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Column: Playing in the dirt is good medicine

“Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow, do you understand my pain?” – Bob Dylan

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MARQUETTE — When I walk or drive down the dusty streets of these old iron ore towns it’s easy to view a dilapidated vacant building and see the shop or store there that no longer exists, except in old photographs, historical documents or the fading memories of people like me.

There are blocks and blocks of cracked and uplifted concrete sidewalks, crumbling walls, boards falling from siding, chimneys losing bricks, steps missing railings, torn roofing shingles and enough shattered window glass to make an opera singer satisfied.

It’s strange to think that folks die or move away and sometimes their homes just sit until they fall apart. The same thing is true for some of these businesses that have closed and are never reopened. The buildings might remain abandoned for years, slowly crumbling where they stand, eventually left to the carpenter ants, the mice and the crickets.

Change is the only constant.

Still, it’s stunning to think of all those very vivid and wonderful days when these places were operating just shaken like an Etch A Sketch – gone.

The summer days and the summer nights are gone. I know a place where there’s still something going on.

Not even cemeteries always remain the sacred resting places we often see them as in our minds. There are numerous examples in the world where the tree-covered landscapes of headstones, flowers and statuettes have been wiped clean to make room for new development projects.

I find all this shocking. It’s tough to think about for very long. American Indians know what I’m talking about – all too well.

Big wheel keep on turnin.’

I was thinking about one of those old businesses today, a long-since-gone greenhouse that stood prominently in a mostly residential part of our little town.

When I was in elementary school, our class walked the five or so blocks to the greenhouse on a field trip. I don’t recall exactly what grade this was, or how old I was, but I was young enough that this seemed like a big deal.

And, looking back, I think it was.

I remember single filing out of the brownstone schoolhouse, with the reddish metal roof and a big clock tower, down the steps and past those painted black iron bars that made a fence of sorts marking the boundary between the cement of the school property and that of the sidewalk.

We walked two blocks east and about three blocks north. I’m sure we looked like ducklings following their hen mother up the street.

Before too long we arrived.

Inside the greenhouse, there were beautiful flowers everywhere. The smell of the soil was tremendous. I recall the warmth of the greenhouse and friendly people operating the shop.

Most exciting to me was when we got to see the area where they were cultivating plants from seeds. That day, we each returned to the schoolhouse with a bit of potting soil held together in a bit of mesh “cloth” that had been tied at the top.

We were given seeds to plant ourselves. This is when I began to learn names like zinnias and marigolds. I soon began to be able to identify several of the garden-variety favorite flower types by the look of their seeds.

We took the start-up kits back to the school and then home to plant. When the seeds sprouted, we could plant the mesh bags. The mesh was to dissolve in the soil.

My mom prided herself on her gardening skills, producing flowers and vegetables every year. She would be at a friend’s house and see a plant she admired and would ask whether she could get a start of that. That’s the way a lot of things had their start in our yard gardens.

There were also more conventional offerings. Poppies, pansies and petunias were planted on both sides of the front walk, along with daffodils and crocuses and the grape hyacinth that I loved – like tiny purplish-blue bells all ringing in the wind at the same time.

There was a trellis up against the stone foundation of the house out back where sweet peas, more poppies and hollyhocks grew. There were tulips and peonies too, or as my Dad said dogs called them: “Pee on these.”

I remember learning about working hard in the garden for a kid, moving sod from the areas newly cut out for more planting space. I’d lift and turn, shaking the dirt out of the sod, revealing leaf worms and big white grubs with translucent brown heads.

Memorial Day weekend was long thought to be one of those times each year when a lot of activities, like gardening, would start in earnest. By then, most years, the snow would have finally left the yard in all shadow-prone places.

The soil would be warmed and softened by the sun. I remember digging the little rows between the planting beds, using an orange-colored potting spade, watering with the hose and waiting. Still more waiting.

There was weeding too, which I didn’t even mind. I remember we used to plant fish in the garden for fertilizer. There was a big metal watering can that I loved. I can still smell the dirt on my hands and ground, with grass, into the knees of my blue-jeaned pant legs.

Over several moves to here and there, big city and apartment living, backyard gardening sort of fell away for me.

Until now.

I feel like this is a good year to get back out there with one of those fancy rubberish garden pads they have now to kneel on and dig in the dirt.

Vegetables might be a tough trick to pull off with the many deer around the house here. We didn’t have that to worry about way back there in those backyard days living in town, when I was a kid.

It would be fun to plant some flowers between the rows of rocks in the front yard or along the back stairway. There are a couple of nice flower beds up alongside the foundation of the house. There, remnants remain from what the past owners had planted.

I still get quivery just shopping for seeds. There’s something about standing in front of a big end cap display of all those beautiful little packets of magic beans, looking at all the packaging pictures to see the glory these seeds can muster – whether that’s flowers or vegetables.

I would love to plant something that will come up every year and be beautiful over and over, and over again, even when I’m gone. Up in the woods, on the hill just up from my yard, someone planted some daffodils that come up conspicuously each springtime.

I have planted native seeds over a lot of the lawn that the past residents had put in. The summertime blooming of the orange and yellow hawkweed, black-eyed Susan, clovers and so much more is something I am hoping to see realized in greater fashion come this July or so.

With warmer weather on the winds, I think this will be a good weekend for me to get some dirt on my clothes and dig the old gardening claw out of the potting shed, put on some gardening gloves and turn over those flower beds.

I am already finding the peace and satisfaction in doing that merely by thinking and writing about it. Smelling the spring air, feeling the sun on my skin and hearing the skies filled with dozens of birds singing all at once, just being outside – what more could I ask for?

Maybe a cold glass of lemonade, a little gardening luck and some rain?

Joe Dirt was right.

Life’s a garden – dig it.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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