Making sure topsoil remains fertile for future generations

Living is so dissimilar from life. Or maybe it’s life that is dissimilar to living. Living hasn’t changed much, but the way we live our lives sure has. It seems like a lot of life is disconnected from living.

Recently, I walked past a mosquito breeding site that I had discovered years ago when I was involved in mosquito control.

There were still mosquito larvae there, though probably the last batch of this year. 

The first falling leaves floated on the puddle. There were a couple of water skippers, but not as many as I remember seeing 20 years ago. There were some algae along the margins and some grasses growing right down into the water.

There were raccoon tracks on the muddy edge, and bird droppings were visible on the bank. I stuck a stick into the mud, and it went down several inches.

So in this spot I see a tiny microcosm of life, freshly born life, in a pool of gravity, death and decay.

This slow revolution of life, from living to dying, seems to be the fundamental work of the world played out most vividly, I think, in the fall.

From such circumstance, we are all born from it, die into it, and live by it.

This small puddle is an ever-changing form of artistry.

As the irrigation ditches and canals go dry in winter, it becomes barren and dry. When the water seeps in from below in the spring, life is regenerated.

The puddle supports generations of insects, birds and small rodents over the course of the summer.

Then, in fall, another layer of detritus settles to the bottom.

This puddle has been in more or less continuous existence since at least 1982 when I first discovered it.

To me, the puddle is an irresistible metaphor. Each layer of mud tells the story of another year, a different season, different lives and different deaths. I feel the puddle is passively doing what I need to be doing actively and thoughtfully.

I am preserving family and community memories so that a richer heritage can be born in some future generation. 

The puddle reminds me of the slow, patient building that takes place in nature.

While the seasonal changes, individual events and relationships between individual lives all have a scientific basis, the outcome is beyond scientific control.

The bottom detritus will eventually become an oasis of rich humus and topsoil.

Science cannot make topsoil. The best humans can do is preserve it. 

It seems that family and community culture grows slowly in the same organic way.

But this is not at all the way we live anymore. We no longer live local lives. And because we no longer stay in one place, we lose local knowledge and memories.

We replace local and family knowledge with television ads and stories made in New York and Los Angeles. Most education is about the world and nation, not local affairs and problems. 

What does it mean to be a “Insert-Your-Last-Name”? What does it mean to be from western Colorado? Have both meanings been lost?

Consider the value of a museum or a library. They can act as top soil for some future generation.

What can each of us do to contribute to our family’s culture, memories and identity?

I cannot change the outside forces that cause the puddle to dry up and then rehydrate annually.

Local is always at the mercy of universal change.

But, like the puddle, I can collect family stories, tell a local tale, explain a little about how the world works in our lives, contribute to my community culture and nurture my surroundings for a few seasons.

How else will my children know what it means to be a McCallister?

Has my life been lived so that I have contributed to the topsoil for future generations?

That’s all I can hope for in my little puddle of the world. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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