South Park – North Park – Golden Hill

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Grow your spirit in fertile soil

Grow your spirit in fertile soil
From seed to plant to mulch--the life cycles of a garden have a lot in common with those in our own lives.

I am in my garden, squatting in the dirt like a medieval peasant, as around me rise the complex smells of lichen and mineral, exhalations of earthworm and beetroot. The job for this day is planting sweet corn by hand, which means poking each kernel down into its own secret burrow, each tiny, wrinkled corpse into a solitary tomb, but with hope of resurrection.

After three rows my nails hold crescents of soil and my cuticles are torn by serrated grains of earth. Each year I promise myself I'll treat myself to a little wheeled seeder, which would do the job more rapidly and less painfully, but there's a benefit to planting this way: I have a close-up of the soil, on which the seeds' resurrection depends.

The novelist and agrarian Louis Bromfield once wrote that our topsoil is America's most precious natural resource. But it is a humble resource and one we take for granted, treating it as a lifeless medium for propping up a plant while pumping it full of nutrients and washing it with pesticides. If we lose our topsoil to erosion or development, we think we can replace it, bring in a truckload, dump it, and spread it around. 

But it doesn't really work that way. Topsoil is not so much a substance as it is a series of complex ecosystems, tiny kingdoms teeming with life, and when we disrupt it, it ceases to be itself. Imagine a community torn from its native land, forced into exile in a new world: That's what it means to move your topsoil. This is why many small growers are transitioning from plowing and tilling to different methods of cultivation, recognizing that the topsoil does best when it maintains its own order and culture. 

Right now I'm keeping a close eye on the topsoil in this garden plot because it has done poorly for two years in a row and I have no idea why. Last year a third of my peppers succumbed to blight, and the cucurbits--cucumbers, zucchini, and squash--seemed to wither before they even emerged. The year before, 50 percent of my onion and garlic plantings were wiped out by some inexplicable rot. Tiny centipedes scurried in to devour the dead things, and when I dug into the soil I would find them almost knotted together, feasting on death. I have to remind myself that the centipedes are children of God too, horrible though they seem with their fish-white bellies and all their rippling legs. 

But when I first turned this plot, three years ago, everything was rich and good. What changed? I put down a lot of organic matter, which can raise soil acidity, but tests reveal a decent pH. It ought to be teeming with life. Perhaps it was herbicide drift from my neighbor's conventionally grown field of genetically modified corn? Or was there herbicide residue on the straw I mulched with two years ago? 

A scripture passage comes to mind, when the landowner blames the weeds in his field on some adversary: "An enemy has done this!" I wish I could so easily accuse some mysterious enemy.  But the fact is I do not know. And here is the paradox of the kind of gardening I do: While we strive for mastery, we also recognize, with reverence, how impossible it is truly to control nature. 

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