A few chickens would do the trick.

I read things that make me worry about the world. Most recently: Barbara Kingsolver's book of essays had me nail-biting over the diminishing populations of South American birds; today, a headline about garbage in the ocean; a book about the loss of biodiversity in our microbiomes; a radio snippet this week about bacteria-fighting fungi disappearing from the world.

I live in suburbia on a little lot that used to be farmland. In the development process, the topsoil was cleared away, and in its place foundations were dug, sidewalks were laid, all on top of the remaining clay. A small amount of top soil was re-deposited for sod, but underneath that inch is pale, unforgiving play-dough-like clay that supports only plant life with shallow root systems--strawberries, grass. Pop a tomato plant in the ground and it will uproot itself in a few weeks, its underground support system unable to keep pace with its above-ground growth.

I feel certain obligations to make reparations for my use of the earth's resources--electricity, water, cows, plastic. I feel I owe it to earthworms, oceans, my global neighbors. I'm not an expert, but it seems the most obvious solution is to self-sustain in some small way, to offset my resource consumption,  by cooperating with the powers of the sun, rain, heat and microbial life in my backyard--grow tomatoes, capture rain water in barrels for flowers, compost watermelon rinds, replenish the soil

But none of this is easy. Starting with the fact that I don't have enough topsoil (even with the compost) to grow a tomato plant for my family, and what soil that exists is nutrient-depleted and sick from chemical treatment in years' past. Also, when I try to grow anything, Japanese beetles show up and nibble it to death.

While I feel obligated to make reparations to the earth, I also feel a newly acquired and curious obligation to my own personal microbiome (what a phrase!) and the microbiomes of my family members. (Did you know we used to contain more multitudes than we do now? Our microbiome populations are dwindling because we have less contact with dirt and germs, meaning that our immune systems and guts aren't as hearty as they once were. Meaning more disease. Basically, everything's going to hell in a hand basket, if you talk to the bacteria experts.)

Some of you will help solve Earth Problems by installing solar panels in your homes, but that's more than I can invest in at the moment. And that's why I think a few chickens would do the trick. For these reasons:

1. Excrement. This, added to compost, will fertilize the soil.
2. Beetle population control.
3. Microbiome help. If I have to be out there taking care of chickens, touching their feathers, shoveling their waste, my system will be flooded with new, friendly bacteria, which will promote immune health and even spread to my family members (because my microbiome can actually rub off on theirs).

And, if I had chickens, I'd have to be out there every day feeding them and cleaning their little penned-in area, with the sun and rain and wind hitting my skin. Think: Vitamin D. And think: If I'm barefoot, I could count it as a session of earthing.

I only got so far with this mental exercise, however, before my husband and children pointed out the effort it might take to keep said chickens alive in January in Iowa (it's 43 below today). Then I started reading up on chicken houses, transitioning chicks to the outdoors, and I read a long and extensive application required to own backyard chickens in my city. It was too much.

So, I'm back to baby steps. I planted two raspberry plants at the end of last summer in a heap of new soil I carted in, and they seemed to be doing all right before fall turned cold. I started a garbage-pail compost bin, too, and so maybe I'll have some new, nutrient-dense dirt this spring for a tomato plant or two. 

I fully expect that time spent on backyard labors this summer will be synergistically healing--for me, for the soil, for the raspberries and tomato plants--because that is what happens when sun and rain and mud and earthworms and microbes and seeds come together. Healing. Life. Vitamin D. The vibrations of millions of blades of grass. 

A pastoral psalm in the Hebrew Bible (aka the Old Testament) envisions God as Shepherd. David, once a shepherd boy himself, wrote,

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures. 
He leads me beside still waters. 
He restores my soul.

People whose vocations take them primarily out of doors seem to know secrets I am lately learning. That the green of the pasture and the stillness of the water and the warmth of the grass under the feet are therapy for the mind and body. And David, outdoor-shepherd, experienced God, the outdoor Shepherd, saying, lie down, stand, sit, watch be--breathe in the musty green prairie grass. Inhale the microbial stew of a still pond. There's healing to be had here.

I've said to my husband several times that as soon as our neighborhood stops feeling at all like the country, I'll want to move. As soon as the cornfields surrounding us get scissored up into new housing developments and plots, as soon as I can't see the horizon in the morning at the south end of Broadmoor, I'll need to move on to a place with green pasture and still water (so to speak). 

And maybe this is why I brood over the planet. Why I consider chickens. Why I feel compelled to work with sun and rain and microbes, because if I can help heal the earth--heck, if I can keep a tomato plant alive and growing in my own backyard--then all is not lost, and there is still healing to be had.