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It’s spring!

The answer lies in the soil. There is nothing like good, old fashioned, wormy, loam. Good, honest, clean, dirt. But you have to ask, where did the earth come from? Unless you know where it came from, where it originated and why, you can never properly plan for your garden. 

A long, long, time ago, the Hudson Valley was rock. That’s all, rock, scoured glacial rock. Everything that once was there was picked up 10,000 years ago and carried south, deposited only when the glaciers retreated. Long Island is one huge sandy and pebble glacial deposit. All across the Hudson Valley region the only thing left was smooth rock. Okay, the glaciers – thinner and thinner each year – came and went, often dropping rocks and debris, but mostly the top feet of topsoil went south.

Then the beavers, microbes, fungi, and seeds got to work, breaking up the rock over thousands of years. Most of the depth top soil in the Hudson Valley is thanks to beavers. Rain up-state washed down silt that the beaver dams retained and, when the dams were filled up, the animals went up or down stream, leaving a rich loam behind. Over the millennia — yes thousands of years — they piled up the rich soil of the region.

Gardeners have a relationship with the soil. We know it is alive, we know one day we’ll return to that original home. And that’s OK. Dead minerals, dead organisms, dead worms even give life anew to plants and nature’s abundance. Add sunlight, air and water moving on, in, and through — all these with the soil are the building blocks of all life on this planet. Without soil, there can be no biosphere — livable space on this planet. 

Two thousand years ago, the Romans, in vengeance on the Carthaginians across the Mediterranean Sea, salted the land. Salt killed the organisms. Salt killed the soil there and to this day it has not fully recovered. A scarcity of rainfall there has prevented the soil from being completely washed free of that salt.

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The healthier the soil, the healthier the plants grown. The healthier the plants grown, the healthier the animals eating the plants. And that includes humans. It makes sense. You can only get quality out if there is quality to begin with. Farmers and gardeners are, therefore, the stewards of the produce quality attainable from the soil — and therefore they are also the stewards of the soil, its health, its sustainability. We have all heard of farmers who take a fallow field, plough it, tightly (over-) plant nutrient-avaricious sweet corn and then, year two, nothing viable will grow in that field. Such farmers are bad stewards, profiteers only. Similarly, the farmer who puts oil-refined fertilizers and herbicides on the land to cause all the micro-organisms, worms, fungi to perish in favor of a “weed-free” crop. In that process, the land quickly becomes unsustainable without repeat and ever-increasing specialized seed and chemical sprays.

Part of the problem with the vegetarian movement — although the issue of not killing a mammal for food is emotionally attractive — is that it is perfectly true that an acre of cow pasture planted with beans produces more protein than cattle year one. Year two they are about even. Years three onward, the beans take more from the soil than the soil can regenerate. 

A pasture, manure applied naturally, will produce the same protein pretty much sustainably. That is not to say we can’t find a way to make vegetarian fields sustainable — all we have to do is put back as much “muck” as goodness we remove. In short, you have to “feed” the microorganisms to keep the soil healthy. Organic feeding is more sustainable long term too. 

So as you head out into your pastures, fields and gardens, think about what you want long-term. Think of the soil as your friend, an extension of who you are, where you too will return one day. It’s your birthplace and your eventual home. Treat it with the respect you — and nature — deserve.

 

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.