sarma Conversations in Vermont oralsite
Steve Paxton
Keywords, Vermont, 2001, 2019

Gardening, 2001

Mad Brook Farm. Photo: Tom Engels, 2019.

Steve Paxton The word “guard” is in garden. One of the Anasazi sites has an incredible number of old tower bases, built on the rim of a small canyon and away from the main village, which was at the source of the water. There was a spring where they had the main village. This was the place where two watercourses in the desert met so there would be extra amount of water there. And they gardened down in the canyon and they had all these guardhouses, presumably to watch the gardens, that’s the first thought one has, when they weren’t in them. In the garden.

There is a sense of a space where you are doing something very special. It might need guarding. We have a fence around ours to keep the dogs from the parking lot from dashing madly right into the middle of it, as they always do. Somehow some animal always comes along at seeding time, just when the plants have just started, and goes crashing into the beds. I think the satisfaction that I find there is very similar to the satisfaction I found in dance, for a lot of the same reasons. A special place to investigate a natural phenomenon and design with it. All the ways you have to design a garden, like rotation in crops, you know how it works, what its principles are.

Of all the gardening elements, one of the things I produce a lot of is compost. And you can’t find out from the books what exactly compost does. Why they recommend putting it on gardens and lawns and everywhere. But, I mean, my garden is in the middle of a hay field. So there are no trees around. Not too far away there is a forest and in that forest is topsoil, being made by the leaves. So the trees are shedding their nutrients in their leaves, and they fall down by the roots, and then they leech, the water leeches the minerals and everything down to the roots again and it recycles. It’s a recycling system. In the garden, since you are working for just one kind of crop, you eliminate all the other more successful plants from the area, putting these whims that require your completion attention, watering and all that. You help them compete all summer by removing the natural plants, the weeds, each one of which is a chemical bactery of some sophistication producing concentrates of different kinds of minerals and molecules. When you return all of this material, plus the plants themselves, to the soil in the form of compost, what you are doing is working very hard to do what the forest does naturally. To…it’s an artificial topsoil. Not artificial in any sense except that it’s made through the intervention of a person. So I thought a lot about that since nobody will come out and say, “What is this soil conditioner?” It’s not a manure, it’s not a… So I can imagine that it has a lot of stuff in it that plants want because it comes from plants. But at the same time, and maybe in a form that is easy to get, but it’s not recommended that way. It isn’t like lime or some kind of chemical that you would add, or fertilizer that you would add. It’s not treated like a fertilizer quite. And I realize that the earth has to breathe first of all. That when there is a crust over the earth…like right now we do a lot of raking here, that when there is a crust of plant, you know, dead plant skeletons as the top layer, that what is happening underneath is an increase of temperature and humidity. And it becomes a good place for moles and other lovers of wetness and darkness to grow. And it forms a barrier to air moving in and out of the earth. The surface of the earth becomes impermeable and is covered by, you know a kind of covering of dead plant material. And it’s not at all like the forest where…because it’s the grasses, it’s a whole different kind of growth. In the forest the bits are all shaped and sized so that they make discrete… Well, you do get mats of leaves, I guess you do get mats of leaves, but they curl, they react, they are not so adamant as the dead grass that you are…we are raking up right now. It will stay like that and once it’s protected by the growing grass around it, which it limits the growth of. It means many fewer shoots come through. Then it’s kind of stuck there and becomes a mat that over the years inhibits the ability for grass to grow at all. So in a way, without the intervention of animals like grazing and pawing and manuring and all that, the grasses have a much harder time. They interact more than the forest does with animals in that way. Grasses require herds [laughing] to stay healthy.

The compost, when it goes back to the garden, is in a way a provider of atmosphere. It enlightens the soil so that air can move up and down easily with different air pressure changes. The very movement of that area’s cleansing, it’s literally an exhalation of decayed stuff, the gasses from decay, and it’s also a way to take in fresh oxygen and get oxygen down into the earth so that that process can continue. It’s in those chemical changes that the roots seem to find nutrients. So it seems as though compost makes roots work easier and makes it more profitable, without directly doing anything other than kind of being a little bit of lighter space in the soil.

When I started this it all related to dance, but now it no longer does and I don’t care. I got interested in just the compost and how it’s working. Anyway, so there’s the roots. They are out of sight. We don’t know how they work. There is the worms, down there already, living there. I am interested in that they have a good life. I’m interested in that the soil is right for them. And I think composting helps the worms and the worms leave an incredible amount of manure, just at the right level as they go under the surface. To be available to the plants. It’s a system, isn’t it? Describing a system. And how one intervention works, in a way replacing that top layer of soil, which we want to be so barren, which is so contrary to the way the earth normally dresses herself, which is with as many plants possible. You know, let them fight it out.

I could go back to dance. Shall I do that? It’s up to me, you know. In saying that I think there is something in dance that is a system as well and that the way you intervene in it’s a choice that you make. Whether you expand it or intensify it or just instigate it or try to do it via instruction, however you intervene to make a choreography happen is a choice that you make. The scores were my kind of choice, where I did not have to dictate or influence or even be present during the learning of a dance that I had instigated. But I had provided something, you know, something very much like compost, when I think of it, or maybe fertilizer, or maybe seed too. I provided a lot of material, but… I didn’t then directly and with my personality and my particular slant on things, intervene in a process that led to the performance. Period.