March 13, 2012. Snow and ice are still everywhere, but melting fast.
I scramble down the embankment, off the gravel road and away from the cultivated field into the woody swamp that has become one of my favorite winter places here. The embankment, I have come to believe, is the long-ago western bank of the Brokenhead River. (A hundred years ago? A thousand? Ten thousand? My mind cannot fathom the lifespans of river courses, the eating away of clay here, the slow silting-settling of new soil there.) Below the embankment, an elegant forest of tall, straight black ash rises out of the low-lying little delta that stretches east toward the riverbed that has been curving away from us and leaving itself behind all these years. I am going down to mine its soil.
Long before potting soil mixes were ever made available on store shelves, gardeners got their best starter soils from the forest floor. That's what I am after. I am in a hurry. Today I can still haul a heavy tobaggan load up the little logging trail I have carved through these marshy woods. In another day or two the smooth snow trail will be gone, leaving behind a tangle of sticks and water and mud unfriendly to two-leggeds and their loads. Old Man Winter makes some work a lot lighter, truth be told. I'm a little sad to see him go so soon this year.
I find a spot under the trees with minimal grass poking through the snow. Just leaf litter and rotting branches. Under the snow, I am surprised that the frost is completely gone already. The shovel cuts out slabs of soft, rich brown soil, moist and glistening like fudge. I look up at the ash in front of me and realize I am taking something from it. And then realize that there is no bite I have ever taken that was not sacrificial. It has always cost someone something to feed me. Am I "eating unworthily," as the New Testament puts it?
Funny how these thoughts do not occur in the garden department aisle, eyeing a plastic-wrapped bale of potting soil. These products seem to be spontaneously created, out of noplace, and their presentation casts a spell of limitless supply. Beneath this mighty ash I am thinking, how much can I take from here? How long did this soil take to build? How deep is this well? What are the needs of trees? Can I keep coming down here year after year for more?
"Eating unworthily" is the concept of a violation of a sacred meal in a sacred circle. In Corinth, early Christians ate "unworthily" the love feast of Christ by disregarding the poor among them. The sacrament of communion is a holy rite of careful, attentive sharing, borne out of a vision of community in which the needs of all are considered and no one takes more than their share. When certain members of the Corinthian "body of Christ", accustomed to richer fare, glutted themselves to the exclusion of poorer members, Paul warned "If you eat and drink without discerning the body, you eat and drink damnation upon yourselves."
I had better be careful out in these woods.
The earth-laden tobaggan glides in heavy stops and starts over softening snow. I am hot, even in a T-shirt. I realize that I have not drunk enough water today. I pull, I thirst, I pull, I thirst. Thought settles and simplifies, body works.
I come up out of the bush and up the slope of the road, past the maples I tapped two days before. I pull toward them, just to see. The effort of leaving the trail is too much. I untie myself from the tobaggan and make the last three steps, unburdened. There is a cupful of clear liquid in the bottom of one of the milk jugs hanging off the tree. About a quarter teaspoon worth of syrup. But a cup of water. I hesitate only a moment, then reach out and drain the jug. It is cool, ever so slightly sweet. It tastes like snow. The water poured out of the side of this tree enters me and becomes me, runs down my throat and through my veins.
A black-capped little friend draws near to have a look-see. "Check out the Deity," he sings.