Ran/walked the ford loop with Scott. Sunny and warm with a bright blue sky. Wonderful. Stopped at the 2 overlooks on the St. Paul side. Heard and saw rowers on the river! The first time this spring, I think. Also heard someone playing guitar on a rock below the Monument that juts out over the river. Heard lots of birds, encountered lots of walkers, some runners, a biker or two.
Right after we finished our run, as we walked by Becketwood, I saw something flash in the trees. At first I thought it was a squirrel jumping, but Scott said it was an owl! Excellent. It took me about a minute to see it, but when it flapped its wing, I did. My favorite part: the owl was facing the other way, but they turned their head to check if we were still there. What an awesome head swivel!
before the run
Although Entangled Life never lapses into polemics or preaching, the book has an evangelical message all the same: humanity is neither innately special nor truly dominant; rather, we emerge and are sustained by a web of interspecies interdependence and diverse kinship; and our human notion of individuality is chimeric. The book is a call to engage with fungi on their level. “Is it possible for humans, with our animal brains and bodies and language, to learn to understand such different organisms? How might we find ourselves changed in the process?” Like fungi, “‘[w]e are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories. Our selves emerge from a complex tangle of relationships.”
The underlying questions of Entangled Life, and other mycophilic media today, are: How can we be more like fungi? How are we already like fungi? How can we, as Paul Stamets puts it, ally ourselves with the fungal kingdom? How can we mycologize ourselves and our world? How can we break down our waste for fuel and sustenance, rather than let it accumulate in garbage dumps, oceans, and bloodstreams? How can we organize ourselves flexibly and responsibly so each part of the social web gets what it needs? If we fail and our own species does not survive the next few centuries, we can at least trust that a resilient species of fungi will evolve to consume the copious remains of our civilization and renew the planet again.
The need for new understanding, metaphors for working together (and living together) — and NOT as individuals. Beyond Darwinism and survival of the fittest and competition. Survival of the fittest/dog-eat-dog world are dead metaphors.
Plague Notebook, Vol 11/ Sara Lynne Puotinen
Found this video from the BBC about the “wood wide web”:
Near the end, the voice-over says: “scientists are still debating why plants seem to behave in such an altruistic way.” Why are these collaborations and symbiotic relationships and networks understood as altruism? Looking up altruism, I found these definitions:
1: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of otherscharitable acts motivated purely by altruism 2: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species
Plants and fungi are not being selfless, if selfless means doing things for others that don’t benefit, or maybe even harm, you. I dislike the term altruism, btw. This is not sacrifice of individuals, or individual groups, for the good of the whole. The idea of altruism is tied up with the old, outdated understanding of us as individuals who either act selfishly or purely selflessly.
during the run
Tried to explain some of this stuff about mycelium to Scott. Also ranted about altruism. Mentioned how the discussion about the wood wide web focuses more on marveling at trees and how they communicate, and much less on the amazing fungi network and the cool stuff fungi do. Trees are the actors, with fungi only the medium. But, fungi are actors too, just in a way that we don’t see or understand as easily. Also ranted against TED talks and how formulaic and forced they seemed. Scott got distracted when I asked him what scientists who study trees are called. He couldn’t think of it. The particular type I was trying to remember was: forest ecologist.
after the run
Mushroom Hunting in the Jemez Mountains/ Arthur Sze
from The Glass Constellation
Walking in a mountain meadow toward the north slope, I see red-cap amanitas with white warts and know they signal cèpes. I see a few colonies of puffballs, red russulas with chalk-white stipes, brown-gilled Poison Pie. In the shade under the spruce are two red-pored boletes: slice them in half and the flesh turns blue in seconds. Under fir is a single amanita with basal cup, flarinannulus, white cap: is it the Rocky Mountain form of Amanita pantherina? I am aware of danger in naming, in misidentification, in imposing the distinctions of a taxonomic language onto the things themselves. I know I have only a few hours to hunt mushrooms before early afternoon rain. I know it is a mistake to think I am moving and that argarics are still: they are more transient than we acknowledge, more susceptible to full moon, to a single rain, to night air, to a moment of sunshine. I know in this meadow my passions are mycorrhizal with nature. I may shout our ecstasies, aches, griefs, and hear them vanish in the white-pored silence.
4.75 miles Veterans’ Home loop 39 degrees wind: 12 mph, 21 mph gusts
Sunny and windy and cold. I’m ready to put away my running vest and tights. Headed south to the falls. Noticed how the river was sparkling in the distance as I ran above the gorge. Heard kids yelling at the Minnehaha Academy playground. I thought I heard someone yell, “Girl! Girl!” in an accusing way. Kept listening. The underlying hum of all the noise seemed menacing, not like kids having fun on the playground, but kids being mean to each other. Was I hearing that right? Watched the creek as it rumbled over the falls. Later, going down the hill above Locks and Dam No. 1, I noticed a small eddy in the water. I almost stopped to stare, but didn’t. Thought about how many benches were occupied with a person sitting, admiring the view. Descended to the Winchell Trail and appreciated the bare branches and the empty space they offered. Heard the sewer pipe at 42nd gushing water.
before the run
Today’s dirt topic is: fungi, decomposition, entanglement, mycelium. Here are some words/ideas I want to gather:
1 — decomposition of the self
RG: One of my favorite metaphors when I talk about joy is a mycelial metaphor. It’s like the story or the fact that in healthy forests, there’s constant communication happening in the soil. It’s a shuttling of nutrients that is trying to make this system work or this system live. Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World does a lot of this in thinking about ruins, capitalism, and stuff. But I consider it a childish notion of joy, I’m just saying it’s not joy, I’m saying it’s something else and something that I’m not aspiring too actually, it does probably like the feeling of being a really free discreet individual, not beholden. That is a kind of joy or happiness. I like the word buoyant, you can lift above everything as opposed to what we know biologically, etc. is the case, that doesn’t happen, [laughs] it just doesn’t happen nor is that my aspiration. If it is my aspiration, despite my best intentions, I don’t want it to be. My practice is toward entanglement, toward recognizing.
