When I lived in London, I remember once needing to move a house plant to a bigger pot. For this I needed soil. I lived in a flat with no outside space, so I didn’t have any of my own. I took a tub and a spoon, since that’s all I had to hand, and went looking for some. I walked down the road, which was entirely tarmac and concrete paving slabs. There was none to be found.
I tried round the back of the flats, but it was more concrete, garages, bins. I had to walk 150 yards or so before I spotted any dirt: around the base of some trees, which were protected in a little fenced-off square. I had to reach through the railings with my spoon and scrape up what I could, feeling like I was committing some kind of crime.
Looking out the window of my study, it’s a similar situation. There’s the road outside, and the pavement. Almost all the front gardens have been removed here and bricked over for parking. The couple of trees that remain along the street come straight up out of the tarmac. Dirt isn’t welcome here.
We actually go out of our way to avoid dirt most of the time. We disapprove of things that are dirty, and put them in the bath or the washing machine. We teach the kids to wipe their feet and not to walk dirt into the house. Out in the garden, where we do have to work with the earth, we put our gardening gloves on to keep our hands clean. Flower beds have wood or stone edges to make sure that the dirt stays where it belongs, and to keep everything looking neat. If we have to deal with soil, we consider it something to be managed and contained.
None of that is unreasonable behaviour, but it does have consequences for how we value soil. Dirt is possibly the most overlooked thing in the world. It’s literally overlooked of course, in that there’s a base layer of earth under everything. And it’s metaphorically overlooked too – ignored, forgotten, unappreciated. The expression ‘treated like dirt’ tells you all we need to know. Someone who has been treated like dirt has been shown a contempt and disregard that they don’t deserve – a disrespect that, by implication, dirt actually does deserve.
I want to help redress the balance a little. Today is World Soil Day, but I’m going to be publishing a post about soil every day this week. I think soil is amazing. I hope that by the end of the week you will share that view, and perhaps think a little differently about the ground beneath our feet.