Monday, January 21, 2013

Paying it Back or Paying it Forward, in This Case It's All the Same

"Soil fertility is the condition which results from the operation of Nature's round, from the orderly revolution of the wheel of life, from the adoption and faithful execution of the first principle of agriculture -- there must always be a perfect balance between the processes of growth and the processes of decay.  The consequences of this condition are a living soil, abundant crops of good quality, and live stock which possess the bloom of health" (Sir Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, 1940, p. 38).
Perfect balance.  That sounds like an awfully high expectation, and one requiring a weighing hand significantly above my pay grade.  Whether it's diet and exercise, meat and vegetables, work and play, public life and private time, or simple waking and sleeping, "perfect balance" doesn't seem to be my natural effluence.  Like biscuits and gravy, the proportions never seem to come out even.

Still, Howard's maxim is worthy contemplation.  I have always thought of decay as one of life's little negatives -- the inexorable descent of organic matter (like bananas, lettuce, and people) into rot beyond which is simply garbage.  Or grave.  It's what I would have described as the "loss" of spoilage, and the race to enjoy before it happens.  But of course Sir Howard's characterization is more accurate.  Writing before the post-war capitulation of agriculture to the chemical industry, he recognized that healthy living has a circular dimension undergirding the glitzier linear one.  Decay is simply the credit side of nature's ledger, covering the fruitful debits.  Trees withdraw nutrients from the soil through their roots and then return it in the leaves they drop.  Animals extract from the earth by grazing, and replenish the earth by...  Well, you get the idea.  Take out; put back. The symmetry, he's arguing, is essential. 

And I understand.  I'm familiar with the issue of expense outpacing income -- of taking out more than is put back in.  We find all kinds of ways to circumvent the consequences, but the balance sheet remains.  I'm coming more and more to believe that anhydrous ammonia, sprayed as "fertilizer" by the tons on our farmland, is the credit card of "modern" agriculture on which we only ever pay the minimum balance.  Our essential indebtedness is unaffected -- in fact it is quietly but exponentially compounded -- but "look, Ma, at all the great new stuff I've bought!" As with our crowded houses, our fields are full of great looking stuff that we can't really afford.

We are taking out more than we are putting in -- buying more than we are paying for -- but we don't see it because Earth's bill doesn't soberly confront us monthly in the mail.  And we convince ourselves that we are solvent.

But the soil is not deluded.  If it is to feed us, Howard concludes, we'd best pay better attention to feeding it.  It is the "please" and "thank you" of the ecosystem; washing the dishes after enjoying the dinner. 

Perfect balance.   It is, it strikes me, in our interest to keep it healthy.

I suppose I'm learning about composting just in time.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Furthering Our "Gentleman's Agreement" With Mother Earth

The seeds have arrived, and now the compost in which to nestle them for sprouting.  It may well be that I will forever be buying the richly fertile stuff, but if I am at all successful I plan, in the future, to be buying less. 

Last week I went to school -- for a day or so -- to study the fine art of composting:  that Rumpelstiltskin-like process whereby the humblest of raw materials -- leaves, weeds, manure, kitchen waste and the like -- are spun into agricultural gold by the bacteria and fungi they attract and the heat their feverish activity generates.  There is, I learned, more than a little complexity and care involved -- assembling the right proportions in the "recipe," managing and responding to the temperatures that rise and fall as nature's work follows its way.  Toward that end, as the weather permits, I will fashion a circle of fencing material to contain the garden waste (there seems to be no shortage of "garden waste"), and any day now I expect to become the proud owner of a composting thermometer -- a 3-foot-long spike of a gauge that is inserted deep into the pile to monitor the natural oven it will become.  The details have to do with how high the temperature, for how long, how often to turn the pile, and how one knows when the process is "done." 

That will be for me a growing edge that will require more than a little experience.  We aren't utter novices at the process.  For the past year-and-a-half, we have diligently emptied our kitchen scraps and paper shreddings into the composting "spinner" -- a modified food shipping barrel mounted on a platform -- located just outside the garage.  That we have yet to empty anything out of it, only adding ever more materials and spinning, suggests that something like decomposition is going on.  The contents keep getting smaller.  While I expect the garden to sample some of the fruits of its labor this spring, even if it is rich and beautiful and absolutely perfect, we will never produce enough in the barrel to satisfy our need.  Thus, the fenced pile, the thermometer...

...and the newest addition to our country-living arsenal:  the chipper/shredder that was delivered only today.  With its twin mouths I intend to re-purpose the trimmed brush into mulch and recycle nature's smaller detritus into food for the compost. 

If the goal is to lose as little as possible from the circle of life -- returning in trim and stalk what we take out in harvest -- perhaps the tools and the training will help us feed the earth as well as we are inviting it to feed us.

That, at least, is the bargain we are attempting to strike. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Okras and Carrots and Squash -- Oh My!

There is that brief span, one season held at arm's length from the next, when the only presence is the past.  The holiday season -- jump-started with Thanksgiving's over-nourishment and lit by Advent's progressive flames -- is such a vortex of attention that, once the New Year's ball has dropped at midnight and the Magi, unburdened of their gold and frankincense and myrrh, have departed for home by another way, a kind of retrospective melancholy settles in.  Only yesterday we finished packing away the shiny decorations and restored to the household its less festive, work-a-day charm.  Almost until that moment the focus remained on Christmas cards received, orphaned cookies and the redolent embers of strewn wrappings and hummed carols and family more tenderly endeared.  That, despite the subsequent celebration of two birthdays, a scattering of plans for the months ahead, and the significant melting away of snow.

And then suddenly, with the last box stowed away, the spell seemed broken.  There was morning and there was evening, the creation of a new day and all the possibilities it might have in store.

And garden seeds have begun to arrive in the mail.

Somewhere -- somehow -- in the midst of it all I hurriedly placed some orders.  Motivated less by anticipation than the fear that suppliers would exhaust the interesting part of their inventory and leave me with some cursory peas and common tomatoes, I forced some forward, but lackluster attention on hoped for varietals.  Confirmation emails released my attentions to the reveries at hand.  Until now.  The Christmas tree stored and the decorations packed away, coupled with the accumulating packets of seed, and my attentions are shifting in a new direction.

Seeds -- both literal and metaphorical -- are such a powerful stimulant, bearing in all their tiny and inauspicious simplicity the total essence of all they might become.  How many peppers could be the progeny of one such meager seed?  Or tomatoes?  How many leaves of spinach might emerge from just one of those tiny specks?
From a plane ticket purchased?
From a date confirmed?
From a reservation booked?
From a dream explored?
From a question asked?

It's a given, of course, that nothing could come of them -- not every seed sprouts -- but the possibilities build exponentially.

So I have begun today to map the garden -- that 60-foot by 60-foot earthen dreamspace in the back that will eventually receive those seeds.  And, with any luck, bear witness to all that can become of them...

...with a little space cleared, a tiny hole punctured, a bit of water sprinkled;

with the simple sowing...
...of a seed.