Soil Dwellers

Soils provide habitat for a multitude of organisms. [1] From burrowing mammals, like foxes, whose dens are found below ground, [2] to billions of primordial single-celled organisms; from hard-shelled arthropods to soft, squishy worms; and from complex mycelia networks of fungi, [3] to microorganisms that may unlock the cure for disease, [4] soils provide a home for all of these and more. [5]

Life in soils is intrinsically tied to decomposition—this is how organic matter (e.g. dead leaves, bones, and twigs) is broken down and important nutrients are recycled for consumption by a variety of different types of plants and animals. This is clearly seen in the upper organic horizon on soils, where decomposers (e.g. fungi, pill bugs and worms) are active in breaking down organic matter. As many artists look at the amazing process of decomposition that the insects, invertebrates and various microbes perform, they cannot help but reflect on what will happen to their bodies after they die. [6] Several artists directly studied these processes by photographing compost [7] or exposing paper and books to the effects of weathering and burial in soil. [8] Their works provide a sense for how fast decomposition really is and how climate affects decomposition.


1 Soil: Burrowers (Mari Eckstein Gower)
2 What Remains (Sheryl Shapiro)
3 Seeing Mycelia (Kristin Serafini)
4 Groundwork for Healing (Sharon A. Sharp)
5 Soil Dwellers (Emilie Bess, Emily Van Kley, Catherine Alice Michaelis and Melanie Valera).
6 In the Beginning (Fruma Shrensel), Filament’s Tug (Bobbie Morgan), Dirt Under Your Feet (Clariss Sligh), Incidental Observations While Awaiting My Turn (Kaz Sussman), Resurrection (Angela Dale), Gestalt (Catherine Karlak)
7 Alchemy (Robin Cushman)
8 Desert Dirt (Katya Reka), Books70Earth (Imari Nacht)

Haiku for this fragile earth, our island home - John Sager

Silly doodlebug 
  Tiptoeing across moist earth…
An eternity

Ladybug hovers
  Passes this rose, then that rose
Like dust in the wind

Frozen earth this night
  Sleeping gods at rest below…
One cold eye open

Sun-fed blade of grass
  Arcs up, dirt-fed roots dig down
Unseen, underground

Soil: Burrowers - Mari Eckstein Gower

Modified flag book structure in assemblage box; pen and ink paintings; Strathmore multi-media paper; wood, glass, sterilized organic materials, rocks; 7 pages; 12 x 12 x 1.5 inches; one of a kind. 

Working in my garden, I'm always surprised by how alive soil is - not only with plant life but creatures of all sizes. By some estimates, two-thirds of the earth's biodiversity lives in soil. In my book, I wanted to highlight the variety of life forms that call soil their home. I proceed from the large (mammals such as foxes, rabbits, and chipmunks) to small, (insects,) to the microscopic (bacteria and fungi.) As the book unfolds, the multiple layers of life are visible, almost like soil strata. I've encased the book in a cabinet of curiosities -like environment that includes a poem and samples of materials which might combine to make soil.  


What Remains - Sheryl Shapiro

I enter the dark, sweet depths
             by fragrant scents
             of the generations

transforming fragments
into essential elements
   rooting new life

through the hard pan
       the stones

with nail and nose
                                to an underground nest.

Seeing Mycelia - Kristin Serifini

 Several small books with stitched bindings in wooden enclosure; BFK Rives; felt, cotton fabric, 1/2" plywood, wool yarn, tulle, hinges and latch, acrylic paint; 14 pages; 15 x 15 x 15 inches; one of a kind.

In 2013, Dr. Justine Karst, et. al. published an article in the journal 'Mycologia' in which they "investigated the community composition and diversity of soil fungi along a sharp vegetative ecotone between coastal sage scrub (CSS) and non-native annual grassland habitat at two sites in coastal California, USA." In the Materials and Methods section of the article, they explain that they used "clone libraries of fungal ribosomal DNA" to help identify as many fungi as possible. This detail suggested an image of soil AS a kind of library... full of largely unread texts.

'Mycelia Library' is a visual representation of the research conducted by Dr. Karst, et. al. Each Division of Class of fungal operational taxonomic units (OTUs) is collected into its own hand-bound book. The top of the box housing the books is painted with a representation of the ecotone where the soil samples were taken. The books are all attached to the library box by mycelia-like threads.

Groundwork for Healing - Sharon Sharp, Co-Curator of Poetry

Movable interwoven-slit panels; layered archival inkjet printing of an original photograph on top of a scanned collograph created by the artist; anson Mi-Teites, banana fiber with mulberry, momi, and Southworth papers; museum board; colored pencil highlights; archival inket printing of text and book title; two text pages attached to central display panel; 14.5 x 5.625 inches; one of a kind.

