You can’t live very happily in a desert.
— Wangari Maathai
It’s alive. Dirt, that is. Dirt is earth’s “living, breathing skin,” the only such planetary surface in the known universe. As Dirt! The Movie begins, an animated Big Bang connects humans with dirt. Both are made of the same elements, narrates Jamie Lee Curtis, and what’s more, “When humans arrived two million years ago, everything changed for dirt.”
Poor dirt. As you might imagine, the story that follows in Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow’s documentary — shortened by 30 minutes for its run as part of PBS’ Independent Lens — is initially focused on people’s exploitation of this seemingly constant and resilient resource. “We take the earth for granted,” notes Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement. But of course, dirt is crucial for food, shelter, and the climate. Once it’s swept away by water and wind and humans are confronted with only bare rock, then the value of dirt becomes obvious.
That value is elaborated in the film by a series of images that range from familiar — talking heads (activists, scientists, growers) and gorgeous landscapes — to energetically different — most especially recurring animated sequences featuring cave drawings in motion or Digby the clump of dirt prone to emote with tiny fists raised. These suggest, perhaps, how dirt lives, how it endures water cycles, contributes to carbon cycles, how it persists and adapts, and how it has been misunderstood and increasingly, abused.
As more and more people are removed from daily encounters with dirt, says Bill Logan, author of the Dirt!, the book that inspired the movie, they lose sight of what dirt does. “I decided to write a book about dirt,” he explains, “because in the city, people don’t seem to believe in it. People don’t seem to believe in nature at all.” It’s a colorful formulation, using “belief” to describe the prolonged process of losing connections to land and water, to seasons, weather, and organic processes. Dirt, he proposes, is a means to reconnect.
The litany of offenses against the earth is long and much of it is familiar. The Dust Bowl was the result of monoculture, planting a single crop over millions of acres until the land was sapped of nutrients, a lesson that has not been wholly learned, says Miguel Altieri, an entomologist at Berkeley (that is, he submits, “You don’t put all the eggs in one basket!”). By the same token, anthropologist Jeremy Narby (author of The Intelligence of Nature points out that pesticides are by definition toxic: “If it kills insects, it’s gonna kill us too,” he says, as an animated scene shows marine life dying away, leaving behind a “massive dead zone where only jellyfish can thrive.” This threat is paralleled by another sort on land, when another animated scene shows mountaintop removal mining. The practice is not only not “cheap,” as it’s been advertised, but also environmentally costly. David Orr says “It’s a fabric of life being torn apart and can never be put back together again.”
All these horror stories are countered by efforts to reclaim, salvage, and live in harmony with dirt. French environmentalist and farmer Pierre Rabhi (who co-wrote As in the Heart, So in the Earth: Reversing the Desertification of the Soul and the Soil) proclaims, “At times, I am dirt’s father because I take care of it, at times dirt is my mother because she feeds me. We share a loving relationship.” A version of this relationship is visible in the example of inmates at Rikers Island, now participating in the Greenhouse Program. As they stoop to plant and smile at the camera, James Jiler tells you what you’re looking at: “As they start moving through the garden, you almost see their chest cavities expand.”
If Dirt! The Movie can be didactic and earnest, it is also playful and passionate. Wangari Maathai urges you to feel part of the project, to follow the example of a hummingbird in a fable she tells, to do the best you can. “Even though what you are doing may be very small, may be insignificant as far as you’re concerned, collectively,” she says, “We will accomplish a lot.”