How to classify this collection of interconnected essays by community-agriculture pioneer and poet Scott Chaskey? Science and nature? Memoir? Poetry? Rhapsodic exhortation?
"Soil and Spirit" is all of those things. Deeply and thoughtfully, it explores the "ancient theme" of how human beings fit into the great web of life, despite their tendency to trash the natural world at every turn. To his immense credit, Chaskey is never preachy and avoids lamentation, rather celebrating beauty and connections wherever he finds them.
And he finds them in so many places, most prominently in two beloved landscapes where he spent decades planting and watching and writing. The first is the windswept landscape of Cornwall, on the southwest coast of England, the second his farm on the South Fork of Long Island, N.Y.
In both places, he buries his hands in the dirt to plant seeds, many of them rare heirloom varieties presented to him by wise agrarians from around the world, and lifts his eyes and ears to the sky to observe and wonder. He writes in praise of plants of all kinds, in particular, of trees, reminding us that books and paper come from them.
Chaskey's ruminations and celebrations are reminiscent of, and often pay tribute to, poets and planters who have come before him, from Chinese poets of the ancient mountains-and-rivers tradition, to Indigenous American seed collectors, to Charles Darwin and Emily Dickinson, to modern writers such as Aldo Leopold, Peter Matthiessen, Basil Bunting, Merlin Sheldrake and Suzanne Simard. Like them, he emphasizes connections and kinship, noting, for instance, that recent studies of how plant life, especially trees, are linked by a vast network of mycelium model the benefits that humans could reap from closer connections with nature and with one another.
And he is ever hopeful, even in the shadow of the rampant habitat destruction that threatens his world. For instance, this phrasing: "A growing knowledge of how some tree species are able to survive for millennia, and to communicate with one another, is instructive and heartening, even as forests worldwide are under siege."
More than anything, he wants us to pay attention, to be humble, to fall still, to open our eyes and ears to our own home landscapes.
Though Chaskey is a fine writer, a composer of gemlike paragraphs and poems, his images and ideas often tumble breathlessly over one another, making it difficult to track the winding threads of his meditations. Perhaps that is intentional, in imitation of the roots and fungi he examines with such fascination as he plants?
The beautiful tangle he cultivates is sometimes hard to follow or summarize, but the journey through the winds and waves of his words is well worth the demand it makes on our attention. In the end, we stand breathless with him in his fields of wonders, grateful for the reminder that our own little lives are part of a great, ancient and enduring web.
Pamela Miller is a retired Star Tribune metro editor who lives in Old Frontenac, Minn. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Soil and Spirit: Cultivation and Kinship in the Web of Life
By: Scott Chaskey.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 243 pages, $26.
Event: 10 a.m. May 6, Mill City Farmers Market, Mpls.