We landed on our little homestead about nine years ago now. It was an unseasonably cool August, kind of like this one. We hit the ground running and made a rudimentary garden as soon as we could. The soil was rough and wet and uneven. There were stumps, and still a lot of trees to clear around the small field before we would have enough light and circulation to get a fair start. It wasn’t long before we began to run soil tests. First we just did simple ones from the extension office, then my Fellow Man got serious about it and we started using Logan Labs.
As wonderful as it would be to test a WHOLE garden’s soil. It doesn’t often work that way. There are sometimes vast variations from one side of a row to another, and the cost of separately testing each variant would be prohibitive to the average homesteader. So, we just do what we can, and by and by the garden has improved. That’s said, there’s always room to improve some more. And there are always mysteries to ponder.
Our south western garden is one we’ve been chiseling away at for the past five or six years. There were walnut trees along one edge, and a plum thicket along another. We’ve trimmed, cut, burned, raked and year by year made the garden larger, but it’s still a little rough. As I take the wheel hoe down between the (late) carrots and beets, there’s a lot to notice The north side of the row is rocky and rough to hoe. The other side is soft and fluffy. On the rocky side, there are hardly any weeds, but the carrots haven’t germinated well either. On the fluffy side there are LOTS of weeds (the dreaded galinsoga), and LOTS of carrots too. However, the beets look noticeably better on the rocky side. How about that? I wonder about it as I work in the garden.
If I stray from the garden path a few feet to the north, I run into an old house that sits roughly in between the southwestern and northwestern quadrants of our bottom gardens. It’s a simple log structure. The logs aren’t thick, and the siding is thin and gray. There is a layer of mud packed between the logs. The singular downstairs window has glass panes, and that’s all the external light there is, except for the one small window upstairs, which has just a shutter and no glass. It was a very rudimentary home.
I’m not sure who lived in it. I’ve heard that some cousins of the old owners’, the Cherry’s, lived there. But it seems like they didn’t stay for the duration. Stretched across the rafters of what I think would be the main living room are a couple of long poles, where Elzie Cherry evidently hung tobacco probably 40 or 50 years ago. We found old fertilizer sacks, mattress springs, and remnants of shoes (go figure on that one) in the plum thicket around the house. So there’s a clue about our gardens. Tobacco grew here. Elzie Cherry ran his mule through these rocks, too. We have spent some time re-opening drainage ditches he created around this low field, to good effect. Elzie knew this land well. We’re not the first to be making a go of it in this bottom ground.
Each year I dream of tearing the little cabin down and freeing up that space, but to be honest, we use it for storage, so it’s hardly a priority. I’d like it gone because it harbors groundhogs and snakes, and it’s just sort of funky to have an old house sitting around. But another reason I’d like to see it go is so we can see what’s under it.
Whenever I’m working on the western side of the garden, I can’t help but look at the rocks. On closer examination of the stones in the path, there are lots of chert chips. Many of them have been worked. They are flakes of stone, the leavings of the time-honored process of flint knapping. From time to time we find a nice scraper tool, or even a complete arrowhead point, but mostly we find chips. I’d like to see what could be found in the ground under that old house.
I suspect, when I look at the flint all over the garden, and hear the gurgle of the creek nearby, that this was a good place to do some handiwork. The creek runs so close, and I know that it has snaked its way back and forth through the sandy bottom land just below us for many hundreds of years. Our garden may have been creekside a thousand years ago.
The kids could swim and catch fish while the adults flintknapped and scraped hides in the pleasant cool air by the water. I don’t have enough information about the people who came before us here to make a really clear imagination of those folks. I wish we knew more. It’s a gaping hole in our understanding of this land. But, as a fellow human being, I appreciate that we have shared this rocky shore, the sound of wind in the trees and the glint of light on the water moving over rocks. I’m sure that those people felt the warmth of love and tangle of conflict, just as we do now. They threw their voices over the night sounds of the woods and singing of the water. I’m grateful they left some stones to show us they were here.
But I still don’t know why the rocks are thicker on one side of the garden.
Why is the ground wetter on the south side, drier on the north? Maybe it’s deeper geology at work. Now my mind is in the creek – down with the slick black slate rocks and blue limestone deposits. Probably, the creek once ran through part of what is now our garden. An occasional piece of slate surfaces in the garden, mostly on the north side. More crinoids there too. These are fossils left from the Cretaceous Era, when Tennessee was under water. Mosasaurs swam through these hills, once upon a time. It makes my hair float to think about the passage of 66 million years. This world, this little hollow in the hills, has seen more changes than I can imagine. Our little lives are drops in the long river of time.
There are some questions that soil analysis cannot answer. Most likely, we will never know for certain why one side is rocky and the other soft. We will pick up as many chipped arrowheads as we can find. Some of those scrapers could still be used to scrape a hide. We will maintain Elzie Cherry’s drainage ditches, and try to break that plow pan he left behind. Mostly, we work to make the place more fertile, more whole, more loved for whoever comes to enjoy it next.