The year I was in landscaping after my husband's death, a friend gave me a book titled Dirt, which landed on the shelf and has sat there since, collecting dirt. Why should I read a paean to compost rather than David McCullough's John Adams and Michael Denton's Evolution? But almost as a dare the gift has been dusted off now, a gauntlet thrown at the author's feet: Go ahead, make dirt interesting for 200 pages.
I have long had such an adversarial relationship with soil (shoes are left at the door here, in Korean style-the one house rule I've dug in my heels on) that I had forgotten the love affair I once had with the stuff.
It was 1975 and I was saved, and the world was new and all, and Sally and I took old Mrs. Chesbrow's half acre and turned it into a garden to make Nebuchadnezzar proud. It wasn't our doing, of course, and that was the wonder of it. We gave the earth seed and it gave us back zinnias, and bachelor buttons, and snapdragons, which we delivered from a rumpled station wagon to wealthy Cape Cod dowagers by the sea who commanded fresh flowers in every room, changed every week. Man, how I loved being dirty.
But we were dabblers in miracles unawares, Sally and I; and even Mrs. Chesbrow, I dare say, could not have known the Promethean fire we held in our hands, this teeming, roiling thing we call dirt. Author William Bryant Logan 'fesses up in Dirt's opening pages, "The truth is that we don't know the first thing about dirt. We don't even know where it comes from. All we can say is that it doesn't come from here. Our own sun is too young and cool to manufacture any element heavier than helium." The Lord would be pleased with the disclaimer, I think, He who through Job thundered, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand."
When I'm in the neighborhood, I sometimes pull my car off the beaten path into the Hatboro cemetery. I see my name etched there on granite, and below, the hyphenated date that seems to quiver like an impatient fill-in-the-blanks. It clears my head and I go on my way, less frenetic than before.
"For dust you are, and to dust you shall return." Man is eventually a fine talcum powder that can be blown off a bridge and carried on a breeze. Wrap him in a $500 or a $5,000 coffin, and double wrap in cement if you please, but the second law of thermodynamics will have its way; the earth reclaims what is hers and was loaned. Cold bodies, with twigs and matted leaves together, boil themselves down to an organic residue that is the matrix of all life: humus.
Only the commonness and abundance of it keeps us from phoning our friends with excitement over humus. As Mr. Logan explains, "Some of it releases nitrogen and trace elements for the reuse of plants; all of it nourishes the microbes, which decompose it and whose bodies add to its substance ... unique among biological substances, humus resists the processes of microbial decay, so that it can remain in the soil, sometimes for ten thousand years or more. And we know that this is a good thing, because it can hold mineral nutrients for a plant's use twice as well as the best clays."
There is a painting in my house of a man and his wife bowed reverently over their rakes at evening. What are they praying? Are they thanking the Lord that in autumn "the tide of bases in the soil climbs into the finest pores of plants-the tissues of flowers, leaves, and fruits-whence it falls to the ground. Within a day, almost half of the fallen tissue has been digested by the microbes and invertebrates growing in the ground. The acidity of the soil recedes, and it prepares for its slow, neutral, winter life, making an equilibrated medium to protect the roots until the spring"? Hardly likely. Nor even that "an acre of good, natural Iowa soil burns carbon at the rate of 1.6 pounds of soft coal per hour." They are saying instead, "Thank you, Lord, for another day of life, of health in our limbs, of food on our tables, and of a promise that when these mortal husks have fallen, 'He who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies.'" The miracle of dirt will not even enter their minds.