I am not quite a child of the 60s. I missed out on that. I think the Tet Offensive or some shit was going on when I was born, dropping napalm, Look Magazine splashed with photos of men splashing other men’s brains over Saigon streets. I was young and the wrecked factories were just piling up, the old barns just getting abandoned, those who had started The wars were dying off, those who fought in them were getting elderly. The land had in many places been turned into an expansive waste of suburbia and Chemlawns, the cities I knew empty wreckage or tense and angry terrain. I spent time with the family doing the growing up thing, crying, puking, getting deathly ill, getting filthy playing in mud and dirt and shitwater and running about or climbing trees. We were a beatnik lot parked on the street of suburban dreams, a place my grandmother had bought and my family lived in, I knew nothing but row upon row of G I bill houses. Across the street, in a house exactly like ours, the old people, escapees from The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens attended Rotary Club meetings, mowed their lawns, or Mr. Vetter, he drove a Desoto a car that were I older I would have better appreciated its big roomy ass – hell I may even have fucked that car had it crossed my mind. It was the only world I had known. My mother told stories of fields, of riding horses, of streams and such, as she moved there as a child just after The War. I knew street after street, strip mall after strip mall, a town that bled into another town, a landscape of cars and trucks and the occasional sidewalk.
1978 or 1979 my mother’s beatnik roots came out again. She tore up the front yard to build a garden. The soil on The Island is a sandy sort, easy to cultivate. It was known for potatoes and ducks in the day. We tended to that soil. We had a few ponies and fermented their shit in a pile in the back yard. This was ¼ of an acre, no huge mansion, it was a wonder that the neighbors didn’t call ACS/FBI/CIA/Etc. when I think back to that dirty free thinking family, chickens and roosters, pony and goats, the front yard tossed up into a garden tended by children. That soil we folded in all that poo every spring and winter. Our little red wagon was usually loaded with pony shit. Bare feet, our only warning was “don’t step on a rusty nail” or we’d have to get our jaw broken. The sand does not hold the water, but works well. All sorts of loam can be added and then… watch out. Tomatoes the side of our little heads.
In one of those years the family attended something called the Good Life Get Together. Some hold over hippie shit. Back to the land, and by the time I remember going, many were aging out, getting to 30 and rethinking just how fucking hard hard work fucking is. We went to workshops. We learned about cobb this and cord wood that. I think there was even a geodesic dome being constructed out of recycled government cheese or something. We were kids looking at the end of a film. That came to a close, the Mother Earth News magazines were placed away, the Whole Earth Catalogue turned into privy paper and many moved on from that onto whatever is next after spending your 20s tending cabbage and lambs.
We moved from our sandy soil to a river valley. The soil at our new place was hard. In the rain it turned to butter in the heat it dried out to rock. I was older now. I built a garden in the only space my mother would allow, now that her lawn gene finally kicked in. This was a patch of scrub brush that when cleared uncovered an expansive and extended junk yard. Where the ground didn’t crunch under my feet it bounced. I would often have to dig out an entire trash bag of cans and spent items for fifty years of disposal before seeing soil. This soil was then a mixture of ashes, glass, and smaller broken bits that had fallen off of those larger rusted bits. A shovel dug into the fill reviled even more trash, a thin topping of weeds all that held the dirt and under it, a Gnome King’s cavern of hollow spam cans, beer cans, shoes, and sundry other items. An entire life in layers no less interesting as any archeological dig except that these items were all to familiar and none too valuable to make this exciting. In a word, it was disgusting. I dug a garden in this mess despite all this. Harvested as best as I could, tended as best as I knew. This view of the earth perhaps formed for all times my opinion of our existence, the extend of our damage, my deep misanthropic view and lack of trust of any of our systems in place or optimism that we won’t all burn, roasted over a fire fueled by our own waste.
I worked that soil and made it grow. Then, my life took my away from my childhood homedump. I attempted to plan a few things on the roof of my loft in tires, grew some pumpkins and cooled the roof. A few potted plants growing herbs for the kitchen. The basil wilted. The rosemary dried out.
