IN AUTUMN, when the wide lap of the land is littered with overripe pippin apples and bone-dry cornstalks rattle in the churlish wind, my mind drops down to bedrock and the significant life of soil. There is no better time to cultivate the ground than in the equinoctial seasons, when light and dark dance cheek to cheek and September rain softens the ground. “You open the earth to starlight,” my garden teacher Alan Chadwick often reminded us when he spoke about cultivating the garden, “and induce a capacity for breath in the soil.”

The word soil has deep etymological roots. It derives from the Latin solium, which means “seat” or “throne” and also solum, meaning “ground” or “base.” Dig further and you find the Indo-European verbal root sed, which means “to sit, settle down on the ground,” a fine autumnal practice.

Every kind of soil is composed of weathered mineral bedrock enlivened by both air and water, with a mischievous pinch of organic matter stirred into the brew as primordial yeast. Made of life and death in equal measure, soil is a bridge between worlds, a mystery, a paradox, and a dynamic anchorage for the mind. For while we settle down on bedrock as the solid matrix that grounds and nourishes this fleeting saha world, the very bedrock we trust for stability is alive with change.

My first true encounter with bedrock was at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center monastery tucked deep in the folds of the Ventana Wilderness of central California, where I began to practice meditation and gardening in 1972. Less than two million years old, the bedrock soil of Tassajara is neither tame nor hospitable. A chaos of vertical ridges and steep canyons crimped together in tight accordion folds, the mountains of Tassajara plunge into the Pacific Ocean, where fifty miles offshore they drop twelve thousand feet down into one of the deepest submarine canyons on earth.

 

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