Meeting Soil

In this meeting of ecofeminist activism and feminist STS, Starhawk explores the metaphorical complex in which soil is denigrated, tracing its historical roots and routes. She poses the question: “What would it look like to truly meet soil as the living ecosystem under our feet that sustains and nourishes life?” and suggests that in order to do so “we must shift our gaze from the heavens to the ground”. Maria Puig de la Bellacasa responds with and to her own question; “what happened when the aspiring earth activist and the feminist STS researcher met in one body?”, describing a transformational encounter with soils facilitated by Starhawk and Erick Ohlsens’s teachings in Earth Activist Trainings. Together they share humble and minor stories about meetings of sciences, cultures, communities and sacred, material-semiotic soils.


Soil—the ground beneath our feet, the living matrix upon which our very lives depend. Yet to be ‘soiled’ or ‘dirty’ is to be smeared, tainted, despicable. The denigration of soil is part of a metaphorical complex, a larger frame which sees spirit split from body, values the high, the light, the white, the male, and the transcendent over the low, the dark, the black, the female, and the immanent. This frame arises from historical roots in Europe that go back to the transition from the matrifocal, Goddess-centered societies of prehistory to patriarchal cultures of war, and in the later conquest of ancient, earth-centered Pagan traditions by Christianity, culminating in the Witch Persecutions of the 16th and 17th Centuries that opened the way for the triumph of capitalism. This metaphorical frame underlies and props up racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. The devaluing of nature also has enormous implications for our current age, when we are sacrificing the life-support systems of the planet on the altar of that abstract, disembodied god profit.

What would it look like to truly meet soil as the living ecosystem under our feet that sustains and nourishes life? “Humble” shares the same root as humus—and the humble creatures of the soil, the bacteria, protists, worms and fungi and their interactions with plant roots hold enormous potential for healing damaged ecosystems, restoring fertility, sequestering excess carbon and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. Yet to embrace that potential, we must shift our gaze from the heavens to the ground, put less faith in technology and more in biology, and place the messy, complex, bloody, dirty processes of life at the center of what we hold sacred.

Maria Puig de la Bellacasa

Transforming human-soil affections – meeting sacred matter in science, culture and community

Shifting our gaze to the ground, as Starhawk puts it, is an inspiring appeal in so many ways. It resonates with the search for invisible minor stories, for the infra-historical ways in which inventive ecological cultures are confronting with care, on the ground, the neglect and abuse of soils by productionism and extractivism. In times when Earth powers have come to evoke epic catastrophic confrontations and indifferent planetary reactions to anthropocenic domination, thinking Earth as soil involves more ordinary aspects of human relations with earthy forces. These stories might seem insignificant in the face of the overwhelming speed of technoscientific urgings that curtail rather than enable eco-social innovation. But hope for soils today not only resides in much needed practical solutions, but in transforming human-soil affections across science, culture, and community.
I met and fell in awe with soils through one of those innovative ground-gazing eco-social initiatives, permaculture, thanks to Starhawk and Erick Ohlsen’s teachings in Earth Activist Trainings. I had to meet soil, because I was not even aware it was there. Like for most people today in the worlds I live in, the soil was a hidden world, the unnoticed infrastructure of life I walked upon, indifferent to how I was made and sustained by it. This was transformational. So, what happened when the aspiring earth activist and the feminist STS researcher met in one body? What could this particular “meeting” do to propagate love for the soil and awareness of our substantial commonness? And how to make this meeting matter to soils?

In technoscientific cultures, where relations with the more than human worlds are highly mediated by science, feminist STS inspires to look at how ground-gazing sciences reveal soil and think of how they could be more involved in re-animating ecological soil affections. Because scientific stories are much more than scientific. Earth Activist Trainings also engage soil scientific knowledge. But they overtly combine the discovery of soil’s material and biological properties with a spiritual opening to its sacred character – through symbolic and metaphorical meanings. Translated in STS dialect, this is material-semiotic soil – intimate composition of matter, story and metaphor, technoscientific intervention and non-human agencies. STS itself remains generative of opening to these multifarious meetings, not only because it is interdisciplinary, but because it pushes the boundaries of academic knowledge and is eager to learn from different practices. Meeting soil as sacred calls upon commitment to share the troubles of soils in ways that not only challenge what science is, but also what are legitimate affections knowledge accounts. As a contribution to our conversation on Meeting Soil, I’d like to share minor stories of material-semiotic sacred soils that emerge when sciences, cultures, and communities are made to meet through their affection for soils: Biological Wonder; Earthy Sensuality; Regenerations; Elemental Affinities; and Breakdown Ecopoethics.

Chair:  Joan Haran (Cardiff University)

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