Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Song for the Soil

It was a special weekend: the Country Dance and Song Society had their Board Meeting here in Lawrence, in conjunction with our local monthly Barn Dance. This dance and music community was once the foundation of my life; now it's a fleeting peripheral pleasure as the farm enfolds me in its own complicated and demanding dance. To celebrate and make our guests welcome, the weekend was full of dances, potlucks, an extra Shape Note sing for the month. Several out-of-town visitors stayed at the farm. It was a worthwhile challenge to waltz my way through the complicated commitments of my usual life and find time to join in the various events.

At the potluck on Saturday night, I found myself once again singing the praises of this soil I'm married to: Eudora. Not the high-spirited black and white ewe, Ewedora, but Eudora silt loam, the official name of the soil that IS the farm.

How do I love my soil? Let me count the ways...

It does not shrink and swell as it bakes in the sun and drowns in the torrents of Kansas storms; it does not press on the foundation walls of the house and crush them slowly into collapse.

It does not stick to shoes or tools when it's wet, at least not with the maddening cling of clay.

It drains so well that it lets me work it within hours of a hard rain, yet holds ample moisture far into the edge of a drought.

It has no stones to clink on my shovel or thwart the driving of posts.

It is so deep I have never dug to the bottom of it--not even in digging the entire 9' depth of the test hole for the privy.

It wicks up water through capillary action from the Kansas River flowing 17 to 20 feet beneath it.

It is rich and fertile and light, so easy to dig to pull weeds to push plants and seeds into its welcome....

Yes, I love this particular soil far beyond any I've ever met--a love that grew quickly at first, and has deepened as deep as the soil itself over the years. This soil anchors my life, gives me both purpose and subsistence, both work and pleasure.

On Sunday, I stopped by the dance after Shape Note singing, but couldn't stay. A rich earthy voice called me home to the farm. I couldn't ignore it. The weekend of dancing went on without me: it was a balmy late winter afternoon with just enough cool edge to the air that vigorous work was necessary to keep warm. Digging out a few lingering patches of bromegrass from the garden filled the bill nicely.

Oh, the good feel of dirt under my fingernails, caking my hands! How rich and black the soil is in this bed that has been thickly blanketed in nourishing organic mulch every year for more than 10 years! How alive it is with worms and bugs; though I can't see them, I know it teems with smaller creatures of all kingdoms (animal, vegetable, fungus, bacteria), including the unseen seeds of so many favorite weeds, ready to thrust themselves into the season. Weeding the cilantro under its protective winter cover, I find tiny veronica flowers blooming, minty-tasting henbit beginning to show pink at the tips. Between the lush, pungent cilantro leaves, cheat grass sends up its threads of green that, unchecked, will choke out the herbs.

Tonight's writing is so much more than than a distraction from assembling tax records. It is my own voice warbling along with the robins' song heralding spring. It is my own limbs dancing with the willows (twigs ever so faintly glowing greener) and the silver maples (swelling red bud-clusters beginning to push out delicate stamens) and the Siberian elms (smaller flowerbuds studding each twig like brown beads).

The process for digging brome out of the garden is this: First rake the dry leaves and mulch and dead grass from the clump with the tips of the spading fork (one of my favorite tools ever--gleaming, glorious stainless steel), exposing the edges of the spreading clump of greening shoots. Then use the fork like a cake breaker to divide the aggressive grass into chunks less than a foot in diameter. Since they will be be about 6-10 inches deep--the depth of the sod of roots binding the dirt beneath the grass clump--anything larger is too heavy to lift easily. After all is broken loose, I set the fork upright in the ground (so I'll be able to find it again) a short distance away and take up a trowel. I lift a clod, methodically beat the extra dirt out of it until only slightly muddy rhizomes and runners and roots are left, put them in a bucket to throw in the sheep pen, lift another clump.

The words and visual/aural memory of a Morris dance I saw performed many, many years ago always haunt me at this task, a sung dance about coal mining in England: "I can hew, boys, I can hack it out..." and there the words fade in my memory but the rhythmic pounding of the dancers' sticks echoes on.

I always wish a day like this will last forever! I worked until dusk, when the chilly night air suddenly froze the remnants of dirt on the tines of the spading fork. And when I stand, put the tools away, walk to the house--I find I must humbly confess that it is a good thing that dusk comes early in beginning spring, so that my body can gradually adjust to the new demands after a more sedentary winter. As the days lengthen, my body will strengthen with them.

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