Editor’s Note: Some of the best work Tweetspeak has to offer is regularly set aside as thanks to our Patrons, whose generosity helps us keep freshening the world with poems and stories.
Today, we’re starting our 10th birthday celebration by sharing this book club edition with you—an edition that ordinarily would have been for patrons only.
I grew up in a family of gardeners. Some of my earliest memories include plunging my fingers into loose soil to make holes for tiny seeds. As I got older, I was recruited to tame the weeds that grew alongside the plants. I didn’t like the way the hoe bumbled around in my too-small hands, or left blisters in my palms once I finally got the rhythm down. But I did love the juicy tomatoes and sweet corn. I loved the green beans I helped snap, cooked with bacon, and I loved the onions and cucumbers floating in vinegar water.
It only made sense then, when I got my first house with a yard, that I decided to plant a garden of my own. I still didn’t love hoeing weeds or dealing with pests, but I knew the fresh sliced tomatoes, long, crunchy carrots, and peppery Mesclun lettuce would be worth it.
Since my home’s septic system covered most of the back lawn, I decided to build two raised beds in the front. I bought untreated wood for the boxes, and dozens of bags of organic gardening mix, peat moss, manure, and perlite to fill them with. By the time I was ready to plant my first garden, the seeds and seedlings had a nutrient rich bed to rest in. And the plants that year were amazing. The tomato plants spilled over the tops of their cages, and zucchini leaves the size of bicycle tires wheeled out into the yard. But as the season continued, the vegetables weren’t nearly as impressive as the plants, and some, including my eggplant, barely produced at all. The next year, when I planted my second garden, the plants were mediocre at best.
The problem? Poor tilth. The store-bought soil and amendments were good for a season—or at least part of a season—but as soon as the nutrients were depleted, there was no natural system to restore it. As a single person who frequently ate out, my compost pile wasn’t producing quickly enough, and the dirt beneath my open-bottomed garden boxes was 60-year-old backfill trucked in when the neighborhood was built in the 1950s. It could barely grow grass. In fact, only one thing seemed to really thrive there: dandelions.
My first garden, and indeed my first yard, were a lot like the land of one of the farmers Daphne Miller talked with in her book, Farmacology. Erick Haakenson bought Jubilee Farm in 1989 after abandoning an academic career in philosophy. He knew the soil was depleted and that “nutrient-dense food could not come from nutrient-deficient soil.” So he began by testing the dirt for various vitamins and minerals, amending each plot based on the results. Over a few years, he added more than 50 tons of imported minerals, but with little success.
“Somehow it didn’t feel right,” Haakenson told Miller. “There were lots of minerals that I wasn’t sure where they were from. They were probably taken from developing countries, where their soil needed these minerals more than we do. I was also wondering, If these are all so good for my plants, why does the manufacturer recommend that I wear a mask when I’m spreading them?”
Miller compared the approach Haakenson had used unsuccessfully with his farm to a patient Miller treated in her medical practice. Allie came to Miller with chronic bloating, allergy symptoms, weight gain, and fatigue. She’d suffered no major injury or illness, and her symptoms didn’t start suddenly or even on a day she could remember. “Rather, as she explained it, ‘I probably had all this going on at a low grade for years.’” Like Jubilee Farm, Allie had been tested for various vitamin and mineral deficiencies, along with an exhaustive list of diseases and conditions. And though the tests had been inconclusive, she’d been taking various supplements that had offered no improvement.
For Jubilee Farms, the road back to good tilth was moving to biodynamic farming, where “each farm is a self-supporting eco-cycle, or self-powered organism.” Biodynamic farms don’t need outside fertilizers, pesticides, or even fuel because the farm itself generates everything it needs: “fertility is recycled back into the soil.” They do, however, need animals, who eat from the pastures of the farm, digest the contents with billions of intestinal bugs, or microbiota, and then “deposit” the digested, but enriched, material back onto the soil.
But what about Allie? According to Miller, her “tilth” also was restored when she entered the farm cycle more directly—not as purely as if she were part of a biodynamic farm, but also more directly connected to the soil that supports and is supported by the natural cycle of food. First, she invested in farm-fresh food through a shop that bought directly from farmers. She also joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) program that delivered a box of fresh vegetables to her neighborhood each week. She began eating a more diverse array of grains, fruits and vegetables, especially enjoying all the things that were in-season on the farms she was connected with. Then there was the matter of bugs, or those good microbiota that encouraged soil health. Miller encouraged Allie to eat more of the peelings and outer leaves of vegetables, not being too worried if a little dirt ended up in the salad or soup. And also, taking care not to kill the good bacteria in her gut through excessive use of supplements, acid blockers, antibiotics, or steroids. And finally, Allie began to volunteer at a school garden in her community.
Good tilth is important for land health and body health, but it’s also important, at least metaphorically, for writing health. In this case, we achieve good writing tilth when we have a natural cycle of consuming what inspires, educates, and motivates us and of digesting and producing what we imagine, experiment with, and create: poems, essays, and novels. Writers with good tilth take in a steady and diverse diet of books, artwork, and experiences. They take note of their everyday lives and are stimulated by interesting and even unexpected conversations. They keep an ongoing list of ideas, but they also make time to write—growing a healthy body of work that benefits from the creatively dynamic life they lead.
Write It Out
How’s your tilth? Using your land, your body, or your writing life (or maybe a combination of all three), freewrite about habits and results that reveal good or poor tilth. When you’ve finished, brainstorm ways to improve your tilth on all levels.
Feeling creative now? Craft a poem or a story opening that explores your land, body, or writing tilth—and share with us in the comments if you like.
Read With Us
What kind of writer are you? asks Charity Singleton Craig, as she opens you to a journey of discovery about the art of essay writing that explores both practical and reason-for-writing concerns.