Stories of Soil, Soy, and Life Otherwise

What happens when thinking of soil as a living being and force, with whom the human world needs to repair and rebuild ties?

“Science polishes the gift of seeing, Indigenous traditions work with gifts of listening and language.” So explains Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a botanist and a member of the Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer goes on to describe her relationship to plants, whom she calls “plant elders.” For her, these plants are beings who have the capacity to learn, who have memory, who are kin. She asks us to slow down, to develop what one of my students described as “radical listening.” She says:

The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet, yielding to a soft, green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces grain by grain, bringing them slowly back to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. … And it’s a conversation that takes place at a pace that we humans, especially we contemporary humans who are rushing about, we can’t even grasp the pace at which that conversation takes place. … Thinking about plants as persons, indeed, thinking about rocks as persons, forces us to shed the idea that the only pace that we live in is the human pace.

Kimmerer is the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the State University of New York. She writes and speaks poetically about science and about Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies; about the urgency of thinking about and engaging with plants in ways that radically disrupt our assumptions about the world around us.

Kristina Lyons’s Vital Decomposition: Soil Practitioners and Life Politics continually brought Kimmerer to mind. Through sensorially powerful ethnographic writing about relations between humans and soil in Colombia, Lyons tells us a story about soil farmers in the Amazon and soil scientists in Bogotá. She describes Colombian histories of war, displacement, and dispossession and the violence of US counternarcotics and development policies in the region. Perhaps most powerfully, she writes about hojarasca: the rich, decomposing layers of organic material found in the Putumayo jungle. This hojarasca inspires the activist farmers Lyons thinks with, and it animates her focus on resilience and the life-affirming possibilities offered by the alternative farming and gardening practices she so compellingly describes.

In an entirely distinct way, Kregg Hetherington explores the historical, cultural, and political relations between humans and plants in Paraguay: soy (and cotton) in particular. Hetherington’s book The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops offers a riveting (yes, riveting) account of the expansion of agro-industry and soy production in that country, its relation to agricultural and human-development schemes dating back at least a century, and its link to the dramatic rise and fall of the leftist regime of Fernando Lugo (2008–2012). The book centers soy as a crucial character of the Anthropocene, a protagonist who animates extractive, racial capitalism as a monocrop driving deforestation and extinction, amplifying complex struggles over landownership and production, displacing rural communities, and intensifying debates over national sovereignty and historical memory.

As part of his powerful and moving writing on mass extinction and grief, Thom Van Dooren urges us to tell lively, “fleshy” stories as one way to make us more accountable to one another, to draw us into relation with other forms of life. In different ways, both of these books respond to Van Dooren’s call. Both tell incredible stories of resilience and perseverance, of resistance and failure, and of the possibilities (and limitations) of thinking life otherwise.

Those familiar with Colombia will be aware of the long history of political violence in the country, as well as its relation to the devastating impact of drug trafficking and US-backed counternarcotics policies. Given this context, Lyons, in Vital Decomposition, could have easily focused only on the effects of this violence on the lives and farming practices of Indigenous and campesino families. Indeed, the land and people have experienced an ongoing poisoning, through US-backed fumigation of illicit crops (like coca) or the extractive, export-oriented practices that come with many alternative development projects that promote GMOs and chemical-intensive monoculture.

Despite this, Lyons insists on foregrounding the resilience of people and, crucially, of Amazonian soil. She writes about the importance of refocusing our attention toward life “growing in the midst of poison.”

This frame of resilience—she is clear—comes directly from her interlocutors. They taught her that “violence was not the only story to be told,” asking her to turn her “ethnographic attention away from what was raining down on them from crop dusters in the sky to the kinds of propositional life-making processes being actualized in the midst of chemically degraded ecologies.”

Here, soil becomes central. Lyons asks: “How do soils … harbor the irreparable wounds and tracks of violence and germinations of transformative proposals and alternative dreams?” Her book is a stunning, compelling, generous meditation on possible responses to that question.

Hetherington and Lyons provide lively and inspired ethnographies of connection. They remind us of the company we keep with every breath.

Much like Kimmerer, Lyons takes seriously the “agro-life processes” proposed by Amazonian farmers in the region of Putumayo. These processes include thinking of soil, and the selva (or jungle), as a living being and force, one that necessitates a different kind of listening. Moreover, this living landscape is one that insists on acknowledging and repairing relations between the myriad forms of life that sustain one another as life and death dance, sometimes fluidly, sometimes haltingly.

Lyons’s focus is on the practices and knowledge production of activist farmers. In particular, she looks to the life, thought, and work of Heraldo Vallejo, an animal-husbandry technician and radical farmer known as el hombre amazónico. Lyons also spends time with soil scientists in Colombia. She explores the history of soil science in the country and its link to the promotion of extractive and agro-industrial production.

This is a framing that might place soil scientists in opposition to the Amazonian farmers she privileges in her writing. But Lyons offers instead a nuanced and layered analysis of the place and work of these scientists, noting the ways in which they, too, are marginalized in relation to other environmental scientists. She describes the tensions in the ways scientists and farmers understand and relate to soil, but she also reveals the creative and even poetic possibilities that might result from those moments of partial encounter (even allyship) between farmers and scientists, particularly as some scientists try to “render visible a specific quality of livingness in their object of study.”


