The Dirt We Grow From


imagesSo much about farming is dirty, and yet dirt is the one truly essential thing you need if you want to grow something. You need to have dirt to hold the nutrients that all living things require in order to grow. You need the dirt to give the roots something they can cling to so that the part that is underground and hidden can enlarge at more or less the same rate as the part that is above ground and visible. Dirt is a good thing. Every tree has to have enough of it in order to grow, and then maintain its balance— upright between the earth and the sky.

A family tree benefits from dirt too. Sure, most of us like to hide the dirt we began in, we are tempted to throw a nice big roll of astro-turf around ourselves to hide all the evidences that we are like everybody else, that there is dirt around our roots too. Rolly and I found out, when growing a small orchard of dwarf trees in our earlier years, that nice circular mats cut from the remnants of a brown nylon carpet kept away every unwanted weed that would otherwise have grow up around the tree trunks, and ruin the illusion of a perfect blemish free landscaped orchard. What we didn’t realize was that under the mats we had created the perfect environment for borers, carpenter ants and fungous disease-causing organisms to grow. Everything looked great on the surface for a while, while the dirt was hidden, and then as the years went by a few of the trees ceased to thrive and grow. Some eventually died. It was startling when those trees were removed to find that the nylon carpet collars which had been placed around them had actually become incorporated into the bark at the base of the trunks, until the trees were inadvertently strangled. Covering the dirt up had proven to be a recipe for disaster.

imagesThe dirt that we have around us when we start out is a natural thing; the dirt that we grow from makes us stronger. Everybody is the same. Hydroponics, you’re no doubt thinking just now, will give you an end result without any dirt that’s just as good as the dirt-grown one. That’s really not the case. There is bound to be something missing in the flavour, or the over-all composition of the lettuce or the tomatoes. If you want to bear with me through this analogy, we’ll just call that missing bit “personality.” The finished product of hydroponic dirt-free growth is usually horribly lacking in the interesting variations that growing in different kinds of dirt contributes. No one is more aware of the diversity in the end results, totally due to the type of dirt it was grown in, than wine connoisseurs. They can often discern the locale or even the name of the vineyard based on the flavour of the wine. In reality they are really just adept dirt tasters!

So what’s the dirt that surrounds my family tree? My maternal grandparents were a shoemaker and a scullery maid of German descent. They were part of the great unwashed masses that arrived in the United States at Ellis Island with nothing more than a few dollars, the clothes on their backs, a feather bed, and a few cooking pots in the early 1900’s. They suffered tremendous adversity after their arrival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; including the theft of the silver dollars my grandfather Louis had earned and hidden in their feather bed, after days of back-breaking labour as an ice man, delivering huge blocks of ice from a horse-drawn cart. Louis and Gisela Marath held things together the best way they knew how. Louis eventually started his own shoe repair shop and they worked hard, and saved hard as they raised a big family. My mother was the youngest.

imagesMost of the time they got along and were loving and kind to one another —most of the time. But there is the story of my mom’s brother who stole his parent’s home made wine and routinely sneaked the car my grandfather had eventually acquired out every night on his drinking sprees. That was, until my grandmother walloped him with a rolling-pin, in their rented garage a few streets away, one night. There she waited until the wee hours of the morning, perched in the dark on a hard wooden chair, awaiting Joe’s return. He survived the ordeal, thankfully, but never did it again after that. That’s just a little of the dirt my mother passed on to me.

Harvesting what corn they can from a failed crop.

Harvesting what corn they can from a failed crop.

Then there was the horrible joke of a farm that my grandparents purchased in Ontario, sight unseen, from someone they trusted, who had promised them that they could make wheel barrow loads of money as tobacco farmers. When they arrived, after immigrating to Canada from Pittsburgh, they found that the farm was heavy untiled clay. It was a hard-pan weed patch, totally unsuitable to growing anything well, especially not tobacco, which will only thrive on sandy soils. The person who sold the farm to them ought to have been more careful and more caring than he was—he was my grandmother’s cousin. There is definitely potential for all kinds of growth in a family in the dirt of that kind of adversity, but love and empathy, and a liberal generosity towards my mother and father in their struggles in the difficult years that followed on our own family’s farm were the most obvious fruits.

What of the dirt on my father’s side of the family tree? My father was one of four children, born to a Canadian father who was one of seventeen children. The parents of this enormous family combined their two families in marriage following the deaths of each of their earlier spouses. Their home farm was in Caradoc Township, South-western Ontario, back to back with the farm that I grew up on, the farm my grandfather purchased when he was young, and that my father eventually purchased from him. The wife my grandfather James Stephenson, chose for himself emigrated from Scotland when she was eighteen. Myrtle Mary McBain was a thrifty Scot, a circumstance which served her well during the Depression  when everyone was struggling to make ends meet. Even the farmers, who grew enough food to feed their families, could not make enough by selling all of the excess to pay for any of the other essentials in those years. There was thriftiness born of necessity, and there was thriftiness born of habit in Grandma’s personality. How much thriftiness was necessary when times improved it is hard to say, but I don’t remember, there ever being any special presents or gifts from grandma, though perhaps I may simply be forgetting.  My sister Marsha and I did sneak into her house once and gather up a baby food jar full of pastel coloured confetti off her stairs, and that was pretty terrific in my childish estimation.  Sadly Grandma died when I was only 9, and before I barely knew her, despite the fact that she lived right next door.


Grief can sometimes bend people under its weight and chill relationships

I realized as an adult that Grandma did have more than enough suffering in her life, including the loss of a child, to affect her in ways that may have limited her in her ability to love. That, at least, is how I choose to interpret, what seemed to be lacking when I was a child. I hesitate to call this “family dirt.” Nevertheless it is the medium out of which the family relationships which happened around me in my early years grew. Sadly, I was not the only one she could not love. She could not love my mother. It caused stresses and strains that were obvious even to very young eyes, as much as the branches of trees bent to the ground under the groaning weight of a thick covering of ice after a February storm. It, sadly, chilled relationships with other relatives that should have been warmer, but it did not halt growth altogether, as there was a still a great deal of potential for growing good things in the dirt we were planted in.

Dirt is composed of tiny particles of ground down rocks, which have become what they are through the stresses and strains of  many complex interactions, as well as tiny bits of organic material that are  constantly changing. Dirt is generally considered to be a substance that contains all the very miniscule things that contribute to the growth of very large and powerful things. Things like the amazing Three hundred and seventy-eight foot redwood recently discovered in a remote California forest, or the large and loving family that I call my own. It has a lot to do with the dirt.

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