Getting back down to earth

Environmental Engineer Eckhard Ferber testing soil at the garden with cleared site in the background on 6th November, 2014

I’m delighted to report that the garden site is cleared, and our environmental engineer, Eckhard Ferber, has tested the soils and is waiting to hear back on the results. Once we receive those results, we can apply to Council for Developmental Consent, and then hopefully get planting early next year.

All this shifting of soils has me thinking chthonic thoughts! And the “real world” hurdles of dealing with potential contamination, clearing land, making sure we follow Council procedures correctly has definitely brought me back down to earth too.

It’s hard to run away with ideas and flights of fancy when the earth-bound reality of a situation means that you have to keep coming back to what is physically possible, what you can ACTUALLY do. This material grounding is good for me, I think. It helps me keep my feet on the ground, reminds me of limitations, and keeps my written and spoken words in contact with what Debbie Rose, via poet Peter Boyle, has called the “creature-languages” of the world (Rose, 2013, 103).

I recently watched a very good TED talk by Ron Finley who works on community garden projects in South Central LA. He said in the video: “if you want to change the community, you need to change the composition of the soil”.

It’s a tenacious observation and has been stuck in my head for weeks, as we work through the challenges of the possibility of contaminated soil at the garden site. If you want to change the community you need to change the composition of the soil is a statement that says a lot about multispecies communities – about the connection between people and place – and about the host of organisms that define how we relate to one another. It brings ideas of community, too often focused only on the human at the neglect of the more-than-human world, back down to earth.

But what does it mean to be down-to-earth? To be grounded? To think with the soil?

Soils are situated, and they situate us in an ecological community. Soils contain pasts and futures. There are burial grounds in soil, but soil also needs to be healthy because new life grows from it. Soil is the space where death transforms into life, where the dead become ecological gifts to the living. And soil itself is a heaving multiplicity of life– a rhizomatic underworld of roots and microorganisms invisible to the human eye, but fundamental to the health of terrestrial critters. We are all so intimately connected to soils, to their more-than-human stories of life, and of death. Deborah Bird Rose (2002: Dialogue with Place – Toward an Ecological Body) has beautifully written on the importance of soil in an Australian, (post?) colonial context, where soil and earth is often evoked through a concept of belonging – the dirt of home that gets “under the skin” :

The country that gets into people’s blood invariably contains the blood and sweat of Aboriginal people as well as settlers. It may contain convict blood, and the remains of the dead. It will contain the blood of childbirth, and the blood and bones of massacres. It will contain the remains of animals, of extinct species, perhaps… the same soil gets into our blood, the same waters quench our thirst, the sweat of us all resides in the ground.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory, 1975.

With the recent death of Gough Whitlam social media has erupted with reflections on his legacy. The powerful photograph of Whitlam pouring soil into the hand of Vincent Lingiari is an image that reminds us of the connection between people, places and soils; the connection between social and environmental justice; and the connection between the present and the past that resides in the land.


Eckhard battling with very tough soil to get some samples

When I first saw the garden site filled with refuse and piles of soil, I naively saw surface obstacles. I didn’t think about the subterranean, or the impacts of the past on the present and the future. I just wanted to clear up the top of the land so I could build something good there. What my eyes couldn’t see, I didn’t register, and even though I was thinking about digging and planting and growing it didn’t occur to me that what sat on top of the soil might get inside it somehow. Contamination? You’re kidding right?! It was a disturbing revelation.

As Eckhard tested the soils last Thursday I thought about the different ways we come to know and learn to be affected by the ground on which we walk. As a child I often ate it! From mud pies to sucking rocks to chugging down plain old handfuls of dirt, soil was something for direct ingestion. I’m not sure when that changed exactly (hopefully before the age of 10), but it seems that since this time soil has largely been something that exists beneath me, rather than inside me.

Soil sampling – samples are sent to a lab and analysed for compounds.

