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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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Comment Preferences

  •  Well, I wasn't going to write about other stuff (8+ / 0-)

    What I have to say about shootings is either obvious or unwelcome. What I have to say about the fiscal debate is what we all have to say and what no one seems to actually hear, or at least acknowledge hearing. What I have to say about brave girls getting shot for advocating literacy is the same as what I have to say about shootings, and some day when no wounds are too hellishly open, or when I cannot cause harm, I will talk about the only thing there is to say about those deeds themselves: suffering's meaning.

    People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

    by The Geogre on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 10:07:29 AM PST

  •  Have you seen "Dirt" the movie? (9+ / 0-)

    A very nice ode to dirt.

    I've been near-religious about composting every since I read an article about topsoil that pointed out that nearly all life on Earth depends on the health of a layer of living soil that is far thinner, proportionately, than the varnish on a model globe.  Vastly thinner--such a precious resource and so few people recognize this.

    Trees are essential.  Trees literally change climates.  Trees can be our salvation, if we wake up.

    Universal Health Care - it's coming, but not soon enough!

    by DrFood on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:30:17 AM PST

    •  "Hope in a Changing Climate" (6+ / 0-)

      . . . is another film that can be found on YouTube.  It shows the power of trees to stop erosion and reverse land degradation.  The story of the Loess valley in China is amazing--you have to see the before and after images.

      Universal Health Care - it's coming, but not soon enough!

      by DrFood on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:32:25 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I haven't (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AllisonInSeattle, wasatch, cantelow

      I will look for it now.

      I confess that I am kind to earth worms, but I have not composted. Every year that leaf litter accumulates, I realize that some tiny amount of matter goes into soil (and cockroaches, among others, are the janitors helping the process along). The composters I've known have looked upon their pot/pit as if a child. It had a name and got fussy, and needed its temperature taken often, and could get sick during a vacation, etc.

      People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

      by The Geogre on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 12:49:00 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Composting leaves super easy. Get some fence wire, (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        wasatch, cantelow, The Geogre

        can be pretty cheap stuff, about 4.5 feet long and 3 feet high. With grid about 2"x3" or so, plus/minus. Take it home. Get pliers or short needle-nosed pliers.

        Bend into an upright circle. Should be about 3' across. Next either use a coat hanger, cut & straightened, to weave the edges together, or just bend the cut edges of one side around the other side, to hold together. (Overlap about one square.)

        Fill with leaves. Water if leaves were dry.  Go away. Come back in 2 years. Maybe water occasionally if very dry where you are.

        Whew, that was rough, huh? They make the most
        wonderful substance.

        This health care system is a moral atrocity. Dr. Ralphdog

        by AllisonInSeattle on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 08:52:16 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I can make a pot (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          AllisonInSeattle

          Right now, I have nature's piles to the side of walk ways, etc. I allow them to molder and sit and dampen and grow. Occasionally, I look in, and there is a whole Micrologos in there of bugs. If there are bugs, there are beasties, and if there are beasties, the birds and native mammals can do their thing.

          However, I have a drainage area where leaf litter blocks water flow, and I could pretty easily solve two problems at once back there.

          A project! (And it doesn't involve researching, which makes it better than my other Christmas project.)

          People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

          by The Geogre on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 05:45:47 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Glad you like the project idea! (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            The Geogre

            (a pot?)

            This health care system is a moral atrocity. Dr. Ralphdog

            by AllisonInSeattle on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 04:45:55 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  A poke? (0+ / 0-)

              A pile?

              [My other project is "all references to amphibious or amphibians in 18th c. British poetry for an examination of the concept and the battle between progressive and conservative ideologies and how the conservatives borrowed language from a feudal point of view that they did not in fact share." You can see why some chicken wire and for stakes is much more attractive.]

              People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

              by The Geogre on Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 10:05:54 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Great diary. (6+ / 0-)

    It makes me think of how Cape Cod used to be forested. When the Europeans came, they cleared the land for farming and the top soil blew right off. Now it's an ecologically fragile area.

    However, we need regulations because awareness alone will never be enough, not that that's a reason to not have awareness.

    •  I agree of course (4+ / 0-)

      We definitely need regulations.

      Behind nearly every regulation, there is an abuse that cost a life or poured a poison. The libertarians plead the wisdom of the free market, but the free market reacts at best, and I don't want to hear about a reaction after a thousand more die from tainted milk. I don't want to see the "market" react to melamine in dog food.

