Farming and prose

Scott Chaskey will talk about his new book, “Soil and Spirit,” at the West Tisbury library.


Scott Chaskey’s new book, “Soil and Spirit: Cultivation and Kinship in the Web of Life,” is an ode to nature in many ways. It brims with personal essays and poems in which he intermingles recollections of key periods of his life in different natural settings and the related work he was doing with poetry — his and others — as well as a plethora of references to the work of scientists, philosophers, authors, artists, and more. The book explores the interconnectedness of all life forms and how they shape our world, and the way microbial life and the diversity of species provide lessons for building healthy human communities.

Chaskey reflects his title’s theme on the first page of his prologue, in which he addresses the parallel between us and the natural world: “We do know that we share with plants the same need and impulse to communicate, and recently we have been reawakened to our evolutionary friendship with other species.”

Topics are far-reaching, touching among many others on community farming, conservation, restoration, and repatriation through the numerous places he has lived and traveled. He writes, “My education most closely resembles an earthen fabric, woven together throughout decades of daily attention to soil structure … and as a curious traveler exposed to diverse landscapes. I have learned through literature and in friendship with land. My teachers: poets, pine, oak, beech, stone, silt loam, the sharp-shinned hawk, and the windhover.”

Each poetically titled chapter bursts with information and provocative thoughts. In “Inexhaustible Ways of Seeing,” he sets forth his concern with the unseen world: “I have been keenly aware of the macro life forms that populate the soil beneath us: earthworms, springtails, pill bugs, millipedes, mites, beetles, and nematodes, to name a few … Not surprisingly, we have focused on the macroscopic world — forests, plains, and steppes, riparian zones, wetlands, streams, and rivers — but there is a whole community beneath the soil some have likened to the dark matter that populates so much of our universe, the undefined substance … What we cannot see, the unseen that surrounds us, not only below but above and within us, predates us by over 3.6 billion years.”

In “Tongues in Trees, Books in Running Brooks,” we learn of his time building a homestead on ancestral Abenaki land — indigenous people of the northeastern woodlands of Canada and the U.S. — and Chaskey writes about how colonialism radically altered the landscape and ecology of the Northeast coast.

In “Season of Grain Rain,” he evocatively conveys his trips to China for an international conference of 900 people on community-supported agriculture convened by Urgenci, an international network for community-supported agriculture whose mission is to strengthen the position of small-scale farmers in local food chains, and to build alliances between those who grow food and those who consume it. He writes movingly about the end of the conference:

“Young farmers from all over the vast motherland each poured a sample of their local earth … into a long glass tube, as music swelled in the resonant wooden hall, 1,000 people in attendance. Full of soil, the tube resembled a timeline: multiple shades of red, brown, yellow, and gold soil symbolic of centuries of earth care … Farmers from five continents read from Urgenci’s common pledge — shared beliefs in the principles of agroecology, food sovereignty, biodiversity, and the solidarity economy. The room was alive with discourse and the arts. An athletic calligrapher moved at a qigong pace with grace across the stage, drawing characters onto a long banner. A troupe of singers celebrated spring, their voices miming the cuckoo’s call in flight over awakened fields.”

In “Cultura,” Chaskey gives us intimate insights into several remarkable projects in different parts of the world, including the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, which is one of the most mysterious estates in England, and Europe’s largest garden restoration project, where the diversity and abundance of the plant world are on full display, and the interdependence of our species and others are celebrated and cultivated through husbandry and art. We learn about the Eden Project: “Eden, as the name suggests, is a living landscape; each of the massive biomes contains more than 1,000 plant varieties carefully chosen and collected, a convincing argument that plants are our lifeblood, from maize to oranges and olives, coffee and rice. It is not solely the quantity of plants that is impressive, but the diversity of species that flourishes in what was once a waste pit … The Eden Project celebrates plants and the natural world, reconnects people with them, and works to regenerate damaged landscapes.”

And closer to home, Chaskey writes about a cultural archive of trees dedicated to environmental storytelling on the South Fork of Long Island, a 14-acre homestead and farmstead, giving us an abundance of information that relates the stories connected to its trees, such as Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree and Last Living Johnny Appleseed, among many others. The trees, he writes, radiate “with the energy of diverse plant origins, the changing tides of the near Atlantic, the glide of osprey and eagle returning to this habitat, the exuberance of artists working here under the storied canopy: being playful, provocative, risky, irreverent, and effective.”

There is an equally moving chapter about his visit to a pueblo of Santa Clara in New Mexico, where he joins a group of indigenous women who have developed a local seed bank to support traditional healing arts, improve maternal health, and install a microenterprise system to offer start-up loans, including projects aimed at mitigating climate change.

Throughout “Soil and Spirit,” Chaskey’s poetic voice conveys, again and again, that “stories are born when people come together in relationship, and stories connect us with other species that share our soils, our air, and our water.”

“Soil and Spirit: Cultivation and Kinship in the Web of Life.” by Scott Chaskey. Available at Edgartown Books. Scott Chaskey will give a talk at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury on Tuesday, Jan. 23, from 5:30 to 7 pm. He will also give a book talk on Wednesday, Jan. 24, from 4:30 to 5:30 pm at the West Tisbury library. For more information, email