Saturday, June 26, 2010


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (6/25/10)

Dirt is destiny. There is no nonsense about free-will when it comes to dirt. The French philosophers and litterateurs call it a donnée, a given, a brute fact. Free-will isn’t so much a fluttering around in the atmosphere of life, as a finch on the wing, as it’s our response to destiny, such as being born male or female in a certain family of a certain culture.

Some respond whining and complaining, some rebel, some make the best of it, and, sadly, some dither. Making the best of our soil means adding to it. In the High Country, our données are clay and volcanic debris, especially cinders.

Now, destiny isn’t determinism, the folly of a tidy rationalistic science, such as sociology or psychology, based on the metaphor of the machine with no sense of chaos.

There are three types of soil, clay, sand, and silt. Clay is the smallest particle, and, consequently, sticks together like glue but holds the moisture, hence pots when the moisture is cooked out. Sand is the biggest, really tiny rocks, and, consequently, the loosest and acts like a sieve to water. Silt is the best. It’s dirt washed down from the mountains into alluvial slopes and deltas. Silt contains all the nutrients accumulated on its trips down the mountains and rivers. Also, it is the easiest to work. We don’t have much silt in the High Country. It’s all been washed down to the Verde Valley and the Valley of the Sun.

We don’t have much sand, either, but we have something like sand which is much better, volcanic cinders. So, the thing we sometimes curse is a beneficence, a good thing, jammed with nutrients, erupting from the earth’s cauldron.

So, we have a gardener’s nightmare, clay and volcanic cinders, sans silt and sand, until one makes the best of dirt’s destiny. This may be why so many people living in the High Country are afflicted with back thumb disease. They dither or curse, neither of which is conducive to successful living, much less gardening.

First, mix the clay with the cinders to loosen up the clay. The word is friable or easily crumbled, at the slightest touch falling apart and flowing through the fingers. Now, some commercial establishments sell volcanic cinders with the undigested lava lumps removed, but the fact is that it’s for the pickings all over the place. Just don’t take your shovel and bucket into a National Park or Monument. Violation of Federal Statute. Surprisingly, some agricultural organizations as far away as Tucson come up to the High Country to fetch our cinders to enrich their soil, at least that’s what William Auberle, wit, bon vivant, ranconteur, boulevardier, man about town, and professor of sustainability at NAU, told me over canapés and wine at one of Harriet Young’s fabulous fētes galantes. All the while, our horticultural treasure has been underfoot.

Our dirt lacks another thing common to rich soil, organic matter, so we have to add it. Now, the fact is that we have organic matter all over the place, but it’s on top of the soil, not in it. Pine needles take a long time to break down into useful organic matter, but animal manure doesn’t. Don’t use the manure of domesticated carnivores, humans, dogs, and cats, because they might pass along microbiological nasties into the soil.

Of course, composting is the premier method of introducing organic matter to the soil. A surprising fact: organic matter aids in releasing the nutrients in cinders. Get a bin, add organic matter in a 3 to 1 ratio of carbon matter to nitrogen material, brown to green, and mix. Watch it cook, and when done, serve cold. Sometimes, in a moment of sloth, burying it will do. Just clear away some dirt, lay down torn up newspapers, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds and tea leaves, horse and steer manure, beer mash, and biodegradable refuse, and then cover it with lots of dirt and wait a couple of months or over the winter. Eureka! Arcady!

Ah! Destiny! It’s what you make of it!

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2010

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