Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth

Logan, William Bryant. Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. 202p.

Reviewed by Amber Despain.

Since the 1990s the environment has increasingly been a source of public concern in the United States. There are organizations set up to protect just about every aspect of the natural world, be it the rainforest or the creatures that live in it. It should come as no surprise that a book like Dirt should be written during this era. The topic of dirt is as vast as the surface that it covers and just as varied. William Bryant Logan tackles the Herculean task of writing about it by arranging the book in a series of essays that act as snapshots, illustrating a certain aspect of dirt, be it chemical, biological, historical or geological in nature. The resulting illustration provides enough windows into a complex system to grasp the importance and function of the mineral world.

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William Bryant Logan is the writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City as well as an adjunct professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He writes the “Cuttings” column in The New York Times as well as contributing to various other publications. He is also an award-winning translator of Spanish poetry and drama. With such a long and varied list of occupations and achievements, Logan’s book can be anticipated to be well-researched, lyrical, and spiritual, and in these respects it certainly delivers. The introduction alone, containing a poetic description of the impromptu garden growing in the back of a disused pickup truck, is so engaging that it would be impossible not to want to continue reading until the final page.

Far from being merely a textbook about the scientific facts surrounding dirt, Logan’s book strives to make dirt a vivid and active part of the reader’s world. As the author puts it, “To try to understand the soil by taking a few trowelsful and submitting them to chemical tests is like trying to understand the human body by cutting off the finger, grinding it to paste, and performing the same tests. You may learn a lot about the chemistry of pastes, but about the intricate anatomical linkage of systems . . . and about the body’s functions as a whole . . . you will learn nothing at all” (177). Dirt, by its name alone, would seem to be a rather simple topic. It’s the stuff that is tracked in on the carpet or dulls the shine on a freshly-washed car. As it turns out, however, dirt is not just a collection of mineral particles. The fact is that there are approximately 90 elements in soil that can’t have been created here on Earth but in fact came from stellar parts unknown (7). It is the rot and the excrement that gets mixed in with it that transforms soil into dirt. The very word “dirt” comes from the Old Norse dritten which means “shit” because the biological debris is the catalyst which activates the soil. To put it another way “it takes the hot and the wet to awaken the cool order of the mineral world” (38). It is this blending of the mineral and the biological that makes dirt uniquely terrestrial.

Logan goes on to illustrate how very intimately dirt has always been in the lives of humanity. From farmers in the Roman empire to the polyculture “Dio-He-Ko” of the Iroquois tribe, John Adam’s journal entries written in praise of manure piles, and the modern composting enterprises of Clark Gregory, Logan recounts what people, past and present, have done both to ruin and renew the dirt from which humanity draws sustenance. He illustrates not only the historical side but also the superstitious and religious sides to dirt that are inextricably linked to humanity’s relationship to the land on which they live.

In a book that is built of free-standing vignettes there exists a definite danger of the pieces not fitting together harmoniously, and herein lies Dirt’s weakness. After reading several sections that flow into one another smoothly, I felt that it was mentally jarring to come upon a section that was so far removed from what I had been reading that I was left blinking in a moment of confusion before continuing the reading. “The Path of a Clay Crystal” (133) in particular seemed to belong to an entirely different book. The previous two sections deal with the formation and properties of clay, and suddenly here is a section that is apparently an account of a perilous climbing trip the author had taken. It isn’t until the last two paragraphs of the section that there is any connection at all to clay. Disconnected sections like this have the same effect as missing a step while descending a staircase. Happily, such missteps are few in an otherwise intriguing and delightful book.