Dust and Mud - Photography by Dana Thomas

I recently picked up a compilation of essays entitled "Dirt, A Love Story" in the discount bin of my favorite bookstore.  A topic of great interest and greater importance, often overlooked and always taken for granted.  After reading the first three essays, I realized that I had strong feelings about dirt or more accurately, I care deeply about soil. To paraphrase an old agricultural adage, Dirt is what gets under your fingernails, soil grows crops. Putting the book down, I decided to record my own thoughts about soil without the benefit of the essayist's insight. Only after having my say, would I finish reading the book.

Granitic, clay, loam, loess, sand, silt, the list of names describing soil is long, extensive and to my mind, colorful.  Some names are descriptive, but most have achieved their ability to describe only by personal interaction with soil they represent. To know what clay is, you must walk across a sticky stretch of ground after a drenching rain, feeling your feet grow heavy as clay builds up on your boots. To understand loess it is necessary to travel through a vertical sided arroyo and study the multi-colored layers laid down by wind and exposed by rushing water. To appreciate loam, you must dig down with your hands feeling its richness or better yet hold it to your nose, smelling the fertility.

It is tempting to rely on science to describe soil. Parent material, particle size, percentage of organic matter or method of deposit are all valid and well understood ways to classify soil.  The benefit of these classifications are that they are universal, well understood by farmers, engineers and others who work with soil. Despite understanding these definitions and acknowledging their importance, I see soil emotionally, asking myself about the natural and human forces behind its formation and destruction, listening to the hidden stories that soil can tell.

Years ago in the midst of one of California's periodic droughts, I wrote about a spattering of rain hitting a dry dusty vacant lot in an industrial area. Large infrequent drops from tentative clouds, raising dust as they hit the neglected and abused soil. A sad soil, its condition brought about by compaction from tractors used to disc weeds and its future reduced to supporting the foundation of concrete tilt-up warehouses.  A soil, robbed of its ability to support life, devalued by our relentless drive toward production, efficiency and economies of scale.

Contrast this degraded soil with a deep rich ground, loose with organic matter and filled with nutrients.  A soil that you can dig your hand into several inches deep. Formed as wind or water ran out of energy and dropped sediment to form flat loess plains or alluvial fans. A strong soil able to support plants that in turn allow animals to thrive. The plants leaving their roots, leaves and stems to enrich the soil. Animals contributing to the fertile mix as they live, die and decay. Rain and sun serving as catalysts, driving the cycle upon which life depends. 

Soil can be beautiful.  Deep red soils in the south of France that for centuries have been processed into the dyes that color the plaster of medieval towns. Sand dunes formed into graceful curves accented by the warm glow of the setting sun. Designs created as silt is deposited along waterways, to be sculptured into intricate patterns by the ebb and flow of seasonal floods. The lack of soil can also create beauty.  In the red rock country of southern Utah, it is the lack of soil combined with the power of wind and water have created beautiful stone sculptures and slick rock plateaus, rippled by the brush of erosion. 

Harsh, arid landscapes also demonstrate the life-giving power of soil. Hidden in the rocks of Escalante or the arid expanses of the Mojave are pockets of soil trapped in ravines or rock outcroppings that collect water allowing life to spring from patches of sandy soil.  Plants cling to these mini oases putting their roots down, before finding bedrock and spreading outward in a continual search for hidden moisture, bringing life and color to desolate landscapes.

The soils that bring me the greatest joy are those supporting thriving orchards. Existing in a symbiotic relationship, the soil contributes to the health of the tree, while decaying leaves add to organic matter and relentless root growth loosens and aerates the soil.  The net impact is a stronger soil and healthier trees.  Underlying this mutually beneficial relationship is the commitment of growers who clear land, plant trees and take on the responsibility to nourish both the trees and the soil.  An economic and a philosophic commitment, requiring focus and persistence over decades.

On the other side of the soil equation, I am saddened when I see soil unnecessarily abused.  A hillside cleared of brush and grass, laid bare to the rain and wind.  Poorly constructed roads, feeding water into gullies, growing into arroyos that channel topsoil into creeks, rivers, lakes and finally the ocean.  Silt clogging stream beds, filling lakes and overwhelming fragile estuaries. I bristle when I see poorly conceived construction projects or earthwork undertaken, because there is an available, but unused backhoe or dozer. An afternoon spent on heavy equipment resulting in damage to soil, damage that may require a lifetime to repair.

Our relationship with soil is complex, extremely important and many times terribly misunderstood. We appreciate the beauty and food that soil provides us but avoid thinking or caring about the consequences of its mistreatment.  We continue down this path of benign neglect despite ample lessons from the past and present.  Our own dustbowl in the thirties and the catastrophic loss of soil currently occurring in China are striking examples, but our individual actions bring about incremental losses that contribute to the degradation of the soil reservoir.  Decisions we make on our own parcels of land, large or small, that can either harm or protect soil.

Having clarified my feelings about soil, I am ready to read the remaining essays in "Dirt".  I am looking forward to the authors insights and perspectives, hopeful that they share my soil-based joys and concerns. I will scratch my head as I read, trying to understand why a book on such an important topic was exiled to the discount bin.