From around November 'til April, a seasonal stream flows over the land. Heavy winter rains can swell it into a brown torrent a foot deep and fifty feet wide that can roll six inch diameter rocks along the streambed for a few hours. This rocky streambed is flanked by cutbanks one to two feet high with level terraces beyond. I have a hypothesis that the bottom of this drainage was once a more level, less rocky, oak tree-stabilized floodplain and that overgrazing led to the land’s eroding into this shape. I dream of shifting some geological balance that will allow life to stabilize the streambed so that the gully gradually fills in, raising the streambed until it becomes almost level with the flanking terraces. That would push much of the flow out onto the terraces where grasses and trees would so spread it out that it would flow slowly with little, if any, erosion.
So I’ve tried to increase the abundance of plants growing in the streambed. I’ve walked the streambed in late summer looking for seeds to help scatter. My favorite is bricklebush because it raises against the flood a short but resistant thicket of stems. Bricklebush seeds were found in far greater abundance than its flowers until I learned this plant’s heat of summer secret of flowering at night, its incredible perfume pulling insects through the dark. Milkweed also fills the streambed each summer but I could never find any flowers or seeds. I vaguely knew that milkweed had an unusual flower so I wondered if I just didn’t recognize the plant’s flowers and seeds. Summer after summer I would look, without success.
Each winter I cut willow stems and drove them into the streambed gravels. Each spring I would watch them leaf out and grow until late July when they would wither and die. The water table must be dropping below the roots of the young cuttings so one summer I installed a dripline to keep the willows watered. They grew until late July and then withered and died. Something more than water was going on that I did not understand.
One winter a larger than normal flood blasted away part of the streambed, exposing 2-3” thick rubbery hoses of roots. I had no idea what they were but I examined them, fascinated by how such massive roots had always lain just a few inches below the surface, forming a strong and stretchy web binding the sands and gravels into a greater, unified mass that could hold fast beneath the floods. More is going on during a flood than I can see. Later, when milkweed plants emerged from this root system, I bowed my head with a humble smile. I had been championing willows and bricklebush, shrubs with woody stems that held their ground in the winter floods. Scaredy-cat milkweed never showed its face during the flood season. Not until May did it emerge from the
sands to grow weak stems that withered into crackly stems by October and were washed away in the weak floods of early winter. I had judged them as of not much help, not knowing of their fire-hose roots stretched by each pounding flood but holding firm.
A horticulturist friend of ours had walked this land with us when we first moved here. He said that the soil of our area was deficient in phosphorous. Based on his advice, we had bought bags of bonemeal and worked it into our garden soils. He also mentioned that the rocky streambeds would be even more deficient but there was no practical way to work it into the streambed. Bonemeal dissolves very slowly. If I scattered it in the streambed during the rains, the floods would wash it away. If I put it in the streambed after the rainy season, the dry bonemeal would just lie there unchanged through the hot dry summer until next winter’s rain washed it away. There was just no practical way to fertilize the rocky streambed.
The shallow stream of April flows from deep pool to deep pool. These quiet pools had formed where the stream curves and the brown winter floods crashed against the outside bank of the turn. The flood whirls as it changes direction, drilling a pit into the streambed, excavating a void which, when filled with water, we see as a pool.
Each May the stream gradually dries up and, section by section, disappears until only the deep pools remain. “Dries up” is not quite accurate because the stream is still there. It has just receded beneath the surface. If I dig down where the stream “disappeared,” I come to water within a few inches. The water percolating through the gravels beneath the surface flows much more slowly than water flowing over the surface rocks but the stream is still “flowing.” In the same way, the quiet water in the pools is also still flowing. The pools are “windows” opening into the subsurface flow.
One spring I realized that these pools, these pits drilled into the streambed, opened an opportunity to insert phosphorous into this slow-moving flow of water. During the several weeks these tranquil pools remain, they can be a place where phosphorous keeps dissolving, day and night, into ground water that saturates the entire width and depth of the gravels beneath the streambed. These pools offer the opportunity to infuse a fertilizer that might touch every root within the streambed. None of the fertilizer would wash away to be lost.
So I filled a jar with bone meal and tossed a couple of handfuls into each of the remaining pools. Over the next few weeks, I could see some of this powder still lying at the bottom of the shrinking pools because bonemeal dissolves slowly. And then the ponds dried up and another long hot summer began. Except this summer, hundreds of milkweeds flowered! My willow cuttings survived! The change was so dramatic that I had to go search the books to find out what phosphorous actually does.
Just as phosphorous forms the skeleton of the body, it also forms the skeleton of the DNA molecule which carries the genetic code essential to reproduction. This code, residing in the nucleus of each cell, also directs the continuous assembling of the proteins forming within each cell, and hence our body. The code is not in the phosphorous but the phosphorous helps form the stable skeleton upon which the code can be built and kept amazingly stable over thousands of generations and recombinations. Without atoms of phosphorous, a plant can’t make DNA. The number of available phosphorous atoms determines how many cells a plant can make, how much pollen it can produce, how many seeds it can produce.