DN: Is it toward a decomposition of the self? Like when I think of the way these mushrooms are the result of death but they’re also the processors of death
RG: Yeah. One of the things that’s so great about a garden is that you’re studying a kind of mutuality. A healthy garden has a lot of the life that comes from decomposition and it seems like hanging around that alerts us to decomposition but it also alerts us to what emerges, what happens in a garden, what happens from decomposition which is food and flowers, then which is related to all these critters, like gazillion critters that are making this happen.
2 — mutuality and symbiosis, underneath and on the edges
A mycelium is a network of fungal threads or hyphae. Mycelia often grow underground but can also thrive in other places such as rotting tree trunks. A single spore can develop into a mycelium. The fruiting bodies of fungi, such as mushrooms, can sprout from a mycelium.
Mycelia are of vital importance to the soil. They break down organic material, making its raw materials available again for use in the ecosystem. On top of this, 92% of plant families interact with fungi. This kind of symbiosis is termed mycorrhiza. Hyphae are also an important source of food for insects and other invertebrates.
The term “mycorrhiza” is assembled from Greek words for “fungus” and “root”; fungi and plant roots become intimately entangled in mycorrhizal relations. Neither the fungus nor the plant can flourish without the activity of the other (see pages 137-139 for a more detailed discussion).
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins/ Anna Tsing
Ross Gay: And it’s basically sort of talking about how mycelium … the more and more we know, is that like, you know, healthy forests are really connected. And there’s all this shuttling of nutrients and all of this other information. Like this knowledge beyond anything that we can ever comprehend. But finally, we’re starting to like, tap it a little bit, or become aware of it a little bit. But she’s sort of talking about how mushrooms themselves and that whole sort of world, they resist things of like scale, the way the plantation, the logics of the plantation have a certain kind of relationship to scale, you know. Like, if we could make like, 10 of these, how do we figure out how to make a hundred of these. How do we figure—
Ross Gay: You know, mushrooms resist capitalist logics. They just resist it.
Ross Gay: They’re kind of funny that way, you know.
Franny Choi: Wait, how do mushroom’s resist that, like, plantation scale?
Ross Gay: Because you can’t plant mushrooms like that.
Ross Gay: You know, you can’t—you know, to some extent, you can. But certain mushrooms, like she’s studying this mushroom called matsutake mushroom. And it comes when it comes, you know.
Ross Gay: And people who know—and a lot of the people who know who are foragers are sort of marginal people. So, in the margins, there’s this different relationship. And folks are selling them and all this stuff. So they’re in a kind of market. But the market is this other kind of market.
To live with precarity requires more than railing at those who put us here (although that seems useful too, and I’m not against it). We might look around to notice this strange new world, and we stretch our imagination to grasp its contours. This is where mushrooms help. Matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruins that has become our collective home.
Matsutake are wild mushrooms that live in human-disturbed forests. Like rats, raccoons, and cockroaches, they are willing to put up with some of the environmental messes humans have made….
…the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into resources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter. Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere….Alienation obviates living-space entanglements. The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste.
The Mushroom at the End of the World
4 — the fungus among us
The Puotinen family farm, sold in 2005, is located 12 miles from Crystal Falls, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. It’s where my dad, in the late 50s, went to high school, and where my Grandma Ines, in the 70s (I think?) worked as a secretary at a gas company. As a kid, living in North Carolina or Virginia or Iowa, I would visit it in the summer. I never went to the Humoungus Fungus Festival, but I remember hearing about it.
It was three decades ago when the Armillaria gallica was discovered near Crystal Falls.
The city since has celebrated the world’s largest continuous mushroom by playing host to the Humongous Fungus Festival. The living organism spreads over more than 37 subterranean acres, weighs an estimated 100 tons and is about 1,500 years old.
And here’s the trailer for a new documentary about the fungus. Nice!
5 — mushroom valley
Wondering about what kinds of mushrooms exist here at the Mississippi River Gorge, I searched and found out about the caves of Mushroom Valley in St. Paul.
According to the boast, it was the mushroom capital of the Midwest. “Mushroom Valley” was the informal name for several miles of the Mississippi River gorge in St. Paul, including what are now Plato, Water, and Joy Streets. The mushrooms were grown in the more than 50 caves dug out of the soft St. Peter Sandstone bluffs. Although called caves, they were man-made, often beginning as silica (sand) mines and later used for various purposes. One cave operated by the Becker Sand & Mushroom Company was the largest of all with 35-foot ceilings and nearly a mile of passages. Its wonderful hybrid name epitomized the valley and the multiple uses of the caves found there. Other uses included the aging of blue cheese, lagering, storage, and even nightclubs.
According to the article, these caves began in the 1880s. The last was cleared out in the 1980s with the creation of Harriet Island-Lilydale Regional Park. Wow. Reading a little further, the more known name for these caves is the Wabasha Street Caves. You can take a tour and hear stories about their speakeasy past. The caves housed an underground nightclub, Castle Royal, in the 20s. They were used again for growing mushrooms (and cheese and beer) in the 30s and up until the 80s.
