The Works of Katie Spring

Katie Spring is a recent graduate of St. Lawrence University where she received honors in English and Environmental Studies/Writing. She lives in Vermont and works on a diversified farm, gardening, milking goats, and tending to pigs and chickens. An avid traveler, Katie is getting ready for her next adventure: a move to Fairbanks, Alaska in April 2010.  Her blog, Running Barefoot, chronicles her travels, focusing on questions of place, and works to find harmony between the human and natural world.  

All Nonfiction © Katie Spring

Digging Home

           I put my roots down in a hill on old farmland in Barre Town, Vermont, when I was four years old. Aside from a few snapshots of my toddler years—receiving a tricycle for my birthday, a red popsicle melting because I ate it too slowly, and the bright green carpet in my father’s office—my memory begins there on 31 Grand View Farm Road.

          When we moved into our new house, mountains of dirt dominated our backyard. My brother, Jeff, and I spent afternoons running up to their peaks and jumping down, sliding on our heels to the ground below. We’d dump dirt out of our sneakers when we came inside, christening the gray-carpeted floors with land that the house’s foundation displaced. When I was 21, I’d learn from my father the trials of digging that foundation. We stood in the kitchen on an early May afternoon and he told me how rocky the ground was, how the tractors hit shale first and conquered it, but halfway through the digging they hit granite and had to make a choice: either change the location of the house or blast through the rock. Because my parents had picked this exact location for the view of Camel’s Hump (which looks more like a crouching lion) on the west side of the house, and for the view of a perfectly symmetrical maple tree on the east and another maple in our front lawn to the south that would be framed in our dining room windows, they chose to blast. So, this was my first experience of changing the land.

           From my seat at the dining room table, I can look out at that maple to the east, framed in the tall windows; I do not need to go outside to see it. My parents wake up every morning to Camel’s Hump through their bedroom window, though the view from our back yard is certainly more expansive. We wanted these wide windows to let the world in, and though we built these walls for shelter from the elements, the most fantastic aspect of our house are the windows that bring in natural light. But how often do they convince us that we can stay inside and still experience nature?

           For the first year or so, our driveway remained dirt and stones. I remember the pavers coming on a warm early summer day. I couldn’t walk on the hot gravel, and I marveled at the big roller, flattening tar onto the dirt. They only paved halfway down the driveway; it was too expensive to do the whole thing. My dad put up a basketball hoop that same week, and my brother and I put our hands in the concrete base, leaving our own small imprints in the ground. The pavement made it easier to ride bikes and bounce a basketball, but the real reason my parents decided to pave the driveway was because of all the dirt and mud we had been tracking inside. No longer did my parents have to spend so long cleaning, brushing the dirt back outside where it belonged. Once again I saw the landscape change for our convenience, but instead of blasting, this time we covered the earth in black.

          Between the years of 1979 and 1985, before the land was sold and developed into a neighborhood, cows roamed in tall grass pastures, and the LaCasse family ran a small dairy farm on thirty acres. Tony and Debbie LaCasse, who both grew up on farms, bought the land already equipped with a red barn and house. “We started [farming] the day we moved in,” Debbie LaCasse said proudly as we sat at their kitchen table one January day in 2009. She looked out the window to her snow-covered lawn and the street beyond it, describing how the fields once looked when tall green grasses grew and blew in the wind, offering a perfect pasture for the cows. Together, Tony and Debbie ran the operation, all the while teaching their four children the discipline and rewards of farming. The family ran into hardships in the mid 1980s, however, as the price of feed went up and the price of milk declined. To make ends meet, the LaCasse’s leased land in Plainfield in order to expand their herd, but the travel expenses built up, and in 1985, with the exception of a couple acres on which they still live, they sold the farm.

          When the housing developer sectioned off two-acre plots and paved a road to open up the cow pasture to cars, the fields gave way to nine new driveways and manicured lawns. The Pope family bought several plots in order to decrease the amount of houses and preserve some of the natural landscape, and this lessened the perceived impact of the new development. But despite this effort, the slow, incremental change from an agrarian to a suburban landscape continued with this cul-de-sac. In Above and Beyond: Visualizing Change in Small Towns and Rural Areas, the three authors write, “as rural areas grow, there is often no clear turning point, only a slow evolution…each increment of change subtly alters the ratio of developed to open land.” It is impossible to mark the turning point for the area I grew up in; for a few years after Grand View Farm Road was established, the surrounding land remained untouched until a developer bought the field adjacent to our neighborhood, and houses popped up where deer and foxes use to run, and the dirt road became paved.

