Dirty Horizons: A Queer Cosmogeny of Soil

| Luna Mrozik Gawler
 + Autocthonia Luna Mrozik Gawler, 2022.

Dirty Horizons: A Queer Cosmogeny of Soil

Dirty Horizons: A Queer Cosmogeny Of Soil | Luna Mrozik Gawler

Species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth, and that game must be one of response and respect …Queer messmates in mortal play, indeed.

—Donna J. Haraway


Soil noun (1)
1. The foundation from which all Earthly life arises and returns. 
2. A planetary commons. 
3. A boundary object, an intercises of biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere/past, present and future.

Earthly life is, at its fundament, symbiotic. A heaving, humming, hooting, sporulating, quaking flood of co-dependence seeps through every scale and species, leaving no life untouched, no matter unused or effort unreturned. And bodies are messy in their mutualism—munching, metabolising, infecting, absorbing, decomposing and mutating one another in a ceaseless muddle of multiscalar intimacy. Despite this corporeal reality, the separatist legacy of Cartesian dualism has enabled relatively young, but persistent ideologies that refuse the observable truths of life on earth. The binaries it promulgates vision the human as a singular, unique figure, wholly estranged from the heaving heterogeny of other biologic bodies. The much-critiqued nature/culture binary preaches an ideological partition that imagines the mess of the world can be kept out, can be divided into dirty or clean. Cultures constructed in this legacy strive for cleanliness. A pristine world, swept, dusted and disinfected, empowered by those tools and tonics that liberate the body and abode of the dirty debris of the world it inhabits. Dirt is an inconvenience at best, and a health risk at worst. Even an image search for 'the future’ returns visions of well-swept sidewalks, manicured lawns and glass spires that sparkle under the warmth of a speculative sun. Between modern agronomy, mining, industrial run off and urban development, the vision of a contemporary world is one where dirt is managed, engineered and removed as needed to enable human life to flourish.


The ubiquity of soil belies its significance. So readily dismissed or underestimated; this intricate ecosystem, is the world's most diverse, and lies under city blocks and parking lots, or is swept out with the weekly clean. Grasping soil’s complexity is a challenge. It is the meeting point of earths hydrosphere, atmosphere, and 4.6 billion year history, an expansive, globe-sized body not defined by individual components, but rather through perpetual negotiations, exchanges, and interdependence. It is a tapestry of intricate coalitions, materialised through shared labor. Unseen beneath streets, fields, schoolyards, and riverbanks, it hums with life—a ceaseless electric exchange. Embracing the multispecies realm, microfauna and microbes collaborate, ingesting nutrients, translating oxygen, sequestering carbon, and filtering water. Rather than an object, soil is a relationship made tactile, a verb rather than a noun.

The soil work performed by earthworms, ants, mites, snails, archaea, bacteria, actinomycetes, algae, protozoa, slugs, insect larvae, and fungi, ensures that life above ground has the conditions necessary to sustain life across both the vegetal and animal worlds.1 Soil is what allows the world to bloom, to be quenched, to be sheltered and to be fed. Rather than just a subterranean affair, healthy soils are the foundation of every terrestrial ecosystem. From tundra to wetland, desert to boreal forest, savanna to rainforest, 'soil participates in and drives nearly all biological and chemical processes that make the Earth's non-aquatic surface habitable.’2 Soil is an endangered living world, an environment largely overlooked and assumed constant, rather than an immense living body that requires care and without it, can die.3

As long as soil is treated as an afterthought, concreted or tarred, contaminated with microplastics, eroded, salinated, deforested and sealed outside of the rooms where conservation conversations are underway, the survival of all earthly life will be uncertain. On world soil day 2015, a UN official from the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that at current depletion rates, Earth's arable and productive land had only 60 years of use left. 60 harvests. Pushed through chemical manipulation to perform as a resource for extraction and starved of the conditions necessary to flourish, 40% of the Earth's soils have already been exhausted beyond use and abandoned.

