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Composting Care

Sun trickles down the mountains as I harvest beetroot for the veg box. I am tired and my hands stumble around the garden bed. I keep grasping tiny plants, dragging up–and breaking up– veined globules of soil. Despite tentative gestures, my cutters still nick the skins of the plants, which bleed dark crimson down my clothes. The beets smell like the earth, chimeric things between ground and sky. 

By mid-morning, our crew of volunteers smile at the 70 pregnant veg boxes–lush beet leaves between carrots, kale, rainbow chard–which are waiting to be hauled into cars and delivered to the local community. Happy and hungry, we congratulate each other on the goodness of our morning work. 

Later, as the sun begins drawing out deep shadows from the trees, I slice the raw beets into slivers of geode and take a precious bite. The sandy crunch of soil at my teeth brings me back to the morning harvest where I’m clasping fistfuls of green to pull up another orb. I listen to this beet: she wants to stay rooted, embraced by the life matter; hearty and nourished by her earth shroud. I give her a gentle shake while pulling upwards. Her stringy roots squeal snapping noises in protest at my coarse cutting of worlds. There is a dance between our bodies. I stand there in the garden, surprised at her burdensome weight and unsettled by my own violence.

During times of ecological crises, how can we cultivate caring and reciprocal relations across humans and nonhumans?

I spent my summer on a permaculture farm ruminating on this question. The farm is situated on the edge of Eryri National Park in mountainous north-west Wales, land that is charged with a sense of Welshness. Wales was conquered by England in the 11th century, yet currently has a devolved government and maintains a distinct cultural identity. 

Land use in Wales is in transition. With the departure of the UK from the EU, Welsh agricultural policy is in flux. The climate and biodiversity crises are generating surging interest, for example, in long-term environmental sustainability relating to Wales’ 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. Researchers are working collaboratively with policymakers to centre long-term soil health in new agricultural policy. 

Integrating farming with environmentalism has proved polarising. The Welsh government’s Sustainable Farming Scheme, which was planned to be introduced by 2025, has been met with outrage by thousands of farmers. The scheme requires farmers to implement net zero measures such as planting trees on 10% of their land, which would cause a substantial livestock reduction for the whole of Wales. Such a change threatens the farming community and echoes recent rioting by farmers in Europe over the EU’s nature restoration targets under the Green New Deal.

As a main contributor to biodiversity loss and climate change–and part of a system that unfairly distributes food around the world–farming is frequently villainised in environmental circles. Yet, like the land itself, farming is heterogeneous. As fundamental and vulnerable as breathing, farming and food constitute our material entanglements with the world. By attending to experience, matter, and bodies–the various ways we each breathe and ingest ecological crisis–we might open ourselves to new modes of relating to the world with care.


Philosopher María Puig de la Bellacasa writes of care as an ethic. She expands upon well-established feminist care ethics into a practice that includes nonhumans. Care, she maintains, ‘is everything that is done to maintain, continue, and repair ‘the world’ so that all can live in it as well as possible.’ Puig de la Bellacasa engages with the environmental humanities’ practice of Composting Feminisms, which explores composting as a metaphor for collective transformation–turning old scraps with care and attention into nutrient-rich soils for growing ‘different kinds of worlds.’

By framing care as a practice of sustaining worlds, Puig de la Bellacasa recognises the agency of nonhumans in the emergence of care relations. She invites disruption to the Western nature/culture dualism that both informs the hierarchizing of lifeforms and enables a human sense of control over nature. As the Métis scholar Zoe Todd highlights, thinking beyond these binaries is well-known in indigenous ways of being. 

Care is an ambivalent practice that does not inherently feel nor do good; it is a complicated mixture of labour and emotion. The care-giver cultivates relations with the care receiver through being present, writes the medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman. We can explore the politics of care–the relationships between care and power–through its selectivity within specific contexts. Who gets to care and where care is directed is part of a contingent process of making and remaking worlds. 

