Making a Movie about Soil: A Day in the Life of Kate Scow

Article by Chris Zimmerman | Soil Science Society of America

Soil Science Society of America member Kate Scow has done a little bit of everything. In her words, she’s “a meandering path. And those who meander should take solace.” Scow grew up in Maryland but lived abroad in Israel and Argentina with her family as a teenager, an experience that seemed to spark her wandering ways. She returned to the U.S. to study biology and ecology before receiving her Ph.D. in soil science from Cornell University. She is now a professor of soil science at the University of California–Davis.

For the past five years, Scow has been working with filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia on Symphony of the Soil, an artistic look into the connections between soil and the world. The UC Davis professor served as the key adviser to the film, supplementing the filmmaker’s artistic vision with the technical aspects of soil science. Here’s what Scow had to say about her role in the movie-making process.

Soil Horizons: When did you first know you had an interest in soil science?

Scow: I didn’t know that I was interested in it for a long time. When I was a teenager, my family drove across Europe, and I collected a soil sample from each country and brought it home—illegally. That’s when I was 15 or something. So something was afoot.

I started out studying animal behavior, but I worked for a few years doing a lot of risk assessment for the USEPA on contaminants before going back to graduate school. I started to hear about soil and see the importance of it, and it seemed like everything came from soil. Everything goes back to soil. I fell in love.

Soil Horizons: And now you’ve helped make a film about soil. What was your role in Symphony of the Soil?

Scow: I’ve been involved in the film from the very beginning about five years ago. Deborah Koons Garcia, the filmmaker, found me by talking to several people who suggested me for the job. As an adviser, my role has been to point out key references of soil science. I helped explain and simplify some of the really challenging concepts, like the nitrogen cycle and soil biodiversity.I provided a lot of input in what to include and not to include and did a lot of checking for scientific accuracy. This was in light of Deborah’s need to be able to express herself in more artistic ways. So it was quite interesting to think about fact checking in a film that’s so artful.

Kate Scow is a professor of soil science at the University of California–Davis and key adviser on the film Symphony of the Soil, an artistic look into the connections between soil and the world.

Soil Horizons: Did you work on this on a full-time basis?

Scow: It was on and off over the five years it took to make the film. There were times when it was pretty intense and then times where it was more intermittent. It took a while to put together this film, so we kind of went with the flow as it was being made.

Soil Horizons: Did you travel much with the crew?

Scow: In California, I traveled a bit with them. I went on several shoots. But I was much more comfortable being an adviser than being a “player” in the film. Most of my time was spent at the studio, putting together the story board for the whole film and taking copies of the film home to review them and provide feedback.

Soil Horizons: Did the movie end up like you imagined it would?
Images from the movie, Symphony of the Soil.

Scow: I love film. It’s one of my passions in life. I was part of an advisory committee at Cornell, where I programmed a lot of film festivals and showings. So I’m very keyed into film. I’ve always wanted to be involved in making a film about soil, and I always imagined something along the lines of Fantastic Voyage, with Raquel Welch traveling through the human body. I wanted to do a film like that about soil. Going down preferential flow paths, getting chased by nematodes, hiding in small pores. But that’s a completely different kind of idea.

When I met Deborah, I realized she was going to be taking us to a place where we don’t usually go in soil. She already had a strong desire to create this symphony about soil. She’s very musical and Vivian, her editor, is an incredible music editor. Soil is so stubborn about showing its beauty; we just walk all over it. It’s really tough to get at it. But Deborah had this vision, and I watched as she captured all of these different things about soil, these great scientists she had giving insight, all combined with the music. It came out more intense, emotional, and beautiful than I ever imagined. Am I foaming at the mouth yet?

Soil Horizons: How do you organize and assemble a film that takes five years to complete?

Scow: By starting out with some really great ideas, places, people, and going and doing that stuff. You start out with that, and you look at it, you think more, you read more, you talk, and you discuss ideas. So there was some footage filmed in the last year to fill in some gaps that were clearly identified once the film as a whole could be seen. It couldn’t be seen until there was enough film to piece together. You’re putting together a lot of pieces, and filling in the gaps later.

I think part of why the film is so amazing is that Deborah had a lot of time to think and dwell about where the film went. Its direction would change over time. Certain things would pop up, and different stuff emerged. She has a really great eye for that and is open to seeing where the process takes her. Deborah loves science. She really is a science nerd, but she also knows that she wouldn’t touch a lot of people if she made a “hardcore facts” film. People who don’t naturally take to science would feel force-fed. What she did was provide a taste of these deeper and broader concepts that some people are really going to get a hunger for. They’re going to go and track more of this information down on Google or by reading books. She has such a great eye for what’s beautiful and emotionally moving, and she could see that in the soil, which can be so unyielding.

Soil Horizons: It must have been great for you to finally get the chance to be part of a film. Did you learn a lot in the process?

Scow: I did. I love film, and it was incredible to see the process and be there all along. It was an amazing gift to me, being involved in it all along the way as the key adviser. You go out and capture footage of all these different things, and then you cut it down, and try to glue it all together and then you condense it more and weave it together, and distill it. Weave and distill. Capture the essence. And the whole time, you’re looking at the overall structure of the entire film. It has its own architecture. It was incredible to see the whole process.

