It’s cultural bad news day

Tony Wilson, founder of Factory records who brought us Joy Division and so much else has died. It’s hard not to mourn what’s became of the late, great Toronto radio station CFNY at the same time. They brought Manchester to the darkest heart of Scarborough in the early 80’s when I was a devoted listener.

And John from Cincinnati has been cancelled just as it was showing signs of loosening up and having some fun. The soliloquies started rolling and the Shakespearean echoes that elevated Deadwood again were sounding. It may never have taken off but I wanted to watch again each week and would have gladly tuned in for another season.

The soil lives

This is an encouraging development that suggests a way forward for other environmental groups: concentrate on the immediate health implications of destructive land use practices. It’s difficult to prove of course. We don’t think in terms of ecosystems. Strict causal relationships are difficult to pull out and there’s a frenzy of smart people dedicated to obscuring basic, observable truths. But everyone knows someone whose got cancer, or a child with allergies and most people who aren’t living in outright denial or a frenzy of greed can make connections to the way we treat the earth. Every environmental issue is a health issue.

Even closer to home, there’s something not quite right about my soil. Some kind of mineral deficiency? Too much lime at some point? Just too much damn clay? The first principal of permaculture is observation. I suspect it’s the toughest principal for the N. American audience to follow given our relentless preference for action, action, action. But this place has slowed me down and it’s only been this year, nearly two years after we moved in that I’ve got clear on what I need to do.

In the past I planted and added compost. No fuss, no muss. Here things are different. The longer I watched my yard the slower I moved. New green leaves often take on a reddish tint, like they are running too hot. Plants are more susceptible to bugs and diseases. Shrubs grow imperceptibly. Some don’t make it.

What worked, and much did, were the result of permaculture experiments. I started new beds by laying down layers of newspaper and cardboard, and piled thick layers of mulch on top without digging out a speck of sod. I noticed and started using and multiplying the comfrey growing by the compost as a mulch. I dug trenches of compost right into the soil by the chain-link fence. I grew clover, oats, vetch and dug them back into the soil.I sourced and trucked in loads of hay, bedding straw, horse manure cut with sawdust, wood chips, leaves, compost and topsoil (guiltily). (Most of this was free “waste” material.) I planted a wildflower party for the pollinators. I bought edible and medicinal plants, harvested and shared the bounty. I nurtured vegetables and gloried in the volunteers that came up from old compost, including a continuous 2 month harvest of tomatoes last year. I’ve made friends (but kept my boundaries) with the weeds that were happily growing without my primping and prepared mineral-rich herbal vinegars, yarrow tincture and dandelion greens sauteed in garlic and olive oil to nourish myself (and others not too weirded out.)

The weeds that are flourishing here, buttercup, dandelion (spectacular now in their 3rd year of almost-freedom), morning glory, horsetail are here because this is what the soil needs right now. Deep taproots to bring up minerals waiting in deeper soil strata, thick, fast-growing ground-cover, and shady vine layers. What’s edible and medicinal I eat and drink, the rest I plop in a bucket and pour water over to stew into a stinking weed tea. The resulting brew is nutrient and mineral rich, a free fertilizing, nourishing broth for the plants. I celebrate weeds because they are tough, deep, and resilient, the ultimate survival plants for the soil and us. (Kind of describes the people I like too.) I suspect mine are the most nutritionally and medicinally rich plants I grow.

The soil is doing what it needs to do. It’s alive and it draws to it what it needs. My job as gardener is to follow the lead; nourish, observe the patterns and uncover the design that will self-sustain what needs to grow here for our (the earth and my household’s) benefit. It takes a long time for soil to grow.