Reclaiming Lost Ground

There’s a small garden plot in our front yard. At the center of the plot is a maple tree – an old city tree, which has witnessed and survived all sorts of indignities. For many years, the only other thing growing in this plot was ivy, which I take to be Boston Ivy or Parthenocissus tricuspidata. It twisted around the tree trunk, covered the ground, where it took root, and grew up the sides of our house and our neighbor’s house. It looked nice enough, and matched the character of our old Brooklyn brownstone, even added to its charm.

But if you happened to be sitting on our stoop in the early morning, or coming home late at night, chances are you would notice something moving beneath the ivy. Rats. In the plural. This is New York City, after all. Sated with garbage, the rats would scurry across our front walk and into the thick of the ivy, where they would hide and burrow.

After seeing a particularly large black rat disappear into the thick of the ivy, I decided it was time for the ivy to go. So last Saturday I took a metal rake out of the backyard garden shed, made my way to the front of the house, down the stoop, and started raking and uprooting the thick ivy in the garden plot.

The roots and vines were so strong that my metal rake soon broke. Determined not to afford these ivy-league rats any quarter, I walked to the hardware store and bought another. It was a hot day – nearly every day this summer has been hot – but as I worked I found myself enjoying the rhythm of it and taking pleasure in the thought that I was reclaiming this little tract of earth from the ivy and the rats and (I quickly discovered) the garbage of the city.

I’ve seen litterbugs in this neighborhood – kids, mostly. I once caught one of them crumpling up a piece of paper and throwing it on the sidewalk. I stopped him with a hey! and told him to pick it up. He turned, looked at me stupidly, called me a few choice names and kept walking. I felt too dejected to pursue him. Instead, I picked up the paper – a homework assignment – and looked at his handwriting. The tough little thug wasn’t winning any awards for penmanship or spelling, and the assignment itself seemed pathetically dumbed-down, almost as if the teacher had meant it to be tossed carelessly away. Negligence begets negligence, I suppose.

As I raked my garden plot I discovered more than the litter of trash-talking kids. I retrieved a whiskey bottle, socks, chunks of Styrofoam, plastic wrappers, a knife, two Superballs, a small souvenir baseball bat, some tiny Ziplock bags of the kind used to sell drugs around here, and – of course – countless cigarette butts. And after I had raked most of the ivy out of the plot, and began turning the soil and digging up roots, I discovered even more trash, beneath the soil, buried there for who knows how long.

Urban gardening can be a weird form of archaeology. When I told the old man at the nursery what I’d found in the soil, he told me I should consider myself lucky that’s all I found.

In the end, the most surprising find was not all the trash, and not even what I took to be a rat’s nest (a mound of dirt at the corner of the garden plot, with a tunnel leading underneath the neighbor’s stoop: I destroyed the mound and slid a large rock over the tunnel entrance, sealing it like a tomb).

The biggest surprise was the soil itself.

I know that lead concentrations in Brooklyn soil can run up to 1200 parts per million, which is more 120 times the amount expected to occur naturally; these levels can be detected through testing and brought down by adding dolomitic lime to the soil. I know that other toxins have been dumped and industrial pollutants have run off into the soil in our gardens; for many of these there’s no easy fix. I suspect we have a particularly nasty concentration of trouble – in the soil and in the air — in a corner of our backyard garden, where two plants have burned to death underneath a TV cable junction (which also supplies our house with an internet connection).

How can I describe the soil I found? The soil in my front plot – the soil I am now trying to reclaim – was not just depleted, but utterly destroyed, without integrity, less dirt or earth than powder and grit. It, too, is an artifact of city life, a witness with a cautionary tale to tell.

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