          While Tony and Debbie still had control over the property, they added certain requirements in their developing contract. In return for their land, there could be no above-ground pools (they didn’t want to see the land they loved marred by the ugly standing circles), and each homeowner had to plant a certain number of trees on their land after construction of the house. As Debbie spoke of the old farm, a look of fondness and loss mixed in her eyes. “Your life is what you make it,” she told me, and even through frozen winters and hard chores, “it was a good feeling to do it.” Still stewards of the land, Debbie and Tony became an integral part of making Grand View Farm Road a neighborhood instead of just another cul-de-sac of strangers by babysitting many of us kids after school, helping to create a neighborhood watch program, and continuing to raise chickens and turkeys, along with growing a vegetable garden.

          Complying with each of their requirements (despite my begging for a pool every summer), my parents set to work on landscaping our house. We hired landscape planners and bought books on gardening, and over the years we filled our yard with balsam firs, white birch, mountain ash, hemlock, Japanese maple, cedar, locust, crab apple, plum and apple trees. Beyond that, we planted lilac bushes, lilies, bleeding hearts, daffodils and countless other flowers, along with tomato plants, squash, cucumber, peppers, strawberries and rhubarb. In the summer, hanging baskets and window boxes adorn our house like earrings and necklaces; potted plants like colorful scarves line the edge of the porch. Among our neighbors, our family has gone above and beyond in terms of landscaping—we’ve planted double the amount of trees as most people on our street.

          When I drive home after being away at school or at summer camp for months at a time, I am amazed that I ever rushed to leave this place that is so full of nature’s beauty. The trees and flowers engulf the front porch and when I walk up to the door I am reminded of a botanical garden—so many colors and lush green plants! But the most breathtaking sight in my entire yard is an old sugar maple in its tenth decade, standing halfway up our front lawn. Its limbs twist and stretch through the sky, reaching up towards 100 feet. Halfway up the trunk, thick gray bark curves inward around a hole—an old owl perch—that was filled in long ago and painted green. From one of its sturdy branches hangs a solitary swing with a plastic blue seat. When I was a child, my dad pushed me high on it, and I’d fly with my legs outstretched, trying to reach the lowest branches with my toes.

          This tree is the only living “natural” thing we kept on our property throughout the process of building, moving in, and landscaping. This tree, which gave me my first means of flight, and also once gave shade to cows in pasture, is perhaps the only truly natural thing at all on our two acres. For we imported all the other trees and bushes and flowers, and though birch trees may have seeded on their own, we cleared the land and made way for them ourselves.

           But then again, what does “natural” mean? In a world where humans constantly bifurcate themselves from the environment, we must ask ourselves, are we not part of nature, despite our concrete buildings, steel cars, and paved roads? I can look at Grand View Farm Road and see it as an altered, unnatural landscape since it became a cul-de-sac, or I can see its evolution from forest to farm to neighborhood. “People should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives,” writes William Cronon in “The Trouble With Wilderness.” Through years of birthing cows, raising chickens and turkeys, and turning over the garden soil, Tony and Debbie have held this consciousness. “It was rewarding to do it and know what you were eating because you grew it yourself,” Debbie says, and she recognizes the inherent value of connection with the land.

           Every tree, flower, vegetable, and fruit in my yard helps to sustain my life, and so I know that despite our transplanting, all things on my family’s land are natural. Just as humans plant trees, so do birds drop seeds as they fly from place to place. Part of my sustenance for life comes from my pure delight in nature, the fresh beauty of a wild landscape, whether it be a field or a mountain or even a garden. Too often do we separate the forest from the garden and forget to see wildness in all life, but, as Cronon writes, “We need to honor the Other within and the Other next door as much as we do the exotic Other that lives far away.” For in each flower petal, no matter where it is planted, there is the breath of wildness.

           My mother instilled me with a love for flowers. She showered our home in lilacs with their delicate scent in early June, with big bright lilies blooming in July, red, white, and pink poinsettias in December, a plethora of colors in wild bouquets and filled vases on the countertop. She infused me with sweet nectar and smiles, inspiring me to pick wild flowers whenever I saw fit, teaching me to slow my walk by any garden and to breathe in the floral scent. Yes, my mother brought this beauty into my life, but it was my cousin Amy who taught me the courage it takes to garden. The fierceness of ripping weeds, the discipline to do it over and over, the comfort of seeing worms, ants, spiders and earwigs up close—touching them even—and not getting squeamish, the feel of sifting soil through one’s fingers, the learned love of a garden’s miraculous wholeness, and the wonderful responsibility of caring for yourself—growing your own food, physically laboring over it all—and caring for the earth simultaneously. Amy brought me to the soil.

