Soil As Archive: On the Work of Recognizing Alternate Forms of Sentience

The oldest single living organism is a creosote bush named King Clone in the Mojave Desert. Radiocarbon dating and yearly growth measurements estimate the bush to be over 11,700 years old. Creosote is a type of flowering bush with three-tooth leaves, a scrubby shrub common in southwestern deserts in North America.

Several indigenous tribes in the southwestern United States including the Pima, Cahuilla, and the Hualapi use creosote medicinally to treat a variety of maladies including stiff limbs, snake bites, and menstrual cramps. The mother plant reproduces by cloning herself in a ring before dying. Once her offspring reach the end of their life cycle, they clone themselves again and die. Above ground the bushes appear as multiple shrubs, but examining its root structure reveal the shrubs are genetically identical, children of the same rhizome.

Like how memory is transmitted across generations of the diaspora, creosote rings dilate outward without knowledge of their source, circling a coreless periphery. Cristina Rivera Garza uses the term “desedimentation” to describe a writing practice that excavates the historical layers that comprise a particular landscape, revealing the social life hidden in cement ruins, abandoned lots, or regrown forests.

What would it look like to develop an archival practice that thinks beyond human time, beyond the living and dead as binary categories, to treat historical events not as a contained event but as a multiplicity of afterlives? Desedimentation is a practice that teaches us how to think of space and time expansively, decentering our subjective experience of time.

In the first half of Dark Soil, Karen Tei Yamashita writes about the city of Santa Cruz, the city where she has lived for the past several years. She writes about the lost Santa Cruz Chinatown, the Indigenous uprising at the Santa Cruz Mission, and the race riots that killed a Filipino migrant worker in Watsonville. What has been subtracted from the white settler’s imaginary of California? How does this premeditated forgetting make the landscape into one of sunshine and vacancy? Yamashita’s stories elucidate the ones who were expelled to make this imaginary possible, an erasure we must examine to unsettle the sediments of the present.

In the second half of the collection, I asked seven other writers to practice looking at the hidden history of a place in America or its borderlands. Saretta Morgan writes about a wildlife refuge in the Sonoran Desert where the masked bobwhite quail serves as an indicator species, a metric used to assess the vitality of the ecosystem as a whole. The remains of three Latin American migrants have also been found in this desert. Craig Santos Perez writes about the imperial legacy in Guam, where the name of his village means heartbeat in Chamorro. What I asked these writers to do in Dark Soil isn’t new—it’s one instance in a long lineage of historians writing counternarratives of the present, driven forward by an impulse to reanimate the loss, not as a redemptive instrument, but at least to give them a proper burial. “Beside the defeat and the terror, there would be this too: the glimpse of beauty, the instant of possibility,” Saidiya Hartman writes.


Dark Soil is a collection of essays that begins with the premise that the colonial archive is not where we should look if we want to salvage the past. Like many writers trying to recover the traces of our ancestors, I was frustrated by a narrow conception of what constitutes an archive, the procedural documentation of inflicted violence, how a person could be reduced to a tooth, a fingernail. I wanted to practice what Dionne Brand calls “sitting in a room with history” where the room was the world. Could the Pacific Ocean be an archive? What about the sandstone on Angel Island, or the sheets of granite rock coolie laborers died on while building the Transcontinental Railroad?

If our bodies are archives, what kind of data would they contain? This is not only because of the transmutation of forms, blood mixing with soil to fertilize the spring, but also because the more deeply I listened, the more I felt reverberations of the past, in its unaltered form, urging itself into the material conditions of the present. Thinking of the soil as an archive unsettled my conception of time. Time became much longer than the duration I was able to witness. Moishe Postone argues that capitalism restructures our temporal experience, restructuring time as a mode of social domination. What would it mean to conceive of time outside our productive capacities—geological time, non-linear time, revolutionary time?

When I ask students why we should study history, most of them will say the goal is to contextualize our present, the blip of our lives on this planet. I used to think this was a self-centered answer, but editing Dark Soil corrected my stance. All narratives are contrived, an injection of a linearity between past, present, and future. Even empirical documents invested in telling an objective truth make conscious choices to sequence some events and not others.

