Dirt

A love story

YESTERDAY, a large truck dumped seventy cubic yards of shredded cedar mulch onto our driveway. Then, because that first pile consumed more than two-thirds the driveway’s available space, the truck dumped another seventy cubic yards of a compost and topsoil mixture onto the street in front of our house.

Yesterday was not a calm day. The wind has been blowing since the weekend at rates of up to forty miles an hour. The kind of wind my phone’s weather app indicates with the squiggly lines I might draw under words like “very” or “so much” or “a lot.” More than once, in bed the night before, I felt our house shaken by gusts. These are the kinds of winds that come to Colorado to warn us that, though we woke up on a warm day, we might go to bed blanketed in inches of snow. Yesterday was, perhaps, not the ideal day to take delivery on many hundred dollars’ worth of dirt.

“Why couldn’t they deliver on Friday?” my husband asked a few days ago.

“Because Wednesday is the day it is coming,” I said.

Truth be told, I hadn’t considered the wind when I called the landscaping supply company to arrange delivery. I’d only been focused on completing our yard project before Halloween. Now, I wanted my husband to help me make the best of a bad situation. A bad situation I might be largely responsible for creating. As I said to our friend Tim, who happened by our house in time to watch us scramble to protect our dirt, “If this isn’t a metaphor for marriage, I don’t know what is.”

My plan, hatched this year around Mother’s Day, is to convert the lawn separating our house from our southern neighbors into a flower field that will support local pollinators. Snowy springs here often run right into the blazing heat of summer, and between a travel schedule that had me out of town nearly weekly and overseeing an interior renovation project when home, the best planting window—not to mention window of my ability to organize domestic improvement projects—slipped by.

“What are you going to do about the south lawn?” Ray wanted to know several times this summer.

“When will you get going on that flower meadow you want?” he frequently asked.

“We should get started on this project before it’s too late,” he warned.

I had a quiver full of excuses. It was a very hot summer. Everything was dying. I needed to do some more research on low-water, high desert plants. I wasn’t in town half of June or a large chunk of August. The inside of our house was a mess. Did I want to tear up the outside of the house too? On my most exhausted days, which were many of my days, I figured it was fine if I delayed the pollinator garden project. No one uses that patch of land but for a solitary rabbit. Maybe converting the lawn to a flower field was an impractical idea.

 

RAY AND I have been married for eleven years as of this summer. The rest of the world may experience me as the kind of person who makes decisions boldly and quickly, but for more than a decade, the reason I can do so is partly because Ray is at home patiently listening while I decide which way the wind is going to blow.

“Love is patient,” a reader at our wedding reminded us.

We were married on the summer solstice, what most people think of as the longest day of the year but which some might say is the moment when the darkness starts to beat out the light. Getting married on a potently symbolic day for the planet helps us keep balance in perspective.

Ray talked to our lawn guy, a man I worried about offending with my plan to reduce the amount of lawn we’d be paying him to mow. “Andy’s on board,” my husband reported. “Explain what you want, and he’ll come over and lend you a hand.” And so, in the first part of October, Andy came with a sod cutter and cleared 280 square feet where we could amend the stripped earth until planting time comes in the spring.

The reading at our wedding declared, “Love is kind.”

For about a week, I admired the weed-free stretch of hard clay, grateful to Ray for contacting Andy and thankful to both of them for making sure my dream project was now forced underway.

 

 

MY JOB in this project was now to call the landscaping company and arrange delivery of the elements that would help us take our next steps. This I eventually did. Without consulting the weather report, or Ray.

For several years after we moved to Colorado, my parents, who have been married fifty-five years this summer, made a habit of pointing out that when I talked about our new home, I tended to say my garden, my bedroom, my house. They suggested that I needed to think more carefully about how I use pronouns, as none of these spaces should be considered mine alone. This, they said, is one of the keys to sustaining a healthy and loving relationship. You need to include the other. My parents insisted that I should be thinking in terms of our garden, our bedroom, our home. They are correct, and I try, but too often I forget, and I slip back into thinking about what serves me alone. I was ready for the soil, and so I called for the soil, and so the soil arrived.

