I really like dirt. I love to dig and play with dirt. That was true when I was a child and that's still true today. I was silently thrilled when my 2 year old nephew moved back to the United States 6 years ago, and asked me to dig in the dirt with him in my mother's yard. It felt like I was passing on the mantle. Why dirt? Well, dirt is elemental and it's necessary for life to continue. Dirt is also a secret storyteller. Just as it is crucial to anchoring the roots of life, it also anchors the past. Dirt is fun because it is messy and the sensory experience of playing in dirt feels like being a kid.
I was constantly getting in trouble for digging in our yard when I was a kid. At first, I wasn't sure why my parents were so upset about it. I never dug around my mother's flowers or my grandfather's vegetable garden. Why did it upset everyone so much when I would dig in the yard? Not many of my friends had their own backyards and I knew that digging in the backyard was probably safer than digging at the playground. After doing some more digging and getting in more trouble, I learned that my backyard was a magical place full of stories of the past and my parents were just really nervous about what I would uncover without parental supervision.
In my backyard, I was an explorer and that was empowering. What did I find? Well, our building was constructed over what used to be a Dutch farm. One of the earliest discoveries I made was Dutch glass and pottery. The Dutch didn't have a sanitation department so they buried their garbage. I learned this in 4th grade when I went on a trip to The Onderdonk House. I didn't know enough in those early dirt digging days to save that glass and pottery and I'm sure my mother would not have been down with me keeping a collection of broken glass. I remember sitting in The Onderdonk House feeling like I knew something that other people hadn't realized and that my backyard had stories to tell. I remember leaving The Onderdonk House with so many questions. Where was the farmhouse? How big was this farm? Who lived and worked on this farm? I spent days in the local library trying to learn more about the Dutch farmers who colonized Ridgewood, looking for clues about the people who had worked the dirt long before I played with it.
Another big find was hinted at when I was very young and fully revealed when I was much older. My father has shared with me that the no digging rule came about one afternoon when we first moved into the apartment with the backyard access. There was a cement path that split the yard into two sections. On the right side was my grandfather's vegetable garden and on the left was grass for me to play on. One day I was digging very close to that cement path. My father came over and noticed that I had uncovered a significant drop underneath that cement path and he didn't know what it was. He didn't want me to fall in or get hurt so the no digging rule was created. In late elementary school, that cement path was removed and underneath it was a brick-inlaid hole in the ground. I suspect it had something to do with the Dutch farm. I don't have any pictures of it because this was the early 90's and you only had film in the camera for special occasions. I don't know how deep it was because my parents wouldn't let me get close enough so I could look over the edge. Maybe it was a well? An outhouse? I don't know but there is something so special about knowing that it's there. My parents still live in the same apartment. They filled the hole with left over cement slabs and covered it with dirt. For awhile, there was grass planted over it and now my parents have an above ground pool over it. When I go over, I always find myself stopping at that spot and I silently acknowledge those people who created it. I wonder about their stories and the lives they lived and I always walk away in awe that dirt contains secrets of the past.
My biggest and most important backyard discovery happened when I was about 8 years old. Spring was just beginning. It was probably around March. The ground in the yard was still a little hard from the long, frozen winter but it had not snowed in weeks and it was the first time my cousin, Erin and I were able to play outside with just a light jacket. My sister was napping. I noticed that there seemed to be a new root underneath the bush in the back, right, corner of the yard. It was an oddly shaped root. My mother was the one who told me it was a root but I really didn’t believe her. It looked like a dinosaur egg to me. At that point, I really wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up. I had big dreams of discovering dinosaur bones in my backyard. I sincerely hoped that our yard would become the site of a big dinosaur find. This felt like my big chance. I really wanted to prove that it was a dinosaur egg.
When my mom went into the house, my cousin and I went to work. We got out our shovels and started digging. It was so difficult to dig out. The soil was still a little frozen. It was also sort of underground. A few times we had to throw our tools behind the bush and run to the other side of the yard when my mom came back outside. This slowed down our progress significantly. When we finally got the dinosaur egg loose enough to take out of the ground, we realized it was not a dinosaur egg at all.
I was able to get my hand underneath the egg and instead of finding a spherical shape underground, it was flat on the bottom.
I slowly lifted it up and screamed, “It’s a turtle!!! It’s a dead turtle!!!” I was scared but also really excited.
My cousin screamed too! My mom came running out of the house because we were screaming. With my mom, we examined the artifact. There was no body or any signs of decay. It was just a shell and some bones. The bottom part of the shell was broken in two parts. I knew that turtle shell was not there the previous fall. I spent all of my free time in the backyard. I knew that backyard better than anyone. I kept asking my mom, “How did this turtle get here? What kind of turtle is it? Why was it sort of underground?”
My mother was now just as curious as we were and she was willing to let go of the fact that I had broken the no-digging rule for the one-millionth time. She may not be aware but what she did next was facilitate an inquiry study, my first inquiry study. She walked with us to the pet store and we showed it to the owner. He told us that it looked like a pet turtle and that someone probably just put it in their backyard when they no longer wanted it as a pet. He suspected the turtle had been trying to dig into the soil to stay warm but was unsuccessful because the soil was frozen. He gave us a book so we could find out what kind of turtle it was and my mother let me keep the shell and bones. She put some sort of shellac on the bones and shell so I could save the shell and it would last. My cousin and I were able to use the pictures in the book to determine that it was a box turtle.
Now as a teacher, I take out that turtle shell every few years and have my students carry out an inquiry study around it. I tell them the story of how I found it but I don't tell them what kind of turtle it is. They record and draw observations of the artifacts. They gather information about turtles from videos and books. One year, they even decided to interview my father as an expert on me and my backyard. They also interviewed a professor to learn more about turtles. My students get just as excited about discovering it is a shell from a box turtle as I did all those years ago. It will always be exciting and empowering to uncover stories from the dirt.
I don't have a backyard right now but that doesn't mean I'm not exploring. I have a fire escape. I have 2 mourning doves that perch on my fire escape throughout most of the winter because my fire escape faces east and it's a warm spot with direct sunlight most of the day. I didn't know they were mourning doves until I investigated. I may not have a backyard but I live very close to The Shore Road Promenade and Shore Road Park. Much of Shore Road Park is actually ancient forest and I learned that by speaking to a local urban planner. The landfill used to build the promenade came from new construction all over New York City and I learned that by listening to The Bowery Boys Podcast. It may not be my backyard but I know the dirt still tells stories and I still feel empowered when I uncover those tales.
This is why I am so very excited that Exploring by The Seat of Your Pants and Reach The World are hosting #BackYardBio from September 1st to September 30th! Teachers and students are invited to document and identify the life in their own backyards, parks and neighborhoods. There are opportunities to participate in live virtual events or connect to other classrooms. This is a great opportunity for students to investigate the world and communicate their ideas. The pandemic has resulted in so many cancelled plans and our daily norms have completely changed. So many adults and children feel lost right now. This is a reminder that exploration and learning doesn't have to happen in exotic places. There are stories to be uncovered in our own backyards and neighborhoods. When I heard about this project, I couldn't help but think about all the time I spent as a child exploring in my own backyard. Our school year is delayed so I probably won't be able to participate in an official capacity but there is no reason we can't continue with this work after September 30th. This kind of project may be the one we need to empower all students whether they are participating in remote or hybrid instruction.
As we begin this new school year, let's shake the quarantine blues by playing in the dirt. Potentially, it could provide the anchor our roots so desperately need right now and it will always reveal a secret story. There is nothing more empowering for humans than learning about those stories through inquiry. As my nephew frequently exclaims, "Let's dig!"