Dirt! The Movie

Single-subject histories have dominated the last decade. Books and films on salt, wine, coffee, gin, corn, and fast food each attempt to tell a larger story by means of a narrow focus. Dirt: The Movie, based on the book Dirt, the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, by William Bryant Logan, succeeds better than any of them. Bleak and hopeful by turns, the 80-minute documentary by Bill Beneson and Gene Rosow touches on the rise of environmentalism, the postwar industrialization of farming, strip mining, green architecture and city planning, global warming, the origins of the earth, the life cycle of forests, and sustainable agriculture.

Dirt starts with a bang—the Big Bang—and a big claim. “Since the beginning of time,” narrator Jamie Lee Curtis announces, “of all the planets in all the galaxies of the known universe, only one has a living, breathing skin called dirt”. The prologue quickly focuses the topic of the film: a rehabilitation of the substance that too many of us take for granted. Logan identifies some components of dirt that were created in distant stars, while physicist and farmer Vandana Shiva and physicist Fritjof Capra bring the cycle down to Earth, observing that humans are made of the same molecules as dirt. Gary Vaynerchuk, host of Wine Library TV, suggests that dirt (terroir) might be “more alive than we are”.

The prologue having established dirt as a living thing, central to a terrestrial life cycle (and part of a cosmic one as well), and essential to human life, the film proceeds in roughly three parts: exploration of the wonders of dirt, a review of how humans are destroying it, and a glimpse of the efforts being made to repair the damage.

There are lots of facts in Dirt. Mycologist Paul Stamets explains the key role in the life cycle played by fungi mycelium: “the interface organism between life and death” that produces dirt by decomposing wood and other parts of plants. Curtis summarizes dirt-centric folktales and origin myths from various world cultures from the Amazon to ancient Egypt. We learn how nitrogen from fertilizer applied to fields in the American Midwest finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where it leads to algae blooms that kill most marine life.

People don’t just talk about dirt in Dirt; they get their hands dirty, too. Children in Bundelkhand, India, throw soil into the air and dance through the dusty cloud. California farmer Bob Cannard lovingly rolls a double handful of dirt between his thumbs and palms, takes a healthy whiff and, like a wine connoisseur checking the nose of a prized vintage, declares that the soil possesses “a lovely mild, sweet aroma”. An actual wine taster—Vaynerchuk—worshipfully licks dirt from organic Agua Dulce Vineyard in Santa Clarita, California, explaining that the taste and scent of wine reflect the earth in which its grapes are grown.

Dirt illustrates well the perilous state of Earth’s skin after centuries of human depredation. A segment explains how poor farming practices combined with drought to create the Dust Bowl in America in the ’30s. Another indicts logging operations that clear-cut forests without replenishing the soil to enable new growth. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement, explains how degradation of the land leads to desertification, which in turn destabilizes communities and undermines security. “The conflict in Sudan is really a conflict over dirt!” she concludes.

The film is even more powerful when it catalogs attempts to restore dirt. Hearty Roots farm, a community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) operation run by a handful of Brooklynites on an old hay field in upstate New York, supplies hundreds of subscribers in New York City with fresh produce. Will Brinton, founder of Woods End Laboratory, in Mt. Vernon, Maine, has set up a collaboration between area fisherman and a composting operation to turn fish waste into soil. Shiva founded Navdanya Farm in Dehradun, India, to collect and distribute seeds to area farmers in an effort to reestablish biodiversity. The Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, California teaches children to maintain a garden on ground reclaimed from a concrete playground.

Dirt ends as it begins. We zoom back out to the cosmic view, and Curtis repeats the opening line. It’s a fittingly organic structure for a film about the importance of respecting natural cycles.

The documentary is not without its flaws. The first ten-minutes flirt with preciosity. There are several testaments to the wonders of dirt, and the introduction of an animated dirt clod that appears throughout the film as part of explanations of various phenomena threatens to infantilize the topic. Dirt quickly strikes a balance between serious and playful, however. It’s clear Beneson and Rosow made this film for a wide audience; the animations will hold children’s attention, and the scientific and historical content will satisfy adults. Dirt is ideal for family viewing.

Highlights among the extra footage on the DVD are an interview with “dirt lawyer” Thomas Linzey about strategies for recognizing and enforcing rights of nature, and Vaynerchuk’s discussion of terroir (the characteristics of wine that derive from the soil in which the grapes were grown), especially his rant about over-oaked wine. The full-length segment on The Edible Schoolyard project stands out among the deleted scenes on the disk. Extended versions of animations in the film, plus one animation that does not appear in Dirt—a day in the life of an urban dirt patch—fill out the extras.

Appropriately, the DVD cover to Dirt is made of cardboard, while the disc tray consists of recycled plastic.

RATING 7 / 10