My kid eats dirt.
It began a few weeks ago, and coincided with our transition from winter’s indoor den to the outside living room of summer. Returning home to an outdoors that we had left mostly monochrome and barren a few weeks before and finding it now swelling with the promise of life and color presented compelling reasons to leave the rest of our spring chores undone and hop straight into the task of unloading winter’s leftover baggage from the backyard. Telluride’s summer, so brilliant and soul-feeding, is painfully short. So we try to take advantage of summer as much as we can by making our outdoor zone as cozy as possible.
But making our little summer family room livable, after it’s been neglected since November, takes some work.
Elle, in her gardening uniform of pink Velcro sneakers and green-and-gold sweatsuit, is ready to help. We rake while she picks up sticks. We weed while she plucks dandelions. We get muddy while she gets filthy. And, along the way, I catch her popping fistfuls of dark, sticky dirt into her mouth.
“Spit it out! Icky!” we cry, attempting to pry her mouth open. But she doesn’t seem to mind the grit in her teeth or the peculiar feel of earth rolling around her tongue; keeping her jaw locked tight, Elle smiles, a black film coating her tiny teeth.
Her penchant for dirt-eating aside, we talk about growing her a garden. The idea is both tantalizing and daunting. We’ve always planted things, some of which made it onto our dinner plates. But we’ve always planted them in more manageable but less grand places, like window boxes and pots on the back porch.
To keep my blossoming springtime intentions from disappearing alongside the dissipating snowpack, I take an early May field trip to Ridgway’s Park Garden Nursery to buy plants. Cabbage, lettuce, basil, squash, radishes, shallots, chard, and a couple strawberry plants make it into my basket. I add two four-packs of the mysterious leek, which I have still rarely used in my culinary exploits at home but fell in love with while living in France. Some tall tomato plants. And my very favorite, the pea, with its reaching, creeping tendrils and round, delicate leaves. I can’t help myself. I buy eight.
My small backyard garden intentions have ballooned into a somewhat larger endeavor, I realize, as I gently cram trays of adolescent plants into the backseat. Being only the end of the first week in May, I know that it is insanely early to put anything into the ground. But I argue that since my garage will soon be full of future summer suppers, there’s no way I will back out now, citing lack of time or energy as my excuse. Elle is getting a garden this summer. The plants squatting in my garage are proof.
Elodie “helps,” carefully moving the plants into the sun in the morning and out of the cold at night, dumping water-pails over their heads twice a day, caring for our little crop for weeks before I feel it’s safe to send them out into the world on their own. Now, approaching the end of May, I still worry about freezing temps and hungry creatures, but into the dirt they must go.
I am nervous, pick-ax in hand, standing over the small rectangle of earth that I have envisioned as my family’s garden. Craig and Elle stand by, a bit wearily, it seems to me, as I pick up the tool, then set it back down again, trying to summon the courage to break through the fine carpet of grass and weeds that stands between me and my new garden.
Why am I tentative? I’m afraid that my efforts will be a failure. That this rectangle of dirt I’m about to carve into the backyard won’t prosper, that the plants I’ve harbored in my garage will die a slow, painful death at the hand of an over-eager gardener whose thumb is more black than green. Ultimately, I worry that this little garden will take up too much of my time, and I’ll stop weeding and forget about watering while in the pursuit of living Telluride’s summer to the fullest, my once-hopeful crop getting neglected while I’m festival-going, mountain-scaling and softball-playing
Standing above this so-far imaginary garden, I recall the gardens of my childhood. My grandmother’s, where I crouched atop black soil plucking shiny palm-sized strawberries from under leaves while an Oklahoma snapping turtle watched with beady-eyed contempt. My father’s, where plump pea pods climbed a fence made of sticks and string. When I would pry them open the sweet peas popped from their shells like prized green pearls.
Warm and fuzzy childhood garden memories aside, there is another, more persuasive reason I eventually lift the tool and drive it into the ground, ripping up roots and turning up soil to make our family’s first garden. I’m driven by a creeping fear. I am afraid that if I don’t plant a garden with my daughter, she will miss learning about something that is not only beneficial for creating fond memories of family and the outdoors, but is also vital in raising a conscientious citizen of this planet.
Mountainfilm’s May 22 Moving Mountains Symposium on food helped refresh my awareness of our children’s – and, in effect, our country’s – unabashed disconnect from the source of our food. In the words of keynote speaker Bill McKibben: “We walk through the grocery store in a fluorescent haze, somehow emerging with the same basket we had the week before.” There are fewer farmers on fewer and bigger farms, growing a frighteningly smaller diversity of crops. But we don’t realize this, since many of us never see American agriculture in action (except, perhaps, from through the frame of our car windows.) We have become accustomed to finding things like bananas in places like Telluride; asparagus when it isn’t in season in North America; store shelves lined with thousands of brightly colored boxes, the contents of which include ingredients we can’t pronounce; and meat and dairy products whose prices we don’t realize reflect only a fraction of what they actually cost to produce.
Growing a garden for Elle won’t fix our broken food system. The problems – top-heavy governmental subsidies that favor massive farming operations over small family farms, an agricultural system that is married to oil, the degradation of our soil and water from decades of environmentally irresponsible but high-yield farming practices, and how all these things seem of little consequence when there are still people dying of starvation on this planet – are daunting. I realize I can’t shop (through the CSA) or grow (through our family garden) out of this crisis.
But I rip up roots and pull up grass and till soil, in a tiny corner of the backyard that is becoming our garden, anyway. When Elle joins me, running her little fingers through the damp, cool earth, laying on her belly in the dirt, and yes, tasting a handful or two, my fear about what will be on her family’s dinner table subsides just a bit. With any hope, we’ll grow ourselves a few dinners this summer. And, perhaps growing up with those little plants will be a daughter who understands and appreciates the energy, time, and effort it takes to get those dinners on the table. By then, I imagine she’ll find crisp lettuce leaves and sweet strawberries to be more palatable than the dirt they’re grown in. One can only hope.