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Mindful : June 2013
Bob Howard is a longtime meditator who taught contemplative gardening at Naropa University. Into the Wild Wherever I go, my first interest is the soil. Even in a parking lot, I admire the diligence that creates soil in wheel-stop curbs. The wind lays down fine par ticles of dust. Leaves drift in and stay to slowly decay. In time, weeds spring up to launch a subterranean assault on the asphalt. Natural life is irrepressible. Once on a car trip in Iowa, I got out and walked into a cornfield to see what had become of the fer tile plains the pioneers found here. The land was planted in corn for a day’s drive in ever y direction. At my feet, it glistened with recent rain. I stooped and tried to press a finger into the still- moist ear th, but it had been too packed by the wheels of huge machines to allow my finger to penetrate more than a fraction of an inch. No worms worked air and drainage into this dir t. Modern methods produced large stalks of corn, but for ever y bushel har vested, they let the rain carr y off twice that volume in soil. Nearby was a woodlot. In a ditch along its flank, water flowed. The soil here was healthy, alive, laced with the roots of herb and weed. Under the trees, twig and leaf rustled under my feet, awakening my ear to the presence of others. Birds chattered warnings about the intruder. Squirrels flew to distant branches. Other crea- tures, unseen, traversed ever y inch of the woods—microbe, beetle, and cricket moved through the leaves, air, and soil, churning the whole thing like a big, airy compost. In that place, I felt an instinctual sense of belonging, a knowledge that I was home. The cornfield, by contrast, may feed me, but it left me uneasy. That same summer my wife, Dessie, and I went hiking in an Adirondack wood. We hiked along John’s Brook, listening to water play against big black boulders—hitchhikers dropped off 12,000 years ago by the great ice sheets that car ved out hills and valleys. Now they lie there, slowly vanishing beneath a carpet of gray-green lichen. Soft, that carpet, but like the weeds in the parking lot, bent on larger ends. Along with the wind, rain, freezing cold, and summer heat, these simple plants (lichens and then mosses) slowly render the giant boulder they cling to into one of ear th’s most precious trea- sures: good, rich soil. Slowly they crack their hosts into shards, gravel, and then sand. Always, the searching roots probe deep into the stone, drawing out the precious min- erals and transforming them into new life. In the course of time, lichens are followed by higher plants. Dust blows into the crevices. Mosses grow and die. These early pioneer plants build a loose protosoil. As it thickens, the deeper roots of annual and biennial plants find a home. Its loose organic texture stores moisture well and makes a fine seedbed for new seedlings. The roots of the new plants continue to pry cracks in the stone, dividing mineral from mineral. From spring to fall, from seed to flower, the cycle of grow th and decay leads, in time, to a living fer tility, a lush memory that the cornfield can only faintly recall. Over countless springs and winters, one plant form gives way to another. Eventually taller, deeper-rooted perenni- als establish themselves, and from that point on, the annuals’ days are numbered. In time, the perennials, too, give way to woody shrubs, which in turn give way to trees. It’s in this place I now stand, among white pines. Living soil breeds life and invites seed germination, root penetration, nutrient manu- facture and storage, and the circulation of air and water. Squeezing a ball of soil in my hand, I feel the grains of disin- tegrated rock in it, and images of long nights, cold winds, and misty mornings come to mind. The decaying needles lightly prick my skin. A great deal of time, lots of bacteria, and all the other forces of nature are at work here. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether I garden or not, whether I grow one tomato big- ger than another. What mat ters is that I experience nature, that I sense her power. Adapted from What Makes the Crops Rejoice, by Rober t Howard with Eric Skjei. © Rober t Howard and Eric Skjei. Experiencing nature doesn’t have to be a complicated affair, says Bob Howard. Sometimes all it takes is some soil and some quiet. June 2013 mindful 39