Selected readings from “The Book Of Soil”
What am I writing now in the book of my soil asks George DeVault...and what will future generations think of what they read there?

By George DeVault
Posted September 13, 2004

“The best fertilizer is the footsteps of the farmer.”
-- Chinese Proverb

While that ancient wisdom is true, there are many different kinds of footsteps. Some are big, some are small. Some disappear as soon as the morning dew burns off in the heat of the day, others endure long after the farmer has departed this world. That, I think, is because there are what my friend Louis Bromfield called “good farmers” and “bad farmers.”

Good farmers nurture the soil, live close to nature and love the earth. They build beauty and peace, know true security and real satisfaction. They constantly try new ideas, yet are no slaves to technology. They never stop learning, are optimistic by nature. While working in the fields, they are closer to God than people in the grandest cathedral.

In short, the good farmer reveres life.

Then there are bad farmers. These are greedy, shiftless and lazy people who only use and abuse the soil. They steal as much as they can from nature. They take and never give, leaving the land worn-out to be ravaged by wind and rain. They are the exploiters, who ruin one farm before moving on to the next. They leave a vast burden for future generations to pay.

Every time I go out to work in the garden beds and fields around our farm, I wonder: What kind of footprints am I leaving on the land? How will farmers in the future read what I have written in the Book of Soil? Will they approve? Will they laugh? Or will they curse me for what I have done?

In the Book of Soil, everything is eventually revealed. There are no secrets. No one can hide. There is no escaping from the consequences of our actions and how well -- or how poorly -- we fulfilled our responsibilities as stewards of the soil.

Time will tell. In the Book of Soil, everything is eventually revealed. There are no secrets. No one can hide. There is no escaping from the consequences of our actions and how well -- or how poorly -- we fulfilled our responsibilities as stewards of the soil.

For 20 years now we have been the only ones farming our land, yet the footprints of earlier farmers are everywhere. The oldest were left by the “Lenne Lenape” or Delaware Indians, a once large and powerful tribe of what we now call Native Americans. The Delaware roamed the fields and woods of the Northeastern United States for many centuries before white Europeans came to the shores of the New World.

The Delaware grew corn, beans and squash. Those crops, called the “Three Sisters,” were often planted together in little hills or blocks. Corn provided support for the climbing beans, while the spreading squash vines protected the soil and blocked out weeds. The Delaware tread as lightly on the land as a pair of soft moccasins, so little evidence of their agriculture remains.

The Delaware were mostly hunters and gathers. They came to this area of southeastern Pennsylvania in search of Jasper, a kind of quartz that like flint can be split and then knapped. Jasper holds a sharp edge. It is perfect for making high-quality arrowheads, spear points, knives and other implements. One mile west of our farm is Jasper Park, a place where native peoples from throughout the Mid-Atlantic area traveled to dig jasper. The quarry was sacred ground. It was neutral territory: No fighting allowed.

Also held sacred by the Delaware were the many turtles that roamed the nearby streams and wetlands. Chief among them was the shy little Bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii). “Turtles remind us that the way to heaven is through the earth. In Mother Earth is all that we need. She will care for us, protect us, and nurture us, as long as we do the same for her. For that to happen, we must slow down and heighten our sensibilities. We must see the connection to all things. Just as the turtle cannot separate itself from its shell, neither can we separate ourselves from what we do to the Earth,” Ted Andrews wrote in Animal-Speak, a guide to the spiritual and magical powers of animals.

Today, the Bog turtle is on the endangered species list.

Our fields are full of old spoons and forks and pieces of broken cups, saucers and plates. Now and then, we find a bog turtle or an Indian arrowhead in our fields. But, mostly, we find garbage from the 20th century. It all makes me wonder: What am I leaving behind?

That’s because earlier generations of farmers drained wetlands and cleared the hardwood forests to expand crop acreage. Using horses, they drug huge stones to the edges of the fields. The stones are piled in crude fencerows that now mark the perimeter of our land, while iron harrow teeth, pieces of chain and horseshoes rust away in the fields.

The previous owner of our land sold off small building lots along the road. Houses sprang up, often in areas where they never should have been built because it is so wet.

Other reminders of his farming turn up every time I work our fields. He raised pigs and fed them garbage from restaurants in the city. Our fields are full of old spoons and forks and pieces of broken cups, saucers and plates. Now and then, we find a bog turtle or an Indian arrowhead in our fields. But, mostly, we find garbage from the 20th century.

It all makes me wonder: What am I leaving behind? What am I writing for posterity, and for good or ill, in the Book of Soil? Somewhere in our fields, I know, two Soviet army wristwatches and several pocketknives are waiting to be found. There are a few plastic irrigation fittings and empty shotgun shells, even though I always try to pick up all of our litter.

But, hopefully, there will be nothing more egregious, no large compacted areas that never drain or ugly erosion gullies scarring the earth. My sensibilities were heightened recently, as Ted Andrews urged, by a little verse that helped me look at the land in a new way:

Sedges have edges.
Reeds are round.
And where it is wet,
They'll both be found.

The speaker was a professional wetland scientist. She was doing the first formal survey of our wooded wetlands in the east field. It was part of our long but successful fight against a proposed development (a 150-run dog boarding kennel) next door to and uphill from our farm. (Our dogfight with the kennel is another story for another time.)

Plucking two clumps of greenery from an odd corner of our field, she handed me a sample of each, so I cloud feel the difference for myself. Reeds are round. Sedges do have edges. And it really is wet there most of the year, very wet, which is why I am going to stay even farther away from that spot with my tractor and mower.

Now that I am better able to understand the language of the soil, I’m finding more special places that deserve different care and fewer, lighter footprints.

How often do you read the book of your soil? How well? More importantly, what -- and how well -- are you writing in the Book of Soil?

 

What's that sticking out of the field?

This is how George discoverd the antler pictured at the beginning of this article. Who knows when or by whom the antler was discarded. It could be a page from the Lenne Lenape's chapter in the Book of Soil. Or simply an example of the natural cycle of life and death also etched permanantly in the land.