I found yesterday’s delivery thrilling. The big truck, with its enormous, improbably shiny white compartments. The engineering feat that must have gone into figuring out how to lift that heavy bed and its otherwise secure tailgate. Each payload—but only one payload at a time—pouring into a controlled pile within feet of my front door. I loved the piles themselves, which, from out of a dust cloud, like in a magic show, emerged as mounds high and large enough to fuel a dirt-biking child’s dreams. We stood by the window of my (newly renovated) home office—the driver had warned us about the dust—and I took videos and photographs while the big truck and its driver did their work.

When I showed my student Jess the video of the truck dumping an SUV-size load of soil into what appeared to be the middle of the street, she observed that—after I had finished voicing my delight, and Callie, my daughter, noted how cars were doing an admirable job of shifting course around the new road obstacle— my husband emitted what might have been the world’s longest, deepest, and most exasperated sigh.

This, too, is a way of measuring love. How deep are our sighs? How do we learn to stand by the ones who matter to us—whose interests we cannot fully fathom—even as the world dumps a pile of crap and dirt and shredded promise just outside our door? “Can you make sure Callie gets to school on time?” Ray asked, following said sigh. “I’m going to the hardware store to buy some tarps.” This was less than ninety minutes before he was expected to lecture in front of a class of a hundred students. He had papers to grade and a Keynote presentation to complete. The closest hardware store is at least thirty minutes, round trip, from our house.

Normally at that time in the morning, my husband—who, as if a male emperor penguin, is often the lead parent in our home—would make sure our daughter finished her breakfast, packed her lunch, and chose socks, despite the girl’s habitual aversion to wearing socks. He’d hop on his bike and trail her to the elementary school’s building, then pedal off to his office. But yesterday, because his wife chose to have 140 cubic yards of dirt delivered during the windiest week we’ve experienced this fall, my husband had to rearrange his plans.

Let me pause here to tell you—in case you haven’t gathered it already—I love this human.

“While you’re at the hardware store,” I hollered after my husband, “can you pick up a new spade? Or whatever you call the kind of shovel that has the pointy end.”

Some people in the immediate aftermath of receiving delivery of enough landscaping material to suitably convert 280 square feet of what was formerly sod (and, let’s be honest, a whole lot of dandelion, clover, crabgrass, creeping Charlie, and thistle) into an extensive native and ornamental flower garden might be hesitant to admit to their partner that they don’t actually know if a shovel with a pointy end is called a spade.

Also, I understand, it is probably unreasonable that a person about to undertake such a project would have used a small, bright red, oval-ended shovel so vigorously that the shovel’s head would break off in the cruel Colorado clay. Compounding these failures is the fact that only when I tried to repair the damage did I notice the words children’s tools for work and for play inscribed on the shovel’s back end.

I realize I’m not coming off as a landscaping expert here. Sometimes, I find it hard to believe that anyone trusts me to do anything.

 

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WHEN WE FIRST started dating, I was in the initial stages of compiling an anthology that would come to be called Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. In those early days, while on a research trip to his natal city, I called Ray from Lower Manhattan. I walked on the tight, busy streets near where Poets House used to be located. We were both living in the Bay Area at the time. Though San Francisco is a city, it’s not a city like New York is a city. The densely packed buildings, bright taxis, and intimately pervasive buzz of New York made me miss the man I was beginning to love. “Where are you right now?” I asked.

He was on the fifth floor of the parking lot near our campus offices. San Francisco State University is only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. The campus air is often heavy with salt-soaked fog.

“There’s a duck on that car,” said Ray.

“A duck?” I asked. Lake Merced wasn’t far from campus, but I had trouble believing a duck would bother to fly all the way to the roof level of a parking garage.

