“Eeks! My new sneakers,” Tanisha shrieks as soil crumbles, falls from the shovel and plops besides her ivory satin feet.
It is Earth Day 1988. I am conducting a ceremony with middle schoolers on the small 25 by 50 foot grass plot beside our school in Jamaica, Queens, a ghetto of New York City. Here, the concrete yard is familiar turf. It is where Tanisha and the other students meet at the start of each school day and recess to mill around or shoot hoops. No one, besides the mower guy, ever ventures to this isolated grassland, sequestered by a locked iron fence and brick wall.
By our planting trees here, I hope to draw attention to this parcel of land and connect students with the earth.
I lead my class through the heavy metal doors of the cafeteria onto the hard grey school yard toward this confined green softness. Students shuffle around its forbidding fence while the custodian fumbles with his familiar collection to find the forgotten key and unlock the gate.
Students engage in idle chat and saunter in unimpressed with these fresh surroundings. Our new principal, Mr. Demetrius, bull horn in hand, proudly announces our mission. “Today, boys and girls,” his voice bellows amid the scattering of students, “we are here to commemorate the earth!” I approach a choice few to invite two to bend down, dig the soil and set our oaks.
“Ew! I’m not gettin’ dirty!” Jariff sneers. My solicitations are mocked by estranged looks and contorted gestures. The earth below is foreign territory, viewed with suspicion. Few dare make the entry.
Though trees are planted this day, not much ground is broken. Yet someone is inspired by our venture, for days later, the saplings are swiftly stolen.
I notice them gone as I lumber to the parking lot on my way home. My heart cries. Not a word is spoken of the theft the next day at school. It is small potatoes. Folks wrestle with greater strife — a fight in the hall, yesterday’s arrest, ongoing turf battles.My venture is extraneous. My school’s concern for it is barren as that abandoned plot I plod past.
Find those who share common ground and join them. Stop trying to change people. This thought confronts me like a brick wall, as I trudge through the sterile hallway to my classroom during break. I am arrogant to try to dishevel my students’ layers.
Nowadays I walk barefoot on the ground each morning by my home in SW Florida. This is my cup of coffee. My heart connects with the pulse of the earth and awakens. I have heard it said that we take life forces into our bodies this way, and I believe it’s so. This is what I had hoped urban youth would find that April afternoon, in New York City.
“Look at this stone!” Carolina calls.
My heart waltzes as I watch Ms. Ann’s Waldorf Kindergarten class playing under the canopy of Live Oak and Spanish moss. Susanna and Dietrich scrounge the ground for fallen leaves, pods and acorns which they amass in woven baskets. Gina stirs her magic stew simmering in an aluminum pot on an outdoor wooden stove. These children are acting out the ancient art of gleaning gifts from the earth’s floor, resonating with life. They have found the doorway.
Ann and I meander to the school garden. She proclaims that the potatoes are ready.
“Potatoes? You can grow potatoes in Florida?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, “I bought organic ones, put them aside to let them grow eyes.”
She tells how she cut them up with a few on each piece. She dug deep furrows in the ground. The kids nestled the spuds and covered them with soil. As potatoes grew above ground, they embedded them with more soil, repeatedly. Finally they topped them with a thick layer of hay.
“The potatoes are ready when the plant dies,” she explains while stroking skimpy, fallen stalks with browning leaves. “The kids love scouting for them in the ground. I can hardly wait to dig them up, but the boy most enchanted with them is on vacation, so we need to wait.”
She burrows beneath the soil’s surface and leads my hand to a hard curved mass. I want to unearth it right then.
I fathom how Irish farmers quaked as they laid bare salvation with these gritty bulbs. The urban youth wouldn’t stoop to this, I muse. Perhaps one day, when their outer show falls, they will bend down, uncover their souls, hardened and buried, and reveal their hidden wholeness.
For now, I content myself with digging my fingers in the soil – placing seedlings to stretch their roots, feeling for moisture to sense if they need water, and probing for home grown sweet potatoes. Daily, as I show a student how to solve a word problem, I glance at my nails and notice remnants of soil from my morning’s tending. I hasten to remove the dark veins of dirt.
And I wonder how yellow gold pineapple skins, orange peels and green lettuce all submit to this brownness, dissolving into rich, dark compost. Now available as elements to be taken and formed into purple lima beans and red tomatoes.
Soil is a part of the life cycle of matter. Earth is the bed upon which enlivened substance falls, breaks apart, reunites and rises again. Kale, lentils and yams arise and flourish to nourish our bodies. Our waste in turn falls and feeds the ground.
And one day our forms lie down and submit to the earth what has been borrowed.
Layers upon layers of discarded bones, bark and shell compile and compact to make limestone, shale and slate. This becomes the quiet ground upon which we tread.
Though we cover it with concrete and carpet, construct buildings above it, and dwell oblivious to its presence, once these foundations are cracked, leafy growth bursts forth again.
If ever we feel out of touch, a sense of lack, in need of renewal, soil is an ever present portal, welcoming us to join creation.