I recently read the excellent book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles Mann. An overriding theme of this book is that pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas shaped their environment to fit their needs, time and time again. Some of these environments were barren intially but the land inhabitants were able to cultivate them with remarkable success. He sites, for example the terra preta of the Amazon Basin. This anthropogenic soil was made by adding a mixture of charcoal, bone, broken pottery, compost and manure to the otherwise relatively infertile Amazonian soil. The soil’s charcoal has remained in the soil for thousands of years.
I was thinking about the book when I stepped out of the house today. The backyard has become wild and overgrown due to my inability to tend to it this summer. In addition to the long grass there are beautiful red spider lilies popping up all over.
These flowers usually bloom around the autumnal equinox and apparently are bulb-producing perennials which likely means someone planted them before I bought the house.
Looking back it was the backyard that sold me on the house. A large, skinny double lot in the city, I noticed the rich, dark, earthy soil in the back which seemed anomalous considering most of the soil in the Triangle is red clay.
I asked my geologist friend Brian if our soil was rich due to some geological feature. He told me that it wasn’t, that it was more likely the yard had been cultivated by previous owners. He paused for a second and said “but if that’s not the case then it could be a burial mound.” Startled for a minute, I remembered that one of our elderly neighbors told me that back in the day, our yard was a giant sweet potato field. I started thinking about the lot’s previous owners and how long it had been cultivated. Hundreds of years? Thousands of years?
We continue the tradition by composting what we can and giving much love to our beautiful back yard. We plan on spending the next couple of weeks taming the yard back in shape. But we won’t mow over any of the beautiful spider lilies.