Furthermore, the molecular “battery” that cells use to energize all their functions and creations is ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Without ATP, life coasts to death—and every molecule of ATP requires three atoms of phosphorous in order to create three phosphates. The energy that drives life is stored in these phosphate bonds. The more phosphorous atoms that are available, the more energy life can store and use. We talk about solar energy as the energizing source of life but the transformation from solar to biological requires atoms of phosphorous. Without phosphorous, solar energy would only blast a barren surface.
I had grown up thinking that fertilizer was stuff that did something to a plant. But it is more fundamental than that. Fertilizer becomes the plant. Fertilizer is the elemental building blocks for making the molecules that do important work within a plant’s cells. Like the dark percolation of water past snaky roots beneath the streambed, these atoms of phosphorous are part of an invisible flowing, vibrating level of molecules weaving the world into forms and binding it together. The seemingly abstract world of chemical formulas and diagrams becomes mystically palpable as my eyes see milkweed plants flower where they have never flowered before.
I say “mystically palpable” because this story happens at a level (not touched by sight) where sight can not go. Our eyes feed directly into our brain. When we understand, we say “I see...” But this story of phosphorous we have to feel with a less used part of our understanding, a part that can go down into the darkness where water slowly pushes through the gaps between packed sand grains, flowing over the cold surfaces in response to forces invisible but tangible in the dark packed sands. Forces pushing water outward and downward so that every single surface beneath the streambed, every sand grain, every root hair is wetted by water within whose film passes an occasional atom of phosphorous. The rocks are oblivious to this passage but the roots pull them in and months later, we see thousands of milkweed fluffy seeds sail forth at summer’s end.
Mom and Dad had always been very matter of fact about what they wanted us to do when they died. So when our family gathered following my dad’s death, everything unfolded as scripted. We received his cremated ashes on a quiet summer day and drove up into the local mountains to scatter them in the special place they had chosen. We gazed out over the beautiful “hills of home,” his wife and two generations of their descendants. It all felt right in a spiritually sweet way. Then my brother, the eldest of us three children, handed the box to me.
Now, I don’t want to slide into black humor, but I suddenly found myself in a situation so culturally loaded with ignorance and taboo that the potential, in hindsight, for crude movie humor becomes staggeringly enormous. There is a huge, yawning gap between the culturally-widespread phrase of “spreading his ashes” and the specific moment of being given a cardboard box and, while the rest of the family is watching solemnly, doing—what exactly? The box was dense, heavy, not at all like wood ash. What’s inside? I had no idea. Suddenly, there I was, left holding the box, responsible for leading the family through this mystery.
With no idea whatsoever of what I “should” be doing, I opened the box and found a clear plastic bag sealed with a twisty. I undid the twisty, put it in my pocket, and opened the bag. It was filled with what looked like gritty beige sand heavy with a taboo against touching this stuff. What do I do—just dump it out on the ground? I mean, how many of us have been given guidance on how one scatters ashes? Instead we are given cardboard and plastic to protect us from being touched by this mystery of Dad slipping away.
Mom and Dad had always been honest with us about death. To not feel his death honestly felt unworthy. So I reached into the bag to take up a handful of ashes and the moment my fingers touched, I knew... This white sand had a dry, chalk-like texture so distinctive that I instantly knew I was touching bonemeal. The purest, whitest bonemeal I will ever handle. No greasiness like on a soup bone; all that had been burnt away in a flame so purifying that only the most elemental essence of bone remained to be crushed into a grit that was chemically too strongly bound (the stuff of skeletons!) to be crushed into powder. I lifted it aloft, marveling at the feel of my dad’s body sifting through
Dad’s DNA had pulled this phosphorous into his body to support him throughout his life. These bones had anchored his hard-working muscles. With these teeth, themselves now ground up, he had ground the fish he had caught, the pheasants he had shot, the roasts and potatoes and popcorn his earnings had bought. And now, as it sifted through my upraised hand, my dad became one with the magic of the milkweed. His molecules are seeds that will bring flowers into existence. He is a flower from whose seed pod emerges seeds drifting in the wind.
This feel of bonemeal slipping through my fingers felt so right. I passed the box to my brother who reached in and released another handful. The box was passed around and Dad slipped back into the great world, slipped past two generations of skin cells built from and still containing the bonemeal-anchored DNA code he has passed on. We are passing through this world. The world is passing through us. Taboos say “don’t touch” but we must touch it because it can’t be seen, this flow that joins beneath the surface.
Afterword: 9 PM, May 21, 2006 - I’ve just returned from an evening roaming in my hills. I took a sandwich bag of fertilizer and ceremonially scattered the molecules lightly as I contoured the upper perimeter slopes of my new watershed. Some places caught my eye as being able to do more so they received more. And now I will send this story out into the internet world. May it be bonemeal for your spirit.