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My Empire of Dirt


1 Four tons of the good earth delivered to the driveway. 2 The spiderhole, five and a half feet deep and counting. 3 Building the two-story rabbit hutch. 4 The Farm nears its harvest. 5 A breeding pair of twenty-pound Flemish Giant rabbits.  

You ever dig through clay?

It started as a fun weekend family project. The kids—daughter Heath, nearly 5, and son Jake, 3—pitched in, mopped Dad’s brow, brought him cold beers, ran around like it was recess. We got down through two and a half feet, exchanged high fives all around, and called it a day. Dad, wheezing as if in the early throes of a heart attack, used what strength he had left to shuffle to the fridge, pull out a bottle of white wine, and pour himself three huge glasses in quick succession.

The next day, standing in the same hole, now five feet deep and not much wider than a trash can, I asked Carlos, the Salvadoran foreman of the local landscaping company, if there was any hope of finding sand beyond the clay. “In my country,” he said, “sand always follows clay. I’m sure it is true here also.” I flashed to the 200-foot-high clay cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard, smiled weakly, and continued digging.

The hole, which I thought might consume the better part of one morning, killed the entire weekend. My wife, Lisa, who did not have intensive manual labor on her list of weekend plans, stopped checking on me, and eventually the kids grew bored and disappeared with her somewhere. I kept digging. At seven and a half feet, I hit sand, tossed out the posthole digger I had been using, and sat cross-legged at the bottom of my spider hole, victorious.

When I scrambled out, our neighbor Jane Feder called to me. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said from the other side of the fence, “but what are you doing back here?” When I answered that I was building a farm I planned to live off for a month, she said, “I knew it. I told Al”—her husband—“that you were gonna build a farm.” Jane was ecstatic, not at all put off by the growing mountain of refuse or the presence of earthmovers in the driveway. Not even my plans for putting stinky farm animals within mere feet of her kitchen window fazed her. When I later installed the squirrel traps to protect my produce, she was thrilled to see them working properly. Occasionally, she’d even bring friends and neighbors to the back of her house to proudly show off her neighbor’s farm.

Lisa had been worried the neighbors might think I was Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters—hah! They were my biggest supporters.

The night after the soil delivery in April, it was threatening rain, and I slept out on my back porch to see if my drainage system would perform. As it poured, I went out into the backyard in my underwear and bare feet and felt around the now-buried spider hole, testing whether it would cave in. Miraculously, it did not. Score one for Manny the Self-Taught Engineer.

While prepping the backyard for its new, central role in my life, I commenced planting in my basement. To have any credibility as a locavore, I thought, I had to grow all the plants from scratch. I bought dozens of seed varieties, everything from acorn squash to green-zebra tomatoes, embedded them in little premade mounds of peat, and put them under full-spectrum light bulbs mounted on the ceiling. The plan was to move them outdoors when the weather got warm. Within days, I had growth. I felt exactly like Jake had when his dry red kidney bean had exploded as a seedling at play school—score one for Manny the Born Naturalist.

Over the next couple of weeks, my plants literally grew like weeds. The whole enterprise started to seem easy—too easy. I gave a tour of my basement hothouse to my cousin Gabe, who knows from grow lights. “Your bulbs are in the wrong place, Cuz,” he said apologetically, as though delivering the news of a terminal diagnosis. “These seedlings are too spidery to make it outdoors.”

“Balls,” I replied. “They’ll do fine. They’re standing stock-straight down here, aren’t they?”

“There’s no wind down here, is there?”

Well, there’s no wind in my backyard either, I didn’t say, as I began to absorb another lesson in my own ignorance.

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