Six Feet Under

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The famous red clay soil of the North Carolina Piedmont. Photo by Dr. David Lindbo of the Department of Soil Science at NC State University, licensed by Creative Commons.

“When I die, bury me in a plain pine box six feet under in the backyard,” I announced to my family at Sunday dinner. “Nothing too fancy, please.”

My father paused, momentarily distracted from his spaghetti. “I think there are laws against that,” he said, with diplomatic aplomb.

Surprisingly, no. It’s not illegal, though the exact regulations vary from state to state. Here in North Carolina, you only need to fill out some paperwork for a legal burial on private land. It’s easier than renewing your driver’s license. As long as it’s your land, and you use the proper channels to inform the authorities, there are few obstacles to a home burial for family members.

So if bureaucracy isn’t the problem, why don’t more people do it? Here in the Piedmont, one problem is the soil—you’ll need to hire a backhoe, especially if you’re in a hurry. Traditional grave-digging just doesn’t cut it these days. To get six feet under in compacted red clay, you can bust out your back and break your shovel halfway down, or you can rent a machine to do it for you. Your choice.

It wasn’t always this way. We don’t have the deep, rich earth that makes the American Midwest such a hotbed of agriculture, but we used to. We lost it. Not only did we do it to ourselves, we don’t even know what we’re missing. Our topsoil—the light, fluffy soil, dark black from decaying organic matter, bursting with life—is gone.

The English surveyor John Lawson recorded at least six feet of topsoil in the Piedmont when he passed through North Carolina in 1701.That’s not true today. In the three hundred years between Lawson’s time and mine, deforestation and European agricultural practices left the rich Piedmont topsoil exposed, subjected to frequent, heavy rains. All of the rich, fertile topsoil washed away, leaving only heavy, iron-rich red clay subsoil behind. Dense and heavy and not so good for crops, farmers wore out their clay fields after a few years of farming, abandoning the fields until the forests regrew and the cycle started over again. Log, rinse and repeat for over a century—the effects are visible the moment you stick your shovel in the ground.

It’s still happening. Rainstorms turn my local rivers and streams a rich, reddish-chocolate color of a melted Fudgesicle as more sediments wash out on a one-way trip to the Atlantic Ocean. Even in calm times, the waters rarely runs completely clear, and aquatic life forms sensitive to sediments, are rare. John Lawson looked into the crystal clear waters of the Haw River and saw the bottom ten to fifteen feet below. I can’t do that, even on the best of days.

Even on the highways, far from any farmer’s field, you’ll know at once when you hit red clay country. Any clearing or grading for roadwork or new developments resembles the surface of Mars. When wet, the exposed red clay forms a dense, sticky network, clinging to your shoes and staining any pale fabrics with distinctive smears. When dry, dust clouds form, an impenetrable haze surrounding and coating bulldozers and construction equipment as they grind through the ground. When I visited the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro this summer, I watched the elephants roll in the mud to beat the heat, the dull grey of their skin vanishing in a rusty haze, as if they had just emerged from a trip to the Red Planet themselves.

Most people here accept red clay for granted. I certainly did, until I traveled more widely, and I learned the truth about the ecological history of this landscape. Some take pride in it, others bemoan its difficulties to work and shape for agriculture and other human uses. For me, it is a lesson, a warning and a call to action all rolled into one. I cannot change the past, but I can work to bring the soil back, and I can tell other people this story. We do not have to accept what history has given us, but we can only make changes if we realize the extent of what we’re missing.

But, as local author Dave Cook reminds me, it was a different world then. In The Piedmont Almanac, he chides me, “It is easy to be critical [of 19th century farming practices] when one doesn’t have to do the work. … Handling a 900-pound mule and trying to plough sideways on a hillside is easier said than done.” He notes that mechanical tractors made farming on contour and other soil-conserving practices more expedient, a point I will easily concede. But he makes no mention of the farming practices of the native peoples, which left the topsoil intact, or the cultural biases that kept settlers from adopting them along with New World crops of squash, corn, beans and tobacco. So rather than blame the past or perpetuating the cycle, it’s time to move forward, to do better now that we know better. But we have a long way to go.

While I applaud the work of government agencies like the National Resource Conservation Service and the Soil Conservation departments operated by individual counties, it’s clear that to restore our missing six feet of topsoil, we need to move beyond mere conservation and actively move into soil building. How do we restore what was lost? In nature, soil-building is a slow process, as rocks and organic matter are ground down and gradually transformed by chemical weathering and mysterious soil organisms whose lives are barely understood. Yet certain agricultural practices like cover cropping or terra preta can build topsoil much faster than previously thought. But even with these methods at our disposal, soil—just like oil and natural gas—is still essentially a non-renewable resource in most places.

If restoring the soil is the work of a lifetime, or several lifetimes—or even a few decades—all the more reason to start recreating what was lost right now. And what happens when we die? What better way to build soil than to become a part of it?

So I continued with my end-of-life announcements at the dinner table, despite my family’s nonchalance. “When you’ve got the hole all dug, pop me in, mix up some compost, and plant an apple tree on your way out,” I told my family. “Holes are hard to dig and all, so no sense wasting an opportunity.” As the tree grows, it will appreciate the extra nutrients, transforming elements from soil and sunlight into food and shelter for people and animals who wander by in the future. It’s a perfect plan. Too bad I won’t be able to see it happen.

What I do with my life matters. That doesn’t stop with my death. When I die, I’ll still be here in this red clay landscape, still a part of the action. Some might call it becoming dust, but I prefer to become soil—one that will be all the more fertile and vibrant because of my actions. It may take a hundred years to build an inch of topsoil, but at least I’ll have done my part.

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