All this talk about dirt made me remember an old friend of mine, Roger Scott. He’s a soil scientist or an environmental scientist or something along those lines. When he first came to Sydney (we met in Kellerberrin back in 2005) he took one look at my backyard garden in Petersham and recommended I get the soil tested for poisons. I am afraid to say I never did that test. My soil was very good, and quite fertile, and has improved over the last five years. But I’ve no idea if it contains the toxins Roger is worried about.
Anyway, these memories prompted me to get in touch with Roger and let him know about my current projects (this one, as well as that one). This is a chunk from his reply to me:
I’m still here in Sydney, I just moved out of Marrickville a few weeks back to be with my girlfriend in Clovelly. Not quite as many scrumping opportunities over here in the east but still a bit about if you know where to look and keep your eyes open, there are a lot of avocados about but they don’t ripen for some reason, still not sure why we were postulating that it may be a lack of warm weather in the same way that stone fruit requires a chill. We still have chesnuts in the freezer from the end of summer which we use in delicious soups and stews, luckily not having a garden isn’t keeping us from experiencing cheap clean food.
I was very interested to read about these new projects of yours, art and the environment seems to be an ongoing preoccupation, something I can’t get out of my head so anything that pulls them together tends to capture my interest.
I did have one comment about city dirt which is that it tends to be a real mixed bag in terms of where it has come from and what has been done to it. If your garden has had a lot of builders fill brought into it then your guess is as good as anyone’s what is actually in there. If the landuse has changed over the years from say agricultural to industrial/light industrial and then residential there could be all sorts of interesting things, ie chemicals, heavy metals, organochlorides, mixed in there. Just like there is no balance of nature, there never was a halcyon period when we weren’t adding chemicals to our soil and food, except perhaps for the neolithic.
Apparently arsenical pesticides were used well into the 20th century and I don’t have to remind you of the joyous application of chemical nasties which kicked off the green revolution. What to do then? Well I’m not saying this shit is in your soil I’m just saying it pays to be aware, our cities can be quite toxic at certain times and places.
Many permies I know have a rule of planting big crops of tuberous crops like potatoes on new sites and discarding the first batch, apparently these plants are quite good at scavenging nasties from the soil. A soil test is another option albeit a bit of a cost.
I might just add though that despite the potential for additives, anytime I have been involved in city gardens I can’t help but ponder the lifecycle of landuses across our cityscapes. How did the people who were here before me interact with this landscape? What did it mean to them? I think the idea of swapping dirt taps into that history in a really elegant way.
Check out some State of the Environment reports for ideas on audits, my memories of audits we looked at at uni are that they get more and more complex the deeper you look.