Life grows back. It always grows back. But how long does it take, and what do we find growing in the empty places?

 What brought this to mind was a patch of barren ground beneath a tree. I call it barren, but it isn’t really – grass and small leafy plants will grow here again. They’re growing there right now. Nor can the soil be called empty, for good dirt contains whole hosts of little fungi and microscopic crawlies and bacteria in the gaps between…between…whatever it is. I don’t know. Dead plant matter and minerals, yes, but what else? The organisms themselves, for without them, no decay. 

I have seen poor soil, such as runs out of your hands like so much sand, and soil that blows away when you dig it up; good soil is slightly sticky for being moist.  But I’m from Connecticut, see. We don’t have good soil, at least none where I’ve looked – the poor soils listed above are from my own backyard. What we have is dry, dusty dirt, rocks, clay, rocks, rocks, and more goddamn rocks. This is a soil that was quickly abandoned once people heard of better prospects west. Had my house no compost pile, I might never have seen and felt good, fertile earth.

Here, Iowa, is where the easterners came for good harvests – so is the soil I see before me of breadbasket quality? I don’t know, for I have no shovel. And I’m too lazy to dig with my fingers. But Suddenly I worry – is this soil exposed because of some upheaval, like a fallen tree or some digging? Or is it because it’s too poor to support much grass? Why the singular spot, then, instead of a ring around the tree, as if it were a maple? And look, a few grasses and small broad-leaf plants grow there anyway, past the rocks, the sticks, the roots, and the litter.

This is a basic function of life, to keep living – and plants do this admirably. They grow around any obstacle, or over it, or over everything in the area and then some, if you’ve ever seen a Kudzu plant. Doug Marlette once joked that the Kudzu could even grow over livestock and slow-moving children.

I have seen photos of a tree that grew up and around an abandoned motorcycle; I have seen a tree slowly enveloping a metal sign attached to it. John Muir wrote of trees that could grow on mountainsides, and no wonder – even a small crack is enough for a desperate root, much to the mountain’s chagrin. Life will fill whatever niche it can; for plants, this applies also to literal niches.

So I reassure myself that this soil will be covered in time. But with what? Will it be grass, or dandelions, or some low-growing dry thing – perhaps all of them. There’s a thriving plant in front of me, in the midst of bare ground – but I don’t notice any else of its kind, and it’s full of caterpillar holes.

The grass I’m sitting on is lush and soft; plants growing in poor soil rarely are, unless they contain all of the biome’s nutrients. Here I am thinking of the Amazon, in our time the Incredible Shrinking Amazon. On the edges, the soil left behind as farmers move on supports only dry savanna-stuff, for it never had much of anything useful in it. Kind of a letdown, to stroll through this magnificent jungle with ancient trees and monkeys and vicious ants and giant eagles, only to find a dry, open plain. But still, at least something is growing there. At least something is holding the soil and preventing a dustbowl or hardpan. Small consolation. It’s still dry and open and boring.

But even in this most awful of soils, something grows. And maybe, just maybe, something great will grow there again. The jungles carved out by the Maya came back when their kingdoms deflated; the trees of Cambodia are slowly overtaking Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Stone, as mentioned above, presents no challenge in either setting.

Unfortunately, it was complete abandonment that let the forests grow back, not careful use of land. Is that what it takes to restore things?

There is a brownfield site in my hometown. Where once was a gas station, now there’s pebbles and not-even-fit-for-Connecticut soil. And there are little blades of grass, here and there. Life grows back. It doesn’t always grow back pretty, but it grows back. What I hope for and ask of humanity is that we manage to survive long enough that we can see everything grow back pretty. Sometimes it only takes a few hundred years, in the case of New England; some things will take thousands of years, like the newly-flat mountains in West Virginia. Some things, like Iowa soil, only need a few years.

People plant trees and begin to restore wilderness knowing that the things they begin may not see fruition in a single lifetime. I have heard it said that this is the beginning of wisdom. It is love for place, and for posterity; It is action without thought for individual gain. Such is the story my grade school once showed us, an animated film called The Man who Planted Trees. The premise was simple: a man living in a war-torn mountain area saw the place turn desolate, and decided to re-plant the place. But he was doing this all by himself, his entire life, and it was a huge area – nonetheless he succeeded.

 I don’t know whether or not the story is true; I know that not every biome calls for trees, although more of them do than have them right now. Farmers in the Sahara are planting drought-resistant varieties in hopes that they’ll help more plants grow there.

It is this sort of devotion that keeps us from the fate of Angkor Wat and Chichen Itza. We need not flee a place to see it flourish again, if we think of life and time beyond our own short spans.

But this Iowa soil will see new growth soon enough.

Update: It's been a while since I wrote this. The patch in question has, in fact, increased. I don't know what to make of that. Tem42 says that the leaves of some trees discourage undergrowth, but this spot looks like it doesn't have much to do with the tree. 

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