Dirt Day 2010

I have just gotten around to reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, which is probably part of any self-respecting “doomer”‘s library, along with other books I’ve found worthwhile, such as Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov or the seminal classic The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. Except, I’m not a doomer (and I hate that term anyway). I’m just someone interested in thinking about our times in different ways.

There doesn’t seem to be any cause for feelings of doom when you read the paper today and see that CNY’ers (the real CNY’ers) are genuinely green in their outlook and behavior. The sample for this survey is small and perhaps too much is being made of it, but it’s heartening to see CNYers understanding that “greenwashing” (cloaking corporate interests in green costume) can be a big problem too. This question makes me take the survey a little more seriously. But mainly what I see in this survey is that the less affluent a place is, the more serious-minded they may be about changing the way they live and giving back to the earth. Perhaps this is similar to the way poorer people tend to be the most generous in giving to charity.

Then again, we’re still not thinking entirely clearly. There are some “No to Wastebed 13” signs on my street now. This is because some of my former neighbors now live in Golden Meadows, the subdivision that was built near the old wastebed where Honeywell and the state propose to store Onondaga Lake sediments. I’m still trying to find out why I knew about Wastebed 13 before homeowners there apparently did. I’m not exactly an environmental activist, and I knew. I read the paper, and was following along with the lake cleanup mainly because of my concern/interest in the Onondaga LRA. I feel badly for the Golden Meadows homeowners, particularly my former neighbors, and wonder how the Onondaga Nation’s recent vision statement for Onondaga Lake speaks to them. (Are we speaking to one another?)

The anti-wastebed signs are bright yellow; you can’t miss them. Coming home from work, I noticed a little yellow flag fluttering in the grass in the yard next door to one of the signs. Someone had their lawn freshly pesticided for spring. Toxic waste is not okay for landfills and lakes, but still okay for lawns, I guess. That’s the right sort of poison for our homes and children! Until we get over this willful blindness, we’re going to keep running into dilemmas like Wastebed 13.

But back to the dirt. I thought I would be more interested by The World Without Us for its description of how suburban homes and mighty cities decay, but I actually found myself fascinated by the chapter on dirt and what sticks around in it. The story of the long-term soil experiments at an English research farm reminded me a lot of agricultural writings by and about George Geddes and Fairmount in the 19th century. I was not so interested in this stuff when I was doing the start of my Fairmount research, but now as I’m trying to ease into learning gardening, I am. What’s in my dirt?

Aspiring gardeners in Fairmount don’t know how good they have it: the provenance of their dirt is surprisingly well documented, thanks to old George. While I’m fairly sure that the land my house sits on was either not actually Geddes family land, or was not actually farmed (too many large stones present – although it could have been grazing land for his sheep), I’m confident that it probably wasn’t greatly disturbed in the early years of the 20th century either. It probably wasn’t sprayed with fertilizer. The biggest mystery therefore is how the homebuilders messed with it in the mid-1950s. My mother believes, from her childhood memories, that the homebuilders did not truck in much new dirt. I can also quiz her what the original homeowners (my grandparents) put on it in the way of pesticides and lawn fertilizer back in the beginning.

It would be nice to get soil samples tested – not, as one usually might do, to determine the best spot for gardening, but to try and find a spot that might be the least transformed from the time before the house was built. This would be in the back yard, away from the road and the house. I also want to sample the soil in the front yard (which I expect will be more contaminated) and a sample from my sister’s house in the city. I have a feeling that doing the sort of testing I’m interested in would be very expensive, though, so I’ll have to find out if it’s really feasible to do.

7 thoughts on “Dirt Day 2010

  1. Robinia

    Not a doomer– a reader! That’s how you found out about Wastebed 13 before your (reading-less) neighbors.

    Sitting at dinner yesterday across from an academic who studies ways to supposedly make it OK to garden in contaminated soil (certain veggies and fruits, certain mulches and other techniques). I was pretty skeptical– lots of that depends on humans following instructions, something I have little faith in for adults, and none for children.

  2. Ellen

    Lead-contaminated soil is a problem for urban garden projects where they have to bring in new dirt. In Syracuse they recently found that “free dirt” being donated to these projects was loaded with contaminants.

    My backyard soil is rocky clay anyway, very uninspiring stuff, so it’s not exactly great for veggie gardening, which is why I will do the raised-bed thing. But this year, just more potatoes in containers and also carrots. For me, it’s important to grow stuff I’ll actually eat… I’ll get myself to become a tomato and salad greens fanatic at some future date.

  3. Ellen

    Thanks for the tip. I thought it would be around $100 per sample. I recall reading that Cornell has farmed these tests out to an outside company. I’ll just call the local extension office and maybe they can give me a clue how to start.

    George Geddes was apparently not a fan of state-of-the-art fertilizing. He wasn’t even a strong believer in the use of manure. This is probably more because of his extreme obsession with sanitation than anything else. His lack of enthusiasm for the latest advances in fertilizer made some other farmers look on him as an overrated flake, yet it was noted that he managed to get other farmers in the immediate area to sign on to his ideas. Someday soon I need to go down to OHA and look through his papers.

  4. Josh S

    Excellent insight on the little yellow pesticide flags!

    Sandra Steingrabber writes on this, on how “banned” chemicals like atrazine (I think?) have found their way back into lawn care.

  5. Robinia

    Atrazine is banned in the EU, but still legal here in the good ol’ USA. They use it on corn wholesale.

  6. Josh S

    Thanks Robinia. I must have my chemicals confused. I was trying to recall exactly what Steingrabber wrote, in her really fantastic book, An Ecologist’s Guide to Pregnancy. She had an excellent few paragraphs about the different industrial chemicals, which were banned here in the US but finding their way back into common use.

    The scary thing is that chemical pollution is now a “Planetary Boundary” (from last September’s issue of Nature). Not good!

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