Soil, Fungi and Chthonic Communication

Humans aren’t the only ones who send messages. In his third guest blog, visual artist Shane Finan talks how nature sends messages underground.

A photograph of a spoon of soil taken in a forest, with trees in the background
In a spoonful of soil you can find up to 100m of threads of fungal hyphae, as well as thousands of living organisms. Photo credit: Shane Finan

As I approach a residency that looks at networks in the forest, I have been investigating the soil and how messages are passed below the ground. Regardless of any other area of investigation on this project, soil provides the link that makes all other things possible. The idea of place is tied to the structure of soil – the demarcation of one place from another not by borders but by identity is how people perceive ‘place’. The earth under our feet is the connector that allows us to create place (although advanced sailors like Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook in the 1700s and purportedly could always point to his home island in any weather without aid of map or compass, may disagree).

The word ‘chthonic’ is defined as ‘subterranean’ or, in mythology, ‘of or relating to the underworld’. This word provides a strong basis for a historically enabled artwork that encompasses the underworld as a story-telling device and as a medium of transfer of ideas.

We often think of soil as a limiter, as the soil of one’s nation creating borders between places, or as a solid in an otherwise non-solid space. But soil is also a source, and a transmitter. Plants grow from the nutrients provided by soil. The roots of trees connect into the fungal bodies via threads of mycelium that weave through the soil. In a teaspoon of healthy soil there are as many microorganisms as there are humans living on the African continent (Nature, 2011). In the same space, there can be between 10 and 100 metres of mycelium curled around the miniature rocks and dust (Bragg, Boddy, Gurr, & Johnson, 2018).

A photograph of tree roots with soil attached to them, jutting from right to left. The soil is dry, implying that it has been exposed and the tree has fallen down.
Fungi and trees communicate at the level of roots, passing messages below the soil. Photo credit: Shane Finan

Fungi and plants often work together, forming the ‘Wood-Wide Web’. Although there are common partnerships, many mycorrhizal (green plant and fungus) networks are led by chance, where fungi find themselves next to unfamiliar trees. The history of mycorrhizal networks is as much as 420 million years old, among the oldest living relationships we know of (Remy, Taylor, Hass, & Kerp, 1994). In these partnerships, fungi and trees exchange water, nutrients, and messages.

Healthy soil is needed for the woods, and the Wood-Wide Web, to grow. The soil becomes a transmitter, providing nutrients, passageway for insects and other small creatures, and growing space for roots and fungi. Soil, as a transmitter, allows the movement of animals, water and roots, but also allows the transfer of parasites, chemicals, and other invaders from neighbouring areas. The fungi that find the most comfortable, collaborative environment can thrive and grow.

The underground ignores human demarcations and borders just as the overground does – roots do not know where one field ends and another begins. The delicate ownership of soil, and the ability to grow, is important and has been highlighted in recent years by artists, farmers and activists. Fungicides kill the helpful fungi as well as the harmful ones; pesticides kill pollinators as well as pests; chemicals sprayed in one area can affect neighbouring places unintentionally.

As with fungal networks, human infrastructural networks (water, electricity, internet) also creep through the soil, sometimes, unfortunately, coming into competition with tree roots or mycelia. These are usually controlled by states or companies and maintained locally by individuals or teams employed by these larger bodies.

A photograph of a sign that reads Danger Underground Cables in faded lettering. The sign is old, and overgrowth of grass and shrubs is beginning to cover it up.
Forests and human networks both pass messages underground. Photo credit: Shane Finan

Cables for telephone, internet or electricity stream through the landscape both over and underground. These structures create abstract networks of interconnectivity that follow less ordered patterns than in planned urban areas, flowing with the landscape around streams or forests.

The potential for ad-hoc networks to provide an unstructured system of communication is one that has been explored by technologists and artists as a way to ensure community control over network infrastructures (O’Dwyer, 2020). In places as diverse as Zambia and Thailand, rural ad-hoc networks that transmit short-range signals that bounce data from one home to another are established in villages by local residents (Johnson, Belding, Almeroth, & van Stam, 2010; Lertsinsrubtavee et al., 2015). These locally coordinated networks decentralise the ownership of the internet infrastructure and place it in the hands of those using the connectors. Decentralised networks are arguably stronger, less open to corruption, and can be self-regulated.

Transmissions happen underfoot all the time. They pass through the soil that seems so solid underfoot. Soil has to be imagined not as a solid, but as a transmitter, and my artworks are looking at soil as a transmitter, a point of movement of messages, nutrients, and life. It is only through this understanding that the chthonic can really be understood.


Bragg, M., Boddy, L., Gurr, S., & Johnson, D. (Bragg, M., Boddy, L., Gurr, S., & Johnson, D.). V. Brignell (Producer). (2018, 15/02/2018). In Our Time [Podcast]. Retrieved from

Johnson, D. L., Belding, E. M., Almeroth, K., & van Stam, G. (2010). Internet usage and performance analysis of a rural wireless network in Macha, Zambia. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 4th ACM Workshop on Networked Systems for Developing Regions.

Lertsinsrubtavee, A., Wang, L., Sathiaseelan, A., Crowcroft, J., Weshsuwannarugs, N., Tunpan, A., & Kanchanasut, K. (2015). Understanding internet usage and network locality in a rural community wireless mesh network. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Asian Internet Engineering Conference.

