Why Poets Should Write About Dirt

(Several weeks ago, I accepted the challenge of writing a poem about each of the four elements, which made me realize how badly I’ve neglected my education in dirt. About fire I had to plenty to say, ranging from fond memories of my cabin’s wood stove to the youthful thrills of watching warehouse blazes during Hoboken’s terrible arson streak in the 1980’s. Not being a gardener, however, I found that I had almost nothing to say about the earth element beyond a fun quote from Leonardo DaVinci: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

So I had the good luck to meet Stephen Lewandowski at a poets gathering in the Finger Lakes region. As a longstanding poet, he published his tenth book in 2011, O Lucky One. For 30 years, he has had an enjoyable career as a soil conservationist and environmental educator for organizations in the Finger Lakes. He agreed with me that people know too little about dirt and shared this introduction written with his poet’s attention to language.

Here’s hoping we inspire more poems about dirt.)


By Stephen Lewandowski

Humans are a part and a creation of nature. Species evolve as a part of the whole, intricate, interrelated creation. A matrix of conditions and co-evolving organisms shaped humans, and soils continue to shape human nature and culture. Our principal religious mythology affirms humans were created from clay. From an evolutionary viewpoint, humans are a response, though not necessarily an answer, to a question posed by nature.

For most people, the concepts of “soil” and “wild” could only be linked as an oxymoron, a “poetic combination of contradictory words”. After all, soils are some of the most common things in the world and as obvious as the dirt underfoot, dust in the wind or mud on your boot. And wilderness is an area undisturbed by human activity, empty and pathless. What can they have in common? How can soils be wild?


Soils are generally said to be composed of forty to fifty percent mineral particles (rock dust), twenty to twenty-five percent water (less in the upper layers, more in the lower), twenty to twenty-five percent gases (more in the upper layers, less in the lower as replaced by water) and two to fifteen percent humus.

A cookbook approach doesn’t do the soil justice. Finer distinctions of constituent mineral particles, the mix of water and air, and humic components give soils their distinctive characters. Mineral components are generally divided into clays, silts, and sands by particle size, and these particles behave differently both physically and chemically.

Most terrestrial plants require the air mixed with topsoil as much as they need sunlight, water and nutrients. Without the air, in marshes or on compacted soils, they cannot grow.

The water component of soil has three main forms. In drier soils, water remains as a film tightly bound to soil particles. Smaller soil particles will have more surface area per unit of volume; consequently more of the water contained in these soils will be held as a film. In damp soils, water also remains in the spaces between soil particles, where it is bound by surface tension. Wet soils contain more water than can be held in place by surface tension; this “free” water will move through and out of the soil (into springs and wells) if given an opportunity.

Humus consists of the living and the dead. From this once-living organic matter, plants retrieve most of the nutrients needed for growth, phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen, calcium, and magnesium. The presence or absence of organic matter drastically changes the soil’s ability to accept and hold water.


Probably the least known wildlife in the world are soil organisms. Most live in the top foot of soil and range in size from microscopic to easily visible and in numbers from several per acre to billions per ounce. The extent and importance of life in the soil should lead us to define soil as living medium. Soil’s functions cannot be adequately defined using simple physical or chemical descriptions, as important as these are. Only when the live components and processes are included do soils assume their characteristic functions and meanings. Charles Darwin’s appreciation of the importance of soil life led him to favor his treatise, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through Action of Worms, over all his other works.

Life in the soil changes everything about soil. Root hairs threading through channels, bacteria and fungi active in decomposition, protozoa hunting bacteria, slime molds consuming bacteria and fungi, nematodes, collembollae and earthworms processing the vegetable and mineral matter, voles and moles tunneling- all of these modify soils and give them special characteristics. A class of soil fungi, the mycorrhizae, lives in symbiotic relationship with the roots of vascular plants. Many of the organisms are extremely small (even those with chewing mouth parts may be only one two-hundred-fiftieth of an inch broad), but they compensate in numbers for their size. Analysis of partial catches show as many as 5,500 organisms (not including earthworms and nematodes) per cubic foot of soil. More than seventy different species have been collected from a square foot of rich forest soil, and the total animal population of forest soils approaches 10,000 organisms per square foot. These microorganisms produce enzymes and cause physiological processes that recycle and detoxify both natural and man-made organic substances. Life teems underfoot, but soil is clearly “wilderness” territory based on its mysterious inhabitants and processes.

