Cumberland Times-News

November 19, 2011

An admiring ode to the wonders of dirt

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Let us all praise — dirt.Yes, that’s what I said, dirt.

The most common stuff in the world, right?

What we wash off ourselves, morning and night. Over and over again. What whole companies make huge profits getting rid of.

I want you to praise dirt?

You bet! And here’s why.

Our whole world is dirt. Without it, where would we be?

Pretty bad off, I think. If I have it right, between us and the fires inside this world we live on, there is nothing but — dirt. That’s for starters.

Dirt is all around us, all the time. It probably appears in more forms than any other substance in the world. Dust, soil, land, ground, rock minerals, earth, topsoil, subsoil, alluvium, loam, clay, loess, marl, sand, silt, sod, real estate, acres, property, territories, freeholds, countries, hemispheres — and, oh yes, the Earth.

And they’re all — dirt! Some of it pathetic, by human standards of valuable earth; some of it rich and productive and thus worth something in our limited human judgment. Besides that, it’s something we may share with some of the other creatures of the universe, certainly Mars and the moon, although their dirt is perhaps pretty useless by our standards. Still, it’s dirt.

And since our whole world is made of dirt, and probably a lot of other worlds too, we need to take a closer look at it.

Of course, some kinds of dirt are more valuable than others. Gold dust probably leads the pack in monetary worth,, but as far as sheer usefulness is concerned, it’s a dud at being dirt. Plant tomato seeds in gold dust and you don’t even get bugs.

Historically, dirt has always been valued for two things: from way back as a source of food, and in recent times as being a place to build such things as Walmarts on.

And historically, it’s been the things that come with the dirt that we value, the food, the gold, the minerals, the oil, the copper, the coal. Of course, they couldn’t exist without the help of the dirt, but we just throw it away, and so far, there has been enough dirt that we don’t miss it. That may change in the future but not in my lifetime, so I’m not going to worry about it.

Of course, one lucky thing about being human is that you can play at being Creator by making your own dirt. It’s called compost, I have instructions right here, if you ever run out of dirt: Chop garden clippings, layer with kitchen scraps, water until just damp, let it all “cook” (so to speak.) Turn the pile once a week for awhile, and then add to your garden. Sounds like a lot of work to me and I’m beyond work at this point, but I thought I would include it for my energetic reader.

I can even go one step beyond that by making edible soil, which I understand is in great demand at a restaurant in Copenhagen. It’s made of “a simple mixture of bread, mushrooms, onions, olives and nuts that when mixed together has “an earthy taste with a sweet note.” I have to give it credit— in the picture it truly looks like real dirt.

But, seriously, I can get a little dewey-eyed about dirt, because it has had a long history in human culture. It is no accident that one of the early figures of Greek mythology was the giant Antaeus, who drew strength from the ground. Of course, he was a great fighter (as were all those ancient Greek folks. It’s pretty obvious that men did most of the creating of those ancient stories, because they are always fighting, always — sorry, peaceful men.

Anyway, every time poor Antaeus got slammed down to earth he got up stronger than ever, which was pretty hard on enemies who didn’t know his secret. In case you’re interested, he did fine until he met Hercules, who found out his secret and held him up off the nurturing earth until he lost all his strength, poor guy. Somehow it doesn’t seem quite fair.

I have always marveled at the fact that, when you think about the basic nature of what God has to work with — just dirt to start with, then, you know, what comes of this simple dirt: that is, plants, trees, hills, valleys, muntains, deserts, etc. — hardly any one place in the world looks the same as another. Put me down in any natural scene from my past and, if my memory were better these days, I could probably identify it. So little raw material for God to build on, and such a rich and varied result.

And of course, we all end up back there in the earth one way or another, soorner or later. Or as Walt Whitman so memorably puts it, “ I bequeathe myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, /If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.