. The overall carbon content of soils has, in recent years, become seriously depleted. The slash-and-burn destruction of forests, as well as industrialised methods of farming, have drastically reduced the overall organic content of soil. Ploughing breaks the soil’s surface and increases the rate of respiration, causing carbon to be leached into the air. Micro-organisms at work in the topsoil also return considerable amounts of carbon to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.

Researchers are developing ways to increase the carbon content of soils. When converted into an inert form, it can remain locked away from the atmosphere for thousands of years. As well as reducing the amount of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere, such sequestration can improve the soil and its ability to grow plants.

Beneath the carbon-rich topsoil at Lower Treculliacks is a more dense and stony subsoil. The border between these different layers is surprisingly distinct, given the length of time that this ground has remained undisturbed. There is a clear visual demarcation between the brown and yellow layers. The grey clays and yellowish brown lower soil show little or no infiltration from the dark brown layers above. It is highly compacted and very hard to dig. Small chunks of quartz sparkle in the sun and occasionally the spade hits a larger chunk of pinkish grey granite. As far as organic colonisation goes, these layers are as different as a fertile river delta and a parched desert. The density of this lower layer explains the reason why water collects and drains only slowly from hollows in the field.

Underneath these layers of earth lies a massive layer of granite that, in places, protrudes through the grass. This igneous rock bubbled to the surface 300 million years ago, and formed a mountain chain. Over this unimaginable period of time these hard rocks have been slowly folded and contorted. In its early history this Cornish landscape was once an arid desert, in equatorial latitudes. Today, erosion and continental movement, has left the gently contoured landscape that is typical of the region.

With these and other various particles of knowledge we can know something of the history of the place, and how it came to be. With a geological eye we can track its formation and genesis. We can assess what plants will naturally grow well, and which are likely to fail. We can see which minerals are lacking and supplement them in order to manage and maintain a healthy balance.

Although this knowledge is helpful to the gardener and farmer, soil is more than simply the medium upon which terrestrial life depends. The various soils of our planet are not just clays and grits that contain organic matter and support plants. They are living entities that can only be fully appreciated in a holistic way. The fungi, bacteria, arthropods, nematodes, earthworms and even moles are all dependent on one another and the medium that supports them. Soil is so much more than the sum of its mineral and organic constituents; it is perhaps best understood as an interacting community of living events – a super-organism.

Although we now know more about the workings of the soil than ever before, our culture continues to misuse it and abuse it. We have come to treat it as an expendable commodity, as mere dirt. Yet history tells us that a culture that mistreats its soil will not be around for long.[8]  We could do well to re-discover our deep-rooted connection with earth.

Daro Montag: This Earth 4

Daro Montag: This Earth 4

Language of dirt

Despite the scientific and artistic interest in this material, soil is still not generally held in high esteem. One only has to reflect on the English language to understand the lowly place of mud in our culture. For example, most dictionaries, in addition to defining the noun ‘soil’ as the portion of the earth that consists of disintegrated rock and humus, also refer to soil as a verb, which generally means ‘to make unclean’, or ‘cover in excrement’. To soil something is to stain it, and this is equally true of someone’s character as it is of his or her clothing. To soil someone’s good name is to morally defile them.

The word ‘mud’ has similar connotations. To say that someone’s ‘name is mud’ is to say that it is tarnished and disgraced. Similarly, when someone has become ‘muddled’ they are mentally confused. The word ‘dirt’ has even more negative connotations. Being dirty is equivalent to being rude in most contemporary contexts, and to call someone ‘dirt’ would imply that they are worthless. One of the most significant implications of this use of language is the notion that soil and its associations are bad and should be avoided. So how did this happen and, more importantly, what are the consequences of such associations?

As huge populations began to drift towards cities and away from any direct contact with non-urban settings, there is less need to touch soil. Indeed, the aspiration of many is to do exactly that, to avoid getting their hands dirty. No doubt this is, in part, a move away from the poverty and harshness experienced by many previous generations of farmers and land labourers. The majority of adults no longer need to touch the earth on a daily basis. Even children are persuaded, by cultural, parental and peer-group pressure to play indoors or on artificial surfaces. Fewer and fewer sports take place in muddy fields.[9]

This lack of contact with the soil is a relatively modern phenomenon. For most of the history of humanity, certainly since farming became widespread, soil would have been seen as a vital material and, in some cases, a sacred one. Although it is hard to ascertain, it is likely that most pre-modern cultures revered the planet and its soil. This is perhaps most poetically expressed in biblical stories of the first human, Adam. Although scholars still debate the origins of the name, many believe that it is derived from the Hebrew word ‘adamah’, meaning ‘earth’ or ‘soil’.  Adam’s co-occupant and mate, Eve, was originally called ‘Hava’, which translates as ‘living’. The original couple were, in this biblical account, named after the living soil.

