Digging up the agency of soil

Post written by Charles Gillon

Approaching the world from a relational ontology creates the impetus to explore complex entanglements between human and nonhuman, and challenge pre-given conceptions of how we live. To this end, I ask here whether a patchy lawnscape can work towards unveiling the agency of soil.

My Honours thesis, conducted last year, focussed on exploring a series of everyday human/nonhuman interactions in a rural residential estate (RRE). The RRE is an emerging form of master-planned estate (MPE) within Sydney’s greater metropolitan region, comprised of sizeable private lots interspersed with rural amenities; community facilities, remnant bushland, and productive land uses. The aim of this study was to see whether living in an RRE – where there is a more obvious presence of nonhumans than in suburban counterparts – was conducive to a more convivial relationship with the living environment and its myriad of nonhuman residents.

The RRE chosen, located in a characteristically rural region of Sydney’s South-West, is comprised of 115 lots, each with a minimum size of one acre. These lots are separated by remnant early succession bushland, which forms a makeshift wildlife corridor through the estate streetscape, and two plots of Chardonnay vines. These integrated rural features of the estate comprise almost half of the estate’s total land area.

To tap into the place-based experiences of these residents, fieldwork was comprised of two activities. The first was 22 semi-structured walking interviews with residents in their private lots and around the estate. This was complemented by 11 self-tours of the estate, on different days of the week, at different times, and in varying weather conditions. These self-tours became an important aspect of researcher immersion – by undertaking these frequent tours, I began to notice tiny temporal changes in the surrounds, towards constructing an ongoing narrative of place. Through walking, and listening to the stories and experiences of residents, I was working towards discussing a selection of nonhumans that shaped residents’ RRE living experience.

One thing that piqued my interest when conducting these tours was that lawns visually appeared to be struggling to grow. Generally as a result of block size, and the respective contexts and attitudes of residents (for example, time constraints, willingness to outlay capital, varying levels of interest), private lots in this RRE were lawn-dominated. The sporadic growth of lawns created the impetus to explore the soil’s agency.

Sporadic lawn growth – unveiling soil’s agency? (Photo Credit: C. Gillon)

While there is a recognisable turn towards ‘more-than-human’ research in recent cultural geography, where spatial outcomes are considered relational achievements between human and nonhuman, soil is under-theorised. Indeed, soil may not be the most obvious nonhuman to study. It is covert, always under our feet, covered (most of the time) by vegetation and man-made surfaces. It is perhaps more difficult to engage with than those with branches, flowers, legs and wings. But soil does have life, it acts as the crucial base for other nonhumans. As an agent in the garden, for example, soil acts as part of an assemblage – supplying the nutrients and structural support for lawns and plants, housing a myriad of invertebrates, as well as allowing humans with the possibility to garden, to grow food. Soil is far from a static landscape element; it is active, alive.

Indeed, taking guidance from Paul Robbins, soil also inscribes gardeners as ‘lawn people’, responding when human expectations of soil are not met – namely, to foster the growth of a healthy, vibrant, green lawn. When soil fails this task, humans alter its properties. Mustafa et al (2010), in a study of lawns in coastal Florida, noted that despite the marked inappropriateness of turfgrass to the local ecology of poor soils, lawns were still the dominant landscape feature in residential areas. Despite soil properties, the lawn is culturally fixed, in turn supporting a global fertiliser and chemical industry.

Lawns and gardens exist as a physical reflection of the gardener’s attitudes and values towards nature, as a regulatory space – as Lesley Head and Pat Muir (2007, p. 53) where people’s “intentional relationship between plants and soil come to the fore”. As seen in this RRE, soil can fight back against this ‘intentional relationship’. Regionally, the soil is characteristically heavy clay, with low-moderate fertility, and a poor soil structure making the soil susceptible to slumps and slides. As can be expected from such a soilscape, some residents remarked upon the difficulties negotiating their gardening aspirations with an infertile soil. For example, Lucy and Ben regarded soil as inhibitive: Lucy commenting: “You can’t just dig a hole and plant something. You’ve got to build it up with nutrition”. Subsequently, Ben used gypsum to break down the clay, which needed constant re-application for any lasting effect: “that’s an expensive proposition here when you buy it by the 20 kilo bag”. The result of inputs is shown in the photo below – a homogenous, green lawn.

Lucy and Ben’s front lawn – the result of soil improvement (Photo credit: C.Gillon)

Further, an informal chat with a contract gardener revealed the extent of inputs required to maintain a healthy, green lawn. The input of fertiliser required to maintain such a lawn aesthetic was staggering:

Interviewer: You’d have to put a fair bit of fertiliser and stuff like that on it, to keep it going?

Gardener: Yeah. Me and my son spread it by hand. We spread, oh, uh, probably 20 tonne I think we spread on it.

Twenty tonnes of fertiliser on just one lawn! This is the price residents pay towards inscribing the lawn on an unsuitable soil.

In this particular example alone, soil is tied to the political economy of lawns, suburban ideals, and a normative construction of the Western home. Digging up soil’s agency may result in less of transplanting a vision, and more a negotiation of local conditions.

One thought on “Digging up the agency of soil

  1. Wow, are we a nation of lawn additcts? And here i am madly trying to get rid of it, and hence get rid of the need to mow. And to spray it with Bin-dii. I must be in the minority.

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