SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1998

William Bryant LoganRiverhead Books 1995 ppbk

Review by MC Davies

I admit I bought this book because of the title. There sitting on the shelf in the bookstore was this slim pretty book with the word "Dirt" printed brightly in blood-red letters on its gold and blue cover.

I tried out the sound of the word dirt rolling it around in my mouth a little. Starts off with the deep pulled-back-in-the-throat "d" - duh... sound. The "ir" winds up in through the back of the throat, rides along to the roof of the mouth, where the tip of the tongue clips a fast "t" against the back of the teeth.

Yep, I am pretty sure we've got hold of a fine no-nonsense topic here, I thought.

And then, turning the book over in my hand, I caught sight of the subtitle in small elegant script The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth. Oh how glowingly, vibrantly poetic an image!

Now that I have read the book, my anticipations have been fulfilled. Through history, science and poetry, I have learned about stars, moons, earthquakes, the foundations of Gothic cathedrals and the pyramids, about digging holes to China, about rigor mortis and the decay of the grave (perhaps more than I really wanted to know), about stone quarries, about the crystalline qualities of clay.

Most of all, I have learned about what all this means to me as a human being in cosmic time and space. Common as dirt, really.

Not since being up to my elbows and knees making mud pies as a three-year old have I found dirt to be such a fascinating, absorbing study. Whoever would have thought that good "ol dirt" could be the prism for such a beauteous view of creation - and our responsibility within it - as is conveyed by Mr. Logan's collection of essays.

"The truth is that we don't know the first thing about dirt. We don't even know where it comes from. All we can say is that it doesn't come from here. Our sun is too young and cool to manufacture any element heavier than helium. Helium is number two on the periodic table, leaving some ninety elements on earth that were not even made in our solar system. Uranium and plutonium, the heaviest elements that occur in nature, can be forged only in an exploding star, a supernova. We are all stardust In fact, everything is stardust."

"An open grave is an open mouth. It disturbs the soil, throwing the wet cold subsoil to the surface. It exhales all the suggestion of the dark. But a grave is also the place where the foul is made fair. It is the way the flesh returns to the generative womb. The grave seems to interrupt the human story. But the fact is that graves are motherly for the Earth. They wrap up the things of time and deliver them back to the cradle. So that the show goes on. So that nothing will stop the stories from being told. In this regard, every tomb is empty in the long run."

"The virgin, never-cultivated soils of the north and the heights are stiff and stony... In the tundra of the Northwest Territory, it takes 120 square miles to feed a single human being. Not grain or corn, but caribou is the transformer that converts the energy of this thin soil into food for a man."

"These soils are not eternal. Far from it. They are young. They will grow old and die. But we can make them run longer. One motive for protecting the soil is the certainty that it is fragile. We owe it our lives and our energy, and the bodies we give back to it are not payment enough."

SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1998