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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Fourteen Intentions for Sustainability in 2014

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By Alison Pollack

New Years has never really been my thing. Some poor fate and fortune always seems to befall me, whether losing my wallet New Year’s ’11 or the unfortunately memorable stomach flu incident of New Year’s ’13.  Consequently, when it comes to resolutions, I’m flaky at best. By Valentine’s Day, my resolutions are forgotten and neglected, much like the eggnog in the back of my fridge.  It just seems like a formula for failure to commit to any goals in the dead of winter after a night of heavy drinking (unless your goals include eating lots of nachos and taking lots of naps).   Rather, I think self- improvement and reflection should be tasks that occur every day of the year.

I really scoff when I see lists suggesting New Year’s resolutions. Granted, these lists usually focus on weight loss, and after a solid two months of joyously stuffing my face, anything suggesting otherwise feels preachy. Despite my qualms and issues with everything New Years, the holiday definitely can present a great opportunity for planning the year ahead and shaping priorities, so I’ve created my own list of intentions for 2014 (I’ll steer away from the word “resolution”).

I’ve been spending some time planning goals for the year ahead, and after reading a lot of Wendell Berry recently, my mind has been drifting towards incorporating his concepts of community and sustainability in my 2014 intentions. The ideas he shares of intrinsic connections between a healthy community and a healthy ecosystem are incredibly compelling. Undeniably, strong ties between community members leads to a greater resource pool, less waste, and more intentionality overall. So, in the spirit of community, sustainability, and a happy new year, I’ve pulled together this list of 14 suggestions to be a better neighbor and environmentalist in 2014:

1)    Go to the library or a used book store instead of buying new books. Everyone I know is a complete glutton for book stores, but it’s important to strike a balance between preserving resources and supporting authors. By choosing to borrow or reuse books, you can significantly reduce excess landfill waste of books that may otherwise end up in the dump.

2)    Start a mini free library in your yard, work place, or in front of your apartment or living space. Much like a used book store, except FREE! This will bring neighbors together and bring new life to dusty books on your bookshelf.

3)    Host a clothing swap with friends, classmates, co-workers, or neighbors. Invite participants to bring any quality clothes they don’t wear anymore, and trade some of your own goods for some new (to you) clothes. Donate whatever is left.

4)    Have a yard or garage sale. Keep items from the landfill and make some money. I’ve even seen items like old paint cans and cleaning materials for sale and purchased at yard sales. Your old items can provide use for a neighbor and prevent excess waste and even toxic materials from entering the environment.

5)    Push yourself to bike, walk, or take the bus as much as possible. Find new routes and trails. Meet new commuters, see new faces, see more of the place you live in and dwell. When I recently pushed myself to bike as much as possible, I was amazed by how many new people I met in my neighborhood. Nothing feels better than an affirming head nod from the badass biker who zooms up hills, or the daily conversation with the regulars at your bus stop.

6)    Plan that garden or community/rooftop/windowsill growing space! Start your starts. Start them now (or soon, depending on where you live).  Last year, I planted my garden in burlap sacks on my tiny driveway. With a little creativity and care you can plant almost anywhere, so begin planning now. A garden provides independence and a reliable food source.

7)    Compost your food scraps! I recently moved from Seattle, where composting is standard, to Washington DC, where it’s more of an oddity. I’m building a composter with some pretty simple plans and a step-by-step guide I found on youtube. Compost from your kitchen can do wonders for a garden and significantly reduces landfill waste.

8)    Start crafting and giving! Like many other people I know who dislike waste, I tend to accumulate items I don’t want to throw away. This year, I found a container I’ve kept of old candle stubs and crayons and melted them down to make candles as Christmas gifts. Clear out clutter, keep trash from the landfill, and give!

9)    Instead of buying new clothes, support the local tailor or cobbler. This action not only supports local business, but transforms old clothes into snazzy, new outfits. Many clothes that are thrown away can be easily transformed to look like new.

10) Cook someone dinner! Extra points for food items purchased locally or from your own garden. Reach out, strengthen friendships and community ties.

11) Get involved with gleaning! Whether volunteering or donating to a local gleaning organization, this is a fantastic way to reduce food waste, feed the hungry, and meet new people.

12) Volunteer for a local environmental non-profit. Meet new people and work pro-actively for the environment and a cause you care about passionately. That way, when the proverbial grandkids ask what you did to help out the environment, you’ll have a tangible answer at your disposal.

13) Be intentional about the amount of garbage you throw away. Buy in bulk and re-use packaging. Ask neighbors, co-workers, or friends if they are interested in a grocery share: splitting the cost of bulk items for equal distribution. This will reduce packaging waste from single serving items and save you money!

14) Start a conversation with a neighbor you don’t know well. I dare you. Building community takes time and each small step is important. Forging friendships, or even simple daily “hellos” may lead to stronger community ties and a more robust resource base. At the very least, you might make a neighbor smile.

These are just suggestions based on what I intend for myself in the year ahead. Even if I’m a bit of a New Year’s Grinch, I aim to keep these in mind year-long. It’s my intention to be a good neighbor and environmentalist, and the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Happy New Years and make the most of 2014!

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Alison is the newest member of The Ecotone Exchange team. She loves to wander. Whether by foot, bike, train, bus, plane, or car, she has a penchant for getting lost and winding up in unexpected situations. In between studying maps and writing for the Ecotone Exchange, she is following her passion of working in the environmental field for sustainable development and environmental justice. Alison currently resides in Maryland, right outside of Washington DC. Look for more of her writing in the months to come.