           During the summers of her college years, beginning when I was seven years old, Amy took care of my brother and me. Along with babysitting us, she also helped prepare dinners, and she worked in the garden. It was my mother’s garden, but Amy spent many hours weeding and caring for the plants while Mom was at work. I’d see Amy out in the yard with her knees in the dirt and I’d skip over wanting to play with her. When I’d see an earwig I’d jump back, secretly amazed at Amy as she continued on, running her hands through the soil without a flinch. As I spent more time digging among roots, taking some out and leaving others, I practiced the calmness that Amy expressed. Over the years I progressively became more comfortable with the tiny insects scattering around in the soil, though it seemed that sometimes my training would begin all over again at the start of each summer, as if my learned comfort around bugs had been wiped clean with melting snow.

           By the time I was in college, I had taken over Amy’s job of weeding while I was home. During the summer of 2006, after my freshman year at St. Lawrence University, I was fast at work tearing out invasive dandelions, hedge mustard, and lambsquarters from the lily garden. I pulled up a considerable root out of the corner of a raised bed, and from the open wound in the soil came pouring thousands of tiny deep-red ants. They moved like a wave, like a breath of pressured air being forced out of a whale’s blow-hole, and spilled onto the exposed topsoil. I stood back and watched as they evacuated their home, moving in one constant motion. Later I would ask myself the consequences the ants faced due to this one act of removal; what was their relationship with these roots that I tore up? Did the plant act as a foundation for their colony? Did the roots hold together tiny passages and strengthen the structure of the ants’ settlement? Will the ants be able to return to this spot, or will they start anew, as a family of people who lost their house in an earthquake would? But in that moment as they erupted out of the ground, I observed the ants in a quiet calm. When at last they had dispersed, I returned to my work of weeding.

           I pulled clovers, vines, dandelions, ragweed, buttercup, daisy fleabane: anything that my mother did not plant herself. In May of 2008, before I left to work as a camp counselor, I helped cut out new gardens, boring my shovel into the ground. It had been years since we grew our own food, so I picked a spot near the lilies and dug up a 5’x10’ vegetable garden. Each time the shovel shot into the ground, I could hear the grass roots rip away from the hard packed soil, feel the strong pull of resistance as I leveraged my shovel against the land, prying chunks of earth away from itself as if peeling layers of flesh away from the bone. It was not gigantic tractors doing the digging this time, and if I ran into rock, my own strength would shovel through it. This time, it was me digging, and when weeds sprouted up among the strawberries at the edge of the garden, I would be ripping them out. This process of ripping and pulling is part of the balance of life; for one to eat, another must die, and when death comes nutrients recycle into the soil to begin the cycle again. As I dug, specks of dirt ingrained themselves in my skin, covering my hands and forearms as if I were the one being planted, the one growing.

            My mom and I planted the fruit and vegetables together. We spread bagfuls of organic fertilizer over the upturned soil and watered it. I planted the strawberries, and she planted the tomatoes and cucumber. After I left for summer camp, she added lettuce, peppers, and squash as well. When I returned home a few weeks later, my mom brought me out to see the garden’s progress. I looked around at the sturdy tomatoes, already making a proud stance above the cucumbers, which were beginning to sprout. My mom’s excitement at our first strawberry extended through our whole family, as she passed the red fruit around so we could each have a little nibble of the summer’s first sweetness.

            Our garden grew lush and productive throughout the summer; my mom had to give lettuce away because we couldn’t eat it fast enough, and the several varieties of tomatoes we planted kept us busy from May to August. After all that digging and tearing and pulling, look! Look at the life that grows here! Look at the new species of plants, the new insects attracted to their flowers, the new closeness I have with this soil. Every species changes its landscape in some way, and when I visited this garden I could not help to think how much better it is to plant flowers and fruits and vegetables than to mow grass.

            Walking by the garden in August, I think about the ripping sound of roots as I cleared the grass, but I also think of the softness of the soil as I planted new life. All of the landscapes I have lived in have been changed for my habitation. But never by myself, until I began to weed and plant. In this way, I did not cover the land with tar or cement, or wood, but instead with living organisms, digging their roots down in this place just as I did seventeen years ago. I see how my muscles grew as I wielded the shovel, how my skin freckled as I worked in the sun, and I feel the calm clarity that engulfed me each time I went back to the soil, the happiness and peace I felt each time I ran my hands through the dirt and walked barefoot through the garden, and I understand the lessons that come with change, the responsibility that comes with action. In working close to the earth, I learned the undeniable connection between sustaining my life and the environment’s. In changing the land, I changed myself.