19 May 2017

Spring Soils

For the second Landscape Learn event we spent a full day at Knepp Castle Estate. If you would like to kept informed of future Landscape Learn events please sign up to our newsletter or view the events page and keep an eye our for our next event this summer at Kensal Green Cemetery.

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All images © Eve Izaak

The day was bookended by spells of brilliant sunshine either side of a much needed spring shower.

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We began proceedings in the ‘go-down’ barn with a series of talks, presentations and performances.

Landscape Learn set the scene asking, what is the impact to society of soil degradation? 

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Our first expert speaker was Knepp Castle Estate ecologist Penny Green, she introduced the ‘rewilding’ experiment at Knepp or as it was also more accurately but less succinctly described the ‘long-term minimum intervention natural process-led area’. Starting with the agricultural origins of the estate Penny summarised the process of estate diversification that the Burrell family have implemented. Creating a sustainable future for Knepp Castle Estate, centred around a series of regeneration and restoration projects aimed primarily at nature conservation. 

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Penny was followed by Ted Green, founder of the Ancient Tree Forum and one of the inspirations behind the Knepp Castle Estate experiment. Ted persuasively presented the fundamental importance of healthy soil, mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms to tree health and in turn the health of the whole ecosystem including humans.

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Soil scientist Tim O’Hare provided an introduction to the science of soil, as a precursor to the afternoons activities. Tim focused on the physical properties required to maintain a healthy soil, explaining the delicate mix of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids and countless organisms within this matrix. 

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The talks were poetically concluded by artist and composer Claudia Molitor, who gave a reading layered over her composition, ‘Soil Suite - where do the all the earthworms go?’ which presents an imagined sonic subterranean, soil based world. Her work was accompanied by the gentle rhythm of rain on the barn roof and punctuated by the song of a robin which had taken shelter indoors.

“To be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning … To be listening is to be at the same time outside and inside, to be open from without and from within… ” Nancy, J-J. (2007) Listening, Fordham University Press, 


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Following interesting conversations in the ‘cow barn’ over a delicious lunch, we were refuelled and ready for explorations in the field. 

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The afternoon was dedicated to the examination of soil profiles. 

This involved looking at soils in different locations within the estate, discussions about current and past land use and observing the changing structure of the soil after a prolonged period of intensive agricultural production.

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Three shallow excavations were created in fields that had lain fallow for different periods of time and provided an opportunity to physically interact with the soil. 

Everyone was encouraged to get their hands dirty and hold the topsoil and subsoil to feel the different physical structures and to then visually reference the material back to the soil horizon in each of the trenches. 

Tim expertly explained the inherent qualities of each soil horizon and processes that were taking place to alter the soil characteristics, evidenced by the plentiful earthworm population.

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Our aim is to provide a framework for learning that enables direct engagement with the seasonality of the landscape; to experience first hand, variable elemental conditions, provide tangible links between research, academia and practice; and to help make the transition from learning in a classroom to application in the field.