Friday, April 1, 2011

I heart dirt

Humans were originally made from dirt, according to the creation stories of many religions and cultures. These stories are not too far from the truth.

All life comes from dirt, literally. The establishment of dirt billions of years ago helped give birth to the microorganisms that kick started evolution. Dirt also contains the basic elements of life, such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, etc.

And, contrary to common belief, dirt is not dead. One handful of soil contains billions of living organisms!

My excitement about dirt was recently charged after watching the documentary film Dirt! The Movie. It tells an entertaining and moving story about dirt and the relationship we humans--and all life--have with it. It includes cameos and commentary from many of the environmental movement's heavyweights: David Orr, Janine Benyus, Wes Jackson, Wangari Maathai, and Majora Carter, to name a few. But my favorite characters were the playful animated soil microbes that intermittently commented on the narrative with expressive gestures and "meeps" (their language). They made me giggle every time.

Here is the movie trailer.

With somewhat broad brush strokes, the movie paints a compelling picture of the dire straights we have put our dirt in--predicaments with which our own dire straights are inextricably tied.

We've ravaged our soils with bad farming practices, such as monocropping and pesticide use, thus endangering our food security. Ecosystems are not able to hold water, because we've stolen the soil's vegetation or sealed it up with concrete and asphalt. The eroded soil then sends our fresh water into the oceans at a faster pace than can sustain life, in some places resulting in devastating droughts. Starvation and conflicts erupt due to food shortages caused by drought, as seen in Sudan.

While the movie successfully invokes a sense of urgency and worry about these troubling issues, it does not leave the viewer depressed. It also tells the inspiring stories of people who are leading the charge to remedy these predicaments.

Schools in California are returning asphalt schoolyards back to dirt and planting gardens, in which the children work and learn. A team of Harvard students and scientists are harnessing the energy from soil microbes to generate electricity. Majora Carter pioneered the movement to install green roofs on residential buildings across New York City. And so on.

But its overall message is that every individual plays an important part in this effort. 

Movies like Dirt!, I think, are excellent communication tools to educate and engage a broader audience in environmental issues. Dirt! did a great job of revealing the deep connection we all have with soil, why it is important to heal and protect it, and ideas for how we can change the course of the gloomy fate that both we and dirt are tumbling toward.

Dirt! serves as an excellent primer to pique people's attention about an important piece of our earth that most of us take for granted...and walk all over.

photo: Josh Larios


  1. Just from reading about environmental ethic, and this post, I can tell how important the dedication of individuals to the environment is to you. I think the passion you have really breathes life into your blog.

  2. Great commentary, Jenny. I'm looking for the documentary on Netflix as we speak! As always, thanks for the refreshing perspective.

  3. this is a great post. I enjoyed reading it, and watching the movie. very informative. Like Marrianne, I am going to look forward to the release on Netflix.

  4. I agree with everyone - a compelling topic! The movie looks fascinating; it really does seem to be the basic elements of our planet (water, dirt, air) that we take for granted.

    Appreciating and caring for those parts of our planet is a huge task, but would tranform our world. Thanks for offering your insight, Jenny!

  5. Well done! It's not easy to strike the balance between communicating real concerns about the environment with inspiring hope and belief that small actions make a difference -- your blog succeeds in doing so.

    A post after my own heart! This documentary looks terrific. My husband and I are avid gardeners -- we started 144 seeds in our basement 'grow lab' this weekend (not what it sounds like -- these are heirloom tomatoes and peppers and greens, to name a few). Since buying our house in Madison I became aware of how soil and fertilizer runoff affects our lakes -- our goal is to eventually completely replace our lawn and terraces with gardens to help mitigate our own impact.

  6. Love the title, Jenny, and agree with all, the movie sounds fascinating. When I was in grad school, I took a soil biology course. For years afterwards, whenever I walked across the yard, I'd think to myself, "I'll bet I'm disturbing the microbial zone." Such a geek. But your post reminded me of that in a very good way.

  7. I love that movie, it highlights how life really absorbs all around it, shaping landscape and the biochemical makeup of its surroundings. If you pave over dirt, you will lower the biomass inside it basically because the photosynthesizers are gone. I see all of these urban farms on TV, which is great, but I wonder what that dirt is really putting into the food...