Soil Biodiversity At The Stage


Andre Franco

Research Associate II

Colorado State University 

From textbooks and TV documentaries to illustration exhibitions, clay animations and card games, the diversity of living creatures that inhabit the Earth’s soils has become an often theme in the press and arts as science continues to reveal how important these subterranean communities are for the above-ground world. Although most of the life forms found in soils still remain to be described, the fascinating discoveries made so far have been enough to drive the curiosity and attention of the broader public out of soil labs in university and research institutes. That was the case for Laura Pritchett, an author with several novels, nonfiction works and many national awards to her credit. After she watched the documentary “Symphony of the Soil”, she started having ideas and working with soil scientists on how to get people to understand the critical role that soil plays and why we must protect it. In a recent interview, Pritchett said “I really am in love with science and soil science and the things we cannot see. And I wondered what would it be like to get that on the stage -- get nematodes dancing on the stage, get bacteria singing and bring it all to life so that it’s visible to the human eye. Such love led her to produce a small book of essays on dirt and eventually to write a play in hopes of bringing to light the science of soils in a new way.

“Dirt, A Terra Nova Expedition”, claimed as the first-ever play dealing with the topic of dirt, debuted in Fort Collins-CO April 2018. At the stage, a pregnant young scientist is left alone in a dismal underground setting, while her boyfriend has disappeared to the surface on an important mission. To maintain her sanity, she daydreams and hallucinates the history, culture and myths of the soil from creation stories to the Dust Bowl, from climate change to chemicals, from singing root microbes to dancing nematodes, from Lakota myth to future science. The play mostly had sold-out shows during the weeks it stayed on scene, meaning that hundreds of people had the opportunity to learn through the power of art that we have six inches of dirt saving us from oblivion, and it is beautiful and complex and gorgeous!”, as stated by Pritchett. A series of “talkbacks” following the show offered an opportunity for the audience to learn more about itsunique subject matter from experts in soil and crop science, local farmers, and community-supported agriculture people.

By translating cutting-edge scientific information into dramatic scenes at the stage the play brought soils and its biodiversity literately into a new spotlight, one that reaches out to people that presumably had never appreciated the value of soils to society, and that were unlikely to come to know about it from conventional science media. Kudos to the author, director, actors, and the soil scientists who have made the discoveries that inspired the play! Let’s keep up with the good work of increasing awareness about the fascinating world Beneath our Feet!

Here you can find detailed information about the play as well as interviews with its director and playwright (including their contact info)

Above: A panel of soil scientists answers questions from the audience after an exhibition of “Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition”. Photo by Kristin Pintauro.

Above: A panel of soil scientists answers questions from the audience after an exhibition of “Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition”. Photo by Kristin Pintauro.