Tag Archives: Dirt

Songlines 2017: widening circles

A wild rose, Rosa woodsii, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world

These words, from Rainer Maria Rilke’s exquisite Book of Hours, are slightly paradoxical because this year we traveled less than any of the other years since we set off on our journey in 2011.  My partner George’s health isn’t up to life on the road at this point, so my songlines this year became widening circles around Greenbrae, California, just north of San Francisco, where there is a whole world to explore. California hosts one of the most diverse native plant populations in the country and is home to snow-capped mountains, oceans, deserts, grasslands, coastal forests. Earlier this year I celebrated this extraordinary mix within easy reach in Wild Abandon: the Mystery and Glory of Plant Diversity. 

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Californians also care deeply about saving wild places. Half of the state is preserved land, an extraordinary accomplishment. I marvel at the knowledge of native plants and birds I find when meeting lawyers, nurses, teachers, business people on walks and hikes. In May, I joined a bioblitz for the first time. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever heard the word. I wrote about the fun we had cataloging every living thing within a small area of Mount Tamalpais in Blessed Unrest: the Bioblitz. It’s a celebration not only of our day but of the millions of people around the world who are taking actions, large and small, to save and repair the world.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hylea lineata) 

Rilke’s quote comes from one of the highlights of the year: spending three days with the ecological and Buddhist philosopher, Joanna Macy. Her Work that Reconnects helps people to confront their grief at what is happening to the earth, and to renew their commitment to the work they feel called to do. Rilke’s genius has supported her ever since she discovered him when she lived in Germany in her twenties, and her translation of his poetry punctuated our time with her. In The Work that Reconnects: a Weekend with Joanna Macy, I wrote about the extraordinary, moving circle of twenty-eight people, young and old, who gathered to move through Joanna’s spiral of gratitude, grief, and renewal. I found it uplifting, joyous, complicated, loving, inspiring, painful: life distilled into a weekend

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) 

Out of the time with Joanna came other circles. There were several landscape designers there, and one of them, Susan Friedman, had a number of native plant gardens on a tour in early May. So, off I went. I described what I found in Retaining Paradise: Gardening with Native Plants, and wrote about a longtime passion: using our gardens to recreate the bird and animal habitat that built-up neighborhoods inevitably destroy. 

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) and bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey CrawfordJoanna’s workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in the heart of Oakland. While we were there, the bees from the beehive swarmed, as they got ready to leave for a new home. This inspired Susan, who’d been thinking about having a hive, to find a class on beekeeping. It had never occurred to me to do such a thing, but when she asked if I was interested, I instantly wrote back, ‘of course.’ I loved our day with the bees, and chronicled it in Treasuring Bees, Saving the World

Rock tunnel along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordOur life on earth is tied to the health and life of the bees, which can also be said of many things, including dirt. In The Intimate Bond: Humans and Dirt, I treasure its multi-faceted community and innate intelligence, which made it possible for us to evolve and keeps every living thing on earth going. Dirt is not cheap! Much of the urgent need to take care of the thin layer of soil on our planet lies in the endless time frame it takes to form it. Focusing on Utah, where you can literally drive through the planet’s ancient past, I explored its mysteries and consolations in The Solace of Deep TimeBlack crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordIn Greenbrae, I live near a lagoon that attracts a wonderful, shifting community of shorebirds all year. Around Easter an avalanche of ducklings started, family after family of adorableness so acute I was addicted to that walk for three months. This handsome night heron is part of  A Season of Birds, where I describe my happy visits to the vibrant life there — which included an unusual extended family — and honor the necessity and hard work of preserving and reclaiming such lands. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) 

And, of course, I spent the year celebrating flowers. For a few weeks each spring, California is an iris addict’s paradise. I wrote about my feelings for these bewitching flowers in Elegant, Wild, Mysterious: Loving Iris, and suggested that flowers’ ability to inspire love may help save the planet. I discussed the complications of our gorgeous roses in Passion and Poison: the Thorn in the Rose. In early August I explored one of the most joyful flower families on earth in One Big Happy Family: the Asteraceae, and created a gallery to show their beauty and wide diversity
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford
Then, later in August, on a trip to New York, I was able to do something I can’t do in California: stand in a sea of goldenrod. Naturally, that called for celebrating the way this extraordinary explosion of luminous yellow connects us to the heart of nature in The Gold Rush: the Joyful Power of Goldenrod. I also visited an early childhood home, set in a magical green world. I wove my memories and my realization about how deeply that time affected the life I’ve lived into A Girl in the Garden of Eden.

