Friday, September 2, 2011

Microscopic Cities

When you step into Ephemerata Gardens, right beneath your feet is a densely populated urban population, the sprawling megalopolis of Soilandia. Of all "Do-It-Yourself" activities, perhaps DIY soil is the one you do least by yourself. Compost heaps are buslting microscopic cities of macroinvertebrate mansions, amoeba apartments, and fungal factories. They say a teaspoon of good soil is home to 100 million to 1 billion bacteria. And the Archaea! Strange to think human food security depends on this galaxy of microbes. So much for doing it yourself -- only we can make soil in an ongoing collaboration with life forms that know just what to do with dead things.

In the drought/recession fall of 2008, Carol Ann Sayle's tour of Boggy Creek Farm opened with an invocation of threat to this we. “I know why you’re here. Things are tough, and we’re all worried. We need true homeland security.” Around sixty people gathered for the tour, most of them in their later years unlike the twenty-somethings drawn to the Rhizome Collective's RUST workshop.

Carol Ann addresses the crowd from her front porch. The house is one of the three oldest structures in Austin, built in 1840 in the bottomlands of the Colorado River with its rich alluvial soil (back when all farming was "organic"). Farms have surrounded the house for most of a century and a half. Carol Ann and her partner Larry Butler bought the place in 1992 and gave it its current name in honor of the creek with concrete banks a block away. Now three other organic farms share the neighborhood. The landscape patch's memories keep popping out of the soil in the form of wild amaranth and horseshoes. Archaeologists from the University of Texas at Austin have come to dig for 19th century debris like kitchen garbage, pottery shards, bones. On the Farm’s website, Carol Ann recognizes the house itself as “a physical testament to the labors of the African slaves who undoubtedly had a hand in its construction, and who worked the fields of this antebellum plantation. This page is dedicated to their memory.”

Our tour meanders from the porch to the front garden, where the gravel driveway and rocks in the soil soak up heat and keep the field a few degrees warmer than the back garden. Carol Ann's tour isn't about plants, but topsoil. “Focus on the soil and forget about the plants.” We linger around the compost heaps, twenty-foot long rows as tall as a person. Every few days they need to be turned with a front-end loader to keep the temperature right and replenish the oxygen inside. On cold days they steam when turned. Carol Ann describes soil production as “not an exact science ... more of an art or common sense.”

The art of composting involves science labs that analyze soil samples. Based on lab results, they add molasses, green sand, sulfur, and other amendments to the compost before putting it in the gardens. Getting the right ratio of 1 part nitrogen to 20 parts carbon begins in the compost heaps. Green plants and chicken manure make for good nitrogen, while fallen leaves, twigs and branches, dry grass, and other brown and brittle trash bulk up the carbon. Carol Ann sees the compost heaps as a form of carbon sequestration, as if they've trapped part of the sky.

Boggy Creek Farm used to collect the neighborhood’s curbside bags full of leaves. Sanitation workers appreciated their free labor. Now landscapers drop off their trash. The compost heaps need to be kept moist as a wrung out sponge to “keep the microbes happy.” Carol Ann pictures them in their giant home, “eating and pooping, mating and going on vacations.... there’s animals in there!” People stick their hands into the warm heaps as we walk by to the back garden beds.

Behind the 200-foot long beds is a small orchard of fig and citrus trees, and some random heaps of slowly decomposing rhubarb stalks. Because the bottomlands’ high clay content causes bad drainage, the beds are raised, but not by building them up in containers. Instead, paths have been dug down between the rows of plants. Before seeding new crops, the farmers walk the rows with a machine that gently fluffs the top few inches of beds that had gone flat over the growing season -– the no-tilling method.

Carol Ann cautions not to do this with a shovel because the beds are home to thriving civilizations. “Those civilizations die when you throw them up in the air like that. That’s what’s happening in Iraq and the Gaza Strip.” Carol Ann points to the chicken coop next to her house. The egg hens seem to know they won’t be killed, so they have “a sense of peace about them” that harmonizes with the microbe civilizations in the raised soil beds. Sometimes this sense of peace rubs off on visitors to the farm. Kids play in a shallow dirt hole near the coop, pushing around battered plastic dumptrucks in the pecan shade.

While soils amended with chemical fertilizers are composed of only .3% organic matter, the labs say 3-4% of Boggy Creek’s soil is rotting plants, manure, worms, fungi, microbes, and the like. To disturb the beds as little as possible, the farmers harvest plants by cutting them off at the stalk. Their nutrient-rich roots can decompose in the soil, and bacteria, nematodes, mycorrhizae, and other organisms are not yanked out of their civilizations. Then the machine fluffs the top few inches of soil, and people use hoes to pull decomposing mulch in the footpaths up onto the beds. Finally, they add an inch of revitalizing compost. A mulch of dry leaves or hay laid down on the paths holds in moisture and marks where to step. Now the rows are ready for planting seeds.

The cultivation of trash into soil takes time, machines, and knowledge. Without people an inch of topsoil forms in 300 to 1000 years, while with people's help, a tree can turn into compost in 1 to 100 years. To get an idea of the labor involved, replace the front-end loader that turns compost heaps with human-powered pitchforks, or the mulching machine with a hand-axe. But the ancient soil civilizations do all the essential work of transforming death into life. Soil is living dust, forming in geological time.

Ephemerata Garden's soil is a probiotic liquid, oozing to the landscape patch's low spots, churned by chickens scratching for earthworms and grubs. It is a vast seed packet, a surprising mycelial network with mushrooms that manifest overnight. The soil gets loamier every year. We build new beds with bag-it-yourself dirt from Natural Gardener, revitalize with locally-produced compost sold at Home Despot. We discover garbage pits of glass bottles and shards, a little walkway of paving stones. The soil city is a random museum where rusty nails, batteries, a pocket watch, half a pair of novelty hillbilly dentures, and other flotsam bob to the surface. The City of Living Garbage is built on this dense subsurface civilization. A restless churning of life forms and their layered traces of inhabitation.


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