“People are anchored in place only as solidly as the ground they till.”
— Steven Stoll, from Larding the Lean Earth; Soil and Society in Nineteenth Century America.
We’ve decided to put in 200 square feet of lawn in our backyard, a gift to our dog. Zeke has watched with sad eyes as I filled his beloved front yard with agaves, yuccas, fetid sage and woody shrubs, not a spare dog-sized patch of horizontal surface to loll on. I figure he deserves it.
To lay the sod, I’ve needed to hack out foxtail and mallow with a pickaxe, double-dig the soil with the sturdy spading fork, and rototill the results to prepare a fine bed for delicate sod roots. It took three days.
The soil beneath our garden is at most two feet thick, in most places less than that. The montmorillonite clay around here bakes incredibly hard in the summer sun. Beneath the soil, an endless layer of diatomite. Fossil plankton from a Miocene sea, it’s specked with coprolites — 13 million year old fish shit. The diatomite outcrops along San Pablo Avenue around the corner, in a tall cliff called “Shale Hill.” But I digress.
It was only a little area, eight by 25. I made three passes over the whole area, with breaks to re-spade a couple of recalcitrant clods, took a short break to drink two quarts of Gatorade, and still had enough time to collapse, check my email and drive the tiller back to the rental shop before the two-hour minimum had elapsed.
Afterward, I walked the little plot in bare feet. I had managed to pull not a few shards of Miocene plankton from their hiding place up onto the surface. They crumbled beneath my feet as if I was walking on very stale halvah. By this time next week they’ll be yielding to the questing roots of my dog’s lawn.
A lawn with soil amendments 13 million years in the making — I hope Zeke appreciates it.