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Essay

Black Soil–lovely dirt

By July 10, 2014 2 Comments
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Yesterday, my neighbor came by and dumped a scoop full of black dirt on what, someday, will be–we hope–our front lawn. What some people tell me, people I trust, is that you can never have enough black dirt. 

I’m no farmer, never have been, never will be; nor am I much of a gardener, to be truthful. But there’s something about that line I love:  “You can never have enough black dirt.” If it was funny, it could be a Rodney Dangerfield one-liner; but it’s not–it’s true. “You can never have enough black dirt.”

Anyway, we got it. A few days ago, we took a dying plant into a local greenhouse to get a new arrangement. The guy said he’d dig the old one out and put together some new combo for us–late season, 50% off too. He did.

But he said he put the old sad one into a spare pot he had sitting around because the old guy still had good roots. Just couldn’t toss it. I like that.

Anyway, he looked up at us as if what he’d pulled out of that old pot was straight dope (this is Iowa, remember, not  Colorado).  He looked straight at me, brows furrowed. “Where’d you get that dirt anyway?” he said. 

I was being grilled. This was an interrogation.  

I hunched my shoulders and looked at my wife. “I don’t know,” I told him, feigning innocence. “Out of a pile in our yard, I guess.”

Then, in all sincerity, deep almost religious respect, he looked me straight in the eye. “That’s good dirt,” he said, as if I’d better take out some additional insurance the minute we got back home. 

This really, really black and gorgeous stuff in a pile on our front yard is called “Primgahr.” Don’t believe me?–look it up. It’s origin is O’Brien County, Iowa, just east of us, and it’s just plain midnight, inky black. It’s greatly beloved, as you can well imagine, blessed with a rich and well-earned reputation for producing “perfection in all kinds of grain and vegetables,” one source claims.  Why am I not surprised?

This is what it looks like when it’s not in a pile on my front yard.

And here’s the real story, straight from the mouth of the USDA: 

The Primghar series consists of very deep, somewhat poorly drained, moderately permeable soils formed in loess on uplands and high stream benches. Slope ranges from 0 to 5 percent. Mean annual air temperature is about 47 degrees F, and mean annual precipitation is about 27 inches.

Precipitation will be higher this year, believe me. In fact, maybe the real blessing of Primgahr soil won’t be so ultra-apparent this growing season because some sources insist it has to be to be drained. It’s so black and dense that it retains water bountifully, which is great in drought or near-drought, but less a blessing when rain comes as it has this year. 

Josephine Donovan’s novel of life among the new, white residents of Sioux County, Iowa, circa 1870, Black Soil, draws its title–and it’s setting, by the way–from “Primgahr soil,” which means, of course, that this very pile of dirty blessedness in my front yard is even famous. 

Well, after a fashion. Be interesting to know who were the other two or three people to read that old 2310s story in the last decade. 

If I’d been reared on a farm, if I’d planted hope every spring and worried myself sick every harvest, I’m sure I’d have thought of this long ago. But I was a professor, which means, in some very Siouxland ways, a slow learner.  

When I look out my window right now over miles and miles of prairie and think of that rich dump of black soil in my front yard, I just can’t help myself, I guess. Garrison Keiler once said in Christian Century that the world would be a better place to live if everyday every last one of us would give thanks for something, anything.

This morning, I’m thankful for nothing less than lovely dirt.  


James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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