The Tilth of the Earth

Tilth of the Skin

Dirt.  Black, soft, moist, cool clumps of sensuous-feeling prairie dirt tumbled through my memory like tumbleweeds bouncing across an open field.

Jamie Dedes wrote about Dirt and conjured memories of pawing hands, wiggly fingers and big noses.  Visions of prairie farmers grabbing fistfuls of healthy humus, fingering it thoroughly, smelling it, working it through rubbed palms, and even tasting it, came back to me with the clarity of a close-up video.

Why did they do this routine?  As a child, I had watched them, riveted and serious, working handfuls of soil as if preparing for surgery.  The world stopped.  Their full attention was on the response of the soil to its handling.  What were those farmers doing?

Nagged by ignorance, I decided to visit an octagenarian who farmed most of her adult life in Manitoba.  Rose is the 88 year old mother of a departed friend.

Driving to Rose’s house, Jamie Dedes was on my mind.  She started this.  She published a post, “Ultimately Dirt”, on her blog titled Into the Bardo.  If you peek at the link, you’ll see there’s a book and a film about the soil of this planet.

Bill Logan wrote “Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth”.  He wrote it while living in New York City.  Jamie just happens to come from Brooklyn.  What irony that two urban New Yorkers wake up this prairie person to the phenomenal aliveness of dirt.  It is precious.  We all know we need it to grow anything worth eating, but there’s more to it.  It’s teeming with life.  It’s a full, living organism.  It is home to microscopic life that creates the healthy properties we need in our soil.

I’ve been taking dirt for granted.  I hadn’t thought about how many layers and years of leaves, grasses, manure, and other flora it takes to create the soil that I kicked away and swept off my walkway with impunity.   I hadn’t fully considered the effect of the world’s greed on soil.

When I arrived at Rose’s home, she was sitting outside enjoying her small garden.

Tilth of the Soil

“Rose, this may seem like a dumb question, but I want to ask you about farmers.  When they grabbed a handful of dirt and started doing all those machinations, what were they doing?”

“You mean when they’d squeeze it in their hands?”  I nodded.  “And when they’d rub it between their fingers…sometimes smell it?”

“Yes! That’s what I remember.  Some even tasted it.  I saw some put their tongues on it.  Why?”

“Testing it.” Rose said.

“For what?”

Rose looked at me as though I was a bit simple. “To see if it was okay.”

“Rose, I know they were testing it.  Okay for what?”

“Well, to see if it was ready for planting.”  Her tone indicated that anyone would know this fact.  Obviously this was like asking her to describe looking through blue eyes.

“Okay.  What were they looking for in the soil to know it was ready for planting?”

“Let’s see…moisture.  It shouldn’t be too dry.  If it was, they prayed for a bit of rain.  If it was too wet, they prayed for hot, sunny days.”  She grinned as she paused.  “What else?  It shouldn’t be too sandy.”

“If it was, what would they do about it?”

“Add some good manure probably.”  More silence.  “The soil had to have a good balance of acid and alkaline.   Willows love alkaline.  Where willows grow, you know the soil is too alkaline.  Clay has a lot of alkaline.  Wheat likes a bit of acid.”  She began to rhyme off which crops preferred acid and which prefer alkaline.

“So that tiny gesture told them all they needed to know about planting.  When to plant, what to plant…it even told them if they had to roll out the manure wagons.”  Rose nodded as she listened.

Suddenly she threw up her arms, “Tilth!”


“Tilth of the soil.  That’s the word!  They test the tilth of the soil*!”

“Spell that, Rose.  I’ve never heard the word.”

The well-being of our nation depends upon the tilth of the soil. 

No… the well-being of the world depends upon it.

The tilth of our skin has been too much of a big deal – 

Now it’s time to concentrate on the tilth of our planet’s skin.

Tilth of the Earth

* From Wikipedia:

Tilth can refer to two things[1]:

Tillage and a measure of the health of soil.

Good tilth is a term referring to soil that has the proper structure and nutrients to grow healthy crops. Soil in good tilth is loamy, nutrient-rich soil that can also be said to be friable because optimal soil has a mixture of sand, clay and organic matter that prevents severe compaction.

(All Photos from:

49 thoughts on “The Tilth of the Earth

  1. Speaking of soil, it’s so sad that more and more city children grow up without experiencing playing on bare earth. That’s unhealthy and I know you know that Amy.
    I’m an adult and yet I miss bare earth form time to time!

