Soil Is Not Dirt. Why Words Matter in Protecting Our Earth.

Billions of invisible bacteria
Billions of invisible bacteria and other organisms live in just one handful of soil. bluedog studio/Shutterstock

I realized yesterday that I may have been in the USA too long. I should note that ever since my post on 5 things I hate about America caught the attention of the good denizens of, I have been careful about being too critical about my adopted home country. (Somehow, the fact I also wrote 5 things I love about America, and make no claim to my own country being any better didn't seem to mollify the critics.) But when I posted on the new weird restaurant trend of eating soil, I found myself using an Americanism that I've never much cared for.


But it's only words, right? Why the heck should it matter?After oxygen and water, (both of which are vital to good soil, come to think about it), the earth is perhaps our most precious resource. Without it, we have no food, we have no trees, we have no means of absorbing stormwater runoff, or soaking up excess CO2. (Yeah, I know - "we call it life...")

Yet all too often, people see soil as little more than an inert substance. A substrate for growing our crops, or a nuisance that we need to keep off our kids' shoes. With more and more people divorced from the process of growing their own food, or even gardening, it's rare to find folks who understand the truly incredible thing that soil really is. This dislocation from the earth is even evident among farmers - a friend of mine met a farmer recently who told her that he hadn't touched his own soil for years. To my mind, calling it "dirt" only perpetuates that ignorance.

I once had a Permaculture teacher tell me that there are more organisms in one teaspoon of soil than there have ever been humans on this planet. That's a pretty astounding number. And if you take some time to get your hands dirty in a good, organic garden, or walk around in the woods after a rainfall, you start to get a sense of the magic that exists in our soils.

Of course, there is a danger of reading too much into this. And maybe I am simply suffering from a translation problem. After all, I have met many an American gardener who raves about the life teeming in their dirt. And I have met more than one European who has moaned about their "soiled clothing". I also know that over-exploited agricultural land is a problem on both sides of the Atlantic, so clearly there is more than semantics at work.

But it seems I am not the only one pondering such matters - some educated folks at Washington State University are clearly also adamant that soil is not dirt.

On a final note, lest I get accused of being an "uppity Limey" again, I would love to hear some feedback. Am I overly sensitive to this term? Am I interpreting it wrong? Should I just find something better to do with my time? (Or maybe go back to where I bloody came from...)

Nevertheless, until someone can convince me otherwise, I'll keep resisting the term dirt as long as I can. And I'll probably say tomato funny for some time to come too.