6 — call for poems on entanglement
Do I want to try and submit something for this call for poems?
EcoTheo Review invites poems that explore the relationship between ecology and theology, our senses of nature and place as well as our senses of spirituality and divinity. For our Summer print issue we will be particularly interested in work that addresses themes of entanglement. How do the root systems of plants and the architecture of mycelia, lichens, etc. reflect and contrast human forms of entanglement? In what ways do images of wrestling with spiritual beings inspire and trouble us? Where do you find hope and where do you long for healing in our entangled bodies?
Before sunrise, you listen for deer beyond the gate: no signs of turkeys roosting on branches, no black bear overturning garbage bins along the street. The day glimmers like waves undulating with the tide: you toss another yellow cedar log into the wood stove on the float house; a great blue heron flaps its wings, settles on the railing outside the window; a thin low cloud of smoke hangs over the bay. When you least expect it, your field of vision* tears, and an underlying landscape reveals a radiating moment in time. Today you put aside the newspaper, soak strawberry plants in a garden bed; yet, standing on land, you feel the rise and fall of a float house, how the earth under your feet is not fixed but moves with the tide.
*I put a post-it note on the cover of Sze’s collection of poems: “so many references to failing vision in later poems.” For example, in another section of this poem, Sze refers to floaters — “floaters in my eyes wherever I go.” Floaters can indicate a retinal tear.
AS: I do. I want to personalize it and say that again, this came very slowly over time. Years ago, my son picked up a mushroom on a lawn and I was like, “Don’t eat that.” I didn’t know anything about mushrooms, I was just like the alarm father saying, “Wait a minute, you don’t know what you have there, you could die from it.” Then a few months later, my son and I saw that at Santa Fe Community College, a local mycologist, Bill Isaacs, was teaching a mushroom identification class and I thought, “This would be great bonding for father and son. We’ll go out and hunt mushrooms. This will be fun and we could learn something.” My son loved the idea. He was really into it, so we signed up and every Saturday for eight weeks in the summer, we joined this group and we would go out into the mountains of Northern New Mexico, and hunt for an hour. We’d bring back everything we found and we’d lay them out on park benches, and tables and Bill would say, “Oh, you’re going to die from this one.” He was the head of the New Mexico Poison Control, so it wasn’t just learning the choice edibles, it was learning this whole arena of new knowledge. Then it fascinated me to see the early, middle, and late stages of the mushroom. It also fascinated me that I couldn’t identify any of them by looking in a field guide. I didn’t know what to look for. In the rocky mountains, there are different varieties, there are all these special nuances and Bill would say, “Well, why didn’t you dig out the bottom below the surface because we need that information?” I was like, “Well, I didn’t know how to do that. I just cut it off at the ground.” He’s like, “You missed crucial stuff.” It was like this whole learning of a new ecology, a new field that I loved going out into nature every Saturday and Sunday. We did it for like six summers. Again, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to learn mushrooms and that’s going to be like this metaphor for language.” It was just a wonderful thing to do with my son. I got really excited by it. Of course, the edible ones are delicious. It was a lot of fun and it was also a challenge. I began to really like going into an environment and knowing, for instance, if I go to the Santa Fe Ski Basin, and I’m at ten thousand feet where ponderosa pine is too low, I’m not even going to find any of the boletes and chanterelles, the really choice edibles. I’ve got to get higher up into the spruce and fir. I loved learning breeding a landscape, like even before looking at a mushroom, I had to look at the vegetation and what wildflowers were blooming. It was a way for me to really experience nature in a kind of detail I had never done before, then to be hunting the mushrooms, collecting them, and also scattering them in these baskets. It just became a whole new field of learning. Then ultimately, I began to think I love this idea that the mycelium is below the surface. It’s like the subconscious, then when the mushroom fruits pops up above ground, maybe that’s like this spontaneous outpouring of a poem or whatever. You can be too logical or whatever.
I didn’t really think about mushrooms while I ran, but I did think about decomposition as deconstructing and undoing as I ran over the asphalt that is reverting to dirt in the first stretch of the Winchell Trail. I thought, when things break down through decomposition, they aren’t being destroyed, with nothing to replace them. Instead, something new is created. I thought, in vague, broad terms, about the different ways humans and industry and birds and water and soil and rock are entangled. I wonder what was the difference between the terms “symbiosis” and “entanglement.” Finally, and for more time than anything else, I thought about Arthur Sze’s poem and his lines:
your field of vision tears, and an underlying landscape reveals a radiating moment in time.
I reflected on the underlying landscape as layers that can’t be seen with your eyes, only smelled or felt or imagined. And I delighted in the idea of so much happening, so much present beneath me that I couldn’t see, that I didn’t need to see, for it to exist or to affect me or to be connected to me.