“Yes. A duck. I mean, I think it’s a duck.” Ray stopped a bystander. “Is that a duck?”

The bird was a seagull, the bystander said. This made a lot more sense, given the proximity to the sea and the amount of trash available on campus for a seagull to scavenge.

Remember, I was in New York researching an entire book about environmentally engaged Black poets. I consider myself an environmentally engaged Black poet. Environmental engagement is fundamental to who I believe myself to be. And here I was, some part of me infatuated with the giant human footprint surrounding me in New York City and an even bigger part of me falling deeply in love with a New Yorker who, despite having lived in California for the better part of twenty years, still couldn’t tell the difference between a seagull and a duck. He only knew it wasn’t a pigeon.

Ray’s bird identification skills may have been flawed, but what was more worrying to me was that, if I read the situation in one of several ways readily available, it would be possible that what I loved and how I loved them would reveal me to be an enormous, greenwashed fraud.

The duck incident, as we still call it, was a deciding factor in how my husband and I have learned to love each other. The duck incident may be one of the reasons that yesterday we had to figure out a fix for all that mulch and soil just delivered to our house in the university town in Northern Colorado where we were trying to build a more locally supportive environment, though neither of us truly knew what to do with the weather, the flora, or the unforgiving, hard, clay dirt.

I could easily have laughed at him that day on the phone call between New York and San Francisco. I mean, we both did laugh at him, and we continue to do so now. But what I mean is that I could have ridiculed him. I could have made a great deal of fun out of what he didn’t know. Who confuses a duck with a seagull? They are both such recognizable birds. But I didn’t ridicule him. Instead, the two of us started learning about birds together. We owned more bird identification books than baby name books by the time our daughter came into the world. We started hiking together and subscribed to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s e-mail list. We’ve installed five birdfeeders in our yard already, all with different types of feed. We have an account at a store called Wild Birds Unlimited that specializes in selling seed designed specifically for the birds we find in this particular habitat. With this new plot we’re converting, we plan to include a birdbath with a circulating water supply and bee and butterfly hydration stations. Thanks to the duck incident, we’ve become students of flying things. We’ve fallen more deeply in love with birds and bees and butterflies, together.

When I told my husband I didn’t know the proper name for the tool I broke, he didn’t laugh at me. This is part of how we say, “I love you. I love the way you help me live in the world.”

 

WHEN RAY AND I decided to get married, he thought we should have a very small wedding. Maybe just our parents and a few of our closest friends. That wasn’t what happened. By some accounts, more people were at our wedding who were friends of our parents than were personally selected friends. For this, in the end, we are grateful. One of our fondest memories was a moment during the wedding reception when the DJ invited all the married couples onto the dance floor. Then he told anyone who was married less than one day to sit down, and so, as the newlyweds, we witnessed the longevity of the relationships of the people who had come to support us.

Ray and I were married the week the state of California first issued same-sex marriage licenses, and so one of our readers and his new husband left the dance floor when the DJ said, “Anyone who has been married less than five days, please take your seats.” A month. Six months. A year. Two. Three. At each marker, more couples sat down. But at forty years, forty-five, even fifty-five years, couples were still smiling as they stepped in sync around the dance floor. This wedding wasn’t just about us, Ray and I understood as we watched this collective motion. We’d entered a community that would help us as we worked to love each other for all our lives.

 

I DID MANAGE to get our kid off to school—wearing her socks even—just before Ray returned from the hardware store with two blue twenty-by-twenty-foot tarps and a shiny, new, adult-strength, pointed digging shovel. I’d heard him ask the soil delivery man what size tarps he should buy, and this is why the tarps he brought home fit our needs.

For my part, I’ve spent a bit of time since yesterday researching the names for different types of digging tools, forwarding the most informative article to Ray so he could share in this new set of knowledge. We’re in this pursuit together, you see, learning to name the tools we need to build the kind of home we desire.

