A wise gardener once said that the biggest problem with the modern world was compaction.
Let me explain.
In the garden we spend a fair amount of time fighting compaction. Every time we plant something in our garden we first take some time to move down the garden bed with a tool called a braodfork.
A broadfork is a long U shaped tool with long tines on the "bottom" of the U. We stab these long tines into the soil and then slowly pull back and down on the upright handles of the U to slowly ease open the soil. The soil cracks open and we pull the broadfork out and stab it in again further down to do it again.
This is a very gentle way to crack open the soil down to a fairly deep level. It is a very different procedure to the more typical tilling of the soil with fast moving tiller blades that churn and pulverize the soil. Obviously the action of the tiller changes the soil structure dramatically--its like sticking a blender in there. Its homogenous and pulverized. Not so with the broadfork which leaves the soil mostly still intact but with cracks reaching down deep.
The goal with both the broadfork and the tiller is to "break up" the soil and make it "loose" so that planting is easier and so that plant roots can work their way down into the soil more easily. The loose soil also holds moisture better which is obviously important for plant growth.
Many people don't realize one of the most important functions though, which is to introduce oxygen into the soil. Plant roots actually need oxygen. Most living things in fact do. And when a soil is highly compacted, there can be very little oxygen or moisture in the soil. And therefore there can't be much LIFE in the soil.
In the compacted state, you have dense and tight soil with very little moisture or air. And then, obviously, right above the soil you have all the air you could want. Believe it or not, the sky starts at ground level. Below the surface you have earth with no air and above the surface you have air with no earth. No mixing. No life. Two important elements for life completely concentrated and separated.
But when we crack that soil open with the broadfork, its like the earth is breathing in. Air and Oxygen rushes into those cracks no matter how small and with the incoming air comes the opportunity for life to happen. The two elements are mixing. The earth is lifted gently up into the air with the fork and the air is allowed to seep deep down into the earth. The two elements begin to intermingle.
You might be wondering at this point why we don't use the tiller. Wouldn't it be more effective at whipping up the soil and injecting oxygen? Wouldn't it be easier to let a machine "fluff" the soil?
Well yes. But you see, there is such a thing as too much. Too much oxygen isn't good for life. Just like too much water will drown you. Have you ever hyperventilated? Too much oxygen causes problems. In fact, it favors the decomposers and accelerates the decomposition of organic matter in the soil quickly reducing the soil to something more like sand--small lifeless particles with no structure.
Furthermore, structure is necessary. Too much chopping of all the soil structure is destructive to some very important organism complexes in the soil. Life is a web of interrelated structures and they need to develop through space--chop them up and you will have nothing left but single cell bacteria--nothing larger can combine or grow. Think about what a blender would do to earthworms or plant roots or fungi. Again, all that's left behind the tiller/blender is tiny particles. Its fluffed for a moment but quickly settles into worse compaction because nothing gives the particles formation. IF you've ever poured water or milk over flour you know that a fine powder doesn't absorb any more than compacted soil.
But not so with our broadfork. After a pass with this simple and elegant tool the soil is breathing. The soil can suck in (some) moisture and hold it. And the soil has chan
nels/cracks for more complex organisms like earthworms and roots to begin working their way deeper and creating natural channels and pathways of their own.
All life depends on a certain balance between the elements. Life needs some air and some water and some earth. And life also needs some structure and some food to consume. Too much of any one thing begins to exclude its opposite and problems begin to arise.
This is a lesson we learn in the garden, but it applies to all life including higher orders of human culture. We must have spirit (air) and body (earth). We are dust and to dust we will return. But we also have the divine breath breathed into us. We must have ideals and believe in concepts but we must also be practical and realistic to natural laws and economics. Organizations and institutions must also be careful to allow things from the outside or the fringe to infiltrate. There must be some structure and order to society but not so rigid that it can't breath or produce new life. Not too static. No too theoretical or fantastical.
Our world unfortunately prefers compaction it seems. We have those who believe in the tangible exclusively. And those that live excessively spiritualized or fantasy lives. All or
nothing. There are those who live sedentary lives only stimulating their minds and interior with no energy or concern to care for or engage their bodies. And other who follow the pleasures of the body with no concern for the spiritual ramifications.
We're talking about polarization of all kinds here. Segregation and classification and isolation and echo chambers of single things broken off and compacted from the other. The loss of interrelatedness. The loss of intermingling. The loss of gentle and respectful blending.
And typically it also seems that it is in vouge to attack compacted areas of life and the culture with a kind of blender that would totally pulverize the structure and inject all kinds of burning oxygen. But that isn't really conducive to life either. Too much breakdown of structure. Just like hardened and compacted structures that can't accept anything new or different don't produce life either.
Maybe it would be good if everyone would spend a little more time gardening. They might begin to understand life a bit more. And they might see the
mselves reflected in the garden they keep.
If you want life and growth, let some air into your clenched parts. Bring some body into your ideals. See what sprouts.
I'm thinking on this topic this week because we are doing a lot of broadforking in the garden as we plant out all the spring crops. We also ended the season last year with broadforking. We're slowly getting this farmland breathing again.