after the run
I want to know, What is the distinction between symbiosis and entanglement? Found the article, Entangled Flourishings: Ideas in Conversation with Resisting Reductions, with the following description: “Dominant paradigms of ecology reduce life into ‘parts,’ failing to articulate the symbiosis of such communities, or of organisms as intricately nested collectives. To understand organisms, we must use the language of symbiotic ecology.” Here’s an awesome phrase that should be the title of a poem, or a line in a poem:
organisms are ecosystems
Skimming through the article, I found a part which reminded me of what I had already read in Tsing before leaving for my run. Symbiotic relationships are mutually advantageous. But to be entangled doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the interactions will be beneficial. In the article, the authors argue that this means the relationship is one of ongoing negotiations, where “the relationship is dynamic. It is constantly negotiated. At any one time, plants or fungi may be giving more than they receive, or vice versa.” If I’m reading Tsing correctly, the affiliations/connections aren’t a one-to-one relationship or set of negotiations, but part of a much broader network of entanglements with a wide range of organisms having an impact on each other in a broad range of unanticipated ways:
But many ectomycorrhizas are not limited to one collaboration: the fungus forms a network across plants. In a forest, fungi connect not just trees of the same species, but often many species. If you cover a tree in the forest, depriving its leaves of light and thus food, its mycorrhizal associates may feed it from teh carbohydrates of other trees in the network. Some commentators compare mycorrhizal networks to the Internet, writing of the “woodwide web.” Mycorrhizas form an infrastructure of interspecies interconnection, carrying information across the forest.
The Mushroom at the End of the World
I’m ending this packed post with a couple paragraphs from an essay for Guernica, “Mycelium“:
Everyone is excited about mushrooms this year. A friend says it’s because they thrive amidst decay and death, making new life under the rot. I’d never noticed before this summer that the forest is half rot, half life. All the fallen trees, twisting slowly into the ground, all the mushrooms growing on the downed trees, and speckling the trunks with their Turkey Tails and Chicken of the Woods and Shelf Mushrooms. I used to think of the woods as a slowly changing place, turned by seasons, but it’s constantly in motion. If I could get closer, closer, maybe I could hear the leaves sprouting and disintegrating, the fungus spreading underground, and bark cells multiplying.
Out at Echo Lake, I notice all the birches that take root in the rotting stumps, making their homes from decay. How strong those curved roots are, how cunning to find purchase here, in what might look useless. I notice trees perched on cliffs, clinging with curled roots to the dirt, and impossibly arched trunks that reach out over rivers or other trees. My favorite is the pine tree that tilts further and further toward the lake each year but is somehow still alive.
4.25 miles top of franklin bridge and back 37 degrees wind / rain / snow
Ran in the afternoon, after returning from Austin. A huge wind gust almost blew me off the trail as I ran through the Welcoming Oaks. Later, the tornado siren went off. Because of the wind, I was concerned. Called Scott to check. It’s severe weather week and today they’re testing the sirens. Whew. With all the wind and snow and sirens, I don’t remember looking at the river. Did I? Yes! I just remembered. I admired the snow flurries looking like mist hovering right above the river. Very cool.
I chanted, mostly in my head but a few times out loud, the Christina Rossetti poem, “Who Has Seen the Wind?”:
Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you: But when the leaves hang trembling, The Wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I: But when the leaves bow down their heads The wind is passing by.
Anything else? Lots of black-capped chickadees. A Minneapolis parks vehicle approaching with a double set of headlights — 2 at the normal spot on the bumper, and 2 up above on the roof.
before the run
Today dirt = mud and sinking down into the earth. Found this poem by a Minnesota poet, Joyce Sidman (search term: mud):
Sun slant low, chill seeps into black water. No more days of bugs and basking. Last breath, last sight of light and down I go, into the mud. Every year, here, I sink and settle, shuttered like a shed. Inside, my eyes close, my heart slows to its winter rhythm. Goodbye, good- bye! Remember the warmth. Remember the quickness. Remember me. Remember.
“‘Muddy’ is inspired by the motion and cadence of Diné words. Looking at it on the page, one sees kinetic text and hears onomatopoeia, so the repetition of ‘tł’ish’ reenacts the sound of someone stepping in mud, and then the word itself turns into a poem.” —Orlando White
Mud as where you sink and settle during winter, and the sound of squishing through mud.
during the run
Tried to notice the mud. Mostly, it was on the edge of the trail. I ran over it to avoid 2 walkers. Biggest (and yuckiest) bit of mud was right by the big boulder near the sprawling oak just above the tunnel of trees at the grassy spot between the walking and biking trails. A vehicle had driven through it, leaving deep, muddy tire ruts.
Rain and wind. Short workout in the basement. Had to pump my bike tire up again. Definitely a leak. Took me only a minute to pump it up. I was reminded of how much I struggled to do it a few months ago when I hadn’t done it in a while. Thought how important habits/habitual practices are for me. Watched most of the 2018 Ironman television coverage while I biked. Listened to Taylor Swift’s Reputation as I ran. Have no memory of what I thought about.
before the workout
Day 3 with dirt: loam. Thinking more about compost and soil and humus, I suddenly remembered loam. I discovered this word a few years ago and it has made it into at least one of my poems. Some definitions of loam use the word humus, others don’t.
3. A soil of great fertility composed chiefly of clay and sand with an admixture of decomposed vegetable matter.
from Oxford English Dictionary online (via local library)
a fertile soil of clay and sand containing humus.
from Oxford Languages (Google’s dictionary)
Doing a brief search on loam and humus, I also found discussions of the distinctions between sand, silt, and clay. According to an answer on Quora, the difference is about particle size. This answer also offers the following distinction between loam and humus:
Loam is a mixture of clay, sand and silt and benefits from the qualities of these 3 different textures, favoring water retention, air circulation, drainage and fertility.
