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The soil under our feet may not be top of mind, but it provides the foundation for everything we need to live – and it’s disappearing. Kirsten Kurtz is on a mission to save this essential resource by turning our attention to its natural beauty.

Kurtz, manager of Cornell’s Soil Health Testing Laboratory and a graduate student in the field of natural resources, does this in a profound way: by painting with it.

“You can see how I became inspired,” she says, pulling out soil samples ranging in hue from reddish brown to tan to yellow ochre. “It was being in the lab and seeing all the colors come in.”

By mixing soils with water and clear gesso, a liquid binder, she creates unique paints similar to acrylic that retain the quality and texture of the soil. Kurtz, who first started experimenting with soil painting in 2014, says it’s an effective tool for communicating with the public about the importance of soil.

And thanks to her creativity, the whole world will get the message on World Soil Day, which will feature a global soil painting competition Dec. 5 organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The competition, inspired by an event Kurtz and the Soil Health Lab hosted in 2015 for World Soil Day, aims to showcase creativity in illustrating soil’s crucial role in sustaining life.

Fifteen groups from around the world are already registered for the competition, open to all schools, colleges and universities. There will be a public event Dec. 5 at Cornell from noon to 4 p.m. in Mann Library, as the community is invited to contribute their artistry to a giant mandala pattern while Kurtz paints an image based on the Three Sisters of Haudenosaunee agriculture – winter squash, corn and beans – along with several other artists she’s recruited from campus.

Healthy soil is a vital building block for food, fiber, habitat, shelter, recreational space, clean air and water, says Kurtz, who grew up on a 200-acre organic farm, worked in various wineries and vineyards and has worked with the soil health lab for more than six years. But soil is a resource in decline: one-third of Earth’s arable soil has been lost since the advent of industrial agriculture.

“Painting with soil is a powerful way to show younger generations that soil is something you can study,” she says. “If we want to feed the world, we’re going to need many more soil scientists, and we need to encourage creative people to enter the field. You need creativity to solve many of the challenges we’re facing, and being an artist helps.”

Food production and carbon sequestration depend on healthy soils. Kurtz believes people should consider healthy soil as an essential natural resource in the same way they think about clean water and air.

“It takes a phenomenal amount of time for healthy soil to build back up,” she says. “Depending on the environment, it can take 500 years to build up a single inch of top soil.”

As part of her graduate research, Kurtz is studying soil rehabilitation and is working with a group in China to remediate soil to bring back farming in the desert. She’s also studying rare untilled soil found in American prairies.

“If we can understand the nature and properties of soils that remain undisturbed by modern agriculture,” she says “we have a great opportunity to identify options for bringing degraded soils back to full potential.”

Jennifer Savran Kelly is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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