The science and the symphony of soil

07/11/2013

Deborah Koons Garcia did not make a film about dirt. Dirt is hard, compact, dead. Her most recent documentary, Symphony of the Soil, exalts in the invisibly teeming, wildly variant underdog of the environmental and organic food movements. Soil, through Ms. Koons Garcia’s lens, is the hero.

The 104-minute documentary screens at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Dance Palace Community and Cultural Center, in Point Reyes Station. A Q&A session follows with Ms. Koons Garcia and two of the dozens of human subjects featured in her film: University of California, Berkeley microbial ecologist Dr. Ignacio Chapela and the founder of Star Route Farms in Bolinas, Warren Weber. 

Symphony of the Soil follows its subject in a three-act arch, exploring what soil is, how humans engage with it and, philosophically, how humans should continue the relationship. 

Ms. Koons Garcia said she came “to the idea of soil as a protagonist of our planet. You look at soil as the hero, as the main character.” The challenge was to translate that epic simply and engagingly. So she sought out people who were cool, Ms. Koons Garcia said, people who could compellingly condense an imperceptibly complex organism into a few sentences.

Dr. Chapela likens soil to the skin of the earth. “We are little extensions of the soil. We see that plants are extensions of the soil through their roots, and soil coming up. Just because we walk around, we don’t realize how [dependent] we are.”

He has spent more than a decade working to develop a method to allow people to see and build maps of microbes, “the small things that we don’t see which is more than 98 percent of what’s alive” on earth. “The mass of most things on the planet are mostly little,” he said. 

The film shows scientists and farmers scooping fistfuls of earth, in Norway and India and North America, and running it though their fingers. A Napa winemaker paws at a hunk of soil and crumbles it in his hands. “This is like chocolate cake, basically. This just smells so good.” These experts climb into pits deeper than their heights to describe tropical soil and ascend glaciers to explain soil’s mineral start.

Mr. Weber, whose farm is the oldest, continually certified row-crop farm in California, began farming organically as part of back-to-the-land movement in the 70's. Cover crops are planted in the fall and plowed in the spring to maintain the soil’s nutrient density.

He said that the rising, younger generation of organic farmers can use technology to farm organically, sharing information that could take months of meetings decades ago.

“I think that people today, the young folks, are not so counter-culture,” Mr. Weber said. “They’re actually bringing a new culture in. They’re taking advantage of the culture that they’re a part of. That’s something we didn’t have. They’re quite at home in that. They’re using it to their advantage in marketing and getting information and learning quickly.”

Ms. Koons Garcia sees the shift, too.

“In our generation, it was like dropping out,” she said. “You dropped out and went back to the land. Now it’s not so much dropping out, but finding your place in the community, being part of the community, and helping these social changes.”

Ms. Koons Garcia has lived in Marin County for 37 years, and her film heavily mines from sources in the Bay Area. Just in Marin, Symphony of the Soil also includes appearances by Penny Livingston-Stark, co-founder of the Regenerative Design Institute and co-director of the Commonweal Organic Farm, both in Bolinas, and rancher Kevin Lunny, representing his parents’ cattle ranch in Inverness.

The filmmaker was originally pulled into exploring the subject while working on her last documentary, The Future of Food, which focused on genetically engineered food and was released in 2004. 

As the debate over genetically modified organisms spread to the mainstream, she aimed to elevate the unsung host within which she saw these environmental dramas unfolding. She started researching soil as a principal subject in 2007 and officially released the film in 2012. 

Symphony of the Soil is now part of a wider discourse on soil that reaches beyond Bay Area writers, restaurateurs and foodies. The film serves as investigative, artistic edu-tainment. “I like beautiful music and also beautiful cinematography,” Ms. Koons Garcia said. “The film, though serious, is intended to be “an experience, rather than sort of an education ordeal.”

 

“Symphony of the Soil” will show at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 13 at the Dance Palace Community and Cultural Center. Filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia will be in conversation with Dr. Ignacio Chapela and Warren Weber following the screening, as well as offer a Q&A session. $10 advance tickets are available through brownpapertickets.com and $12 tickets will be sold at the door. The trailer can be viewed at symphonyofthesoil.com.