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"Washy, washy, washy queen
Get that dirty shirty clean." -- Anonymous marketeer
Folks complain about dirtiness, and dirtiness is synonymous with both unhealthiness and depravity. One watches a "dirty" movie in the browser tab alternate and hides it when the boss walks by. One avoids "dirty old men." The old shut-in was certain to die of disease, as it was dirty in there. Conversely, she was tidy and "it didn't have a speck of dirt" on it.

For all of our industrialized taboo toward dirt, I'd like to see anyone go out and make some.

The stuff we plant in is "soil," even though "soiling" is even more shameful than being dirty. You won't find any gardening center selling 5 lbs. of "top dirt." Farmers seek out "rich" dirt, and we say that a person without natural aristocracy is "common as dirt," probably because they are "dirt poor."

Ken Burns's The Dust Bowl surprised viewers with just how severe that particular disaster was, and I have met people who realized for the very first time that regulations on farming came about because of the cock-up of the Dust Bowl. It's funny, though, that southerners, in particular, should be educated by the documentary, because the evidence of the Dust Bowl, and soil erosion in particular, is all around us.

"There's nothing new that can be said about dirt." -- Gram Parsons (from Valdosta, Georgia) and Chris Hillman ("High Fashion Queen")
When I moved down to Farmville, Georgia, one of the first things I noticed and said aloud to everyone who would listen was, "We're losing top soil." After every rain, I could see sand dunes fading like a water color wash across the street, and sink holes opened up in every "suburban" lawn1 (every one). I was not believed. Indeed, in the old part of town, things seemed pretty stable, but, year after year, the driveways and sidewalks seemed to get higher in the newer areas, and the yards got a bit lower. Tree roots began to rupture the surface like distended veins, when the year before they had been buried.

I could have been imagining it. I could still be imagining it. However, my imagination has been really insistent: there is less and less dirt.

Over at Shorpy, I like to look at the Farm Security Administration photographs that aren't quite as famous as the Dorothea Lange shots. Some are not that well framed, but all are important. Lives were lived, and these are breaths being stilled and captured by a camera in the middle of toil.2 One of Shorpy's associated sites is Vintagraph, which sells vintage posters.

I purchased a WPA "Save the Trees" poster from the 1930's, but, after the Dust Bowl there was an even more clear push: "Plains Farms Need Trees." One factor among others causing the loss of top soil was the practice of cutting down trees and leaving no wind breaks. This is not to mention the way that trees slow run-off and keep the soil together.

I said that people in the south are surrounded by Dust Bowl reminders, and they are. Our good friend Kudzu, and our constant companion Bahia Grass (I feel better knowing I was defeated by paspalum notatum) were introduced by agencies attempting to make up for what tree cutting had done.

You see, soil erosion is something that the folks "back east" should have understood well. One need only look at the marvel that is Providence Canyon to see what I mean.3 Georgia farmers had already created a canyon out of nothing by just letting the soil erode.

I wish I could fill in the sink holes in the yard, but it's rather like digging a hole on the beach. I do not know what is taking the soil down there, but I hope it is going somewhere where it can be happy, because on the surface it is constantly worried by wind and beaten by rain.

I have noticed that modern construction is efficient, and I laud the way that it wastes little energy in its approach. The first thing a builder does when approaching a lot is blow hell out of the trees. After that, there is leveling, digging, and building, and all vegetation that is in the way of the heavy equipment and storage of flats of materials is collateral damage. The builders don't set out to destroy it, but it's in the way. The house gets planted, and then the front and back yards are graded smooth, and then trees get plopped into holes the heavy equipment digs. Usually, the trees thus planted, like measles, are ornamentals or guaranteed bloomers or the eternal, unavoidable, inevitable pines.

Again, I have to say that this truly is the most efficient way of approaching the job. Any other way of doing it would be more expensive because slow. Imagine laying sewer pipes around a 300 year old live oak's city of roots.

Collins, Georgia: a massive live oak draped with Spanish moss
I recall working in a biomedical research building at UNC Chapel Hill, and a wealthy old matron of the town decided to donate her lot of land next to our lovely, modern building to the University hospital, but on condition. She had planted and cultivated existing trees on the lot, and she wanted it to remain wooded. She imagined that the hospital could use it as a poet's walk or some other restorative place -- as it had been for her.

Upon her death, the school received the lot and instantly built a new research center on it.4

As a man who likes to look at birds, I think hardwood trees are important, and hardwoods are the very trees that don't make lollipops. The plane tree in Central Park is one of my favorite trees, and I'm sure Walt Whitman named it, while it stolidly ignored him and probably said that free verse would never last. More to the point, though, as a person who simply likes food and inertia, I'm rather alarmed at the loss of dirt.

Erosion is going to occur, like age, but we sure don't need to speed run off, depopulate species, destroy nest sites, loosen soil, and reset all root systems to zero when we get excited about interest rates. If we cannot have regulations (regulations kill jobs, I'm told), can we have just a wee bit more awareness?

Can those who know much more than I (i.e. everyone) mobilize to motivate and use the awareness of the Dust Bowl to turn to preservation of soil.

1
   "Suburban" is used with tension. Agrarian areas frequently host well to do groups of medical doctors, business owners, and large land managers. The pattern through the 1960's had been for these people to live in whichever large and private house they might create, but, beginning with the refinancing boom of the middle 1990's, they increasingly brought "housing developments" to their small cities and large towns. The most contemporary conveniences and housing techniques and economically stratified communities popped up, thereby recreating the "suburb" in a place that had no urban center.
2
   FSA: The Farm Security Administration was the parent of the New Deal photographic project that we most think of. One of the goals was to win the hearts of tax payers back east for the rescue of drought victims. The photographers, therefore, had license to editorialize.
3
   It's fun to see the Georgia State Parks Service try to drum up tourism for Providence Canyon. They say that it's beautiful -- the naked scars through the gypsum and limestone -- and then they say that it's best not to walk off the trail "and to not go beyond fences or overlooks.  Erosion can cause the canyon walls to collapse." In other words, the stupid can still kill you.
4
   Their first move was to blow hell out of the trees, of course. Don't worry: they planted some lollipop trees later.

Originally posted to A Frayed Knot on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 06:39 AM PST.

Also republished by Blogging Aggies of dkos and Community Spotlight.

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