Click here for audio of Episode 1601.
Today, let's play in the dirt. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
When William Bryant Logan was
working on his recent book, he spoke to an
ecologist about it. The fellow asked what the book
would be about. "Dirt," Logan replied. "You mean
soil," said the ecologist. "No," said Logan,
"I mean dirt."
What Logan does in his book Dirt can't be
done in some polite drawing room. Dirt, says Logan
is what rings the collar of a two-day-old shirt. It
is "the stuff kids play in, the kind of road that
begins where the pavement ends." It is where seeds
germinate, and organic matter comes to rest. But
the word dirt sounds so Anglo-Saxon. It is a
strong, pungent, and upsetting word.
And so Logan subtitles his book, The Ecstatic
Skin of the Earth, and he sets out, through a
set of essays, to celebrate this indefinable
substance out of which we all have our being. Dirt
is our chemical reprocessor. It bears our weight
and carries our water. It moves and shifts. It can
adapt to us or strike back.
Logan begins by
asking us to think about humus -- that great
organic stew vat in which life is continuously
returned to us. He quotes recipes for compost given
by John Adams, our second president. In England,
Adams looked at someone's compost pile and said
proudly, "This may be good manure, but it is not
equal to mine."
Each of Logan's essays is a small gem. We learn
about the sensory apparatus of earthworms, about
clay, about groundwater. We revisit an ancient
question: "Why, when we put victims of contagious
diseases into the ground, do they not poison the
earth?" The ninth-century Persian physician Rhazes
asked that question.
So did Francis Bacon, and even Walt Whitman. Each
gave what was essentially the correct answer.
Whitman put it this way:
It distills such exquisite winds out of such
Logan goes on to describe the mechanics of
decomposition -- how we're reprocessed and cleansed
within our graves. Then, he adds, we poison the
sacred ground of cemeteries with formaldehyde in
our effort to obstruct those processes.
In another surprising chapter, we learn how
dust-storms redistribute the wealth of soil. The
Brazilian rainforest grows in ground fed by dust
that came across the Atlantic from the Sahara
region. Depression-era dust-storms in our Midwest
have greatly enriched the soil of southern Canada.
I once visited a village outside New Delhi, India.
Small clay houses set in brown dirt. A life without
waste; everything used up. Children and animals
played in dirt crisscrossed with drainage ditches.
The right disease could've meant catastrophe. But
as long as the organic matrix stayed in
equilibrium, it was okay.
The lives of those careful and clean people, based
upon an uncanny intimacy with dirt, were little
different from yours and mine. Our life-support
systems may keep dirt out of our line of sight, but
make no mistake: dirt remains our common
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds