Soil: Healing the Skin

The Centre for Human Ecology based in Glasgow held two events in January 2020 on extractivism. One of the events was on mining, the other on cultivation of soil.

Invading the Skin of the Earth: Soil held on 23 January showed two short films on early cultivation in Scotland following by two talks and a discussion. Further links to the Centre’s events is given at the Eventbrite page – Invading the skin of the earth: soil. The Centre asked me to give one of the talks.

Our research in recent times has looked at the way degraded soil can be repaired. Since soil is alive, the process can be described as healing rather than reparation or restoration.

Healing the skin – bandage and ointment

The earth’s skin, the soil, is badly punctured and abraded in many parts due to harmful cultivation and growing practices.  The skin needs to be healed and like human skin it can be healed through bandage and ointment.

The talk considers the main threats to soil – chronic and cataclysmic – then summarises briefly the state of soils in Scotland.  Research has shown that healing will need much greater effort and attention that is presently being given. Healing is nevertheless possible and, in the UK, a damaged soil can be well on the way back to to health within 5 years.

Bandage and ointment? Bandages can be applied in the form of mulches, undersowings and careful crop sequencing – there is little need for bare soils exposed to the elements.  Ointments are not so much rubbed on the surface but deposited or exuded into the soil, first by plants (though not usually the main crops) and then by microbes and invertebrates that process the plant matter.

People and government can influence the treatment of soil here by supporting agro-ecological farming and outlawing damaging practices. They can also reduce harm to soil in other countries by choosing not to buy imported food and feed from unsustainable farming systems. Are we willing to mine other peoples’ resources to spare our own, or just complacent?

An annotated version of the presentation is available here. Healing the skin: bandage and ointment by G R Squire. Presentation given at a meeting on Invading the skin of the earth: Soil hosted by the Centre for Human Ecology, Glasgow, 23 January 2020. PDF file 2.3 kb.

Eroded and broken – a thin line of organic soil supporting scrub vegetation, a few roots penetrating the red layer: in Myanmar (Burma) 2014.

Background and sources

The talk touches on several matters that might be helpful to those wanting to learn more about soil degradation and healing, so additional pages are included given with the following content:

  • Background: lessons from the US dust bowl, 1930s – gross misuse and mismanagement of land,  the resulting movement for soil conservation led by Bennett and the USDA, the possibility of recurrence, Woody Guthrie’s dust bowl songs (link below to page 2).
  • Background: lesson from cultivation of soil in Scotland – signs and pathways of erosion; causes in tilled and grassed land; state of agricultural soil and the possibilities for repair (link to page 3).
  • The prescience of art – from recent exhibitions – Leonardo da Vinci’s fine anatomical drawings contrasting with deluge and cataclysm; and William Blake’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (page 4).

Page 1 – Introduction (this page)

Page 2 – Lessons from the US Dust Bowl – click [2]

Page 3 – Lessons from Scotland – click [3]

Page 4 – The prescience of art – Blake and da Vinci – click [4]

[This page first published 23 January 2020; revised with minor edits 22 March 2020]