Reading urban plants for soil conditions

I have been helping out with a public arts initiative during Glasgow International (festival of visual arts). Soil City is an urban laboratory and series of events organized by the Open Jar Collective. It is designed to initiate a multifaceted conversation about soil as if it matters to life in the city. I have been helping in particular with site visits by the mobile laboratory, which includes a pair of purpose-built bikes designed to enable the collection of all kinds of ‘data’ pertaining to the material diversity, social uses and meanings of soil at sites around the city. These events provide a visually and socially engaging way of approaching a variety of social and environmental questions; of greatest interest to me, is the plant surveys which provide some of the data being collected.

I prepared a mini guide to indicator plant species for use in these surveys. This includes a short list of plant species selected for their widespread presence in Glasgow, and their relationship to different kinds of soil (e.g., acidic, basic, fertile, infertile etc.). In other words, by identifying whether any plants from the list are thriving at a given site, you can learn something about the soil there. Some reflections about that process can be found here. The guide itself (minus photographs) can be found here.

Gorse (Ulex europaeus): suggestive of poor soil, in which it can thrive due to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in its root nodules.

Although I have yet to finish thinking about this little project, probably the most interesting observation it has raised so far, is this: while the ‘indications’ provided by plants with respect to soil are often mixed or inconclusive, the ‘reading’ of plant presences at a given site, and particularly the kinds of relationships this identifies–not only between plants and soil, but between different plants, and between plants and human activities (such as gardening, dumping of organic material, etc.)–initiates a new mode of perception. Not only is it a way of seeing more in the urban landscape, it also reorganizes the perceptual field ever so slightly. For someone like me, who was already always on the look-out for plants, it causes me to see them in terms of their groupings, or past events, rather than individual species. It is hard to fit into words how modest-yet-profound a difference this is.

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