After reading about streptomycin’s discovery, I wanted to learn more about the wealth of soil microbes so crucial to our antibiotics and other medicines. The extent of the untapped potential proved stunning, and I learned about exciting recent scientific efforts to identify more soil microbes, analyze their DNA, and develop new medicines. Some scientists’ references to soil microbes as the rich “biosynthetic dark matter” underfoot—as intriguing as the dark matter in outer space—captivated me and influenced the poem at the heart of my artist’s book. Also, as I learned more about the citizen-scientist initiative called “Drugs from Dirt,” I wanted to encourage everyone to participate in this important global-mapping effort. Even more, I hoped this book might increase appreciation for the microbial wealth we too often take for granted and readily damage. The focus on soil microbes as healing agents added yet another dimension to my valuing of soil as a remarkable, irreplaceable resource.

On a pin’s head, a thousand; in a teaspoon, five billion primordial,
single-cell bacteria teem in horizons beneath our feet, thousands
of species specializing, proliferating. Some target breakdown
of organic matter—leaves, twigs, berries, dead animals; some,
rejuvenation—nutrient and slime production to feed plants,
boost soil clumping, water retention, root expansion. Grounding
for most antibiotics, wellsprings for cancer-cell killers, the totality
remains a black hole where our untold hopes dive, sure of returns
as promising as 1943’s first find: Streptomyces griseus, streptomycin—
miraculous tuberculosis foe. Outnumbering their lab-grown cousins
a hundred to one, uncultivated species in natural spaces remain
largely elusive, not yet yielding to electron microscopes, DNA analyses,
so we urgently pursue them as our pathogens adapt to once-heralded
conquerors we’ve discovered, developed. While cutting-edge
techniques evolve—chambered chips enabling soil bacteria to grow
in their natural sites—even the citizen-scientists among us can accept
an invitation, aid experts by digging samples, sharing details, tracking
results through project Drugs from Dirt’s unfolding global map
of microbes.  At caves, parks, plains, hot springs, islands, rain forests,
mountain passes, and backyards we can glean clues, repel ravages, 
respond to those who question why what’s hidden in the dark matters.

Soil Dwellers - Catherine Michaelis, Emily Van Kley, Emilie Bess, and Melanie Valera

  Pamphlet stitch; linoleum cuts, botanical contact prints and letterpress printing with handset type; Arches, linen thread; 28 pages; 16 x 10 x 0.5 inches; variable edition of 50.

Dirt, when animated with life in the form of fungus, microbes, and bugs, is transformed into soil, the substrate upon which we reside. Soil Dwellers is a collaboration inspired by insects that work the earth. 

Emilie Bess served up insect lore while carving what’s below. Emily Van Kley’s words lifted what’s underneath into view. Wondering what kind of sound is underground, Melanie Valera burrowed below the surface to write the musical score. Catherine Alice Michaelis marked paper with plants and handset type. She designed a structure, segmented and articulated, a place for our broodings to dwell. 

Like insects sharing tunnels, we moved through each other’s worlds: Bess stole words from Linnaeus, Michaelis deposited them into verse; Bess dissected the vernacular of Collembola for Van Kley to reassemble. Fertile and layered, the creation of Soil Dwellers took us under the microscope and across the landscape, metaphorically and literally, to examine this place and who dwells here. 

 In the Beginning - Fruma Shrensel


Drop spine binding and accordion fold; letterpress , digital print, and pochoir, Japanese Gampi, Arches Cover, Canson mitientes, Red River bright white binders board covered with Japanese silk book cloth, archival foam and mylar. Synthetic dirt made from sawdust, acrylic paint; 54 x 10.5 x 10.5 inches; edition of 30.

In the Beginning, an exploration in three parts.

Section One: An accordion book opens with a quote from Genesis 2:7, “God then formed the human out of the dust of the ground. God blew into his nostrils a soul of life...” The remaining pages relate personal experience with death.

Section two: The body and the soul intersect. A delicate transparent sheet of paper contains a quote by Hermann Hesse which describes, “...a readiness of the soul... to think every moment, while living this life, the thought of oneness.” On a sheet of black paper representing the body, reads a quote from Vladimir Nabokov stating, “Unless a film of flesh envelops us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings."

Section Three: Built into the back cover, sawdust, painted to look like dirt with some scattered (plastic) bone artifacts present our human beginning and our end, our return to the earth. 

Filaments’ Tug - Bobbie Morgan

In the morning chill I walk to the heap, toss in a week’s worth of kitchen waste,
quickly tuck back into the house.
The gravel beneath my feet crunches, a weekly routine.
Outside, in silence, another cycle flows.
Unseen creatures multiply, decline, multiply decline.
In musky rhythms, in dank crevices.

Filaments of actinomycetes slowly embrace brown, matted leaves, stems, rinds, husks.
Single-celled cocci and spirilla, tiny spheres and spirals, work blind.
Barely visible fungi for the toughest debris.
Molds and yeasts spread themselves out in layers of gray colonies, consuming, releasing.
Decomposition in counterpoint.
Humble work,
This task of complex to simple, conversion of rotting scraps to redolent humus.

Inside, my hands rest on the cutting board.
“Life eats life,” said Joseph Campbell.
The sutra of the compost begs for my attention: See how this works?
As I walk the gravel path each week, I am pulled to summon enough equanimity to accept.
Enough, so that when the time comes,
I will yield.

