Viewing single post of blog Marl: a glossary of the ungovernable

Marl, in the height of its use in agriculture, was commonly described as a treatment for ‘exhausted soil’. It was not therefore recommended as a general accelerant or helpful addition to healthy, fertile land. It was rather, applied in times of desperation, when the soil, overused and depleted, was becoming less and less productive.

In the eighteenth century, soil fertility was a critical issue across Europe. From 1660-1750, agricultural practices underwent significant changes. New species of vegetable, many drawn from the newly “discovered” Americas, were introduced to Britain. Clover and turnips were two of these alien crops, grown as fodder for wintering farm animals. This practice had an accelerating feedback effect: as more animals could be kept, more dung was produced. Dung was used to manure the land, and thus produce more fodder crops. Along with the increasing irrigation techniques and the formation of water meadows, this led to the output of the soil and the use of land gradually increasing and intensifying.

As a result of this accelerated exploitation of agricultural land, the depletion of soil become a chief concern of the growing capitalist societies of Europe (a concern only matched by that with the loss of forests, urban pollution and overpopulation). Governments, early scientists and enterprising landowners hunted for potential fertilisers everywhere: resulting in transnational endeavours such as the guano trade, phosphorus mining and even (as recounted to me in a wonderful anecdote from RDS librarian Gerard Whelan) the powdering of mummified Egyptian cats to be sprinkled on English soil!

Marl could be found much closer to home, and unsurprisingly, features in many accounts of methods of soil improvement. The rural economist John Wynn Baker published a series of Experiments in Agriculture for the Dublin Royal Society, in which he tried and – to some extent – trialled dozens of potential soil improvers. In the 1764 report, he wrote:

“The Experiment with the Shell Marle, proves that to be a very high, and excellent Manure, for, as it will produce Turneps upon poor Ground, it may be safely relied upon for any other Crop.”

Soil depletion was such a fundamental issue that it inspired Karl Marx’s metabolic rift, a theory developed to understand the emergence of capitalism as ecological crisis. In Capital, vol.1, Marx writes:

“Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive force of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil.

Marx then connects the exploitation of workers with the exploitation of the earth:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”

The invention of artificial fertilisers (as by-products of research developing chemical warfare) in the twentieth century somewhat sated the appetite of agriculture, vastly increasing the yield of farming globally. Two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, devised a way to transform nitrogen in the air into fertiliser: what they described as: “Brot aus Luft” or “Bread from air”. Despite this monicker, the process of generating nitrogen fertiliser requires vast amounts of natural gas and coal, and even today, accounts for more than 50% of total energy use in commercial agriculture, as well as being a significant pollutant in itself.

Moreover, synthetic fertilisers have not solved the problem of overproduction and exhausted earth. Scientists noted in 2015 that soil erosion and nutrient depletion was the biggest threat to global food security and a contributor to climate change, as carbon once sequestered in soil is gradually released into the atmosphere.  Alternatives to dominant modes of food production have always existed – and waxed and waned in popularity – but it is the drive for consistent growth and productivity that continues to take precedence (and investment) over other ‘slower’ and more labour-intensive ways of growing.

In her article ‘Making time for soil’, feminist scholar Maria Puig de la Bellacasa argues that rethinking our relationship to soil away from “productionism” requires recalibration towards temporalities of care and labour. She suggests:

“[T]he time of soil is not ‘one’; it exposes multifarious speeds of growth becoming ecologically significant to each other. To argue for a disruption of futuristic time through making care time is therefore not so much about a slowing or redirection of timelines but an invitation to rearrange and rebalance the relations between a diversity of coexisting temporalities that inhabit the worlds of soil and other interdependent ecologies.”

In the time of marl’s popularity in Ireland, it was championed by colonial administrators and landowners, keen to turn a quick profit. Over decades, with marling widespread, farmers began to see the real fruit of their labour. The forcing of the land into perpetual productivity eventually depleted the soil beyond easy repair. It gave rise to the peasant proverb: “Marl makes rich fathers and poor sons.”

I opened an exhibition last year with a looping gif displayed on a small screen. It showed a second or so of the processing of marl as clay: a lump of marl is repeatedly turned by hand in water. In the animation, marl becomes a blue-grey planet rotating in a translucent bath, turning without tiring: it is the fantasy of capitalist acceleration, that the earth might beget its rewards interminably. But as the human history of marl teaches us, this was always, already, a disintegrating delusion.