Accounts from other cultures similarly embed the sacredness of soil in their myths and legends.  The indigenous peoples of Australia, Africa and America all sanctified and revered the earth.  This view is eloquently expressed by Chief Seattle, of the Suquamish tribe, in his dignified reply to the United States government when it sought to acquire native lands: “We are part of the earth and it is part of us… What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth…To harm earth is to heap contempt upon its creator”.[10]

Even today, this connection between humanity and earth remains embedded in the language used by gardeners. The humus that constitutes a healthy soil shares a common root with our word ‘human’.  As we degrade and poison the life-giving humus, we are in danger of losing our humility and our humanity. As more and more topsoil gets blown away in dust storms, we should remember that we not only lose our ability to sustain ourselves, but we actually lose our very substance. Now, more than ever, the need to rehabilitate the language and substance of mud becomes increasingly urgent.

Daro Montag: This Earth 5

Daro Montag: This Earth 5

Thinking soil

It is vital that we take care and look after our soils. We need healthy soil to sustain plant growth and to provide a global carbon sink. But we also need, now more than ever, to renew and maintain a deep or spiritual relationship with earth. Getting to know the soils beneath our feet can provide a method for reconnecting with our source and our sustainer.

Ultimately, we need to protect the soil because it is our home. We came from it and we shall return to it. However far we stray, in the end we always come back. And not only is it our home, the soil is also in us. As with all living organisms, we are not simply dependent upon this planet, we are quite literally made from it, our bodies are composed of it – we can never really be apart from it for we are very much a part of it. And, despite our technological prowess – which frequently serves to distance us from the soil – we still remain intimately connected to this earth from which we emerged.

If soil is conceived as a super-organism – as more than the sum of its parts – it remains essentially amorphous, without an overriding form. We, descendents from the living earth, are that aspect of the soil that has taken form – that has pulled itself together and learnt to move around. We are soil that has learnt to talk and reflect on its place in the cosmos. We are walking, talking, thinking soil.

Daro Montag: This Earth 6
Daro Montag: This Earth 7
Daro Montag: This Earth 8
Daro Montag: This earth 9
Daro Monatg: This Earth 10


[1] The term ‘Bioglyph’ refers to the method of making images first devised by Daro Montag in 1993.  Essentially it is process by which micro-organisms are encouraged to leave a trace of their activities on colour film.  They are not photographs, but direct records of micro-biological activity.  For further information and a theoretical exposition of this practice see: Bioglyphs: The generation of images in collaboration with nature’s events, Daro Montag, PhD thesis, University of Hertfordshire, 2000.

2 This work, entitled Earth Room Earth, was first exhibited at Caren Golden Fine Art, NY, in 1997.

3  Prima Materia is the primitive formless base of all matter.  In the broadest terms the concept of the prima materia states that all particular substances are formed out of one and the same original substance.

[4] The contrasts between Bioglyphs and Land Art was first noted in Nature tracing itself: Chris Townsend on Daro Montag’s Bioglyphs – Hotshoe, May-June 2000.

5  For further information about artists working in various ways with soil see:

[6]John Evelyn. Terra, a Philosophical Discourse of Earth. 1676, quoted in Sir E. John Russell, The World of the Soil, p.1.

[7] The Munsell system is a colour space that specifies colours based on three colour dimensions, hue, value (or lightness), and chroma (roughly saturation). It was created by Professor Albert H. Munsell in the first decade of the 20th century, and is now widely used for matching soil colours.

[8] See: Daniel Hillel. Out of the Earth: Civilisation and the life of the soil. London: Aurum Press, 1992.

[9] For a thorough examination of the disasterous consequences of allowing children to lose touch with nature see: Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods. Algonquin Books, 2006.

[10] Although there is some dispute as to the exact content of Chief Seattle’s speech, which was given in 1854, the popularity of this text reflects the respect that an aboriginal people feel towards the land on which they dwell.


The images were made by allowing soil micro-organisms to decompose the gelatin of photographic emulsions. The resulting images do not portray individual microbes; instead they reveal the traces of their activities – the passage of their passing. They celebrate decomposition and the inherent creativity of nature’s events. (Daro Montag)

This work was first published as This Earth, (Festerman Press, 2007).


All images copyright and courtesy of Daro Montag


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