    • SD, thank you so much for commenting. I’ve had great trouble getting on to your blog – I needed a password and didn’t have one. This time, from your comment, I was able to zip right in and leave some comments for you. You are very important to me and I want to be connected. Once you have your new blog, please make sure I know so I can sign up properly. I loved seeing the videos of you walking. They must make you very proud of yourself. Let any and all progress continue!

  2. Thanks for bringing us up to speed. I’ve seen this movie and I think that it’s really good. Over the last two years I had taken the Master Gardening Program and have learned how to plant and harvest a garden. It’s really fun. Seriously, I go out and look at my garden at least twice a day and I frequently find things that I didn’t see earlier.

    Given the state of the world, everyone everywhere should probably start an Organic Garden right NOW.

    In my Master Gardening class my teacher explained how different soils make for different crops. Michigan’s soil is OK but Illinois and Indiana supposedly have very deep topsoil for their tall, tall corn. Also Idaho Potatoes have a unique soil that if different from everywhere else.

    Thanks again for saying something so simple and yet so necessary. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

    • Thank you very much, IF, for your enthusiasm. What an example you present. Next summer, I will be ready to have some soil and raised beds at my place so I can grow veggies. Right now, the deer are my keenest neighbours. I’ll be using the winter months to dust off the knowledge my parents gave me about gardening – from the days when we lived off our garden. It will be another act of love.

  3. Oh I love this post! Too much time, money, product and angst over aging skin, and not enough over the tilth of the earth! Oh beauty. Thank you, thank you. I will be thinking about this.

  4. I keep coming back with the intention of writing how much I appreciate this post of yours; and each time I am left speechless.

    I just saw one of the tags you’ve put this post under “Shift of Consciousness” — I guess this is what I’ve been wanting to say. The necessity to take a turn towards constructive consciousness is more imperative in today’s times than going straight towards what we’ve come to call progress.

    Thank you for a beautiful post, Amy.

    • Priya, you gorgeous, delightful and fun soul. You are so welcome. Yes, please do a post on the shift of consciousness…the world can always use a look in the mirror!

  5. Amy, this is fabulous. I knew you said you’d do the research, but I didn’t expect it would turn up something so interesting and informatiive. Thanks for this piece. Thanks for doing the work. Thanks for the shout-out.

    My be re-post on Bardo and on Musing?

    Big hugs! Well done …. Bless Rose for remembering and bless you for this.

  6. Hi Amy .. I couldn’t agree more – and I love that word ’tilth’ .. when I saw it I knew I’d love the post .. I’d like to a post on it one day .. need to find out rather a lot more!

    Each little bit of tilth .. has a whole environment in it, and each environment is connected to that little bit of tilth next to it .. some are so awful they’re toxic .. and each environment is connected to each human .. and so it goes on .. the air too .. a circle of life ..

    The earth is our life .. and I loved this post and your story line around it – a wonderful read .. cheers Hilary

    • Trust you to know the word, Hilary. It’s hard to beat that British education! Do post about our tilth – in whatever perspective. It brings us back to the important part of living.

  7. I love this, Amy. A few years ago we had earthquake swarms here in Reno–some days over 100 of them, not big ones but shallow and they rattled our house and my nerves. I was a mess. I figured the Earth Mother was trying to tell us something (they were over-developing an area in the foothills just on top of the epicenter-2 miles from us.) The one thing that helped me to settle down was working in the garden, in the earth. This went on for about 2-3 months. What a lesson for me.

    • Wow, Victoria, that must have been a huge challenge. The combination of having your assumptions dissembled that we stand on terra firma and the arrogance of mankind doing its thing over the epicenter would have put me in a tail spin as well. I was up in the North West Territories one Christmas where we experienced a 6.5 earthquake. I thought it was so ironic to be so far inland and so far away from my hotbed home only to have that experience!

      Your soil therapy truly works wonders. My gardener friends who work their way through depressions by working in soil tell me that SADD in the winter is hell. However, if I can entice them to join me for a good hike, it seems to loosen some grip of the shadow. Even being able to smell the earth helps apparently.

  8. Ah…this one brought back memories of my grandfather out in the field…and me wondering what he was doing there so many days before planting…really enjoyed this post.

  9. Hi souldipper,
    That was a very interesting read, you don’t realize what is involved in growing crops for these farmers, I love the feel of the dirt when I am in my garden, but I couldn’t imagine ever tasting it, I think you would need to be very dedicated.

