Posted by: chrismaser | October 19, 2009


I am affected by the world as a whole while working in my garden, so I in turn affect the world as a whole. This is a given. But how I affect the world is my choice, which in gardening is mediated through the way in which I treat the soil.

Air pollution directly affects vegetation by altering the quality of the soil and water as well as the quality and quantity of the sunlight that drives the plant/soil processes. The chemicals we spew into the air also alter the climate and thus the environment in which the vegetation grows.


Soil, which is the main terrestrial vessel, receives, collects, and passes to the water all air-borne, human-caused pollutants. In addition, such pollutants as sewage, excess chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and so on, are added directly to the soil and through the soil to the water. At times, such pollutants make their way into the air as dust, and hence are redistributed more widely over the planet’s surface through strong winds, which carry aloft the topsoil following deforestation, desertification, and ecologically unsound practices of farming and gardening, which ultimately affect water.

In the western United States, for example, most of our usable water, which is a captive of gravity, comes from snows high on forested mountain slopes. When snow melts, the water percolates through the soil. It is purified when flowing through healthy soil; it is poisoned when flowing through soil stripped of Nature’s processes and polluted with artificial chemicals. The same is true for rain. Therefore, if humanity continues destroying the water catchments of the world, all nations will ultimately be equal in poverty.

Water, the great collector of human-caused pollutants, washes and scrubs the pollutants from the air by rain and snow; it leaches them from the soil, and it carries them in trickle, stream, and river to the point where we consume them in our drinking water. We protect ourselves from pathogens by adding chlorine to the already-polluted water to “purify” it before we drink any of it. This same water we put on our gardens, perhaps after adding commercial fertilizers and pesticides, which then leach into the soil and are eventually concentrated through stream and river into the ultimate vessel, the combined oceans of the world.

As I mentioned in Part 2, my pond is inhabited not only aquatic plants but also fish. Each time in summer that I add water to the pond from my garden hose, I must add additional chemicals to counteract the chlorine in the water lest it kills the fish.

So chemical pollutants come from the outer world into my garden riding the currents in an ocean of air as the medium of transport. They also come through technology as mundane as my garden hose and lumber treated with chemical preservatives. As they are deposited in my garden, I may, if I so choose, add to them through fertilizers and pesticides and then help them on their way with irrigation water from my garden hose as the medium of transportation. And on their journey to the Pacific Ocean, which takes them through the soil of my garden, they will alter its governance, often to the unseen detriment of that which I have created and hold dear.

My garden is thus like the narrow, central portion of an hourglass. It collects pollutants from as far away as the winter-storm winds blow and disperses them as far away as the waters flow. So I, as a gardener, affect the health of the world by how clean and healthy I keep the soil of my garden. The healthier the soil, the cleaner is the water leaving my garden, the cleaner and healthier by that measure is the soil through which the water passes outside of my garden, and the cleaner and healthier are the streams, rivers, estuaries, and ocean into which it flows. But first it is likely to enter a ditch.

Did you ever think about a ditch, say a humble roadside ditch, and wonder how the practice of ditching got started? Most people probably don’t even notice them, much less think about them. Nevertheless, there was actually a time in the world before ditches, a time when water itself decided where humanity would dwell. Then the ditch was invented as a way to purposefully channel water to a given place for a particular reason, and that changed everything.

The first ditch was likely an idle scratch in the surface of the ground made by some child playing in a puddle after a rain storm or perhaps along a stream in the land of far memory. That first child’s play—of leading water from one place to another—on that faraway afternoon, has continued through the millennia.

A ditch in the beginning is just a naked furrow in the skin of the Earth until Nature takes over, molding and sculpting the furrow with erosion, using wind and water and snow and ice as implements. Slowly the raw wound begins to round and crinkle as flowing water moves jousting grain and shifting pebble here and there. Little by little the ditch bottom loses all sign of human tool, and the once raw wound becomes a labyrinth of nooks and crannies, each with a pair of eyes silently watching the world.

As the ditch’s bottom transforms, Nature plants seeds of grasses and herbs along its banks. Each seed, be it as large as a giant lima bean or as small as a gnat’s eye, has locked within it the secret code of shape and color for leaf and flower, the height of stem and the depth of root, the season of bloom and the season of fruit. Each seed, millions of years in the making, is a crowning achievement in an unbroken chain of genetic experiments that began when life was born.