For Halloween I thought choosing ghostly white flowers for Happy Halloween: Ghosts in the Landscape would be fun, and it was. To my surprise, the fun turned out to be exploring why we have white flowers at all, and how their chemistry is related to ours. That post, too, inspired a gallery: Luminous Whites.

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) white flowered native plants, San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica)

The only essay I didn’t write was written by Pope Francis. Laudate Si Repictured is an interweaving of words from his eloquent encyclical on the care of the earth with pictures of our beautiful planet. One of the quotes encapsulates the message I kept finding on my circling songlines this year:

All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.

Human and seagull footprints in the dirt in Kenai, AlaskaLoving the place we find ourselves will give us the strength and vitality to preserve it. Damage to the world and its people will be slowed and salvaged by love: for the earth, for our fellow creatures, for its waters and air, for the dirt under our feet, for the wondrously intricate web of all beings of which we are a part.  A profound understanding of our inherence in the natural world– the idea that we are the planet, not on the planet — is a gift we give both the earth and ourselves. 

I wish you all a new year of love, commitment, and beauty.

Celebrating Laudate si: clouds reflected in Dease Lake, British Columbia

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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The intimate bond: humans and dirt

This small (2 light years across) section of a recent (8,00 years ago) supernova is called the Veil Nebula. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

This small (2 light years across) section of a recent (8,000 years ago) supernova is called the Veil Nebula. (Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team)

Astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Every subatomic particle in an apple pie appeared in the first second after the universe expanded into being 13.7 billion years ago. He could have said the same of mud pies, though it wouldn’t have sounded as delicious. But, before apples, and every bite of nourishment that we put in our mouths, the universe needed to invent dirt.

My last two posts, on deep time and on our challenging love of roses, got me thinking about dirt, the devastating loss of it due to current agricultural and extraction practices, and the vast history it has taken to create it. Those first, basic particles were the seeds of the entire universe. But dirt’s— and our — particular possibilities were planted when the great mother stars swung into action a billion years later. These are among my favorite characters in the history of the universe because they are literally our ancestors. Since Carl Sagan first said it, it has become wonderfully commonplace to say that we are made of stardust. Those unimaginably ancient stars are the ones who, in their eventual disintegration, provided the dust.

Human and seagull footprints in the dirt in Kenai, Alaska

Water all over the earth grinds rock into ever smaller particles.

The ‘dust’ consists of elements that could only form over billions of years in those massive, seething balls of three-billion-degree fire, among them carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium. These and their fellow elements are the building blocks of all that we know. If you look down at your bare feet, standing on a patch of dirt, you are looking at two versions of the same things, an intuition acknowledged by many creation stories. In Genesis, God takes earth, adamah, and forms the first human. Through Adam he creates Eve, hawwah, the source of life.

Creating beings out of clay and breathing life into them was a story shared by traditions as diverse as the Maori and the Sumerians, who presaged the Genesis story by a thousand years. The Egyptian god Khnum formed the bodies of children from clay, on his potter’s wheel. After the goddess Heket breathed life into them, he placed them in their mothers’ wombs. The ancient Romans’ word for human, homo, came from their word for soil, humus.

These stories reveal a profound, intuitive truth. When our ancestral bacteria first moved out of the volcano-warmed oceans onto land, they began to digest rock, helping to form the mud that gave them the perfect chemical and hydrologic soup to continue to evolve into, ultimately, every living thing, including us. We share our substance with all aspects of life. What differentiates rock from worm from rose from human is the way these substances manifest themselves, determined by a wondrous variety of chemical and physical processes, and the magic of the carbon strands that form our DNA.

Even the tender tips of plant roots help break down rock by Betsey Crawford

The tender tips of plant roots help form dirt, as they find their way into rock, breaking it down, thus expanding their bed of nutrients.

We consider ourselves more advanced because we have evolved to stand up and walk erect, use our hands skillfullly, and ponder all of this. But having handy thumbs and enough prefrontal cortex to invent and manipulate a smartphone doesn’t mean we are not of this earth. Not only are we made of the same elements, but we survive by ingesting more of the same, eating the plants that grow in dirt, siphoning vital chemicals up their stems and into their leaves and fruits, recombining them into even more nutrients. 

