International Conference

Soil – Dirt – Earth:
Ecologies below Ground, 1750–1850

22 – 24 June 2023, University of Passau

Organised by
Katharina Boehm (University of Passau)
Frederike Middelhoff (Goethe-University Frankfurt)
Paul Hamann-Rose (University of Passau)

Mit freundlicher Unterstützung der Allianz der Rhein-Main-Universitäten

Location: ITZ Building, Seminar Room 017 ( campustour/itz-building/; please open the link and scroll down for a map of the campus)

Wednesday, 21 June

19:00                 Conference Warming

Thursday, 22 June

9:30   Welcome and Introduction (Katharina Boehm, Paul Hamann-Rose, Frederike                              Middelhoff)

10:00-11:00      Susan Oliver (Essex, UK): Life below Ground: James Hutton, Theories of the Earth,               and Imagined Animals 

11:00-12:00      Timothy Attanucci (Mainz, GER): Earth as (Once) Living Environment: George                  Cuvier’s Fossil Reconstructions

12:00-12:15      Coffee

12:15 -1315      Oliver Völker (Frankfurt, GER): “Travelled Materials”: Earth, Soil, and Economic Productivity in Hutton and Lyell                            

13:15                 Lunch

14:30-15:30      Philipp Erchinger (Düsseldorf, GER): Grave Culture: Wordsworth’s Groundwork 

15:30-16:30      Will Abberley (Sussex, UK): Geological Raptures and Spiritual Sustainability                          in Hugh Miller’s The Old Red Sandstone

16:30-17:00      Coffee

17:00-18:00      Mira Shah (Bern, CH/Frankfurt, GER): “Testimony of the Soil”: Archaeological                          Ecologies and the Discovery of Human Prehistory

20:00                 Dinner

Friday, 23rd June

10:00-11:00      Tess Somervell (Oxford, UK): Earth’s Histories and Futures in Jago’s                                           Edge-Hill

11:00-12:00      Mary-Ann Constantine (Cardiff, UK): Gashes in the Landscape: Mines,                                      Quarries and Peatlands in Romantic-Era Tours of Britain

12:00-13:00      Lunch

13:.30-14:30     Jim Scown (Cardiff, UK): Science, Poetry, and the “Celestial Soil” of                                                   Romantic Ecology 

14:30-15:30      Jos Smith (Norwich, UK): “Stories of the Soil”: Contemporary Nature                                                      Writing’s Romantic Moderns

15:30                 Closing remarks / Coffee

16:00-18:00      City Tour

20:00                 Dinner

Please send an email to if you’re interested in attending the event.

The decades between 1750 and 1850 are often described as a period that witnessed the proliferation of practices of land use grounded in exploitative concepts of nature. Such practices emerged in the context of the scaled-up extraction of natural resources, the enclosure acts, and colonial expansion, and they contributed to the reification of ‘nature’ as a domain to be mastered and monetized by man (Moore 2015). However, the same period – often referred to as the ‘Romantic period’ – also saw and reflected the growth of debates in a range of scholarly fields (incl. natural history, geology, and chemistry), of early conservation movements, and of a rich body of literary works that engaged with soil, the uppermost layer of the Earth’s crust, in ways that we might now call proto-ecological. These perspectives revealed soil as a habitat jointly inhabited by animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria, where organic and inorganic matter form networks that are not only vital for the health of crops but also hold the key to different pasts hidden below the ground. The long history of human interventions in soil ecologies are attracting increasing scholarly attention (see for example Miller 2021, Dolan 2020, Eklund 2017). This conference seeks to explore how a focus on conceptions and figurations of soil/earth/dirt recalibrates a) our understanding of Romantic perceptions of natural environments and b) our conception of what ecologies are.

Irrespective of whether one approaches soil as habitat to a rich biodiversity, as material historical record of human environmental forces, or as vibrant matter (Bennett 2010), making visible what lies beneath the earth’s surface relies on forms of mediation. Romantic engagements with the natural world were heavily informed by ideas relating to visual perception: natural philosophers emphasized the importance of close empirical observation while artists and writers sought to capture picturesque environments as well as the visual shock of sublime landscapes. However, studying and representing soil or earth presented unique challenges because so much of it was hidden from view: the conference investigates how imaginative literature, prints, drawings, and other visual technologies helped Romantic audiences to discover, understand, and debate the species and materials that existed in and underneath the surface of the earth.

