William Bryant Logan, Dirt

While reading the second book from mystic biologist William Bryant Logan, I found myself …. No, that's not right. Christian ecospiritual arborist? God's gardener? Gardening faithful?

Anyway, it's a remarkable book, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, even if it's not clear quite how to describe or characterize it (not even to decide whether it's an essay collection, an essay sequence, or a book: and I don't know how I feel about it also becoming somehow a movie). Logan really is an arborist, and apparently also a long-time writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. While these occupations may seem likely to represent competing drives, at least in some ways, in fact Logan manages in Dirt to burrow deeply into both soil and faith, reflections between the two spheres making the whole affair additionally profound.

Crucial to Dirt (and to Logan's method) is the way in which he sustains a narrow focus on whatever his immediate topic might be, often through particularly clear images:
To try to understand the soil by taking a few trowelsful and submitting them to chemical tests is like trying to understand the human body by cutting off the finger, grinding it to paste, and performing the same tests. You may learn a lot about the chemistry of pastes, but about the intricate anatomical linkage of systems--and about the body's functions as a whole--you will learn nothing at all. (p.177)
Logan makes this point in the course of placing soil at the intersection of atmosphere and inert matter, a synthesis of stardust and fire and nothingness. Clay, for example, doesn't really make sense chemically; if you think of clay as alive, then suddenly its odd properties of persistent moisture, plasticity, and friction become explicable. It's almost (though not quite, of course) the only way to explain clay's ability to evolve under pressure and over time into separate "clay species" (p.126), and Logan's not the only person wondering whether clay's ability to host developing long-chain organic molecules might make clay a precondition for life itself (or at least, forms of life depending on amino acids).

This is a book of protest against the despoliation of soil and country life (p.50); of love for those who appreciate dirt, like Virgil (p.164); and of immersion into the physical sciences, including human biology (p.55). For all those reasons, it's worth a great deal of all our time. If you're a person of faith, which emphatically I'm not, then it's worth even more of your time, in part because Logan does such a great job of contextualizing the tenets and shape of his faith within the natural structures of the world: soil, microbes, the human gut, and above all compost.

If you can buy into the book fully, and feel like you're learning from Logan rather than simply reading his words, then Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth just might change the way you understand the world, maybe even the way you live in it:
     While we live, we ourselves are inhabited. A full ten percent of our dry weight is not us, properly speaking, but the assembly of microbes that feed on, in, and with us. Our bodies are the kitchens where our food is cooked, digested, and then burned to cook us. We live until death in a perpetual fever, 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. When at last we are well done, we begin to cool, becoming food ourselves. More and more ordered, more and more stable, like a good piece of roasted meat, we are made ready. (p.55)
Remarkable, no? Christopher Hirst gets it more or less right in his review, even if he did make his point with a bit of a sniff: "Though Logan's passion sometimes comes perilously close to sentimentality, this monograph on an unlikely subject is a minor masterpiece of startling originality." What Hirst doesn't communicate is just how much fun this book can be, how much ecstasy there is for the reader to grab onto and share. You won't regret trying it, I promise.


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