Raichael Lock, Manchester Environmental Education Network (MEEN)
As Maria Puig de le Bellacasa1 argued recently in her plenary at the Royal Geographic Society Conference in London, ‘soil’ is a perfect metaphor for our troubled relationship with the ‘Earth’. So, that means, for urban ES educators, teaching about mud is more important than ever.
In Manchester, the legacy of our post-industrial past is evident in the everyday connections with soil. Digging a hole in some school grounds can be hard: rubble from old schools or housing stock prevents the spade from going deeper than a few inches, sometimes there is a layer of soil capping the hardcore below and on occasions there are indications of contamination.
Over the years, the Manchester Environmental Education Network (MEEN) has had plenty of experience working with Manchester’s soils – whether tree planting, forest gardening, vegetable growing or wildflower seeding – so we know the problems facing urban soils. However, we became acutely aware of the lack of local knowledge around soil quality when a school was being supported by local agencies to develop an allotment on contaminated land. This raised the question: how to help Manchester’s soils?
‘Save our Soils’
MEEN wanted to change the perception of contaminated/impoverished soils from being a threatening and insurmountable problem into an exciting learning project, involving practical actions to help soils and opportunities to share the learning with other communities. In 2016, the ‘Save our Soils’ partnership project was devised. The partnership reflects the importance of multi-agency approaches in environmental education in order to widen children’s aspirations and understanding of the world.
Designed to be responsive to the context of each school setting, MEEN works with schools to examine historical maps of the locale and then, if necessary, have the soil tested. So far six primary schools have engaged with the project with each school choosing its own trajectory depending on the soil and interests of the young people involved. Learning sessions have included thinking about the importance of soil, soil types, soil contamination and/or pH testing.
One school voted to learn about organic growing; another played the ‘soil web’ game; others chose to play MEEN’s ‘It’s a worm’s life’. There were activities such as doing an archaeological dig linking to historical maps, and planting trees and hedges to improve soil quality.
However, there were also plenty of valuable partnership activities, such as composting sessions at Debdale Eco Centre and bringing in their expertise to build raised beds; there were visits to the University of Salford soil laboratory for soil testing and, most recently, an artist was brought in to work with clay.
We know from research, such as that carried out by the University of Manchester2, that heat waves and climate change have a much greater impact on soil microbes than previously realised. One activity every school chose was to examine soil critters with hand-held microscopes. This has proved key in helping young (and old) realise the incredible richness of the soil as a living system. In one instance an excited child ran over to me to let me know she had seen: “a nematode poo”, having already been amazed that such creatures existed, whilst another pupil declared: “soil is awesome! It’s so full of life!”
It’s also clear that this previously unknown underworld has inspired a desire to care for soils. Children have requested that the living soil samples are returned safely to their ‘home’ and great care has been taken by the pupils not to harm the wildlife.
As suspected, though, finding a ‘living’ urban soil proved interesting. Pre-empting the lack of soil biota in school soils, MEEN collected samples from a local forest garden where years of permaculture practice has allowed the soil to flourish. Sadly, school soil samples barely produce more than worms. It has also proved difficult to make much improvement in the school soils for a variety of reasons. Firstly, soil reclamation is too big a task for such a small project. However, one school with contamination planted Salix hyper-accumulators with the aspiration that the university will test the leaves to see if heavy metals can be removed. Where soil is impoverished, silver birch trees have been planted to break up rubble, but with the systemic grounds management system of ‘mowers and blowers’ removing organic matter from schools, MEEN is exploring longer-term solutions.
The sharing of knowledge has proved fruitful, with eco-teams creating displays and running assemblies. One team held a meeting with the Head to share their learning, whilst four schools have delivered presentations at two of MEEN’s intergenerational conferences.
With the help of the University of Manchester, MEEN has also produced a film3 capturing the first wave of the project. The film highlights how the pupils’ experience, knowledge and understanding have inspired members of the community.
Responding to an environmental problem, such as soil impoverishment, adds yet another issue to the list of things to worry about. However, when pupils were asked for their response to George Monbiot’s declaration that there are only 60 years of good harvests left, the pupils insisted they need to learn about the problems because: “We’re the ones that are going to have to deal with it, not you”.
1. Maria Puig de le Bellacasa (2017). Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Words (Posthumanities). University of Minnesota Press; 3rd ed. edition
Raichael Lock is the co-ordinator of the Manchester Environmental Education Network, which supports teachers, organisations and individuals working to promote EE and EfS. Raichel is also an ESRC funded PhD student at the University of Manchester researching the Save Our Soils project.
More information: meen.org.uk
This article was first published in 2019 in Vol 122 of the NAEE journal which is available free to members. This edition was an Urban Environmental & Sustainability Education special, written with London Environmental Educators’ Forum (LEEF).