Thursday, June 16, 2011

industrial gardening.

Here is the beginning of a perfect afternoon. It's early June and my two housemates and I have big plans. GIS maps that identify good soil locations consistently highlight the Connecticut River floodplain, and now we find ourselves living on it, renovating a rambling house with two narrow acres stretching all the way back to the river. It should be on prime agricultural soil, and we're planting a garden, not just for this year but for years to come. We're putting in blueberry bushes and nitrogen fixers and fruit-bearing trees.

“The Connecticut River valley produces the best sweet corn in the world,” my friend's mother once said, sliding another cob onto the plate of a visitor from Minnesota. He believed – ignorantly, of course – that he had tasted good corn from his home state.

But it's early June, and we don't have our garden in yet. Drawn by bright skies and the promise of dropping a palmful of seeds one by one into the earth, friends come over to help. We drink from a jar of cold water infused with lemon balm and mint. Our bare legs grow brown with dirt and warm with sun, shins covered in bug bites and scratches.

“This is the kind of garden I've always dreamed of,” Elizabeth says, pausing for a moment to lean on her pitchfork like a scene from a movie.

I'm digging holes for currant bushes when I strike I different kind of soil. At first it looks like clay, and I think of sharing it with the kids who are chasing each other in the field. I remember being eight and finding a cache of clay in the riverbank, painting it on my body and baking in the sun, then walking around with my arms held out straight in front of me, like Frankenstein peering out through raccoon eye holes.

But it's not clay. It's... what? It's heavy, that's for sure. It's very silvery, gooey. Kind of pretty, almost. It smells... I cough. It smells like turpentine. I show a shovelful of the stuff to Rich and he says it looks like roofing paint, seeping through the dirt.

We've found pieces of rebar in the soil here, rusted railroad ties, disintegrating black trash bags. Hunks of unidentifiable metal dumped long ago. This is not farmland. White River Junction, Vermont has long been a transportation hub, where factories, industry and railroads meet. The tracks still go right by this house, and the windows rattle when the trains pass at 5 a.m.

We feel like we're doing good, returning this land to itself. It's been a dumping ground for years. Birdie, our neighbor, tells stories of drug dealers living in our house, homeless people camping by the river, and others following the river trail to dump their trash into a convenient tangle of celandine, honeysuckle, sumac and weeds as they'd done for decades.

In the fall, weeds died back and fell on top of the trash. Snows and rain fell, and the dead weeds began to decompose. Then more leaves and stems and seedpods fell on top, more rain, and eventually the plants became a layer of soil on top of the junk. Year after year this happened, while the adjacent houses rose and fell; people moved in, worked and had babies then moved away or died. The bannisters in these houses are built so coffins can maneuver the tight stairwells.

This is how the years pass. The world slowly makes soil and buries itself while we scurry over it in fast-forward speed, barely skimming the surface. In my mind I see time-lapse photos of the earth slowly being buried, tombs and cities and artifacts erased like a footprint in the sand.

I need a heavy duty trashbag and a mask to dig this gooey silver mass out of the soil. It burns my nostrils. When I'm finished, sweating, the bag must weigh 40 pounds and the dirt around the hole I've dug still shimmers unnaturally. We put an X over the hole and do not plant in that area.

This house was bought cheap. There's a community of artists drawn to the old industrial buildings and low prices here, the way the late afternoon sun makes long shadows on the bricks. We hardly notice the rumbling of trains. The dealers, hopefully, have moved elsewhere. We stop locking our doors.

Not far from here, there are bucolic hills where cows and sheep graze in the hazy evening air. The land up in the hills, mostly used for farming, was somewhat spared, and I'm drawn to those places. But they'll never feel as familiar as this time-worn valley. Everyone has a river of their birth, and mine is not a rushing trout-filled beauty tumbling down from the Rocky Mountains but the sluggish, brown Connecticut. Untold logs sliced from the northern forest were floated down this river to be made into reams of paper at the Holyoke mills. People along the banks lived and died by the log drive every spring. Now, at the edge of the current with a defunct smokestack rising in the distance, the humid river air wafts up through reedy plants and as it hits my nose, my shoulders drop, my jaw unclenches. I never wanted to admit it, but this is home.

I grew up in this river valley. I remember kneeling in the dirt next to my mother, planting marigolds and finding pieces of pottery, old glass bottles, marbles. These treasures were half the fun of gardening. So when my perfect afternoon is interrupted by a reminder that I'm not up in the hills, where land is expensive and dreams are more easily realized, I'm not discouraged. I put on a face mask and keep digging while my friends plant organic seeds. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Nature Blog Network