RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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160 Trouble in the land (1): trouble with knowing soils
Convenor(s) Anna Krzywoszynska (University of Sheffield, UK)
Stephen Jones (University of Nottingham, UK)
Chair(s) Anna Krzywoszynska (University of Sheffield, UK)
Timetable Thursday 29 August 2019, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Skempton Building, Room 307
Session abstract These session seeks to ‘open up’ the matter of soils and to re-consider the place of soils in geographical inquiry. Geography’s engagements with soils to date have primarily focused on the surface of soils, approaching soils and land as contested property, or a site of imperialist misapprehension of socio-ecological processes (Blaikie & Brookfield, 1987). Soil as a world under our feet, and as a matter in the making of which we are entangled, however, has received surprisingly little attention. After a long period of neglect, currently soils are an emerging matter of concern (Latour, 1999) and matter of care (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2015), as simultaneously troubled and a site of hope. International and national policy actors, scientific communities and diverse practitioner groups are raising the importance of ‘dirt’ as the lynchpin of biotic and abiotic processes on which a variety of life depends (Orgiazzi et al., 2016 ; ITPS, 2015 ; Shiva, 2008). This rising interest in soils calls for a reconsideration of the conceptual and practical frameworks for knowing and acting with soils in a more-than-human world (Engel-Di Mauro, 2014 ; McClintock, 2015). In this session we seek to trouble ‘surface’ approaches to soils and land, and to reconsider the place of soils and land in geographical inquiry. We engage with soils as lively, active, and relational, Moving beyond the conception of soils/land as inert ‘resources’, we examine them as matters in the making of which we are both conceptually, materially, and affectively engaged.
Linked Sessions Trouble in the land (2): soil times, scales and relationalities
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Soils – the familiar and the strange
Sophie Wynne-Jones (Bangor University, UK)
Understanding of and attention to soil is a matter of critical importance to farmers. Social scientists have increasingly begun to acknowledge the ways in which farmers bring together a mix of scientific and ‘lay’ experiential knowledges to inform their farming practises and assess the health of their soils, troubling simplistic framings of knowledge transfer and hierarchies of expertise. Nonetheless, changing demands and shifting policy trajectories have led to increasing questions, in recent years, as to whether farmers have sufficient understanding of how soils function to deliver on the full range of demands now placed upon them. In particular, current policy agendas for an expanded suite of ‘ecosystem service’ delivery from agriculture, and heightened attention to the environmental externalities of food production, have meant that farmers now need to consider potentially new aspects of soil system function beyond nutrient balance and fertility. Aspects like carbon content (in relation to climate change mitigation) and soil water flow (in relation to concerns around flooding) are of notable relevance to emerging agendas, but may fall outside of farmers’ existing expertise. In this paper we explore the ways in which farmers conceptualise and engage with these new dimensions of the soil system, considering the extent to which their existing knowledge frameworks and practices enable them to comprehend and work with the new demands being placed on them. In particular, we draw attention to the difficulties of less visible and material components and processes, which work outside of -or counter to- their established understandings. As such, we consider the barriers and opportunities emerging for delivering on current agri-food agendas, and the role there-in for soil as a mediating matter that is at once both familiar and strange to key stakeholders.
Hocus pocus? Exploring the role of ritual in biodynamic agriculture practices
Anna Pigott (Swansea University, UK)
In this paper I draw on my experiences of participating in biodynamic agricultural practices at Cae Tan, a community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme located just outside Swansea, and the largest of its kind in the UK. In biodynamics, soil is not viewed as inert matter but rather as a complex ecosystem, imbued with energy and life. It is a method that also emphasises the importance of “cosmic, ethereal, and astral forces” (Ingram 2007, 307) in the shaping of soil and plant health. Specific rituals for preparing and administering biodynamic treatments to the soils are integral to this vision, and are indicative of imaginings of, and ways of performing, human relationships to soil and food that are radically different from conventional farming. I discuss how these rituals seem to work to foster relationships of care and an attentiveness to the liveliness of soils, regardless of whether those involved in performing them believe in the effects of biodynamics in a scientific sense. In addition, I note how -- perhaps because of an air of 'hocus pocus' associated with biodynamics -- Cae Tan does not overtly publicise its biodynamic practices, at least, much less so than the CSA aspect of its agricultural model. This raises questions about which ways of knowing and relating to soil are deemed more publicly ‘acceptable’ than others, and the challenge of bringing matters of feeling as well as fact to soil management and politics.
'Soil is awesome’: soil as a more-than-human community
Raichael Lock (University of Manchester, UK)
Many inner city schools in Manchester have impoverished soil littered with rubble from bulldozed buildings whilst in other instances schoolgrounds have been capped to control the seepage of industrial waste. Contamination may present the greater health risk, especially where schools are growing food or using the grounds as outdoor learning areas, however, impoverished school soils make growing difficult with little opportunity for young people to understand or experience a good, rich soil.

