NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, January 14th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Commentator Andrée Seu Peterson now considers the magnificence of dirt. This is from her book Normal Kingdom Business, first published in 2008.
ANDRÉE SEU PETERSON, COMMENTATOR: The year I was in landscaping after my husband died, a friend gave me a book titled Dirt, which landed on the shelf and has sat there since, collecting dirt. Why should I read a paean to compost rather than David McCullough’s John Adams? But almost as a dare, the gift has been dusted off now, a gauntlet thrown at the author’s feet: Go ahead, make dirt interesting for 200 pages.
While my husband was alive I had an adversarial relationship with soil: shoes were left at the door, in Korean style, the one rule of parenting I dug in my heels on. I nearly forgot what a love affair I once had with the stuff.
It was 1975 and I was saved, and the world was new and all, and Sally and I took old Mrs. Chesbrow’s half acre and turned it into a garden to make Nebuchadnezzar proud. It wasn’t our doing, or course, and that was the wonder of it.
We gave the earth seed and it gave us back zinnias, and bachelor buttons, and snapdragons, which we delivered from a rumpled station wagon to wealthy Cape Cod dowagers by the sea who commanded fresh flowers in every room, changed every week. Man, how I loved being dirty.
But we were dabblers in miracles unawares, Sally and I; and even Mrs. Chesbrow, I dare say, could not have known the Promethean fire we held in our hands, this teeming, roiling thing we call dirt.
Author William Bryant Logan ‘fesses up in Dirt’s opening pages, “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 own sun is too young and cool to manufacture any element heavier than helium.”
The Lord would be pleased with the disclaimer, I think, He who through Job thundered, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.”
There is a painting in my house of a man and his wife bowed reverently over their rakes at evening. What are they praying? Are they thanking the Lord that in autumn, as Logan says, “within a day, the fallen tissue of flowers, leaves, and fruits…has been digested by the microbes and invertebrates growing in the ground. The acidity of the soil recedes, and it prepares for its slow, neutral, winter life, making an equilibrated medium to protect the roots until the spring”?
Hardly likely. Nor even that “an acre of good, natural Iowa soil burns carbon at the rate of 1.6 pounds of soft coal per hour.” They are saying instead, “Thank you, Lord, for another day of life, of health in our limbs, food on our tables, and a promise that when these mortal husks have fallen, “He who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies.”
The miracle of dirt will not even enter their minds.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Andrée Seu Peterson.