Today, I want to talk about dirt.
I love working with dirt. It’s a beautiful medium. It’s alive, it’s malleable, it’s constantly changing in familiar ways, it sticks when you need it and loosens up with a ruffling.
I’ve been an artist of an infinite number of mediums. Through cut and pasting collages, piecing words to poetry, to cooking the perfect steak. And all of those mediums require some sort of precision, an element of “force” – to get things to act like you want. This goes contrary to my beliefs about existence and harmony and the nature of creation.
Working with soil and plants, however, has been the complete opposite experience. Soil is alive, responsive, and malleable. An ecosystem reacts to your touch in such subtle and familiar ways. A conversation begins and continues for many years, generations even. Soil sticks into clay when you need substance and structure, and loosens up with a ruffling. When working with dirt, you are at leisure of the elements, and you are dictated by your context. A day with rain, your soil is moist, spongy, has weight. In the middle of the hot summer the soil is warm and dry, rustles like sand beneath your naked feet, perhaps turns even rock-ish.
Plants are the same way. Working with living things, they respond and play with your moves, your every snip of the pruner, placement and replacement of various plants, harvesting crop. Nature is already art – no need to create or force something new into the world. Rather, it has helped me understand my role as a creator within the fabric of a world of constant miracles around me.
I think we in the United States underestimate the land and sacred and constant work. Here, we call our soil “dirt”. Dirt comes from the Old Norse drit, which means “excrement”. We liken that which we walk on, grows our food, and solidifies our communities to “excrement”.
Traveling through South America, I encountered the land I worked with as “Tierra”, which literally means Earth. The profoundness is not lost on me. These cultures recognize that the land we work with all the way down to the very tiny particle of soil as a fractal of a larger and sacred piece – the Earth itself. Once we pick up a handful of dirt in America, is it no longer part of the Earth?
I truly hope we can begin again to cherish work with the earth as the artful medium is it – a source of infinite creation, the basis of our existence on this planet – rather than simple “dirt”. It is only until we change our conceptual relationship to the earth beneath us will we stop suffocating it with concrete, exhausting it with our constant building, disrespecting it with our litter, and pumping toxic wastewater and pesticides into it. I look forward to this day.