The Mysteries of Spring: Potholes and Potting Soil


It is pothole season where I live in America’s Pacific Northwest (everywhere else in America, as near as I can tell, is buried under snow). But here it’s a different story altogether: it’s warm, wet, and potholes are everywhere. It’s as if our roads have a bad case of adolescent acne.

This is a season, I am sure, that is much beloved by auto mechanics. They’ll be working overtime just replacing shocks or struts or whatever the heck holds the wheels to the body of our cars (not something about which I am expert).  You come limping into a repair shop and you get smiles so bright you need sunglasses. Potholes are their friends.

I don’t know about you, but I am fascinated by potholes.

(I know…it doesn’t take much to fascinate me…)

I have been looking into the science of potholes—I’ve heard, though I cannot confirm it, that there is an entire department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on this very phenomenon.  From what I can understand (which ain’t much, since I didn’t go to MIT), a pothole is caused by water lurking in the soil structure beneath a road. The water undermines the surface pavement. I’m thinking, you know, water is water and pavement is way stronger, but apparently not. Who knew?

The science notwithstanding, here are the questions that keep me up at night: First, why do potholes pop up, or rather down, in exactly the same places every season, year after year?  Ever noticed that?  No? Well, your car has: While you’re busy texting or doing something else illegal when you should be driving, your car lurches through one hole after another. If you weren’t on your iPhone or whatever, you’d be able to hear it cry out, poor thing.

Now, let’s be fair and give credit to the good folks in public works departments who do their best to fill these perennial holes. Can you imagine a more thankless job? Fill them one day…the holes are back two days later. Why? It’s a complete mystery. No one, including the researchers at MIT, really understands this phenomenon. It’s like wormholes in space or something; it’s beyond human comprehension.

Second, in many places in our nation, the roads and driveways are paved only with gravel. We are arguably (very) the most advanced economy in the world but our rural roads are little better than China’s. But never mind, because here, too, we have a conundrum (a big word for problem):  responsible landowners and county workers across the land repeatedly fill the holes which appear in gravel roads and lanes, at no small expense, season after season. But the holes reappear in precisely the same places within days. Which raises the deep existential question: where does the gravel that was used to fill the potholes actually go?!

I asked my pal Richard about this. He’s an internationally famous expert in environmental and land use planning…and he has a gravel driveway. His answer was typically scientific: “The new gravel gets sucked down straight to hell.”

I don’t know a great deal about gravel or, for that matter, hell (yet) but this seems to me a perfectly credible answer.

Third, let’s consider a much smaller but no less baffling version of this very same phenomenon: When Spring comes I begin the process of re-potting the root-bound perennials in the pots and planters on my deck.  And as I do, I am confounded by a question every bit as baffling as the matter of potholes: when I remove last year’s plants from their pots, so as to divide and replant them in fresh potting soil for the new season, I discover that last year’s potting soil has utterly vanished, replaced by solid root balls. Where did it go?  I mean, you know, dirt ain’t cheap anymore!

Ever the intrepid researcher, I interviewed the wise and deeply experienced owner of my local garden center. I figured she’d be the expert, right?

“I have no idea,” she said. “It’s just like the potholes in my parking lot.”

Isn’t it the first law of something or other that matter (like dirt) and energy (like filling potholes) can be neither created nor destroyed? Okay, that law was propounded by a French guy, Antoine Lavoisier, a pretty sissy name, if you ask me. He probably didn’t fill potholes or repot plants back in the day. But if he’s right, where’s everything go?!

If my pal Richard is right, and he nearly always is, or sounds like he is which is always good enough for me, I’m thinking Hell must have some pretty terrific gardens, what with all our potting soil heading down there every year.


Will North is an internationally published novelist. His latest book, the first in his Davies & West mystery series, set in Cornwall, England, is called “Harm None.” It is available from all the major online booksellers.


  1. Andrea Martin says:

    Am in the midst of “The Long Walk Home” and keep putting off daily chores as I have a need to see not only what’s going to happen next but to sink into your delightfully descriptive writing (including your pothole analogy – we, here in MA are dealing with more potholes than usual). I bought two more of your books so I have a feeling other books I have are going to have to wait. Thank you for sharing with us, your readers, a wonderful trip to daydream-land.

  2. Andrea Martin says:

    After dropping one chore after another and dragging the book with me when I went out, I finished it at 5 a.m. this morning. I will share with some friends or suggest they buy their own copies of “The Long Walk Home” as I do not wish to lose my copy; if you lived nearby, I would ask you to autograph it for me. I completely loved the book! Does such a man as Alec actually exist? Fiona, a dream come true for a man–yes, she and Alec were clearly made for each other. I even enjoyed learning about delivering baby sheep, the building of the pens, the shivery cold of the mountain climbs. I don’t remember reading of a single bad character in the story. Another author’s book (I worked for him for a number of years and we now keep in touch via Facebook. He owns his own publishing firm. The story I haven’t finished yet I have found very confusing and if the main character does not turn out to be a split personality, I would have to know why he was referred to, within the same paragraph, by his first name, the last and sometimes both together, all in just a few lines. I have read three other books of his and had similar feelings. My reading of a book of yours for the first time was like having one of those wonderful meals described leaving my mouth watering and my mind thirsting for more of your writing. Not meant to be gooey flattery for you but hopefully imparting to you how very much I enjoyed this book, and looking forward to the next one, “Water, Stone, Heart” or “Season’s End” – maybe I’ll flip a coin. In addition, a book I started that is set aside is Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones” and three books by two fledgling authors. I hope there are more of yours coming! Other favorite authors are Nicholas Sparks, Richard Paul Evans, Jan Karon, and more; better stop here. Been reading since I was 4 and never stopped. Thank you, thank you. Andrea

    • Hello again! So nice to hear from you. I will tell you a secret: everything written about Alec and his dead wife Gwynne–how they met, why they eventually divorced, how she died, and that he carried her ashes to the top of that mountain is true. Alec is me; Gwynne was my late wife Gwen. Everything else, I’m afraid, including Fioa, is pure fiction…but I DO love to cook!


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