Long before you were born, during the May 1968 general strike in France,
protestors spray-painted the following slogan on the side of a building;
SOUS les pavés, la plage / UNDER the (paving-)stones, the beach.
This became one of many slogans awakening fellow protestors and passive passers-by to the vast possibilities that follow direct action. Take up those paving-stones, because the beach lies beneath them, throw them if you must (some folks back in 1968 threw some stones) and discover the world that this action uncovers.
Urbaniahoeve believes very strongly in direct action steeped in even deeper involvement in order to discover what lies beneath the stones. Inspired by the actions of those who came before us we say, Sous les pavés, les horizons! / Under the stones, the horizons!
The soil horizon, that is.
The following is a set of instructions for DIY soil-testing, as a way of getting to know the location before proceeding with any spatial intervention.
You will need:
Documentation materials/tools: camera or mobile phone with camera, pen, pad of scratch paper, some recycled jars with matching lids for the soil samples, masking tape for labels, an indelible marker for writing labels, measuring device (e.g. 10cm ruler)
Digging tools: spades (1 per 2-3 ppl), gloves (for everyone), trouwels (1 per 2-3 ppl)
Location: 1 square meter. If you are testing the soil of a large area, try to spread out the digging teams and choose sub-locations carefully to uncover what might be representative differences in the site (sous les pavés!).
Team and duration: 2-3 people = 2/3 hours, 4-5 people, 4-5 hours.
This is a sad but true fact about working in groups.
Action 1: With a sharp stick mark out one square meter. Count and document the number of plants and plant materials, draw or photograph them so that you can look up their (latin) names later. Did you find any other unique features? Document them.
This is your meter, get to know it well.
Did you find an animal burrow or insect hive?
If so, this is not your meter. Go find another one.
Action 2: Designate a place to put all the soil that you remove. Ultimately you will need to put it back in more or less the same place and order in which you found it, so keep it close at hand. Digging a hole is a meditation, not a dog’s breakfast, keep your workspace neat.
Start by removing the first 10 cm of dirt. Document its characteristics, colour, texture, and smell, in short, anything of note.
Action 3: Earthworms are noteworthy. As you remove the first 10cm of soil in the square meter, count all of the earthworms that you find and record this number. Take a soil sample by placing a goodly amount of soil in one of your jars and label it: 1-10 cm. Do not include any earthworms or other visible soil life in the sample jar.
Action 4: As you dig into the following 10 cm, continue counting worms and documenting any changes in the soil characteristics. Is there root matter? Document it. Does the ground smell like mushrooms? Document it. Do you find white hairy masses or colour changes in the soil? Document it. Just like the first 10 cm, keep this soil neatly in one area so that you can return it when you fill in the hole. Take another soil sample and label the jar 10-20cm.
Action 5: Just like in the previous step, dig down another 10-15 cm and document what you find. If you’re lucky you will start noticing changes in the soil characteristics and in the decreasing amount of soil life that you can detect with the naked eye. For example, after 30 cm, you might notice that there are less and less earthworms, maybe even none. Or maybe you detect fewer roots of the pioneer plants. Maybe the soil material has changed colour, texture and smell.
That’s if you’re lucky.
If you are unlucky, you will be digging in a homogenous pile of rubble. If you suspect that this is the case you have 2 options.
Option 1. Think of our ancestors back in 1968 Paris and carry on with this soil test, naively expecting everyone to appreciate your generosity in taking one for the team. (They may not. Some may forget.) It’s possible that if you take a meditative approach to this task that even digging through rubble can be interesting.
Admittedly, this would not be my path.
(My path) Option 2. Look at the totality of the site and try to locate another square meter which, with your increased knowledge and experience, you suspect might be more rewarding to explore than this stupid pile of rubble you stumbled upon in your quest for some interesting dirt story. Console yourself that you will be more efficient at digging and documenting now that you have experience. (You will be, and it will go surprisingly quickly.) Carefully fill in the hole you started.
Whatever you do, don’t dawdle. Make a decision. Take action.
Don’t forget to take at least 3 soil samples (approximately one for every 10-15 cm) and label the jars correctly. We will look at the contents later.
Action 6: Finishing up. When you have dug approximately 1 meter down (possibly cheating, like in these photographs), depending where you are, you may hit water. Or maybe you will dig through the rubble layer and find the sand from the building site, or the actual soil that belongs to this location. Document and celebrate your findings.
Action 7: Try to restore the site to its original state, possibly a meditative act.
Start by filling in the hole that you just dug, putting the soil layers and eventually the worms back just the way you found them – as much as you can. This may seem like an inane request, but as you learn more about soil and the tiny beasts that produce it, this will seem less like performance art and more like practicing sensitivity to the environment we share with uncountable species and beasts.