Off the trail: A fresh look at dirt.

I have hiked or run on dirt trails for a number of years now so it is odd to look at dirt in a new way. But now, I am careful where I tread on the dirt, lest I stomp on and kill a seedling.

A few weeks ago I was assigned a community garden plot. I did not receive the news until almost the end of June so it was a real race to find seeds to purchase, till the soil and plant my garden. By the middle of July, late one night after work, after dark, my garden was fully planted. I opened the spigot and jiggled my thumb over the end of the hose to create an arcing spray. By the light of my headlamp,  globules of water looked like pearls in the beam of light, disappearing silently into the dirt. With a great deal of good fortune I might just get a crop of corn, lettuce, carrots and zucchini in the early fall.

Now on summer evenings I am drawn to my garden like I used to be drawn to the dirt on the trail. But now I am not interested in how much ground I can cover and what I might see along the way. Rather, I am interested in how much I can grow out of this plot of earth.

Surprising as it might seem, gardening in any organized way, and certainly modern corporate farming, is relatively new to the human race. What with homo sapiens dating back almost 200,000 years ago, anthropologists believe that we humans only began to actually plant seeds to grow food sometime around ten thousand years ago. We gathered plants, fruits and nuts to eat prior to that. But cultivating an understanding of gardening took many, many years.

Indeed, scientists explain that at first human ancestors practiced not agriculture, the planting of seeds in cleared plots of lands, but rather vegeculture, that is planting a seed or two outside of the cave entrance in an available clearing. Only after years of experience with vegeculture did humans develop the ideas and concepts which ultimately led to modern gardening and farming: clearing tracts of land, mass planting of seeds and watering and fertilizing the crops.

When hiking along the dirt trail in the forest I pass through the land. Now I  myself am rooted to the soil, fingers deep into the dirt, like tendrils of a seedling. I tread lightly, checking each step again and again so as not to stray onto the tiny emerging sprouts.  And though I stay by my hundred square foot space, the experience is immersive, expansive, not claustrophobic or limiting. And I leave with a similar sense of calm I get from time spent deep in the woods.

The dirt is common to both the trail and garden.   It is an alluvial silty outwash from rocky sediment, mixed in with composted lichen and forest litter, serving as a home to thousands of microbes, yielding a magic carpet that bedizens our forests and farms and helps nourish a planet. And we should respect this life giving resource. Now well into the summer of 2014 we are inundated with painful news of planes falling from the sky killing all aboard, school girls gone missing, teenage boys abducted and murdered, conflicts around the globe, in Ukraine and Israel and Gaza. Body counts of killed and wounded climb.Mourners’ tears water cemetery grass. One response to ongoing conflict will ultimately come from the soil, which will outlast all combatants and go on in the fullness of time to hide the remnants of the warfare we wage. American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) recognized the power of the soil to hide the horrible in his poem Grass. For Sandburg, the grass hid the memories. Perhaps we the citizens of the earth can learn to till hope from the soil, instead:



Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
                                          I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                                          What place is this?
                                          Where are we now?
                                          I am the grass.
                                          Let me work.
Howard E. Friedman