Talk Dirt to Me

Tabula Rasa

I’ve never been a good speller. My mother says it’s because I’m lazy and deceitful. Maybe she was talking about something else. I bring this up today because I initially misspelled tabula rasa as tabla rasa. Instead of Latin for “blank slate,” it was some sort of Hindi-Latin mishmash: “blank drum.” Now that’s just silly.

There was a time that some argued children were born as “blank slates.” Their personalities arose entirely from parenting choices. We now understand that though nurture makes a big difference, heredity should not be underestimated.

The same can be said for land. We can nurture it, but its heritage will play a role in the life it fosters. Perhaps more to the point, there is no new land. Even the fields the Dutch have coaxed out of the North Sea aren’t new, the soil came from somewhere and that history affects its fertility.

The choices we make today about how we treat our land will change what it can grow in the future. Extractive agriculture can leave behind a soil devoid of nutrients: both mineral and organic. This dying soil can’t contain as much life and erodes. We lose topsoil 10 to 40 times faster than it can be replaced (Pimentel, Journal of Environment, Development and Sustainability 2006).

Bare soil is anything but a blank slate; it is more of a palimpsest, a page used many times over and only partly erased.

I’ve recently been faced with what at first seems a blank slate: after much sweat (mostly not ours) and treasure loss (ours) our house has an addition. During the excavation, one could see some of the property’s history in the soil. Sadly, former owners dumped spent coal around the foundation. The excavators backfilled the gash in the land mostly with soil from the site, but it has been churned: it no longer has the clear soil horizons of a healthy soil.

So now I am faced with the challenge of turning this into a healthy part of my garden. I won’t plant annual food there (tomatoes and beans), but I can grow perennials, maybe some longer term crops like nut and fruit trees. But where to start?

I need to try to turn dirt to soil. Natural processes will do this on their own, but it will take decades, I won’t live to see that. It’s going to take some sheet composting and some patience. I’ll also have to recruit plants that can deal with sub-optimal conditions. I hope I’m up to the challenge.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate