My kindergarten teacher walked around with judgmental eyes darting from side to side in the dank basement classroom of the aged elementary school, waiting for her students to finish their art assignments.
A half-hour before, she had passed out a worksheet filled with bears enjoying a picnic and a sheet of construction paper to every student. She then gave the directions that we needed to color the bears, cut them out and then glue them to the construction paper, creating the picnic scene.
I had quickly gotten to work by busting out my box of crayons and running my finger along the vast array of colors like new homeowners standing in front of paint chips at the hardware. It was very difficult to find the perfect color to capture the diversity and mood of the brown bears portrayed on the sheet before me.
I finally whittled my choice down to one of the colors that filled the box of eight crayons and got to work. The waxy streaks of color filled in the bears, picnic basket and blanket. I wiped the sweat from my brow and pulled out my multicolored safety scissors from the recesses of my desk.
My scissors were, as designed, about as dull as an insurance seminar, and my hands worked the scissors with the precision of a surgeon as they gnawed the paper-like rawhide around the outline of the bears. I squeezed the bottle of glue and placed the colored cutouts on the construction paper.
As I sat back and looked upon the panoramic of my alfresco dining grizzlies with great satisfaction, my teacher’s shadow darkened the picnic scene with the same amount of joy and welcome as a black cloud on such a picnic-y type day.
She looked down at my masterpiece shook her head in disdain, clicked her tongue a couple of times, and said “Boy, you are as dumb as dirt!”
In retrospect, several things were working against me that day. What my teacher saw that day as she looked down over my shoulder and past my grinning face was a scene of chaos. The bears were colored green and scattered across the entire paper, and their images were distorted with a funhouse mirror wavy look from the immense puddle of glue they rested upon.
My art display would have made Picasso question my motivation. In my defense, my construction paper was green. I have never seen a green sky, but I have seen a green grass-covered ground, so I treated the whole paper as the ground and placed the bears as if they were viewed from the sky.
However, as a 6-year-old in 1990, I did not know how to express that this was an aerial viewpoint, and my bears were not floating about carelessly. Finally, and probably most importantly, soon after this masterpiece’s conclusion (and probably as a result of it), I was diagnosed with severe color blindness. I colored my brown bears green, and my construction paper was not green but brown.
What was clear at the time was my teacher thought I was dumb as dirt. What I didn’t realize was that my mother told all my teachers in elementary school that my brain didn’t work like other kids’ (still don’t know how to process that 30-some years later), and that telling someone they are as dumb as dirt is a huge compliment!
Dirt, or soil, as the conservation world calls it, is one of the most profound, complex, diverse and arguably important things on earth. Soil is a rich mixture of organic matter, fungus, minerals, gases, liquids and organisms that work in concert to support all life on this rock spinning around the universe. Soil is the DNA of life.
Humankind would not survive without soil, and the more complex and convoluted the soil is the more we desire it. As Muley Bates points out in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, soil is the lifeblood of humankind; people are born on the soil, live on the soil and die in the soil. Soil has been the dreams of some and the identity of others.
Soil has made people and soil has broken people. Wars have been fought over it and blood has saturated it. People have built up soil and people have destroyed soil. Yet soil remains the one constant through all the years.
Soil is filled with a network of life so massive and immeasurable that humankind cannot not even fathom it. For example, did you know that recent research has uncovered that in one cubic inch of soil there is a network of cells known as mycelium (the vegetive part of fungus) that extends to over eight miles in length?
A teaspoon of soil can contain 100 million to 1 billion microbes of bacteria and several hundred nematode worms. An 8-square foot piece of soil can contain around 10 million nematodes, up to 500 earthworms and 200,000 insects and arthropods. In fact, to break it down more, one tablespoon of soil has more living organisms in it than there are people on earth.
Soil can act as a conductor more efficient than high-speed internet fiber and relay messages from organism to organism via the fungal matter within it.
Soil provides the nutrients of life to all, and the bacteria, fungi and other life that comprise soil broker trades and exchanges between plants and nutrients with such ferocity, speed and efficiency that Gordon Gekko and all the other Wall Street traders would be envious.
Soil is so complex that it takes a minimum of 500 years to naturally build one inch of topsoil, and within the top 6 inches of soil of a typical acre of land there is over 20,000 pounds of total living matter. Finally, over 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions are stored within the soil.
Although soil is at the very bottom of the food chain, it is the cornerstone of life on earth. Soil is so multifaceted, complicated and immense that it remains one of the least understood and researched aspects in the universe. We should all strive to be as dumb as dirt.
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