Natalie Cunningham: “Earth Works,” an essay

Nonfiction: Natalie Cunningham

Earth Works

The people of the Midwest were inveterate movers of the earth. Monks Mound towers above its landscape, with hundreds of smaller mounds tossed across the landscape like a child playing jacks on the table of the soil. They used seashells, stone hoes, baskets, a painstaking process of digging, loading, hauling, dumping, shaping. Someone estimates forty-three million baskets full of clay, each weighing fifty pounds, must have been used for this single mound. They say Monks Mound was built in multiple stages, layered with clay, sand, and stone to control drainage. The primary soil came from, on average, nearly a mile away. And colored soil—red, blue, white, black, orange gray—was used for some sections of the mound, hauled in from much farther away, possibly even floated in on the rivers. And the meaning of it all? Why try to control the landscape in this way? Is it a means of worship, a symbol of respect for the land or for a person, or simply a way to keep busy when the crops are not in need of work?


My mother sold perennials out of our front yard. She therefore developed her own recipe for dirt. Mostly peat moss, with a scoop of Osmocote and a few scoops of Perlite. The Osmocote was tiny round bubbles and a dull, puke yellow like mustard seeds on steroids. The Perlite was soft, light and white like snow. I could crush a grain of it into powder and scoop it up with a hushed crunch like low-key styrofoam. My mother had a big white bucket, a fifty-gallon plastic drum that had been chopped off to be two feet deep. She would sit on a low stool that was spray-painted goldenrod and add the most important ingredient: water. The peat would turn mushy instead of powdery, receptive to mixing instead of the fertilizers simply settling to the bottom. Even now, I instantly know the smell of peat moss, Osmocote, and Perlite, and their smell when wet, which is completely different. It has none of the mustiness of clay or the subtlety of a sandbox. It is pungent, fills a room with the smell of fresh cut wood and a waterfall.


In Utah, the earth is red. The color of the inside of a cherry tree or a cedar. The color of pale cayenne pepper. Copper and rust. Some of it holds enough iron to skew the arrow of your compass. The color of bright red hair. It is sandstone turned back to dust. It flies up in thin tornadoes that skid along as though they have some place to go and they are in a hurry to get there. A flash flood can rush through a canyon and scour the soil from the earth, carrying it onward. There are canyons that ten years ago were “sidewalks,” flat and easy. But powerful rains bore the soft sand into the San Juan River, leaving bare boulders, a rough, beat-up landscape. This is the eternal battle here, between water and sand, the two great forces that keep this land in agony, fighting with itself. As with so many forces of nature, the elements are at odds. They do not need human interference to struggle with one another, to re-shape the land and create a new environment. But their battle offers an opportunity to watch, to see how the earth repairs itself after a fight. For surely that is what we are in: a fight to the death with the earth herself.


Sometimes the soil does not behave as it should. I was seven when I first saw Yellowstone. The earth was boiling. It was as though the soil could no longer be strong enough or thick enough to hold the earth together, so the earth’s insides were seeping out. I suppose that must be what flowing lava is like. The earth’s skin is peeled back, a scab that festers, oozes. In a terrible movie, this is the place where radioactive insects or dinosaurs or some other terror would emerge. It holds the smell of decay, but when the earth erupts with the violence of a geyser, all is suddenly transformed into magnificence, a newness and novelty that brings us to our spiritual knees. Here we allow the earth to be furious and powerful, un-subdued, beyond human control and direct influence. These powerful places of the earth are our sacred ground. They are the temples we instinctively respect because they bring us to humility by their unrelenting strength. The earth as a whole is just as powerful, as volatile and demanding. It may not erupt with the same visible intensity, but it is just as close to endangering us.


Octagons, squares, lines, and circles proclaim geometric ideas with earth. These enclosures are massive, shaping the earth to create high berms like levies against the rest of the world. The shapes are turned to align with the sky, but their voice is the soil. These may house golf courses, dog parks, or wooded hilltops. In the eyes of the Hopewell and Adena in Ohio and beyond, moving earth may have been a kind of religion, a way to profess belief in something larger than the self. For here, the movement of soil wasn’t only concerned with the earth and its people, but the profession moved to the sky. Standing on a hill at the edge of a golf course, looking across a massive circle and then an even more massive octagon, a shaman could watch the moon rising at its farthest southern extent, seen only once in a generation. The movement of earth became a part of the movement of the heavens. Or perhaps it was not religion. Perhaps it was art, an expression of creativity on a grand scale. For humans will go to extraordinary lengths for the sake of art. And if art is capable of driving us to these lengths, can it also drive us to save ourselves?


The soil where I grew up should have been wonderful. We lived in the Mississippi River Valley, across the river from St. Louis, where Cahokia was once so successful. And the corn crops and soybeans are still fruitful. But we lived on a hillside above the reach of the floodwaters. We were safe in 1993 when cities nearby were threatened and drowned in the Great Flood. But the soil in this safety was pure clay. Hard. Orange. A shovel would cut into it with a grainy, slicing feel, like trying to scoop cheese. It would come out in a chunk that was thick, heavy, crumbly. The kind of mud that is slick when wet, not sandy. On top, there was a thin façade of loam. In that, ferns and hostas, grass and groundcovers, could flourish. But I pity the trees that try to reach deeper, hitting the wall of clay. After she grew tired of selling perennials, my mother took up wheel-thrown pottery, still determined to shape the earth. I wonder if it ever feels the same as digging in the soil in her back yard.


