Diary of an Urban Soil

By Joshua McNichols

Photo shared by erix! via flickr

April 5

Yesterday, I woke up for the first time.

I can’t remember what I felt like before. There was only a dream, a dream of wetness, followed by dryness, repeating in a pattern for… for how long? Maybe forever. Certainly as long as the concrete that covered me and kept me safe. The concrete that disappeared yesterday, when a man with a sledgehammer cracked it up and took it away. At first, I was scared. I’d never seen light before, at least not that I can remember. Then, the man sprinkled something on me. He called it compost, and dug it into me with a shovel, filling me with air, giving me breath to speak to you now.

April 14

I’m getting used to the sensation of veins of compost running through me. There’s life in there, something tickling me, a family of red worms, a nest of nemotodes. They eat and shit in there, they line my cracks with their excrement. When it rains, water seeps through the compost veins, carrying flavors I don’t recognize deep into my clay subsoil, where I hold onto them.


April 23

The red worms have died, but other worms have moved in. The medium-sized pink worms seem to stick mostly to the compost. Nightcrawlers move through the clay blocks of my original body, nibbling at the edges of the compost veins. They leave large excrement-lined tunnels behind them, which quickly become homes for other creatures, most notably an ant colony, which politely confines all its poop to a single chamber. All this excrement has begun to rot, and the mycelium – the long, transparent tendrils that comprise a fungus’s subterranean body – act as dumbwaiters, ferrying nutrients from one part of my body to another. I’m starting to understand what it means to feel balanced.

fungal hyphae, courtesy of wikipedia

April 30

Something new this week. A plant, which I overheard someone call a clover, has taken up residence in me. I didn’t even notice her there until her roots left the compost and entered my clay. She continued expanding her root system, wrapping whole blocks of my clay. The sensation is overwhelming, as her micro-roots seem to have expanded my surface area infinitely, creating tiny fissures through which I taste the dissolving nutrients the man has dug into my surface – the sour, metallic flavor of dolomite lime, the fresh, bright flavor of kelp, which speaks of the ocean I have never seen.

Root nodules on clover

I notice something curious about the clover. A buzzing about her roots, where she seems to have built blocks of housing for microbes, pink bacteria that feed her nitrogen in exchange for a little of her sugar. The fungi contingent seem to be working out a deal of their own, wrapping her roots in mycelium. All of this activity, which now seems to comprise my entire being, seems drawn to a single point, a point at the apex of her roots, where she grows upward as a single stalk, disappearing into the nothingness above me. Like when your people shot the first human being into space.

May 7

Terror ripped through my body today as SHE, the one who has filled my life with meaning, was torn from me, cast cruelly to callous chickens, so said the man as he spoke to me. I fear I shall never be the same.

May 14

I may have been a little melodramatic in that last entry, please forgive me. Though my beloved clover has disappeared, I now have another love – a tomato plant, a less complex creature, but powerful, as if inside that small, hairy body hides a great root, a root that will surpass that of my previous soul-mate, the clover. Though my clover is gone, I can still sense her. The soil microbes, now increasing in numbers and diversity, buzz with excitement. They travel up and down her decomposing roots. She has become a skeleton of food.

July 24

Much time has passed since I last spoke to you. I’ve been so busy. The tomato has brought with her a project, a project whose breadth and scope I cannot understand but to which I have committed myself completely. And I have a lot to give. The roots have awakened me to the sum of my nature. I now understand the activity of all my creatures to be part of my body, not separate from it. My beetles and bacteria, my compost and my clay – these are to me as your blood and organs are to you. I now bend all of my powers to her singular will. I feel her drawing from me the things she needs. She drinks my moisture, and when it dries out I refresh myself with more from below. I’ve taught her to draw her own water from my subsoil too, and now her roots extend to the limits of my comprehension, far below. She presses her roots into the channels of excrement, from which she draws many flavors, flavors metallic and earthy, mysterious flavors imported by far-reaching mycelium, flavors animal and mineral.

A dream

August 20

We have approached the climax of our project, my tomato and I. She sends word to me from her place in the heavens, sending down a gas that fills the pores at the top of my being. When I taste the gas, it tastes of me, the decaying flesh of my microscopic creatures, the bold acidity reminiscent of my slight negative charge. I heard the man again today. I felt a loss when he picked her fruit, as the minerals left my beloved companion, and my system, forever. But it was worth it, I think, for the praise he heaped upon me. He called me “good soil.”

Then, he urinated on me. At first I didn’t like it, but then I realized he was giving back to me some of what he’d taken away with the fruit. I recognized nitrogen and phosphorous in the stream, and tried to hold on to as much of it as I could. Some of it slipped through my grasp and disappeared far below, perhaps into the subterranean rivers that my beloved roots tells me about in stories.

October 16

After a long and fruitful life, having given everything I had, my love was once again ripped from me. This time, I hear she went to the compost bin. But I have learned from my past relationships, and I know I will love again. The man has covered me up with leaves, and the nightcrawlers now travel to the surface to feed.

November 29

It seems I was mistaken – apparently, I will never love another root system. Parts of me have experienced frost, and this concerns me. The worms seem to have fallen into a deep sleep, and the microbes have almost completely ceased their activity.

December 11

I am dying. I am dying. I am dead.

Texas Tree, by Michael Mazur, turned upside down.

February 28

Yesterday, I woke up for the first time.



7 Responses to Diary of an Urban Soil

  1. What a fun way to tell the story of soil and it’s relationship to the other living organisms within.

  2. Oh Joshua how awesome! I am laughing. I am laughing. I am done. xo!

  3. Are you really able to sow clover in spring before you put tomatoes in? Assuming a May sowing of tomatoes?

    • Joanna – you’re right, that’s a plot hole in this fiction piece. Technically the crop should have been overwintered to achieve any kind of maturity before it was removed. I was thinking of that clover as a volunteer that was already present (notice the ambiguity surrounding when the clover actually germinated)- but how would it have survived the removal of concrete? I’ll have to work on that to polish this story further.

      I have planted cover crops in spring before planting later crops like basil, but even then the clover didn’t have time to get to its “budding” stage where the nitrogen is highest. I get accelerated growth of clover under white reemay.

  4. That was very interesting. Made me think. :)

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