Alix Blair: Book Review
Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan.
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.
William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth is a 202-page love song to the soil. Logan’s book is made up of multiple styles: part scientific fact, part narrative storytelling, part poetry, part history-lesson.
Logan’s writing is beautiful, meditative, metaphor-full, and poetic, filled with lyrical connections between surprising thoughts. He uses soil as the connective thread to examine multiple, immense ideas, many verging on discussions of the meaning of life.
To give an example of his style of writing, in taking on the beginning of life on earth (no small subject), Logan writes, “life is the story of bodies that learned to contain the sea…when you look for a creature to match the range of motion of the human hand, you find yourself back with the wiggling orange filaments of fungi and the gesture of acclamation of a spreading bacterial branch” (11,13).
Moving from the beginning of life, he takes on death in graphic detail in the chapter The Soil of Graves writing, “so in the end the tomb is empty, and human forms have been changed into apple forms. The soil of graves is the transformer. It is natural magic. The grave is a memory from which the story of the Earth is told” (57).
Logan’s language can at times feel a bit dramatic, but it is heartfelt and full of sincerity. When earlier I wrote that this book is his love song I did not mean it lightly; you can feel Logan’s great love for the soil and he fills his pages with that deep admiration.
It feels to me that the book exists as Logan’s creation of a sacred text for the soil— to hold it holy like any other thing deserving of worship. I found myself reading portions out loud for other people because I felt moved by the poetry of his writing and by the unexpected connections Logan makes between things, such as the Big Bang, rotting corpses, ancient Italian gardens, and Mima Mound creating gophers.
Another moment I felt in awe of Logan’s writing comes during his discussion of carbon dioxide. He writes, “The soil is a body continually doing work… It breathes out twenty-five times as much CO2 in a day as does a man…Without a soil this productive, we would still be hunting and gathering in small bands” (36).
What I love about these lines is they demonstrate Logan’s skill to deliver scientific fact, as well as major socio-historic idea in three beautifully written sentences; he at once informs about the soils respiration capacity and at the same time comments on the adaptations of the human race. Logan’s book is one created out of joyful curiosity at the wonder of soil and you can feel it in his writing. It is an unique skill to write in a way that information can both be accessible to a lay audience and scientific community, and I feel Logan has bridged that divide.
When writing of silt (116-118), we are giving a history lesson of the Dust Bowl as well as a science lesson in soil aggregation. There are so many small, magical stories of individuals living in a place in time, of events in history, of worms in the soil, of pulsing bacteria, of corpses and apple trees: each chapter is like a prose poem.
Logan’s writing style in Dirt reminds me of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s collection of poems called Odes to Common Things. Neruda writes poems to artichokes, to his socks, to bread. In the poem that shares the collection’s title, Neruda writes, “many things conspired/ to tell me the whole story./ Not only did they touch me,/ or my hand touched them:/ they were/ so close/ that they were a part/ of my being,/ they were so alive with me/ that they lived half my life/ and will die half my death.”
Neruda takes objects we think of as commonplace to the point of being forgotten and he elevates them to something special and holy, as worthy of a poem as love or loss. I feel Logan is doing the same thing—taking something we take so for granted—dirt—and lifting it up to a sacred place, deserving of wonder and inspiration.
In speaking of silt, Logan makes it human, writing, “when [silt] is functioning as it ought, it dreams in the rivers of the world” (117). To think of soil dreaming, Logan incarnates dirt. On the very last page of his book, in writing of his friend Hans Jenny, Logan states “with seven decades of hard-won knowledge, he confessed his ignorance… he knew science as a form of prayer” (202).
Dirt is Logan’s tribute to science in the form of prayer. And though Logan opens his book with “the truth is that we don’t know the first thing about dirt” (7), he leaves us 195 pages later knowing a great deal about soil and with a great deal of admiration for it. If Logan’s goal is to leave the reader in awe and humbled wonder about the breathing body of the world, then he has succeeded with this reader.
When I read these lines: “Hospitality is the fundamental virtue of the soil. It makes room. It shares. It neutralizes poisons. And so it heals. This is what the soil teaches: If you want to be remembered, give yourself away” (19)
I promptly copied them out and put them up in my house. If religious practice is the act of paying homage to something mysterious and immense, then Dirt has made a convert of me to the incredible, vast soil beneath my feet that I walk on every single day.
Neruda, P. Odes to Common Things. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1994.