By Kristin Ohlson
I’m working in my Cleveland backyard, but idly, dawdling in the sights and smells of fall. A starry canopy of yellow leaves sets off a vivid blue sky. The already fallen, the now brown leaves, steep in damp, shadowed corners of the yard, and their lapsang-souchong fragrance blows my way. Only the annual chorus of leaf removal mars this otherwise peaceful day. In some yards, blowers roar and raise poofs of dust. In others, people scritch and scratch with their rakes. I’m of the scritch-and-scratch persuasion, wielding an aged plastic rake with many broken tines, like bitten-down fingernails on a large green hand.
Normal enough, except that I’m not raking my leaves onto a tarp to dump into a recycling bag or to drag to the curb, as my neighbors are. I’m raking the leaves on my driveway back to my lawn, hoisting big piles of them onto the muddy turf and then smoothing them with the rake so that they cover the sparse grass with a thin, multicolored coat of autumn. I can imagine my first ex-husband howling, “You’re going to kill the grass!” No, I’d tell him; I’m trying to save the grass.
[blocktext align=”left”]I’m raking the leaves on my driveway back to my lawn, hoisting big piles of them onto the muddy turf and then smoothing them with the rake so that they cover the sparse grass with a thin, multicolored coat of autumn. [/blocktext]I don’t care much about having a good lawn—women don’t, in my experience, and men do. I remember my father in his eighties, surveying the sweep of emerald in back of my parents’ house and sighing, “I just want a perfect lawn before I die.” My siblings and I found this both hysterical and poignant. Hadn’t he always had a perfect lawn? And since it probably wouldn’t get much better, was he doomed to die disappointed?
I’ve always viewed my lawn as just the blank space between my flower beds and the oval of soil where I grow vegetables—a spot that benefitted from all-day sun when we bought the house decades ago, but is now shadowed most of the day by oaks and maples and the occasional doomed elm. The grass wasn’t especially lush when we moved in, and our tenure further traumatized it. We had a drainage problem after we put in a new concrete driveway and garage: every time it rained, a foot of water backed into the garage. So the yard was torn up as our contractor dug one French drain after another to fix the problem (they didn’t), and then another contractor finally tore up everything, driveway included, to route all that storm water out to the sewer.
So the backyard was crushed by heavy equipment off and on for 2 years. If the moon were made of gouged and gridded mud, my view out the kitchen window looked like a moonscape. For Easter during one of those years, I bought my kids a packet of “crazy gourd” seeds to plant. Vines soon covered the entire yard, blurring the ugliness with their curvy, slightly furred leaves and relieving me of the heartbreak of planning a garden, only to have to summon the bulldozers in again. (Someone ought to try making ethanol from those crazy gourds; I’ve never seen such miles of vegetation grow from a tiny handful of seeds.)
[blocktext align=”left”]Every time I needed a new topic for an article about food, I’d call or e-mail Parker and he’d let me know what was new. And one day, he said, “Carbon farming. That’s the new thing.”[/blocktext]We finally planted the lawn and flower beds. The flowers were great—a rollicking seasonal carnival of colors and shapes—but the lawn really never had much of a chance. Too much compaction of the soil by the bulldozers. Too many seasons of Slip ’N Slide. Too much running and jumping, and too much use of stilts and pogo sticks and Big Wheels. Too many basketball games that veered off course. Too much peeing by one dog and digging by another. When the first marriage ended and the second began, a wedding with 100 guests tromped that weary turf for 3 celebratory hours. Then two more dogs—the young black ones that crash through my piles of leaves now—chased each other back and forth across the grass, their nails flinging tufts of grass in their wake until nothing remained but gouge. Also the dearth of water. Even though Cleveland is a high-precipitation city, there are times when you have to water, and honestly, I’ve always been stingy with the grass.
So I find myself now with a lawn that is mostly just exposed soil. So hard when it’s hot that you could break a plate on it; so muddy when it rains that I’d rather walk the dogs in a downpour than turn them loose in the yard. The dogs are my only companions now, my sole beloveds-in residence, since the second marriage has ended and the kids have moved out. Finally, I too pine for a good lawn, if only to keep the dogs from getting muddy.
Early in the fall of 2011, I scoured the newspaper for instructions on pre-winter lawn care, wrinkling my nose at the ads for lawn chemicals—I’m categorically opposed to them, and look how they broke my poor father’s heart anyway. An article written by someone from the Cleveland Botanical Garden recommended aeration and compost and reseeding, but I only have enough compost for one small corner of the yard. I spread the compost there, jab a pitchfork every few inches to aerate, then cover the rest of the yard with leaves. I might get a better lawn from this next spring. And I might do my tiny, infinitesimal part to heal our climate and nurse a number of other ills that have their secret roots in the soil.
