Taking care of the soil
Still, I thought I would go ahead and talk to the doctor. No reason not to. I left the commercial roads and cut over to Paradise on farm roads.
The farms stopped me. They were perfect. They were absolutely exquisite. Each one was minutely cared for, as if the rows were pulled up straight each morning and the corners tucked in at nightfall. The soil was looser than at other farms; it was lighter, fluffed up, as if it had been given a good beating in a copper bowl.
I drove along a stream bed bounding with spring rains and watched where it widened into a pool by a farmhouse. Ducks sailed across the pond as if in serene possession of their affairs. I watched. There was no traffic and few sounds. I rolled down the window and let the smell of the earth fill the car. I thought I could hear a duck paddling across the pond. I was awestruck.
I stared at the ploughed earth, at the breathing, fertile soil all around me. And then I began to cry. After the assaults I had felt and seen in the cities, assaults of man against woman, woman against child; after the endless asphalted city floor; after the heavy metal-dust smell of power coursing along boulevards and into dark buildings, here - here, all this time, these people had been taking care of the soil.
This is an excerpt from A Midwife's Story by Penny Armstrong and Sheryl Feldman, kindly lent to me by a friend. It's the story of Penny Armstrong's midwifery practice amongst the Amish people in Pennsylvania and the quotation describes her first impressions of the area.
It struck a chord with me because the soil is what we've been working on here - the meditative pastime of sorting the real stone from the lumps of concrete, old bits of tile and other junk, and separating out the soil from mounds previously excavated from the house. Our predecessor built an extension and had the earth and other debris from the foundations and construction dumped in the coal cellar. We then converted the basement and dumped it all in the field. It's been there this past seven years, growing weeds, waiting to be sorted. I knew I'd get around to it eventually.
A few people have looked at it and suggested less time-consuming alternatives. "Why don't you kick it down the hill, cover it in compost and grass over it?" said one person.
"Just leave it where it is and grass over it," said another. "Make it part of the landscape."
"Get a digger," said someone else. "You can set them to sort through what they're shifting, to pull out the stones."
"Will it sort out the lumps of coke and concrete from the real stones?" I asked. It wouldn't. And anyway, it would cost more than we can afford. And anyway, I wanted to do it by hand.
People think it's mad, but it's meditative. And the children help, peering at bits of stone to see if they are the genuine article or just composite.
And while they help, we're talking about all manner of things: what the worms are doing. (Why aren't they over there, in nicer soil?) What's been happening in the house. What used to be here. Who used to live here. How they lived. Why they built the sheds. (WWII - Dig for Victory. We know this because my dad, who was a local child at the time, remembers them being built.) How they built them, and why like that. The history of the house, the field, the town, the world. How big dinosaurs are, and how far away Australia.
When I'm working alone it's time to think. There's something about repetitive physical work isn't there? It takes on a life of its own - a momentum. Jobs that you thought would take forever slowly but definitely disappearing. And at the end of the day, you feel like you've done something.