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Dusty dirt at a nearby orchard and half-eaten buffet selection.

Last week I learned there are kids in the world who have never touched soil. I actually stopped typing to reread the sentence when I saw it. It was within notes for an article I was writing on a school garden in Chicago.

Of course it makes sense; city kids know from sidewalks, not soil. But I had never thought about it. The teachers at the school reported that they loved seeing the wonder and amazement in their little students’ faces when the kids first put their hands into fresh, fragrant soil.

I was struck by this. For all of us in our very small town in the ’70s and ’80s, dirt was our silent partner. Digging in it with my sister to uncover the first tulip shoots in the spring. Landing in it when I fell off my bike. I don’t even remember us brushing it off. And Lord knows we didn’t wash off honeysuckle flowers before slurping up the nectar inside. We lived by the old expression, ‘You eat a peck of dirt before you die.’ There weren’t really any boundaries between we kids and dirt; it was a part of us.

People who love to cook have a personal relationship with dirt, too. In the western part of New Jersey the earth is clay soil, which retains almost as much water as my ankles do every month, and needs additional work and ingredients to make it arable.* On the opposite side of the state, close to the ocean, we can’t dig more than a foot down without hitting a mysterious granular substance that looks like this:

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Three guesses.

Which is fine; lots of great stuff grows in it, and allows water to drain away, easily. And which also leads me to wonder, in the Doctor Who-tainted kind of way that I do, how much what’s below us influences us. Does the kind of soil we walk on have any bearing on who we turn out to be?

Coastal types are generally known to be a relaxed lot—maybe because food there has always grown fairly easily in the receptive soil. They also sometimes earn a rep for flakiness.**

Inland, where it takes more work to grow food because the soil is sticky and challenging, the rep is about stubbornness. And also generosity.***

Yes, there are exceptions to the above. I’m generalizing. But still: I can’t help but think an enormous part of what we’re made of is due to the nature of what’s under our feet.

Maybe if life is simpler due to soil that’s receptive to raising crops, it helps to foster relaxed, if sometimes complacent, people. And if life is tougher due to soil that requires more effort to raise crops, maybe it fosters stubborn but giving people, those who go by an implicit ‘we’re all in the sticky together, and we have to work together’ policy.

Then there’s the sidewalk crew, the kids who have limited or no access to soil. What are the losses and gains, how much does a concrete barrier factor into what they’re made of? Into what they become?

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Potato trying to look like a rock. Didn’t work. It was delicious.

Back down to earth.

I would bet the teachers at the inner-city school above would argue that soil affords kids the chance to learn that the world is bigger than they thought. And deeper. And messier.

I’d agree and add that we should get to know soil for the most basic of reasons: because it is always there, whether we can see it or whether it’s beneath the sidewalk, and therefore unifies us. Because it’s where all life starts, and grows, and ultimately ends. Soft, sticky, or hidden, it belongs to everyone. Kids should get the chance to wear it, like we did growing up. We should know where our food comes from. We should know where we come from.

What I wouldn’t give to have been there the day those kids stuck their hands into it, and got good and messy. I need to find an inner-city school and bring the kids some dirt.

*It’s also Fern’s last name from Charlotte’s Web and she, appropriately, was a farm girl. That E.B. White was a sly dude.

**Where are my keys?!

Kidding. But I couldn’t tell you my license plate number at gunpoint.

***All of the mid-westerners I have ever met have been unfailingly warm, giving, and unguarded. If I met a jerk who said he was from Ohio, I’d keep eating and request his birth certificate.

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