JUSTIN WELSH: Food Muse — The World Below Us

I am happy with the warmth of the sunshine that has caressed me lately. It reminds me that once again, gardening season is just around the corner. I am very excited to put my shovel into the earth, plant seeds, and let Mother Nature take care of the rest, with little help from me.

The world below us is an amazing one. It contains a very complex network of bacteria, fungi, carbon and a trillion microscopic beings. Together, they work in unison to create a livable home for vegetation.

It is really quite an amazing thing to think about. We always worry about the ground and up and rarely give any thought to what lies underneath.

The soil, when well-maintained, acts as a sponge that stores water for dry spells. Roots dig deep, and certain creatures plummet the depths of these roots, feeding it the proper nutrition to make what we eat healthier and tastier!

We have done a lot of damage to our soil over the past many generations. Humans have disrupted the lands where bison used to graze. As these large animals would graze on the grasses, they would leave behind manure that would steam, breakdown and eventually get pushed back into the soil by other herds stomping on it as they passed through.

Grass roots grew deep into the soil. Roots that can go hundreds of feet. As we humans began to till up the land, we broke up these deeps roots and began disrupting a delicate system.

Two of the books that discuss this subject are “The Soil Will Save Us,” by Kristin Olson, and “The Third Plate,” by Dan Barber.

“The Soil Will Save Us” talks mostly about the degradation of the soil and what people are doing to reverse what we have done. Farmers who have depended on chemicals and fertilizers to produce yields and prevent disease are turning back the clocks and returning to a no-till approach, using less fertilizers and stopping the use of chemicals all together.

The results? Better yields — and better-tasting ones at that.

They are using age-old technologies that recover the soil. Letting animals graze the land and use of cover crops and compost are just a few techniques in place.

The soil gives so much to us, and we often forget to return the favor. Having a better understanding of what is below our feet and how to feed the earth, as it has fed us, could help us get back in shape.

“The Third Plate” is a book that I stumbled across when a former co-worker mentioned the need to listen to a National Public Radio interview with its author, Chef Dan Barber. I bought the book and fell in love.

Chef Barber breaks the book into four main parts, Soil, Land, Sea and Seed. Each section is interwoven into each other.

The book confirmed one belief I have always had: The world will go on without humans. We are nothing more than a nuisance to almost every creature on this planet, both land and sea. Humans, in my opinion, have had the opposite thought.

We have tried to control nature — and all of its creatures. We need to co-habit with the world around us, not control it. What an amazing thought!

Like a cast-iron pan that was handed down from the previous generation, take care of nature, and it will take care of you. Just like a slightly rusty pan, there is no need to toss it. You can bring it back to life with a little love and attention.

My family and I have gardened the past two years at a space we rent. Last year, we planted herbs and some other vegetables and fruits at home. We canned! (This year, I am going to try companion planting instead of row planting.)

We also took up composting. The first summer, I bagged all the clippings from our lawn mower. Now, I just add them to the compost pile or let them fall back into the ground. Now, the grass seems to be greener and fuller than when we first moved in.

We did lose a crab apple tree in a real bad windstorm last summer, but my guess is the soil had been depleted of anything good to have fed the roots.

We have our two children, ages 2 and 5, help us with all of what we do with the earth. My hope is they carry this practice on to their children. They will learn as we learn. My hope is by the time they decide to have children, the world will be a much better place. I want them to fall in love with nature the same way I have fallen in love with it.

The world below us is a valuable one. Its complex, it’s mysterious, and it’s beautiful. We need to care for it like we care for a child. Feed, nurture and love it. I sometimes want to hug the soil, because it has cared for me all of my life.

At the age of 36, I feel like I found a long lost parent. Without all of its wonder, we would not be able to survive.

Happy plantings to all, and to all a good harvest.

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