Clean Dirt: What You Learn Crossing an Ocean
He was young and full-faced, pleasant, with that mid-western regularity of speech–a young man on his way from the western edge of Iowa to Johannesburg, South Africa. I wasn’t going nearly so far, only to Florence, Italy. It never occurred to me to visit South Africa, but he had a product to sell–a machine developed by his farmer-tinkerer father that did something neater than usual with fertilizer.
The urge to question as I travel sometimes leads to learning the unexpected. It seems possible to pick a stranger’s brain miles high in the atmosphere in ways I’d never do on the ground. Something about proximity amid relative safety–after all, we are surrounded by others and there are the flight attendants if something goes awry.
We were talking about dirt, as in mid-western farm soil, and what has been dumped in it for decades, with mounting consequences. As in the herbicide Round-Up and its persistence in the soil and plants far longer than the package suggests. As in evidence that Round-Up causes cancer. As in Round-Up’s ability to bind calcium and thus give test results that say plants contain calcium, yet that calcium is not available to the human body..As in the decimation of North American bees caused in part by the die-off of flowing plants in fields (and lawns) necessary for honey-gathering insects. (Not to mention the danger to humans from pesticides used in farming that leach into the water we drink.)
As in the fact (he tells me) that most bees in the U.S. are no longer native but imported from Italy. As in the fact that to keep “pests” from damaging corn (the largest crop grown in the U.S.), more and more pesticide must be used every year. As in the only way to avoid this is a very simple and ancient practice of crop rotation and allowing fields to go fallow (i.e. run to weeds) every so often.
We land in Amsterdam and he heads off to visit the city before his much later flight, and I go to my gate for Florence. Our conversation becomes a lens through which I view all the Italian rural scenes from train and bus windows for the next two weeks. Here is what I ponder:
* Poppies are the Italian dandelion. If a field is left to itself, it will sprout poppies with abandon. Beautiful red, vibrant cups on stems studded hither and yon across relatively small fields.
* There is almost an equal ratio of planted to nonplanted (i.e. fallow) fields. The Italians are thus following this old measure for reducing the insect pests of their crops. (And by plowing in the weeds, adding nutrients to the soil.) Thus they need to use far less, or perhaps no herbicides or pesticides at all, since in a field deprived of corn, the corn borer dies from lack of fodder. And when corn is then planted a year or two after the field is fallow, the corn borer has melted away.
* I heard just before I left that the European Union outlawed the use of pesticides called neonicotinoids, the pesticides most damaging to bees. I hail this as I assume that now Italian bees are less vulnerable than before, I wonder what it will take for the U.S. to show this kind of sensible self-interest as I remember my father’s outrage when a single roach dared show itself in our South Carolina kitchen. We were instantly at war.
* I try to imagine a cartoon character that’s an insect and shows itself a friend of humans. Kafka’s short story “Metamorphosis” is the only thing that pops up–a gigantic coackroach with human faculties. I want someone to help me love all insects the way I’m learning to love all birds, even the hawks and harriers that capture in spectacular swoops the pigeons and sparrows (and an occasional cardinal) I feed in my backyard.
* I delight in the wonderful simplicity and flavor of Italian food, Yes it costs more than food does in the U.S., but Italian tomatoes are like tart ambrosia not the cardboard simulacrum we have here. Italian ice cream (gelato, thank you very much) is almost always light and delicious, flavored with just the right amount of pistachio or chocolate or cherry. Vegetables on the grill–zucchini, eggplant, for instance–sprinkled with balsamic vinegar–well there’s no better way to enjoy summer veggies. And the pasta, almost always made from scratch, is melt-in-your-mouth. These people care deeply about the flavor, texture, the rightness of food. Yes, they drink our junk–the colas. But other than that, they eat what makes eating a pleasure, and now they have helped make growing human food part of a natural cycle that does not destroy or cause illness. THAT’S A HUGE ACCOMPLISHMENT, given what happens not so far away from my front door in Minneapolis/Saint Paul.