The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling

I’m going to begin this blog post by being brutally honest. The class we spent playing in the dirt did nothing for me. I emerged from that dirt playing session unchanged. If anything, I grew frustrated. When unleashed onto the academic quad for some one-on-one time with dirt, I felt a little lost, even though this was the same dirt I trod on every day on my way to class. To settle my mind, I went to one of my favorite places on campus, the backyard of the Guest House. I sat with my notebook, trying my best to figure out “Who is the soil?” and “How is the land wild?” and “How am I wild?”

A glimpse of a fall night spent behind the Guest House, one of my favorite outdoor spaces.

Maybe it’s because this assignment did not push me out of my comfort zone. For me, lying barefoot on the ground and getting dirt under my nails is an everyday occurrence. Maybe I need to push myself farther to strengthen my relationship with the land. I thought for a while that I should try something radical, like tasting the soil, but then I realized that in a way, I already have soil coursing through my body. The connection that David Suzuki makes in the Made from the Soil chapter in The Sacred Balance is that “earth is the food of life”(92). Of course, we are not ingesting the earth directly, as Suzuki goes on to explain, but we absorb it through our daily subsistence. “Soil continues to be the main source of humankind’s nutrition” (101). Most of the world’s population lives primarily off of grain; therefore, we are dependent on soil to continue assisting us in agriculture. We have entrusted soil to sustain us so we in turn need to sustain it.

I currently have two bottles of Stewart’s Grape Soda bottles sitting on my windowsill. One is filled with grass and was given to me by a friend after we sat outside on afternoon, just talking and running our idle fingers through the grass. The other bottle I filled with dirt. It was while I was filling the bottle that I finally gained the insight I was missing from class last Friday. I was scooping up the dirt and pouring it down the neck of the bottle when I began to notice movement. The sun was low in the sky and I squinted towards the ground to see that all around me, ants were crawling around in this dirt. This dirt was more than what supported me and my built environment. It was even more than the crucial base of agriculture. It was an environment that stretched worldwide, was made up of minuscule parts, and sustained life as small as those ants and as large as me. When I thought of the breadth and scale of all things affected by soil, I realized just how much in my life I owe to it.

While my home now is truly Dickinson College and the Carlisle area, I cannot help but referring back to my house in central New Jersey when people ask me about home. Through my coursework this semester I’ve been running into the topic of home, land, and environment over and over and it’s been leaving me a bit uncertain. Growing up I believed I lived in a rural area, because I lived down the street from horse farms and I had to drive ten miles to the grocery store. It really was not until I came to Dickinson that I realized my home state is really all I know. I don’t have much experience traveling the world or even the country. I’ve never lived anywhere else and my whole family has lived in the same area for multiple generations. When I take a step back and realize that this country is enormous and home to many different environments, once again, scale is a difficult concept for me to grasp. Listening to the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, I hear:

“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me”

The words remind me that I really only know a small portion of the vast country that I live in. Yet, if I move past seeing myself as just as resident of the Eastern United States, I am the same as a silk tree growing in China, or a Meerkat burrowing in South Africa. We are all residences of soil.

In my History of Environment course we examined the concept that modern states make landscapes look like maps rather than maps being made to look like landscapes. With so much focus being on borders, we see our environment through the lenses of defined territory, rather than being simply defined by the soil that covers our land. If we can see beyond boundaries and scale, our connection with the world takes on a whole new meaning, all powered by the basic building block of soil.

Do borders make landscapes even when soil transcends these state-made boundaries?


-Amber McGarvey


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