The Narancay Garden

Soil as life, life as soil

Educator: Ximena Borrero
Children: Santiago, Emily, Isabella, Emma, Cristobal & Martín

Situated on Cuenca’s southwestern border, Narancay is a connector to other cities in the south of Ecuador. As a passageway to the south, Narancay has morphed from a tourist destination to a commercial hub, changing the geography of the place.

In the Narancay garden we are enveloped in edible plants and flowers. As we initially start to attend to the growth of these various plants, we notice holes in the soil. The holes come in different sizes and we find traces of  tiny soil mountains or “dirt mounds” that are presumably created by other species. We notice the children continuously asking “What bug lives here?” To try to find out, Santi puts some sticks in the holes to see if something comes out. He notices that the holes are deep and endless, and that whatever is down there is impossible to currently trace. 

As a group we are asking: What is under the ground? What lives and moves beneath us that we can’t see? 

With these questions we hesitantly come closer to the ground…

We run into a hole that is large and difficult to unsee. As we sit around the hole, enchanted by its size, the children wonder and imagine possibilities about where it came from. 

Who made this hole? -Santi 

The spiders may have made this one. –Cristobal 

Ants live there. -Ema

As teachers we become inspired by the children’s desire to think about the unknown under the soil and specifically their hesitancy to touch the holes, and the soil.

The ground is dirty from bacteria. -Emily 

Bacteria are bad. -Ema 

Bacteria make us sick like the Corona Virus. -Santi

We wonder and are concerned about our separation from the ground as an isolated component of “nature”. 

How do the ideas and speculations Santi, Cristobal and Ema have about holes offer us an entry way to work through our estrangements to the lives underneath and in the soil? 

With some hesitation, Isabella and Santiago crouch down looking for sticks to reach the bottom of the hole. They try different stick sizes while they attempt to track possible  movements through the tunnel.  No living being reveals itself.
“I think these holes may be the houses of the bugs at night.” -Santiago

We see a Devil’s Coach Horse Beetle nearby beginning to dig very rapidly and we wonder whether this is the digger we are searching for. We are drawn to find other entryways where we could trace lives under the garden. 

With magnifying glasses, we attempt to come closer to the diggers of the soil that we have previously ignored. Although we still do not find many insects, the roots of the plants, and various tunnel systems draw our attention to the world in the soil. 

“You can see the roots and tunnels but they’re hard to follow” – Emily

We envision multiple tunnel systems in the soil and find it difficult to imagine where they go. The soil is very compact, and we are unable to dig in. 

In a different area of the garden, we notice insects that are a little more accessible as we observe them seeking refuge under rocks. Although the children are slightly uncomfortable with the abundance of insects, they curiously and cautiously  lift stones. When we lift the stones together, we see very thick worms lingering and moving slowly.  There are also thousands of ants and some of them have wings.

Cristobal theorizes that “they are queen ants” because they are shaped differently. 

We are drawn to slow down and to work more closely with soil as a micro-cosmic community. 

We introduce soil on fine white paper. To tell stories about the various life forms that we witness on the ground, the children discuss what might emerge in the soil.

Emily, Martín and Ema agree that the bugs live in the soil. Ema puts her fingers on the paper to make tunnels. She imagines creatures in the tunnel: “These tunnels are where ants live”.

Reworking and collaging components of the soil onto paper somehow exposes and concentrates our gaze onto the multi-relationality of the soil. We slowly sift through parts of it, as we notice smaller and smaller pieces: stones, sticks, leaves, flower petals.

We mix these elements with some water and adhesive solution. As we mix it, things become sticky, including our fingers. Children’s fingers stretch the soil elements on the paper surface, at the same time that many artifacts found in the soil stick to their hands.  

As the glue dries, we can see that the tunnels become indistinguishable and fluid with soil.  

We take inspiration from the insects that surface on the grass -such as worms, ants, spiders, scorpions, beetles and centipedes- and draw how we might envision their bodies. We sketch out each insect body as ovals and circles, and use colour pencils and charcoal to design details in them. We finally cover them with watercolour. 

Isabella draws spiders using charcoal as she sits on the grass outside. Her spiders all have many legs. She imagines spiders with eight legs, three legs and no legs.

Santi moves his brush over and inside the lines of his sketched worms with pink, brown, green, blue and purple watercolours. As he adds the watercolours, the fine lines that separate the different bodies are still visible. 

Cristobal creates a centipede.

He follows a worm like design and adds first red and then blue legs to help the new insect move faster as it morphs into the centipede. 

We have a difficult time cutting out our insects, in an attempt to follow some sort of bodily structure. Some of our cut-outs are square to include the smaller legs. Others cut over pieces of watercolours because it is difficult to know when the insect stops and the rest of “space” begins. We stick our new insects onto the dried soil-glue while paying careful attention to the ways they are in re-emergence with the soil. Inside of the soil we see orange green and blue worms, a muli-coloured centipede, a purple spider with eight legs and many other name-less insects that are referred to as “bugs”. 

