I believe the real meaning of our existence is to be found in soil … in its alchemy, in its mystery, in its eros. Terra Illuminata. It’s where life begins and it is where life ends. It’s where death begins and it’s where death ends. It’s the Earth’s skin; the Earth’s exemplary circle.
As Stuart Maddox Masters said in his book, The Seasons Through, published 67 years ago: “Soil . . . scoop up a handful of the magic stuff. Look at it closely. What wonders it holds as it lies there in your palm. Tiny sharp grains of sand, little faggots of wood and leaf fibre, infinitely small round pieces of marble, fragments of shell, specks of black carbon, a section of vertebrae from some minute creature. And mingling with it all the dust of countless generations of plants and flowers, trees, animals and – yes – our own, age-long forgotten forebears, gardeners of long ago. Can this incredible composition be the common soil? …”
This incredible composition may be thought of as the common soil, but to me it’s a shapeshifting miracle. All those millions of microorganisms interdependent and working as one entity, taking care of themselves, and in turn, taking care of all of us, too. Think of the magnitude of what lies under our feet: “A cloak of loose, soft material, held to the earth’s hard surface by gravity, is all that lies between life and lifelessness,” as said by Wallace H. Fuller, an American soil scientist in 1975.
Soil, in my opinion, is not to be sniffed at.
How to tend the soil is cause for much vigorous debate on this little piece of the Zambezi Valley. Chris, the brainy farmer, sees soil as a science, while Annabel, the Celtic tree-hugger, sees it as a mystery. Our philosophies are reflected in the way we choose to grow things. While Chris reads science journals and relies on solid data, I spend hours reading up on which plants love sharing a bed, and which winged creature best enhances their newly-wedded lives together. While Chris reels off long Latin names of substances that are known to enhance the growth of plants, I refuse to brook what he has to say, or implement any of his suggestions. Leave me with my intuition, my fairy circles, my birds, my bugs, and my companion plants, I say, and take your long words and scientific experiments elsewhere. (Which, by the way, he did: Chris has started his own [science] garden tucked away at the far side of the pineapple plantation!)
In spite of my belligerent attachment to creating an unsullied organic garden, it is to Chris I turn when I am at a loss. He is, after all, the farmer who first planted this garden … a garden I have since expanded, and now tend alongside Peter Komanyana and Eugene Maingo. It is to Chris I wail when nematodes turn my carrots into deformed fat Michelin men; when my parsnips transform into the shape of turnips. It is to Chris I turn when the leaves of my tomato plants turn yellow and curly, which they suddenly started doing last weekend. He is my consoler and my agronomist, and it was he who imparted the bad news about how tomato crops were succumbing to the yellow curly leaf virus throughout our valley.
Earlier this year Chris agreed to build me two raised beds, in an attempt to create what we hoped were containers for a “super-soil” in which few nasty nematodes could survive. Nematodes are microorganisms transported by river water that thrive in our sandy soils, so it’s near impossible to get away from them without using chemicals. Still, I wanted to give it a try. We’ve made a guess that using heavier clay soils — transported to the garden from a part of the farm where they are found — enhanced with compost and nematode-destroyers like worm castings tea, there’s a chance we may control them.
It is in the raised beds that I have since planted the delicates like herbs and lettuce; and it’s in the raised beds we are soon to plant our root vegetables, crossing fingers they will grow into shapes that Whole Foods or Marks & Spencers would envy.
The lettuces, mixed in with basil, carrots, beets and onions as recommended companions, have so far thrived in the raised beds. They are healthy, prolific and a staple in this salad-loving household. Two different friends, one a local farmer and another, an American who lives between Switzerland and the Cotswolds, gave us a variety of lettuce seeds, allowing for an impressive array of textures and flavors to serve each day in our salad bowl.
A favorite dish for Sunday brunch is my Guacamole Salad with Bacon. I chop a small amount of fresh chilli into a smashed avocado, add a dash of lemon juice, a pinch of salt, and lots of cracked black pepper. I serve it on my homemade ciabatta bread, sprinkled with crispy bacon bits, atop a bed of salad. I make up the salad according to what is available in our garden, which I bring together with a simple dressing — olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard — so not to overpower the flavor of the avocado and bacon bits.