“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
I should be starting my garden now.
I should have tender tomato plants lifting their first seed leaves toward grow lights. I should have dogeared seed catalogs and fat packets of salad greens, carrots, and cilantro in my mailbox. I should have several dozen caladium bulbs ready to pop into the ground among the irises to take over this summer when the irises start to fade.
But I don’t.
I don’t know what this year will bring for my garden. I don’t know what will survive.
At some point probably in the next few months, maybe, if there are no further delays, but there’s really no telling when, workers will come and remove the top 18 inches of soil from my entire property.
I’ve known this was coming for almost five years, but it has always been very uncertain. I live in an area that has been designated an EPA Superfund Site. Over a decade ago, the EPA identified hotspots with extreme levels of lead and arsenic in some neighborhoods north of my house. They remediated the worst area first, then tested areas that were further out to find the outer limit of the contamination. The place where they found additional contamination included the neighborhood where I live and work.
Five years ago, the place where I work was tested and remidiated. It was horrible. A garden was destroyed. Landscaping removed. Trees may have received critical damage. The contractors charged with the work had protocols to follow that didn’t seem to have a category for “garden”. Heavy machinery was parked where cucumbers had grown in soil we had tested and knew to be safe. New soil was trucked in and compacted so that a lush, chemically carpet of sod could be rolled out perfectly flat and with every blade of grass in alignment. I don’t understand how they did not recognize that we wanted our garden returned to what it had been, especially when the subcontractor’s workers had eaten whole cucumbers while they waited for the go-ahead to pick up their shovels to begin removing the soil beneath the plants.
In the EPA’s defense, they eventually learned that things had gone horribly wrong, they apologized, and they offered to fix it if they could. At that point, there was a final garden area yet to remediate, and they bent over backwards to do it right. But by then the gardener was demoralized and wanted to move on, so we’d already planted a small orchard of fruit trees on the crushed land. With all the compaction, it was nearly impossible to dig the holes for the trees. A subcontractor tried to tell me that that was what the soil was like before they removed it. I regularly look at the trees and wonder if their roots have managed to work their way outward and into the soil.
At some point this spring, a subcontractor will contact me and we’ll look over my property together and come up with a plan for remediation. The subcontractor is obligated to return as much as possible to the way they found it before the remediation, but within reason and within budget. Trees should be treated with care and landscaped areas should remain landscaped, but enough soil needs to be removed to eliminate the possibly dangerous exposure to lead.
I’ve assumed that my entire side yard will have its soil replaced, including the area I had previously used as a vegetable garden and the soil beneath my newest raised bed. I’ll refrain from planting anything in either location because it’s very possible that it will be dug up before it can mature. The real unknown is how much of my perennial gardens under the maple tree and next to the house will need to be removed. I’ll continue in uncertainty until I meet with the subcontractor. Only when I know for sure can I really make a plan for what I may be able to save and how I can save it. The uncertainty is difficult. The possibility of a year without a garden is also difficult.
Meanwhile, the spring flowers are beginning to emerge and bloom as always and without fail. Are they a symbol of hope? Fragility? Naivete?
Last spring when I knew that the testing and remediation were upon me, I concentrated my spring bulbs into the perennial beds and a few containers. Gone are my dreams of naturalized carpets of crocuses. Now I’m simply hoping not to lose it all.
In all of this, I am most angry that we continue in the same patterns that created this Superfund Site. The pollution that the EPA is remediating rained down on my neighborhood for more than a century. Factories operating as early as the Civil War made bullets and plows and lead and arsenic went up the smokestacks and down on the city. People used lead-infused coal ash from their furnaces as fertilizer for their yards. Paint stores sold lead-infused paint as the stronger, better solution.
These things may be in the past, but business continues as usual. It’s just the way it’s done. A little bit doesn’t hurt. Pollution controls continue to be relaxed in the name of progress and industry. The added pollutants silently surround us and build. People get sick. Toxic levels are reached. Someone notices and is obligated (perhaps) to act.
We cannot simply scrape away the surface of the earth every century to fix everything. We can do better than this.
**Note: It has taken me some time to write this post. Just today, I heard from the subcontractor. Tomorrow I will learn my garden’s fate.