Soiled verb (1)
1. To resist, defy or elude. 
2. To intimately affect and be affected by. 
3. To offer sanctuary or aid.

The difference between soil and dirt is contentious. Some soil scientists suggest dirt is dead, or misplaced soil, and others will counter that soil can neither be dead beyond recovery nor displaced, entangled as it is in all ecosystems. Dirt comes from the old Norse ‘drit’ meaning excrement, and under Cartesian foundations it is continued to be treated as such. There is an urgent need to refigure human-soil relations in those cultures still hoping to build civilisations without the mess of shared ecologies. There are myriad cultures who have continued long traditions of soil care, celebration and maintenance, and now some soil sciences, environmental-humanities and the arts are mounting an effort to reorient dominant human-soil relations back towards these models of recognition and care for soil.4

Queering dominant soil-relations is necessary to counter the perilous degradation and wanton extractive violence that has stripped so much soil of its fertility. Soil is inherently queer. Queer in its capacity to perpetually shift forms (queue clay, dust, peat, marl) to refuse static definitions (queue dirt, sod, turf, humus), to resist containment, and to be so committed to morphological freedom that it liberates and transmutes all others that encounter it (que compost). Queer dirt performs a joyful decomposition of nature/culture and dirty/clean binaries.5 It offers ground-level as a seat of possibility, of place for co-creation, a melding of Earth’s ancestral histories and potential futures. Queering soil offers a vision of earth’s ‘miracle skin’ as material mutual aid where the needs of one are the needs of all, an entangled vision of rhizomic care, unending.6

Soil is a perfect companion for futuring because it is has always been speculative. Because its substance is relation, it resists sampling. Soil removed from its usual location will cease to perform with 99% of microbes dying in lab settings. While soil can be cut to reveal its loamy, silty, or clay-slick horizons, what happens when the ground is uninterrupted remains unknown, out of sight. It demands to remain in place, to be met where it is, and for those who engage it to commit to a certain level of unknowing. Though some soil scientists dream of AI microbes capable of reporting from the substrate, for now, soil demands they get imaginative.7 Queering definitions of dirt/soil and their attendant verbs make clear its potential as a nurturing ground for novel ideas and harmonious ecological relationships. It is an opportunity to bury reductive resource-driven definitions that have long spoiled, and replace them with fertile meaning, and visions of dynamic world-building, relation, care, and regeneration.8 In this context, dirt might become aspirational, resplendent, and perhaps a vital, fertile symbol for the relational enmeshment of all earthly life and our shared futures.

Soiling verb (2)
1. To refigure, reimagine, or regenerate. 
2. Worlding (to world-build with/from)

Human health has always been dirty. The human biome borrows its biome from soil bacteria for a lifetime, with billions of bacteria that inhabit the intestinal tract derived directly from contact with healthy soil. As soil scientist and author of Soil Matthew Evans elegantly puts it, you are only ever briefly not soil.9 It is the source of exceptional healing benefits for anybody inhaling dust particles, finding dirt under a fingernail, eating fresh-grown produce, or patting a pet. Soil even offers mood-enhancing effects, with Bacteria like M.vacce or L-ergothioneine causing anti-inflammatory, immunoregulatory, and stress-reducing impacts.10 Bodies without soil contact are less equipped to fight disease, even when half the antibiotics commonly used in Western medicine arise from soil bacteria. Studies have clearly identified immune issues in children raised with more contact with concrete than soil, weaving a direct, invisible and intimate hypha from the human biome deep into the subsoil that supports and sustains it.11 Earthly bodies are dirty by necessity.

