Photograph Courtesy of Erin Schneider
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Soil scientist and farmer Erin Schneider stands in front of the "Soil Quilt" installation on the side of a barn in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.

Photograph Courtesy of Erin Schneider

This Quilt Is Covered in Dirt—on Purpose

Urbanized populations are losing their connection to life-supporting soil. One farmer is letting the dirt speak for itself. 

With more than 50 percent of the global population now living in urban areas, our relationship to soil has become more and more shallow. But for soil scientist and farmer Erin Schneider, who spends the bulk of her days elbow-deep in the loamy soils of Wisconsin’s Sauk County, soil carries a message worth delivering. 

So when the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils, she took the opportunity to dig into dirt’s artistic side, sending a few dozen squares of sturdy cotton fabric to farmer friends and researchers across eight states. Her instructions: Bury them in the earth for two weeks before shipping them back. The idea was to make soil’s work more visible by encouraging its microbes to “paint” the swatches, which would then be stitched into a first-of-its-kind soil quilt.

The quilt would be equal parts science experiment and art installation—an ode to biodiversity as much as beauty—and a muse to inspire conversations about soil’s integral, life-supporting role.  

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Unbleached cotton cloth was buried for two to three weeks. This fabric square is one of 37 buried in the soil for microbes to “paint.” 

“We think of dirt as something to stain and corrupt and use like carpet,” says Schneider, 37, who runs Hilltop Community Farm near La Valle, Wisconsin, with her husband Rob McClure. “But, without it, we don’t eat.”

How hard the dirt can work on a piece of fabric became clear as the "soiled" fabrics began arriving in Schneider’s mailbox late last summer. Some returned in tattered pieces with notes from their senders apologizing for their apparently overzealous microbial life. Others felt the need to explain that the traces of pink, blue, or purple on their canvases hadn't been artificially added—the soil had just left an unexpected mark.

The fungi, bacteria, and protozoa of various landscapes transformed the blank slates into scraps of art—a cross between modern-day tie-dying and what might be discovered at an archaeological dig.

Some participants buried their fabric in sentimental spots, such as near the remains of a beloved family pet, while others plunged theirs beneath their fruit farm’s orchard. “Field of Fruit Dreams” was the title of one such square, unearthed near Decorah, Iowa, with dark patterns the shape of solar systems strewn across the white canvas. A participant from Pickens, South Carolina, named her square “Red Clays and the Wonder Down Under” for the bright orange shade left by soils whose microbes ate a few holes through the fabric as they broke down organic matter.

Farmers like Schneider also saw the project as a way to share their appreciation for soil with a broader audience. They get to see soil change and leave its mark on foods every day, but the quilting project allowed more people to witness its work firsthand.

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Participants from eight states buried unbleached cotton cloth in their local soil. 

To that end, Schneider organized sewing circles back in Wisconsin, where participants could piece together the quilt while discussing childhood stories of playing in—or eating foods straight from—the dirt. The old-fashioned appeal of the event was in no way diminished, she says, by the fact that the quilters used a new-age adhesive called Wonder-Under to keep the creation intact.  

“It was a powerful social forum to have these conversations,” she says.

In the end, 37 cotton squares were cobbled together to make the quilt, which measures 13-by-15 feet. It made its first public appearance at the annual Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, where it took up the broad side of a barn as a featured art installation. 

Melanie Szulczewski, a soil scientist and associate professor of environmental science at the University of Mary Washington, says projects like the soil quilt allow nonfarmers to better visualize the invisible soil activity that is crucial to food production.

“An urban citizen doesn’t see how their food slowly grows in the soil over several months, or how easy the soil can be eroded if it is not taken care of,” says Szulczewski. And with half the world's population now living in cities, "fewer and fewer people feel a daily connection to the soil.”

The soil quilt has made a few more appearances in Wisconsin when it’s not “composting a little” in Schneider’s barn. Schneider even considered taking it with her on an annual volunteer trip to Senegal last year, but the final product weighed too much for travel. Though its once vibrant colors have faded a bit, the quilt will be on display at a Wisconsin Soil Sisters event in August.

After that, Schneider says, perhaps she’ll bury it for a while to see if the soil has more to say. 

Follow food and farm journalist Whitney Pipkin on Twitter.