nhansen, December 05, 2008
Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth is no less unique then its title. I searched unsuccessfully for the book at several chain stores including Barnes n’ Noble and Borders. At each place, employees looked at me as if I was requesting How To Be a Serial Killer for Dummies. They looked at me sideways with a distraught look asking for reaffirmation: The ecstatic skin of the Earth? Yes, I answered, “Who said dirt can’t be ecstatic?”
Certainly not William Bryant Logan, the impassioned dirt enthusiast who crafted this 202 page gem that I received in the mail from Amazon.com earlier this fall. Logan is to dirt as Elvis is to rock-and-roll. In short, he’s the King. And that is why this book is so impressive. Logan is able to take a topic that seems extraordinarily inconsequential to the average citizen, and craft a history, analysis, and memoir of exactly what dirt means not only to him, but what it should mean to each and every one of us. Logan wants us to know that dirt is very important, and how we react with it will have a distinct impact not only on our own lives, but also on the lives of our children. In the chapter entitled simply, Dirt, Logan begins to explain why this entity, so often overlooked, is so important: “Turds no less than rocks and roses are repositories for the energy of the sun. Dirt is where those three meet and meld, to transform the surface of the world and the air that we breathe” (Logan 38).
Essentially, Logan is asking the reader to sit for a moment and ponder dirt, so that we can understand that “we owe it our lives and our energy, and the bodies we give back to it are not payment enough” (Logan 37). A quote like this seems over-dramatic, but after reading the book, I began to sympathize deeply with this need for dirt, and at a larger level the Earth, to be understood by everyone so that it can continue to be the amazing phenomenon that it is. Logan manages to evoke this feeling through a combination of dirt/Earth scientific analysis, anecdotes about how dirt and soil have affected different historical figure’s lives throughout the history of the world, and finally by sneaking many memoir stories in that illustrate how these larger systems affect an individual who is sensitive to the importance of dirt.
In an era of panic-inducing stress and commotion, Logan puts it upon the reader to stop for a moment and think about that entity (the Earth/the Dirt/The Ground) that one spends countless hours of life treading over and little time actually contemplating. I like to compare thinking about dirt to thinking about breathing. They are both so fundamentally central to human survival, yet one could go for years without ever really considering them.
One may ask how Logan was able to take a topic such as dirt and flesh it out into a concise, highly-informative and absorbing read. I believe it is a simple answer: like all effective authors, Logan is passionate about his subject, and through this passion comes an ability to weave a personal, imaginative, and funny story into a book that has the larger goal of educating and persuading people on the importance of dirt. Also, Logan has a very unique perspective on his topic. I doubt that any other person has looked at dirt in quite the same way as William Bryant Logan as evidenced by this quote in which Logan examines dirt’s role in burial rituals: “We live until death in a perpetual fever, 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When at last we are all done, we begin to cool…like a good piece of roasted meat” (Logan 55). He then goes on to describe exactly how a body is decomposed after it is buried six feet under. He examines dirt’s role in this down to the minutest detail, sparing nothing to the imagination. He examines everything in the book with this same sense of detached enthusiasm. Logan is able to do all of this, in large part, thanks to the format of the book.
The book is divided into eight sections: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, The Matrix, On Digging Holes, Earth and Stone, Clay Alive, In The Dark, Human Soil, and Visions of the Soil. Within each of these eight sections there are several essays on enlightening and off-the-wall topics as diverse as Stardust, John Adam’s Manure Piles, and the Soil Apocalypse of George Perkins Marsh. The nifty thing about the format of the book is that each section and even each essay stands alone. The reader could randomly open the book to page 133 which is the beginning of the chapter entitled: The Path of a Clay Crystal, and read about “the special property of clay,” (Logan 135) and how this ties in with a story of Logan getting dangerously lost in the Sierras. This essay stands alone, and after finishing it, the reader would have a much better understanding of clay then they previously had. I know that I did. Logan consistently uses this combination of amusing personal and biographical anecdotes in tandem with very heady scientific principles that he effectively dumbs-down so that dirt amateurs like me can understand the information clearly.
Despite its easy pick-up-anywhere-ability, I would recommend reading the book from start-to-finish because as the story progresses, the reader can see how skillfully Logan weaves his own tale into the history and education of dirt. By the end, the reader is left with both a portrait of a dirt-lover and the knowledge of what it takes to responsibly walk the Earth that has given us so much.
In my Introduction to Physical Geography class we are currently studying the biosphere and even more specifically, The Geography of Soils. Of course, if Logan had his way, the chapter in my textbook would be referred to as The Geography of Dirt because, “soil sometimes strikes [Logan’s] ear as sexless and ugly” (Logan 38). Anyways, we happen to be studying dirt right now, and it is fascinating to compare what we are learning in class with what I learned in the book. Basically, I’m learning more about dirt then I ever cared to, but there are far worse things in the world then being well-informed on soil properties, chemistry, and taxonomy.
I could talk for hours, or at least minutes on the basic tenets of soil science and how it compares to what I learned in Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, but instead I would like to take a real world example that we both talked about in class and I read about in Logan’s book: composting. To me, this is the most important thing I’ve learned while studying soil. After reading Dirt, the question may arise: what can I do to be one with the dirt? Well, the answer is easy, reduce your waste and create an excellent product by composting. It’s free and easy, and not nearly enough people do it.
In Logan’s chapter The Compost Man, the author travels to Orlando to be whizzed around central Florida by Clark Gregory, self-titled Compost Man. Gregory has travelled around the world studying and informing other people on the importance of composting. Logan says this of Gregory: “For twenty years now, he has wandered America, preaching the gospel of compost. He tells…anyone who will listen that all you need is four construction pallets or a roll of chicken wire to get your compost bin started” (Logan 46). And to me, that is the reason for reading books like this. I learned something that will not only bring a benefit to my own personal life, but also to the life of the Earth.
The lesson to be taken away from both this book and learning about the Earth in class is that if each person takes a little bit of responsibility on their shoulders, the world really will be a happier and healthier place. And even if in the future I may forget exactly what all the soil properties are, or what a pedon is (which I’m sure I will need to memorize for a test), I will always remember the importance of little things, like building a compost pile, or turning the lights off when I go to bed. This is why the next time someone questions the title of a book that refers to dirt as being the ecstatic skin of the Earth, I will simply hand them the book, and tell the person to call me if they need any help building their compost pile.