In response to these issues the Manchester Environmental Education Network (MEEN), a small charity, set up a primary school project called ‘Save Our Soils’ with the aim of helping schools not only understand their soil problems but also discover what actions can be taken to remedy them. Drawing from research on MEEN’s work, Karen Barad’s agential realism, Donna Haraway’s ‘tentacular thinking’ and the notion of Common Worlding this paper explores whether it is possible to reconfigure ‘dirt’ into something ‘awesome’. Referring to MEEN’s interactions, or as Barad would state intra-actions, with schools, the aim is to examine how different pedagogical approaches to learning about soils can help young people challenge their responses and relationship to earth. For some soil is dirt, others a growing medium, for others a habitat: the question is whether soil can become integrated into learning as something that has inherent value as a vast, living, breathing community.
'Getting your hands dirty’: Sticky Soil and the Playfulness of Garden Work
Jan van Duppen (The Open University, UK)
‘I love dirty hands! I love!’ This is how allotment gardener Maria expresses her enthusiasm for cultivating her allotment plot. Her outcry of love for hard physical garden work reverberates with other urban gardeners’ talk on their corporeal engagements with sticky soil: ‘well it’s kind of … cathartic’ (James, community gardener); ‘there is labour involved, but it doesn’t feel like work’ (Lisa, guerrilla gardener). Based on an ethnography at garden spaces in London, this photo-essay takes a closer look at how urban gardeners understand the corporeality and materiality of their urban gardening practices through a visual exploration of this frequently uttered phrase: ‘getting your hands dirty’. Participants referred to the idiom’s meaning of doing hard manual work as well as to its literal meaning of grubby, muddy hands. The paper uses a set of images to ‘evoke’ (Rose 2008, p. 155) these corporealities of doing hard work and to reflect on the materialities and affectivities of working with soil, animals and plants. It attempts to ‘animate’ (Vannini 2014, p. 3) the lifeworlds of allotment, community and guerrilla gardeners and to unpack the complex relations between notions of play and work as enacted through the manual practices of gardening. The images try to convey the feel of weeding, watering and harvesting, and explore the performed bodily gestures and more-than-human entanglements. By zooming in on hands getting dirty, this paper highlights the playfulness of garden work, the stickiness of soil, and it extends our understanding of the role of affect in more-than-human relationalities.
Reflections on the use of a transdisciplinary approach to investigate soil quality
Stephen Jones (University of Nottingham, UK)
This paper will examine the research undertaken as part of a PhD project which took a transdisciplinary approach to the study of soil quality in the East Midlands of England. The research utilised methods from both human and physical geography, as well as drawing upon academic and non-academic bodies of knowledge. Specifically this involved a methodology with 4 interlinked stages:

1. Participatory graffiti wall exercises conducted at educational farmer workshops, where farmers were asked what “good” and “bad” soil quality meant to them.

2. Semi-structured interviews with 20 arable farmers from the East Midlands, to investigate how the farming knowledge culture is demonstrated through soil practices. This also included an exercise in which farmers identified two areas of soil on their land that they saw as being of “better” and “worse” soil quality.

3. Soil quality assessment on the areas of soil identified by the farmers in the previous stage. This used a range of scientifically established physical, chemical and biological indicators chosen to detect differences in soil quality between the two areas.

4. Return interview with the farmers and discussion of the soil quality assessment results.

The potential use of integrative (inter and transdisciplinary) approaches in soil and environmental research has been highlighted in the literature (Fish et al., 2008). Drawing on the experience of employing such an approach, this paper will reflect upon the benefits, unique insights and also the challenges presented by the use of such methodologies in researching soil.