Dirt, Plants, and Food: Bringing the Humanities into the Garden

When the Obermann Center announced this summer’s Humanities for the Public Good Internships, I eagerly read through them in hopes of finding a position related to my studies. One description and required qualification quickly captured my attention: “Ability to perform light gardening work.” I knew from the list of responsibilities that they wanted this skill since the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library planted a garden to grow food for a local nonprofit Feed Iowa First (for more on that topic, see my first blog). Could I perform light gardening work? “Sure,” I thought somewhat haphazardly looking back on it now. I remembered helping my dad care for the family garden when I was growing up and the other responsibilities like developing programming about food and sustainability seemed like a fitting extension of my research concerning digital media about food. I may have had no idea when I first read the call, finished the application, or interviewed, but those six words represent one of the most memorable aspects of my time as the “Sustainable Food Coordinator” at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. But before we get further into this story of plants and produce, I want to start with dirt as a site to ground why bringing the humanities into the garden can help us learn about our ecosystems, transform our scholarship, and support local communities.

Earthy Words and the Stories They Tell  

“Soil is often just taken for granted—treated like dirt. Although it may look lifeless, soil is a complete underground living environment, teeming with life.” – Pauline Pears et al., Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, p.33

Why do so many words associated with the Earth have negative connotations? Soil as a verb means to make something dirty and when a reputation has been soiled, it is a bad sign. By association with dirty, dirt holds multiple meanings based on being unclean and, ergo, undesirable. Moreover, mud describes water and earth coming together, yet it serves as a negative metaphor in the phrase “someone is being dragged through the mud.” These terms accrue these meanings for numerous reasons. Some advice about avoiding dirt on produce makes a lot of sense. Multiple food recalls have occurred like when we found salmonella on romaine lettuce. Plus, dirt gets everywhere; under finger nails, in your shoe, and on clothes. In that sense, there is wisdom to being careful about dirt. But to dig a little deeper, we need to also consider who farms. The difference between owning the land to farm as a form of wealth and the actual work of farming being slave labor for centuries or, eventually, cheap, exploited labor also sways these meanings. The associations people have with words like soil, dirt, and mud set a context for why my experiences this summer gesture toward the “living environments, teeming with life” found in a garden. My expertise as a scholar of rhetoric encouraged me to find a different set of stories while having my fingers in dirt, weeds, decaying plants, and mud. Terms like these mean something very important when thinking about what the Earth provides for growing foods.

These two images seem like a hole in a pile of dirt being dug and filled and they very much represent that process. Between the shots, you would see several trips with a wheelbarrow and cart, numerous jumps to break down the weeds added to the hole, and several shovels of dirt covering the old plants to encourage the creation of compost. We are very thankful to our friends at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for helping us with this work. Over the next fall, winter, and spring, worms will accelerate the decay of this matter and allow the pile of dirt to provide incredible soil for growing plants next season. What at first glance seems like simply a pile of dirt, actually represents a very complex process where bacteria, insects, and water work together to create an essential ingredient for future gardening. By developing this compost pile, the museum is working to reduce its waste and support different ecologies. The Malaysia artist Tattfoo Tan’s exhibit “Black Gold” invoked the importance of soil as the basis of food by likening it to one of the most precious of metals. Tan spent a year creating compost, canned it, and sold it at the market price of gold. By elevating soil to this status, Tan played with expectations about what is art and why we downplay the importance of soil. Situated in the context of other work to raise awareness about global hunger, Tan’s “Black Gold” makes us realize why we cannot take soil for granted. By learning about compost this summer and creating dirt, I encountered a whole new set of stories about the multi-part process involved in having soil to grow food.

Planting the Humanities | Gardening the Summer

Cucumbers Harvest. July 23, 2021. Photo by Author

Although I was not around for the creation of the garden on Monday, May 24th, the Museum went live on Facebook and a recording of the event shows students from Metro high school planting three rows of tomato plants and one row of cucumbers. Little did I know how much I would think about gardening in just over a week. The month of June was so dry and hot that nearly every day at the Museum involved watering the plants. Slowly but surely, the tomatoes grew, the cucumbers vined out, and we added trestle to support the plants. Two colleagues and I harvested for the first time approximately fifty days after starting my internship. We collected about twenty-five cucumbers. Feed Iowa First picked them up later that afternoon and distributed them the next day. After a lot of sweat, some sunburns, a couple tears, and a little blood (knives are sharp, who knew?), the several weeks of dragging the hose out, pulling weeds up, and other general maintenance finally culminated into something tangible. These cucumbers were only the beginning of what I am very confident will be bountiful harvest over the next couple of weeks. I could not count how many green tomatoes sit out in the field or how many flowers will become cucumbers, but I can tell you that it is a lot. Because this site is only one piece of a puzzle with over twenty other urban and rural gardens/farms, the food created here connects with a larger and needed attempt to deal with food insecurity in Cedar Rapids.

The eight weeks I spent on this internship not only taught me a lot about agriculture in Johnson and Lynn counties, it helped me understand why having fingers in dirt and weeds should be part of where the humanities enters the field. Across areas of study like Communication, English, Media, and History, many scholars have built up the value of engaging with artifacts in situ or at the place of their creation/usage. The “field” often serves as a metaphor for research outside normal academic spaces, but it could take on very literal meanings as we follow research questions in the environmental humanities. The stories we can find in our dirt, soil, compost, and fruit-bearing plants offer many ways to think about the relationship between humans and ecosystems. I do not have an exact pathway that this experience will lead me through, but I have started composting scraps of my vegetable prep and I look forward to one-day having a garden for learning new stories about complex relationships between dirt, bugs, water, and seeds.

P.S. – I cannot help but mention how cool it was to see this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on the same day we harvested cucumbers. A fitting butterfly for a Hawkeye.

Butterfly on Tomato. July 20, 2021. Photo by author

Tyler J. Snelling, is a doctoral candidate in Communication Studies in the Rhetoric, Culture, Engagement track. By combining food studies with digital humanities and health rhetoric, he traces how food related activities organize people’s relationships, daily habits, and labor. As the “Food Sustainability Coordinator” for the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library this summer, Tyler’s responsibilities include gardening, event planning, and developing digital content.