We also survive because both dirt itself, along with the plants it grows, keep carbon dioxide and oxygen in the balance we evolved to suit. When we clear a forest, we not only lose the trees that are keeping that balance, but open the forest floor to erosion. We then lose the dirt that makes the whole system possible. This loss is extremely difficult to remedy, at least in our short time span. Dirt is, at bottom, tiny particles of rock. Decaying plants, fungi, lichen and billions of microbes eventually play crucial roles. But first you need enough rocks to break their tight bonds to create the matrix of particles for all that microbial life. 

Lichen covered stone path in Comb Ridge, Blandings, Utah by Betsey CrawfordIt takes a long, long time for rocks to break down. Those archaic bacteria started feeding on them 2.6 billion years ago, and, after all that time, dirt is still a very slight skin — much thinner, in proportion, than our skin — on the surface of the planet. The rock path above is invisible under a subtly colored layer of lichen, which is slowly breaking those molecular bonds. Rain and the splitting action of frost also help. But if I return to Utah hundreds of years from now, I will still be walking on that same rock.

Each photo in this essay illustrates one of the slow ways in which dirt is formed. The Dolores River in southwestern Colorado has been cutting the canyon below for 160 million years. Some of the eroded particles form the dirt that grows the trees; the rest were carried by the river, deposited over eons in valleys when the river slowed after the rush of spring melts. If enough roots establish themselves in that silt, the dirt will more likely survive subsequent spring floods, creating habitable valleys and deltas. Those are the places our ancestors settled when they turned to agriculture 10,000 years ago.

Dolores Dirt in the making: Dolores river canyon along Route 141, southwest Colorado by Betsey CrawfordDepending on where you live, it’s relatively easy to dig down to solid rock. It might be two feet in some places, 6 feet in others. As you dig, you’ll notice that under the topmost layer of fine particles mixed with plant matter and threaded with fungal mycelium strands, the rock particles get progressively bigger, until just above the solid rock are small boulders. Percolating water, acids from the soil above, changes in temperature — all these work on the rock substrate, breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces. 

If this process happens on flat terrain, or gentle slopes, with green matter, worms and microbes available, the dirt has a chance to replenish. If the slope is steep, or there are no roots to hold the dirt in place, it washes away. In the last hundred years — in the name of building, mining, mono-agriculture, manufacturing, meat production — we’ve laid waste to millions upon millions of acres of green, breathing plants. In doing so, we have lost more than a third of our topsoil, leading to a worldwide crisis of desertification.

A fern-filled forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Forests are among the most prolific dirt producers. By Betsey Crawford

A fern-filled forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Forests, with their steady replenishment of decaying plant material, are the most prolific dirt producers on the planet.

We are not going to get the lost topsoil back in short order, but we can stop the devastation and, by replanting and better practices on a multitude of fronts, reclaim some of what has been lost. The technology is neither complicated nor hard to come by. It’s the first step that may be the hardest — to convince ourselves that dirt is even more precious than its compressed cousins, rubies and diamonds. Things are ‘dirt cheap,’ we say, but we are dead wrong. It took 13.7 billion years to get to the thin layer we had 100 years ago, and we risk everything by throwing it away. The only things as valuable as dirt are air and water.

A decaying tree trunk will one day be dirt, helped along by fungi, lichen, and an army of microbes by Betsey Crawford

A forest creating dirt: a decaying tree trunk — helped along by fungi, lichen, and an army of microbes — can take years, but is certainly faster than rock. 

It may be even more challenging to convince ourselves that we are throwing away our own being. From a historical — and especially agricultural — point of view, it’s easier to see that dirt and human culture are entwined. Loss of soil has been the downfall of civilizations. It’s not as easy to see that humans and dirt are facets of a whole that we separate at our peril. Yes, our form is more complex, more ‘brainy.’ But we would not have evolved those traits without the community and innate intelligence of dirt. It’s an integral part of our own bodies, grounding us on the breathing planet at our feet, which in turn links us to the deepest and oldest forces on earth, taking us farther and farther back, through the mother stars, all the way to the invention of the universe.

Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. Glaciers grind, erode, and crush rock, and then leave the dirt-filled detritus behind when they withdraw. By Betsey Crawford

Matanuska Glacier in Alaska. Glaciers grind, erode, and crush rock, and then leave the dirt-filled detritus behind when they withdraw.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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