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.
How easily I forget about this—celestial bodies, gravitational pull, orbital paths—when I am walking my small area of earth, newly washed in spring green. 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 first 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.
Bend 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 the dark grains that clung to backyard sourgrass. I bowed down and flicked my tongue out below the orange-barked ponderosa pine, drab needles scattered against chocolate brown earth and…oh, fresh and moist and gritty.
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!
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 un-decomposed shard of calcium-rich eggshell, the diamond in the rough. This is just what I can see.
In the same palmful lies roughly seven billion microscopic bacteria, seventy million actinomycetes, seven 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 plants…).
Who else loves the 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 beast. I have found these workhorses of the soil four feet down wriggling through impenetrable clay and have gone to great lengths to save their squirmy lives. Not only does the earthworm aerate the soil without disturbing growing roots, but it also turns garbage into gold in its intestinal factory.
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. 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 mustard flowers and marveling at the mysterious and persistent nature of life.
*previously published in The Durango Telegraph in a different form.