Wood Chips

By Nathaniel Carlsen

Illustration by Ben Bajema

Fall 2021 / Winter 2022 Issue

I spent the afternoon digging up carbon from the ground for my own personal gain. This irony strikes me as my sloppy gloves again dive into a mountain of wood chips. They pack densely into my fish tote. Satisfaction, the promise of crispy lettuce and plump squashes. Like any other mountain, this one has layers and facets. Some sections dry, others soaked. A vein of branch wood floating under trunk chunks. A chip mine full of earthworms and decompositional musk.

Between toteloads I research how the wood chips will affect my garden’s soil, diving into an ocean of permaculture forums. Nitrogen drain or nitrogen bank. Acidity, aeration, and fungal activity, every variable is considered. One poster’s apricot tree is thriving while another is struggling with low yields, each case is picked apart to discover how the soil chemistry functions. 

Carbon is a neutral entity, neither good nor evil.

My fellow wood chip miners place their plunder with parental care. Contrast this with the billions of metric tons of carbon mined and burned by Exxon, BP, and the rest of the carbon cabal. They dump their poison into our skies and our lungs with no regard for the individual and planetary impacts. Worse still, they refuse to stop. 

Sometimes I think the problem is one of scale. If we could go back to all tending our own little carbon cycle, we might treat it more kindly. But there is no going back, and maybe we were always going to end up here. It takes a cyclist approximately two weeks of continuous peddling to create the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas. We found a chemical superpower in the ground; small wonder we’re addicted.

Carbon is a neutral entity, neither good nor evil. It can be burned in a gas flare or tilled into a cucumber bed. The choice is wholly our own, not individually but collectively, as a species. Yes powerful individuals hold more of the blame, yes we are born into the mess our parents created, but when the history of this planet is written, we all will be responsible for what we have done. Someone else, looking down on our world, will note that it will take millions of years for the planet’s biodiversity to recover, that our biological essence was written in carbon ink and our ecocide bled a river of carbon blood. We should have stuck to gathering wood chips. 

Nathaniel Carlsen lives in Maine, where he enjoys hiking on the beach, biking in the woods, and watching the seasons roll by.