11 July 2024

A collaboration between environmental geographer Emma Sharp and illustrator Jean Donaldson. Edited by Anna Brown and Jonathan Burgess.

Soil is complex. Beautiful. Wondrous. It gives us food, foundations and filters the air we breathe and water we drink.

In a very literal way, soil is also a part of us. Our bodies are not discrete entities. Our bodies are networks; we are but an assemblage of a host organism with microbial communities living in and around us. Our interdependencies with the soil we eat make for healthy microbial communities of our gut, of ourselves. Our insides are the outsides — the world.

Understanding soil, or land, as ‘kin’ is not a new concept in Indigenous knowing of the world, providing a perspective on the responsibility of treating, nurturing and caring for it as one would a relation. Kaupapa Māori researcher, activist and grower Jessica Hutchings has proposed that land, or soil, should have equivalent-to-human status in its own right. This is understood and practised in some communities. It might seem a stretch to others.

A world beyond our feet: Rethinking our relationship with where we grow our kai – The Spinoff

If we accept that soil is part of us, then we must admit that we are at war with ourselves. We see this in political decisions to develop prime agricultural soils through ‘financialising’ land. We see it in national investment into intensive agrichemical use, and its endorsement through lax regulations. And we find it in individual behaviours of everyday (over)consumption of plastics, of wasted food, of the marketing of unnecessary convenience-chemistry that means that our soils bear the legacy of contamination.

The soil in our landfills, and what leaches out of them, tells us a lot about what our society really cares (or doesn’t care) about.

A drive for profit-focussed empire-building and an obsession with technological futurism has led us from sustainable ways of living with our environment to modern-day purposeful destruction of nature. This shows up in soil as erosion, depletion, dust bowls, contamination, or suffocation.

An illustration of soil drying and cracking with the outline of hands on it.

Aotearoa New Zealand, while branding ourselves as natural, has constructed an identity around producing off the land that is dependent on pesticides. New Zealand does not keep track of chemical use and release. We don’t have decent monitoring in place to understand the extent of the problem.

Humanity has exceeded planetary boundaries, threatening the safe operating space for humans, and for non-human others. We have entered a period of triple planetary crisis: of biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change, all of which have a bearing on the state of our soils.

Outside the safe operating space of the planetary boundary for novel entities – Environmental Science & Technology

Humans have caused this, so humans can change this.

It requires bold, brave leadership to do what is ethical, care-full and in the interests of our common planetary future: to call for environmental disarmament, to dismantle infrastructures of violence against nature.

We might (re)value soil in ways that mobilise what we think about as our ethical responsibilities to and in the world. These ethics recognise the complexities of the communities in and of soil: human and microbe, food-waste collector and māra kai kaimahi, invertebrate and farmer. These complexities can never be reduced down to a calculus of yield and profit.

An illustration of mushrooms sprouting from an upturned hand.

So, let’s notice our soils. This might be in exploring the beauty of fungi, in growing food, or on a walk in the ngāhere to breathe the sweetened air and mood boosting, ‘friendly’ bacteria.

Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: Potential role in regulation of emotional behavior – Neuroscience

Slowing down to attune ourselves to the natural rhythms and temporalities of soil is effective, and it is affective: it changes us, and it changes our capacity to be in the world. It changes our imaginations of what a cared-for soil world might look like. Let’s then live with a soil ethic that asks not what if we nurtured our soils, but rather as if we did, by performing a politics of soil care, and enacting – making – a different world.


Emma Sharp is a principal investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini who works on soil and food politics, care and community economies at Waipapa Taumata Rau the University of Auckland.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and native bird fanatic based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at https://jeanmanudesign.com/.