Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Symphony of Soil - Film Preview

Symphony of Soil, is a documentary showing this Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7pm as part of the library's Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Here's a review I wrote after previewing the film a few months ago:

Great film. Long but well worth it. Maybe could be tied to a discussion of how homeowners can better handle their kitchen scraps and so-called yardwaste. (Judith Robinson will lead a panel of soil experts afterwards.)

At first, this film seems like mostly scenery and symphony, but soon begins digging deeper and deeper, so to speak, until it really gets down to the nitty gritty of what's going on with soils around the world, and how to shift the trajectory from degradation to regeneration. Somehow, it covers a huge amount of ground (these are not intentional puns) without seeming to jump around, dropping in on farms all over the world, with common refrains of a generation of farmers turning away from the dependence on chemicals and plow, and all the ways they are restoring the health and balance of the soil. Lots about nitrogen, soil bacteria/plant interactions--a highly digestible combination of science, experience, passion and beauty. 

The researchers at Rodale in Pennsylvania provide a beautiful demonstration of how soil health and mulch affect the quantity and quality of runoff, and how much water percolates down to recharge the aquifers--all very relevant to Princeton homeowners who tend to dump their yards' organic matter out on the asphalt for the town to haul away.

The chemical industry is not allowed to speak in its defense, but the depiction of pesticides' and chemical fertilizer's downside is not an angry vilification but more an explanation of why there's a better way. It's also refreshing to have nearly all of the many talking heads outdoors getting dirty, rather than sitting in their offices.

The camera work is excellent, and the editor included a couple spontaneous moments: one in which a shaggy dog lies down on the potato plant being discussed, and another with a child that made for an ending that goes straight to the heart. Actually, the ending is reminiscent of Truffaut's 400 Blows. I was taken back to books by Louis Bromfield (about restoring a farm in Ohio) and Ruth Stout (a pioneer in the use of mulch), written in the 40s but that became popular again in the 70s, questioning conventional wisdom and showing a better way.
As an aside, it's interesting to note, as one who has worked at restoring native plant communities, that some of the "good guys" on the farm, e.g. earthworms and high fertility, can actually work against biodiversity in the wild. Many species of earthworms are exotic and tend to eat through the organic matter in a forest too rapidly, depriving the forest soil of a protective litter layer over the soil and increasing the leaching of nutrients. Too much nitrogen, which reaches wild areas via air pollution, can shift the balance of species. Some of the most biodiverse habitats have very poor soil. There are some cases of serendipity where biodiverse habitats associated with poor soil types were inadvertently spared the plow, since farmers sought out richer soils elsewhere.

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