Humus is a highly complex substance still not fully understood. It is a stable and uniformly dark, spongy and amorphous material which come from the mechanical degradation of organic matter. Humus is fertile and gather all properties suitable for optimal plant growth. It is formed by complex chemical compounds, of plant, animal and microbial origin
Searched “loam” on Poetry Foundation and found a few poems:
I say to the named granite stone, to the brown grass, to the dead chrysanthemums, Mother, I still have a body, what else could receive my mind’s transmissions, its dots and dashes of pain? I expect and get no answer, no loamy scent of her coral geraniums. She who is now immaterial, for better or worse, no longer needs to speak for me to hear, as in a continuous loop, classic messages of wisdom, love and fury. MAKE! DO! a note on our fridge commanded. Here I am making, unmaking, doing, undoing.
MAKE! DO! I love the different ways to read this, as: making do, managing, getting by, finding a way with limited resources and make something! do something! create act.
Just one more poem with loam in it. Powerful. Loamy roamers rising.
Or the land was ours before you were a land. Or this land was our land, it was not your land.
We were the land before we were people, loamy roamers rising, so the stories go, or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—
What’s America, but the legend of Rock ‘n’ Roll?
Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands swimming being from women’s hands, we originate, originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.
Un-possessing of what we still are possessed by, possessed by what we now no more possess.
We were the land before we were people, dreamy sunbeams where sun don’t shine, so the stories go, or pulled up a hole, clawing past ants and roots—
Dineh in documentaries scoff DNA evidence off. They landed late, but canyons spoke them home. Nomadic Turkish horse tribes they don’t know.
What’s America, but the legend of Stop ‘n’ Go?
Could be cousins, left on the land bridge, contrary to popular belief, that was a two-way toll. In any case we’d claim them, give them some place to stay.
Such as we were we gave most things outright (the deed of the theft was many deeds and leases and claim stakes and tenure disputes and moved plat markers stolen still today . . .)
We were the land before we were a people, earthdivers, her darling mudpuppies, so the stories go, or emerging, fully forming from flesh of earth—
The land, not the least vaguely, realizing in all four directions, still storied, art-filled, fully enhanced. Such as she is, such as she wills us to become.
Dineh, “the people,” what the Navajo called themselves
for Frost = The Gift Outright / Robert Frost … discovered this was the poem he read at Kennedy’s inauguration, through this helpful analysis, Political Poeticizing (found when I searched, “Robert Frost settler colonialism”)
One more thing: Returning to the idea, in Sandburg’s and Mazur’s poem, I’m thinking about the smell of loam. Here’s something helpful I found:
We feel something deep in the smell of that fresh-soil, and it is one of those mysteries that takes us back to a place in time. The smell of soil invokes something so deep that it never really can be described. Can you describe the smell of soil in a forest, freshly tilled field, or in a swamp? Have you ever wondered if fresh tilled soil has always had the same sweet aroma?
Actually it’s not the soil we smell but the bacteria that enters the soil through the geosmin. It’s the bacteria that is producing the chemical that we smell. The smell will be different depending on where the soil is found. Healthy, productive soils should smell fresh, clean and pleasant or have little odor at all. If the soil smells like ammonia or has a rotten odor that is a good indication there is poor drainage or lack of oxygen in the soil.
The unique smell is because soil is not just dirt. Healthy soil is living and is a complex ecosystem with an abundance of bio-diversity. “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals”. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949. Soil…..”the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.” Dr. Daniel Hillel
Ran in the early afternoon. This morning it snowed. By the time I went out to the gorge, it had all melted. Ran south to the falls, listening to the birds. When I got there, I ran by the creek and the statue of Minnehaha and Hiawatha. The creek was high. Not rumbling over rocks, making its way to the falls, but flowing and oozing and spreading across the grass. Noticed an adult taking video of some kid near a bench. A thought flashed: watch out (the kid was fine). Then I heard the falls, roaring. Wow. I glanced at them but I don’t remember how they looked, just how they sounded. Too small of a falls to be deafening, but much more than rushing or gushing.
before the run
Day 2 on dirt. Uh oh. I can feel myself becoming overwhelmed with ideas and directions. This morning I learned about humus (and remembered reading about it in a poem recently that I can’t seem to find right now…where was it? something about a few feet or 2 feet of humus?). Thought about soil and gardening and things decomposing and recycling. Started with a re-reading of a poem I found the other day:
Dear dirt, I am sorry I slighted you, I thought that you were only the background for the leading characters—the plants and animals and human animals. It’s as if I had loved only the stars and not the sky which gave them space in which to shine. Subtle, various, sensitive, you are the skin of our terrain, you’re our democracy. When I understood I had never honored you as a living equal, I was ashamed of myself, as if I had not recognized a character who looked so different from me, but now I can see us all, made of the same basic materials— cousins of that first exploding from nothing— in our intricate equation together. O dirt, help us find ways to serve your life, you who have brought us forth, and fed us, and who at the end will take us in and rotate with us, and wobble, and orbit.
Love this line:
It’s as if I had loved only the stars and not the sky which gave them space in which to shine.
And the idea of dirt as the skin of our terrain, made of the same basic materials — our democracy, taking us in at the end and rotating wobbling orbiting with us.
After reading this poem, I decided to look up “dirt” in the Emily Dickinson lexicon.
Then I found an article by Lulu Miller for Guernica:
Traditionally, humus was believed to be the dark matter left behind in soil after all organic material — leaf litter, dead bugs, acorns, etc. — had finished decomposing. It was thought of as a shadow of life. A liminal layer, whose betweenness gave it great power. Its molecules were of no interest to microbes or rock eaters, and thus could remain stable for centuries. Gardeners spoke of humus with reverence. Soil rich in humus was healthy soil; it held water and air and prevented the leaching of nutrients. It was a site of transfiguration, where inhabitant became architecture, where the ground beneath your feet remained, in some defiance of Chaos, the ground beneath your feet.