Injustice in the Breeze

By Stacey Balkan

For Hetherington in The Government of Beans, the story of soy is one more episode in a longer tale of the regulation of plant and human health, and, in particular, a loud and resonating echo of the Green Revolution. A central concern for Hetherington is showing how this story about soy and its global, national, and local impacts reflects one of the more pressing issues of our time: “the government systems we rely on to protect people and other living things from the ravages caused by economic growth are impossible to disentangle from the same systems that promote that growth.”

This is perhaps why so much of the story Hetherington shares is focused on what he calls the Government of Beans. This is a group of activist bureaucrats—part of a broader coalition of peasants, environmentalists, lawyers, NGO workers, academics, and others—working in support of President Lugo and toward progressive land reform and rural welfare. (These bureaucrats were concentrated in several ministries and other government agencies, but Hetherington is particularly interested in the work taking place at SENAVE, the National Service for Plant and Seed Health and Quality.)

The second part of the book concentrates on these activists’ ambitious attempts at addressing the demands of peasants—who blamed the soy industry for displacement, illness, and death (among other things)—by using existing regulatory structures. These attempts are what Hetherington terms “an experiment in government,” which would test whether a stronger regulatory state could contain the tenacious expansion of the soy industry and the violent excesses it produces.

A sense of vitality—even in the face of extractive violence, devastating colonial legacies, and aggressive racial capitalism—is palpable in both texts.

Hetherington is a skilled storyteller. I never imagined that I could be so intimately drawn into a discussion about the flawed collection of soil and water samples, the performance of farm inspections and citations, or the fraught politics over the measurements of land plots or “living barriers.” And like the story Lyons tells, this one, too, is complicated and even contradictory at times.

Hetherington is clearly sympathetic to the plight of rural communities. Still, in the third part of the book, he offers a compelling and critical history of the ways those communities were themselves the product of colonial occupation, rural welfare projects, and an earlier boom in cotton production: “a project of expansion and propagation that necessarily came at the expense of other lives and life projects.” Much like “soy kills” in today’s Paraguay, cotton killed just a few decades ago. This is another of Hetherington’s points: sustaining life necessitates killing. Lyons puts it differently but offers a similar sensibility in exploring what emerges from the ground: “Death and decay are on a continuum with life.”

I will never forget the explosion of pink and yellow and blue that is soil viewed under a petrographic microscope (“poetry to be sure”). Nor will I forget the way my body tensed up as I seemed to be waiting in the morning cold, alongside Hetherington and members of the Citizen Participation Unit, on a road next to a field of wheat: waiting to see if Amada, a member of the Government of Beans, would decide to mark that road a “neighborhood road” (un camino vecinal); waiting to see if she checked a box on a form that would make demands on the Soy State (Hetherington’s term for the way the soy industry made use of the state for its own proliferation). This small, bureaucratic act is, for Hetherington, an example of tactical sovereignty, a “tiny bureaucratic insurrection vibrating with possibility.”

This sense of possibility, of vitality—even in the face of extractive violence, devastating colonial legacies, and aggressive racial capitalism, and even when progressive experiments fail—is palpable in both texts. Both authors (like Kimmerer) ask us what might happen if we were to slow down, to think with soil (for example), such that, as Hetherington puts it in his conclusion, “One falls out of phase with productivist reason … governmental logics and international industrial imperatives.”

Or, as Lyons might ask: What if we can quiet our thoughts and develop a radical listening practice that allows us to hear the humming vibrations of life—in farms, in gardens, in our own backyards? What if farms “across the Andean-Amazonian foothills and plains” begin to “vibrate, buzz, and hum? This could produce a cacophony of vital frequencies—life making life happier—as opposed to the quieting exhaustion and laments of campesinos overwhelmed by debt, bad-faith politicians, exploitative intermediaries, and the market prices and mandates of armed actors, narco-mafia networks, or externally imposed aid programs.”


The World Is a Factory Farm

By Xiaowei Wang

Hetherington’s book offers a particularly timely cautionary tale about the possibilities and limits of government, especially in light of the ferocity of global capital and agro-industry. Lyons adds to this by showing us the contours and textures of life otherwise, where “everyday material practices and ongoing acts of reclaiming and relaying” can help us understand “the necessary balance between politics aimed at contesting, resisting, and/or defeating an existing order … and the practices in the present aimed at providing alternative material conditions to this very order.”

Hetherington and Lyons, in different but complementary ways, provide lively and inspired ethnographies of connection. In this, they, along with the brilliant Black feminist work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs, remind us of the company we keep with every breath. “What is the scale of breathing?” Gumbs asks.

You put your hand on your individual chest as it rises and falters all day. But is that the scale of breathing? You share air and chemical exchange with everyone in the room, everyone you pass by today. Is the scale of breathing within one species? All animals participate in this exchange of release for continued life. But not without the plants. The plants in their inverse process, release what we need, take what we give without being asked. And the planet, wrapped in ocean breathing, breathing into sky. What is the scale of breathing? You are part of it now. You are not alone.1


This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakke. icon

  1. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (AK, 2020), p. 1.
Featured-image photograph by Gabriel Jimenez / Unsplash