Welburn and Crambeck, North Yorkshire: As I pick out the stones and weeds, I think about the life you can see and the life you can’t
I’m not really up for the graft of garden maintenance. Aside from planting a few fruit trees, herbs and pollinator plants, our custodianship is better described as “ungardening”. We’ve welcomed back herb robert and red campion, dandelion and bugle, and the place heaves with birds, rabbits and voles. But in a lockdown-induced fit of horticultural zeal, I recently begged two big old raised beds from our archaeology best kindly farmer neighbour. After we’d heaved them into position, a digger rumbled down the lane and deposited a half-tonne of local topsoil in one deft dump. That is my kind of gardening.
Farmer John warned that I’d have to pick out the stones and weeds, and after shovelling in most of our compost heap I set to – raking with my hands, crushing lumps, rubbing in blobs of clay and manure like butter into scone mix. But no recipe can replicate soil. After three student summers in a “mud-pie” geomechanics laboratory, I can still grade silt from sand by touch, and sort angular gravel from sub-rounded cobble at a glance.
I’ll never accept my ex-geologist husband’s mischievous insistence that soil is rock. This stuff is alive. There’s life you can see – earthworms and skinny Geophilus centipedes, fragments of root and shoot – and life you can’t: kilometres of fungal hyphae in every handful, thousands of nematodes, billions of bacteria. But lists, schmists. You could document every physical, chemical and biological property of this substance and still not describe it, because soil seethes with history too.
The land adjoining this was once a quarry and most of the fragments I extract are limestone, but there is brick and pot too. Before the quarry, there was a Roman pottery, mass-producing what is now known as Crambeck ware for distribution all over the north of England. John tells me he finds fragments of huge coil pots that look like fossil turds, evidence of much earlier native potters at work in the bronze- and iron-age settlements that were here long before the Romans.
In temporarily taming this indescribable amalgam, I’ve sloughed my own biological signature into it, and added those of carrots and beets, beans and borage. In a few months, we’ll eat, and become just a bit more local ourselves.