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Field & Street

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Healthy soil is a living thing. Stable soil profiles are structured in a way that supports the ecological communities that live in them. These communities grow over time, not unlike any living organism, and make the soil resistant to erosion.

Prairies in particular have incredibly thick layers of humus-rich topsoil, deposited over millennia. The tough prairie turf plants sent roots through the subsoils to the lime-rich parent rock that underlies our region. This kept the soil from becoming acidic over time and contributed to the long-term buildup of humus. Human activity in the past 200 years has disrupted and depleted these soils and now is smothering the earth in toxic asphalt sarcophagi.

Old Mrs. Gerke remembers our block 40 years ago, when a car parked on the street meant a visitor had come. The streets were normally clear of vehicles. The space was open. Now children in their early social explorations are confined to the narrow strips of sidewalk and parkway, taught early to stay away from the curb and never cross the street without an adult. One day I watched as a young girl toddled away from her mom, who was chatting with a friend on the sidewalk. The mother hollered indulgently, "Come on back," but instead the girl tottered toward the curb. Our ears picked up the sound of a car accelerating down the narrow street. I could almost feel the thump in that mother's heart. She sprinted, trumpeting like an elephant to save her child, who nonchalantly sat safely down on the curb. My neighbors and I have talked about trying out a system where, let's say, on Sundays from noon until six traffic and parking would not be allowed on our block. The street would revert to a public place, for picnics and sports and music and dance. A reprieve from the dictatorship of cars. Somewhere inside this dream is the hope that someday, somehow, these streets will be removed, by neglect or intent, and green life will recolonize this place.

At Waters Elementary School, at Wilson and Campbell, the school community mandated an end to its "asphalt jungle," the blacktop playground that's characteristic of city schools. Plans have been made to peel back the blacktop, resuscitate the soil, and rebuild a thick and healthy prairie humus using compost from piles that have been built under the outstretched arms of burr oaks.

The key to resuscitating soils is composting, which closes one small hoop in our otherwise madly flapping lives. It is a natural process that has been adapted by humans for centuries. Because our society is drowning in its indulgences and wastes, even the state has been moved to ban yard waste from garbage dumps. Some municipalities, like Evanston, began composting their autumn leaves 15 years ago, for economic as well as ecological reasons. The leaves transform, with occasional turning, into humus within two years. The humus is made available to local residents for their own use.

But according to Ken Dunn of the Resource Center, a local environmental advocacy group and Chicago's largest composter, Chicago seems unable to make the shift to close the loop. The center has an agreement with the city in which the Streets and Sanitation Department agreed to provide clean yard waste for the compost heaps. A city spokesperson told me that some of the 30,000 tons of yard waste it collects is processed by the center and the rest is delivered on contract to a processor outside the city. But a recent Resource Center press release charges that the materials the department provides are "often contaminated with hazardous materials...and unsafe for growing vegetables" in the community gardens the center organizes in its "Turn a Lot Around" program. It notes that "Streets and Sanitation has been unable, or unwilling...to empty its trucks of regular garbage before picking up yard waste." "We're starved for compost," Dunn says. "We've even had to use some of the Department of Environment money to buy compost from as far away as Michigan."

Each year the city produces 180,000 tons of grass clippings, leaves, and tree brush. Neighbors are getting better about leaving clippings and leaves on their lawns, where they decompose naturally, but the bulk of this "green" waste, according to Dunn, finds its way into Illinois landfills, out-of-state landfills, and into Chicago's west-side incinerator.

The city denies these charges and asserts that it will be redeemed when the blue bags arrive next year. In the blue-bag program, recyclable containers, paper, and yard wastes will all be compacted in the same garbage truck and miraculously separated at some magic facility by some magic process. I don't know anyone outside of City Hall who supports the blue bag, a filthy, unsafe mess every time someone adds a coffee tin of bacon grease, old paint, asbestos insulation, or roach killer to the trash.

Dunn wants Streets and San to move the yard wastes to neighborhood-based sites for composting, "where it will be used to recover open spaces and, hopefully, also to revitalize communities."

Life comes from the land, the water, and the sun. Yet we live on the assumption that the wealth of our nation springs from our industriousness. William Cronon in his 1991 ecological history of our city, Nature's Metropolis, observes that Chicago grew by "assembling shipments from fields, pastures, and forests into vast accumulations of wealth...convert[ing] them into that mysterious thing called capital, what Karl Marx defined as 'self-expanding value.'"

In the classical economics of Adam Smith values are created only through the activity of human labor. "But the labor theory of value cannot by itself explain the astonishing accumulation of capital that accompanied Chicago's growth," writes Cronon. "Human labor may have been critical to planting, harvesting and transporting the grain that passed through Chicago's elevators, or to logging, driving and milling the lumber in its yards, but...the fertility of the prairie soils and the abundance of the northern forests had far less to do with human labor than with the autonomous ecological processes that people exploited on behalf of the human realm--a realm less of production than consumption....The abundance that fueled Chicago's hinterland economy thus consisted largely of stored sunshine: this was the wealth of nature, and no human labor could create the value it contained."

In many ways our society acts like a spoiled rich kid with a credit card and a chip on his shoulder. We like to think we somehow earned and deserve the things we have: the large buildings downtown, the airliners and automobiles that shuttle us around the earth, the endless trinkets we buy and use up, and the malls that stock them. But there is a long line of creditors associated with this extravagance who have yet to be paid. The prairie humus that made the midwest a spectacular agricultural success was measured in feet, not inches, when the European settlers arrived.

There are alternatives to squandering nature's capital, though coming to terms with the debt our society owes nature is like facing the creditors in a bankruptcy reorganization. Cronon reminds us that, "Indians had contributed to ...[nature's] wealth by promoting the fires that encouraged the growth of prairie grasses and the reproduction of white pines, and also by living in such a way as to not diminish ecological accumulations of forest biomass or prairie soil."

John Jeavons, in How to Grow More Vegetables, his 1974 book on intensive organic-farming methods, pays homage to the common earthworm: "Earthworm castings are five times richer in nitrogen, two times richer in exchangeable calcium, seven times richer in available phosphorus and 11 times richer in available potassium than the soil they inhabit." Earthworms are depositors into the soil account.

Composting represents another payment into the depleted soil account. It can be as individual as prayer or as neighborly as a day at the ball park. The building of piles and the sharing of humus, the raising of vegetables and the sharing of food are good ways to begin to pay our sizable debt to nature. They are also investments in the community. We don't have to wait for Streets and San to get its act together. If earthworms can do it, so can we.

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