Organisms of the topsoil are the best known of soil inhabitants, but they are by no means the only denizens of soil. Scientists at Penn State University have collected and studied thousands of organisms living hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface. Topsoil organisms are largely aerobic (using oxygen to produce energy), but subsoil organisms are anaerobic and produce energy through denitrification (changing nitrates to nitrogen gas), sulfate reduction (changing sulfate to hydrogen sulfate) and methanogenesis (changing organic acids to methane). Microbiologists are testing these organisms’ ability to degrade toxic industrial chemicals, especially under low-oxygen conditions (such as in groundwater).

Soil is a nutrient sink, with building blocks of life stored in minerals, organic matter and microorganisms. Agriculture aims to manipulate the productive potential of soils through mechanical and chemical means, but human attempts to “tame” the soil have not been informed by a knowledge of soil physics, chemistry or microbiology. In fact, it has been argued that our actions on the soil have had damaging effects beyond our knowledge and our ability to repair. In Soil and Civilization, Edward Hymans characterizes man’s destructive relationship with soil as parasitic and details classical cultures toppled by destruction of their soil bases. In pursuit of abundant food and fiber, our clearing, tillage, fertilization and pest control methods have depleted soil organic matter, allowed topsoil to erode away, disrupted soil ecosystems, and needlessly poisoned communities of beneficial organisms and groundwater. Each of these factors, taken alone, reduces the “fertility capital” stored in soil. Taken together, the synergistic and cumulative effects of the changes unknowingly begun in soil may effect our life on Earth.


Perhaps we will heed the advice of the sustainable agriculture movement and change to less damaging ways of guiding the natural sources of fertility and growth. Researchers such as Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in Kansas have been seeking to model agricultural systems on ecological principles. Some farmers have switched to minimum tillage and introduced cover and “green manure” crops to their rotations to mimic natural systems and protect the resource base. Fine tuning of new and more selective pesticides may allow farmers continued control of specific, unwanted insects and plants without damaging groundwater or populations of beneficial insects, plants and soil microorganisms.

Some of the “new” practices promoted by sustainable agriculture advocates are as old as farming itself. Though their beneficial effects are demonstrable, we can’t always say why they work. Crop rotations are a good example. We know that rotating crops causes about a ten percent improvement in yields. Corn, soybeans, sunflowers, sugar beets, cotton, sorghum and barley show the benefit of rotations. Though fertility levels, soil tilth, soil moisture and pest control have been studied with an eye to explaining the “rotation factor,” answers remain a mystery of the soil itself. Soil is wild to the extent that it is self-regulating. Despite our efforts to explore and manage the soil, much remains inexplicable. Our primary impacts on soil ecosystems are inadvertently damaging.

Pre-industrial cultures personalized the principle of soil fertility. The concept of “little people who live under the hill”, echoes through the Celt’s “sidhe“, Iroquois’ “jungies“, and Norwegian “vetters”, mysterious subterranean creatures who guard fertility and remind humans of their responsibilities. These storied little people and mythic talking animals link cultural and natural worlds, carrying warnings of duty and messages of thankfulness.

Roy Rappaport’s account of the lives of the Tsembaga of New Guinea details their handling of the concept of fertility. The Tsembaga regard spirits as significant components of their environment. In the lower lying parts of their territory, a special class of spirits dwells, that is also associated with the lower portions of the body. These spirits are designated as “something out of which something else has grown”. There are different kinds of fertility spirits; one, which is not human, typically dwells in a wide place in the stream. This spirit may bring death. Another type, which once was human, is the cold, wet, soft spirits of rot. The Tsembaga believe these spirits embody the necessary conditions for growing things. Spirits of the low ground are involved in the cycle of fertility, growth and death in which all living things participate. Fertility and growth on one hand and death and dissolution on the other are linked in the persons of these spirits. Through them, the Tsembaga acknowledge that life both ends in and arises out of the soil.