      I was just thinking, though, that, since we're in a paralyzed legislative era and a paranoid citizenry, we can at least let the right know that it's ok to care about the soil. We can tell them it will make their golf greens greener.

      People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

      by The Geogre on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 12:52:30 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm Southern. (4+ / 0-)

    This is a great diary.

    I've seen this stuff all my life and not known what it was.

  •  Thanks, Geogre (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre, tardis10

    Excellent diary. Whaddaya

  •  As a young woman (9+ / 0-)

    trying to survive in the Reagan recession, I read many books on ecological homesteading and organic farming with the strong intention of doing the same.  One author suggested that a "man" could die satisfied with his life, if he could say that he left the world with one cubic foot more topsoil than his actions and livelihood had consumed.  I have never forgotten that, and as a result have been fairly obsessed with creating and managing natural soil quality everywhere I go, even if I can only grow four tomatoes in a patch off the garage for a year.  I compost religiously and preach its gospel to anyone who stands still long enough.  Even this fall, locked into a cheap apartment in a bad section of town for a year's lease, I walk the neighborhood staring at the ground.  The soil here is sandy, but has good patches full of organic matter from rotted oak leaves and acorns.  The acorns are decomposing wonderfully, and the year-old leaf-shreds are becoming a nice black crumble a little less fibrous than peat moss.  I've lectured four neighbors about the folly of putting their raked leaves out to be hauled away and advised another about the acidity to be expected from the tannins and how to sweeten the soil.  Meanwhile, I'm plotting to steal at least four large garbage bags full of rotting wood chips that have been discarded nearby and haul them up to my mountain cabin, where topsoil is constantly being washed away despite my improvised terraces.  Dirt is more precious than gold.  If other people can't see that, well, I'll gladly take it off their hands.
     

    •  Ecology in the fetid areas (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      AllisonInSeattle, wasatch, cantelow

      One of the things here is that people don't believe in the finitude of the soil. I once explained to some northern friends that "ecology" in the south is burning rather than poisoning the kudzu. The soil is good, and the water is plentiful, and the temperatures are high, and things grow.

      They don't believe that the soil is thin. They need a Providence Canyon -- and providence played no part in that canyon -- every generation to believe that there is an end to things. Most of their time is spent trying to prevent growth rather than encourage it, so they believe that the washed away soil is nothing to worry about.

      Their good, arable land is heading out to sea as the sea comes in.

      (Oh, and why don't I mow the soggy pile of rotting leaves, I'm asked. Those leaves are doing just fine.)

      People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

      by The Geogre on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 03:30:47 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm in the north (4+ / 0-)

    so I have to ask what a lollipop tree is? I imagine it's about the shape but I'm curious about the species.

    music- the universal language

    by daveygodigaditch on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 07:50:48 PM PST

    •  Don't know in Georgia (3+ / 0-)

      but in Texas it was the ubiquitous Bradford Pear. One or two of them are decorative but a whole suburb full is monotonous.

      "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in". Leonard Cohen

      by northsylvania on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 04:02:38 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  "A lovely pear" (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        daveygodigaditch, northsylvania

        (Pink Floyd pun. . . can't help it.)

        Those pears were so gorgeous the first time I saw them in profusion in a rocky soiled temperate area that I photographed them constantly. Then I noticed that they were appearing in buckets in parking lots. Then I noticed that they were appearing in every lawn.

        They're polite citizens, like the hybrid cherries, and keep their roots to themselves. This is good for buckets and parking lots. It's not really ideal for stopping erosion.

        People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

        by The Geogre on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 05:38:37 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Yep (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      daveygodigaditch

      Any tree guaranteed to look perfect for four to five years (i.e. the life of the house in the suburban flipping market).

      To be fair, pears and apples are extremely common choices, and they're lovely trees. They're soft, and they grow to Mitt Romney's "right height," and they bloom and turn colors. They have none of the charm of a big, spreading tree whose limbs are individual, nor do they stand as memory, the way the old grandfathers do.

      Most importantly, their root systems are all getting established at the same time, so a parcel of land goes from "many roots holding the soil" to "no roots" all at once, and these trees politely root down more than out (so as to not bother slab houses or basements or sewage lines).

      People complain about dirt, but I'd like to see them make some.

      by The Geogre on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 05:35:51 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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