[blocktext align=”left”]Some had been following the work of scientists who said that this kind of farming accelerated the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and could slow and maybe even turn back global warming. [/blocktext]I first heard about the connection between soil and climate 3 years ago. I had written a feature article (sadly killed before it made it to print) back in 2005 for Gourmet magazine about a local restaurateur named Parker Bosley: He not only had earned two of their top-chef shout-outs, but he was also a pioneer locavore, who began searching out local ingredients for his restaurant back in the late 1980s. He was raised on an Ohio dairy farm, became a teacher, spent time in France, and became smitten with the menus there that evolved with the seasons, according to what was fresh and at its best. He began to replicate that when he started his restaurant in Cleveland. He stopped at farm stands outside the city, tasted their peaches, and asked, “If I come back next week, can you sell me a few bushels?” He ventured out into the countryside of his youth, knocked on the farmers’ doors, and told them he wanted to purchase their pork or eggs or chickens, no middleman. He urged farmers to try heritage breeds, to let their pigs live in the woods and eat acorns and apples, to give their chicks bowls of soured milk so they could pick at the curds. Soon, he had a pipeline of locally produced foods for his restaurant—by the time I interviewed him, 97 percent of what he served was locally sourced—and to the farmers’ markets that sprang up around the city. He influenced what was happening on small farms near Cleveland, helping many of them survive and even expand. He always knew about the family that was starting to make sheep’s milk cheese near Toledo, and the French butchering techniques that would yield better cuts of meat, and even about the young guy from Tennessee who was in Italy, learning the art of making salumi.
Every time I needed a new topic for an article about food, I’d call or e-mail Parker and he’d let me know what was new. And one day, he said, “Carbon farming. That’s the new thing.”
He explained that there was a new movement among small farmers. They were changing their practices with the soil in both large and subtle ways, knowing it was the foundation of all agricultural life, whether they raised chickens or corn, pigs or spinach, beef or peaches. Sometimes they called themselves soil farmers. Sometimes they called themselves microbe farmers, aware of the billions of tiny creatures that they couldn’t see but that scientists told them were at work in the soil. Sometimes they called themselves carbon farmers, knowing that it was carbon that was making their soils richer, moister, and darker. Some had been following the work of scientists who said that this kind of farming accelerated the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and could slow and maybe even turn back global warming. The ones who believed in global warming took pride in this. The ones who didn’t—and there are many in agriculture who still don’t—were nonetheless thrilled to see their lands, crops, and animals thrive in ways they’d never imagined.
[blocktext align=”left”]One of the principles I took away was that bare land starves the microbes below the soil. These microbes need living or dead plants to get their foods—their sugars, carbohydrates, and proteins. [/blocktext]I followed the activities of some of these scientists, carbon farmers, and carbon ranchers for a few years before I started this book. I went to their conferences, read their blogs and scientific papers, inspected their fields, ate their produce, yammered about them to my friends, and wrote about them. Right away, I was stunned by what I learned about life in the soil—that when we stand on the surface of the earth, we’re atop a vast underground kingdom of microorganisms without which life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Trillions of microorganisms, even in my own smallish backyard, like a great dark sea swarming with tiny creatures—it almost makes me feel a little seasick standing there, knowing how much business is being conducted right under my feet.
One of the principles I took away was that bare land starves the microbes below the soil. These microbes need living or dead plants to get their foods—their sugars, carbohydrates, and proteins. They’d prefer a thick and diverse clump of growing plants—roots in the ground!—but dried up biomass will keep them going until the juicy stuff returns. Thus the idea for raking leaves over the top of my naked lawn. Maybe if I give my microbes dead leaves to chew over the winter and into next spring, they’ll thrive and begin to aerate the lawn themselves as they burrow through the soil and spread their dark constellations underground. Maybe the lawn will then be more receptive to seed and water next spring.
Or maybe not—maybe it will take more complicated efforts to restore my lawn, just as it will take more complicated efforts to restore carbon to the soils of the earth. But it was my own little experiment, nonetheless. I just hoped one of my neighbors didn’t see the piles of leaves in my yard and send one of his sons over to rake it up, just as other neighbors have turned up now and then to shovel the snow from my driveway. It wouldn’t make sense, all those leaves on the lawn, unless you knew something about the incredible life in the soil.
Reprinted from The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet by Kristin Ohlson. Copyright © 2014 by Kristin Ohlson. By permission of Rodale Books. Available wherever books are sold.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Hyrumster.