Soil Horizons: Now that it’s complete, what do you like most about the film?

Scow: I like that it celebrates the soil with no reservations. I thought Deborah really caught the beauty and huge mystery of soil. And she captured that while still providing a lot of real knowledge.In talking with people about it, it seems like the film works well for those who have no connection to soil. They see it and go, “Wow, there’s so much here.” And it’s great for people who have a casual relationship with soil, like gardeners. People who may not have the technical expertise, but think about soil all the time. And it even works for the experts who already know a lot about theory and practice. The film really uplifts soil. It brings it to the higher level where it should be. |

Read original article here at the Soil Science Society of America

Princeton Environmental Film Festival

Symphony of the Soil will screen at the Princeton Library as part of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival on Thursday February 7th, 2013.

Symphony of the Soil, Directed and produced by Deborah Koons Garcia, explores the complexity and mystery of soil. Filmed on four continents and sharing the voices of some of the world’s most esteemed soil scientists, farmers and activists, the film portrays soil as a protagonist of our planetary story. Using a mix of art and science, the film shows that soil is a complex living organism, the foundation of life on earth. The film also examines the use and misuse of soil in agriculture, deforestation and development, and the latest scientific research on its key role in addressing the most challenging environmental problems of our time.

A panel discussion featuring soil experts, moderated by Judith Robinson, soil environmentalist, and Joseph Heckman,  Rutgers Extension Specialist in Soil Fertility, will follow the screening.
2013: Thursday, February 7—7 p.m.

The Princeton Environmental Film Festival is sponsored by the Princeton Public Library and is held annually in the winter at 65 Witherspoon Street in downtown Princeton, New Jersey.

Founded in 2006, the PEFF’s mission is to share exceptional documentary films and engage the community in exploring environmental sustainability from a wide range of angles and perspectives.

Most of the screenings are accompanied by a Q&A with film directors and producers, as well as other talks by invited speakers who visit for the festival or live in the local community. As the festival grows and consider its sustainability, it is mindful to expand its reach while keeping the character of the festival focused on being a great and special local event. So, for the PEFF, they think “small town, big ideas” is the best fit!

In 2012, the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, hit a milestone — year six — with an increase in attendance to our best ever — 4230 attendees. The films, filmmakers and other speakers and our first-year Next Generation Environmental Fair were outstanding and inspiring. The festival this year will be held in January and February 2013. See the Schedule for a complete listing of film times and dates. Please take a look at photos from the event and and keep up on news and festival updates on the PEFF Facebook page.

For past PEFF programming and films, please check out the Film Archive.


Soil into the Holidaze

Symphony of Soil Trees in Snow

As the Holidaze are thrust upon us here at camp Lily it has become apparent that 2012 has been so busy we’ve had had little time to reflect upon the accomplishments of this passing year. As I sit down to write this post, it becomes apparent that there is, perhaps, too much to be thankful for for one meager blog post.

Most importantly, we are thankful that in 2012 we finished the film! Not only that, but 2012 brought the film festival and community release of Symphony of the Soil, and saw communities around the country and around the world be informed by its beauty and grace. We’re grateful for all of the people from those communities who have sent us heartfelt thanks after being touched by the media. We’re also thankful that we were able to share the film with all of those who made it possible- sending it to the four corners of the globe. We’re thankful that some of those copies made it through the treacherous Indian mail system to Jaspal in the far corner of the Punjab, and to Hans Herren World Food Prize winner, and to the skilled crew that made the film possible. As we hear back from each of them, one major filmic cycle has been completed. They gave to us and we have now returned the present.

We also are grateful for what is yet to come- to the coming year, 2013, which will see us make our theatrical debut and with luck, will see audiences receive the film well and have it spread far and wide.

We are confident that 2012 laid the ground work for success in 2013- and that with your help, dear reader, 2013 will too be a joyous and celebratory year.

From us here on Mt Tam- Happy Holidays to you and yours! Here’s to the SOIL in the  New Year!

Jessy Beckett

Soil and Food, Post Election

On this day, November seventh, 2012, we know who our president and political leaders will be in America for the next four years. We know that we will have the same cast of characters that we’ve had since the last election two years ago plus and minus a few faces and we know that Californians’ barely declined to endorse a proposition that would label GMO foods. What does this mean for soil and food?

Symphony of Soil, Soil and the ElectionThough we here at Lily Films are happy with the results of the national election, we will be carefully watching congresses’ ability to make positive change in the fate of our food system. Will they begin to pay attention to the growing call for a healthy, more localized food supply? While there are some who may be inclined to be negative about this prospect, we have some reason to hope.

At a recent screening of Symphony of the Soil in Tokyo, inquisitive citizens asked me what I thought of the Obama administrations’ agricultural policies. My answer to them mimics my feelings today.