Many cultures have oral historians who mix mythological elements with historical accounts—the Palestinian hikaye, Gaelic seanchaí, West African griot, and Japanese kamishibai. These folk storytellers show us the inherent impermanence of historical narratives, their ephemerality and flux as they shift from mouth to mouth. What would it mean to make space for the excess and unknowability of the past, leaning into a form of contingency that shamelessly believes there is no point in reviving the dead unless to illuminate the present and its terrain of struggle? As Walter Benjamin says, “To articulate the past historically does not necessarily mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was.’ It means to seize hold of memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”


Desedimentation also has spatial resonances. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici writes a Marxist feminist account of the transition between feudalism and capitalism. In the late Middle Ages in Britain, a series of land enclosures converted public common land into private property, extricating the worker from their subsistence on the land, a fundamental material condition for creating a proletariat class that has nothing to sell on the capitalist market except their labor. At the same time, nearly 100,000 women were tried and persecuted in witch hunts—widowers, spinsters, healers, women who dressed like men, and women without male protectors.

The satanic hysteria acted as a disciplinary instrument that forced women into the sphere of reproduction, namely domestic labor in a nuclear family structure. What’s notable about this account is that Federici contends that violence towards women is not a separate and distinct problem, but an organic and inextricable process in the development of capitalism. While Federici’s case study is Britain in the 1500s, aspects of these violent rituals enacted on women who resist integration into capitalism’s productive capacities are transhistorical.

What would it mean to conceive of time outside our productive capacities—geological time, non-linear time, revolutionary time?

Thinking of the soil as an archive instead of as property made me consider what our relationship to the natural world could have been. Capitalism’s land enclosures translate into imaginative enclosures that change the horizon of possibility for the kinds of intimacies we can form with the earth and with each other. The commons are a form of self-governance, not only a set of natural resources but also a set of social relations. The privatization of these enclosures lead to an atomization of society and the loss of knowledge about agricultural practices that renew the land instead of depleting it.

Indigenous people have long practiced controlled burns to promote biodiversity and manage wildfire-prone underbrush, allowing overworked land to replenish its nutrients without the use of chemical fertilizer. Saretta Morgan writes, “The difficult thing about imagining a prior ecological identity is that so much of my imagination, which is to say my capacity to arrive, has been formed by and within the conditions on which this tragedy exists.” How do we dream of the possibility of an outside when we are very much embedded within? What about capitalism’s dynamic ability to inject these dreams with the logic of the commodity?

Maybe this is why Mark Fisher contended that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, a contention that’s always irked me. I don’t know if it’s as difficult as we think. Writing in a speculative mode can be a way of beckoning this possible future. There is no form of historicizing that can revive our ancestors in their earthly form, but we can mourn our lost collective futurity and imagine what our relationship to the soil could have been. In this mourning, we inscribe their legacies as a public language for the struggle over land autonomy and ecological vitality.

This is an affective project as much as it is an infrastructural one. The essays in Dark Soil gravitated toward the inclusion of experimental elements—lyric fragments, nonlinear narrative arcs, epistolary passages, nonhuman animacies, dream sequences, and nested narratives. While these formal experimentations might feel unusual in the Western cultural imagination, these expansions have felt necessary in order to capture the histories accumulated in the soil, honoring the fugitive desires and slippery realities of the presences that have touched it.

King Clone is a plant that evades detection—those who go in search of the bush often report difficulty differentiating it from the other creosote rings in the vicinity. The area is cordoned off with a low-slung wire fence and nothing else. Creosote’s lack of extravagance seems only fitting for a life form that has resided in the desert ever since glaciers receded after the Ice Age. Maybe it’s creosote’s unremarkable nature that has let it fade into the background for millennia.

When people say the desert is a wasteland, inhospitable to life, I say that the desert teaches me to recognize alternate forms of sentience. Creosote bushes were one of few plants that survived a thermonuclear test explosion conducted in Yucca Flat in 1962. Its roots have recently been shown to rejuvenate soil contaminated with heavy metals, filtering chromium from tainted land.


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Dark Soil: Fictions and Mythographies, edited by Angie Sijun Lou with stories by Karen Tei Yamashita, is available now via Coffee House Press. 

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