My house smells like dirt. It is fabulous.
Last night a dear friend came over and we planted veggies and herbs in pots that will live in my front room/office/art studio. (Yes, it is getting crowded up in here.) At least I hope they will live! I’ve already got a great rosemary plant, a struggling mint plant, and some wheat grass that has been growing long, grassy tendrils toward the window sill, while the half away from the sill dies. Once the grass gets uncontrollably long, I cut some off and feed it to the dog. Its purpose is solely to aid the dog’s digestion. (The juicer hasn’t made it out for use in months. It takes too much energy to clean the thing.)
We dug in the dirt and planted seeds and navigated the challenges of filling large pots without using up all the potting mix, and we talked and laughed and repeatedly chastised the dog for eating dirt. It was quite lovely.
And later that night, the whole house smelled of wet earth. And it made me long for a place to call home, where I could dig up the actual earth, on the surface of the Earth, and dig my toes into that cool, dark dirt. Something about gardening grounds you. It ties you to this crazy ball of fire and rock and sediment that is flying around in the solar system, and it leads you to the knowledge that health and wellness and beauty and good come out of that sweet, musty, damp, dirty soil.
I remember thinking last night that it smelled like earth, like home, like life.
There are a lot of people in this world who don’t have the pure joy of the experience of gardening—of growing what sustains them and offers them beauty. There are many more who burden under the sun and the weight of bushels of produce to offer food to the world, while they are left with little for themselves. And then there are some farmers who grow inedible crops with vats of chemicals and strip the earth of its beauty and its life-giving nutrients, but who believe that they are those feeding the world in a noble way. My favorite are the farmers who have recognized that way of stripping the earth is not good, and who have taken the time and the effort to create organic farms that offer a rich variety of healthy fruits, vegetables, and grains that heal bodies and sustain life and the planet.
No matter how you view food and farming, there is no doubt that food, and access to it, either fuels life or takes it from us.
This past month, I have been living on what we might call a skeleton crew of body fuels. Because I am disabled and currently do not have income, I rely on the SNAP program for paying grocery costs. But, for some reason, the office which hands out or refuses to offer these food benefits was “behind”, and they had (without informing me in any way) received an extension on deciding my annual re-certification of benefits. I am usually allotted just over $300 to feed a household of 2, and that benefit arrived every 4th day of the month, in the form of automatic payment to a little plastic card in my wallet. As you might imagine, $300 for two is usually spent in full by or before the 4th rolls around again. So, when the state decided it needed six weeks to put my information into the computer system, instead of the 15 days that is customary, I was left with two weeks of no funds for food. And you might think this is some strange isolated incident that happened only to me, but all sorts of families, many with babies or young children, were alongside me in the delayed food boat. Can you imagine not being able to feed your 3-year-old, because the state is “behind” and got an extension?
I can imagine that. There were times when my daughter was young that there just wasn’t enough in the food account, and I chose to go without eating so that she could. After all, she was developing a tiny little body and brain that needed nutrients. My parts were fully developed. There was also a time or two where I was brought to tears because I had chosen food for myself over experiences for my daughter. She missed her 1st grade field trip because I needed the only $5 in my account for lunch between college classes the day before. I had forgotten to pack a lunch, and had classes from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. that day. I needed to eat. So, I bought a sandwich with that last $5, and I cried in my car in the school’s parking lot as I ate. (It is a challenge to sob while eating, by the way.) I knew that my hunger had just deprived my daughter of an experience that every other 1st grader would have. She sat in the corner of another classroom reading and doing word puzzles for the entire day, while her class went away without her. She cried for some time after school. I cried myself to sleep that night.
Food security is one of the most affecting issues in the country. Millions of people are on programs like SNAP and WIC that assist them in purchasing healthful foods. Millions more utilize food pantries, where you often get less healthful foods, like canned corn and pasta and boxed meals. The nearest grocery store to my home is over a mile away. And without a car, I must take two buses or a train and a bus to get to the store, and then must be able to carry what I purchase back home on my shoulders. I usually opt for the market that is four miles away, but requires only one bus ride and walking a half block to the bus and to the house, so I don’t collapse from the weight of my milk and beans and greens on the way home (usually). I live in what is considered a “food desert”. Where I can access very expensive, unhealthful foods with ease at corner stores or gas stations, but I cannot access fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats at a traditional grocery store. And there are many more like me.
I used to marvel at the homes of friends that had a second refrigerator and multiple freezers in different parts of the house. They were all stacked to overflowing with pizzas and casseroles and meats and ice cream. Everything you could possibly want to eat was there for the taking … and they would stare at the food and say, “there is nothing to eat”. That was never our family’s situation. We gardened, so we did have a deep freezer and a row of jars in the basement after canning season, but those spaces were filled with the surplus of the garden, and not with the mounds of convenience foods and beverages that friends had at their disposal. I remember my mom would make BLT’s for dinner and the bacon was rationed in such a way that we could have one sandwich, with 3 slices bacon, or we could choose two sandwiches and 1.5 slices bacon per sandwich. I used to think my mom was stingy or strange in the way that she would micromanage food consumption. As I got older, and had to navigate the world on my own, with hunger and budgets and social services and need becoming real for me, I realized my mom was just trying to make scarce resources into enough. She just wanted to feed us all month, so she rationed our bacon, and fed us SPAM, and allowed us pizza once or twice a month.