Care’s tensions are abundant in everyday farm life. By cultivating my attentiveness towards plants through a sensory openness to their bodies, I think of them as beings with their own needs, which muddies even the simplest tasks in the garden. I constantly navigate among caring for plants as beings, as things to be eaten, and as commodities. As Megan Betz writes in the context of pruning trees in a community orchard, human-plant care relations also involve relations of violence. 

Who are we to choose between different objects of care? Who am I to disrupt the multiple lifeworlds of the soils and beetroot? At the same time, where does one object of care end, and another begin? 

It is important to stick with these prickly ethics to avoid the romanticisation of care. In prioritising particular objects of care, we intentionally choose a specific kind of world over other possibilities. In every caring practice, we enact ambivalence towards other potential objects of our attention, concern, and love.

Muddling together better

The compost is hot enough to dissolve the body of an animal. Bones and all. In fact, ‘this is the secret ingredient to a thriving compost,’ says Phil. 

The process has been going for a day and there seems to be too much nitrogen. The core is reaching 70°C, the red zone on the thermometer. Although this process aims to nourish life, too much heat can sterilise the soil. I hold my hands forward to feel the solar energy of our giant pile of life and think of worms squirming away because it is too hot. 

Turning the pile together to help it cool down, Phil and I chat about making compost tea for the market garden. 

We fork the stringy bits on the outside, still recognisable as garden waste, and make a new pile while draping steaming soil from the previous core around it. Different stages of decomposition mix in an alchemical time soup. Rich wafts of Brussels sprouts hit my nose; I think of renewal. The future holds flowering plant cities reaching toward the sun. The overheating compost has been tempered. 

‘The soil is alive,’ Phil keeps repeating. It feels hopeful to join him in such a convivial practice.

How does one find hope in the steaming and sweaty work of composting? How does the decomposition of certain worlds recompose new ones? Do worlds even end at all? Aren’t all these worlds just eternally colliding, part of a deep-time churn, always transformed and transforming? How to muddle together better through all this change? 

Encouraged by permaculture principles, we think of the soils as alive, giving, and mysterious. Spirituality in Western farming practices can be easily dismissed. The geographer Anna Pigott writes of biodynamic farming, a practice developed in Germany employing rituals and astrology. Here, spirituality, an experience of nonhuman agency, informs an underlying reverence for the unknown agencies of the soil which helps to prioritise care-time.

Soils, in their multiplicity, care for us. I realise that this is what Jane Bennett must mean when she writes of enchantment. To be enchanted is ‘to be struck and shaken by the extraordinary amidst the everyday.’ Enchantment makes volunteer relations with soils less transactional by decentering human needs within farming. These needs are based on a belief that nature is something to be controlled for human needs, entangled in inherently exploitative and extractivist ways of being. 

‘Working with the soil is like a prayer,’ says one of the volunteers. There is a richness to how my fellow volunteers talk about their relationships with the soil. Capitalist industrial agriculture, allied with the physical sciences, contributes to the deadening of soils as inanimate resources. Even when these soils are understood as living though, there is a risk that they are transformed into exploited labourers to continue capitalist logics of productivity: soil health becomes something to govern and optimise. Yet, soils exceed use-values. They are mycorrhizal homes of living and dying. They make me feel at home when I work with them in the garden. 

Soil’s multiple meanings can be at odds with large-scale, reductionist understandings of sustainable farming. We need to recognise these enchantments as we form caring human-nonhuman relations in this plural, ecological crisis.

The Ghosts of Care 

Some academics claim a postcolonial relationship between England and Wales, which raises questions about decolonising permaculture in this context.

Feeling the ground: am I a welcome guest?

Through my presence with the soils, I notice absences: the missing folk stories and myth, generational knowledge of the land, and Welsh language speakers. I have grown up with this farm and its people. The farm’s yards, barns, and tussocky hillsides are a short and familiar walk away; part of the place that I think of as home. 

Sometimes I worry about how this place and its people, owned by English speakers who have moved into the area, feel disconnected from the rest of the upland farming community, where there is a distinct sense of ‘Welsh’. As a rusty Welsh speaker myself who largely grew up speaking English at home, I often feel like an outsider to Welshness. I am stuck in the middle, questioning what it means to be authentically part of a culture.  

