This was previously published in the Pacific Sun newspaper, September 6, 2012. Used with permission by author.
Photo courtesy of Lily Films
Okay, soil sommeliers, compost queens, Earth science professors (nerds!), organic gardeners and worm-worshipping tree huggers: this is your moment to shine. Documentary filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia has got your back. She speaks your filthy language.
Her new film, titled Symphony of the Soil, gloriously explains the wondrous, hidden "life" in the soil and how our ubiquitous use of synthetic fertilizers destroys the nutrient-rich soil microbes while causing farmers to apply increasing amounts of insecticides and herbicides, which, over time, can lead to pesticide resistance and the need to apply even larger quantities or new chemical concoctions.You will leave the theater asking yourself: "Can we please stop the chemical madness before we all end up in the wacky shack?!"
It wasn't until Koons Garcia was well into the process of making Symphony of the Soil that she developed a real understanding of soil as a living organism.
"It is alive and amazingly miraculous. Before starting the film I knew facts -- just the facts -- but once I realized how transformative soil is, that it is the primary recycler of life on this planet, breaking down the components of life and releasing nutrients, making the building blocks of life available to be reformed into plants, animals, and us humans, it started to blow my mind," she says."The realization that life, including life in the soil, is precious and we need to protect it helps fortify us to do the many things we need to do to save this beautiful planet."
There is much work to do in changing what we do in our yards and kitchens and, maybe more importantly, in Washington and Sacramento, says Koons Garcia. "We need policy support for good practices and serious consequences for bad actors. And if corporations are people, my friend, some of them should go to prison for murdering our soil."
Koons Garcia is not one to shy away from the multibillion-dollar pesticide industry and explore complicated or controversial issues in her films. In 2004, her internationally acclaimed documentary, The Future of Food, which examines the propagating and patenting of the biotech industry's genetically modified seeds across the U.S., helped motivate voters in Marin County, Calif., where she resides, to ban GMO seeds throughout the county. The film followed grain farmer Percy Schmeiser, one of hundreds of U.S. farmers who had been sued by the chemical company Monsanto after their "Roundup Ready canola" had drifted into his field. Schmeiser never planted the seed. He fought the suit and lost and had to pay Monsanto to plant his next crop from his own non-GMO seed. Ludicrous? Yes. True? Unfortunately, yes.
With Symphony of the Soil, Koons Garcia travels across four continents sharing the knowledge and wisdom of some of the world's most highly esteemed farmers, soil scientists and environmental leaders.
"Soil is incredibly complex and the vast majority of microorganisms in the soil have not even been identified nor is their role understood. Because of advances in science, electron microscopes for example, we are starting to learn more and more. There's even a soil microorganism that increases serotonin production in humans -- a feel good organism," she said.
Various successful and sustainable, wholesome farming practices are explored in the documentary; composting, growing cover crops to replenish nitrogen levels, crop rotation, water conservation and mulching. The film goes back in time to show the invention of the first nitrogen fertilizer, a product that came from the chemistry of war. German scientists Haber and Bosch were looking for a better explosive during World War I. The transition to the so-called "green revolution" in agriculture in the 1960s is also presented. This technique relied on the extensive use of pesticides and mono-cropping, the practice of growing only a single crop over a wide area, in order to feed the world. With these young and hopeful practices, unfortunately came more inputs into the soil; the need for more pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the demand for more water and fossil fuels. Today, agricultural chemicals account for approximately two-thirds of all water pollution.
Photo of Sekem calendula field, from the film, Courtesy of Lily Films
With Symphony of the Soil, Koons Garcia has teamed up again with the same crew from her last film through her production company, Lily Films. Director of photography John Chater's breathtaking photography -- along with Academy Award-winning composer Todd Boekelheide's mystical compositions -- takes the audience on a magical trip around the world and down into the mysterious ecosystem under our feet, truly blending science and art into a spectacular symphony.
Koons Garcia, who has a M.A. in fine arts from the San Francisco Art Institute began making films more than 30 years ago. Her first film entitled All About Babies was about early childhood development. After that came a feature film entitled Poco Loco and then Grateful Dawg, a film about the musical collaboration of Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. Koons Garcia is the widow of legendary musician Jerry Garcia, who, she shares, "was a closet film director." When she was in college in the 1970s and concerned by the surrounding environmental degradation, she became a vegetarian and self-proclaimed organic fanatic. Since then she has wanted to make a documentary about "healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people."
"In the 1970s kids bugged their parents into recycling and now they're into the same thing with composting. I'd like to see organic community gardens in every town with experienced practitioners on site to advise people. It's all about giving back. We have to feed those billions of soil microorganisms, so they can do their job of recycling nutrients! That's a big takeaway. Composting supports that," she says. "If we really understood that we need to protect and feed the soil, we need to give back when we take, we'd change our practices. Plus, once you really get that soil is alive and part of a community of life that includes microorganisms, mountain lions, hawks, spiders, worms, salmon, bunnies and us, you really can't stand the idea of pouring poison on it. That's poisoning ourselves, 'a species level suicide' -- as physicist Vandana Shiva states so eloquently in the film."
Director Deborah Koons-Garcia, photo credit: Nic Coury
Symphony of Soil premiered in March at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. Koons Garcia hopes her audiences will appreciate and support farmers and communities that treat their soil well and protest the mindless spraying of toxic chemicals on their land.
"In today's modern world, it's increasingly hard for people to feel a connection with nature. It's seen as 'the environment' and something that is removed from our daily life. So I hope that audiences will be able to feel what a miracle soil is and take positive action by getting the toxins out and the life back into the soil," she says. "Soil regulates, purifies and sustains all of life. If we don't turn this around, scientists predict we have about 30 years before we've churned through our topsoil. How we treat our soil these days in our industrial practices mirrors what's happening in our larger society -- take ,take, take. We need to learn to give back to the soil and to our larger community. It shouldn't be about what we can get away with, because we won't get away with it in the long run. It's all about giving back."
To find a screening of the film in your town or to purchase the DVD, visit www.symphonyofthesoil.com
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