Why Dirt Matters
We rise and fall by dirt. We breathe it, eat it, return to it in death. The ground-up bones, fermented food, and skin particles—worms and all. In her essay, “Dirt Theory and Material Ecocriticism,” Heather Sullivan, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, proposes that we must turn towards a “dirt theory,” as an “antidote” to the pristine and pastoral perspectives on nature. These “nostalgic” views of nature, she asserts, perpetuate its otherness and the dichotomy between humans and the more-than-human world. How, then, can we realign ourselves with dirt? And why, of all the things to care about, should this be one of them?
As people of faith, it is hard not to consider dirt as inextricably linked to our own origin story—that God formed humankind from dust. In fact, according to Strong’s Concordance, the words “dirt,” “dust,” and “ground” appear 303 times in the King James Version of the Bible; compare that to “hell” and “damnation,” which appear 65 times altogether, and you might start to wonder if the focus of some Christian movements might be disproportionately guided—that focusing on the incendiary and divisive aspects of the Bible might not be what God and his prophets intended, or at least not what is most helpful for guiding right action and thought here on earth.
Digging deeper into words (pun intended), we might also consider how the transliterated Hebrew word for “ground” or “soil” adämäh gives birth to “Adam.” In his commentary advocating for a new reading of the Cain and Abel story that acknowledges the active and revered role of the earth/soil, theologian and professor Peter Lockwood explains how, “In the very beginning of creation, the Bible tells us, God fashioned humans from the soil, as a master potter moulds a vessel—humans from the humus, earthlings from the Earth, Adam from the ‘adämäh’.” If we are indeed made in the image of God, then we certainly must not dismiss the importance of the dirt-packed metaphor provided by the Bible for understanding our bodily origin.
Geomorphologist (one who studies the changes of landforms) David Montgomery offers a more “practical” reason for urgency in redefining our relationship with dirt as he links its health with that of civilization. He claims that, “As long as people take care of their land, the land can sustain them. Conversely, neglect of the basic health of the soil accelerated the downfall of civilization after civilization…from Mesopotamia to Greece, Rome, and beyond.”  Indeed, our relationship with dirt is mutually sustaining—we are not involved in a hierarchy, but in a lateral relationship with the earth.
A helpful metaphor for framing this urgency might be “soil as placenta,” the nurturing membrane of our planet. While gendered earth-mother analogies are fraught with other problems we won’t get into, I think that this one helps us consider what the implications are of dumping 5.1 billion tons of pesticide into American soil each year, or put into perspective the fact that after exponential population growth, soil erosion is the most pressing and critical environmental issue our planet faces.
Soil erosion is often caused by the removal of native grasses in favor of crops that do not allow the soil time to recover under the protection of cover crops from over-tilling . If our eroding dirtscape doesn’t provoke you, maybe these statistics will at least ground you: 1) The U.S. is losing soil ten times faster than the earth can naturally replenish itself 2) Soil erosion in the U.S. costs close to $37.6 billion a year in lost productivity; worldwide, it costs $400 billion a year. So, if dirt is the placenta for all of the earth’s creatures, how might we reconsider our method of caring for it in a way that doesn’t leave it exhausted and depleted?
But enough of the environmental fire and brimstone (for now). We need to talk dirt because we need to consider these metaphors and models and create new ones to shape our thinking and guide our action if we want to sustain our interdependent relationship with the earth. Rather than clinging to the problematic metaphors engendered by “Manifest Destiny”—the inert, fecund, passive earth open to be plundered—we need to realign ourselves with the reality of the dirt’s very active participation in the lives of every living creature. As people of faith who are living, quite literally, in a threshold era of our planet’s health, we especially need to consider not only the symbolic importance of dirt, but the gritty, palpable, muddy necessity of it. That to nourish the dirt is to receive its nourishment in a dynamic and sustaining relationship.
So the next time someone tells you to “eat dirt,” remember that you already do, each day, (as do they), and then think about what might be in it. Rather than worrying about manicured lawns, let’s take pride in nurturing the suppleness of our dirt, digging down deep into the unseen, the unadorned. Rather than privileging the brightly colored plants and animals around us, let’s also remember what’s below—the entirety of origin, sustenance, and ending contained within a single speck.
 Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19.3 (2012): 515-17
 “Reading the Cain and Abel Story from the Angle of Earth.” Lutheran Theological Journal 46.2 (2012): 106-18
 From his book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, as quoted by Sullivan
 This quote and idea comes from Chris Maser as quoted by Sullivan
 Statistic taken from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
 David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell
 Pimpentel et al., “Environmental and Economic costs of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits.” Science, New Series. Vol. 276.5201:1117-1123
 Statistics come from a Cornell News Services article: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/march06/soil.erosion.threat.ssl.html