Dirt: What Is It Good For?

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By Natalie Parker Lawrence

People often want to smell the forsythia and the buttercups, perhaps a waft of bee pollen. They yearn to catch the scatter of the tight white witch-hazel blooms, not the paleness of the drooping white hyacinths, the color of dirty snow. They desire to follow the siren call of the seed catalogs, the come-hither whistle of the garden departments of home improvement stores. But alas.

People sit in the bleachers. They see the manicured grass of the infield. It is Opening Day, a day some believe should be a national holiday reserved for heroes, right up there with presidents and religious leaders and independence.

A cold wind blows instead. It should be too cold for gloves, scarves, serious uncute hats, but it is not. There is a breeze, though, a hint of spring. It is not warm enough for the short shorts that just walked by. Honey, your parents must be so proud.

A plowed-over field, this baseball diamond will never again be a field of dreamy wildflowers, blooms that are misunderstood, according to my mother whose allergies prohibit her from bringing them inside. They do rake, however, the pitcher’s mound. They have replaced the loam with playground dirt. They used to lay down white lines of limestone chalk (calcium carbonate, not lime which is calcium oxide), but now those lines are painted with biodegradable spray.

I always wonder what is underneath first base or the dugout or the bench of the opposing team. I do this when I travel, too. What is underneath the steel labyrinth that is the conglomeration at every intersection of highways and byways?  What kinds of land do we cover and how much? When we go out to play or go for a drive, how much land has been devoted to the infrastructure of sport and travel?

Many immigrants have asked if they could have the land on the median strip to grow crops, probably a legal nightmare, but the dilemma speaks to the concern about many of the empty places in many cities, in and around the asphalt.  What can neighborhoods do with unclaimed and undeveloped land? They can notify government authorities about neglected spaces who will in turn try to find the owners to see if and how quickly changes can be made.

Habitat for Humanity buys abandoned houses and lots at the cost of their unpaid property taxes. They raze condemned homes, dilapidated crack houses, clean up the lots, and build again for new families. My students and I have dug up many tree roots, rocks, nails, roof shingles, bricks, and boards on these lots before trucks arrive with the cement, the volunteers come with their hammers and saws, and the Master Gardeners arrive with their flower pots.

Many neighborhood associations and historic districts in the United States are going green. By using fields and other nearby places to plant fruits and vegetables, community organizations provide for their inner-city neighbors who live in food deserts, stores without access to reasonably priced and plentiful fresh food.

I do not want to tear down ball fields or expressway interchanges. His dad and I love a certain catcher who plays behind home plate, and he would be sad without his glove, no matter what the weather portends. Before he chokes up, he wipes dirt on his hands. He digs the ball out of the dirt to keep from getting a passed ball. A cloud of dirt floats up as the pitch sticks in his glove.   He brings home the dirt of the baseball field on his pants. We wash it out. All dirt is not beloved.

While we can’t do everything to preserve the earth, we can do what we can to maintain and improve our part, but we need to notice the empty spaces. We need to dig them up and plant something to share with people who notice what is missing but who might be missing the tools to dig for answers.

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