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.
“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.
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 can refer to two things:
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: http://www.google.ca/search?q=photos+of+farmers+holding+soil+in+their+hands)