newly planted lettuceI just saw a life-changing documentary the other day. I don’t say that lightly. I’m a huge fan of documentaries — especially ones about the environment. But this one, while offering the same urgent warnings that any good environmental documentary must these days, was so filled with hope for what even one person or a small group can do to save the planet that it’s a film you should have in your personal DVD library and screen once a month. Instead of focusing on deforestation, Climate Change and all the things that make me want to stay in bed with the covers over my head, Dirt looks at the lifecycle of “the living breathing skin of the Earth.” With simple scientific explanations that are accessible enough for a child, Dirt still puts things in perspective for adults. Its aim is to get us to understand Earth’s dirt and reconnect with it.

There are incredible stories of how this is happening at — forgive the pun — the grassroots level around the world. There the expected environmental celebrity ecological spokespeople like our very own Alice Waters (who discusses her Edible Schoolyard program that has kids in underprivileged areas growing vegetable gardens and serving their crops for lunch.) But there are also some groups I wasn’t familiar with. Two of the most inspirational were a group in Brooklyn that is taking prisoners and teaching them how to green urban spaces. A combination attitude adjustment program and job training, the program not only gives the convicts something positive and healthy to do while incarcerated, but prepares them for jobs that can never be shipped overseas. Another program is involved with jackhammering up tarmacked playgrounds in urban schools and replanting them with lawns and trees — all with the help of the kids who go to the schools. To illustrate just how disconnected we’ve become from dirt, one of the program coordinators tells how a confused City Councilman asked, “Well, if you tear up the concrete, where will the children play?” The answer is that they’ll play in the dirt, on the grass and under the trees. One teacher even reports that she observed, after her classes helped with the plantings, they, on their own, began playing more cooperative and less aggressive games among themselves at recess.

wangari maathai

The documentary Dirt is worth watching if only to become acquainted with the inspirational Nobel Laureate environmentalist Wangari Maathai.

But the most inspirational voice in Dirt is the Nobel Laureate from Kenya, the luminous Wangari Maathai. She tells a folk tale that perfectly  encapsulates the message of Dirt: the forest is burning and all the animals are running from the flames and are crying that their homes are being destroyed. Suddenly, the little hummingbird says, “I’m going to do something!” She takes a tiny drop of water in her little beak and drops it on the fire. She continues going back and forth carrying a drop at a time and putting it on the fire. All the larger animals — even the elephant who could carry so much more water in his trunk — say, “Why are you doing this? You are too little. You can’t possibly do anything.” But the hummingbird says, “I’m doing the best that I can.” This shames the other animals, who then pitch in and eventually put out the fire and save the forest.

That’s the message of Dirt. Each of us just needs to do what we can, even if it is only planting one tree or growing a pot of tomatoes. Of course, we also need to reconnect to the Earth’s dirt.

That’s where I need to pause for a Note to Self. Because nothing is making me realize how disconnected I am from Nature than my gardening efforts and my Intro to Viticulture class. On the gardening front, I’m just lucky I live in Sonoma where a combination of perfect weather and soil allow most things grow without much help from humans. Because my garden is distinctly Darwinian. I stuff things in the ground, there is some irrigation, but I’m not following any of the recommended weeding, thinning and tending practices. Somehow everything’s growing just fine. Until harvest, when I’m realizing that I have no clue when anything is ready, especially for crops that grow underground. Which accounts for the fact that I dug up half my onions when they were still tiny shoots, instead of waiting until they’d had time to develop into healthy bulbs.

Flying Terrier Farms

Flying Terrier Farms, shown here in a fallow period, seems to be thriving despite its caretaker's ineptitude. Behold the power of Nature!

At least I’m having no issues with pest management. In fact, I’ve resolved to stop reading gardening books as they are only serving to frighten me over things that never happen here. Since my raised beds are just about in the epicenter of 40 acres of native forest land, it seems the usual pests that bother cauliflower, tomatoes and other “human” crops just aren’t able to get to them. Likewise, the local birds and squirrels seem to be uninterested in my garden as there are so many more of the things they’d rather put on their plates growing for acres around.

That leaves me as the worst menace to my garden. And in my vineyard. Our plan with the vineyard was to stumble through the process on our own for a couple of years, then start taking classes when we knew enough to know what we didn’t know.

Boy, the things I didn’t know! I’ll get to that as my classes continue. Suffice it to say, we’ve been doing almost everything wrong. But the grapes? They know what to do and they’ve been doing the right things in spite of us.