Notes from my Knapsack 1-16-14
Deep freeze and wide muddy lawns
There's a particular type of mud you find on your shoes this time of year. If you have an awkward tendency to stroll off of paved paths and blacktopped parking from time to time, you know the sort of fluid, glutinous mud I mean.
When the soil freezes, thaws, and refreezes, you have a slurry near the surface that squirts into your shoes and makes each step squirm a bit, swivel left, twist right, as you curse the wandering impulse that took you off of the flagstones or concrete walkways.
The turf, such as it still is, comes loose when the temps shoot back above freezing, barely a loose skin on the bones of what may still be a deeper solidity below. There's an undead element to the grayish-brown colors that overwhelm the few sickly shades of green left on the ground.
A good hard permafrost creating cold snap is actually good for the soil, maybe even for the ecosystem, although your more sensitive perennials may not agree. Some roots of recurring plants can get too cold, too fast; earthworms, whose beneficial effects I think we all know, can get down below the frost line if the cold wave doesn't hit too fast.
There are nasty plants and grubs and bugs who are duly "iced" in such weather, and you know the kinds of mold and mildew that grows on the north (and even the east or west) side of your house. A winter full of warmer weather and lots of cloud cover as we had a few years back, and that blackish green rash breaks out on siding, stucco, even fence rails and lawn furniture.
A certain amount of freezing "exercises" the earth, the frost lines popping open and heaving shut. Much of the original formation of soil in this area happened as the glaciers retreated barely more than 10,000 years ago. Scientists note that soil (dirt is what's under your fingernails, soil is what grows plants and feeds the world – that's what the Ag Dept. at Purdue taught me!) only forms at a rate of about half an inch every four to five hundred years.
So topsoil, the good soil in this neck of the woods, is at most twenty inches deep, and the fact is that not every area was prime for soil formation, nor did those conditions continue steadily throughout pre-history. Six inches is a good layer most places in the county, less of course on slopes, on rocky ridgetops, and so on.
To get from those ancient glaciers, tumbled granite washed down from Canada, and native sandstone, an end product of useful soil, you first need: freezing. Not just freezing, but a freeze-thaw cycle. The cracks in the rock that expanding water pops open begins the long cycle of decay, breakdown, and chemical incorporation that end in rich, organic-filled topsoil.
But it starts with freezing. As King Lear says, "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!" The ice and wind play their part in preparing the ground for coming spring.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about your muddy shoes at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.