Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth

digging in the dirt

digging in the dirt

“Even into this century, when a country girl was going to be married in France, they fixed the amount of her dowry according to the weight of the manure produced on her father’s farm.”
This and other pungent observations are the stuff of “Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth” (Riverhead Books, 1996), by William Bryant Logan. As an affirmation of the French farmers’ assessment of a dowry’s worth, Floran Frank writes: “I am in the Rancho area of Burbank. I have horses here and use their manure continually in my garden. I use it fresh. It never burns plants or flowers, and it doesn’t smell. On either side of my front door there are two kumquat trees that are huge and full of fruit. Not even in Hawaii have there been such large kumquat trees.” Frank’s letter is an invitation to acquire a horse and a kumquat tree. You could certainly use the horse’s manure to fertilize the kumquat tree and, just maybe, the horse could be cajoled into eating kumquats.
Logan’s book was inspired by soil scientist Hans Jenny, who calculated that “there is more living matter beneath the (soil) surface than upon it.” Much of what is alive and active below ground is in the rodent family. In Los Angeles, all too many of us are familiar with that irrepressible, indomitable, incorrigible rodent representative – the gopher. The gopher gnaws continuously not because it enjoys gnawing, but because it must. Since the gopher’s front teeth grow without interruption, it gnaws constantly so as to keep its teeth reasonably straight; otherwise, its teeth would “grow round until the jaws were sutured shut.”
Logan concludes that “the only real specific against gophers is nature. To control the gopher, prosper his enemies. But it is just his enemies that have so much trouble surviving the suburbs. The whole tribe of snakes is marvelously adapted for gopher consumption. The favorite constrictor in our part of the world was known as the gopher snake. But while we could easily find the snake in the untouched regions of the coastal hills, there was never a single one in our garden.”
Logan wanted to find the best soil in America. Whenever his friends traveled somewhere, Logan made sure they took plastic sandwich bags for collecting soil samples. Ultimately, he had 37 samples of dirt from all over the United States. He set up trays of his different dirts, dropped a half dozen seeds of impatients on each sample, watered and waited.
“The prize soil was from Wyoming basin. … The soil was really a red dust, so light it would rise into the air if you blew upon it and it seemed to contain very little organic matter. Nevertheless, when we gave it steady water, we found it outperformed every other soil.”
In ancient Rome, “Virgil and Columella insisted that the farmer taste the soil; distill it through a wine strainer with water and drink the liquor. The best soils had neither salinity nor bitterness, but a sweet and open taste like the smell of fertile soil when it opens in the spring.”
Logan heard that there were certain people who could tell the quality of a soil by chewing on it. After searching far and wide, he finally came upon Bill Wolf, president of a company known as Necessary Organics. Bill could tell whether a soil was acid or alkaline “by the fizz of the soil in his mouth. A very acid soil would crackle like those sour candies that kids eat, and it had the sharp taste of a citrus drink. A neutral soil didn’t fizz and it had the odor and flavor of a soil’s humus. An alkaline soil tasted chalky and coated the tongue.”
The idea of digging in the dirt, if not actually chewing it, is back in vogue. As Logan describes it, “We are now entering a time when there is so little real work left, that people will pay a great deal to be allowed to do it. I think of all the archaeological digs, the cattle drives and tree plantings that people will pay for the privilege of participating in. What is prosperity anyway? Is it money in the bank or is it a fulfilling life?”

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