    • Yes, Granny! I was just listening to an American radio station this morning and guess what it was advertising. It gets such phenomenal results because (apparently) it uses up the fat that just sits in our body unused. The reason for the the pregnant source…to stabilize a baby’s intake of nutrition, the embryo is fed on the fat that is not used by the mother’s body. That’s why people love it…the fat from tummies goes first!

  10. Hi Amy–Brillant as usual–elegantly simply, yet making a strong point and leaving a lasting impression. This post made me think of raw, primitive connection to nature and the earth that we have as humans and how, with all our modern conveniences, we are so quick to disconnect from things like dirt. Thanks for brining our awareness back, if even just for the moment 🙂

  11. The skin of the earth — never thought of dirt that way, but now it makes complete and total sense. Thanks for a great eye-opener, Amy. In my gardens I never use chemicals, I compost (during the warmer months) but mainly rely on the free municipal give aways of compost in either spring or fall each year. It makes me sad and angry to see how much of Alberta’s great farmland is being turned into housing tracts — you should see how Calgary has spread out. The old hill where the radio tower once stood all alone? It’s disappeared behind rows and rows of homes that have blotted out the hillside. Very sad.

  12. Awesome post, Amy. I have never heard of the word tilth. I really like how it rolls off the tongue. I wonder if the word filth came from tilth! When I used to play in good tilthy soil, my Mother would say I was filthy when I came in. 🙂
    On a serious note. I live in an area that is clay soil. I am continually putting more topsoil on my flower and shrub beds around my home. The farmers plant in it, though!

    • Where I grew up, the soil was mostly clay as well. It was always a challenge to keep boots on in the mud. Somehow our farmers managed to grow crops, too, but I understand that certain crops like growing in the acidic clay soil. Now, living on the Coast, I cannot believe how prolific the plant life is. I swear one just needs a thought and something will grow. I’m constantly cutting back and trimming down the growth in my low maintenance yard.

  13. This is such a lovely”down to earth” post. Anybody who has grown anything and plucked the fruits of one’s labour, even if it be from a small kitchen garden, will relate to this post. I just finished reading “A painted house” by John Grisham on the train while travelling back to Delhi from my hometown in Kerala. Not one of his usual legal scenarios. This was about the lives of some simple cotton farmers. Reading this post so soon afterwards keeps me going back to a dream I’ve been nurturing for quite a while…a small patch of land where I can grow some things. Some day perhaps! Love your style and I loved reading all the comments and your responses.:-)

    • So pleased to hear from you, Nadira. I have friends on Face Book from Kerala. Their photos show the growth and the beauty of your home state. With Kerala as your “root”, it’s easy to believe you would dream of a small patch for growing something. Even if it is a few herbs growing in a window. I have been sharing my patch with the deer, but I think next year I will need to have some raised beds in a fenced area so I can share veggies with more little creatures and crawlies. 🙂

      So Grisham has gone back to his roots. I thoroughly enjoy gleening the nuances from stories that are set on a base of personal experiences. Many thanks – I needed a good book suggestion.

  14. Thank you for writing about the earth Amy. Even though we can’t do without good black soil, we barely pay attention to it, but as Priya pointed out, with posts like this we’re moving in the right direction towards constructive consciousness.

    I like what Ruth said: Too much time, money, product and angst spent over aging skin, and not enough over the tilth of the earth!

    • Every little gesture counts, Rosie. We really can trust that concept even if it feels as slow as molasses in Yukon! I have great faith that the blogosphere is helping those of us who are ‘salt of the earth’ speak up and be heard. It’s time that the magnificence of simplicity be appreciated and lived again. When we get complicated, we are in our heads and not our hearts. So keep sharing your fabulous pieces of humankind with us, Rosie!

  15. There is something very comforting about the smell of damp earth, not sure what it is, but it is soothing, at least to me, and well, I’m an Earth sign, so maybe that explains it 🙂

  16. Thanks for this post. (And, by the way, I’ve subscribed to your blog).

    There’s not only life in earth, in soil, but there are ways to live. For instance, clay. My mother was a sculptor and would have been deprived of much of her creativity without clay. And as a child I was often up to my elbows playing with it. Clay for pots, clay for dwellings.

    • And clay for getting automobiles stuck in the prairies! Until this moment, I didn’t consider how that clay has given us the opportunity to add beauty of our lives! Good point, Val. Thank you for subscribing, Val. I have popped in to visit you a few times when I’ve come across your comment on blogs. I just read about butterflies and moths and breath. The do all go together!

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