We live in a nation where monied interests have caught hold of the political system. Though they have not yet figured out how to rule the game in it’s entirety, they do enough to damage the functioning of the machine. To this end we live in the only industrialized nation that hasn’t labeled GMOs and where the food system is so opaque it’s hard for even those of us who study it full time to make heads or tails of it. We have soil loss, nitrogen pollution of our streams and rivers, farm workers who get paid nothing and are poisoned by the chemicals we spray on our food. Birds that sit in cages too small for them to turn around, and cows that have never seen the light of day. A nation that has lost touch of where food comes from and what real food is, and a food system that wants to keep it that way.

But for all of the darkness and suffering in our food system, this election today reaffirms some small signs of hope.

The Obama family has planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, and encouraged the nations’ families to do the same. Michelle Obama has traveled the country encouraging school kids to eat more healthily and avoid processed foods in order to avert diabetes and obesity. Kathleen Merigan is the assistant Secretary of Agriculture and has presided over a marked increased in USDA attention to organic and local food- including the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign. There’s a cost-share program in the Farm Bill that helps farmers pay the price of transition to organic and government funding for beginner farmers and ranchers. In California, the majority of citizens have now heard the phrase ‘GMO’. And though Prop 37 was outspent 5 to 1 by corporate interests who want to keep the veil of secrecy over the industrial food supply- we, the consumers, almost won.

Our office received an email from the Prop 37 organizers this morning that said it perfectly, ‘we may have lost the skirmish, but we will win the war’. That’s the way we here feel about the election. We didn’t get everything that we wanted out of this election, but the nation’s direction, given Newtons’ first law of motion, will continue to propel us towards a more just, fair, clean, and soil friendly food system if we just keep pushing away.

by Jessy Beckett

Bad Drought? Start with the Soil.

The reason commodity crops are failing in the midwest is not the majority fault of the drought. Period.

Does the drought have some part to play in the massive crop failure occurring across the states at this present moment? Yes, of course. The imposition of unprecedented heat and lack of rainfall has effected plant health and viability.

Is climate change, as everyone is saying, playing a key role in the weather pattern? Yes, of course. Increasing climate volatility (as Bill McKibben’s latest article in Rolling Stones clearly articulates) may very well have something to do with this extraordinary hot-dry spell. Could we as a species have foreseen this imminent disaster and done something to avert it.?

Here’s the kicker: Yes.


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Drought Warnings: Missing the Point

For the last ten days all eyes have been on the US corn belt, which has been experiencing a massive drought. Now, don’t get me wrong, drought is a big deal, it absolutely effects agricultural livelihoods and waterways, not to mention crops and animals that depend on water. This being said, the commentary that’s been raging on about drought bringing higher food prices like today’s piece in The Guardian, misses the point.

Will some types of food prices be affected? Yes. This drought will push up the price of chicken, pork, and beef- animals who, when industrially grown, are primarily fed on corn, the principle victim of the drought. The drought will also push up the price of corn oil and corn syrup, which, when chemically re-configured, are found in most processed food.

Corn_Symphony of the Soil

This is where commentators are failing to take the next step in their analysis. Which types of food prices are going to be affected by this drought? Animal products and processed foods.

The newspapers act as if Americans won’t be able to feed themselves without hamburger, sodas (rich in corn-syrup), and a bag of Cheetos. In times of crisis, the talk of the obesity scare and worries about diabetes go straight out the window.

Crisis like these are a one of the few times that we as a society have the chance to re-evaluate our nations’ agricultural priorities. What if The Guardian stopped shouting about the growing food crisis and started promoting alternatives? How about heading down to your local farmers’ market- which, for the most part won’t have been affected by the drought, and buying some carrots- which are probably better for animal health, your health, and the planet in the long run anyway.

-by Jessy Beckett

Guest Post: Food and Extreme Weather: It’s the Soil, Stupid (Tom Phillpot)

Normally we here at Symphony of the Soil don’t repost other’s writing- but this article from Tom Phillpot hits the nail on the head. This is what we’ve been saying!! 

Food and Extreme Weather: It’s the Soil, Stupid —By                                  Written for Mother Jones magazine  | Mon Jul. 9, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

As the climate warms up and “extreme” events like heat waves and droughts become more common, what will become of food production? I started to examine that question in my last post, published Wednesday. A front-page article in Thursday’s New York Times brought a stark reminder of why the topic is crucial. Reports the Times’ Monica Davey:

Already, some farmers in Illinois and Missouri have given up on parched and stunted fields, mowing them over. National experts say parts of five corn-growing states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, are experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions. And in at least nine states, conditions in one-fifth to one-half of cornfields have been deemed poor or very poor, federal authorities reported this week, a notable shift from the high expectations of just a month ago.

The message from the Midwest is clear: Chemical-intensive, industrial-scale farming is vulnerable to spells of hot, dry weather—some of the very conditions we can expect to become common as the climate warms. In my last post, I argued that the solution to this problem favored by US policymakers—to keep industrial agriculture humming along with novel seeds engineered for “drought tolerance”—probably won’t work.

What might? I think the answer lies outside of some Monsanto-funded university lab and right beneath our feet: in the dirt. Or, more, accurately, in how farmers manage their dirt.

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