Rediscovering Connections to the Land and Each Other

November 21, 2022

“Soil and Spirit” brings together art, science and history to explore humans’ relationship to the ground we occupy

Close-up of a person's hands holding a small pile of dirt.
Visiting artist Marina Heron Tsaplina holds a handful of soil at the Duke Campus Farm. (Photo: Eric Barstow)

Digging a hole in the backyard to plant a shrub, we might encounter a few insects or worms amid the dirt. But there’s a lot more going on in the soil beneath our feet. 

Earlier this year, a study estimated an incomprehensible 20 quadrillion ants living on our planet, up to 20 times higher than previously thought. And during the pandemic, a popular documentary on Netflix opened many eyes to an astounding underground network of fungus that help trees communicate. A tree can respond to a struggling tree’s distress signals by sending carbon and nutrients through the network, revealing cooperation and reciprocity rather than competition.

A Bass Connections team is digging into the richness of dirt and fungi to inform the development of a unique art project called “Soil and Spirit.” 

Visiting artist Marina Heron Tsaplina leads the team along with researcher Kevin Caves, who focuses on technologies for people with disabilities, and theater artist Jules Odendahl-James, director of academic engagement and director of Story+. 

Last month, the team hosted two events as part of this exploratory process.

At the Duke Campus Farm, a late afternoon gathering brought together members of the Duke and Durham communities to consider the hidden stories buried in our soils.

Outdoor scene of people seated and looking toward three presenters, who are also seated.
Soil ecologist Molly Haviland, owner of Haviland Earth Regeneration LLC (HER), led a session with Saskia Cornes, director of the Duke Campus Farm and assistant professor of the practice at the Franklin Humanities Institute, and visiting artist Marina Heron Tsaplina. (Photo: Michaela Dwyer)

Two people seated outdoors at a table; one deposits a handful of dirt on to a cloth, while the other looks on.
Participants were invited to bring a handful of soil that held meaning for them, whether from a planter on their porch or from a place with particular significance. (Photo: Eric Barstow)

A woman sits on a stage in an outdoor venue, addressing the unseen audience with a microphone, while a man seated beside her looks on.
A.yoni Jeffries, founder of Handèwa Farms and a citizen of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, talked with Georie Bryant, founder of Symbodied and a descendant of Stagville. (Photo: Eric Barstow)

The following day, students gathered in the Fungi Lab of Rytas Vilgalys, professor of biology and a faculty contributor on the Bass Connections team. Molly Haviland led a soil microscopy workshop that built on earlier instruction in which students learned how to identify common soil organisms and understand what they can reveal about soil ecology and health.

Participants looked carefully at the architectures and microbiomes of diverse soils under the microscope, and made notes on any imaginative and memory associations. One student, for example, thought the magnified soil was reminiscent of characters from a children’s TV show.

People look through microscopes while seated indoors at tables with lab equipment and laptops.
Participants used microscopes to take a close look at soil samples from two forests in New York State, where the artistic work will premiere in 2024-2025. (Photo: Khilan Walker)

Tsaplina encourages awareness and articulation of personal perceptions throughout the process. “That’s intrinsic to artistic research, in which the illusion that we can be disengaged, objective observers is released,” she said. “You are part of the work. There’s a relationship between you and this material. Our perceptions are shaped by personal, familial, social and historical processes. This is central to the project and our way of working.”

Seen from behind, a woman uses her iPhone to take a photo of what she sees through the microscope.

Using their phones, participants collected images of the soil samples under the microscope for the “Soil and Spirit” project’s digital living archive. (Photo: Khilan Walker)

Next semester, the Bass Connections team members will continue developing the digital living archive of the soils and mycorrhizal fungi, and translate this research into the early design, prototyping and choreographing of one to three modular performing objects that will become part of the large-scale kinetic installation in endangered forests. They will also develop a draft of a land art forest policy manual and complete a working prototype of the sensor communication network and mechanical flowers for the installation. The sensor-flowers will play music composed of voices from the disability community, intermixed with sensor data and sounds from the forest. 

Outdoor scene in a forest, looking up toward the canopy, with a red and yellow art installation appearing to be hanging from the trees.
Dream Puppet by Marina Heron Tsaplina (Photo: Brian Christianson, Orion Magazine)

Through “Soil and Spirit,” Tsaplina has invited Duke students into the artistic research and development process of her new work. In a recent interview, she described her approach to the project as “creating a way for people from diverse lineages to learn how to listen to and reconnect with place, to really feel the break that has occurred between our bodies and the land, to hone our attentiveness and embodied perceptions.”

The resulting installation, which will be a participatory 12-hour performance and choreographic assemblage of the kinetic figure, will tour to endangered and/or destroyed forests in the U.S. after a premiere in Chappaqua, New York. This site-specific artwork is designed to engage diverse communities and connect them to unique ecologies and histories of the land.

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