Of Woods And Words: Smelling Like Dirt

Basil
Basil

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Margaret Atwood once said, “In spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

Around here, it seems nearly impossible not to end spring days smelling a bit earthy. Each step I take down the mucky gravel road out to the mailbox sends mud splashing so high it hits my jacket hem. When I head inside, the mud comes too. The muck dries into pebbly footsteps that lead from the front door to the woodbox and get ground into the rugs by the kitchen sink and the living room couch. Vacuuming, once a when-I-feel-like-it chore, is now done twice a day.

The grime could be tedious, but after the static winter season when the world’s only change was to grow even snowier and icier, the mud’s a welcome indicator of a finally melting world. I wonder if each spring the earth feels like those people giving testimonials for weight loss programs: after all that time trapped in a larger than life snowy self, the earth gets to literally melt off the pounds and get down to its slim, trim self, revealing flower gardens and long forgotten yard tools.

The soil’s still too cold to do anything with the reclaimed gardens, but apart from my mud-splattered pants, I find plenty of other ways to smell like dirt. The pine marten, my almost daily winter companion after he opted for our all-you-can-eat sunflower seed bird feeder buffet instead of bothering to chase his supposed favorite food of red squirrels, is none too pleased that the buffet’s closed for the season.

To prove his displeasure, the pine marten, who we nicknamed Al, headed over to our compost pile the other day to inconsolably gnaw on some used tea bags and coffee filters before throwing heaps of kitchen scraps to the ground surrounding the pile in protest. Thanks to Al, some spring days find me dealing with not-yet-dirt, scooping up onion skins and citrus peels and heaping them back into the compost bin.

The compost isn’t the only mess Al’s responsible for at the cabin this spring. Al, along with a gang of red squirrels and songbirds, spent the winter spilling the remains of 200 pounds of sunflower seeds beneath the cabin deck and all over the bird feeding area. Every week or so, after another layer of ice and snow melts, I head out with my rake and wheelbarrow to scoop up mounds of sunflower seed hulls. The squirrels nag me constantly during this chore, but I can’t leave the sunflower seeds to wash into the lake with the first rainstorm, no matter how much the squirrels enjoy binging on these surely fermented seeds. Instead, the mass of black seed hulls gets wheeled off into the woods where I spread it thinly, hoping it will soon be another layer of topsoil.

Inside the cabin, the vegetable garden is in its infancy. A couple times a day, I gently lift the plastic domes of the seed-starting greenhouse to see if anything new has wriggled its way free of its seed to peek its first leaves up through the dirt. I’m always poking around in the tray, getting soil trapped under my fingernails.

Soon these first shy spring flirtings with dirt will seem frivolous when I plunge my hands into the gardens to pull out the rocks that like to plant themselves in the flowerbeds over the winter. Soon I’ll need to tear apart perennial roots and run a finger through the dirt to make a trench for carrot seeds. But while I wait for the gardens to shake off their last chilly memories of winter, there’s always a dusty tickle in my nose, a musty moist aroma that rolls through the front door with the heady scent of promise: the smell of dirt.

Airdate: April 27, 2011

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