SOIL Is Not a DIRTY Word

When you go out to work in the garden or the flowerbed, do you go out and dig in the dirt? When you fill up your flowerpots, are you filling them with dirt? When you head to the hardware store, do you pick up bags of dirt? When you think or talk about where the green things grow and the dead things go, is the word you use dirt?

If you answered yes, then I am afraid you have been using a very, very DIRTY word. Yes, you have been using perhaps the worst four-letter word in the English agricultural vocabulary. You have been dissing, dismissing, and dirtying the good, clean, productive resource otherwise known as SOIL.

Or at least some folks would say you have.

This may seem like a trivial question of semantics: Is not “dirt” and “soil” the same thing? You know, the stuff you get under your fingernails and on your pants, the stuff you have to wash off your veggies and your kids. Who cares…dirt, soil, it all amounts to the same brown stuff, right?

Well, perhaps. But a great many mindful agriculturalists, gardeners, and other landlubbers (i.e., land lovers) will take the greatest offense if someone uses the word “dirt” to refer to soil, that complex earthy material in which living things grow and thrive and feed.

Discovery Education’s fun and interesting website The Dirt on Soil offers this very useful distinction:

Dirt is what you find under your fingernails. Soil is what you find under your feet. Think of soil as a thin living skin that covers the land. It goes down into the ground just a short way. Even the most fertile topsoil is only a foot or so deep. Soil is more than rock particles. It includes all the living things and the materials they make or change.1

Believe it or not, a positive perspective on the soil is actually profoundly important. Much of modern society, including many in the business of agriculture, seem to see the soil as “dirt.” As a result, there is a systemic lack of respect for the soil that we depend upon for food and other resources, for living space and livelihood protection (think of the recent floods in the Midwest, for example), and for general biodiversity. Even worse, this lack of respect has developed into criminal disrespect, neglect, and abuse–from pesticides to monoculture farming to mountaintop-removal mining and beyond.

Yet the soil is absolutely amazing, a treasure trove of life and mystery and wonder, a thing worthy of reverence rather than repugnance. Not only do we depend upon the soil, but “Each shovel of soil holds more living things than all the human beings ever born.”2 Wow! It makes you want to go exploring!

It is crucial that we rediscover, that we cultivate a proper respect for the soil–and not only in how we think and talk about it. If we keep treating the soil as just “dirt,” be it in our own gardens or on the vast croplands across the planet, then we risk catastrophes of epic proportion in every aspect of our lives.

Just think of the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the tragic upheaval it caused. Yet today, when American agricultural practices are doing even more damage to the land, when the amount of topsoil lost worldwide may be even more than in that first infamous Dust Bowl, the greater trend in land use seems to be towards profit and progress and productivity, towards “get big or get out!” The guiding principle seems to be utility, not usufruct.

Luckily, though, there are forces fighting for the health of the soil. Organic farmers for decades have been treating the soil as soil, not dirt, by practicing tried-and-true methods of agriculture that actually preserve, even enrich, the natural biodiversity and productivity of the soil–be it through crop rotation, natural fertilization, non- or low-tillage land preparation, and wise land management (e.g., fencing livestock, contour planting, windbreaks), just to name a few.3

As the human population grows like kudzu and so places greater burdens on the soil for food, space, and every other resource we need simply to exist, we surely must do more to preserve that soil by cultivating a respectful understanding of the stuff we walk on, the stuff we dig in, the stuff we wash off our hands and clothes and kids’ faces. In a time when our health, our life, and our overall future is at stake, soil can no longer be a DIRTY word.

So go make a mud pie and get in a mud fight, go dig your hands down into the ground up to your elbows, and “soil” yourself with that lovely stuff that gives you life. After all, you will likely be lying under about six feet of it again very, very soon….

Image credit: Artaxerxes at Wikimedia Commons.
1. The Dirt on Soil: What’s Really Going on Under the Ground. 2008. Discovery Education-Discovery Communications, LLC. 11 July 2008 <http://school.discoveryeducation.com/schooladventures/soil/>.
2. Ibid.
3. The following article originally published in the 1979 Atlantic Monthly gives an excellent glimpse back to when organic farming was just starting to make news in America: Tucker, William. “The Next American Dust Bowl–and How to Avert It. The Atlantic Monthly. 2007. 11 July 2008 <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/197907/sustainable-agriculture>.

  1. Paul Kamps

    And now soil has its rightful place–a 5,000 sq. ft. hands-on, interactive exhibition at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

    Endorsed by The National Academies as, “Unquestionably the most important opportunity the field of soil science has ever had to educate the general public about soils,” “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” runs thru Jan. 3, 2010.

    For more information and to help share the secret of soil across the heartland, visit soils.org/smithsonian to find out about the national traveling tour of the exhibition. Also check out a new kids book on soil entitled, “Soil! Get the Inside Scoop” (grades 4-6), at soils.org

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