Now a dandelion seed drifts ditchward, suspended from its gossamer parachute. Where will it land? Will it germinate? If it germinates and grows, will a grasshopper or a mouse eat it, or will it mature and add its encoded link to the genetic chain? Of the thousands of seeds that fall on the fertile soil of the ditch’s banks, each is an open question.

Relatively few will survive to maturity. The rest will disappear from whence they came, back into the Eternal Mystery. So Nature creates a backdrop of swaying grasses and brightly colored flowers, of protecting shrubs and stately trees. On this stage unfolds her play enacted with the animals that live along the ditch, that burrow in its banks, and visit with the seasons.

Somewhere in time that first ditch became a conscious thought that translated into a conscious act. As the one ditch became the many ditches, humanity and plants and animals moved into areas hitherto uninhabitable by those who needed water in close proximity, and thus was expanded the human sense of place.

The first ditch irrevocably altered humanity’s sense of itself, its sense of society, and its ability to manipulate Nature. Although the ditch itself is a simple invention, it nonetheless is an integral but unrecognized and ignored part of the land’s arterial system of streams and rivers, and as such connects my garden to the Pacific Ocean and all the connected oceans of the world.

How, I wonder, can we learn to care for the health and ecological integrity of streams, rivers, and oceans until we learn to care for the health and ecological integrity of the ditches that feed them? The answer, of course, is that we cannot!

Consider, for example, that the chemicals I put in my garden are leached from the soil through which the water flows and ultimately end up in the oceans of the world. Oceans lose their water through evaporation, which concentrates the remaining chemicals because, having no outlets, there is no way to dilute them in a system that cannot be flushed.

Today, say Dutch scientists, human-caused pollution, such as polybrominate chemical compounds are being found in the bodies of minke and sperm whales that wash up dead on Dutch beaches. These whales feed at depths of 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, which, according to Jan Boon of the Netherlands Institute for Marine Research, shows just how far toxic pollution has spread into the ocean’s food chain—much further than previously thought.1

Like the ocean, the pond in my garden has no outlet, which causes the chemicals in the water to concentrate throughout the summer as I replace water lost to evaporation, much as in an ocean. This concentrating effect happens because the chemicals, including industrial chemicals, which were leached from the soil before the water entered the city’s water system, are inherent in the water I get through my garden hose.

Fortunately, in winter I once again balance the chemicals in the pond. I can do this because it rains so much where I live that my pond has some on-again, off-again overflows almost all winter long. Rainwater, which does not pass through the soil but enters directly into my pond, does not bring with it the same concentration of chemicals. Rainwater instead dilutes the chemicals in my pond, and the overflow acts like an outlet, which flushes the system—a luxury oceans don’t have.

Consequently, we must learn to care first and foremost for the health of humble things in our environment, such as the soil of our gardens through which water passes and the ditches that carry the water to the streams. Only then can we learn how to care for the mighty things in our environment, such as a river or an ocean.

Defile the ditch and we defile the stream, river, estuary, and ocean; protect the ditch and we protect the stream, river, estuary, and ocean, because it is ordained in the nature of things that water always knows where it is going—back to the sea. Whether it takes days or years makes no difference. Thus is Nature’s lesson taught, a lesson that begins when we are children in the community of our gardens and in the gardens of our community.

If, therefore, gardeners made it their sacred duty to clean and protect the soil of their garden, the world, through the humble ditch, would be cleaned in like measure. In the collective consciousness and choices of individual gardeners lies a great power to heal or to sicken the Earth that supports us.


Related Posts:

• The World Is In My Garden–My Garden As Metaphor

• The Gate Of Ecological Consciousness

• The Gate Of Social Consciousness

• The Environment Is Our Social Mirror

• The Gate Of Personal Consciousness

• To Be In Control, I Must Give Up Trying To Control

• The Gate Of Spiritual Consciousness

• Finding Peace In My Garden


  1. Steve Newman. Earthweek:  A Diary of the Planet. Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis, OR. September 6, 1998.

Text © by Chris Maser, 2009; Illustrations © by Leslie Edgington, 2009. All rights reserved.

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If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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