I watched Eckhard collect and test the soil and asked a series of questions which he kindly answered with patience. Things like – “What’s with the gloves?” (to stop cross contamination) And “what’s that in the bucket?” (water, of course). This procedure of soil testing was a molecular and scientific way of rendering soil and contaminants, but there are also situated soil knowledges. A farmer or gardener might know if soil is good or bad by kicking it, smelling it, looking at it, feeling it. These sensorial engagements with soil are a science too – based on years of empirical data gathered from working with a living and connected world. We might know soil through the beings connected to it – the way plants grow tells us something about the conditions of the soil. Deleuze and Guattari observe, plants, even as their roots dig deep into earth, always have an ‘outside where they form a rhizome with something else – with the wind, an animal, human beings…’ (A Thousand Plateaus: 11). In this rhizomatic assemblage of relations we might come to know soil as it journeys through roots into the bodies that make up a multispecies community. Eduardo Kohn, in his inspired How Forests Think explains the way a ‘multispecies assemblage captures and amplifies something about the differences in soil conditions precisely as a function of the greater number of relations (relative to other ecosystems) among kinds of selves that exist in this ecology of selves’ (83). Through this network the differences that make a difference (Bateson) are layered, so that differences in soil come to make differences in plants and the other life forms connected to those plants too.

Despite the necessity of testing the soil we are hopeful that the soils are not contaminated, precisely because of this extended ecology of selves. If soil is contaminated it’s structure changes, upsetting ecological balance. Contaminated soil presents hazards to human and environmental health, meaning that the soil can no longer support many forms of life. Essentially, contaminated soil stops being nourishing.

The situated impact of contamination on a particular site of land which becomes an ecological wasteland reminds us of the very real local impacts of human development and waste on the environment. Contamination forces us to recognise the disturbing relationship between mobility and situated, tangible effects because contaminated materials move around, travelling with waterways and wind. Thom Van Dooran writes about the impact of this waste in his recent book, Flight Ways:

Making their way through rivers and streams to the ocean, or traveling in the atmosphere, these toxic residues of our industrial societies circulate endlessly through the environment, accumulating in those unfortunate places where particular constellations of temperature, wind direction, water current, and landform deposit them (2014: 31)

What’s more, these substances are not only radically mobile, but enduring:

while… toxic substances have a short past… their future is not limited in the same way. Rather, there is something almost immortal about them. In Timothy Morton’s apt terms, they are “hyperobjects”: objects that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (2014: 33).

Shard of glass embedded in soil

In the era of the Anthropocene soils are infused with the detritus of our development and progress. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history can look at the wreckage that piles up in the past by looking no further than the landscapes of the present. In this world, Narcissus in the form of the self-enclosed human can see himself not only in the reflection of a stream, but in the composition of the soil.

Recently Donna Haraway made a plea for us to focus on the chthonic as a source of revolutionised environmental thinking and action. Compost, not posthuman she says! The last line of her talk is a call for the “the activation of the chthonic powers which are within our grasp, as we collect up the trash of the Anthropocene and the exterminism of the Capitolocene to something that might possibly have a chance of ongoing.”

I’m hoping that the garden will eventually take up and respond to this call.
Even if the site is not contaminated (which I really hope it isn’t!) the garden will still be a form of ‘gardening in the ruins’ (Tsing) because the site is empty of vegetation.

And yet, despite the empty feeling of that barren flat dirt, as I knelt down to look more closely at the soil I noticed lots of ants, animating the stillness with their little bodies. They trailed after one another, crawling into holes in the earth, becoming mysteriously hidden.

A bull ant at the community garden site

I took a photo of a bull ant, and Eckhard laughed at me, as I attempted to get close enough to get a good shot, but avoid being bitten. The piercing ache of a bull-ant bite is viscerally stored in my body’s memory. That’s certainly an experience that brings one down to earth!

There are so many minds in nature, so many ways of being in and of the soil. As Eckhard put handfuls of dirt into little plastic tubs, and I stared inquisitively at ants, a horse watched us from the neighbouring block of land. I hope she sticks around to see what happens next 🙂


Correction: In my last post I mentioned that we were having a community day in November. We have decided to wait until Developmental Consent has been confirmed, and we have had time to install some basic infrastructure at the garden. We anticipate that we will hold an Open Day at the site in February.

Anyone needing a good environmental engineer contact Eckhard Ferber at Ferber Environment and Waste.

© Kate Wright, November 2014