Dirt Under Your Feet - Clarissa Sligh


Modified star structure with coptic binding; inkjet and cyanotype images, linoleum and silkscreen prints; BFK Rives, Mohawk superfine text, Lokta, Stonehenge; 8 pages; 5 x 8.25 x 1 inch; one of a kind.

I am an older black woman. I moved to a small plot of land in the mountains of North Carolina after 30 years of pounding the pavement in New York City. Since my visual work has a lot to do with my experience of place, I am trying to understand my ambivalent relationship to the ground on which I walk, to the live soil in which I plant the food I eat and the flowers that bring me joy. I am grateful to be more conscious of the cycles of the seasons. Yet, when I learn that another friend has passed away, I say to myself, “No, no, no! Time is going too fast.” Each passing feels like a loss, yet I feel I am closer to them. The gardens remind me that we humans, too, are rooted in the soil. Few people will recognize the West African Lobi burial figures that are used in the book’s photographs. But I hope that those figures, along with the boat, snow and mud will remind others of our core relationship to dirt. 

Incidental Observations while Awaiting my Turn - Kaz Sussman

As if recalling a crucifixion, a trio of cormorants
with black wings spread wide mount a sinew of driftwood, the water
surrounding them scarlet with sunfall. At the pond’s far shore
a congregation of egrets pause, still as unlit candles
in the savannah of moss draped oak, as below them
jewel eyed mallards rise among the reeds.

I arrive just in time to feel the fierce rhizome of sunbeam plowing
apart the loam of sky, bursting loose from the dark scree of rough cloud.
The rain, intent on burrowing into the ground, is gone. Morning
sips up the night’s scent. Each root a tangled history of thirst, undone
by the sorrow of the passing storm. Each leaf touched, a verdant dynamo

humming with regeneration.  A multitude of microscopic creatures
punch the time clocks of their lives, and go about the business
of earning their living, chewing at the soil’s grim cud. Me,
I wait my turn in the queue, not quite sure
what I am in line to receive
(however I have my suspicions).


Resurrection - Angela Dale

When it’s time
plant me
plant a dogwood tree
over, on, in me
let me be
beetle juice
worm warren
human humus
lifeblood wicking up
beneath the gnarled bark
feeding four-petaled passion
budding blooming fruiting banquet
for a flicker to light upon
and spread afield
to spring again
at long last
lost potential turned
to substance in
The End.

Gestalt - Catherine Karlak 

One has to dig out eventually. It’s very hard
to get all the life out of life. It abhors a vacuum,
I know, having flown out for the funeral, cleaned
for the estate sale, while back at home bindweed
slipped into my neat row of eggplants and choked
them out. I was drinking sweet tea in late heat
under a kudzu-clogged carport, marveling at
how time and place are inherent in the ground—
From the initial descent these roads were rust
-colored threads, familiar red clay. And not unlike
grief: Resisting, impermeable, until they give way.
And so we bury the things we love, commit them
to the earth, for safekeeping, or, I don’t know—
It does what we cannot. When I finally came back
to these gray skies my harvest was already done in
by fall rains: A field of felled tomato stems, liquefying,
putrid, with plasters of blight, forests of mold hairs,
copious and fine. Collapsing husks returning to whence
they came, rat-bitten skins bursting to reveal
bright seeds, like so many small promises, each one
saying: Even neglected, even laid to waste, nothing
is ever wasted, nothing is ever gone, no, no, not completely—

Desert Dirt - Katya Reka

Binding on a wood stick; dirt imprint; handmade abaca paper with rye grass seed inclusions; dirt, wood, thread; 10 pages; one of a kind.

Desert Dirt artist book was created by leaving handmade abaca sheets in the New Mexico desert for a year. Rye grass seeds were embedded into the paper, some of them grew, some were eaten by bugs. Eventually, affected by the weather, precipitation, wind, sun and soil organisms,the paper changed shape and color to closely match the rigidity of the desert soil. The pages are contact prints of the soil they were in contact with over the course of the year. Plants grew into the pages, bugs burrowed holes in it, bird poked holes trying to get to the seeds. The pages protected the soil underneath them from wind erosion, helped soak water from an occasional rain and provided shelter for insects. The book is a record of the extreme conditions under which desert soils form and exist.  

Books70Earth - Irmari Nacht

Codex; recycled artist book; dirt, earth; 300 pages; 11.5 x 12 x 9 inches.

I recycle books that otherwise might be discarded and transform them into artwork. Dirt, an ultimate recycling agent, acts as a catalyst to growth and later becomes a receiver of that growth. Xenophanes in 580 BC said, "All things come from earth; all things end by becoming earth." My recycled books call attention to this continuing cycle of life.

My book, "ElementsEarth", 1 of 4 abandoned encyclopedias, was saved, recycled, exposed to elements (water, fire, air and earth) for 8 mos, becoming unreadable, while retaining its book-like form. 
“Like the soil, the mind is fertilized while it lies fallow, until a new burst of bloom ensues,” said John Dewey. My books change from utilitarian objects to sculptural objects capable of many interpretations.
We are all affected by environmental changes and realize the need to recycle to protect our future. I hope my work will increase awareness of these changes and will get people thinking about recycling, reusing, and repurposing.  

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