It was not for several years that I finally got a plot of land, the back of some “garden apartment” in the center of the slum in a city still submerged in poverty. The backdoor was nailed shut. Urban people fear the outdoors, poor people fear sunlight and staple up as many bed covers to the windows in order to breath the asthmatic air of leaking heaters and dusty cockroach cum. The land was poisonous. Lead, asbestos, just every wonder of our age leaked into it. I cleared the invasive species, the Japanese “Bamboo” the choke cherry, the sumac, goddamn vines that grow as you watch them. I tilled the land by hand and planted only those fruits that I knew did not drink of the heavy medals – or just ignored these toxins and also root crops, leafy plants, and slowly replaced the earth outside… watching one neighbor emerge once a year to spray Round Up all over her “yard” before retreating to her dwelling and nailing the backdoor shut. The garden was tended to by me, and on occasion my now ex. We planted and turned the soil as a party, inviting friends to our annual gardening party. As it lasted, it was fun and produced more than enough, my ex allowing much to rot right on the counter. But, we did not rely on it for sustenance. It was a hobby, I guess. I tended it on weekend when I had to move outside of the city for work and became a commuter to my own house.
Then, the housing market, my personal life, my car, and my dog, collapsed. I buried my dog at my mother’s and my relationship on the steps of the courthouse, and took my licks by the market, having bet for the collapse but thought I had three more years before the Shitstorm hit. Again moved on form my native soil. I moved to a rooming house in another city, and returned to growing kitchen herbs and tending oversized or improvised flowerpots. The earth came in bags from the store. Complete with plastic balls I suppose retain water or keep the Styrofoam company in business.
In time, I have returned to my familiar city. My mother still tends her lawn, actually she is killing it one large patch at a time in order to rid it from some strange bug like mole crickets or such. My ex retained the garden apartment and I imagine that the Japanese bamboo and choke cherries have returned with a vengeance. I have started another garden, outside of the city with a few friends. The garden is in two sections, one raised beds with imported sandy soil, much like that I grew up with. The other side is the clay of the area, tempered somewhat by having been a field some decades ago. Corn, tobacco, beans, squash of all sorts, the bounty this year could be better, but for a new garden of a few years, it is coming along fine. We attempt to use few chemicals, but this year the squash bugs were a nightmare. Actually, so were all the other bugs. It has produced, but won’t feed us. I guess it’s a hobby.
In my travels of late, this blogger I was in The Northern Lands. The soil there is sand. A desert with pines, an ocean of taiga that seemed boundless. However, kicking the dirt brushed aside the moss, the lichen, the small carpet of feathers, and under there was inert and blank sand. A harsh dead pile of fine powder upon which this wilderness pushes back against all odds, clinging to a part of the world more refined flora and fauna had abandoned long ago for more welcoming climes.
Few of us give the soil a look. Consider the work needed to maintain even the slenderest blade of grass. Consider the stretches of Chemlawns, four lane highways and sundry other coatings of toxic substance we pour out into the world or edifices of plastic, cement, and vinyl that seem to ever grow on our landscape, especially in what has been historically farmland, those clear flat fields nurtured by so many agrarians and disposed of with a few hundred gallons of gasoil in the tanks of a few Caterpillar machines and a Home Depot (if a Home Depot is a depot for homes, where is the Home Depot, depot?). The earth is perhaps nothing more than an extended potting soil container. The lands, such as The North, the sand box for Great Ideas and powerful machines. Those sands, devoid of pines , scrub and moss, may yet become desert sands again, as those fields formerly of potatoes will not again bloom bountiful crops other than poisoned and tainted weeds. I am not a master of any skills, green thumb or otherwise, but I do know that our arable land is more to us that a picturesque viewscape, it is our nourishment and ultimately as we expand our fecundity to blot out all other live forms, we also stretch over the very substrate upon which our current and future spores depend. As I have reflected upon my life with earth, perhaps we should all halt a moment to consider our own lives and how they have interacted with this seemingly abundant but desperately dwindling element.