GRAND FORKS — Please permit me one more column about the epic move Suezette and I are making from Wheatfield Township to Greater Grand Forks. This column is about dirt. Soil would be a more polite word, but I’ve always thought of the stuff that supports a garden as dirt, and not as soil. The word “dirt” has a gritty sound to it, in contrast to the silky sound of “soil.”
As I write, dirt is on my hands and my trousers and my shoes. I have marked out a garden patch in the backyard of our new home. The patch is very much smaller than the one I worked in Wheatfield Township, and very much less contiguous.
Basically, I spaded up a low and sunny spot anticipating a crop of radishes, onions and other root crops. I picked a space to plant some herbs, including chives and oregano, both cold-hardy perennials. I’m toying with the idea of adding various kinds of mint, but not so much for the flavor as for the aroma. The trouble with mint, of course, is that it is a highly invasive plant, and it’s not as hardy as oregano or chives.
With improving weather – so we dare hope since we are North Dakotans – I’ll be able to put out these plants this week.
Much of my new garden is in what I call “garden bags,” which I fill with dirt. They are large enough to accommodate many garden vegetables. I’ve had good success with herbs and eggplant and tomatoes. I’ll be putting sets of those plants out this week, too.
I’m not so sure about other garden staples. I won’t be planting potatoes, for example, and probably not garlic. Both need space and benefit from heavy mulching, which might not please my neighbors.
I am imaging erecting a trellis for pole beans and supports for peas, but I may reconsider, given the population of rabbits I’ve seen inspecting my property (or is it really their property?). Rabbits make quick work of seedling beans.
But really, what gardener can forgo a crop of peas, rabbits or no?
To me, establishing a garden plot is a way to claim territory. I have never felt that I belonged in a place until I had staked out a garden patch. This is a heritage from my parents, of course. The family garden of my childhood was a huge undertaking, and it involved every member of the family. I couldn’t have been more than five years old before I began “weed patrol,” and by the time I was 10, I was a gardener first-class – not that I welcomed the status. I mostly detested the work, and I frequently shirked it by concealing myself in a patch of corn, say, or sneaking off to hide behind the barn, often with a book in hand.
Such shenanigans were never successful. I was always caught and sent back to the garden. These were important lessons, of course, and I felt the strength of them when I turned the soil behind our new home. A garden is a direct link to the earth as well as a source of food and – perhaps the most important lesson – a way to be connected, to earn your keep, so to say.
So when I turned the first shovel of dirt behind our home, I felt an immediate connection to the place, as if I owned it. This must have been the feeling that my grandfather had when he turned the first furrow on his prairie homestead in Mountrail County a little more than a century ago.
He won the homestead in a lottery arranged by Congressman Louis B. Hanna, who later became governor of North Dakota. Hanna had determined that the Indigenous people of the Missouri River Valley were not using the land above the Missouri River Valley, and he persuaded Congress to declare it surplus, clearing the way for homesteaders, who were awarded land by lot.
Grandpa got a good plot, on the banks of Shell Creek not far from the town of Van Hook. Today it’s a plum patch, planted for wildlife, part of the mitigation for flooding by Garrison Dam, which was built less than 50 years after Grandpa first turned the soil there, and which destroyed the established farming culture of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation. Just a short distance from Grandpa’s place, there’s a large fishing camp with rigs of all kinds and services to sustain them.
In Grandpa’s time, however, it was an unbroken prairie. He was the first person to put a plow shear in the ground there. I can’t suppress the feeling of – what other terms are there than completeness and continuity? – that I feel with him, despite the indisputable fact that he, and I after him, benefited from the taking of other people’s land and heritage.
So my feelings when I turned dirt in my new backyard were mixed.
The one strong strand was this: This spot is mine now. I’m prepared to plant a garden, and so this is home, a common thread from my own time, my grandfather’s time and the long time that Indigenous people worked the same dirt.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.
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