On a particularly rainy day we take soil from two areas of the garden to add to our white paper.

Isabella digs deeply into the ground under a few pine trees. We place the soil that she has collected on the parchment and notice vibrant movements of worms that were lurking and hiding in the soil.

The worms quickly swirl away, as they have accidentally been put on display. 

Ema creates moulds and paints clay worms that are colourful.  She draws a detailed “house of worms” that resembles how the worms live underground: 3 bedrooms, a dining room, and a table with decaying leaves for food. As Ema draws, we notice that in her drawing the rain falls on the surface of the earth in very sparse straight and long channels that are slightly different than how we have previously and collectively envisioned tunnels.  

Inspired by Ema’s imagining of “home”, we add our clay worms to the soil piles to bring another dimension to our conversations about homes.

We are doing the roads of the worms. – Ema

But if the worms live in a nest the birds will eat them…. It looks like a nest under the ground and the tunnels are used to communicate with other worms. – Santi

I made a nest where my worms live together. Santi

How do worms travel in their homes?

The worms go up and down. –Cristóbal

The worms
go straight.
– Isabella

The worms make tunnels to go to other worms.

 We explore the diversity of the tunnels’ shapes and in doing so a dialogue emerges on how worms are in relationship with insects which live above, below and in-between the “underground border”.   

We put in dialogue the stories from the individual drawings to create a collective painting. As the children paint on a large piece of paper spread on the table, they draw a pristine garden with the soil world underneath. 

To accentuate the soil world, we decide to hang up the drawing on the wall showing the soil layer on top.

This provokes the children to pay careful attention to the soil world. Children add further details to the tunnels and offer stories of worms and their dwellings.

Santi draws tunnels that become slides for the worms to slide down.

As we draw and paint the soil world becomes alive and the stories take up the perspective of worms.

Approximations to the soil: Finding invisible presences

As we pay careful attention to what emerges in the soil world painting, we invite children to return to being with the soil.

An invisible protagonist enters the encounters with soil: bacteria

How can we trace these lives that we cannot see?

Cristóbal and Isabella think that bacteria could eat the fruit. They take leftover kiwi from their snack and put them on the ground to see what happens to them. Cristóbal theorizes that the animals will eat the fruit, while Isabella wonders if bacteria will break it down. We leave small pieces of fruit in the garden each day to see what will happen with this particular patch of soil. 

Some of us imagine various animals eating them. Ema thinks that the garden cats will eat the kiwi while Santi proposes that the birds will devour the fresh pieces of kiwi. 

Each day we add more fruit to see what happens. Avocados begin to reduce their size and change colour; white and turquoise fuzziness or fungi take over. We notice the presence of these microbes and spores, and how little by little the avocado decomposes. As the bacteria, fungi, spores, and microbes take over the children wonder about the force of these invisible presences.

As Santi draws, he watches the avocado shrivel and mutate. The avocado slowly turns darker in colour as it integrates into the soil. 

Martín paints the decomposition of avocados and apples. Cristóbal thinks about the transformation process. We notice that as fuzzy layers appear and the fruit breaks apart, larger living beings stop approaching the fruit and it slowly becomes part of the earth. 

As teachers we are inspired by Maria de la Bellacasa’s work with Amanda White and Alana Bartol’s beautiful animation movie, The Soil is Teeming with Life, which shows the life of bacteria microscopically and gives an entrance to amplify our understandings of bacteria and the decomposition in soil. As we watch the floating colourful microbes move across the screens, we sit with our decomposing fruit which has shrunk and is now present with visible fungi.

Using watercolour paints and grainy canvas, we attempt to create representations of microbes from the video while holding on to our relationships with the soil in the garden. The children emphasize the darkness  in their paintings as they separate soil (the black watercolour) and the colourful bacteria. 

Circles appear in the children’s artwork, in an attempt to mimic isolated microbes in the video. Boundaries between microbe bodies and “soil” are upheld in these structural drawings. 

“Bacteria have a circular shape.” 
– Santiago

Other art works are inspired by the movements of bacteria. As the children make paradigms between the microbes and the macro world, their paintbrushes move or swerve in a trajectory while sometimes stopping abruptly or fading. 

“Our bacteria look like worms.”
– Isabella and Emily

We also notice the graininess in our watercolours, and as we zoom in, the colours are not fixated but granular and unpurified. 

“Bacteria are just like little dots” Cristobal

We hang our art works on the ceilings of the shelter in the garden and they slowly move with the breeze. The children pretend they are under the ground and they re-imagine a life with bacteria. As the invented microbes move back and forth in the wind, the soil no longer performs the role of an independent entity, categorized and useful for growth, but as an uncontrollable dispenser of microbes that are present everywhere.