The Dirt About Dirt

Do you know what pizza sauce looks like in its embryo phase? Here’s a rare sighting…

Ten Thousand Year Old Post Glacial Lake Bottom Readied for Tomato Seedlings

Soon black plastic sheeting will be laid over these trickle irrigation hoses to heat up the soil. That means the difference between a summer and a fall crop of tomatoes, and the way it is with the world now, if it doesn’t sell by the first week of September it won’t. Fall has been moved that far forward by the ritual of early September school startup.

Note: as I continue through Switzerland’s Rhone Valley today, researching for the Okanagan Okanogan project, I give you a post three weeks old. I think you’ll find it as relevant as when I wrote it the day I left. Here goes.

Every year this land is cultivated, fertilized, and planted with tomatoes. Every year,  tomatoes are harvested here by hundreds of people who come out from town for the pleasure of picking their winter crop themselves. They are trying to save money, they say, yet for this pleasure they spend more money than tomatoes cost when bought in the can at the grocery store, so it can’t be that. What was once a necessity is now a luxury that happily paid for. Local food is healthier, right, but, um … tomatoes grown on compacted land, rooted in plastic, and fertilized hydroponically with petroleum fertilizers are, um, different than tomatoes grown in industrial plantations in California, Mexico, or Southern Ontario? Yet, if you’re going to farm today, you have to get your head around that basic truth: you are selling dreams, not food. Do you doubt it? Look how flat the land is. It really is a blank slate, on which you can write anything you wish. It’s just that this dream art won’t last. Will it be there for young people twenty years from now? Really? The soil is a living thing, and a breathing thing. Above the surface, plants breathe carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, but below the ground it’s just the opposite: their roots breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, just like humans and arctic foxes. The oxygen is given off by microbes, which feed off of decaying organic matter that has filtered down through the spaces in the soil and lies in the deep root zone. When the soil is compacted enough by tractor traffic (such as that used to till this field) and oxygen concentration in the soil falls below 10%, all plants die. How many decades can that tomato field be farmed in the contemporary fashion, to rush off aesthetic vegetables? One? Two? Compare that to this, a hundred feet higher in the hills…

Natural Bunchgrass Slope, Bella Vista

Notice that grasslands are vertical spaces, not horizontal ones like golf courses. That verticality extends deep below ground.

There are two atmospheres on earth. One is above ground. One is below. The soil is not a neutral field of rock in which plants can root and from which they can extract minerals. Like each human or western grosbeak, it is alive. I don’t mean that it has individual identity and consciousness. I’m just captivated by the notion that humans don’t have that either unless they break the chain of life — unless, in other words, they leave the earth.

Cottonwood Cotton Ripening in the May Sun

Pretty soon it will be drifting like snow on the wind.

Would you ever want to leave this planet? Really? It is a place of marvels.

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