The Fat of the Land

Month: April, 2013


field soil

One of the more unexpected loves of my life has turned out to be the material I’ve spent my existence walking across. So easy to forget, dismiss or even slander, soil is the universe beneath us, dark and strange, that has everything to do with our daily lives. The nutrients in our food originate from the soil and its actions. The air we breathe and the integrity of our atmosphere are influenced by soil’s role in the carbon cycle. And it is, more often than not, the ground beneath our feet.

On some level, I’ve known these things since high school biology class. Yet, in my few interactions with it, soil seemed purely tactile, indistinguishable from sand in a box—something to move, to shape, to pour water on or bury things in. It wasn’t until I took a course in soil science that I began to glimpse its dynamism, to understand soil as something more than weathered rock. And it wasn’t until I became a gardener that it bared its soul.

Dirt is what gets on your hands in the garden, what splashes onto the sides of the car or tracks into the house on your shoes. Soil is a dance: lifeless minerals animated by electrostatic reactions, architectural aggregates constructed by chemical and biological bonds, microorganisms and invertebrates endlessly consuming and converting plant residue into nutrient-rich organic matter, a million miles of tiny root hairs tunneling and conversing by exchange with the forum of particles that surrounds them. One fingernail-full of soil is more complex than Shakespeare’s entire canon, and its poetry is just as striking.

Soil is slow but never still. Its myriad processes never start or finish, they renew. Like the ocean, its movement is fluid. Indeed, the same forces that influence the ocean’s tides pull at the water table, mimicking that briny ebb and flow the way a sloth mimics a monkey.

Like anything I love, soil has endured itself to me partly because of its vulnerability. So seemingly robust, its nature is surprisingly fragile. The first time I read in a gardening book that soil should not be worked too early in the spring I thought the writer was just being fussy. Now I protect my garden beds with fanaticism, disrupting them only to dig a planting furrow or pull a large weed, adding annual compost as mulch rather than tilling it in. This “no-till” method works well for most home gardens and has transformed my tight clay into yielding clay in just a few years.

In beds too large not to till, I wait. I check the soil when it seems dry enough by grabbing a fistful, pressing it lightly together and tossing it a few inches above my palm: if it drops back onto my hand and stays (roughly) in a sculpted shape, the soil needs more time; if it fractures into pieces, tilling can commence. Those who have not waited know what happens: our clay rich soils do not crumble apart when worked wet, resulting in a field of clods that bake into rocks in summer’s heat.

But something more than the threat of clods holds me back. Beneath its surface, the soil is building itself, creating relationships and networks. Creatures have made their pathways and affiliations. A precise balance has been reached among its living and non-living inhabitants, woven carefully into an invisible but intricate web. Aggressive digging or tilling disconnects these connections, leaves the soil jumbled and aerated. New oxygen introduced into the soil environment speeds up the decomposition of organic matter, stripping the soil more rapidly of its best nutrient and moisture reserve. Holding the soil as something sacred isn’t just fluff, it grows better vegetables. The more complete your soil’s matrix is, the more resilient and nutrient-dense your vegetables.

Who doesn’t gasp at a carrot pulled, fragrant and bright, from dark, fertile earth? Who doesn’t swoon at the smell of rich humus or the fresh, saccharine delicacy of finished compost? Who can resist crumbling velvet soil between their fingers, hailing its galactic spirit? Be generous with your soil and it will feed you. When it flourishes, soil rewards all the senses: with its rich colors, sweet and mineral scents, gritty and buoyant presence in hand and underfoot, its bottomless melody.



The Ephemerals

trout lily

Quietly from the rich, soggy duff, trilliums rise. The forest floor is still sparse this time of year—young shoots so slight and new they do not yet push against each other. There is room for Claytonia to spread its candelabra form, offering humble blossoms on succulent green platters, for Anemone to blush, painted trout lily leaves to suggest patches of dappled summer shade, fringecup to build its petaline towers and showy Cardamine blooms to bow, faint and pink, at ferns uncoiling nearby.

Like an idea springing forth, a melody filling its season, in some way they have agreed on this arrangement, each moment conspiring with its species. The ephemerals appear from thin air and stay only a twinkling breath. Many emerge, bloom and vanish (leaves and all) within a couple of weeks, exploiting the time it takes neighboring flora to stretch out of winter. They represent one of the cleverest biological strategies, winning the right to reproduce through haste rather than muscle or cunning. And by doing so, they enchant.

We are busy creatures, spending our days barely aware of the passing minutes, sighing often that time has lost its heft, floats weightless as foam atop our ambitions and fears. Like a sentence relinquished of its punctuation, we ramble. But there on the forest floor, displaying their fleeting fragility, wildflowers speak. Time requires neither weight nor leisure to hold value. One afternoon among these transient beings may be all you will see of them until next year.

Since my first encounter, the ephemerals captured me. I love nothing more than an afternoon in a rich alpine meadow or rock garden lazing in the sun, hopping from plant to plant, field guide and camera in hand, to study. Being small and often close to the ground, they have an almost private beauty I must lean into, a reserved complexity that aspires no farther than a few inches. Looking up from a wildflower, the world seems so civilized, so clearly beautiful. In the garden I follow along.

As much as I lust after summer harvests or find solace in autumn color and crispness, spring arrives like a slow gong. I have always enjoyed waking more than falling asleep, so it is fitting that this season moves me. I can barely contain the muffled thrill of spring’s first buds—a tulip bulb crawling to the surface, the first green Narcissus fingers, Fritillaria’s observant crawl, the push of green onto a world grown tired of its resting.

Spring mornings I am eager to step outside, take stock of what has changed overnight. Sometimes I find the sweet-scented starflower has opened, others an electric blue gentian trumpet or pink shooting star. In a morning of spring weeding, the wild tulips might yawn themselves awake while I’m not looking. And suddenly, the whole vegetable patch will be covered in yellow kale and mustard blooms, burgundy-veined arugula petals, like suspended confetti. One comes as if to celebrate the other’s passing and each day is truly different from the next. It’s like a game to come looking, to stay awake to its subtlety.

And even though I coddle these plants, watering and feeding them, mulching and weeding out competitors, I know they would still be here if the garden went wild. Amid a tangle of weeds, the Ipomopsis and Camas know their way. The wild buckwheat and Alliums will stand the summer drought. Unlike many flowers in the garden, beefy visions of their feral ancestors, the ephemerals have not changed their ways in our company. They do not grow because of me.

wild tulip

pasque flower


shooting star