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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Silence of the Land

As the year’s first warmth and sunshine arrived, Linda and I rushed out with the bumblebees and monarchs.   Unlike these flower feeders, we planted future flowers around Home the Land Built:  49 trees and shrubs, 150 perennials, 8 pots of annuals, 7 tomatoes, a kitchen garden’s worth of herbs.  And as I dug, or especially when I paused, wiping away dirt and sweat, I felt myself in conversation with The Land.  Not that I was actually talking.  I’m not that crazy yet, but I’m working on it.  Still, all things have their way of communicating, if only I can listen.

The Land had a story to tell.  But it was hard to hear.  Hard because it was buried beneath the grass and the green, and the riot of possibility.  Hard because I could feel---in spite of acres of newly emerging prairie---the Land’s pain.
Strange how such a tale could emerge from the ground, from digging in the dirt.  A narrow wild hedgerow separates our 2 acre homesite from the plowed and planted state land to the north.   While the vast majority of our new plantings were well south of the hedgerow, we planted four spectacular native trees---river birch, bladdernut, witch hazel, shagbark hickory---into or just south of the hedgerow.   And as soon as my shovel slit the hedgerow sod, the Land began to speak.

Until these four trees, all I’d ever hit was a heavy, reddish soil.  Not quite clay, but close.   Technically, according the US Geological Survey, it’s called a silt-clay-loam.  Except of course when we dug near the house, where the soil had been backfilled from excavation.  Then, as one might expect, the soil would technically be called compacted crap.    But the hedgerow was another thing entirely.

The hedgerow soil was stardust.  So light.  So black.  So full of life.    Unlike the others, we felt no need to amend it with compost (yes, this is the first humanure compost adventure folks, that’s me out there on the tree).  What a thrill!  What an abundance! 

What a sadness!

The Land’s pained story was there for me to hear.  As it always had been.  I wonder how often I’ve mistaken not listening for silence?

The story of the Land soil goes something like this.  Long, long ago, before the European settlers arrived, all the soil of the Land was light and life-filled.   The music of the soil creatures---ambitious ant, leaping springtail, lumbering waterbear---was there for all to hear, their song of life and death and life renewed.  And this soil, unique only to this little corner of the state and the nearby driftless region, was a gift of the last glacier.  Having oozed around, not over the Land, great winds blew dust off the glacier, only to settle on what is now the so called silt-clay-loam subsoil, creating the most fertile soil imaginable.  Loess, the soil scientists called it. 

They should have called it lost.  For that is soon what happened.  Moldboard plows ripped the prairie sod.  The cream gentians screamed.  But who listened?  Wheat was planted.  The mycorrhizal fungi, that great connecting web infusing nearly all non-agricultural life, said I don’t know you.  But who listened?  June downpours ripped the Land into gullies.  The light soil washed away, became a mud-slide, burying the town of Beaver 39 times in one year.  But who was listening?  Soon the topsoil was gone and all that remained, all the remains on the Land, is the near lifeless subsoil.

Except for the one place the plow never touched:  the hedgerow.  No wonder I walk up into the hedgerow, always a foot or two.  There lies the last remnant of the glacial winds.  The last remnant of the light and life that once lived here.  Ten thousand years of prairie soil building will not replace the gift of the glaciers.  It’s gone.  Forever.  Or at least until the next glacier detours around us.

Until then, I will do what I can.  And the best I can lend is my ear.  Listen.  No more will I enable the silence of the Land.  


  1. Beautifully articulated. A wonderful, sad story.

    1. Thanks dearest one. I'm glad that your were there to listen with me.