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.


Why Screenings Matter

There are few times in filmmaking when you can feel how your work affects people. Most of the work happens in dark rooms, alone, behind computers, completely unconnected from the reason you’ve begun the journey.

Screenings are the opposite. You’re in bright room, filled with people, who are connecting about the message of the film. We’ve had dozens of screenings where this is the case.  Questions from the audience, a diverse panel, an insight that sparks debate, an engaging discussion. These are the reasons that public screenings are so important. They encourage conversation and learning between interested parties. They spread the message, facilitate networking, and amplify the impact of the movie. Symphony of the Soil has enjoyed a great run of screenings such as this in the past few weeks. We’re grateful for the folks who organized them and look forward to doing more!

Symphony of the Soil Screening, UC Davis

Professors, Extensionists, Farmers, and Filmmakers Hash it out UC Davis

Symphony of the Soil, UC Merced
Public screenings of the film are now available. Participate in spreading the good word about soil by emailing:  [email protected]

Symphony stirs controversy at the Soil Science Society of America Conference

Deborah Koons Garcia Symphony of the Soil Soil Science Society of America

Symphony played to several hundred scientists at the Tri-Society Conference ( American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America) Cincinnati recently. The film ignited a passionate debate among viewers. Most of the scientists loved the film and were grateful for its timely message. Two of the scientists were upset because they felt that organic gets too much attention and they felt that the film favored organic.

Daniel Hillel, who recently won the World Food Prize, as well as Kate Scow, esteemed professor of Soil Science at UC Davis, accompanied Deborah on the panel and participated in the hotly contested debate. Hillel said during the panel that it’s good to put all of these controversial issues on the table in order for everyone to re-evaluate their assumptions about them.

Who knew soils could excited such passion?!

Symphony of the Soil, Soil Science Society of America

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

National Heirloom Expo a Success!

Symphony of the Soil shows at the National Heirloom Expo

Symphony of the Soil played to a packed house at the National Heirloom Expo in Petaluma on Sept 14th. The Fair gathered some 10,000 farming and food enthusiasts over three days. Lily Films was well represented, with both Symphony and The Future of Food playing, as well as a separate speech by Deborah Koons Garcia.

The folks at the fair were the first individuals to be able to purchase Symphony of the Soil for consumer viewing. We brought it in hot off the press and that made for an even happier crowd.

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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