Skip to content

Ode to Dirt

2010 March 22
by Rachel Turiel

spring snow - view from our house

Old reliable Earth, our heavy, warm and lithic ball, has turned the corner, literally.  Chugging along in its elliptical dance around the sun, the Earth has waltzed into spring.

How easily I forget about this—celestial bodies, gravitational pull, orbital paths—when I am walking my small area of earth, newly washed in spring green. How connected it all really is: bitter dandelion, our planet’s tilt, the robin’s song. The reason I forget is this: more compelling than the Earth’s position is my position on the Earth and as I walk around, eyes focused on the melting ground underfoot, I am jolted awake. Like the junkie’s first hit to the veins I am renewed by my first eyeful of dirt.

Yes, dirt. It is the bare soil that first rouses hunger pangs for spring, glistening with snowmelt like beads of sweat on dark skin. Deep, dank, crawling with life, death, excrement, heat, predator and prey. This is where it all begins.

Bend down for a better look. The smell is freshly dug potatoes and cool rain, the sound is bubbling hisses and gurgles, the feel is grainy and sticky with smooth underbelly, and the taste, well it wasn’t so long ago that I was walking the woods in a rarefied state and suddenly had to know what does dirt taste like? Somehow as an adult my days no longer included tentative licks on mudpies or lapping up the dark grains that clung to backyard sourgrass. I bowed down and flicked my tongue out below the orange-barked ponderosa pine, drab needles scattered against chocolate brown earth and…oh, fresh and moist and gritty.

What is this stuff of eroding mountains, shifting seas and decaying life? Daisy chains of molecules become nutrition sipped by growing roots and then returned to the soil upon death, soon available for young upstarts. This stuff is renewable!

I surf through the soil with my hands, letting the different textures and colors fall through my fingers. In one handful appears slivers of wood, crumbly autumn leaf particles, sticky clay, and the glorious loamy grains from the compost with an un-decomposed shard of calcium-rich eggshell, the diamond in the rough. This is just what I can see.

In the same palmful lies roughly seven billion microscopic bacteria, seventy million actinomycetes, seven million fungi, not to mention a couple ants, maybe a centipede and a squirmy red wriggler if you’re lucky.

I cannot separate the soil from what it provides. Nothing less than life. That hamburger you just ate came directly from the soil, also the cotton shirt, the gas in your car (think about it, fossilized plants…).

Who else loves the dirt? The pocket gopher, dressed in the same color dirt it pushes—dark in the mountains, ashy pale in the San Luis Valley—spends its lonely life burrowing through the earth, moving four tons of soil to make its home. As an herbivore, all roots, tubers and underground stems that lie in its path are fair game. The mole too spends most of her half-blind life below ground, probing the dark, underground world with her furless snout: earthworms, crickets and centipedes beware.

I am partial to the earthworm, strange, slimy, segmented beast. I have found these workhorses of the soil four feet down wriggling through impenetrable clay and have gone to great lengths to save their squirmy lives. Not only does the earthworm aerate the soil without disturbing growing roots, but it also turns garbage into gold in its intestinal factory.

It is good to spend some time outside on this Spring Equinox, sifting soil through your fingers like a king with his pot of gold. Ants will push the soil around, bringing the deeply embedded minerals to the surface. Deer, birds and foxes will die, leaving their remains to nourish the plants, and in turn their own relatives. Somewhere in the high country a gopher will churn up a mound of soil, spreading osha seeds onto a freshly tilled bed. And a human will walk through this wondrous place, munching mustard flowers and marveling at the mysterious and persistent nature of life.

*previously published in The Durango Telegraph in a different form.

Snowmelt and bow shoot

The carrot planting crew

Related posts:

Adventure, no matter the weather
Spring in the Rocky Mountains
homestead happenings: shift


15 Responses leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010

    I love dirt too! I just ordered my red wigglers to start my first worm composter! I’m so excited! Happy Spring!

  2. March 22, 2010

    I am in awe of your description.

    You have unearthed (pun intended) my love for spring down to the micro level, and not just its macro-goodness of cheery blossoms and warmer (than winter) air.

  3. Melissa permalink
    March 22, 2010

    what a beautiful, sensory writer you are.
    i love this.
    just last night i attended a special equinox kirtan up at spirit rock (in marin) and was reminded of all of this . . . it feels like just the right time to get ready to have another baby.
    ps. am loving ina may. still reading birth stories, remembering avi’s birth (lots of oh, yeah, i remember that feeling) and getting excited . . . thank you, again.

  4. March 22, 2010

    Well, that was a beautiful piece to read as I sit here in silence, sipping a cup of tea, both kiddos asleep.
    Theo spent the better half of this morning sifting through dirt and then he turned to me and said “Mama, can I take my shoes off? I just need to feel this on my feet.” :)

  5. March 22, 2010

    yes…I can so relate to this level of connectedness. It is mystifying and magnificent, isn’t it? thank you for putting words to the experience of being firmly rooted here and grateful for it.

  6. March 22, 2010

    You’ve inspired me to turn my compost, which has been sitting dormant all winter. Thank you for the beautiful essay.

  7. March 22, 2010

    Wow, what imagery! My favorite line: “The smell is freshly dug potatoes and cool rain, the sound is bubbling hisses and gurgles, the feel is grainy and sticky with smooth underbelly, and the taste, well it wasn’t so long ago that I was walking the woods in a rarefied state and suddenly had to know what does dirt taste like?” I feel like having a lick right now (or at least a good, deep sniff).

  8. Ike permalink
    March 22, 2010

    I was just working in the garden under the warm california sun but did think about the microcosm below my feet in the way you described it. Beautifully written.
    Thanks
    Baba

  9. March 23, 2010

    This is so lovely. It makes me want to go taste some dirt.

  10. March 23, 2010

    What a viscerally resonant piece, Rachel – and such a timely one as the last of our winter snow is being washed away by the cold spring rain.

    This line, in particular, captures my own feelings as the sleeping life wakes up once again: “The reason I forget is this: more compelling than the Earth’s position is my position on the Earth and as I walk around, eyes focused on the melting ground underfoot, I am jolted awake. Like the junkie’s first hit to the veins I am renewed by my first eyeful of dirt.”

    Thank you for sharing these beautiful words.

  11. March 23, 2010

    Oh how lucky you are, that is so much bare earth! We do have one garden bed peeking out though :)
    (here it will be rain boots and sundresses. and buckets and water and mud.)

  12. March 24, 2010

    I am slowly learning about dirt…. gardening… growing my own. Loving it.

  13. March 25, 2010

    i found you through your comment on kristen’s post today on momalom. what a beautiful and powerful description! such a delight. i love the theme of connectedness. we forget, don’t we?

  14. March 25, 2010

    The days of moving the snow around our yard in May and June to uncover the magical hidden earth was always such a treat. Thanks for the reminder and the appreciation of everything that’s Spring.

  15. March 30, 2010

    mmmm. yes. soil. life.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS