Monday, July 21, 2014

Dirt vs. Soil

Dirt vs. Soil

photo 1.JPG
             Since the beginning of time, my stepdad, Kurt, has inserted the following question into as many conversations as possible; “what’s the difference between dirt and soil?”  He says it with a twinkle in his eyes like it’s the set up for a joke. Or maybe like it’s a riddle.  
            I’ve heard more people answer this prompt, in more different ways, than I could fling a muddy stick at;
“Dirt is dry, soil is wet.”
“Dirt is what you wash off, soil is what makes it dirty in the first place.”
             “No difference, they are the same thing,”
             “Dirt is bad, soil is good,” or the opposite “soil is bad, dirt is good.”
Sometimes the question is answered as if it is a joke, with a weak punch line; “Soil is who you take home to mom, but you call Dirt for a good time on Saturday?” Kurt nods at these answers, crosses his arms and settles back as more anemic punch lines invariably follow.
Other times, the answers get really detailed. Those answers are mostly trying to do some kind of man-dance of intellectual territory. Kurt has been mastering the ways of dirt and soil since the early 80’s, when his landscaping business started to take off. Anyway, I can’t recall any of those specific exchanges (the type of person that tends to give that kind of long answer is an annoying know-it-all that I avoid when possible. You know the type). The more complicated the answers get, the tighter he purses his lips in defiance of the grin threatening to betray the mansplaination taking place.
Then there are those that, in a fit of curiosity or honesty, say “I don’t know, what?” It’s what I remember saying. How many people really do know the difference between dirt and soil? Does it matter? Who cares?
With his arm extended, he swings his hand down at the wrist in a gesture that indicates a simple and significant explanation is about to take place. The kind of “anyone can make a pie, Honey, it just takes practice” gesture. Then, as matter of fact as the day is long, he leans forward to say, “Soil is when it’s outside. Once it’s inside, it’s dirt.”

I grew up with this mantra. I’ve heard that explanation come out of my mouth. I’ve thought it in my head so often that now when I think it, I hear it in my voice rather than his.
I hear this when I (eventually) put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher, when I vacuum my dirty floor, when I wipe my dog’s dirty, slimy kisses off my cheek. I hear this when students ask questions about the origin of quote-unquote dirty words. I hear this when I watch Jack Nicholson in his role in As Good As It Gets, engaging in OCD rituals of cleanliness—or when I watch Kevin Costner in Waterworld. I still do *not* understand how that damn jar of dirt is so uniquely precious when everyone is filthy.

I hear it in my head when I read Freud, the drug-addled granddaddy of psychology and interpretation. Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents is the only book of his that I can stand—probably because this book marks his move away from his work on women being hysterical vehicles for wandering wombs.[1] In it, Freud explains that we find the marks of civilization  in a culture's relationship to dirt and soil. For Freud, soil is outside, too. He writes that man attains the highest level of civilization when,
 “The soil is carefully cultivated and planted with the vegetation which it is suited to support” (76).
Civilization happens when we know what to do with soil. When we have mastery over it, we are likely to have mastery over other things that matter, too. Freud then goes on to say 
“Dirtiness of any kind seems to us incompatible with civilization… Indeed, we are not surprised by the idea of setting up the use of soap as an actual yardstick civilization. (77-78). 
Dirt and soil never shall meet as long as we’re properly playing at civilization. Soil is outside, when it comes inside the soap comes out. We must keep dirt outside, where it belongs, in order to remain civilized. Freud and Kurt probably wouldn’t have much to say to each other at the dinner table, but they stand in fraternity on the soil issue.

Thirty years after Freud, Anne McClintock writes about “Dirt Fetishes,” to explain how our attitude to dirt tells us about ourselves. She isn’t the only one writing about dirt, but she was the first I found when I started my wanderings in grad-school land. For that she remains a touch-stone. In Imperial Leather McClintock explains that  
“Nothing is inherently dirty; dirt expresses a relation to social value and social disorder…. A broom in a kitchen closet is not dirty, whereas lying on a bed it is” (152-153).[2]  
We decide what is dirty in relation to where we are, and what our rules allow. We determine the rules, neither the dirt, nor the soil make such decisions. McClintock goes on to say “dirt is what is left over after exchange value has been extracted.” Once soil is no longer useful (i.e., once we have removed it, in small doses, from the outdoors where we can properly use it) it is dirty. A dirty cup can’t (or shan’t?) be used. A dirty wedding dress is probably ruined, as is a dirty library book. Dirty needles, dirty food, dirty diapers and so on.  

I hear all of this as I write in the margins of my books, implanting my own thoughts. I hear this when I brush my teeth. I hear this when I put my dirty compost scraps in the stinky, spider filled bin. I hear this when I wash up for dinner and when I clean up after it. The ways in which we make room for dirt, and for soil show us what kind of civilization we have. In considering the difference between dirt and soil we consider the difference between where we are and where we were. That’s getting our hands dirty. That’s where we find the soil in our stories.   

[1] Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. and ed. By  James Strachey. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1961; 2005.
[2] McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial context. Routeledge: NY, 1995.


  1. An interesting essay on dirt (or soil?) and geophagy – as related to health and medicine as well as to geography and gender/race/class – by Beth Ann Fennelly:

    Now that I’m thinking about eating dirt and the gender/class aspect of Fennelly’s essay, the mention of Freud on vegetation/cultivation – his notion that “civilization” depends on the intermediary between the human and the soil itself – also makes me think of the literal “dirt-eaters,” the “people who simply don’t have any resources of any kind at all,” that haunt Wallace Shawn’s “The Designated Mourner.”

    In the play, Howard (the intellectual) is (in)famous for his essay about “the people who eat dirt, and the ones…who rise up from the dirt to lead them” that asks: “Why were certain people – the ones not from his background – systematically made to eat dirt and kept so far away from the songs of Schubert?”

    But their dirt-eating isn’t symbolic. “When it rained,” Howard writes, “they were beaten into the ground, they had nowhere to go, lying in the mud”; indeed, the one “dirt-eater” who has a name (Joan) is described as having “skin…like the fields she’d slept in.” And, in perhaps a more subtle geophagic moment, another character notes that changes in leadership (“Were the dirt-eaters somehow gently stirring?”) bring to power “a new herd of swine [who] ate in new restaurants with new styles of cooking.”

    “Waterworld” is completely different, though.

  2. I've been thinking on this for a while, and this just occurred to me. There is a usage of "soil" that comes very close to the meaning of "dirt" you describe--when soil is used as a verb. As in, "you've soiled the carpet" or "I soiled myself." I'm not going anywhere with that, just an observation.

  3. It's a funny thing, isn't it, Joel.

    I think the theoretical love-child of Mary Douglass and strong ecocriticism might explain that usage as a disconnection between what we see as usable vs. unusable. The things that are unusable are those that are a bit too "outside" (subaltern wha wha what?).

    Subaltern Soil is a short story I would totally read.