Surprise Encounter: When my kids were very young, longtime horticulture friend Bob Brzuszek took us out into a Mississippi bog to show us wild pitcher plants (Sarracenia), carnivorous plants which get their nutrients from dissolved insect prey trapped in tall, hollow, water-filled leaves.
In a shocking real-life case of deus ex machina, as Bob sliced open one of the colorful funnels to reveal the partly-digested insects inside, a recently-ensnared honeybee flew out, released from the grisly death trap.
That came rushing back to me the other day when my sweetheart and her sister and I, looking for a rare colony of naturalized pitcher plants, were out “bog yomping” which is what locals around my summer home in northern England call hopping from tufts of grass to keep from getting muddy while traversing the remote moors.
Fens and Bog People
The misty moors of Lancashire are steep and windswept, nearly treeless except in the deep waterfall-fed ravines; the hillsides are covered with grasses and sedges, and rife with shallow pools gouged out by ancient glaciers, now matted with deep blankets of sphagnum moss, wildflowers, pink-and-purple heathers and thickets of sweet blue wimberries, tart blackberries, and succulent raspberries.
Turns out, it’s a literal thing that “You can take the man out of the garden, but you can’t take the garden out of the man.”
My spot-on sweetheart has commented many times about how this “mucky pup” of hers loves little more than just digging in the dirt. Not necessarily planting anything, just… digging. Truth is, I have a nearly atavistic urge to turn soil over and over, beyond the expected satisfactions: it’s part of me, from how through decades of gardening I’ve slurped tons of unwashed berries, forgetfully chewed garden grime-crusted fingernails, and inhaled enough dust to start a raised bed.
In W H Auden’s In Praise of Limestone, the poet suggests that the physical characteristics of a place shape the essence of people who live there, often without their noticing the subtle sways. Having grown up during the innovative 1960s musical melting pot of Blues, Country, Rock & Roll and military bands, I have to tip my hat to Auden’s description of music as an encompassing influence which “can be made anywhere, is invisible, and does not smell.”
But unlike my beloved Mississippi Delta’s signature Blues music, the alluvial soil of my region, kicked up by ag machinery and blown by dust storms, can be sensed physically. It clogs our fingernails, stains our britches knees, billows and swirls up to create amazing sunsets and moonrises. And, right before approaching thunderstorms, we can easily smell its peculiar pong – that fresh rain’s coming fragrance.
One of the common smells produced ahead of thunderstorms is from ozone being released by lightening and other molecular schisms, which really is a thing. But ozone has a sharp smell, almost like chlorine, or an electrical fire, not the damp, earthy smell I’m thinking about.
The faintly sweet, earthy smell is caused by bacteria and fungi that create an oily substance called geosmin, which has a distinct musty odor most people can easily smell at low concentrations. It’s what gives plowed fields, compost, mushrooms, catfish, and warm lake water their faint earthy scents. And when big raindrops hit exposed dirt, or a low-pressure front ahead of a summer storm “degasses” the soil and pulls geosmin into the air, we inhale a compound of it called petrichor.
So, I’m thinking, if George Harrison’s (from Savoy Truffle) phrase “of what we eat, we are” can also apply to what we smell, then, yeah – in a way, my garden is not only in my heart and mind, but also coursing through my veins.
Gotta go. Dirt is in my hungry blood, and it’s calling me back to the garden.
While checking on my garden’s rainfall drainage patterns during a recent downpour, I caught one of the longest worms I have ever seen as it ventured out of a sodden raised bed. When I tried to gently tug the foot-long creature out of the soil, it resisted, clinging, alarmed, to the sides of its burrow with tiny, claw-like bristles similar to those that so swiftly propel “graboids” (Caederus mexicana, the twenty-foot long terrors of the Mojave Desert). Continue reading “Worming Their Way Into My Affections”