Last night during a 30-minute run I took a turn in our new neighborhood and came to the end of a cul-de-sac. I knew what lay just beyond. A cornfield. Yet there’s something in me that is earthbound, and I stepped over the weeds and fallen sticks to find perfect darkness beneath my feet.
That is, the earth had been plowed. Turned up for the winter months. Black and rich. Deep and rutted. The weather has not yet frozen the ground surface and we had rain in the last week. So the soil was wet. But I did not want to turn back. So I stepped out into this rubbled void, took a few steps and started running.
I knew where I’d come out. The homes on the street where I was aiming from the cul-de-sac were visible 400 meters away. Something in me was enjoying the challenge of running on soft earth after dark. To the south was a sky illuminated by the lights of car dealerships. To the north was the patent illumination of the shopping districts along Randall Road. Yet above me the sky was cloudy, the color of my painting palette if I rubbed all the colors together.
The earth on which I ran was turned in solid chunks the size of soccer balls. In between there were ruts from the tractor tires. If you’ve ever watched a farmer disc a field, it is a fascinating thing to see. The soil in our part of the country is 20-24″ deep, formed from prairie plants that were last extant here 180 years ago. So the soil has gotten quite a workout over the years. The only prairie plants left are those restored in preserves, where tall shoots of pale big bluestem and the tall rotting corpses of prairie dock and sunflower stand brown and morbid. But beneath the surface lurks the root systems. This is what rebuilds the soil.
Those root systems are what built up the soil over a long period of 10,000 years. This followed the glacial period when ice covered the land a mile deep, scouring away all but the Driftless region in the Midwest. The entire transformation took place over thousands of years.
When it was over, grasses and forbs began covering the land. Their roots shot deep into the blowing sand or loess from crushed gravel left by the glaciers. Winds blew off the retreating glaciers at a fierce pace, and the slow race to cover the oceanic limestone beneath all that had begun. It was a marathon, not a sprint.
The remains of that soil is what I ran on last night. So much of it has reputedly blown away over the years, for prairie soils were once feet thick, not just inches. Agriculturalists have only recently taken steps to recognize this loss, and have begun to protect this enormous wealth of nutrients. For too many decades the soil was allowed to blow away or wash away down the rivers, dumped eventually in the Gulf of Mexico or along the banks of the Mississippi. This is the type of tragedy that goes unspoken in our country. So preoccupied are we with our status as homo sapiens that we fail to see the world falling away from us.
And as I considered that sense of numb wonder at human hubris, I actually fell to the earth during my run.
It was a gentle tumble as things go. But one could not deny the fact of the matter: I’d fallen onto the rugged ground and lay there at the sky above. It was a welcoming feeling actually. How many other people in this world will get the chance (today) to lie on the wet earth for a few moments? Encased in our cars we zoom by cornfields and ignore the wet ground without a thought for its history or its significance in our lives.
So I lay there and laughed, then rolled over and looked down at my muddied shoes as well. They are relatively new, and now they bore dirt spots from my lark in the field. No matter. It’s dirt that keeps us alive. Dirt that lurks beneath our streets and holds our lakes and rivers. Dirt that harbors the microbes and worms and secretive creatures who come out only at night. These are the living things that actually run this world. When the human race is either burnt to a crisp or earthbound through its own greed, the ground will inherit us all. It will be a largely silent process. There will be no cheering or claims of victory such as, “We won! Get over it!” But the earth will win. You can bet on it.
Such arrogance of spirit in the human mind always begets a payback. The earth is waiting for ourmore gentle response. One with respect for its deep history, and not the ugly pride tied to how we’ve scraped and scratched at that trust with barely any respect.
We’ve even spread pollutants over the land, and rewarded giant companies with profits for poisoning the very soil and water on which we depend for life. We’ve pumped carbon from deep within the earth and spewed it into the atmosphere so thick that hit literally threatens to choke us off at times. The earth tries hard to act like a sink for all this, and sometimes is capable of healing these wounds. Yet the coughing fits of human activity continue. We trust this future to orange-haired clowns or hand it over to people stuck inside churches expecting God to fix it all or come through with an all new creation. Someday.
The earth begs for balance at times, or exacts it with floods or snows or healing winds that tear away that which offends. Those of us that run or ride tend to avoid these harshest of days on the roads. Yet sometimes we find ourselves “out in it,” and gain some measure of humility in the process. Or, we commence our activities in the aftermath of a storm, wondering at the sparkle of new snow, or recoiling at the spread of worms across the pavement.
And along the way, we might just notice the sheen of wetness on the face of a large chunk of newly turned earth. It beckons.
We are earthbound, all of us. Too many forget that. We run point to point on our Strava journeys without recollecting the fact of the ground we cover. But it waits. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The earth beckons, and we all return there. It is the movement between those ends we enjoy, along with the occasional swim, because water and earth simply go together.
Earthbound. Think about it.
And enjoy the process.