 

This, too, is a way of measuring love. How deep are our sighs?
How do we learn to stand by the ones who matter to us?

 

We pulled the tarps over the two piles, secured them with some broken floor tiles left over from our bathroom renovation, remaindered scraps of wood flooring, and odd pieces of lumber we found in the garage. Then, with maybe thirty minutes to spare before his class started, we got in our one car, and my husband drove us both to our jobs at the university.

 

TIM, THE FRIEND who stopped to see our struggles in the morning, texted both of us at three to say, “The wind has pulled your tarps back.”

Ray and I both scrambled to rearrange our plans, raced home, and tried to keep the wind from claiming all our dirt and crap and mulch. We worked together—which was sweet, if a little sweaty.

The wind whipped wildly, as it often does late on fall afternoons. Drastic weather changes here can create a barometrical fuss. It’s predicted that we’ll get several inches of snow beginning as early as Saturday night. With that will come the snowplows, which will decimate whatever part of the topsoil pile the wind and precipitation didn’t get already. Together, Ray and I shoveled into container after container some of the dirt that had stretched beyond the pile’s margins and farther into the path of traffic. We kept that soil safely inside our garage until the following Saturday, when we’d hired several young men to help us move the remaining soil and mulch from the street and driveway and into the yard.

“We’ve passed the angle of repose,” I told Ray, as the more we shoveled from the bottom of the street-side mound, the more the mound spilled back into the spots we’d just shoveled. Cars drove around us as we worked, slowing only slightly but never threatening to run us down. While Ray and I worked on saving our dirt, I kept thinking of what I’d said to our friend earlier that day: “If this isn’t a metaphor for marriage, I don’t know what is.”

 

I REMEMBERED some railway ties that had been piled in the backyard. Discarded landscaping relics from the ’80s. Railroad ties would do a better job securing the tarps than the leftover tiles and floorboards we’d used earlier in the day. Ray brought the heavy wood around to the front of the house in a borrowed wheelbarrow, and, together, we wrestled one by one into position.

“I don’t envy you that job,” said a neighbor who drove by in his green-and-white Mini Cooper. Most of the time, we can live in this world as if we are the only ones in it, but sometimes, we need to be disabused of this notion.

 

“THE BEES better never sting me again,” I told Ray at some point during our windy topsoil adventure. What I meant was that the bees, to whom I am allergic, better understand that all this work we were doing was for them. Ray and I bickered about how to most efficiently get the job done, but we worked together as best we could. This wasn’t about us. It was about a vision that was larger than us. How could we use less water, benefit more living beings, and build something more beautiful, more generous to our human and nonhuman neighbors, than what we’d inherited when we moved into this house? I was hoping—we were hoping—that the bees would understand the efforts we’d made to build a secure space for them, and that this recognition would be protection.

The green-and-white Mini Cooper came back as Ray and I wrangled another railroad tie onto the blue-tarped mound in the road. “Did you bring a Cat in the Hat cleanup machine?” I asked its driver.

“It’s not much,” he said, “but I looked behind my wife’s she-shed and I found a few things.” He offered us a couple of cinder blocks, more railroad ties, and a few heavy rocks. “Maybe these will help. Good luck!” And, rather like The Cat in the Hat, just as quickly as he’d come, the man was gone.

In the end, we saved nearly all the soil and mulch from the wind, and we’ll lose none of it to the snowplow. Together we will make this work. Because we work well together, and because we won’t be working alone. Thanks to the help of friends, family, and strangers, and with the added assistance of three borrowed wheelbarrows, a lent rake, and a variety of loaned shovels, we’ll beat the snow and lay a foundation of growing material that will protect our new plot through the winter. O

Camille T. Dungy has authored an essay collection and four poetry collections, most recently Trophic Cascade. She has edited three anthologies, including Black Nature. Dungy is a distinguished professor at Colorado State University. Dungy is also Orion’s poetry editor.

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