Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A September hike of the southeast mountain ranges of Iceland. (Photo: Greg Harris)

Across the southeast mountain ranges of Iceland looms an immense ice cap, Vatnajökull, that forms the heart of the largest national park in Europe. Beneath ice more than half a mile thick, seven subglacial volcanoes smolder. Slow-moving rivers of ice – outlet glaciers – spill from the heights, carving out the mountain walls.

This month, a group of us picked our way through the landscape these glaciers leave behind as global warming melts them: hilly moraines of crushed bare rock, and great washes of gravel pocked by city-block-sized chunks of dead ice. Spinning and melting over the course of years, these isolated remnants will grind their way still deeper, forming kettle ponds.

Like Walden Pond, or Fresh Pond. Or all those delightful swimming holes on Cape Cod.

Our rich green Massachusetts, with topsoils feeding an irrepressible shout of forests and orchards, would seem worlds away from sandy glacial outwashes where even mosses and lichens barely survive, and wind-swept birch trees lift their heads only a few inches into the Arctic air. It can take decades for an inch of soil to form.

The mosses and lichens that struggle to survive around Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap. (Photo: Greg Harris)

Yet this is the history of Massachusetts, too. The Laurentide Glacier stood 2,000 to 4,000 feet thick across the entire state, with its retreat 20,000 years ago leaving a landscape of sculpted hills and tidal marshes, with moraines we call Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, drumlins we call the Harbor Islands and erratic boulders we label with names like “Plymouth Rock.”

In Iceland you can trace, in just a few steps, hundreds of years of life’s struggle to establish itself on bare gravel. Even miles away from the glaciers, in fields verdant with grasses and wildflowers, reminders persist of the fragility of it all. A creek, cutting through, peels back sod only a few inches thick. Or Icelandic sheep, adorable fluffballs with diminutive horns, look at you from denuded hillsides, their mouths full of delicate moss (environmental writer Edward Abbey labeled them “hooved locusts”). The Icelandic Soil Conservation Service has been fighting for decades to help the island recover even a small percentage of the forests it has lost since human settlement.

In Massachusetts, we’re blessed with fertile (if rocky) fields, a longer and warmer growing season than anything Iceland experiences, and thousands of years of recovery from glaciation. We’re not at risk of desertification. And yet the stakes are high for us as tenders of the soil.

This was made clear to me on a tour of land that would not, at first glance, have anything in common with massive Vatnajökull: Hurley Street Neighborhood Farm, in East Cambridge.

Flowers and produce grow at Green Cambridge’s urban farms. (Photo: Greg Harris)

Even to call Hurley Street a farm, as the nonprofit group Green Cambridge does, seems a stretch at first. It’s a backyard, framed by a gate, a century-old grape trellis, and a faded wooden sign. Pass through the gate on a humid summer day, though, and you find yourself amid rows of squash and peppers and tomatoes and hops and carrots, beneath an enormous apple tree burdened by fruit. Paw-paw trees race for the sunlight, crowded by elderberry. Mosquitoes rise to greet you, and bees hum by a corner greenhouse.

The labor to grow this food and harvest it is volunteer, though Green Cambridge’s felicitously named Sam Greene coordinates. People from the community join in at will, and organizations such as the Broad Institute send groups. Produce may be taken by the volunteers themselves, or it gets donated to the food pantry at East End House, a Cambridge social service center that’s been helping immigrants and lower-income families for nearly 150 years.

Sam Greene is program coordinator for the farms at Green Cambridge. (Photo: Greg Harris)

Steven Nutter, the director of Green Cambridge, has an expansive vision for this small farm. It starts with community – with people working together to create healthy food in a green space of their own cultivation. “The real joy,” says Nutter, “is seeing people self-organize.”

It’s also proof of concept for other locales. There’s already a second farm, at Riverside Park, a third one in development on the grounds of Cambridge’s Rindge and Latin School and a fourth to be built near Jerry’s pond in North Cambridge. Alongside other urban farming groups such as Cambridge City Growers and the educational nonprofit CitySprouts, and with the enthusiastic support of the city’s Community Development and Public Health Departments, Green Cambridge is working to make urban agriculture a cornerstone of Cambridge’s identity. “The way some Texas places are ‘football towns’ that pump out NFL stars, I want Cambridge to be known as a town of cultivators, and for kids who grow up here to be at the forefront of the urban farming movement,” Nutter says.

At the very largest level, this is a vision about climate change, and the decisions that shape how we live as a society. “Dealing with climate change is going to be hard,” Nutter says. “We’ll need strangers to plan and work together over the long haul, in awareness of the limits we face. In farming, your yield – your survival – depends on completing the work of a season that starts in February and ends in October. People used to know how to organize around that and to form communities that helped each other. Those are lessons we need to relearn.” He points out that 20 percent of the land in Cambridge is sidewalks, roads, pavement of one sort or another. “We could raise all the food we need to support ourselves, and more, in that much space,” he says. “This is not to say we should. But that we take for granted the urban landscape we’ve built, and we forget there are other choices.”

Urbanization in our region is a force less mighty than ice sheets, but its legacy includes a landscape forbidding to the health of growing things. Impermeable asphalts and concretes. Ground contaminated with solvents and lead. After the glaciers retreat, life takes hold in narrow seams among the rocks, wherever sunlight and water reach. This is not so different from the work at Hurley Street Farm, where beneath East Cambridge’s ever-higher buildings a small space has been opened up and a thin scattering of soils from elsewhere have been laid down into raised beds. An invitation stands, for those of us who live here and have hope of a green world. An opportunity to learn to be tenders of the soil.

Check Green Cambridge’s calendar for farm hours when a coordinator can orient you.


Greg Harris is the founding editor of the literary magazine Pangyrus and the founder and co-director of Harvard LITfest. His essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Review, Jewish Fiction, Earth Island Journal and elsewhere.