How exactly does humus evade the unforgiving forces of decay? That’s when jargon tends to roll in. Scientists speak of “humification,” “humic acid,” “humin.” They reference the pH levels of humus, its negative electrical charge. Hold tight, though, through the glazing of your eyes, and you might hear a tremble in an expert’s breath. Play the jargon backward, at double speed, and you might hear the word “ALCHEMY.”The catch, as scientists Johannes Lehmann and Markus Kleber argued in a study published in Nature, is that humus doesn’t exist. The molecules that comprise it are more like, as Lehmann puts it, “a smoothie.” A blend of various microorganisms, their bodies and residues becoming so small — so like molecular dust — that even hungry microbes can’t easily find them. There is nothing so numinous about humus. Its strength comes from the diminutive, in molecules that go unnoticed.
Another search yielded this great essay on The Fat of the Land blog about humus. When I read this passage, I instantly thought of an interview I had just read with Alice Oswald.
First, from The Fat of the Land:
Soil is slow but never still. Its myriad processes never start or finish, they renew. Like the ocean, its movement is fluid. Indeed, the same forces that influence the ocean’s tides pull at the water table, mimicking that briny ebb and flow the way a sloth mimics a monkey.
What is the I of a landscape? It’s always water. Everything being tidal — fields and woods. Ebb and flow/ up and down. Everything as a tide, even the seasons, watching the leaves coming onto the trees, day by day, like a tide. The thinking part of a landscape is the way the water levels are changing
Also in The Fat of the Land post, she describes the differences between dirt and soil:
Dirt is what gets on your hands in the garden, what splashes onto the sides of the car or tracks into the house on your shoes. Soil is a dance: lifeless minerals animated by electrostatic reactions, architectural aggregates constructed by chemical and biological bonds, microorganisms and invertebrates endlessly consuming and converting plant residue into nutrient-rich organic matter, a million miles of tiny root hairs tunneling and conversing by exchange with the forum of particles that surrounds them. One fingernail-full of soil is more complex than Shakespeare’s entire canon, and its poetry is just as striking.
This distinction between dirt and soil made here reminds me of something else I stumbled across as I tunneled through rabbit hole after rabbit hole: dirty nature writing:
…a genre of fiction called “dirty nature writing,” a term coined by Huebert and fellow writer Tom Cull in the New Quartely, a Canadian literary journal. Nature writing, popularized by authors such as David Thoreau, refers to works that focus on the natural environment. This genre includes essays of solitude, natural history essays and travel/adventure writing.
“Nature writing traditionally imagines nature as this pristine thing … that exists outside of us and outside of human impact,” says Huebert.
Alternatively, dirty nature writing acknowledges the messiness of nature today, explains Huebert. “To think of nature as something separate from human nature isactually problematic in a lot of ways”, he says. “I try to confront nature in its contaminated state honestly and openly, [and] not believe in a false binary between nature and human existence.”
Often (as much as possible) present in my thinking and writing about dirt or soil or the gorge or water or “nature,” is the awareness of the messy, complicated, entangled relationships that exist between the natural world and humans.
At some point during a search, I found a link describing the difference between compost and humus:
Humus is the end result of the decompositions process, whereas compost is a word that identifies a phase of the decomposition process where decomposing plant material provides the most benefit to the soil.
The article continues by describing the differences between organic material (dead animal/plant materials that are in an active stage of decomposition) and organic matter (final, fibrous, stable material left after organic material has completely decomposed — humus). Then it offers this image of bones/skeleton:
Organic matter has been broken down so completely that it cannot release any more nutrients into the soil, so its only function is to help maintain a spongey, porous soil structure.
Organic matter is essentially the bones of organic material. Once the meat has been completely broken down and absorbed into the soil, all that remains is a skeleton.
And suddenly, I remembered a poem that I posted a few years ago that I’d like put beside these discussions of decomposition as organic material breaking down. This poem fits with my discussion yesterday, adding flies and maggots to the list of beautiful creatures:
and remote, and useful, if only to itself. Take the fly, angel of the ordinary house, laying its bright eggs on the trash, pressing each jewel out delicately along a crust of buttered toast. Bagged, the whole mess travels to the nearest dump where other flies have gathered, singing over stained newsprint and reeking fruit. Rapt on air they execute an intricate ballet above the clashing pirouettes of heavy machinery. They hum with life. While inside rumpled sacks pure white maggots writhe and spiral from a rip, a tear-shaped hole that drools and drips a living froth onto the buried earth. The warm days pass, gulls scree and pitch, rats manage the crevices, feral cats abandon their litters for a morsel of torn fur, stranded dogs roam open fields, sniff the fragrant edges, a tossed lacework of bones and shredded flesh. And the maggots tumble at the center, ripening, husks membrane-thin, embryos darkening and shifting within, wings curled and wet, the open air pungent and ready to receive them in their fecund iridescence. And so, of our homely hosts, a bag of jewels is born again into the world. Come, lost children of the sun-drenched kitchen, your parents soundly sleep along the windowsill, content, wings at rest, nestled in against the warm glass. Everywhere the good life oozes from the useless waste we make when we create—our streets teem with human young, rafts of pigeons streaming over the squirrel-burdened trees. If there is a purpose, maybe there are too many of us to see it, though we can, from a distance, hear the dull thrum of generation’s industry, feel its fleshly wheel churn the fire inside us, pushing the world forward toward its ragged edge, rushing like a swollen river into multitude and rank disorder. Such abundance. We are gorged, engorging, and gorgeous.
during the run
I have a vague feeling that I thought about soil and humus and decomposing leaves the trail, but I don’t remember any specific thoughts. When I reached the falls, I put in my headphones and listened to the podcast about humus that I mentioned earlier. I enjoyed listening to it as I ran, but I kept getting distracted, which is not unusual for me with science stuff. I’ll have to try listening to it again.
after the run
Finishing up this entry, about 6 hours after my run, I’m returning to the worms and the maggots and the flies and wanting to understood more about the “dance” (that The Fat of the Land blog mentions, cited above) and how it happens.