I can’t imagine, and wouldn’t have understood, times without food in a family with five mouths to feed. I can imagine times without food—or have actually experienced them. And I think upon my childhood limits and the limits I have set for myself these past two weeks without grocery funds, and it is painful to have knowledge of how messed up our food system is in this country, and how the majority of farm land houses no food for people, but food for cows and seeds for more food that doesn’t feed people. Vegetables and fruits are considered “specialty crops” and are not subsidized by the farm bill the way that seed corn and soybeans are subsidized. Farmers are rewarded (and paid handsomely) for growing what I cannot eat. So there are piles of rotting corn in some places in the U.S., while I have been eating cucumbers and bananas every day, because they are the most affordable fresh items at the store right now.
At times, I see advertisements about farmers and how they are feeding America. And I usually make a strange chuckle that expresses disbelief and the ludicrous nature of that claim. My tomatoes are from Mexico, and my bananas from an unknown tropical area. None of the food that comes to my table can claim to proudly be grown in Iowa, where I grew up and where farmers are revered (the ones that grow the useless corn, not the specialty vegetable crops). What they can claim is that they are feeding cows, but on $300 a month, we almost never eat beef or pork. They can also claim to be supporting ethanol, but I haven’t a car, and ethanol costs more and more the farther you get from the Iowa fields.
So, this is a long post about food, I guess. But it is also about the earth. And I feel like that love of the smell of the damp earth, and the desire to have my bare toes deep in black soil says something about both food and earth.
I think we are meant to grow things.
Sometimes people argue against my friends who have chosen not to have children by saying that god told Adam and Eve to populate the earth. But what if that is a slight mistranslation of intent. What if the meaning behind that command was more like, “I’m not going to let you live in this lush garden that I created for you anymore, but you need to go out and grow life on the planet yourselves.” Maybe it was the bird kicking the babies out of the nest, so to speak. Maybe it was a command to go out and till the soil and water the plants and nourish the vegetables and fruits and create a garden of their own. And if that is the case, then the piles of rotting seed corn, and the hog confinements, and the stripping of and polluting of the soil are all against the will of god.
Now, I’m not strictly religious at this point in my life, but I do believe in a divine presence, and I do believe that the earth, the soil, the water, the wind, the sun, and all that grows and is sustained because of them, are divine gifts. Divine gifts that somehow arose from primordial ooze after an explosion of stardust, but gifts, nonetheless. And right now, we are starving millions. This cannot be what the gift was meant for. This cannot be the way we are supposed to utilize the beauty and nourishment and life that these gifts offer.
Today I received my SNAP benefits for March. They are two weeks late, but I can make the long trek to a market and obtain fruits and vegetables and eggs and whole wheat bread and all the things that I have been longing for in my diet the last couple of weeks. I can stop worrying about hunger and the empty feeling in my gut when I peer into the nearly empty fridge. I can stop subsisting on cucumbers, and actually have some avocado and beets and pineapple and maybe even some goat cheese if I budget really well. And I want to rejoice, and I will rejoice, at this end to my deep need for nourishment.
But I can’t help but wonder, at what point the state might, once again, endanger my life by taking away my access to healthful foods, or comprehensive medical care, or safe housing, or whatever else I need to survive as a single, disabled adult in America.
So, the smell of earth in my front room/office/art studio is not just a memory and a hope of toes in dirt at a home that is more permanent and more mine than what I have been offered the past several years, but it is a reminder that sustenance and stability are not mine. And planting herbs and vegetables is the first step to sustaining life, and perhaps the only step I can take at this time. Because I lack agency. Because I am poor. Because I am not respected as a human being equal to all the other, non-poor human beings. Because people consider poverty to be indicative of stupidity or moral depravity, and not indicative of systemic injustice and a society that discriminates against people of color, the disabled, women, singles, people without children, people with too many children, LGBTQIA+ people, Muslim people, people emigrating to the U.S., the elderly, the young, and a host of others.
And I wonder, will we ever get to a place where we are all working together to sustain a giant garden flying around in the solar system, with peace and compassion and abundance being the standard that we hold most dear and present to all? Or, will we stay in a place where one individual has an extra fridge full of soda and beer and surplus food, and one is dependent on the state’s timetable for survival and is forbidden from purchasing beer or soda?
The sun is currently pouring in the windows, heating my skin and boosting my vitamin D, and offering life to my little seeds pressed into the dirt. The smell of earth is still heavy and inviting and beautiful. I imagine the abundance that could grow from these tiny pots. I imagine a life that holds on to abundance, and isn’t plagued by a cycle of need/enough/need/enough/need. I imagine a “someday” that holds a little home of my own with a garden where I can sink my toes into the damp, darkness and feel tied to the earth. Grounded in the land of enough. Grounded in my spirit and in my life, because the stress and the worry of living in a constant state of lack, and never having enough resources, is gone. Grounded in ways that let me speak to the divine in gratitude more often than in need. Tied to the earth. Tied to a community. Tied to life, instead of the fear of death.
Life. This sunny addition to my apartment is bringing so much life.
And all it took was a bit of dirt.