Despite its apparent absence from everyday farm life, Welsh identity is constantly being politicised in Wales. The uneven power relations between England and Wales persist into the present, as evinced by ongoing tensions about land use and memorialization. For example, Cofiwch Dryweryn, ‘Remember Tryweryn,’ is a movement bringing attention to a much-protested bill passed by the British Parliament. The bill approved the construction of a dam intending to provide cheaper water for industry in Liverpool, which flooded a village called Capel Celyn during the 60s. Cofiwch Dryweryn and Yes Cymru (Yes to Welsh Independence) are slogans inscribed everywhere in the slate quarry towns of north Wales that signal a sense of discontent at the dismissal of Welsh communities in the present. 

Nature regeneration projects are another site of controversy in Wales. English, middle-class figures such as George Monbiot describe the Welsh uplands as a barren ‘desert’ destroyed by sheep. Welshness is intertwined with pastoralism and such remarks are threatening to communities. The recent Cambrian Wildwood project, which aimed to restore ecosystem processes from the Dyfi River to the sea, has poorly engaged with meanings of land for locals. The project has generated a sense of cultural erasure that harks back to colonial ideas of terra nullius–empty land–which justified the flooding of Capel Celyn.

The ghosts of this farm–the farm’s histories and wider current politics–demand our care. Anthropologist Anna Tsing, among others, describes ghosts as ‘the vestiges and signs of past ways of life still charged in the present.’ When I walk around the farm, the patterning of the rocks in lines, piles, and circles are ghosts that remind me of the past movements and dwellings of people. The Welsh slogans on the shut-down pub of my hometown are reminders of the fraught politics of Welsh identity in the present. The folk stories about the land and the very visible debates in my locality are two sides of the same coin calling me to reflect on my connection to the farm. 

There are tricky questions about how this farm might engage in dialogue with the rest of the upland community. By occupying this place and practising permaculture within a sheep farming landscape, this farm is entangled with the politics of land use change. This farm mustn't reinforce divisions between permaculture and Welsh upland farming – something which is difficult, as even understandings of the soils might be at odds with one another. 

What is lost with change? How to story and engage people with care? 


Feminist activists Astrida Neimanis and Jennifer Hamilton write that ‘composting’ is an apt metaphor and practice for staying in solidarity with multiple struggles while working towards an earthy justice. When I’m tending the soil, I am trying–clumsily, but with intention, concern, and presence–to be attentive to these land histories, which go far deeper than my hands can reach, and ongoing Welsh politics. 

Academic Sophie Wynne-Jones highlights the importance of language and stories for involving people with land use change. For example, the Welsh word cynefin, derived from the way sheep know their habitat, has been used to reframe nature recovery in Wales. Cynefin encapsulates a sense of belonging, interrelatedness, and embodied knowledge of the landscape. 

Responding to the absences, this farm that I work on is taking steps to resist the erasure of Welshness; putting up Welsh signage, holding open days for farmers to come and learn about permaculture, and working with a community project in a nearby town. Recognising that we are all entangled in this cynefin, this farm is building up a network of people, sheep, swallows, food, seeds, songs, clouds, and jagged rocks–all differentially bound up in the soil.

Composting is a circular process. It is important to continue to confront the absences on the farm and respond to them with care. I cannot fully be in kinship with the soil without engaging with these complexities, without listening for the ghosts. 

As I return to the beetroot with my hands burrowing into soils, planting, dancing, harvesting, I am reminded of how we are continually making and re-making each other in material ways. The soils hold traces of crops, changing ownership, and language, which worms and other critters metabolise.

In the echoes of the gravel quarry with its lorries, I am trying to be present. I am listening to the beet, a golden orb, a chimeric thing between ground and sky. I am listening to the heavy silences between. I am layering these silences with an openness to engage with different ways of being in relation to the soils. For staying with these prickles when breathing, eating, and growing worlds on a damaged planet is what it means to do the vulnerable work of care.


Lotti Jones is currently an undergraduate at the Oxford School of Geography and the Environment. Growing up in mountainous North Wales, she is interested in land justice, environmental art, and the more-than-human.


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