“Soil is a dance”:
lifeless minerals animated by electrostatic reactions
architectural aggregates constructed by chemical and biological bonds
microorganisms and invertebrates endlessly consuming and converting plant residue into nutrient-rich organic matter
a million miles of tiny root hairs tunneling and conversing by exchange with the forum of particles that surrounds them
I’m finding poetry about the invertebrates. Can I find some about the other parts?
4.05* miles minnehaha creek path, between lake nokomis and lake harriet 40 degrees
*Scott’s watch said 4 miles, mine 4.1, so I’m splitting the difference here. Also did the .05 because my total miles was at a .45 and needed the .05 to round it out.
Ran with Scott along the Minnehaha Creek trail between lake nokomis and lake harriet. Nice. Not too cold or windy, relaxed. An easy pace with several walk breaks. I haven’t run this route in many years. Crossed over the creek several times, noticing the water: blueish gray, gently flowing, almost whispering its splashes.
before the run
At the end of my post from 2 days ago I decided on my project and, of course, I am already abandoning it, or maybe just wandering with it a little? This wandering is one joy of my undisciplined approach to writing/engaging/being in the world. The project/challenge: do a different B Mayer “Please Add to this List” experiment each day. Yesterday, I picked my first one: “Compose a list of familiar phrases, or phrases that have stayed in your mind for a long time–from songs, from poems, from conversation.”
I began a list:
You’ll get no commercials
There’s a new girl in town
As long as it’s gum and that’s for me
Life is life, and death but death, Bliss but bliss, and breath but breath
I am the wind and the wind is invisible
Think of a sheep knitting a sweater, think of your life getting better and better
Like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives
Wake up in the morning, feeling sad and lonely. Gee, I got to go to school
What a world, what a world!
Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
What do you do when your kid is a brat?
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
I’m a wheel watcher
Remember I love you, I won’t be far away. I’ll just close my eyes and think of yesterday
I’ll be yours in springtime when the flowers are in bloom. We’ll wander through the meadows in all their sweet perfume
Of course you do
Eastbound and down, loaded up and trucking’
trouble is inevitable, and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it
You were not there
All will be revealed
And you never will be
Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Try to remember the days of september
the boobie hatch
the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinnacle on your snout
Miss Suzy had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell. Miss Suzy went to heaven, the steamboat went to…
Then I stopped. I started thinking about “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out” and remembered my sister Marji singing that to me when we were kids, then us gleefully singing it together. Something clicked. I thought about worms and dirt and death and graves and really gross things about bodies and being delighted in singing about those gross things and Diane Seuss’s commencement address and her invoking of these lines by Walt Whitman:
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
I decided what I really want to do this month is study dirt. It’s fitting for April as I begin to notice dirt again as it emerges from under the snow. It also follows nicely from Oswald and her emphasis on physical labor — working in the dirt and gardening, getting your hands dirty — and minerals all the way down. And, it returns me to my extended exploration of both ghosts and haunting and earth/rock/stone/erosion. So many different ways to wander and wonder with this word!
I’ll start today with a little more on “the worms crawl in” song. Here’s how I remember singing it when I was a kid:
Did you ever think when the hearse went by that you would be the next to die? They wrap you up in thick white sheets bury you down 6 feet deep.
All goes well for about a week then your coffin begins to leak. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out the worms play pinnacle on your snout.
Your stomach turns a slimy green. Pus runs out like thick whipped cream.
It starts getting fuzzy at this point in the song. It would end with something like, “And that’s where you go when you die.” I can’t quite remember. I decided to look it up. Found some interesting things about it. Here’s a brief summary from Wikipedia:
“The Hearse Song” is a song about burial and human decomposition, of unknown origin. It was popular as a World War I song, and was popular in the 20th century as an American and British children’s song, continuing to the present. It has many variant titles, lyrics, and melodies, but generally features the line “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out”, and thus is also known as “The Worms Crawl In“.
And here’s a cover that adds many more lyrics than I remember and sounds like the Violent Femmes:
There are LOTS of variations of this song. Check out the comments on this post for some of them. I’m fascinated by this song as part of an oral tradition of poetry — the poem/words aren’t owned by any one poet, they travel and transform. The best (most compelling, memorable) are kept as people recite/sing it, the others discarded. What holds it all together is: “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.” If I’m getting it right, those lines are iambic dimeter — 2 feet of unstressed/unstressed.
This focus on the worms reminds me of Cornel West and how, in lectures and the film, The Examined Life, he liked to say:
For me, philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation. You can define that in terms of being towards death, featherless two legged linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and faeces whose body will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us. Beings towards death. At the same time we have desire, why we are organisms in space and time, and so desire in the face of death.
