Book Review: Dirt
William Bryant Logan seems like a name that should be on the cover of a book. It’s a good, earthy name. It’s the name of an author who is a gardener, a scholar, a journalist, a Christian, an ex-oil rigger, and a mountain climber. All these aspects of his life are expressed in the busy pages of Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin Of The Earth. (First published as a paperback in 2007.)
Judging a book by its cover, in part, I bought Dirt on the basis of the fantastic title, and on the report that it contained this fact: “an acre of soil produces one horsepower every day”. The fact came first, via Twitter. Where did the fact come from? Via William Bryant Logan’s Dirt. That was a sale, right there.
A book about dirt. Soil, mud. And one with intriguing facts.
The book is a collection of essays that tie into the many aspects of what is – I now realise – a relatively mysterious medium. Dirt, dust, soil, earth, clay: a set of living systems that ties in any number of processes and materials across the planet. Logan’s writings detail a number of them, rooting around in matters of composting, soil evolution, dung beetles (including a species that hangs at the arse of a monkey, ready to base jump from a tree with its chosen stool), earthquakes, ground water, the theories of clay, molds, the wind, and the relationship between early agrarian presidents of the United States, Jefferson and Adams.
Logan’s book is piecemeal, rather than any kind of systematic natural history or survey. Nevertheless it’s the diversity of thoughts and descriptions that make this book fascinating to a dirt layman such as myself. It also seems to contain a broad thesis about how soil is akin to life, and how it is the foundation of life. The section on the weird nature of clay, and its relationship to the early stages of life, even the sheer complexity of this apparently simply substance, is extraordinary.
“The clay code… is more complex that either genetic code or human language. Only now are we beginning to catch glimpses of its order, and one cannot help thinking that pursuing it will be as fruitful and endless as the cabbalists’ search for that perfect of the Hebrew aleph, by which God created the universe.”
Logan’s writing is elegiac: he seems genuinely sad for eroded and contaminated soils, and laments the waste of bad composting. He offers poetic renditions of lessons in geology, and begins to suggest that soil is interrelated with what it means to be human. Indeed, the book explains, soil itself is a kind of living, self-healing entity, which we can and must understand our relationship with. There’s something beautiful about this that is made all the more intense by our increased understanding of the properties of this substance. Logan exults soil scientist Hans Jenny as one of the greatest minds of the past century, for his contribution to this body of knowledge.
Of course I agree with the ideas about the life of soil, and our need to better understand how we use, make and exhaust it. It’s a characteristic that’s true of much of the natural world, and it only needs stating in this case because soil is so ignored, and abused. It is not, thanks to this book, underwhelming. Logan does a fantastic job of providing the tools necessary for furthering even the slightest interesting in the materials beneath the gardener’s feet.
However, Logan’s Christianity does frame much of how he discusses his topic, and not always beneficially to the neutral reader. For the most part the Bible references are well-judged: splendid allegory. By the last third of the book, however, the pastoralist sermonising tendencies – via Biblical example – had begun to grate, and I almost put the book down.
This is a writer who is, apparently, keenly interested in the wonder that science can evoke from our expanded understanding of the natural world. The book is filled with references to soil science, geology, and even cosmology. And yet it is an uncomfortable position: Logan seems to still be irked by the arrogance of science – a common feeling among believers – which is something I would have sympathy for if it were not for his generalisations against science, and his eccentric defence of the profoundly dubious practice of dowsing for water.
“Science tells us that we are lords of Creation and that we know everything, but it would seem that our mental world is often more impoverished than an ant or a weed.”
Even when reports like this one discuss magnetic sense in animals, the fact remains that dowsing has been repeatedly debunked. There is no case for it. Logan’s belief in this strange behaviour set seems more about his hope and faith in ancient belief, than about any kind of useful understanding of the natural world. Science, far from telling us we are lords of creation, tells us that the world is more complex, and far stranger, than our ancient forebears could have anticipated.
These irrational blips make for uneven reading for even an occasionally magical empiricist like me, and it made me grumble. I was ultimately able to ignore it, and put aside the religious undertones as something like poetic license, but the sense of internal tension remained.
Like a whole bunch of my peers I’ve become increasingly interested in these kinds of topics, with gardening and growth, and with their relationship to how we progress, and it’s hard to find articulate writing on the topic that doesn’t slump into tedium. In part, Dirt serves to colour our knowledge and fuel our excitement and wonder, and I want to recommend it for that reason alone.