Rural stewardship has been a focus of much natural resource management policy in Australia and elsewhere. Despite landowners professing stewardship, some researchers have cast doubt on the utility of the concept due to its vagueness and difficulties of associating attitudes with behaviour. In contrast I argue that stewardship should remain an important concept for understanding rural cultures, landholder practices and the politics of land. Stewardship, however, needs to be understood as emergent, as a ‘dwelt achievement’, as having temporal depth and as being part of the production of socio-natures. Moreover, as a key vernacular practice, its capacities and vulnerabilities require critical interpretation. I pursue these issues through an analysis of 20th-century pastoral stewardship in central Australian rangelands where land-use ideals have long been tested by aridity and low productivity. Arid zone pastoralism has also been subject to on-going critique and re-evaluation as ecological and other values challenge pastoral practice and the very presence of pastoralism. Pastoralists have responded with varying articulations of stewardship. These share consistent foundations even as their form changes. I use Anderson’s idea (1997) of ‘critical domestication’ to underpin this analysis and show that pastoral stewardship has been, and continues to be, characterised by interpolations of order and chaos in nature and of continuity and discontinuity. With its focus on humanist ontologies of human distinction from the natural world rather than specific land-use ideals, critical domestication provides a framework for critically interpreting these interpolations in landscapes where ideals such as cultivation and closer settlement have not been achieved. Allying this framework with recent perspectives on the agency and materiality of nature, I also show that stewardship is not solely a human achievement, but is co-produced by environmental variability, plants and domestic and feral animals such as cattle and rabbits.