UR Here: That Black Iowa Dirt


I create two holes in my lawn, two or three inches deep, six inches apart. It’s time to let the air in.


Six or eight inches away, I press my hand lawn aerator down into the moist ground again. Three-or-four-inch-long cores of mud, looking like grayish-brown cigars, pop out of the top of the tubes as the prongs go down again. It’s time to let the air in.

It’s a beautiful early spring Saturday, the day before Easter, in fact. The temperature will probably see 70 today, an early gift of the summer to come. The sunshine on my neck is warm, a feeling I’ve missed for many months. As Christians prepare to celebrate the breath of a resurrected spirit promising new life, and as Jews celebrate their people’s new breath of freedom, I work at my personal offices of spring, trying to breathe new air–and re-borning life–into the ground of my home.

By most standards, our back yard is pathetic. We never have and never will use the poisons that make lawns full and gorgeous (and toxic). The four greyhounds for whom the yard is their hunting ground (mostly aspirational), retirement racing track, and rest room have worn much of the grass to a laughable state. Although we’ve replaced much of the lawn with a prairie patch, three good-sized raised garden beds, and a corner planted with small trees, bushes, hostas and ferns, lawn does remain. I’m doing what I can to at least make it a little less pathetic.


A few more holes as I slowly, methodically make my way up and down the length of the yard. It’s time to let the air in.

In our neighbors’ adjoining back yard, three or four junior-high aged girls are bouncing on a trampoline as part of birthday party festivities. The family got the trampoline last year. Not long ago, the last of the snow melted off, and they cleared off the dust and detritus of fall and winter. The girls chant camp rhymes and sing teeny-bopper songs along with the blaring CD player as they bounce. The sound of refreshed outdoor fun wafts through the air, infusing the neighborhood with the breath of the young and exuberant.


I’m heading back toward the house now, and in 10 minutes or so I’ll turn around and head back the other direction. My yard is starting to resemble a green and brown giant waffle. But it’s time to let the air in.


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A lawn service company would come and do this for me in 10 or 15 minutes flat with a motorized aerator. It would also blow petroleum-soaked pollutants into the air and make an ungodly noise. I prefer to use my simple hand device, a 10-dollar green metal tube with two prongs to make two holes at a time–it extends the force of my bodily effort rather than replacing it with gas and gears. It takes a little sweat and a fair amount of time. But a yard is part of home, and the manual offices of spring present their own joy and intimacy as I slowly meander back and forth across literally every square inch of the little plot of ground behind our house.


I need to look up at my mark along the fence at the back of the yard or along the house every two or three punches. Otherwise my methodicalness becomes meandering. That’s not such a big deal–the pattern isn’t that important. But I appreciate the sense of order, and I want to give all parts of this well-worn ground the same chance to let the air in.

The magnolia tree is pregnant with buds. The fuzzy light green knobs at the ends of the branches almost seem to be trembling in their desire to burst open. Hints of white and maroon peek through the tops. The petals will emerge and spread and sing their beauty soon as the buds let more and more of the warming air in.


What I’m doing warms me physically, but it also warms me emotionally. It is an act of care, so important to home. At the same time, it reminds me of how our modern life is so distant from the normal processes of nature. For plants to grow, the air needs to be let into the ground, the soil needs to breathe and drink in oxygen to nourish the city of roots that lies beneath the soil.

On the prairie, the buffalo and prairie dogs performed these tasks as part of daily life. The buffalo’s hooves tilled the surface as they ran, and the prairie dogs dug their systems of underground tunnels—all helping to let the air into the rich humus that was home and life to the bluestem, the blazing star, the prairie orchid. My lawn is the furthest thing from the native prairie grasses, and my deliberate, mechanical hole-punching is light-years away from the naturalness of buffalo roaming and prairie dog housing starts. Still, I also feel a connection with those magnificent creatures, large and small, and the spectacular landscape long gone. That inspires my labors.


It’s spring. It’s time to let the air in.

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