When I was a kid, I loved singing this song, took delight in the grossness. It didn’t scare or haunt me with it’s reminder that I would die one day. Now, as a middle-aged adult, it doesn’t either, even as I encounter more death and reminders of death. I actually find it comforting (is that the right word?) or helpful to think about the relationship between bodies and dirt and worm food.
during the run
Because Scott and I were talking about many different things (most of which I can remember now), we didn’t talk about “the worms crawl in…”. Possibly we didn’t talk about it because he never sang the song as a kid and doesn’t find it fun now. Boo. I do remember remarking on all the brown and noticing the mulched leaves on the ground. Thinking about things that decompose or have decomposed.
after the run
Not much to add here, except this poem I found when searching, “worms and poetry”:
Ever since I found out that earth worms have taste buds all over the delicate pink strings of their bodies, I pause dropping apple peels into the compost bin, imagine the dark, writhing ecstasy, the sweetness of apples permeating their pores. I offer beets and parsley, avocado, and melon, the feathery tops of carrots.
I’d always thought theirs a menial life, eyeless and hidden, almost vulgar—though now, it seems, they bear a pleasure so sublime, so decadent, I want to contribute however I can, forgetting, a moment, my place on the menu.
With the sun and hardly any wind, 36 degrees felt warm and like spring. Ran north on the river road trail, noticing how the floor of the floodplain forest was covered with snow. The river was calm, brown in the middle, pale then darker blue as it reached the shore.
Tracked a plane in the sky in my peripheral vision. When I tried to spot in my central vision it disappeared. Visible from my peripheral, then hidden in my central. It took 3 times of switching between the two before it showed up in my central. Was that because my brain adjusted, or because it had reached a part of my central vision that still has cones cells?
4 distinct smells:
cigarette smoke from a passing car
pot down in the gorge
breakfast — sausage, I think, from Longfellow Grill
fresh paint from the railing on the steps leading up to the lake street bridge, being painted as I ran by
Noticed how the snow and ice emerging from cracks and caves in the bluff made them easy to spot from across the river.
Before the Run
I wrote the following shortly before heading outside for my run:
A new month, time for a new challenge. As is often the case, I have too many ideas at the beginning of the month. It takes a few days (at least) to settle into something. I could read The Odyssey, then Oswald’s Nobody, but I think I’d like to wait until it’s warmer and I’m in the water for open swims. I’ve also thought about doing more on walking, starting with Cole Swenson’s chapbook, Walking, or reading the book on green that I bought last month. I’m unsure. Just now, I came up with another idea, after looking up a quotation from Emily Dickinson that I found on twitter the other day: Reading through some of ED’s correspondence with Higginson. Will this stick? Who knows.
Here’s the ED quotation that inspired my search, as it appeared at the end of a twitter thread by the wonderful poet Chen Chen:
To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations
I’m thinking about what, if any, difference it makes to add that last bit about Friends. My first reactions: adding it depicts ED as a social being, not the recluse she is popularly known as, and it tempers the pursuit of astonishment as the only one we do/should have time for. Second reaction: is it mostly (or simply) a polite (and/or affectionate) acknowledgement of Higginson and his friendship? Third, and related to my first reaction: being startled/astonished/in wonder needs to be tempered. To be in that state all the time is too much, at least for me.
Reading Chen Chen’s thread, I found this great idea: “deep delight as a compass, a map.” I really like this, and I’m thinking about how I might switch out the word delight for wonder. Now I need to revisit the terms “delight,” “wonder,” “astonishment,” “joy,” and “surprise.” That might be a great challenge for the month too: thinking/reading/working through these different terms?
Getting back to ED’s letter, I found a description of the change is season from summer to winter in it that I’d like to remember:
When I saw you last, it was Mighty Summer‹Now the Grass is Glass and the Meadow Stucco, and “Still Waters” in the Pool where the Frog drinks.
I think I only thought about some of these themes very briefly as I ran. I recall running, listening to birds singing, feeling the sun shining, and then wondering about how it would feel, at this moment, to be startled by a darting squirrel or a lunging dog or a reckless bike. I wasn’t, and I soon forgot about being startled. I also remember thinking about the sound of startled grass — how would that sound? And then I thought about what startled grass might look like, how it might startle us. Then I thought about the grass on graves and Whitman’s uncut hair and ED’s “The Color of the Grave is Green”:
The Color of the Grave is Green – The Outer Grave – I mean – You would not know it from the Field – Except it own a Stone –
To help the fond – to find it – Too infinite asleep To stop and tell them where it is – But just a Daisy – deep –
After the Run
After bookmarking it at least a week ago, I finally read Diane Seuss’s fabulous Commencement Address to the Bennington Writing Seminars posted on LitHub. I didn’t anticipate how it might fit with my before and during run thoughts, but it does, particularly the bit about grass and graves and the dead speaking to us, and us giving our attention.
A thought: Could we be the startled grass, surprised, shocked, fearful, but astonished, in wonder, alive and willing to reach down to the dead to give attention and life to their stories and to tell our own? For this to make sense, I should probably spend a little more time with Seuss’s speech…
Wow, I’m no closer to figuring out what my theme will be for this month. Here are the possibilities that I discovered in the midst of writing this entry:
So, I have figured out what I want to do for my challenge this month. In honor of National Poetry month, I’d like to return to where my recent love of poetry began: with Bernadette Mayer’s list of writing prompts that I discovered in an amazing class in the spring of 2017. I’m hoping to try a different experiment every day. I want to do this so I can push myself to be stranger or more whimsical or ridiculous (in the wonderful Mary Oliver way) in my writing. Lately, it seems like I’m too serious. A goal: to craft a poem that I feel is wonderfully strange enough to submit to Okay Donkey.