Nature. (2011). Microbiology by numbers. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 9(9), 628-628. doi:10.1038/nrmicro2644

O’Dwyer, R. (2020). Another Net is Possible. In K. a. L. Gansing, Inga (Ed.), The Eternal Network: The Ends and Becomings of Network Culture (pp. 68-80). Amsterdam and Berlin: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, and transmediale e.V., Berlin, 2020.

Remy, W., Taylor, T. N., Hass, H., & Kerp, H. (1994). Four hundred-million-year-old vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91(25), 11841-11843.

Reflection upon neoliberal rural Chile: Social upheaval, a referendum and the adoption of a profitable niche.

Carlos Bolomey Cordova is a second-year PhD student at the CRE. He is researching the livelihoods of agricultural producers in southern Chile, and here, discusses how a hardcore neoliberal logic has shaped agriculture in the region in recent decades. He also reflects on how this relates to Chile’s upcoming constitutional referendum.  

Social upheaval and a referendum

Towards the end of 2019, people across Chile took to the streets to protest the country’s hardcore neoliberal socioeconomic model – imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973 – 1990) and further consolidated by successive democratic governments.

Chile’s neoliberal rationale is reflected in the liberal free trade agreements it has signed with most of the world, as well as in an array of reforms that undermined the country’s social fabric. The latter have included the abandonment of both public education and public health, and the privatisation of natural assets such as water and copper. 

When Chile embraced the global market, it became one of the most developed countries in Latin America. However, despite having the region’s second largest per-capita GDP, Chile also has staggering levels of inequality. This has been one of the primary drivers for the recent protests, during which many Chilean citizens have called for dignity and social justice.

In response to these protests, politicians have called a referendum on Chile’s 1980 Pinochet-era constitution, set to be held later this year. This brings the possibility of not only developing a democratically-written constitution, but also of setting boundaries to a fiercely neoliberal model under which private property is the central right and state interference in social life is kept to a bare minimum.

From grain to fruit: Neoliberalism and agriculture in southern Chile

Last winter I travelled from Newcastle to the ‘La Araucania’ region in southern Chile to undertake my fieldwork. Here I witnessed first-hand some of the contradictions underpinning the neoliberal rationale regarding agriculture.

When La Araucania was incorporated into the Chilean national territory in the 1880s, following a military occupation of Indigenous land, it became a region devoted to cereal production. However, farmers across the region are now switching their crops to fruits.

This transition has occurred because of two complementary drivers. Firstly, climate change has been expanding the temperate weather of central Chile southwards, making southern regions warmer and therefore more hospitable to fruit production. Secondly, public policies have encouraged farmers to adopt high-value crops such as berries, primarily for export.

A traditional smallholder field in which maize, beans and quinoa are all grown in the same plot. Photo credit: Carlos Bolomey Cordova

As a result, many farmers have reaped the rewards of higher crop prices and access to export markets. They have been able to capitalise on Chile’s numerous free trade agreements, as well as its geographical location, which makes it a counter-seasonal producer in relation to the northern hemisphere. Yet, not every farmer in the region has benefitted.  

Some farmers I spoke to at a local farmers’ market have not been able to grow berries because they do not have access to enough water to grow them (berry production typically requires significantly more water than grain production). This is partly a legacy of Pinochet’s constitution, which allowed for land and water to be considered as two separate ‘goods’. For instance, someone who owns property immediately next to a river cannot use water from that river if they have not bought the right to use it. The same problem arises when farmers dig wells: they must register these under the ‘Code of Water Management’, an expensive and bureaucratic procedure. Hence, many small farmers rely on rain water only, a system better-suited to grain production.

If access to water is not fairly distributed among farmers, those who are not able produce higher-profit crops, such as berries, often end up taking on work as wage labours or seasonal farmworkers. Within Indigenous communities, people are increasingly moving away from a highly diversified subsistence farming to selling their labour in the thriving (monocropping) fruit industry. In addition to locking people into a cycle of precarious work, this presents a threat to local biodiversity and the survival of traditional crops, as biodiverse subsistence plots give way to mono-cropped fruit fields.

Reliance on an export model compounds these issues, as producers become increasingly exposed to the fluctuations of the global market. While the government continues to implement schemes aimed at fostering the transition to an export-oriented mode of agricultural production, it disregards the fact that in the process, many producers’ livelihoods have become more precarious.

A government-issued poster encouraging farmers to grow flowers for export
Photo credit: Carlos Bolomey Cordova

A large banner at the entrance of the local rural development office alludes to a previous pilot that sought to help producers to export flowers, illuminating the government’s export-oriented focus. One official said to me that the main problem with the ministry of agriculture is that they are obsessed with export. He added: “the government supports many niche initiatives, but these niches often die… it happened the same with the strawberry growers of an indigenous community here”.

It is crucial to reflect on how a neoliberal logic entails a specific way of addressing agriculture, generating a set of unintended outcomes that obscures those who are left behind by development. The upcoming referendum will shine a light on many of these issues. Some farmers see it as an opportunity to claim water as a common good that cannot be privatised, and to cast doubt on the neoliberal model that has relegated many of them to poverty. Others in the rural elite will fight to retain their water rights and their access to an export-oriented market. Certainly, this conversation will develop as the referendum approaches.