Writer’s Journey

Writer Makes Dirt


Forgive me if I seem a bit obsessed by dirt.

In December, we moved into a newly built house on an acre of land situated three-quarters of a mile from the Pacific Ocean, along the north coast of Oregon. It’s a splendid setting, a coastal plain wedged between expansive forests of Douglas firs and Sitka spruce, trafficked by an abundance of waterfowl, shorebirds, deer, elk, and the neighborhood’s resident pheasants.

When spring arrived—early here as it did in Alaska—we set about trying to wrangle what’s essentially the top of a sand dune into something that resembles a yard and a set of gardens. Into the sand, we tilled in dozens and dozens of cubic yards of compost, hoping for a mix that approaches (in the garden beds, at least) a sandy loam, which would ensure tender, searching roots the balance of nutrients, drainage, and water they seek.

Making dirt is no small undertaking. Neither is planting 1800 square feet (fenced to exclude elk and deer) of fruit orchard, berries, and vegetables, not to mention foundation plantings around the house and along the driveway plus a huge kitchen garden on the beyond the patio. Once the planting is done, the weeding begins, and the wrangling with pests.

After full days of writing and editing—interrupted only by the dog, who insists on her daily jaunt along the beach or through the coastal forest—I spend evenings with my hands in the dirt. Fresh off the ocean, the breeze stirs scents of lavender, sage, and clove-spiked dianthus from my fledgling yard. Warblers trill and a mourning dove coos. The work never ends, and I somehow don’t want it to.

In The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan points out that in gardening, our interplay with nature is more complex than it seems. We evolve with our plants, which may shape us almost as much as we shape them. Wildness lurks at the periphery of our every effort, which is as it should be.

The entire enterprise of my evenings in the dirt feels to me a lot like the writing I do by day. The process is messy, the work intense. Challenges pop up one after the other, an endless loop of whack-a-mole (the mole being, quite literally, one of the problems I am destined to meet in my gardens).

Then there’s the harvest. The strawberries are ripening now, bright and tasty. I run the numbers in my head—what I paid for a flat of healthy plants, an annual yield extrapolated from my daily gleanings, the three- to five-year life span I can expect of the plants. The cost of fertilizer, tools, fence, dirt, time. In practical terms, I’d likely do better buying strawberries at the store or at our local Sunday Market.

But as every gardener—and every writer—knows, the actual reward is not to be measured against costs. We engage in these wild and wacky enterprises not because they make sense. We do it for the magic, that such a thing—a (nearly) perfect red strawberry, a story, a novel, a poem—rises up from the most ordinary elements, and we, uncertain and bumbling—get to play some part in the transformation.

Co-founder of 49 Writers, Deb Vanasse welcomes her Alaska friends to visit in her new home. She especially welcomes those who enjoy weeding. Her latest book is Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold.

“Sometimes the cause of civilization is best served by a hard stare into its opposite.” Michael Pollan