No one knows what the Adena and Hopewell people of Ohio and Illinois meant by the gigantic earth sculptures they created several thousand years ago. One, a snake with an egg in its mouth, seems to indicate a spiritual impulse. Other sculptures are remarkable for sheer size: an earthen and stone block wall from six to fifteen feet high, a mile in length, surrounding forty acres of hilltop. Much has been said about the sacredness of the earth to native people, but in this case the native people used the earth itself for their designs and effigies.

Though we don’t know what the Adena meant by their sculptures, modern artists and environmentalists have turned again to earthworks to express themselves. Near Ottawa, Illinois, artist Michael Heiser has incorporated large earth sculptures into a mine reclamation project. On the two hundred acre site, Heiser designed five mounds or “Effigy Tumuli”, in the shape of a water strider, frog, catfish, turtle and snake. He acknowledges his debt to earlier moundbuilders and clearly wishes to integrate artistic and environmental concerns into the work.

Many artists have celebrated the fertility and beauty of soils in landscapes, but the science and aesthetic of soils rarely find common ground. In a remarkable interview, “My Friend, the Soil”, teacher and soil scientist Hans Jenny reveals a feeling for soil that combines aesthetic, scientific and mystic appreciation of the medium. Jenny says “…soil appeals to my senses. I like to dig in it and work it with my hands. I enjoy doing the soil texture feel test with my fingers or kneading a clay soil, which is a short step from ceramics or sculpture. Soil has a pleasant smell. I like to sit on the bare, sun-drenched ground and take in the fragrance of the soil. …Soil profile art…resembles abstract art. …Soil speaks to us through the colors and sculptures of its profile, thereby revealing its personality; we acknowledge it by giving the soil a name.” Jenny has become an advocate for the preservation of natural, undisturbed soils set aside as “benchmarks for assessing man-induced soil changes and for preserving unique segments of landscapes…for teaching and research.” While acknowledging that we cannot live without sacrificing plant and animal lives and that land must be cleared for our sustenance, he raises fundamental questions about soils- “What does nature have in mind, what is her goal of soil evolution?” – and answers in a way that links the evolution of soils with the evolution of species. He suggests a close link between the processes that make soil and the processes that make humans, in ways that the arts may best express.


Any farmer who’s pulled a hedgerow out knows the ground beneath will be darker and richer with humus for a few years, until the less worked soils are mixed with the tilled. The clearing of forests and three hundred years of cultivation of Northeastern soils have depleted the soils’ humus. Much of the original topsoil is gone, and the loss of the natural nutrient base is masked by the addition of industrial fertilizers. Reduced water infiltration rates and diminished holding capacities push the water regime toward a “boom and bust” cycle and increased flooding and droughts.

In 1789, Abner Barlow and his ox tilled up a little ground in Lot Number 2 of the Village of Canandaigua to plant the first wheat in western New York State. Though his plot of ground had been cleared by the indigenous Seneca, the land outside the village was covered by a forest of huge oak, chestnut, maple, white pine and beech trees. Beneath these trees lay the native soils whose mineral mixtures had been formed, transported, laid down and shaped by the glaciers. In ten thousand years between the last glacial retreat and Abner’s plow, perhaps ten more inches of soil had formed from fractured bedrock and accumulated vegetable matter. Abner Barlow and ten generations since have gone down into the ground that they once farmed. The silt loam that Abner tilled has disappeared beneath lawns, houses and pavement. When he first tilled the ground, was it wild? Covered with domestic structures, is it tame?

Both the quantity and quality of nature’s bounty rest heavily on the productive capacity of wetlands, estuaries and a thin layer of living topsoil. Though we have done our best, but more often our worst, to domesticate soils, they still lay outside our reason. Soils remain mysterious, despite out best attempts to know and manage them. Soils are wild to the extent that they are unknown territory- self-regulating and beyond our control.

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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