What is more correct? Calling it dirt or soil?

When I studied Forest Science (19 years ago now….yikes), I recall my soil science lecturer Dr Nigel Turvey would constantly be reminding us to use the term ‘soil’ instead of ‘dirt’. So, of course being the mature grown up well-rounded students we were, there was legendary status to be sought for asking a question in a lecture using the term ‘dirt’ and seeing if a reaction could be drawn out of the ever so calm Dr Turvey. We also had the tendency to finish most of our soil science field trips covered in it. It is funny however, because ever since I have never looked at dir…soil in the same way…the castle

As a young child, I had a very big appreciation for soil. Coming from a family where cash flow was limited and toys weren’t so abundant, soil was one of those amazingly adaptable toys you could use in any game (as long as you had an imagination) and there was plenty of it. I recall making mud pies, and baking them in the sun. My baby alive was kept alive on this stuff. I recall my brother also had a keen appreciation for soil. I remember the phase he went through when he would escape out the back door and eat it (right after his bath). Mum was less than impressed by this.

Summer holidays on the beach were great when you could bury your smallest sibling in sand up to the neck, and then put all kinds of interesting things into their mouths, the weight of the sand making it impossible for them to resist. They just don’t sell toys like that in the shops!

Soil is extremely complex – in structure, texture, organic matter, nutrients, water holding ability and of course, insects and micro-sized creepy crawlies (not the technical name, but you know what I mean). You can get a huge range of properties in soils, and soils are just like living things – they can be healthy or sick. I personally believe that the amount of resilience a patch of soil has is dependant on how much it is left to it’s own devices (ie not screwed with by humans). The amount of structure there is in soil, the better for resultant plants. The more worked soil is, the less structure it holds.

When I lived in New Zealand (in Rotorua), I was fascinated to learn that the Maori people believe no body part can be thrown away. Everything must be purified by the soil. For instance, if you have a baby, the placenta must be buried. You cannot throw it away into the medical waste. This deep respect for the soil is cultural. I am not sure if our culture looks at how we handle our waste in the same way (up to a few years ago I couldn’t have given a hoot). Soil’s vital role of cleansing and regenerating was completely overlooked – which isn’t hard, because soil is such unassuming stuff. Soil simultaneously provides an enviroment from which things grow, and also renews or regenerates old and tired plants and animals back into itself. Amazing stuff.

One thing I am always fascinated by is digging a hole (right now my brain brings up the quote from the ‘The Castle’ where Dale Kerrigan says ‘Dad…I dug a hole’ and at dinner that night, Dad tries to make Dale feel special by saying ‘Dale dug a hole’). If you dig a hole from virgin soil (ie soil that has not been disturbed and is settled) and then you try and pack the soil back into that same hole, you will notice it never fits. There are bucket loads left over and you find yourself madly trying to stamp it back in place (this can be stressful especially if it’s bodies you are trying to conceal or you are digging a tunnel with spoons under a prison wall). Soil expands when dug by up to 9 times the original volume.

I recall when at high school studying Medieval history, and learning that they would tend their crops and leave a field lying fallow for a year, so that the soil could replenish itself. These days, with the introduction of modern agriculture and insecticides and fertilisers, the concept of leaving something to lie fallow is a concept I rarely hear discussed. I feel that the majority of food production has come under corporate pressure to maximise everything, work it 24/7, get bigger yields, have shorter rotations, focussing on money and profits. Let’s just get that poor soil and flog it! The problem is, you can’t.  I think with soil we are dealing with something far more complex and less understood.

I recall after the 1983 bush fires, when I was in Art class at hight school, turning around one day and seeing a sight I could not comprehend. A huge earth red cloud was billowing towards the entire city. It was most of the farmers top soil descending on Melbourne in a giant dust storm. Everything was covered – the seat on the tram ride home had a centimeter thick covering. Not only did the drought that year kill most of farmer’s livestock, bush fires ravaged the state and destroyed lives and homes, but also the soil up and left them with nothing.

Soil has a life of it’s own, and it can be enriched and depleted, it can repair itself. And it is from soil that all land life exists. But I don’t want to send you to sleep relaying any more soil science. I guess my point is, I failed to really appreciate when I did study how important soil really is, and in these times of hardship and climate change, how important protecting what we have left really is!

If every household just recycled it’s food waste, it would be a start. If every household grew a few herbs and vegetables, it would be even better. Diversity is the key here. Soil, insects, microbes, waste matter, worms are all part of the equation. If you start trying to obliterate any of these things (such as spraying broad spectrum insecticides) you are tinkering with the balance. Food manufacturing on a large scale will always have issues trying to protect it’s soil, because anything that is a monoculture and grown en masse is more susceptible to attack en masse.

So, you can’t imagine my delight when I discovered a new movie has been released called ‘Dirt! The Movie‘. The first thought that came to my mind was a picture of Dr Turvey rocking in a fetal position under his desk moaning ‘soil, not dirt’. It brings a wry smile to my face.

If you have the time, watch the promo movie (a few minutes long). It is fascinating, and hopefully you will all rush outside and start appreciate your soil in a different way.

Dirt the Movie


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