I am standing on the river flats of the Hunter River at Warkworth (-32.490620,151.028671: paddock reference). It’s a narrow flat valley slashed through with a slow meandering river resting in a deep sinuous trench. The soil under the drought-browned pasture is black. It crumbles easily in my hand. In the distance, there’s a mob of kangaroos grazing on the remaining plant roots. Across the river, there’s an old farmhouse that in times past belonged to a breeder of stock horses. I stayed there once as a guest but the family has long since moved out. Now it belongs to a mine with an overburden wall that rises up like a frozen tidal wave, forever threatening the house and the surrounding river flats.
Here, soil is a commodity. Soil is not as valuable as the coal that lies underneath it if we think in short term economics. But thinking intergenerationally, these black-soiled river flats should be preserved. One day, once again, humans may need them to grow food.
How shall I talk about the absolute importance of soil to human civilisation? Soil, along with air and water, is one of our most fundamental natural resources. Soil grows food for us and earth-others. It grows trees and grasses and fungi and a host of micro-lifeforms that we never see but are dependent upon to survive. A teaspoon of a well-cared-for soil can contain up to one billion bacteria, several meters of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Soil contains vast quantities of carbon and is a holder of surface water.
In the transitional zone between open-cut mining and rehabilitated post-mining landscape, soils are a carpet of hope rolled out to pacify the requirements of legislation. Mines managers assume soils will be resilient and cover up the mountains of Permian stone piled high. The small lives contained in soil often don’t transition well from pasture to the manufactured lands via heavy machinery, trucks, piles, bulldozers, and ploughs. It is asking a lot of one of our most valuable resources to cover up the sins of avarice.
Michael Northcott (theologian and ethicist) puts the problem this way:
… the earth and we are in co-creaturely relationship and … when we neglect the beneficence of God’s good earth and the prudential use of what God has granted to us, and subject nature … to our devices and desires, we not only frustrate the capacity of our fellow creatures to give God praise; we also put at risk the very services that the earth renders us.
Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape. It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. Some hold their shape, and some don’t; or perhaps, is it that some won’t? The agency (or will) of the soil is expressed by the way the bowl keeps form. Soils with good health often crack or crumble. Sad soils, those mistreated and overworked, stay where they are put.
Each bowl is made from a Hunter Valley topsoil, except for one. The grey bowl is mudstone doing its best to impersonate soil. It’s having trouble as it hasn’t been to the surface of the earth for 250 million years. Of all the soils, this one is the most sterile. This is the soil that will be found on the surface when we run out of topsoils rescued from mining. It is a legacy that our grandchildren will not thank us for.
So here is a question: What were those earth bowls doing on the altar? And on a white linen cloth? This is where you, the reader, come in. Art should make you question the world. Are those bowls made of dirt (plus all those beasties) that we should sweep out of the door and into the bin? Or are they made of soil that we should at least put on the garden, but really, they have no place in church? Or are they made of earth to be examined, to be questioned, to be listened to as earth-others?
These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet. Soils deserve care and nurture, as they reciprocate to care and nurture us. Tangled in the web of earth understandings is a call to think about an intergenerational issue such as postmining land rehabilitation and building housing estates on prime agricultural soils. When we care for soils, we are in fact caring for ourselves and our descendants.