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One big pile of dirt

Ten years ago in June, after months of politicking, cajoling, and wheedling, I stood out in a thundetstorm and shoveled what used to be horse manure, leaves, and tree limbs into a hole the size of a half a tennis court.

Nine tons of topsoil made from these fine ingredients stood in a pile about ten feet tall and 15 feet around. It wasn’t going anywhere by itself and people were coming the next day to plant wildflowers and prairie plants in the hole. The soil needed to quit being a pile and start being part of the ground.

I had just spent a day hauling and tying rebar on a bridge deck out in Raytown. Of all the work I did as a manual laborer, vineyard worker, restaurant and service sector wage earner, and ironworker, the bridge deck was by far the hardest, heaviest labor I’d ever undertaken. The work rewarded me in any ways, not the least of which was finishing up the day and being able to look back over a sea of green-epoxied rebar on a bridge and saying, “Yeah. I did that.”

Ironwork turned my body to steel. In just a few short months, my arms and shoulders bulged, my legs grew stronger than they’d ever been, and my back, already my greatest asset, took on the look of a flat and flexible sheet of iron the size of a zip code.

Building bridges constructed more than body. My mind, which whirred and clicked all day carrying and tying rebar, benefitted from mental exercises. On a bridge deck, there’s plenty of time to think. Talk on the bridge limited the amount of interference that might come from others. “This one.” “My end.” “your end.” “Up.” “Down.” “Endo.” “Boom up.” “Boom down.” “Hoist load.” “Lower load.” Breaks might include personal stories. Mostly, the other ironworkers dogged for being the oldest guy on the bridge.

In between, I had the opportunity to work out some of life’s larger questions. But much of the time, my mind was blank. The repetitive work creating a kind of hypnosis in which everything worked on its own.

One thing about building a bridge deck is sure. At the end of the day, you are at the end of your day. There’s nothing left physically or mentally. Arriving home meant a nap, a good dose of ibuprofen, and several bananas—and lots and lots of water. Gallons.

But that day in June, I didn’t have time for rest and recovery.

Already, I’d met to the Parks and Recreation administration twice to sell them on two rain gardens I wanted to build in front of the Tony Aguirre Community Center. I’d arranged with the Missouri Department of Conservation for volunteers and brought botanists and soil scientists on board with my idea. I wangled donations from the Hall Family Foundation for plants, from Missouri Organic Recycling for soil and mulch, and from the city for the site prep work.

Volunteers and administrative personnel from the Park Department were due the next morning at 9 a.m. to start the planting 500 wild forbs, grasses, and legumes. These plants’ deep root systems drill holes in the ground that would absorb storm water runoff. They were perennials that weather drought, flood, and fire. Missouri Wildflowers, a company near Springfield, was due to deliver the plants in time for the volunteers to plant them.

I had also secured a mound of garden tools from the Parks Department and the Westside CAN Center: wheel barrows, rakes, hoes, and shovels.

The only thing I didn’t do was arrange for someone to help me move all that dirt.

So, there I stood. The weather was deteriorating, the clouds that had moved in earlier had turned the sky greenish steel-gray. I threw and distribute dirt over the surface of the depression, the day grew dimmer, the clouds lower.

I put in an hour Then two. Shove the shovel in the pile, twist, throw, repeat. Half the pile was gone when the wind bore down on my little operation. Lightning flashed and spidered in closer. The rain started, just a little but enough to worry me.

Outside of that thought, the work had hypnotized me. The thread of consciousness that remained consisted of the pressure of time I felt. I must get this done or the volunteers would not be able to plant the garden.

Soon, I stood in a maelstrom. Rain came in nickel-sized drops. I was completely sodden, the water draining off my pants and into my boots.

But I kept shoveling until I couldn’t see through my glasses and the dimness of the day. When I gave up, I’d moved about six tons of soil. I gave up the operation finally. I could not go on. I had reached the end of my physical rope. Lightning flashed every couple of seconds. I knocked the mud off my boots and climbed into my truck.

What would happen if the volunteers showed up the job wasn’t complete? I didn’t much care, the endorphins had put me into an opiated state. My head buzzed from the work and repetition. I resolved to be at my best the next morning.

Morning didn’t work out like I planned. I got out of bed until the last second. The alarm went off at 8:50. I swallowed the coffee cold, put on my boots, and was at the community center at 9:01.

When I arrived, the pile was gone. Dozens of people were at work planting the 500 plants. Wheel barrows and shovels went every direction. Wendy Sangster had misunderstood me when I said 9 a.m. She and her volunteers had shown up at 8. She put some people to work planting the small garden, and the stronger of the bunch onto the rest of the pile. Others smoothed the dirt out in the big depression, and some began planting as soon as they could.

Wendy had brought so many volunteers, they made short work of the pile. By 9 a.m., they had mostly completed the whole operation. By 10 a.m., we had two rain gardens planted.

The volunteers packed up and went home. I stood at the garden looking over the work. We had done a great thing, I thought. All the rainwater from the roof and dehumidifiers of the pool would now go into the ground rather than down the drain at the bottom of the large depression.

Ten years later, I can say it worked. The Parks people are happy. The gardens do their jobs with the runoff. I maintain the operation. Every year, my son and I get into the gardens with a weed whacker and rake. We chop away last year’s growth and pick up the trash and leaves.

Fortunately, this year—yesterday—the Parks Department came and burned out the gardens. A good burn will kill off the woody invaders: cottonwood, Japanese honeysuckle, Siberian elm, river grape. It lays the field open for another year of flowers and grasses and broadleaves that absorb the water. It gives the yard one more chance to be wild.

After the guys left yesterday, I thought about ten years of hard labor. It works. The gardens are community assets. They add to the aesthetics of the community center.

I hear the Kansas City Public Library, a branch of which stands across the street from the gardens, is starting a wild-nature education program this summer, using the gardens to show people how human and nature, city and country should live together.

It’s the kind of lesson that reverberates through the community. Maybe it will catch on.

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