Cultivating Soil Relations

Soil scientist Angela visited the thrombolites with us today. Her presence makes us aware of soils’ overlooked status – as we introduce Angela, one of the children says, “Let’s go to the water!”

Water holds more allure than soil and they dash off to see it. And once the children reach the water, the thrombolites’ charisma becomes apparent – they are, after all, what they have come here to see. We start to think children will not be interested in soil.

While the children rush around excitedly drawing and taking photos of water and thrombolites, Angela quietly sits down near the edge of the lake, puts a small trowelful of soil in her pan and analyses what is before her.

Eventually the children notice Angela with her unassuming soil.

Eeeeeew! Stinky! Yuck! Smells fishy!

The children recoil, eyeing the soil with suspicion.

“Look what I have found in here,” says Angela, “lots of tiny shells.”

The shells are 1-2 mm across. The soil is teeming with them. This really interests the children who come in closer and start picking out the shells, seemingly forgetting their earlier aversion.

“Can you see all the colours in this soil?”

“There’s white!”

“There’s green!”

“There’s pink!”

“And can you feel this crusty bit? It’s from the top of the hole I dug,” says Angela. “It’s salt. The water in the lake must be very salty and those plants (samphire) must not mind it being so salty because you can see they are growing in it.”

The children are now touching soil … or, could it be that soil is touching children?

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“It’s sticky!”

“It’s a bit crunchy.”

Child-soil relations are being fostered…

We move away from the reedy lake’s edge, through the paperbarks ( Melaleuca spp) and back into the shade of the large tuarts (Eucalyptus gomphocephala). Here the soil looks very different. Angela says she can tell what soil is like just by looking at the plants. She digs another small hole. The children look into it- it is full of ants. Angela spots a spider and we wonder if it was living underground like the ants.

The hole is full of spidery roots and mycorrhizal fungi too. So much life in one small patch.

Like the thrombolites, soils are multispecies worlds:

“[S]oil is not just a habitat or medium for plants and organisms; nor is it just decomposed material, the organic and mineral end product of organism activity. Organisms are soil. A lively soil can only exist with and through a multispecies community of biota that makes it, that contributes to its creation” (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017, p. 189).

Angela relates to lively soil

Thrombolites, then, are part of this multispecies soil world, as are the trees and humans. Thom van Dooren asserts “everything is connected to something, which is connected to something else” (van Dooren, 2014, p. 60, original emphasis). This is not to say that everything is connected to everything, but here, the thrombolites which sit 100 metres away from us, are connected to the soil we are now looking at with Angela.

Soil may be a disregarded multispecies community of “unloved others” (Rose & van Dooren, 2011), but neglecting or even overlooking it, places thrombolites at peril.

a child noticing the multispecies relations of soil

Today, Angela helped children to relate with this multispecies soil community by piquing the “art of noticing” (Tsing, 2011, p. 6). She cultivated child-soil relations, and as Tsing (2011) reminds us:

“In these times of extinction… even slight acquaintance can make the difference between preservation and callous disregard”(p. 6) .


Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017). Matters of care: Speculative ethics in more than human worlds. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Rose, D. B., & van Dooren, T. (2011). Unloved others: Death of the disregarded in the time of extinctions [Introduction] Australian Humanities Review, 50, 1-4. Retrieved from

Tsing, A. (2011). Arts of inclusion, or, how to love a mushroom. Australian Humanities Review, 50, 5-21. Retrieved from

van Dooren, T. (2014). Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction. New York: Columbia University Press.