Dirt Talk

Digging in the garden the last week of January, I am incredulous. The soil is loose and friable. The last week of January! If you don’t find that totally amazing, you don’t garden in western Oregon clay. This time of year, if you stick a tool in the soil, you expect to pull it out with resistance, along with a sucking sound that ends with a pop! when the end of the tool finds the air. Directions for planting peas in February caution you to poke the seed in, but don’t try to cultivate the wet soil or you will destroy its structure. I could cultivate this soil. In the last week of January! I don’t know whether to celebrate or panic.

I am preparing to plant tiny garlic plants rescued from a couple of bulbs I had overlooked in last year’s harvest, each clove in the congested bulb trying to make a new bulb of its own. I will use these for winter greens or spring garlic scallions, while we wait for summer garlic to mature.

Mark the rows. Dig little holes. Gently pull the mini-plants apart and line them out. Hold the plant so its roots fall straight with no kinks, and snug the soil around them. Now and then the trowel breaks through a soil layer and drops deep into an excavation. I fume and attack the tunnel, stabbing fiercely at the soil until I have filled in yet another vole run. Like vampires, voles don’t like garlic, so for once I’m not worried they’ll eat what I’m planting. But the bulb could drop too deep into the tunnel to survive, or could dry up and die from the tunnel’s air around its roots, so I have no mercy.

Yet even as I demolish their run, I marvel at the subterranean networks and communities. Hundreds of insects winter there. Some wasps and ants make intricate breeding-season nests. Mammals, insects, worms, even some birds hibernate or breed, store food or take refuge in this land beneath our feet. We use the ground as a floor or a road—a surface to walk on or run or bike or drive. But it is the ceiling of a whole world, and I want to be an Alice in Wonderland—or Evelyn in Netherland—and explore.

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