A tiny island
Today I am starting a letter. Today I am also hoping that imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, because this letter is very much inspired by Jack Cheng, who writes a lovely letter once a week called Sunday, as well as by Sarah Grieco, who recently launched a weekly recs newsletter that is as sharp as it is funny. They remind me that I, too, write, even in those months when I feel like I write nothing at all. And that’s exactly why I’m doing this. I don't really know yet what this will be, but I hope that it will be good, and I plan to do it once a week. To anyone who reads it, a high-five and a thank you.
Today I am thinking about dirt. Really. I am thinking about the difference between dirt and soil, and how to turn one into the other, and how there is the expression “cheaper than dirt” and yet how soil is insanely expensive. Like, really expensive, you guys. Maybe this whole time we’ve gotten the meaning behind that expression wrong. “Cheaper than dirt” could refer to almost anything, because almost anything is less expensive than dirt.
At this moment, there are 14 cubic feet of fancy, organic, earthworm-aerated, nitrogen-rich, fertilizer-speckled, phosphorous-and-pH-maximized?, loamy, fluffy, deep-and-rich-and-redolent mother-loving soil sitting at the bottom of the stairs in my apartment building.
Do you know how much 14 cubic feet of soil is? I know it sounds like a lot. It is. It’s actually only enough to fill a 2-foot-by-8-foot-by-10.5-inch raised garden bed. It is also enough to fill seven shipping boxes from Amazon that are so wide I would be unable to touch my fingertips if I hugged one of them. Not that I particularly feel like hugging them. Although I would gladly hug my beautiful roommate Edwina for rolling them up the building’s steps and through two entryway doors because I wasn’t home when they arrived. Edwina deserves many hugs.
It feels strange and ridiculous and maybe even kind of dumb to walk downstairs into a fortress of packaged dirt—excuse me, fancy dirt. Expensive dirt. But it is also strangely and ridiculously and maybe even kind of dumbly exhilarating. I have dirt. I have bought myself a tiny island. An island on which I will sow dozens of tiny seeds, and from those seeds I will grow a garden, and from that garden I will somehow magically help bring some food into being. That is neat. And it’s been a long time since I’ve had anything resembling an island.
This summer I was so desperate for land that I tended a crack in the sidewalk. I have a front stoop that is now overflowing with pots and vines and flowery things, but I craved depth—more than I could get from a pot. I wanted roots to grow without limits. I wanted tendrils that would grow deep as they would high, roots that would reach for the water table, roots that would stay cool underground at a steady 55-degrees Fahrenheit, roots that would clamor with earth and rocks and worms and rain, roots that, with a little help, would win. I wanted land.
I had access to a sliver of it. A strip of a sliver. A crack in the sidewalk that runs in front of my building. It was perfect, really. A long and broken path, a rift in pedestrian traffic. A rift, perhaps in the pedestrian? Now I’m reaching.
But it was perfect. It ran along the face of the building, in front of a little wrought-iron fence, underneath the near-constant drip from an overhead air conditioner. A seed could be planted and sprout and vine.
And vine it did. I dug into that sliver of soil, eviscerated it of weeds and pebbles, wisps of plastic and dried leaves. I dropped morning glory and moonflower seeds into a jar of water and set them by a window and watched their roots break through. I took those little tadpole seeds and scooped them into that stretch of soil and tucked them in. And every morning and every evening I filled my watering cans and teetered down two flights of stairs, and as I watered all of the overflowing pots and vines and flowery things I made sure to give the seeds just enough to keep them damp, never too much to wash them away.
They sprouted, and leafed, and then finally they vined, gingerly and then quickly wrapping around the wrought iron. And then the neighbor mistook them for weeds and ripped them all up. So I did it again, and I made a sign: “Flowers are growing here.” And this time they weren’t ripped away, just … trampled. And probably peed on by the neighborhood dogs. So I did it one more time. And one glorious, hearty, foot-defying little seedling survived. And it grew huge. One great, big moonflower vine now creeps its way up the wrought iron, around the railing, and onto a single cable that dangles from the roof. It is aiming for sky.
And so when my downstairs neighbor Abby offered her backyard for gardening, came up to me out of nowhere and said I could plants things down there, actually used the words “free reign,” I gradually processed the glory of that kind of gift. Dirt! Unconfined, sun-basked dirt! Set apart from pedestrian footpaths and neighborhood urinators! Real, live dirt. It was awesome.
Still, I had to buy more. Because as I soon learned, backyard Brooklyn dirt is not something you should grow vegetables in willy-nilly. It’s been there for a while, as the city has come up and cars have chugged by and old paint from buildings has chipped and apparently there is high concern about an excess of lead in all of that glorious dirt.
In the wake of a Sunday afternoon spent tilling, and surfacing odd bits of plastic and marbles and soda can tabs, some actual nuts and bolts, I decided to build a bed. The native dirt shall be left for things that we don’t want to eat, saved for things that just make us smile.
A plot has been measured, and cedar and soil and seeds acquired. I even bought a ridiculous device with a motion sensor that connects to a hose; it’s supposed to douse squirrels and other backyard burrowers with a blast of water if they come too close, scaring them away. The pictures on the outside of the box, advertising what it does, are fantastic: rabbits and deer and squirrels mid-air, shocked! by pelts of water. I look at them and I can’t stop laughing.
So here we are, ready. A bounty of soil at the foot of my steps. Waiting for deliverance.