While the work of Romantic-era naturalists and their heavily publicized voyages of “discovery” often emphasized nature’s plenty and the existence of seemingly inexhaustible natural resources, including those below ground, debates about soil and soil improvement started to contemplate the (human) causes and effects of the exhaustion of natural resources already discernible at the time. Concerns over soil degradation and the depletion of nutrients in the soil undermined earlier beliefs in the perpetual renewal of the land’s fertility (Scown 2020), exacerbating worries, as expounded by Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798, about how to feed a growing human population. The conference aims to investigate the various manifestations in Romantic writing and art of this emergent awareness of the human impact on natural environments, which foreshadows and helps elucidate current discussions about the Anthropocene. This entails giving attention to the various forms through which Romantic-era thinkers have expressed the interconnections between humans and the land, as well as within the soil, a kind of “dirty aesthetics” of Romantic imaginaries of the environment beneath the surface (Sullivan 2012). Nativist conceptions of nature often developed a symbolic association between soil and the idea of being rooted in a particular locale or patch of land (“native soil”, “home turf”, etc.). However, as Alan Bewell notes, in the Romantic period ‘British natural history […] aimed at globalizing local natures by making them mobile, exchangeable, comparable, and representable’ (Bewell 2017). Plants and animals crisscrossed the globe, found new habitats in foreign soil, and transformed pre-existing ecosystems. Thinking about the transformation of soil through the influx of foreign flora, fauna, and human labour automatically entails paying attention to the imbrication of nature/culture: what these global mobilities ‘write’ into the soil are not just biological processes but also histories of cultural exchange, colonial domination, and postcolonial diasporas.

A focus on Romantic understandings of soil systems also raises questions about how we conceptualize and temporalize ecosystems more generally. Ideas of ecologies as organic, integrated, and balanced are often traced back to Romantic organicism. However, studying, representing, and imagining soil systems led Romantic-era writers and scholars to develop conceptions of interactions between living organisms and their environments that are less integrated, more dynamic, and open to the kind of human-environment engagements envisioned by Griffiths’s “ecology of forms” (Griffiths 2021). Besides paper contributions that address representations of soil/earth/dirt between 1750 and 1850, the conference therefore also invites proposals that consider the implications of a revised Romantic understanding of ecology for our contemporary conceptions of ecological connection, interaction, agency, and temporality of soil and earth (DeLoughrey 2019, Tsing 2015, Puig de la Bellacasa 2015). In the context of current theoretical formations, the concepts of soil, earth, and dirt each call up particular sets of questions: for example, considerations of “earth” tend to address a planetary scale, while “soil” and “dirt” often carry more local connotations. We invite contributions that focus on either level of scale individually, or on their interactions. We are interested in proposals across the manifold theoretical and disciplinary approaches that allow new perspectives on British and European Romantic ecologies below ground.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

Bewell, Alan. Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.

DeLoughrey, Elizabeth M. Allegories of the Anthropocene. Durham: Duke UP, 2019.

Dolan, Frances E. Digging the Past: How and Why to Imagine Seventeenth-century Agriculture. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2020.

Eklund, Hillary, ed. Ground-Work: English Renaissance Literature and Soil Science. Philadelphia: Penn State UP, 2017.

Griffiths, Devin. “The Ecology of Form.” Critical Inquiry 48.1 (2021): 68-93.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J. Johnson, 1798.

McNeill, J. R. and Verena Winiwarter. “Breaking the Sod: Humankind, History and Soil.” Science: Special Issue on Soils 304 (2004): 1627-29.

Miller, Elizabeth C. Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2021.

Moore, Jason W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso, 2015.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. “Making Time for Soil: Technoscientific Futurity and the Pace of Care.” Social Studies of Science 45.5 (2015): 691-716.

Scown, Jim. “World-ecology ‘among the ooze’: Our Mutual Friend and the Chemistry of Sewage, Soils, and Circulation.” Journal of Literature and Science 13.1 (2020): 1-17.

Sullivan, Heather I. “Dirt Theory and Material Ecocriticism.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.3 (2012): 515-31.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2015.