As NASA prepares to populate the first space habitat in 2030, dreams of departing earth in lieu of another planet are gaining traction. But without the fertility of Earth soils, life elsewhere is impossible. Interstellar habitats will need crops to sustain a population, and first humans to live-off planet will still need contact with soil microbes to sustain well-being. But earth soil is too costly to transport (a single lemon would currently cost $5000 to get to Mars)12 and there is of course, not enough fertile soil for earth’s population, let alone export. There are hopes that the silt that covers the Moon, Mars and Mercury, might be engineered to yield crops. Known as Martian Regolith it has not yet been physically sampled, so scientists tinker with an iron rich basalt called Mojave Mars Simulant, named for the desert from which it is taken.13 Regolith presents little support for new life to propagate. It lacks the benefit of 4.6 billion years of mineral exchange, and the labour of the billions of small bodies who make earth soil what it is. Despite this there has been some success with Mars Regolith. But, as with similar experiments propagating plants in Lunar regolith, anything that survives is shrivelled and discoloured from leaf tip to root end.

In 2013, the German mikroBIOMIK Society titled an exhibition exploring soil worlds 'Humus-Human-Humility'. More prescription for survival than a declaration, this etymological intimacy reminds us that human wellbeing is soil wellbeing, and human futures are soil futures. And if we are to share any future, it will not be clean. Survival hinges on an approach that draws us nearer to our terrestrial origins, emphasising knowledge and practices grounded in a celebratory relationship with soil in its diverse manifestations. Healthy futures demand healthy soil, as all living futures, including those beyond Earth, will only be facilitated by its presence. Vandana Shiva has said that if we could commit ourselves to protecting and rejuvenating the soil, we might avert the very collapse of civilisation.14 Healthy soils, and healthy futures are within our grasp. If earth’s future is soil-centred, perhaps we could say dirt and mean resistant, regenerative, collaborative, adaptive, affective. Perhaps we could move at the pace of regenerative iteration or collaborative figuration15 rather than technoscientific or productive desire. We might even uncover new methods, or messmates with which to compost and metabolise the foundations of ecologic violence and allow them to finally be refigured into something new. If there is to be a shared future for the planetary commons and all life that rely upon them, soil must be at the centre. If any vision of equitable, harmonious and flourishing earth futures are to take root, if they are to have any hope of yielding actual change, they will need to be dirty, in every sense of the word.


Note: Speculative definitions take their formatting from the Meriam webster dictionary.

1. Robbins, Jim. ‘The Hidden World Under Our Feet’ May 11, 2013 https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/opinion/sunday/the-hidden-world-of-soil-under-our-feet.html

2. Krzywoszynska, A. and Marchesi, G. (2020). Toward a Relational Materiality of Soils. Environmental Humanities, 12(1), pp.190–204. doi:https://doi.org/10.1215/22011919-8142297.

3. Armstrong, R. (2014). Why synthetic soil holds the key to a sustainable future. The Guardian. [online] 17 Jan. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/technology-sustainable-future-synthetic-soil

4. Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Re-animating soils: Transforming human–soil affections through science, culture and community. The Sociological Review, 67(2), 391–407. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038026119830601

5. Hotz-Davies, I., Bergmann, F. and Vogt, G. (2017). The Dark Side of Camp Aesthetics: Queer economies of Dirt, Dust and Patina. Routledge.

6. Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2015). Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity and the pace of care. Social Studies of Science45(5), 691–716. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312715599851

7. Krieger, A. 2020, Life in the soil, Episode 1:Living soil: A habitat hidden from view

8. Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2015). Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity and the pace of care. Social Studies of Science45(5), 691–716. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312715599851

9. Evans, M. Soil 2022 pp189

10. Matthew, E. 2021, Soil: The incredible story of what keeps earth, and us, healthy, Murdoch Books p54

11. Bryce, A. 2022, Grounded: How Soil shapes the games we play, the lives we male and the graves we lie in, Text Publishing Company

13. Bryce, A. 2022, Grounded: How Soil shapes the games we play, the lives we male and the graves we lie in, Text Publishing Company pp152

14. The Martian Garden https://www.themartiangarden.com

15. Shiva, V. All Life Depends on Soil, EcoWatch  Feb 16, 2015 https://www.ecowatch.com/vandana-shiva-all-life-depends-on-soil-1882012429.html

16. Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2015). Making time for soil: Technoscientific futurity and the pace of care. Social Studies of Science45(5), 691–716. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312715599851

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