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one man's dirt is another man's soil. or, the prairies aren't a barren wasteland.




one man's dirt is another man's soil. or, the prairies aren't a barren wasteland.

Carrie Karsgaard

It's not dirt; it's soil. If I'd had a Gobstopper (Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstopper)  for every time I heard Grandpa - and, additionally, my mom (his daughter) - say this, I could have kept the tongues of every child in my elementary school blissfully occupied throughout every USSR (Uninterrupted, Sustained, Silent Reading) period for a week. 

Dirt on my knees. Caked on my gum boots. Swept into corners of the deck. Dug up among peonies. Soaked and shaped into mud pies. Hardened into a path through the southern Alberta prairies. Didn't matter. It was all soil.  

To be fair, Grandpa was an agronomist, and dirt - pardon me, soil - was his business. When I google him today, I can find the full text - PDF scan of the original typewritten version - of his 1958 dissertation on The Effect of Soil Moisture and Fertilizers on Seed Germination.

With his head in the soil rather than in books or clouds, he sought to plant in my sister and me an appreciation for all things soily. He'd walk us around Lethbridge's Henderson Lake or out in the coulees, pointing out the wild grasses and blooming wild roses, teaching us bits and pieces of how his work made sense of the world - monocots and dicots, root systems and wind pollination, biomes and habitats and prairie adaptations. We were at the mercy of his pop-quizzes on collective nouns for land-bound animals: bands of coyotes, warrens of rabbits, herds of bison and packs of wolves (did I get them right?). Even in the wind blown, dusty soils of southern Alberta were processes of life that Grandpa unfurled and handed to my sister and I like early season wild crocuses. 

In combination with his stubbornly reiterated lesson - soil, not dirt - these walks prevented the degradation of soil in my young mind to that which was unclean or immoral, tarnishing or slanderous. Instead, soil became a thing of life, the mulch that germinated not only the wild stuff of the coulees, but also the canning corn, field beans and sugar beets that Grandpa studied.  With enough reminders of the soiliness of dirt, I began to see through Grandpa's eyes, respecting the grits and grains I'd wash between the layers of lettuce. 

But what of the dirt of life? You know what I'm talking about. What of those times I feel shoved in the dirt, hands caked in the stuff from a hard fall, so they can't wipe my face and eyes clean? Or trapped in the crossfire of a nasty mudslinging? Or blown - sandblasted, maybe - by dirt on strong winds, with nothing but my own small hands to shade my eyes? Could all these dirts be soil? When I feel caked and crusted, with an unanswered clean me scratched on the surface of my skin with my own fingers?

Thinking back to Grandpa, maybe the impetus for an efficient, high-powered, touchless car wash isn't what I need. Perhaps it's not about becoming clean but beginning to see how the dirt is not, in fact, dirt - but soil. How if, over time - hopefully not too much time, but a reasonable life cycle, perhaps - the dirt (sorry, soil ) on and around me could begin to collect. Some by happenstance, and some by my own hands or the hands of my friends, it could collect into little piles. These piles could gather and grow, soil shaken from my clothes and body, kicked from under my feet, until they begin to look like something. Useful? Manageable? There? 

I imagine Grandpa might gather these piles and spread them into a garden or a beet field, adding the appropriate moisture and fertilizer for growth. Me? I might push them forward and shape them into a tree-lined trail.