Ancient people in the Southwest were destined to live on the fringe of human survival. They depended on a thin layer of farmable soil, which existed only in some corners of the land, at specific elevations and exposures. Without fertilizers, and with the slowness of decay in the arid land, the soil would only be replenished with flooding or the passage of hundreds of years during which new soil blew in. This was a sparse survival. I wander in their old haunts, and I see where the earth has not been healed in 800 years. The soil stagnates. Even the prickly pear cactus shrivels. No trees, no grasses, no signs of health and fruitfulness dare to trespass into this desolation. These plots seem to be ancient farmland, completely stripped of natural nutrients. Archaeologists say that this is why they moved on to better places, why they left this and tried something else, because the soil no longer held what they needed. And now? Now Pueblo families are trapped, legally bound to one mesa, one spring and one plot, with nowhere fresh to turn.


There is no place where the creation of soil is as bizarre as in a cave. Rock is dripped into being, drawn out of the traces of minerals in the water. There is something profound where the earth has been hollowed out and transformed. They say these features are fragile, and I know this to be true. I have been in enough “dead” caves to recognize the damage that is easily dealt. But there is also something indomitable, tenacious, persevering in the creation of rock that takes place here. Certainly water can erode, but water also brings re-creation. It reminds of geological time scales, the long trends of existence, the cycles that the earth endures. Certainly it is no excuse to abuse the earth, but there is resiliency here that is encouraging, hopeful. That human beings have inhabited only a sliver of earth’s life, the crust on the edge of time and space. Certainly there may be a point of no return, as they say, when the earth will be beyond recovery. But as long as the water still moves, still washes the soil and pushes its way through the rock, we have not destroyed the earth’s beauty altogether.


They call it Fort Hill, sitting in the hill country of the Ohio River Valley. We hike along the wooded top. Between the trees, there are mounds of earth, drawn out in long, sinuous lines. They are two-thousand years old, more than eight thousand six hundred feet in length, enclosing thirty-five point three acres. “Even with backhoes, it would take years to move this much dirt,” a friend remarks as we make our way through the woods. We keep passing through the broad entryways that pierce the berm at intervals. We keep glimpsing the mounds through the trees, reminding us that someone called this earth their home. Someone altered it, claimed it, shaped it to their whim. The berms are now so buried in the woods that it is hard to imagine they could be human constructions, so much different from the earthworks that are grassy, carefully manicured. But this wooded hilltop has protected that which was built to be the protector, a sentinel over the land. We are a culture with little use for hilltops, little reason to climb out of the valley and into the sky.


My mother decided to try propagating soil. We spent a weekend digging through the front yard, overturning rocks and mining the soil for little, slithering machines. We filled tubs with the poor, clay soil from the yard. We threw in a few scraps and the dozens of earthworms. To keep the batch warm, we brought it to a corner of the dining room. The tubs were heavy, sealed loosely with interlocking flaps for a lid. Monday morning, there were a few earthworms sneaking away from the tubs, leaving thin trails of slime on the wood floors. We gathered them and returned them to their new home. On Tuesday morning, there was an outright exodus. Dozens of worms were scattered across the floor, some still slithering, others dry and dead. I remember struggling to pick my path from my bedroom to the kitchen, there were so many along the way and I dared not kill them intentionally. That afternoon, we released them back to the wild and began shopping for a better way to compost.


The soil has always held our homes together. In the Southwest, this is especially true; adobe is the material of choice, and coursed masonry is glued together with mud. Smoothed over with soil. Homes rise up from the earth itself, becoming shelter. There ceases to be a difference between the natural and the built environment. For centuries, people here sank rooms below the earth’s surface so they would be warm in the winter, cool in the summer. The soil stabilized the temperature—so simple and so wise. These building strategies are natural and efficient, using local resources to make life easier. Here, too, the soil was adapted for the creation of pottery. Earth was mined, gathered in its most raw form, molded into something useful. But it does not cease to be earth. It can be ground back down, returned to a soft state. There is nothing in this process that poisons the ground, that is unnatural or damaging (perhaps the consumption of wood for firing, the creation of ash). But the clay is pure. It is soil that we can hold in our hands, put to our lips, and drink from.


We visit El Malpais in New Mexico. It feels like we are on Fort Hill as I glimpse a mound of soil through the trees, ringing me in as though to protect me. Except this soil is not soft, not moved by the hands of man. It is coarse, boulders and cinders and chunks of frozen lava. In a way, the soil itself has melted and solidified. And surely it must be so, for in solid rock, trees have found enough space to sprout. They have struck roots down into what appears as bedrock. And that is what a plant must do to survive here, for lava is all that I can see for miles. The lava forms a strange crust, riddled with caves and tubes, some of which collapse to form shallow canyons. Lava canyons. The effect is eerie, markedly foreign. This is a side of the earth that we struggle to recognize, yet it is, in a strange way, a glorious part of this place. It is a place where the earth has been made new, turned inside-out.

Natalie Cunningham is an archaeoastronomer and archivist who works in Utah and Ohio. She trained as a nonfiction writer at the University of Arizona, and her work is featured in international handmade book exhibitions and a forthcoming chapbook Looking to the Sky: Three Essays.


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