Soils are an interdisciplinary medium
Like a weevil in a flour jar, a mole in a hole, an earthworm in a pile of loam. This is how I felt during the inaugural Soil Care Network workshop. As someone who has moved between researching soil as an ecologist and as a human geographer, between the academy and practice I was very excited to learn of this new interdisciplinary initiative.
Soil is an ideal medium, concept and set of practices to bring a diversity of people together. This was well illustrated in Sheffield this June. I met anthropologists, artists, microbial ecologists, pedologists, critical social scientists, feminist scholars, human geographers, psychologists, urban planners, chemists and philosophers and those who identify as a mix, like me – all with a passion for the care of soils.
The ambitious programme nicely blended the range of expertise in the room and also carefully juxtaposed the different ways we conceive of and approach the study of soils. We bent our brains around how Europeans and North Americans can care for Indonesian peat soils under accusations of neo-colonialism. We learned about the conundrum of scale and function within the soil microbial ecology revolution. And we debated what a soil is and whether we can hold affection for man-made soils (and whether this matters!).
Despite having placed my actual and metaphorical feet in different soil-based disciplines for much of my working life, I have to admit to being stumped at some of the language, the disciplinary context and the technical terms presented. However, this was to be expected. Such discomfort is an essential part of any truly interdisciplinary endeavour and I thought that all of the attendees showed a real willingness to try and understand each other’s expertise, ideas and perspectives. There was a tangible sense of openness throughout the 3 days.
I hope that this is just the beginning of a long and challenging discussion – as I believe that staying with the uncomfortable will open up unique understandings and opportunities. And that this is the best way of addressing the range of questions we started to explore together.
I’ll finish with some quotes from participants:
“My brain has been bent in all sorts of ways these last few days, good ways!”
“An enjoyable and enlightening few days at the #soilcare workshop. Social Science is an emerging frontier in soils research.”
“…need more of this kind of thing, lots to mull over”
Beth Brockett is a Lead Adviser Land Management and Conservation at Natural England and a Soil Care Network member.