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Two Sundays ago, I walked into my friendly neighborhood garden center and demanded mulch. The Closed sign hung out front and there were no cars in the parking lot, but the door was unlocked and I was desperate; the day was warm and I had to get out in the garden after what felt like a never-ending winter.
The owner crawled out of his office and looked at me curiously. “This is our last Sunday to be closed,” he said. “I’m just doing some paper work here.”
“Are you really going to send me to Home Depot?” I demanded, so he kindly led me outside to the stacked columns of mulch bags, still encased in strips of plastic wrap, and pulled out his pocket-knife to release a few bags. Western red cedar, finely shredded. The smell of the forest floor. I loaded as many bags as would fit in my little red Subaru and headed home.
Is there any occasion more hopeful than returning to the garden after a long winter? Out here in Colorado, it’s not much to look at — the trees are still bare and ragged, lawns haven’t greened, and prudent flower gardeners have left a thick winter’s coat of dried leaves on the beds to ward off the bitter cold. A few wedges of waxy green from emerging tulips and daffodils provide the only spots of color. The mountain West gardener in early spring operates largely on faith, clearing off the dead remnants of last year’s growth in search of a sliver of green down below.
I spent that afternoon and have spent part of nearly every one since excavating my small urban garden in search of living things. When friends or family ask me what I’ve been doing, I say I’ve been playing in the dirt. Beneath limbs and sticks and trampled leaves, I unearth a tiny whorl of gray-green leaves, the catmint returning for another season. Buried deep inside tough bunches of tall grasses gone crunchy and pale, the slightest sprigs of tender green. It’s like the obstetrician, searching for a faint heartbeat, the first sign of life. The task is to clear off the debris, expose the living thing to light and air, then carefully mulch around it to protect from what we hope will materialize, one more spring snowstorm, and to hold in precious moisture.
My mind stops chattering when my nose gets close to the ground and sniffs the clean smell of dirt. Most days, before I go anywhere, I have to stop and remember to pull out the stiff hand brush and scrub the mud out from under my nails.
One day this week I forgot to wash my hands before leaving the house. I had been tussling with the wiry remains of last year’s rosemary and thyme, breaking off the spindly dead stems and brushing off the springy leaves that still thrived in the center. An hour later, sitting in a downtown office, I inhaled springtime on my fingertips, astringent rosemary, floral thyme, a secret encounter.
There is something about this experience, no matter how stiff in the back and knees I’ve grown since my younger gardening days, no matter how slowly I lift and bend out here in the middle distance, that takes me straight back to a singular childhood joy. Granted, gardeners can be counted among the most obsessive workaholics. Some of us are prissy perfectionists and there is something of the addict in most of us. Still, I believe in the power of playing in the dirt, of putting our noses to the ground, of returning to that elemental state.
My father, who died over a decade ago, used to tell a story about what he claimed were my first spoken words. I don’t actually remember being there, but after hearing him tell it so many times, I re-member the event from the fertile fields of storytelling, as if it really might have happened.
I am very small, toddling around our driveway dressed in just a diaper. My father, just home from work, stands and keeps lookout. It is near dusk, and I venture away from the house, safe under his watchful eye, into a ditch that borders our street.
I discover dirt for probably the first time, and when I waddle back to him, I am covered in it from head to toe.
“You’re a dirty bird,” my daddy says.
“I’m a dirty bird,” I repeat. His clean hand captures my muddy one, and together we take the long walk up the driveway, back to the house.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.