Soil as Art

Soil is generally considered a rather obscure branch of the agricultural or geographic sciences. Few people realise that the word “soil” or “earth” or “ground” is deeply rooted (pun intended) in the human psyche in many more ways than one. Currently the international union of soil science is asking for “Global Soil Proverbs” for a book they want to publish to document the place of soil in literature and philosophy. Shakespeare was aware of the two main uses still around today: to “soil”, spoil or make dirty, besmirch and “the soil” of one’s own country as in Talbot to the English troops “Renounce your soil”. 

The French, of course, have a very beautiful word to describe the conditions under which a particular wine is made, its “Terroir”. This word encompasses all the conditions of weather, aspect, rainfall, sunshine and, of course, soil but also includes the knowledge, skill, memories and reactions of the maker who, after all, lives and breathes on that same soil.

Many people can see this oral connection once its explained to them but most students, I find, after years of teaching, are also quite thrilled to see a soil profile exposed in a pit or using a hand auger and have the different horizons and their colours and textured explained to them. They never knew that the common ground beneath their feet was in fact the product of a thousand years or more of interaction between the minerals that make up the rocks, the climate, slope position and the living things that depend on it for their very existence. Many Australian soils are older than the oldest human constructions we know of. Indeed soils preserve the oldest human artefacts, the stone tools used by the Australopithecines. 

Gerd Wessolek is a soil scientist from the Technische Universität Berlin whose main interest has been in the study of Urban Soils (Technosols or soils impacted by human activity). He is also a painter and artist. In 2004 he published, through UP (Environmental Products and Services Company) his “art and soil” calender that we are greatly privileged to attach to this article. In it he explores the beauty of soil horizons and colours and the art embodied in the names and symbols soil scientists use to describe them. One of my favourites “soil aesthetic criteria” resonates, not just the obvious differences between the profiles, but, like the different animal images of the Lascaux caves, painted 20,000 years ago using the same soil colours, the mind, eye and hand of its maker.

We hope you enjoy Gerd’s beautiful calendar and also explore more “Soil art” in the attached paper from the journal “SOIL”: “Case studies of soil in art.” And also that you enjoy learning more about just how deeply images and concepts of soil are embedded in our hearts and minds.

Read more Soil & Art Journal soil

Gerds’s calendar SoilArt calendar