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DIRT by William Bryant Logan


The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth

by William Bryant Logan

Pub Date: July 6th, 1995
ISBN: 1-57322-004-3
Publisher: Riverhead

Logan, a columnist at the New York Times and contributing editor at House Beautiful, raises dirt from the humble to the sublime in this paean to the substance in all its geological, agricultural, and spiritual manifestations. Belying its prosaic title, this descriptive history of the most basic stuff on earth is unfailingly beguiling and literate. From its creation on the planet some three billion years ago, Logan shows the interconnectedness of the soil with life and especially with human civilization. Man's veneration and understanding of soil are shown in the writings of Virgil and Cato; Saint Phocas, the patron saint of the garden, instructed the Romans who killed him to compost him in his garden; the ancient Egyptians worshiped the dung beetle for its soil-enriching properties; John Adams wrote lengthy essays on manuring. In a section on graveyards, Logan notes how formaldehyde-filled corpses pollute the earth and groundwater, in contrast to the rather grisly but highly salubrious manner in which untouched bodies contribute to soil fertility. Readers will also find discussions on living inhabitants of the soil, such as the earthworm and gopher. Other chapters examine how the foundations of cathedrals are dug; whether dowsing is a legitimate way to find water; and which soil bacteria have contributed to the cures for tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. Logan's point of reference is occasionally Scripture-based, yet never obtrusively so; following a detailed, scientific discussion on whether clays are the birthplace of life, the author writes, ``Perhaps this Genesis story can symbolize the rise of life as we experience it, from the joining of organic and inorganic realms. Wouldn't it be strange if...clay performed the function of angels?'' Frequently philosophical, at times bordering on the mystical, but mainly fertilely attuned to the earthiness of its subject,