Tuesday, 20 March 2012

march 20, 2012

oooh, it's spring! happy equinox everyone! i love this time of year because you can smell the dirt and see a bit of green. reminds me of all the richness and life under our feet.

i'm going to hand the blog over to my friend k.w. for today because she submitted a guest post that's really relevant and eloquent - i hope you enjoy it!


This post is about mending our relationship with the skin of the earth. And when I say earth, I don't mean Gaia, or Eairth, or any abstract concept of the vastness that is this planet. I mean dirt. The actual living, breathing surface. The blackness your mother told you to wash out from under your fingernails before dinner. A handful of which - if healthy - contains more of a diversity of living organisms than any other ecosystem.

In the documentary Dirt! The Movie, the filmmaker visits vineyards in different parts of the world where the same varieties of grapes are grown, yet result in astoundingly different wines. He kneels to the ground as if in prayer, running a handful of dry Argentinian soil - which is little more than ochre dust - through his fingers. He brings it up to his nose and inhales. If you watch closely, very closely, you can see that he tastes just a little of it with his tongue. He says that he can detect a hint of the flavour of the soil in the finish of the wine.

In the last 100 years, we have lost a 1/3 of our topsoil due to the carelessness of industrial agriculture and a lack of attention to the land that sustains us. What does this mean? It means we are losing the skin of our planet. But how do we mend it? With awareness. Compassion. Rehabilitation. Restoration. Remediation. The way that I choose to mend my relationship with dirt is MULCH!

MULCH! makes me happy. It is like making a layer cake for earthworms, mycelium (the underground network where mushrooms do their real work) and other decomposers to eat and turn back into soil - thus adding organic matter, keeping weeds from growing and helping to retain moisture. It's like a thick, nurturing, protective blanket, and it can be made out of any natural substance that will readily decompose. I've been known to pull U-turns after sighting bags of leaves at the curb. I plead guilty to liberating bales of straw from construction sites and abandoned Halloween displays. I've hauled days' worth of wheelbarrows of old manure out of barns. And I have, on multiple occasions, hauled entire pickup truck-loads of cardboard boxes to their final destination: the ground. The ultimate recycling plant: Here, bike box. I will help you turn back into a tree.

MULCH! is magic. I met a Dutch farmer years ago who covered his garden in 6 inches of straw, once the plants were up, and never had to water or weed or fertilize. Ever.

Just this winter I moved into a new house in Squamish, BC, and spent a few days in December weeding the gardens in the rain (impossible in Ontario, I know...sorry), then borrowed a friend's van and got two Rubbermaid bins of aged horse manure from a farm. (SOIL FOOD! SOIL FOOD!) Then I snuck into the woods at night with a pitchfork and more Rubbermaid bins to claim a huge pile of leaves that someone had dumped there after raking their lawn. I liked the poetic justice of that: someone carted them in as waste, and I carted them out as a precious resource. They've already started to decompose and are inoculated with all kinds of amazing invisible foresty organisms, on their way to becoming soil already. You can't buy anything this good.

Back home, I spread the leaves over the garden in a thick blanket. But I need more. So back out in the dark I go, forking leaves into Rubbermaid bins by the light of a headlamp. I'm not sure why it needs to be pitch black outside in order for me to steal leaves from the forest. It just does. It adds to the drama of the whole situation. (MUST. COVER. SOIL. NOW!)

"Have you lost something?" a woman asks, looking at me in concern, holding onto the leash of her dog tightly, heading home. She must think I'm burying the dead instead of recyling it.
"No." I tell her, and explain. It is December. I am feeding gardens. She gives me a strange look, and walks quickly to where the light of a streetlamp marks the edge of the road.

There is something about a thickly MULCH!ed garden that makes me feel complete. Like something wrong has been made right; something broken has been mended. Nature never leaves bare soil just lying around unprotected. It's only humans who carelessly turn over entire fields and leave them to the gulls; only humans who upend hectares of rainforest in a single day. Then the rain comes, and the wind comes and, in a year, the soil is gone. It seems only fair that, if I expect my little backyard plot to feed me in the summer, I should toil in the winter rain, by the thin light of a battery lantern, to bring it a gift of soft leaves in exchange.

Now that it's the first day of spring, my perfect winter mulch is looking a little ragged. There are bare patches of soil where the dog has catapulted after who knows what. There are scatterings of wood ashes everywhere that I brought back from Maine Island in the trunk of a friend's car and scraps of seaweed that I gathered on walks around Howe Sound. All of this is skin-of-the-earth food. The original leaves are almost gone; turned into soil by worms and other crawlers that have done their work unseen. I have to quell the urge to rush out and GET! MORE! MULCH! because soon I will clear patches of it away to plant fresh seeds and, once they make the location of their sproutings known, then it will be time for EVEN MORE MULCH!; maybe grass clippings this time, to keep the soil happy and nurtured and covered and fed.

I like MULCH! as a metaphor too. There are times when areas of my life need to be protected - when things are left unsaid, when the answers don't come easily and must percolate, slowly, rising up out of the ground. There are times when the coverings need to be stripped away to allow the planting and growth of new seeds, when my thoughts sing to 24-hour daylight. Lives grow wings of their own accord, given time and enough held space.

Though you may not feel ready to start your own MULCH! adventure this spring, I would like to invite you to say hello to the dirt that is all around you. The soil holding the roots of the grass that pokes up between the cracks in the sidewalk. Better yet, sink your bare feet into the bottom of a mud puddle, and don't let anyone tell you to clean the dirt off your toes. If you see a particularly fertile garden, take a a moment to bring a handful of its soil up to your face and inhale. What does it smell like? Does it feel alive? And then, in the final sacred exchange, taste it. I dare you. Just a little. On the tip of your tongue. What does the skin of the planet taste like where you live?

In my backyard, the dirt tastes a little of rotten leaves, seaweed and Chistmas bonfires. If I go further out, past the highway and into the estuary where the land meets the Pacific, it tastes of salt. This is as far as I have come to know my new home.

1 comment:

  1. Most of my family are avid gardeners and composters, and I know how important it is for plants to have a nutritious bed of soil to live and thrive in. I read a really fascinating book on earth worms a while back, and it amazed me to learn that certain types of earth worms promote or kill off different types of bacteria that can either cause plants to thrive or not grow as well... I always knew worms were good for plants - my parents had me collect them after rains and put them back in the garden and flower beds - but I never knew the impact was so complex.