Life in the Soil (Adapted from “Life in the Soil,” Natural History Magazine (NHM), November 2014, pp. 13–15)
Papa, Mamusha, and my sisters Ulla and Marianne, and I (the latter two of us age five and almost eleven) were quartered in a one-room hut in a dark forest in northern Germany right after World War II. Towering pines, spruce, and beech shaded the ground except for a small sloping patch in front of the cabin. Light snow had recently covered the ground, and now, after a warm spring rain, it had become black, and that made me notice something marvelous by our doorstep. From one day to the next, I saw a small patch of the dirt turning a luminous green. Perhaps the next day or so after that, the patch of dirt had expanded over the black ground: I was mesmerized by this verdant, magically spreading circle of grass blades.
This was, as far as I can remember, my earliest moment of wonder. Had grass been underfoot before, I would have hardly noticed it, from seeing it all the time. But watching that single patch expand from one day to the next was a moment of magic and mystery, maybe even of ecstasy, forever stamped into my memory.
Even so, for a long time the dirt the grass had spawned from remained for me merely something crumbly under the soles of my feet and between my toes. It was the sand on a mile or so of the wooded road between our hut and the village school. Shiny green beetles flashed in front of me on my walks, and after a brief zigzagging flight, where they glinted like jewels in the sun, they landed a few yards ahead. We called them “sand beetles,” and later I knew them as tiger beetles. Although I couldn’t fly, I could run, and it felt good to be on par with such gorgeous company.
Tiger beetles (of the family Cicindelidae) are related to carabids, which are commonly called ground beetles, or Laufkäfer.” Ground beetles do not fly, but they all run (which is reflected in their German name, derived from laufen, “to run”). These earthbound beetles soon became my passion, to have and to hold. It came through the influence of my father, a biologist. In order to get some cash he was now digging tree stumps out of the ground that had been left by the occupying British soldiers who had harvested the trees. He earned a few pfennigs selling the wood. But he decided the pits he was digging might be adapted to serve as traps to catch mice and shrews. It was exciting for me to accompany him, ever more so because ground beetles fell into the pits too, and he showed me how to preserve and thus to collect them like some other kids then collected stamps. He gave me a field guide to identify those that I had and those I might someday find. I soon knew them by name: the giant black Carabus coriaceus, the dark-bluish C. intricatus, the shiny copper C. cancellatus (and its look-alike, C. concolor), and the deep-green C. auratus. The merit of those intricately sculpted beetles was not simply that they were beautiful, but also that I could find them merely by scanning the ground wherever I walked. Even more merrily, I could catch them.
I thought of these, my old carabids, with a start, with a nostalgic recognition, when recently ?— ?now in Maine, on a new continent ?— ?I dug out the pit for my privy. There, several feet down in the dirt, I unearthed a Carabus. It was metallic black, sculpted in lines and pits, and its edges glistened deep purple. Not having collected these beetles for a long time, I did not know the name of this species nor what it was doing underground, but I captured it in a photograph. Perhaps as a larva it had burrowed in that spot and metamorphosed to become an adult, or maybe it had hibernated there in the winter, or was attempting to escape heat or drought. But in any case, it had likely fed on snails, and the snails on grass. It was of the soil, which I was preparing to receive my wastes. And this same receptive soil would also receive all of me, eventually, to convert me to grass, tress, flowers, and more. For the time being, though, an American chestnut tree I had planted years earlier, as well as nearby sugar maples, would grow well because of their proximity to the privy.
I used the dirt from the pit excavation to make a raised garden bed in which I planted potatoes. I stuck several of them into this dirt, and presto, come fall ?— ?it seemed too good to be true ?— ?there were perfect and delicious Yukon Golds. My partner, Lynn, saw the magic, and before I knew it we had an even bigger bed of potatoes, beans claiming a pole, snap peas growing on a chicken-wire fence, and little green sprouts of kale, carrots, and lettuce. We watched with eager participation as the emerging green dots in the dark dirt first turned into shoots, and we would harvest potatoes in August for eating in winter.
There is more to be had from dirt than food. I think Thoreau knew this well and maybe said it better 175 years ago. Old Henry (if he’d excuse me for being familiar) was “determined to know beans,” and having made himself a two-and-a-half acre bean field, he tended and hoed it daily from “five o’clock in the morning till noon.” He came to “love” and “cherish” his beans and wrote, “they attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.” Working alone and with his hands, he became, as he said, “much more intimate with my beans than usual.” Along the way he concluded that “labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness.” And he told the reasons why.
When tending his bean field, Thoreau was “attracted by the passage of wild pigeons”; he sometimes “watched a pair of hen-hawks circling high in the sky,” heard the brown thrasher sing, and with his hoe “turned up a sluggish portentous and outlandish spotted salamander.” His enterprise was “not that I wanted beans to eat,” nor was it likely for “leaving a pecuniary profit.”
I’m in rapport with his romantic ideal and with his statement that when he “paused to lean on my hoe, these sounds and sights I heard and saw anywhere in the row became part of the inexhaustible entertainment which the country offers” ?— ?as opposed, I suppose, to those summer days “which some of my contemporaries devoted to the fine arts in Boston and Rome” as entertainment, instead. Perhaps this vibrant “idleness” is what Thoreau cherished most.
Most would, however, want to “get real” when it comes to dirt and work. We do not generally hoe beans in order to hear the brown thrasher, or to exhume a spotted salamander as an end in itself. Thoreau gets real by giving an exact economic enumeration of his work. He itemizes monetary costs and profits, in which overall bean-patch costs added up in his accounting to $14.72 and 1/2 cent, with a profit of $8.71 and 1/2 cent.
To our ears now, old Henry pretty much worked that summer in his two-and-a-half-acre bean patch for nothing. The garden patch that Lynn and I worked on sporadically our first summer, making a garden from what was before only a brushy rock-filled field, allows for some comparisons. We saw no passenger pigeons but we got pleasures from our garden similar to what Henry got from his. Plus, we enjoy companionship, which old Henry did not appear to pursue. So for us it was a win-win situation with the dirt, in more ways than two. ...