Ode to dirt

Old reliable Earth, our heavy, warm and lithic ball, has turned the corner, literally. Chugging along in its elliptical dance around the sun, the Earth has waltzed into Spring. On the very day of March 20, 2003, at the hour of 12:16 p.m. (Mountain Time), this ancient star we call The Sun will be hovering over our constructed band, the equator, marking the spring equinox or simply, the first day of spring. Equinox means “equal night” when indeed, day and night are equal lengths all over the world, though we in the northern hemisphere are welcoming in fertile summer, while those below the belt are saying goodbye.

How easily I forget about this – celestial bodies, gravitational pull, orbital paths – when I am walking my small area of earth, washed in spring colors. How connected it all really is: bitter dandelion, our planet’s tilt, the robin’s song. The reason I forget is this: More compelling than the Earth’s position is my position on the Earth, and as I walk around, eyes focused on the melting ground underfoot, I am jolted awake. Like the junkie’s first hit to the veins I am renewed by my first eyeful of dirt.

Yes, dirt. It is the bare soil that rouses hunger pangs for spring, glistening with snowmelt like beads of sweat on dark skin. Deep, dank, crawling with life, death, excrement, heat, predator and prey. This is where it all begins.

Beckoned down for a better look. The smell is freshly dug potatoes and cool rain, the sound is bubbling hisses and gurgles, the feel is grainy and sticky with smooth underbelly, and the taste, well it wasn’t so long ago that I was walking the woods in a rarefied state and suddenly had to know, “What does dirt taste like?” Somehow as an adult my days no longer included tentative licks on mudpies or lapping up dark grains that clung to the backyard sourgrass I chewed. It had been too long, and I couldn’t quite remember, and so on that day I bowed down and flicked my tongue out below the orange-barked ponderosa pine, drab needles scattered against chocolate brown earth and 85 oh, fresh and moist and gritty.

Leaving my jacket at home for the first time in months, I feel kinship with the soil, recently liberated from its thick, icy coat of winter, ready for the limitless possibilities of spring. Will it be a field of purple lupines that smell like freshly made corn tortillas? (Really, give a sniff this June). Plump, crimson tomatoes? Verdant, grassy meadows where elk cows feed and cavort, their newborn calves stashed in nearby willows?

What is this stuff of eroding mountains, shifting seas and decaying life? Daisy chains of molecules become nutrition sipped by growing roots and then returned to the soil upon death, soon available for young upstarts. This stuff is renewable! The names we’ve come up with: nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, boron, magnesium, zinc, do less to describe the dark stew than the notions of my eyes, fingers and tongue. Our cats roll in it – in all seasons – creating dirt beds even in neighbors’ yards for quick fixes. Refraining from this unabashed feline devotion, I surf through the soil with my hands, letting the different textures and colors fall through my fingers. In one handful appears slivers of wood, crumbly autumn leaf particles, sticky clay and the glorious loamy grains from the compost with an undecomposed shard of calcium-rich eggshell, the diamond in the rough. This is just what I can see.

In the same palmful lies roughly 7 billion microscopic bacteria, 70 million actinomycetes, 7 million fungi, not to mention a couple ants, maybe a centipede and a squirmy red wriggler if you’re lucky.

I cannot separate the soil from what it provides. Nothing less than life. That hamburger you just ate came directly from the soil, also the cotton shirt, the gas in your car (think about it, fossilized plants85). My friend Dave builds homes out of dirt, compressing clay soil, sand and straw into bricks we call adobe.

Who else loves dirt? The pocket gopher, dressed in the same color dirt it pushes – dark in the mountains, ashy pale in the San Luis Valley – spends its lonely life burrowing through the earth, moving four tons of soil to make its home. As an herbivore, all roots, tubers and underground stems that lie in its path are fair game. The mole, too, spends most of her half-blind life below ground, probing the dark, underground world with her furless snout: earthworms, crickets and centipedes beware.

I am partial to the earthworm, strange, slimy, segmented. I have found these workhorses 4 feet down, wriggling through impenetrable clay and have gone to great lengths to save their squirmy lives. A large shipment of sheetrock was arriving in the driveway, but first the wood planks that had been stored there for many months had to be removed. Under the protective boards were pale pink earthworms of all sizes, and as big-booted men began stacking sheetrock, I scurried between worm den and garden placing the little critters, three and four at a time, back in the mother soil.

Not only does the earthworm aerate the soil without disturbing roots, but it also turns garbage into gold in its intestinal factory. Worms eat any and all decaying plant matter, leaving behind rich castings, easily assimilated by growing plants. What would we do without the fungi who whittle away at the cellulose, starches and lignins, reducing the toughest of hardwoods to rich, friable soil? Actinomycetes, the bastard child of fungi and bacteria, give us such life-giving antibiotics as streptomycin, found naturally in the soil.

It is good to spend some time outside on this spring equinox, sifting soil through your fingers like a king with his pot of gold. Notice the new spring shoots of wild mustard pushing up from the snow-kissed surface of the earth.

Notice, too, the clump of elk hair braided into scattered pine needles – the perfect mix of nitrogen and carbon – that will decompose and become food for stinging nettle and big, blue columbine flowers. Ants will push the soil around, bringing the deeply embedded minerals to the surface. Deer, birds and foxes will die, leaving their remains to nourish the plants, and in turn their own relatives. Somewhere in the high country a gopher will churn up a mound of soil, spreading osha seeds onto a freshly tilled bed. And a human will walk through this wondrous place, munching candytuft flowers and marveling at the mysterious and persistent nature of life.

– Rachel Turiel







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