Old reliable Earth, our heavy,
warm and lithic ball, has turned the corner, literally. Chugging
along in its elliptical dance around the sun, the Earth has
waltzed into Spring. On the very day of March 20, 2003, at the
hour of 12:16 p.m. (Mountain Time), this ancient star we call
The Sun will be hovering over our constructed band, the equator,
marking the spring equinox or simply, the first day of spring.
Equinox means “equal night” when indeed, day and
night are equal lengths all over the world, though we in the
northern hemisphere are welcoming in fertile summer, while those
below the belt are saying goodbye.
How easily I forget about this – celestial
bodies, gravitational pull, orbital paths – when I am
walking my small area of earth, washed in spring colors. How
connected it all really is: bitter dandelion, our planet’s
tilt, the robin’s song. The reason I forget is this: More
compelling than the Earth’s position is my position on
the Earth, and as I walk around, eyes focused on the melting
ground underfoot, I am jolted awake. Like the junkie’s
first hit to the veins I am renewed by my first eyeful of dirt.
Yes, dirt. It is the bare soil that rouses
hunger pangs for spring, glistening with snowmelt like beads
of sweat on dark skin. Deep, dank, crawling with life, death,
excrement, heat, predator and prey. This is where it all begins.
Beckoned down for a better look. The smell
is freshly dug potatoes and cool rain, the sound is bubbling
hisses and gurgles, the feel is grainy and sticky with smooth
underbelly, and the taste, well it wasn’t so long ago
that I was walking the woods in a rarefied state and suddenly
had to know, “What does dirt taste like?” Somehow
as an adult my days no longer included tentative licks on mudpies
or lapping up dark grains that clung to the backyard sourgrass
I chewed. It had been too long, and I couldn’t quite remember,
and so on that day I bowed down and flicked my tongue out below
the orange-barked ponderosa pine, drab needles scattered against
chocolate brown earth and 85 oh, fresh and moist and gritty.
Leaving my jacket at home for the first
time in months, I feel kinship with the soil, recently liberated
from its thick, icy coat of winter, ready for the limitless
possibilities of spring. Will it be a field of purple lupines
that smell like freshly made corn tortillas? (Really, give a
sniff this June). Plump, crimson tomatoes? Verdant, grassy meadows
where elk cows feed and cavort, their newborn calves stashed
in nearby willows?
What is this stuff of eroding mountains,
shifting seas and decaying life? Daisy chains of molecules become
nutrition sipped by growing roots and then returned to the soil
upon death, soon available for young upstarts. This stuff is
renewable! The names we’ve come up with: nitrogen, phosphorus,
calcium, potassium, boron, magnesium, zinc, do less to describe
the dark stew than the notions of my eyes, fingers and tongue.
Our cats roll in it – in all seasons – creating
dirt beds even in neighbors’ yards for quick fixes. Refraining
from this unabashed feline devotion, I surf through the soil
with my hands, letting the different textures and colors fall
through my fingers. In one handful appears slivers of wood,
crumbly autumn leaf particles, sticky clay and the glorious
loamy grains from the compost with an undecomposed shard of
calcium-rich eggshell, the diamond in the rough. This is just
what I can see.
In the same palmful lies roughly 7 billion
microscopic bacteria, 70 million actinomycetes, 7 million fungi,
not to mention a couple ants, maybe a centipede and a squirmy
red wriggler if you’re lucky.
I cannot separate the soil from what it
provides. Nothing less than life. That hamburger you just ate
came directly from the soil, also the cotton shirt, the gas
in your car (think about it, fossilized plants85). My friend
Dave builds homes out of dirt, compressing clay soil, sand and
straw into bricks we call adobe.
Who else loves dirt? The pocket gopher,
dressed in the same color dirt it pushes – dark in the
mountains, ashy pale in the San Luis Valley – spends its
lonely life burrowing through the earth, moving four tons of
soil to make its home. As an herbivore, all roots, tubers and
underground stems that lie in its path are fair game. The mole,
too, spends most of her half-blind life below ground, probing
the dark, underground world with her furless snout: earthworms,
crickets and centipedes beware.
I am partial to the earthworm, strange,
slimy, segmented. I have found these workhorses 4 feet down,
wriggling through impenetrable clay and have gone to great lengths
to save their squirmy lives. A large shipment of sheetrock was
arriving in the driveway, but first the wood planks that had
been stored there for many months had to be removed. Under the
protective boards were pale pink earthworms of all sizes, and
as big-booted men began stacking sheetrock, I scurried between
worm den and garden placing the little critters, three and four
at a time, back in the mother soil.
Not only does the earthworm aerate the soil
without disturbing roots, but it also turns garbage into gold
in its intestinal factory. Worms eat any and all decaying plant
matter, leaving behind rich castings, easily assimilated by
growing plants. What would we do without the fungi who whittle
away at the cellulose, starches and lignins, reducing the toughest
of hardwoods to rich, friable soil? Actinomycetes, the bastard
child of fungi and bacteria, give us such life-giving antibiotics
as streptomycin, found naturally in the soil.
It is good to spend some time outside on
this spring equinox, sifting soil through your fingers like
a king with his pot of gold. Notice the new spring shoots of
wild mustard pushing up from the snow-kissed surface of the
Notice, too, the clump of elk hair braided
into scattered pine needles – the perfect mix of nitrogen
and carbon – that will decompose and become food for stinging
nettle and big, blue columbine flowers. Ants will push the soil
around, bringing the deeply embedded minerals to the surface.
Deer, birds and foxes will die, leaving their remains to nourish
the plants, and in turn their own relatives. Somewhere in the
high country a gopher will churn up a mound of soil, spreading
osha seeds onto a freshly tilled bed. And a human will walk
through this wondrous place, munching candytuft flowers and
marveling at the mysterious and persistent nature of life.
– Rachel Turiel